Fighting against the USSR didn’t necessarily make you a Nazi

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Keir Giles is an author and commentator. His most recent book, “Russia’s War on Everybody,” looks at the effects that Russia’s malign influence around the world has on ordinary people.

Everybody knows that a lie can make it halfway around the world before the truth has even got its boots on.

And the ongoing turmoil over Canada’s parliament recognizing former SS trooper Yaroslav Hunka highlights one of the most important reasons why.

Something that’s untrue but simple is far more persuasive than a complicated, nuanced truth — a major problem for Western democracies trying to fight disinformation and propaganda by countering it with the truth, and one reason why fact-checking and debunking are only of limited use for doing so.

In the case of Hunka, the mass outrage stems from his enlistment with one of the foreign legions of the Waffen-SS, fighting Soviet forces on Germany’s eastern front. And it’s a demonstration of how when history is complicated, it can be a gift to propagandists who exploit the appeal of simplicity.

This history is complicated because fighting against the USSR at the time didn’t necessarily make you a Nazi, just someone who had an excruciating choice over which of these two terror regimes to resist. However, the idea that foreign volunteers and conscripts were being allocated to the Waffen-SS rather than the Wehrmacht on administrative rather than ideological grounds is a hard sell for audiences conditioned to believe the SS’s primary task was genocide. And simple narratives like “everybody in the SS was guilty of war crimes” are more pervasive because they’re much simpler to grasp.

A photograph of SS Galizien soldier Yaroslav Hunka, taken between 1943 and 1945 | Creative Commons via Wikimedia

Canada’s enemies have thus latched on to these simple narratives, alongside concerned citizens in Canada itself, with the misstep over Hunka being used by Russia and its backers to attack Ukraine, Canada and each country’s association with the other.

According to Russia’s ambassador in Canada, Hunka’s unit “committed multiple war crimes, including mass murder, against the Russian people, ethnic Russians. This is a proven fact.” But whenever a Russian official calls something a “proven fact,” it should set off alarms. And sure enough, here too the facts were invented out of thin air. Repeated exhaustive investigations — including by not only the Nuremberg trials but also the British, Canadian and even Soviet authorities — led to the conclusion that no war crimes or atrocities had been committed by this particular unit.

But this is just the latest twist in a long-running campaign by the Russian Embassy in Ottawa, dating back even to Soviet times, when the USSR would leverage accusations of Nazi collaboration for political purposes as part of its “active measures” operations.

And given Moscow’s own history of aggression and atrocities during World War II and its aftermath, there’s a special cynicism underlying the Russian accusations. Russia feels comfortable shouting about “Nazis,” real or imaginary, in Ukraine or elsewhere, because unlike Nazi Germany, leaders and soldiers of the Soviet Union were never put on trial for their war crimes. Russia clings to the Nuremberg trials as a benchmark of legitimacy because as a victorious power, it was never subjected to the same reckoning. And yet, both before and after their collaborative effort to carve up eastern Europe between them, the Soviets and the Nazis had so much in common that it’s now illegal to point these similarities out in Russia.

Yet, it’s not just enemies of democracy that are subscribing to the seductively simple. Jewish advocacy groups in Canada have been understandably loud in their condemnation of Hunka’s recognition. But here, too, accusations risk being influenced more by misconception and supposition than history and evidence.

The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center registered its outrage, noting that Hunka’s unit’s “crimes against humanity during the Holocaust are well-documented” — a statement that doesn’t seem to have any more substance than the accusation by Russia.

In fact, during previous investigations of the same group carried out by a Canadian Commission of Inquiry, Simon Wiesenthal himself was found to have made broad accusations that were found to be “nearly totally useless” and “put the Canadian government to a considerable amount of purposeless work.”

The result of all this is that otherwise intelligent people are now trying to outdo each other in a chorus of evidence-free condemnation.

In Parliament itself, Canadian Conservative MP Melissa Lantsman called Hunka “a monster.” Meanwhile, Poland’s education minister appears to have decided to first seek Hunka’s extradition to Poland, then try to determine whether he has actually committed any crime afterward. And the ostracism is now extending to members of Hunka’s family, born long after any possible crime could have been committed during World War II.

The episode shows that dealing with complex truths is hard but essential. Unfortunately, though, a debunking or fact-checking approach to countering disinformation relies on an audience willing to put in the time and effort to read the accurate version of events, and be interested in discovering it in the first place. This means debunking mainly works for very specific audiences, like government officials, analysts, academics and (some) journalists.

But most of the rest of us, especially when just scrolling through social media, are instead likely to have a superficial and fleeting interest, which means a lengthy exposition of why a given piece of information is wrong will be far less likely to reach us and have an impact.

In the Hunka case, commentary taking a more balanced view of the complex history does exist, but it’s rare, and when it does occur, it is by unfortunate necessity very long — a direct contrast to most propaganda narratives that are successfully spread by Russia and its agents. Sadly, an idea simple enough to fit on a T-shirt is vastly more powerful than a rebuttal that has to start with “well, actually . . .”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has now issued an apology in his own name over Hunka’s ovation too. However, any further discussion of the error has to be carefully phrased, as any suggestion that Canada is showing contrition for “honoring a Nazi” would acquiesce to the rewriting of history by Russia and its backers, and concede to allegations of Hunka’s guilt that have no basis in evidence.

It’s true that Hunka should never have been invited into Canada’s House of Commons. But that’s not because he himself might be guilty of any crime. Rightly or wrongly, on an issue so toxic, it was inevitable the invitation would provide a golden opportunity for Russian propaganda.