History Haunts Ukraine’s Undiplomatic Voice in Berlin

BERLIN — It was as if Ukraine’s ambassador in Germany was vying for the title of most undiplomatic diplomat: Determined to spur Berlin into more urgent support for his embattled nation, he mocked the chancellor, told a former lawmaker to “shut your trap,” and posted memes on Twitter likening Germany’s lagging weapons deliveries to a snail with a bullet taped to its back.

Yet it was not the controversies of the present that ended Andriy Melnyk’s career in Berlin. Instead, it was a thorny question about the past.

Ukraine dismissed Mr. Melnyk last weekend after an interview in which he defended a nationalist Ukrainian leader who collaborated with the Nazis, and whose followers took part in massacres of Jews and Poles.

The debate over Mr. Melnyk’s comments has stirred questions over how Germans and Ukrainians see a dark chapter of their shared history. Perhaps more important, it has exposed how diverging views of that history still shape one of the tensest European partnerships against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Two weeks ago, on the German YouTube program “Jung & Naiv,” Mr. Melnyk was challenged on his decision several years ago to lay flowers at the grave of Stepan Bandera, the leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. Bandera, the journalist noted, held antisemitic, fascist views that ultimately spurred his independence fighters to collaborate with the Nazis.

“I’m against blaming all crimes on Bandera,” Mr. Melnyk said. “There is no evidence that Bandera’s troops murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews,” he said, contradicting an assessment shared by most historians. “These are narratives that the Russians are pushing to this day, which find support in Germany, Poland and also in Israel.”

His comments provoked outrage among some of Ukraine’s most critical allies.

In Poland, where Bandera and his group are remembered for massacring tens of thousands of Poles, not only did a foreign ministry deputy call the comments “absolutely unacceptable,” but President Andrzej Duda used the commemoration of one such massacre on Monday to insist that the truth about the wartime massacres between 1942 and 1945 had to be “firmly and clearly stated.”

“Let this truth in fact serve as a foundation,” for new relations, he said. “It was not about and is not about revenge, about any retaliation. There is no better proof of this than the time we have now,” he added, referring to the strong ties the countries have built in the face of Russia’s invasion.

In Germany, where acknowledging crimes of the Nazi past is seen as a kind of national duty, outrage spread quickly across social media. Even politicians who had once supported Mr. Melnyk distanced themselves.

But to many Ukrainians, Mr. Melnyk’s views are uncontroversial: Bandera — who was assassinated in Munich by Soviet agents — is seen as an anti-Soviet freedom fighter who made difficult compromises in the fight for independence. They deny his Nazi collaboration by pointing out that Germany later interned him in a concentration camp over his independence efforts.

Particularly in Bandera’s native west, statues are erected in his honor; streets are named after him. In Lviv, stores sell Bandera-themed T-shirts and socks.

President Vladimir V. Putin has dredged up such nationalist figures to bolster his claim that Russia is “de-Nazifying” Ukraine. In speeches, he has called Ukrainians fighting Russia “Banderites.”

Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe, a Polish historian in Berlin, said that Ukraine “sooner or later will have to deal with Bandera.”

Part of the reason Bandera remained so prominent, he said, was that even leading intellectuals refused to reconsider the history. “They don’t really want to open Ukrainian history to the history of the Holocaust, the history of fascism,” he said. “As long as they avoid and postpone, then other people will instrumentalize this history — like Putin.”

Still, the debate around Bandera’s legacy in Ukraine is complex. Younger historians and those from Ukraine’s center and east, where many families fought in the Soviet Union’s Red Army, are more inclined to view Bandera critically, said Mr. Rossolinski-Liebe.

In 2019, President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish and the grandson of a Red Army veteran, fired Volodymyr Viatrovych, a historian who worked to rehabilitate Bandera and other nationalists, as head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory.

Franziska Davies, a historian of Eastern Europe at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, said that while Mr. Melnyk’s comments were “simply false,” the “extreme focus” on him was not only because of the ambassador’s provocative style.

“It also has something to do with this German stereotype of Ukraine — as an extremely nationalist country, as a country where history is misrepresented,” she said. “There’s a very colonialist discourse on Ukraine in Germany.”

For many, Mr. Melnyk came to embody Ukraine’s frustration with Berlin — not only about sluggish delivery of weapons, but about its decades of economic ties with Moscow, including a contested gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2, which Ukrainians considered a Russian effort to economically strangle their country by depriving it of transit fees.

In recent months, Mr. Melnyk has accused Germany’s largely ceremonial president, the former foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, of weaving a “spider’s web” of contacts with Russia. Mr. Steinmeier, once close with Moscow’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, had long promoted Nord Stream 2, for which he apologized after the invasion.

When Mr. Steinmeier was abruptly uninvited from a visit to Kyiv earlier this year, Chancellor Olaf Scholz in turn refused for months to visit. Mr. Melnyk then called him an “insulted liverwurst” — a German expression that, loosely, means someone who is acting like a prima donna.

Mr. Melnyk became a favorite guest on the German talk show circuit, where he delivered outlandish remarks that outraged the German elite while delighting those pushing more robust support for Ukraine.

“I don’t enjoy provoking. I’m still a diplomat — I’m not a politician. I’m not an ‘enfant terrible,’” Mr. Melnyk told The New York Times. “Most people say, ‘Well, he became crazy because of the war, and emotional.’ That is not so.”

German officials were always polite, but often dismissive of his private pleas for support, he said.

“The point is you are desperately trying to explain that Ukraine’s situation is much more serious, and you don’t see any reaction from Berlin. That’s something that maybe changed my approach, but it was not a conscious decision. It was a gut feeling, a kind of experimenting, trying to see: How can I wake Germany up?”

He also inadvertently exposed a sometimes condescending approach Germans took to Ukrainians. During one talk show appearance, a German historian scolding Mr. Melnyk argued Germany’s conciliatory attitude toward Russia was shaped by experience of war — ignoring or forgetting that Ukrainians witnessed some of the bloodiest chapters of World War II, and were mired in war again.

Susan Neiman, an American philosopher and cultural commentator in Berlin, said part of the reason such disputes cause so much outrage is because of how tied up World War II has become in Western societies’ sense of morality.

“If there is one consensus the Western world has at this moment in time, it is that if you want a case of absolute evil, or ‘the good fight,’ it’s World War II,” she said. “People like what they think are clear lessons from history.”

The debate around Mr. Melnyk’s comments exposed divisions in the lessons drawn from World War II.

“Never again” is the common refrain for all, but for very different reasons, said Irit Dekel, who researches political memory at the University of Indiana-Bloomington. “For Germany, it is ‘never again war,’ ‘never again to the Holocaust,’” she said. “For the Russian part, and its propaganda, it has been: ‘Never again Nazis.’”

But for Eastern Europeans, “The most important lesson of World War II was that you have to fight the aggressor,” said Ms. Davies. “That is what they see they have to do now: Putin is the aggressor, we must fight it.”

The sense among Eastern Europeans of their shared will to fight is why it was not Germany or Israel’s condemnation of Mr. Melnyk’s words, but Poland’s, that spurred Ukraine’s foreign ministry to distance itself from him. Stressing its gratitude to Poland, Kyiv called for “unity in the face of shared challenges.”

Mr. Melnyk now acknowledges that he went too far in his comments.

“The issue of Bandera is something we Ukrainians have to work on. We just need more time,” he said, arguing that Ukraine’s fraught postwar history, from Soviet occupation to today’s war, have offered little room to critically examine its history.

But his comments, he said, reflect a frustration Ukrainians still have with how they are seen by Germans: “That is a position that many Ukrainians share, but few dare to speak.”

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