how the British press reported about the Nazi invasion 1941-45

During World War II, there were notable exceptions to the sometimes slavish patriotic devotion the press showed to the government line. Weekly political titles like New Statesman and Nation, the Spectator and the Economist more consistently challenged government policy than newspapers.

These titles were read by intellectuals and ministers tolerated the circulation of critical ideas among such people. The political weeklies served as safety valves. Ministers who did our best to keep distasteful news from the mass newspapers treated their publication of intelligent dissent as a way of polishing Britain’s democratic credentials.

This reassured Britain’s main ally, the US. The Economist’s portrayal of Ukrainian nationalism between 1941 and 1945 is an example of such journalism.

Today, Vladimir Putin uses a false account of Ukraine’s role during World War II to justify his invasion, urging Russian troops to invade to clear Ukraine of Nazis. Along the same lines as Adolf Hitler’s when Germany took Czechoslovakia, he claims his army protects minorities from persecution.

Read more: Putin’s claim to rid Ukraine of Nazis is especially absurd given its history

But Putin’s claim is false and in stark contrast to that of his Soviet predecessor, Josef Stalin, 80 years ago. Stalin promoted evidence of Ukrainian heroism in his resistance against the Nazi invaders. British newspapers followed his lead, reporting on the bravery of Ukrainians who fought as partisans against Germans, as well as Red Army troops.

When German forces invaded Ukraine in 1941, the Soviet Union appealed to Ukrainians to “join the partisan gangs or form new ones.” It urged them to wreak havoc and “kill the fascists like mad dogs.”

The headline in the Daily Telegraph of August 27, 1941 broadcast the message of Soviet General Semyon Mikhaylovich Budenny: “Budenny’s appeal to Ukraine – Join the guerrillas, kill the enemy”.

A Soviet communiqué published in the Manchester Guardian on August 29 celebrated Ukraine’s heroism in a story headlined: “Struggle for Streets for Ukrainian City: People’s Volunteers in Action”.

In savage battles for a city identified only as “N”, partisans of “unique prowess” fought alongside the Red Army. Volunteers recruited from factories “defended every street” and destroyed German tanks with hand grenades and petrol bombs.


The Economist, meanwhile, had become more sophisticated, recognizing that the picture was not as simple as brave Ukrainians rising to a man or woman to fight the invading hordes. Germany intended to use Ukrainian nationalism against Russia and had trained right-wing Ukrainian nationalist fighters.

Hitler’s hope was that his armies would be supported by a massive Ukrainian uprising against the USSR. Instead, The Economist acknowledged in its September 6 story, headlined “The Ukrainian Trump Card,” that there were no “peasants greeting their German liberators with flowers” ​​and that Ukrainians met the Wehrmacht with “intimidating fire” and “ scorched villages”.

The article charted how Hitler betrayed the minority of Ukrainians who supported nationalist plans to create a fascist state, suggesting that he had misjudged the situation. By leaving the “obscure circles of zealous Ukrainian nationalist conspirators” who had been the “future quislings” of Nazi Germany, Hitler had “achieved a negative result.”

He was a strategic mistake, as there was “no lack of resentment” against the USSR in Ukraine. It was “beyond doubt” that there was room to exploit Ukrainian nationalist sentiment in the German interest. But Hitler had squandered this potential “trump card”.

The impression that Ukraine had emphatically turned against Germany was widely propagated in the mainstream British press. Moscow and London depicted Ukrainians as haunted in defense of their territory.

So, while the Red Army was fighting to liberate Leningrad in February 1942, The Times reported in a February 13, 1942 article with the headline, “Grapple for Leningrad” that Ukrainian partisans were targeting German troops “in conjunction with major raiding parties” of the regular Red Army cavalry. Crucially, such images depicted Ukrainian fighters as citizens of the USSR. Ukrainian nationalism was treated as a corrupt ideal, sponsored and promoted by Germany.

German banknotes issued for use in Ukraine, 1942.
German banknotes issued for use in Ukraine, 1942.
HamsterMan via Shutterstock

A Reuters report on the liberation of Kharkov, which appeared in the Guardian on March 1, 1943, under the headline “How the Nazis Ruled Kharkov” reported that young Ukrainian men in Kharkov were given a choice between “being shot or fighting in German uniforms.” ” .

German officers told them: “We liberated the Ukraine; now you have to defend it.” The report concludes: “The Germans have spread a lot of Ukrainian nationalist propaganda… but it is clear that they have killed every trace of Ukrainian separatism.”

Newspapers recognized the existence of the fascist Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. But they made it clear that most Ukrainians fought alongside the Red Army.

For example, Lieutenant Colonel Vysokostrosky, a special correspondent for Red Star, the Red Army magazine, told the Guardian on Nov. 30 how Ukrainian partisans joined Soviet paratroopers to “paralyze the German rear” as Russian troops fought to cross the Dnipro River. to stab.

Changing their tune

Until Hitler invaded Russia, the British press had portrayed Stalin as a bullying giant, guilty of oppression and massacre. His Soviet Union was a vicious aggressor, its army cruel and incompetent.

The turnaround described by the Times on June 23, 1941 under the headline “How Russia Was Told” when it told its readers that “one touch of Hitler makes the whole world related” was embraced by the Ministry of Information and the newspapers it informed. When Britain and the USSR were allies, coverage of Russia and its leader became uncritical to the point of derision.

Newspapers were reluctant to question Russia’s portrayal of Ukraine as a satisfied republic of the Soviet Union. British cinemas showed Russian films such as Battle of the Ukraine, and Partisans, which portrayed heroic resistance in Ukraine. Newspapers portrayed Ukrainian nationalism as an exclusively Nazi creation.

In fact, the Ukrainian nationalist map was less formidable than the Economist had thought. Among them were 8,000 Ukrainian members of the Waffen SS Galizien Division, guilty of horrific war crimes. Pro-German nationalist troops were numerically insignificant compared to the 4.5 million Ukrainians who fought with the Red Army against Hitler.

The military value of Ukrainian nationalist support for the Nazi cause was negligible. The main allies of Nazi Germany in the invasion of the USSR were Romania and Hungary. Putin’s claim that Ukrainians are Nazis goes against historical facts and is deeply cynical.

Nevertheless, by distinguishing itself from the mainstream newspapers that mimicked the British government’s Stalinist propaganda, The Economist provided valuable context to those who wanted a deeper understanding of the conflict.

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