The Worst Op-Ed in History?

by Matt Taibbi | Oct 3, 2023

Start with the title: “Fighting against the USSR didn’t necessarily make you a Nazi.” The Politico Europe editor approving it was either high on glue, or finally decided yesterday to come to work in his secret Schutzstaffel uniform. No other explanation fits.

Writer Keir Giles argued there’s “disinformation” and a “lie” in the outrage over Canada’s parliament cheering former Waffen SS soldier Yaroslav Hunka:

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.

On “fighting against the USSR at the time didn’t necessarily make you a Nazi”: didn’t it if you were Yaroslav Hunka, who was actually a Nazi? Giles protests Hunka’s Waffen-SS service is just a “hard sell” to current audiences because they’ve been “conditioned to believe the SS’s primary task was genocide,” due to “simple narratives like ‘everybody in the SS was guilty of war crimes.’” Hunka’s 14th Waffen Grenadier unit, aka the Galicia Division, was in 2003 found by the Polish government to have murdered about 1000 inhabitants of Huta Pieniacka, now in the Lviv Oblast of Ukraine. The report singled out the “14th sub-unit” of the Galizien, which may be why Poland’s education Minister just said he’s “taken steps toward the possible extradition of this man.”

It doesn’t matter, because this story was never about the moral choices of Yaroslav Hunka, but the decision by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canadian House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota, and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland to applaud as a “Canadian hero” a former member of the SS. Hunka also happened also to have fought on the other side in a war that killed 42,000 Canadians. But who’s counting? As Giles writes, it’s “complicated.”

GOERING AT NUREMBERG: IT’S COMPLICATED would have fit National Lampoon’s famed “Hitler’s Tropical Escape” issue, or its later “Spring Fascism Preview.” A New York Times spoof would write itself: “For Augusto Pinochet, Good Governance, Complex Choices.” But Giles one-ups them all with this piece arguing, with no laugh track, the “nuanced truth” of SS service. It’s the literary equivalent of trying to scale the El Capitan Wall without a harness, an incredible thing to try, much less publish.

worst op-ed

Left and center, comedy. Right, reality

Politico ran a photo of Hunka in his Galizien uniform, but the article still made repeated references to things like “shouting about ‘Nazis,’ real or imaginary” (you just established this one isn’t imaginary!) or the “chorus of evidence-free condemnation” (you just printed the evidence!).

worst op-ed

The stunner passage is near the end:

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.

If you had “Simon Wiesenthal Center accused of echoing Russian propaganda” on your historical bingo card, congratulations. Giles wants to split hairs, because while the Poles and organizations like the one founded by Lviv native Wiesenthal obviously think one thing about the Galizien, investigations by “British, Canadian and even Soviet authorities” have cleared the unit.

He appears not to get that the spectacle of Canada’s parliament and Prime Minister cheering like beered-up Leafs fans for any member of the Waffen-SS is exactly the nightmare Holocaust survivors always warned about. The uniform and the symbolism behind it are what matter in a political stunt like this, which if not a mistake, is bad enough. It’s worse if Rota, Trudeau, and former Ukrainian News and Ukrainian Weekly writer Freeland were somehow ignorant of Hunka’s SS past, and the likes of Giles are now asking a Holocaust remembrance group to chill out because it’s not true that “everybody in the SS was guilty of war crimes.” Never forget, except in some cases?

Similar apologies popped up across media after Canada’s debacle. The CBC, fast earning a reputation for its rare mix of transparent propaganda and unreadable social justice jargon, previewed the Politico mess with “Speaker’s honouring of former Nazi soldier reveals a complicated past, say historians,” quoting an analyst saying “the minutiae” of history gets “very delicate,” so “you have to tread softly on these issues.” CBC also published “Ukrainians reckoning with ‘complexity of history’ after Hunka affair,” Others conceded a mistake but spent more time complaining the episode was being used for a Russian “disinformation campaign,” as the Toronto Star put it. The fact-checking arm of RFE/RL, Polygraph, wrote, “Contrary to rewriting World War II history, Canada’s leadership expressed embarrassment and apologized,” while Russian disinformation had gone into “overdrive.” They said they were sorry!

We’ve reached the chapter in God’s novel where the dull, received-wisdom format of the Western op-ed is being deployed to argue National Socialism wasn’t all bad. Mel Brooks struck gold imagining the Broadway musical similarly repurposed, but this is no joke. What a time to be alive. Every day a new milestone!

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