When the ambulance crew got there they found Stepan Bandera dead on the block’s third floor landing outside his apartment. The crew guessed the fifty-year-old Ukranian had died from a fall. Bandera’s crying wife insisted he had been murdered. It was Thursday 15 October 1959.
It took until the following Tuesday for the coroner’s report to reach Munich police. The Ukrainian had traces of cyanide in his stomach. Now it looked like suicide.
‘We are completely in the dark as to the motive,’ a police spokesman told reporters.
The dead man’s wife and the rest of the Ukranian exile community insisted it was murder. Someone must have forced a cyanide capsule down his throat.
Munich police were skeptical. Ukrainians had said the same things two years ago when prominent exile ideologue Lev Rebet died of a heart attack. Paranoia was part of exile life in the Bavarian capital. Over a hundred anti-communist emigre groups, including Russians, Poles, and Czechoslovaks, lived in the city. They published newspapers, made radio broadcasts, and slipped across the iron curtain into their homelands on spying missions.
‘We have small resistance cells all over the Ukraine,’ said a Bandera follower, ‘and we are preparing for X-day.‘
X-day. The day the Ukrainians would rise up and overthrow the Soviets.
Sometimes spies did not return from their missions. And sometimes death came to the spymasters in Munich. In November 1954 a Soviet defector was stabbed to death in the street. The following July emigre Slovak leader Marcus Cernak opened a registered parcel at the post office. It exploded and killed him.
In a world like that, anything was possible. Munich police put aside their skepticism and looked for anyone with a motive to kill Bandera. It was a long list.
Glory to Ukraine
Stepan Bandera was a Ukrainian patriot. A hard thing to be when Ukraine had flickered in and out of existence through its history.
Ukraine had its origins with an invasion of Scandanavian Vikings in the ninth century which laid foundations for Russia and the Baltic states. Mongol invasions ended that in the thirteenth century. Then Poland and Russia squabbled over the territory until Moscow got the upper hand. By the nineteenth century most of Ukraine had been swallowed up by the Russian empire with a few scraps left for Austro-Hungary.
Nationalism was the driving force of the nineteenth century. Ukrainian intellectuals were determined not to be left out. Their talk of national resurrection inspired a wave of patriotism that would later birth a brief independent republic when the occupying empires collapsed after the First World War. But the country quickly ended up again divided between Soviet Russia and a reborn Poland.
The man who thought he would be Ukraine’s saviour came from the village of Staryi Uhryniv in the Polish-controlled west. His father was a Catholic priest. Bandera became involved in nationalist politics while in high school and deepened his involvement as an agronomy student in Lviv when he joined the newly created Organisation of Ukranian Nationalists (OUN).
The OUN’s leaders were aging military men, veterans of one army or another, living abroad in exile. Bandera was part of a younger generation stuck in a homeland under Polish or Russian occupation, more radical and more willing to use violence. Friction was inevitable but unity triumphed, at least in these early years.
Bandera was active in the Galicia region and rose through the organisation to become head of the National Executive by 1933. The following year he was arrested by the Polish authorities and got life imprisonment for a plot to assassinate Poland’s Minister of Internal Affairs.
Twenty-six years later the Munich police started listing suspects. Mostly Poles with long memories.
But the list got longer when they investigated Bandera’s war years.
The OUN at War
Bandera’s sentence in Wronki prison, western Poland, ended abruptly in September 1939 when German tanks rolled over the border. It was never clear who freed Bandera but he was soon in talks with the occupying Germans about forming an OUN military unit to accompany any future invasion of Ukraine.
By this time the OUN had split into two factions. A bomb hidden inside a box of chocolates killed original leader Yevhen Konovalets in Rotterdam, May 1938. Military man Andriy Melnyk, another exile, replaced him. Bandera’s student followers in Galica rebelled at Melnyk’s more conciliatary style and formed the OUN(B) faction under the command of their jailbird hero.
Melynk tried to persuade the Nazi administration to ignore the rebels. He failed. Bandera was able to form two military units from Ukrainian exiles (Bataillon Ukrainische Gruppe Nachtigall and Battalion Ukrainische Gruppe Roland) under the wing of the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service. He also got 2.5 million marks to use against the USSR, which now occupied all of Ukraine thanks to a pact with Hitler.
On 22 June 1941 Hitler turned on his supposed Russian ally. German tanks moved into Soviet territory. Nachtigall and Roland went with them into Ukraine but were abruptly pulled out of the invasion force shortly after. Bandera had gone rogue.
Within a week of the invasion Bandera’s OUN faction declared an independent Ukraine. They issued proclamations and declared Yaroslav Stetsko, a philosophy graduate with a head shaped like a lightbulb, the new Head of State.
The Nazis had no intention of allowing a free Ukraine. They arrested Bandera in Kraków and rounded up many of his followers elsewhere. He and Stetsko were moved to Berlin were they roamed the ministries pleading the case of Ukrainian independence while Nazi politicians wondered if the OUN(B) could still be useful. By January the next year the Germans had decided they no longer needed the pair and sent them to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The two men would spend two and a half years there.
