Editor's note: Many of the news stories quoted in this article are several decades old and are not directly accessible through the publications' websites. They can be retrieved by searching the Canada Newsstream archive.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized yesterday after a Ukrainian Waffen SS veteran was given two standing ovations in Parliament last Friday, an incident that also prompted the resignation of speaker Anthony Rota.
The veteran, Yaroslav Hunka, fought with the 14th Waffen SS Galicia Division, writing in a 2011 blog post that he gladly volunteered to fight with the Nazi unit during the Second World War. The division was formed in 1943 when the Nazis needed extra volunteers to bolster its forces against the Allies. The Polish government said this week it is taking steps to extradite Hunka.
Despite the apology from Trudeau, a common claim circulating on social media this week has been that the unit to which Hunka belonged was exonerated of war crimes by a Canadian commission in 1986, and that therefore all veterans of the unit, including Hunka, are automatically innocent.
This narrative suggests that Ukrainian volunteers in the SS unit were simply nationalists who during the Second World War took the opportunity to fight with the Nazis against their sworn enemy, the Soviet Union, and did not hold any allegiance to Nazi ideology. This claim is commonly argued by modern day Ukrainian nationalist groups.
However, the International Military Tribunal (IMT) at Nuremberg in 1946 declared the entire SS to be a criminal organization. This fact was not addressed in the 1986 commission's ruling on the Galicia Division. The IMT's criminal charge did not apply to individuals who left the SS before the end of the war, or those who were conscripted.
Parts of the 1986 commission, dubbed the “Deschênes Commission,” remain secret. Jewish advocacy groups yesterday called on the federal government to release all the remaining documents.
In what follows, we looked through news archives and more recent pieces of historical analysis regarding the commission. These show that while the commission did claim that “no case can be made against members of the Galicia Division for revocations of citizenship or deportation,” this conclusion was and continues to be excoriated as being at best, based on incomplete investigations, and at worst, part of a whitewash of Nazi war crimes.
How The Commission Got Started
In February 1985, the Brian Mulroney government set up the Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals in Canada to investigate allegations that Canada had become a safe haven for Nazi war criminals, including Joseph Mengele. It became known as the Deschênes Commission, named after retired Quebec Superior Court judge Jules Deschênes, who led the commission.
The question of who would be allowed to participate in the commission hearings was itself a point of controversy.
In April 1985, The Globe and Mail reported that the Jewish group B’nai Brith was granted standing at Deschênes Commission hearings to cross examine suspected Nazi war criminals. Deschênes’ counsel had claimed that, per the Globe, “such a move might lead to Holocaust victims living in Canada using the commission as a forum to seek vengeance against alleged war criminals,” a claim that Deschênes rejected.
“We want to make sure that the course of history is not rewritten by revisionists,” said a B’nai Brith representative.
Later that month, veterans of the 14th Waffen SS Galicia Division in Canada were granted legal representation. The veterans’ lawyer, Clay Powell, insisted that their position was not to deny that any war crimes took place during the Second World War, only that all 600 of the members he represented were innocent of such crimes. The lawyer characterized the veterans as “nationalists fighting the Bolsheviks,” according to the Globe.
Sol Littman, Canadian representative of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, told the commission that he believed as many as 2,000 Nazi war criminals were living in Canada at the time.
Ukrainian diaspora groups, meanwhile, mounted public pressure during the commission.
In December 1985, a Ukrainian advocacy group accused Canadian media of one-sided reporting on the commission process, suggesting that stories were reporting “Jewish perceptions as what really happened.” The group’s spokesperson, Roman Serbyn, suggested that, regarding Ukrainian-Jewish relations, “[...] both sides committed atrocities, not just one side.”
Of the Galicia Division, Serbyn claimed “there were no swastikas, no fascism. Most of the men had never even heard of Nazis,” and that “all they wanted to do was fight the Soviet Union.” In fact, the division was personally visited by SS leader Heinrich Himmler in 1944. A photo of Hunka during his time in the SS unit shows him wearing a uniform decorated with Nazi military insignia. Recruitment posters for the division reportedly included antisemitic caricatures.
However, the Deschênes Commission would not define membership of the division as itself constituting a war crime, despite the IMT's 1946 declaration that the entire SS was a criminal organization. Part of Deschênes’ reasoning for his refusal to investigate the 600 members of the division was that, as phrased by the Montreal Gazette, “the commission wasn't set up to indict groups of Canadians or to review the wisdom of allowing members of the division to come to Canada in 1950.”
In May 1986, the Gazette reported that as the commission wrapped up its public hearings, Irwin Cotler, then a McGill University professor and today Canada’s Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism, told the hearings that Canada had spent 40 years showing indifference about the Holocaust.
“What is most disturbing is the relative ease with which suspected Nazi war criminals entered Canada, when contrasted with the insurmountable difficulties met by Jewish refugees in their attempts to find a haven in Canada,” Cotler added.
The Deschênes Commission’s final report stated that it did not find incriminating evidence against members of the Galicia Division. In his conclusion, Deschênes claimed that allegations that Canada harboured thousands of Nazi war criminals stemmed from “loose language,” according to an editorial in The Globe published in March 1987.
“Charges of war crimes against members of the Galicia Division have never been substantiated, neither in 1950 when they were first preferred, nor in 1984 when they were renewed, nor before this commission,” Deschênes said.
However, the commission's conclusions were heavily criticized from the outset, and subsequent investigations would challenge some of its key assumptions.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles, applauded what he saw as the report’s effect of strengthening legislation for the prosecution of war criminals, but said Deschênes’ investigation “did not go far enough” and that it “lacked the expertise to properly follow up and evaluate” the evidence that was presented.
