Interview with Michael Melnyk
- Published: 17 April 2010 17 April 2010
- Last Updated: 07 April 2012 07 April 2012
Michael Melnyk was born in the UK in 1964 to a Scottish mother and Ukrainian father. He is 46 years old AND does not even hold the lowest possible qualification (O [ordinary] level) in history given in the UK. From 1984 until 2001 he worked (and still does) within the British legal system exclusively to fund his research. During this period he travelled abroad to Germany, Austria, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, the USA, and Canada and amassed a huge amount of source material on the 14 Galician Division. His history of the Galician Division was originally planned as a three volume set (one of text, photos and documents) but ultimately the publication costs would have resulted in a prohibitive retail price and so this had to be shelved in favour of a single edition combining all three. The first hard back edition of his book To Battle: The Formation and History of the 14. Gallician SS Volunteer Division was published in 2002 and subsequently sold out. A second corrected edition has been available in paperback since 2007. With two young children (born 2001 and 2004) , parental responsibilities took precedence and his research activities were held in abeyance. As of 2010 he has been approached by a German publisher with a view to either German language edition of To Battle [expanded, revised and corrected] or an new publication based on the as yet unused material from his archive and has now recommenced his reasearch.
The interview took place in March 2010.
AHF: How did you get contact to publishers when starting out?
Melnyk: I wrote my book and when I had finished it, approached all the military publishers I could find.
AHF: Have you got any specific training (history degree, writing courses)?
Melnyk: I had (and still have) absolutely no qualifications whatsoever.
AHF: How did you first become interested in military history and what made you choose the topic of your first book?
Melnyk: Curiosity about my late father who was a former member of the 14 Galician Division.
AHF: How did your interest in the Second World War begin?
Melnyk: Always been interested since I was a child. My father died when I was six and all I knew was that “he was in the German Army” (heavy artillery) and that my Scottish mother had been in the British Army (Royal Transport Corps, delivering trucks and bren gun carriers to depots). I used to think it was odd that they had been on opposite sides.
AHF: How do you select topics for books?
Melnyk: My motivation is personal interest only.
AHF: Which archives have you used and how do you find working in them?
Melnyk: I have used plenty and had problems with almost all of them. For example
Imperial War Muesum London. I knew what they had because my friend worked there – albeit in another department – and had found certain documents. When I approached them regarding access to the material I wanted to see they denied having it. It was only after I told them where it was and that I knew exactly what was there that they finally let me see it.
L’viv archives. A great many of the documents here were (and probably still are) mostly uncatalogued and many are stored in random heaps in cardboard boxes in a totally unsuitable non- temperature controlled environment. Under these circumstances researching there for anyone other than a local is almost pointless until they do something about it.
Public Records Office in London (now National Archives). Like many other archives, if you have to travel a long way to get to them, in order to maximise your time it is recommended that you order your documents in advance. I did 3 months before my visit. I had a lot planned and arrived to find my requested documents were not there. I waited 2 hours to me told they had not processed my order. I waited another 2 hours before they produced the wrong documents altogether. By the time I got what I wanted I had 30 minutes before the archive shut and had lost over 6 hours research time. Being civil servants their attitude to their mistake was “not our problem mate”.
Kiev Archives. It was here I first came across two things that I personally find abhorrent. The price of copies of material depends on how much they think you can afford (and this frequently fluctuates depending on how greedy they are) and worse still the practice of stealing material to order.
Archives in the west like The Nat Archives in Washington are mainly ok, but I do recall requesting material from an archive (possibly a German archive) and receiving a reply asking for details of my qualifications and who my publisher was. When I replied I had no qualifications and no publisher I received no further response.
AHF: Have you tried to contact veterans and interview them - if so, how did this work out?
Melnyk: Initially this was an almost impossible task. In my first couple of years I wrote to over 200 and received only 6 acknowledgments (and none of these was anything more than “thanks for your letter, sorry can’t help”). After a few years I finally made inroads with the veteran associations and began to make progress but even then it was hard. I would arrange to travel all over the UK to meet Ukrainians vets by prior agreement who said they would help through the vets association and arrive only to be told by them “I can’t remember anything” or “I have changed my mind and don’t want to see you”. This was annoying but nowhere near as bad as when I travelled thousands of miles to Canada and the US when exactly the same thing happened. Fortunately I met a handful of vets who were wonderful individuals and it was only through them that I achieved what I did. When I did eventually interview veterans of this Division, I found some were lucid and had outstanding memoires whilst others simply could not remember anything other than occasional and unrelated events. A few had clearly experienced incredibly traumatic events and these had clearly effected them profoundly. Some of their recollections I will remember until I the day I die.
AHF: Who decides on the contents of an index, and how do you decide what's listed and what's not?
Melnyk: My view is an index is imperative and should be as comprehensive as possible. Sadly (probably because of financial considerations) my publishers thought otherwise.
AHF: What are your plans for future books?
Melnyk: I have just begun preparations for either an expanded version of the first book, or a second book on the same subject.