Melnyk’s OUN faction, more obedient to the Nazis, was allowed to administer a number of Ukrainian cities. Not obedient enough. The Germans became suspicious of its ambitions and cracked down in early 1942. Many members were arrested and executed.
By this time what was left of the OUN(B) had regrouped. Still strong in the west of the country they stockpiled weapons, developed networks, and sometimes collaborated with whatever German authorities were prepared to trust them. For most of 1942 their violence was directed against Poles, Jews, and any of Melnyk’s men who refused to join them. They also wiped out Taras Dmytrovych Borovets’ Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) and took its name for their own military wing after the group refused to obey Bandera.
In 1943 the OUN(B) quit the collaboration game and turned on the Germans in an effort to establish an independent Ukraine free of Nazi or Soviet control. They killed over 100,000 Poles and Jews in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Bandera’s followers would later claim he did not order this, which is possible, although the Germans had earlier allowed him to leave Sachsenhausen concentration camp for meetings with OUN(B) activists and few believe he knew nothing about the events.
By 1944 Nazi Germany was on the defensive and needed every friend it could find. Bandera was released from his concentration camp in September. UPA fighters in the Ukraine stopped fighting Germans and turned their attention to the incoming Red Army. It was a futile struggle. When Berlin fell to the Soviets in May 1945 what was left of the OUP was already underground in Ukraine. Bandera had vanished.
Many people thought he was dead.
Days in Munich
Munich police were now swimming in suspects. Former German soldiers with a grudge. Jews who survived the death squads. Poles who fled the ethnic cleansing.
But one party had the biggest reason to kill Bandera. The Soviet Union.
Bandera surfaced in Munich after the war. In the stew of spies and espionage he pushed himself forward as head of the Ukrainian diaspora and leader of the underground UPA resistance groups fighting the new Soviet dictatorship. British intelligence used him to gather information and run agents behind the iron curtain. So did the CIA. Both relationships quickly soured. Bandera seemed keener on promoting himself in the West German media with dramatic appearances surrounded by armed bodyguards than in serious espionage.
Ukrainian nationalists also began to distance themselves. Many OUN(B) groups had been infiltrated and crushed by the Soviets in the immediate post-war years. Those that survived were reluctant to accept Bandera’s leadership. They no longer wanted to fight for a dictatorship (Bandera’s preferred political system) and some formerly loyal followers openly criticised his tactics.
In 1952 Bandera was temporarily deposed as OUN head. He soon came back but by then the British and Americans had abandoned him in favour of more reliable Ukrainian agents who were prepared to consider democracy.
‘Bandera is by nature a political intransigent of great personal ambition,’ said the CIA. ‘opposed [to] all political organizations in the emigration which favor a representative form of government in the Ukraine, as opposed to a mono-party, OUN/Bandera regime‘.
But the OUN leader had luck on his side. In 1956 the freshly created West German Intelligence service (Bundesnachrichtendienst – BND) showed an interest. Soon they were working together. The day before his death he had lunch with BND officials to discuss further operations across the iron curtain.
The more Munich police investigated the more they began to agree with the suspicions of the city’s Ukrainian population. Perhaps he had been murdered by the Soviet Union.
But where was the proof?
The Guilty Man
On Saturday 12 August 1961 a good-looking thirty-year-old Ukrainian called Bohdan Stashynsky walked into a West Berlin police station. He confessed to murdering two people. The police called American intelligence.
Stashynsky was a KGB assassin. He grew up in a village near Lviv. His family were active in the UPA. When he was nineteen the Soviet authorities arrested him for travelling home without a train ticket from his job as a teacher. His family background caught the attention of the KGB. Under pressure Stashynsky agreed to become an informer.
Through family contacts he infiltrated UPA units. Stashynsky had a talent for betrayal. He was soon taking part in elaborate set ups involving blood packs, blanks, and confessions from UPA soldiers who thought him a hero. With his information the KGB rolled up guerilla outfits around Lviv. In 1953 Stashynsky went to Kiev for espionage training. He learnt German. Three years later he was in East Berlin posing as businessman Joseph Leman.
After some routine intelligence gathering he was given a new assignment straight from Moscow: assassinate Lev Rebet. The senior OUN man was hated by the Soviets for his ideological articles in exile newspapers. Stashynsky flew to Munich with a spray cylinder of liquid poison activated by squeezing a handle. He had tested the weapon in an East German forest on a dog tied to a tree. At the first spray the dog collapsed. It twitched for three minutes and died.
Stashynsky tracked the bald, beret-wearing Rebet around Munich. On 12 October 1957 he approached him on a stairwell with the gas gun hidden in a rolled up newspaper and sprayed the poison in Rebet’s face. The OUN man fell. Stashynsky kept walking. The police thought it was a heart attack.
Back in East Berlin his bosses gave him a camera as a present.
Two years later he got his next target. Stepan Bandera.
The Death of a Ukrainian Leader
When Stashynsky aimed the gas gun Stepan Bandera was standing in the doorway of a Munich apartment block holding a bag of shopping.