Hier added that the decision not to pursue investigations against individuals merely for being members of the Galicia Division did not necessarily mean the individual veterans were all innocent.
It was later revealed that a secret study conducted by the commission found that British and American officials resettled Nazi collaborators from eastern Europe in Canada after the Second World War without telling the Canadian government and with minimal screening, the Toronto Star reported.
When parts of the previously secret Deschênes report went public, further details about how Canada allowed Nazi war criminals to enter the country came to light. The report noted that in 1983, the RCMP approved for admission two German Nazis, one of them a suspected member of the SS, the Vancouver Sun reported. The incident, the report explained, reflected a decades-long policy of Canada being primarily concerned with keeping out suspected communists rather than Nazi war criminals. Indeed, Canada at times explicitly sought to welcome anti-communist immigrants, owing to the geopolitics of the Cold War.
Later, another finding would challenge one of the central premises of Deschênes’ conclusions about the Galicia Division.
In a 1989 article for the Ottawa Citizen, Sol Littman, the Canadian representative for the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies, wrote that the All-Party Parliamentary War Crimes Group in the British House of Commons had reported that screening was virtually “non-existent” for thousands of Ukrainian SS veterans who entered Canada in 1950. The veterans had been allowed into Canada from the United Kingdom based on assurances by the British that they were not war criminals.
Many members of the Galicia Division, the British parliamentary group said at the time, may have in fact been participants in death squads responsible for massacres in Poland and Russia.
How did these SS veterans get from the U.K. to Canada?
When Ukrainian SS members surrendered in Austria at the end of the Second World War, the British Foreign Office saw fit to resettle the division members in the U.K. so that they could help fill labour shortages in the agricultural sector. Because of the urgent need for that labour, the British conducted minimal screening, according to Littman. The Foreign Office lied to the British parliament in 1947, claiming that the former SS volunteers had undergone “a very exhaustive screening process.”
Eventually looking to get rid of these former division members in 1950 once the labour shortages were no longer an issue, the U.K. asked that Canada take in 2,000 of them with false assurances that their war time records had been properly vetted. Littman noted that Deschênes had concluded that “no case can be made against members of the Galicia Division” based in part on those false assurances from the British government.
In 1997, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre raised the issue again, with Littman condemning Canada in an article for allowing former members of the Galicia Division to live within its borders “undisturbed” since 1950. Historical research, Littman argued, had shown that “most of the members of the division were former auxiliary policemen operating as part of Nazi einsatzgruppen,” which rounded up and executed Jewish civilians and communists behind the advance of German forces.
Himmler allowed Ukrainians to join the SS after the battle of Stalingrad, in which the Nazis suffered heavy losses. The Galicia Division, in turn, was drawn from two Ukrainian-staffed battalions, Roland and Nachtigall, that followed German forces into the Soviet Union and took part in pogroms against Jewish civilians, according to the article.
“We want to look at each individual case [of former Galicia members in Canada] as a matter of simple justice,” wrote Littman.
In 2017, Dominique Arel, who holds the Chair of Ukrainian studies at the University of Ottawa, told Postmedia that individual members of the division likely served in other German police units before joining the Galicia Division. Their actions in those police units, including potential war crimes, were not examined by the Deschênes Commission.
Despite these issues, claims that the Galicia Division had been exonerated of wrongdoing and that its members were properly vetted in the 1950s persisted.
For example, a letter to the editor in the Hamilton Spectator in 1999 suggested that the unit was “designated to fight only against Stalin's Red Army,” and that “the Galician Waffen SS was investigated by the Canadian and British governments [...] Their members were allowed into Canada and were cleared of any war crimes.” The letter claimed that the Deschênes Commission “exonerated the Galician Waffen SS of any war crimes.”
Further Crimes Investigated
More findings would further debunk the suggestion that former Galicia members were automatically innocent of any wrongdoing.
In 2003, the Polish government found that subunits of the Galicia Division committed the Huta Pieniacka massacre, during which the Nazi collaborators burned 500 to 1,000 Polish villagers alive. As noted by journalist David Pugliese, writing for Espirit de Corps magazine last year, “Ukraine’s government also agreed with this conclusion, although the two government commissions disagreed on the numbers of civilians murdered by SS Galicia.”
Writing for the same publication in 2020, Pugliese summarized that critics had labelled the Deschênes Commission’s report as a “whitewash” at the time, and that “the decades since have further reinforced that view as additional information about the 14th SS Division Galicia’s war crimes have emerged.”
For example, Pugliese noted, historian Per Anders Rudling wrote that Galicia commanders included individuals who personally took part in mass executions of Jewish civilians, and that the division worked alongside SS-Sonderbattalion Dirlewanger, a unit that, per Pugliese’s description, “contained rapists, murders and the criminally insane.”
The Deschênes Commission never travelled to interview victims of the Galicia Division in Europe, Pugliese also noted.
An Oakville resident said: “As a proud Canadian citizen who believes in equality, religious freedom and multiculturalism, I am absolutely appalled, disappointed and quite frankly disgusted that not only this monument was allowed to be erected but is still allowed to stand.”
The Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies said: “Any monument which venerates soldiers who fought for Hitler's genocidal regime is nothing less than a blight and insults the memory of Canadian soldiers who made the supreme sacrifice during WWII on behalf of the freedoms we all hold dear.”
Alex Cosh is the news editor of The Maple.