March 25, 2022
B’nai Brith Canada’s senior legal counsel, David Matas, penned an important op-ed for The Globe and Mail this week. We wanted to share it with you.
This timely piece by one of the world’s most renowned human-rights advocates delves into the pretext for the Ukraine invasion – Russia’s claim that it aims to “denazify” its smaller neighbour – by challenging Russia to deal with its own neo-nazi problems, and also noting Russia’s murky wartime record.
Notably, it offers an unusually nuanced take on Ukraine and Russia’s historical neo-nazi elements by counterbalancing those with the positives, such as Ukraine’s Jewish president and Russia’s staggering losses in the war against Nazi Germany.
Matas points out that, while Ukraine may have some of its own dirty laundry to deal with, it has made great strides in that area since independence. Meanwhile, Russia’s neo-nazi problem is not only far greater than Ukraine’s, but its wartime record is also highly-mixed when it comes to its agreements with the Nazis which led to hundreds of thousands of Jewish deaths.
Matas urges Russia to take several concrete actions to deal with homegrown neo-nazi elements (particularly the Russian Imperial Movement) and also improving relations with the Jewish community.
Of course, step number one, is to end the ‘denazification of Ukraine’ excuse as a pretext for invading Ukraine and to begin an immediate and complete end to Russian hostilities. As Matas notes, “If the Russians are sincere about denazification, they should stop mimicking the Nazis by invading a foreign country.”
Matas concludes by saying: “The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a crime against the present. Justifying that invasion as an effort of denazification is a crime against the past. We like to think that Russia is serious in wanting denazification. If that is so, Russia should withdraw from Ukraine and turn its attention to denazification at home.”
Here is the Matas op-ed in its entirety:
Russia justifies the invasion of Ukraine as an effort in denazification. The justification is so obviously unreal that there may be a tendency to disregard it. Yet, internet blockage within Russia means that there, the unreal can hold sway. As well, we must be concerned with the delusions of the invaders, no matter how unreal they are, because of the very real results that flow from these delusions.
The Holocaust was a tragedy in which the whole world shared, either by killing the victims or denying them refuge or giving haven to those complicit in mass murder. Before, during and after the Holocaust, antisemitism was pervasive. Today all too few have come fully to grips with the legacy of hatred and murder that their ancestors inflicted.
Ukraine, to be sure, is not innocent. Of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, 1.5 million were Ukrainian. Those killings were done mostly by German roving killing squads, the Einsatzgruppen. But, to know who to kill, the Germans relied on local collaborators to identify the Jews.
Among the local Ukrainian Nazi collaborators, Stepan Bandera and his Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists stood out. They blamed Communism and the absorption of Ukraine into the Soviet Union on the Jews and enthusiastically joined in the killings. Former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko, shortly before he left office in 2010, to his discredit, awarded Bandera the title “Hero of Ukraine.” The neo-Nazi Azov regiment is part of the forces today combatting the Russian invasion. The political party Svoboda has a neo-Nazi past.
Yet, there is another side of the story. There are close to 1,500 Ukrainians in the Jerusalem museum Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations Database, which lists those who tried to help Jews escape the Holocaust. Former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, almost immediately after succeeding Yushchenko, stripped Bandera of his “Hero of Ukraine” title. The Ukrainian President today, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish, as is his minister of defence.
The Russian story is also mixed. The Russian-led Soviets during the Second World War fought bravely and hard against the Nazis, losing almost nine million combatants and a further 18-million civilians. Yet, the Soviets helped to trigger the Second World War by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a non-aggression agreement that divided up Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union shortly before Germany invaded Poland. The number of Jews killed in the Holocaust by the Einsatzgruppen with local collaboration was 800,000 in Belarus and 500,000 in Nazi-occupied Russia.
The Soviets and then the Russians have obscured, covered up and failed to disclose the fate of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who managed to save thousands in Hungary from the Holocaust. The Soviets seized Wallenberg when they took over Hungary. His fate remains an unnecessary mystery to this day.
A 1950s Stalinist antisemitic conspiracy theory, the doctors’ plot, led to unwarranted prosecutions. The Soviet Jewry movement, advocating for the rights of Soviet Jews to emigrate because of the repression of Judaism, continued until the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia, despite its general repression, tolerates the Russian Imperial Movement, a neo-Nazi, antisemitic, armed white supremacist organization, designated by the U.S. as a terrorist entity. In their current invasion, the Russians have bombed, in Kyiv, Babi Yar, a site memorializing the mass killing of Jews there.
Fringe neo-Nazi, extreme right wing, racist organizations and a sordid Nazi or Nazi-like past can be found almost everywhere. If insufficient denazification were a sufficient justification for invasion, virtually every country on this planet would be justified in invading every other country. Denazification, like every other worthy deed, should begin at home.
If the Russians are sincere about denazification, they should stop mimicking the Nazis by invading a foreign country. They should instead do more to memorialize the Jews in their own country killed in the Holocaust. They should disclose all Holocaust related records and, in particular, those requested by researchers engaged in determining the fate of Raoul Wallenberg. They should acknowledge the Soviet responsibility for the Nazi advance through the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact rather than, as they do now, try to justify the agreement. They should ban the Russian Imperial Movement.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a crime against the present. Justifying that invasion as an effort of denazification is a crime against the past. We like to think that Russia is serious in wanting denazification. If that is so, Russia should withdraw from Ukraine and turn its attention to denazification at home.