Keir Giles is a writer and analyst. His latest publication, “Russia’s Campaign Against All,” examines the impact of Russia’s negative influence on regular individuals globally.
It is a well-known fact that lies can spread quickly, even before the truth has a chance to catch up.
The current unrest regarding Canada’s parliament acknowledging ex-SS soldier Yaroslav Hunka brings attention to a crucial factor.
A straightforward falsehood can be more convincing than a complex and accurate truth, posing a significant challenge for Western countries attempting to combat misinformation and propaganda. This is why fact-checking and disproving are not entirely effective strategies.
The source of the strong public anger towards Hunka is his decision to join a foreign army unit within the Waffen-SS and participate in battles against Soviet forces on the eastern front of Germany. This situation highlights how the complexity of history can be exploited by propagandists who use simplified narratives to their advantage.
The complexity of this historical event lies in the fact that opposing the USSR did not automatically classify one as a Nazi. Rather, individuals were faced with a difficult decision of choosing which oppressive regime to resist. The concept that individuals were assigned to the Waffen-SS instead of the Wehrmacht based on administrative reasons rather than ideological ones is difficult to comprehend for those who have been conditioned to believe that the SS’s main purpose was genocide. This is why simplistic narratives such as “all members of the SS were responsible for war crimes” are more commonly accepted, as they are easier to understand.
The straightforward stories have been taken advantage of by Canada’s adversaries, as well as worried citizens within Canada. The mistake with Hunka has been utilized by Russia and its supporters to criticize Ukraine, Canada, and their relationship with one another.
The Russian ambassador in Canada stated that Hunka’s unit was responsible for numerous war crimes, including mass murder, against ethnic Russians. However, it is important to be cautious when Russian officials claim something is a “proven fact.” In this case, the allegations were unfounded and after thorough investigations by multiple authorities, including the Nuremberg trials, it was determined that no war crimes or atrocities were committed by this unit.
However, this is simply the most recent development in an ongoing effort by the Russian Embassy in Ottawa, which dates back to the Soviet era. During that time, the USSR would use allegations of Nazi cooperation for political gain as part of their “active measures” strategies.
Given Russia’s past actions of aggression and atrocities during World War II and its aftermath, their accusations against Ukraine and others hold a special level of cynicism. Russia is able to freely use the term “Nazis,” whether real or not, because unlike Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union’s leaders and soldiers were never held accountable for their war crimes. Russia clings to the legitimacy of the Nuremberg trials, as they were never subject to the same consequences as a victorious power. However, both before and after their joint efforts to divide eastern Europe, the Soviets and Nazis shared many similarities that are now prohibited from being acknowledged in Russia.
However, it is not only those who oppose democracy who are buying into this alluringly simplistic viewpoint. Jewish advocacy organizations in Canada have understandably expressed strong disapproval of Hunka’s recognition. Yet, even here, there is a risk that accusations may be based more on misunderstandings and assumptions rather than on actual historical evidence.
The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center expressed their anger, stating that Hunka’s unit committed “crimes against humanity” during the Holocaust, which is backed by extensive documentation. This statement appears to hold as much weight as the accusation made by Russia.
During previous inquiries conducted by a Canadian Commission, Simon Wiesenthal was found to have made sweeping allegations that were deemed largely ineffective and caused unnecessary burden for the Canadian government.
As a result, individuals who are typically intelligent are currently attempting to one-up each other by voicing baseless criticism.
In the Canadian Parliament, MP Melissa Lantsman of the Conservative party described Hunka as a “monster.” In Poland, the education minister is aiming to have Hunka extradited before investigating any potential crimes he may have committed. This rejection is also affecting Hunka’s family members who were born long after the events of World War II took place.
The episode demonstrates the difficulty and importance of addressing complicated facts. However, countering misinformation through debunking or fact-checking requires an audience that is willing to invest time and effort in reading the correct version of events and has a genuine interest in discovering it. This approach is most effective for particular audiences, such as government officials, analysts, academics, and certain journalists.
However, for the majority of individuals, especially when casually browsing through social media, our interest is likely to be superficial and short-lived. This means that a detailed explanation of why certain information is incorrect is less likely to reach us and make an impact.
In the Hunka case, there are some commentaries that provide a more balanced perspective on the complicated history. However, these are few and far between, and when they do appear, they tend to be lengthy in order to counter the propaganda spread by Russia and its agents. It is unfortunate that a simple idea that can fit on a T-shirt holds more influence than a rebuttal that requires a lengthy explanation beginning with “well, actually…”
The Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, has personally apologized for the ovation given to Hunka. However, caution must be taken when discussing the mistake, as any implication that Canada is admitting fault for “honoring a Nazi” would play into Russia’s efforts to manipulate history and acknowledge false accusations of Hunka’s wrongdoing.
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.