BERLIN — It was as if Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany had been vying for the title of least diplomatic diplomat: Determined to goad Berlin into providing more urgent support to his beleaguered nation, he taunted the chancellor, telling a former lawmaker that “close your mouth”. and he posted memes on Twitter comparing the delay in Germany’s arms deliveries to a snail with a bullet stuck in its back.
However, 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 fired Melnyk last weekend after an interview in which he defended a Ukrainian nationalist leader who collaborated with the Nazis and whose followers participated in massacres of Jews and Poles.
The debate over Melnyk’s comments has raised questions about how Germans and Ukrainians view a dark chapter in their shared history. Perhaps most importantly, he has exposed how divergent views of that history still shape one of the most tense European associations against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Two weeks ago, on the German YouTube show “Jung and Naive”, Melnyk was questioned for his decision several years ago to lay flowers on the grave of Stepan Bandera, the leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. Bandera, the journalist pointed out, held anti-Semitic and fascist views that ultimately drove his independence fighters to collaborate with the Nazis.
“I am against blaming all crimes on Bandera,” 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 sparked 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 deputy from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs call the comments “absolutely unacceptable”, but President Andrzej Duda took advantage of the commemoration of one of those massacres on Monday to insist that the truth about the massacres during the war between 1942 and 1945 had to be “firmly and clearly established.”
“Let this truth actually serve as a foundation” for new relationships, he said. “It was not and is not about revenge, any retaliation. There is no better proof of this than the time we have now,” she added, referring to the strong ties the countries have built in the face of Russia’s invasion.
In Germany, where acknowledging the crimes of the Nazi past is considered something of a national duty, outrage spread rapidly on social media. Even politicians who once supported Melnyk have distanced themselves.
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But for many Ukrainians, Melnyk’s views are not controversial: 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 collaboration with the Nazis, pointing out that Germany later interned him in a concentration camp for his independence efforts.
Particularly in Bandera’s native west, statues are erected in his honor; the streets are named after him. In Lviv, shops sell Flag-themed t-shirts and socks.
President Vladimir V. Putin has brought up such nationalist figures to bolster his claim that Russia is “de-Nazifying” Ukraine. In speeches, he has called Ukrainians fighting Russia “little flags.”
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 history.. “They really don’t want to open the history of Ukraine to the history of the Holocaust, the history of fascism,” he said. “As long as they avoid and postpone, other people will instrumentalize this story, like Putin.”
Still, the debate over Bandera’s legacy in Ukraine is complex. Younger historians and those from central and eastern Ukraine, where many families fought in the Red Army of the Soviet Union, are more inclined to view Bandera critically, Rossolinski-Liebe said.
In 2019, President Volodymyr Zelensky, a Jew and the grandson of a Red Army veteran, fired Volodymyr Viatrovych, a historian who worked to rehabilitate Bandera and other nationalists, as director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory.
Franziska Davies, a historian of Eastern Europe at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, said that while Melnyk’s comments were “simply untrue,” the “extreme focus” on him was not just due to the provocative style of the ambassador.
“It also has something to do with this German stereotype of Ukraine, as an extremely nationalistic country, as a country where history is twisted,” he said. “There is a very colonialist discourse on Ukraine in Germany.”
To many, Melnyk came to embody Ukraine’s frustration with Berlin, not only over slow arms deliveries, but also over its decades of economic ties to Moscow, including a disputed gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2, which Ukrainians viewed as a Russian effort to economically. strangle your country by depriving it of transit fees.
In recent months, Melnyk has accused Germany’s largely ceremonial president, former Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, of spinning a “spider web” of contacts with Russia. Steinmeier, once close to Moscow Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, long promoted Nord Stream 2, for which he apologized after the invasion.
When Mr. Steinmeier was abruptly not invited on a visit to Kyiv earlier this year, Foreign Minister Olaf Scholz in turn refused to visit him for months. Melnyk then called it “insulted liver brisket,” a German expression that loosely means someone who acts like a prima donna.
Melnyk became a favorite guest on Germany’s talk show circuit, delivering outlandish remarks that outraged the German elite and delighted those pushing for stronger support for Ukraine.
“I don’t enjoy provoking. I am still a diplomat, I am not a politician. I am not a ‘terrible child,'” Melnyk told The New York Times. “Most people say, ‘Well, he went crazy because of the war and emotional.’ That is not like that.
German officials were always polite but often brushed off his private requests for support, he said.
“The point is that you are desperately trying to explain that the situation in Ukraine is much more serious and you don’t see any reaction from Berlin. That’s something that maybe changed my focus, but it wasn’t a conscious decision. It was a hunch, a kind of experimentation, trying to see: How can I wake up Germany?
Inadvertently, he also exposed a sometimes condescending approach the Germans had towards the Ukrainians. During a talk show appearance, a German historian scolding Melnyk argued that Germany’s conciliatory attitude toward Russia was shaped by the experience of the war, ignoring or forgetting that the Ukrainians witnessed some of the bloodiest chapters of war. World War II and they 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 World War II has become to Western societies’ sense of morality.
“If there’s a consensus that the Western world has right now, it’s that if you want a case of absolute evil, or ‘the good fight,’ it’s World War II,” he said. “People like what they think are clear lessons from history.”
The debate surrounding Melnyk’s comments exposed divisions in the lessons learned from World War II.
“Never again” is the common refrain for everyone, but for very different reasons, said Irit Dekel, who researches political memory at Indiana University Bloomington. “For Germany, it’s ‘war never again,’ ‘Holocaust never again,’” he said. “On the Russian side, and their propaganda, it has been: ‘Never again Nazis’”.
But for Eastern Europeans, “the most important lesson of the Second World War was that you have to fight the aggressor,” Ms Davies said. “That is what they see they have to do now: Putin is the aggressor, we must fight him.”
The sense among Eastern Europeans of their shared will to fight explains why it was not Germany’s or Israel’s condemnation of Melnyk’s words, but Poland’s, that prompted the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry to distance itself from him. Emphasizing his 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 Bandera issue is something that we Ukrainians have to work on. We just need more time,” he said, arguing that Ukraine’s tense post-war history, from the Soviet occupation to the current war, has offered little room to critically examine its history.
But his comments, he said, reflect a frustration Ukrainians still have with how Germans view them: “That is a position many Ukrainians share, but few dare to speak out.”