This gas gun was two tubes of liquid cyanide with a plunger for each barrel. Stashynsky squirted both barrels into Bandera’s face and carried on out the door. He had a glimpse of Bandera’s face turning suddenly purple and black. Then he wrapped the gas gun in a newspaper and walked briskly down the street.
He had been tracking Bandera for weeks. He first spotted the short, bald, blue-eyed Ukrainian at a funeral. A psuedonym listed in the phone book got him to one of the six apartments Bandera and his family used around Munich for security. An attempt to break into the block resulted in snapping the end of a pick deep in the lock.
So he waited, observing the apartment. On Thursday 15 October he saw Bandera approaching his home. The OUN leader had just dismissed his bodyguard and was carrying a bag of shopping. Stashynsky got to the block first and got the front door open with a new lockpick. Then he headed up the stairs and waited.
He planned to ambush Bandera on the stairs but was rattled by the arrival of an elevator and a woman walking past him. Stashynsky walked back to the entrance hall where Bandera had just entered the building but was having trouble with his key.
‘Is it not working?‘ asked Stashynsky.
‘No, it’s okay,’ said Bandera. He held the door open for the KGB man.
Stashynsky sprayed him in the face with liquid cyanide and walked out into the street.
It was a hell of a story. But American intelligence and the West Berlin police had the same question. Why had Stashynsky defected?
The KGB assassin explained. He was in love.
The German Girl
Stashynsky met hairdresser Inge Pohl in East Berlin when he was first posted there in 1956. They fell for each other hard despite Stashynsky having to pretend he was a businessman called Joseph Leman. He kept his KGB life secret.
After Bandera’s murder he was recalled to Moscow to receive the Order of the Red Banner, one of the USSR’s highest awards. Stashynsky took the opportunity to ask permission to marry Inge. His bosses refused.
The assassin put up a fight. Eventually permission was granted. On Christmas Day 1959 he confessed everything, including the murders to Pohl, and they flew to Moscow to get married.
Stashynsky’s rebellion over Inge had made the KGB doubt his loyalty. His rooms were bugged, the couple followed. Stashynsky’s bosses abruptly kicked him out of the service then changed their minds and sent him on foreign language courses. Stashynsky, never a fervent communist, felt the rot of political disillusion eat into his soul.
Inge was pregnant and returned to East Berlin to have the baby. It was a boy but joy was shortlived when the child choked to death soon after his birth. Stashynsky joined her in Germany for the funeral. The trauma, the suspicion, and political doubts overwhelmed them both. On 12 August they slipped out of their house and took a taxi through the border to West Berlin using Stashynsky’s fake Leman documents.
Then Stashynsky headed to the nearest police station and confessed. He was just in time. The next day East Germany began work on the Berlin Wall.
Stashynsky got eight years in prison for the murders but was sprung by the Americans after a few months. After a long debriefing he and Inge were given new identities in America. In the early 1980s they moved to South Africa. Stashynsky lived long enough to see communism fall and return home.
He died in an independent Ukraine whose new leaders worshipped the memory of Stepan Bandera.
When Ukraine became independent in 1989 after the end of the Soviet Union many towns erected statues of Bandera, along with other Ukrainian nationalist figures like Symon Petliura and Yevhen Konovalets. The OUN leader’s face appeared on stamps. Football fans waved giant flags carrying his portrait. In January 2010 President Viktor Yushchenko posthumously made Bandera a ‘Hero of the Ukraine’.
To Ukrainians in the west of the country (further west after the country’s borders were changed following the Second World War) he is a towering historical figure. The Poles and Jews still living in Ukraine, along with Russian speakers to the east, are less enthusiastic. They were not unhappy when a subsequent Russian-leaning government annulled Yushchenko’s award in 2011.
The world got a look at how much Bandera meant to Ukrainians during the 2013/14 regime change. The crowds who came to Kiev in protest at the government’s failure to sign a trade treaty with the European Union held pictures of Bandera. The far-right hoisted his portrait among their celtic crosses and 14 words/88 graffiti. Mainstream politicians associated themselves with his memory. The international media struggled to explain why people supposedly fighting for democracy idolised a man who had never believed in it.
Every hero is someone else’s villain. And all heroes have blood on their hands, especially in Eastern Europe.
This piece was originally written for my brightreview.co.uk webpage. More information about Stepan Bandera’s murder can be found in articles from Life magazine, 2 September 1961; Ellensburg Daily Record, 19 October 1959 ‘Munich Reveals Poison Death’; St Petersburg Times, 20 October 1959 ‘Anti-Red Chief was Victim of Cyanide’; Daytona Beach Morning Journal, 2 January 1960 ‘Spies, Counterspies Prowl In Munich’. Political takes on Bandera can be found in ‘Murdered by Moscow’ (Ukrainian Publishers Limited, 1962) and ‘Who Was Stepan Bandera?’ (History News Network). For an overview, Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine (amazon.co.uk or amazon.com) by Anna Reid is a useful look at Ukraine’s history.
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