AHF: What has the greatest challenge for you as a historical researcher been?
Melnyk: Language. When I began I knew nothing of either the German or Ukrainian languages which is obviously a massive handicap as almost all the source material is in these languages. I struggle with German but still have no idea about Ukrainian.
AHF: In hindsight, are there any things in your books that you would have done differently?
Melnyk: Yes but my many mistakes were an essential part of the learning process.
AHF: How did you manage your time between daily life (work and family) and work on the book; do you have a regime in regards to work time on the book?
Melnyk: For 15 years my entire income from working 9-5 solely financed my research. When the cost had reached £30,000 I stopped counting. During this time I had no social life at all outside of my research.
AHF: How do you as an author view the Internet, both as a source and as a competitor to books?
Melnyk: In terms of as a source of useful primary information the internet has offered me next to nothing. I have met a few researchers through forums.
AHF: What is the key bit of advice you would give to those who want to write a book on military history, especially World War 2?
Melnyk: Pick a subject which interests you and don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t do it.
AHF: What is your opinion of the recent rise of interest in the second world war in popular culture? What effect might it have on the historical research community?
Melnyk: It was the biggest event in modern history and will always therefore command a huge amount of interest.
AHF: Can you live off the proceeds?
Melnyk: Not a hope. My royalty payments to date do not equal my expenditure for roughly 8 months out of 15 years of research.
AHF: How do you feel the political turmoil between the Ukraine and Russia and Poland and Russia in recent years affected the research into the Ukrainian activities during the war?
Melnyk: Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, there where two dominant, polarised and diametrically opposed standpoints on the issue of the Galician Division.
The driving force behind the research on the dominant anti-Division side, were the Soviet and to a lesser extent Polish authors of publications, especially those which were the products of propaganda specialists. These maintained that the members of the Galician division were pro NAZI, traitors to the great Soviet motherland and guilty of heinous war crimes. With the backing of their respective communist governments, their rabid accusations were constant and widely publicised. The ‘evidence’ they offered in support of their claims came from their archives but was never publically available for inspection by serious researchers. In addition the Soviets were not adverse to faking documents and photos to suit their political ends.
Research on the pro-Division side was largely confined to associates of the few thousand surviving veterans in the west who operated without any official governmental backing and very limited resources and finances. Understandably they concentrated their efforts on countering the Soviet allegations or war crimes arguing that the Ukrainians had served alongside the Germans as a matter of expediency with a view to being able to their long term objective of the re-establishment of an independent Ukrainian state. Against manifestly unequal odds their views made little headway and as a rule had to be actively sought out causing the veterans association to become suspicious of researchers. As a result they rarely permitted access to their archives.
With the establishment of independent Ukrainian and Polish states free from Soviet control, the dynamics have shifted fundamentally in the favour of the Ukrainians, whose position has improved immeasurably. The newly established Ukrainian government has allowed the veterans to draw war pensions, honour their dead and those vets still living in Ukraine can publically defend themselves and their actions without fear of reprisal. This turn of events has rekindled a latent interest in the Division and has caused a shift in the nature of the research being undertaken which is no longer focused solely on denial of accusations of war crimes. However the market forces that these newly emerging democracies are subjected to have had some unfortunate side effects, namely a huge black market in any material related to this Division. Whilst the archives are now accessible, their contents are often available to the highest bidder. Other ‘entrepreneurs ‘ will happily steal original material to order and in this way documents, soldbuchs and photographs hitherto unseen in the west have begun to make their way onto the open market in the west. This material which has been indiscriminately pilfered, is offered without provenance so that it’s potential to contribute to the wider history of this unit is often fatally compromised,
AHF: How has the Cold War in your opinion shaped the view of the activities of the German units made up of men from the countries that became part of the Soviet-bloc after the war? How has this view changed in the years since the fall of the Berlin Wall?
Melnyk: The activities of the German sponsored units which were formed from men from the countries that formed the Soviet block after the war, were for decades hardly known outside the émigrés circles. As a school child growing up in England in the 1960’s and 70’s none of the English people I knew, had any idea of what these units were and what they did. Objective publications were few and far between and interest was necessarily limited. For those acquainted with the subject, the widely held view in the west was that these men were traitors.
Recent pivotal historical events such as the fall of the Berlin wall coupled with the advent of the internet have contributed to increasing the public awareness of these units and to a re-evaluation of their activities. For the first time some effort has been made to understand their motives for allying themselves with the Germans in the fight against Soviet oppression.
AHF: How have you handled the numerous claims and counterclaims about war crimes committed by Ukrainian manned units in your research?
Melnyk: During the course of my research I encountered numerous allegations of war crimes against the Galician Division. As a result of my research, I felt that there was insufficient evidence to satisfactorily maintain any of them. That is not to say that men did not serve in the Galician Division at some point who may have committed war crimes, but I have found no substantive evidence to date which proves beyond all reasonable doubt that anyone committed a war crimes whilst serving in the Galician Division. As a rule I always rely on the ‘rules of evidence’ when presenting information - that is to say all evidence must have a verifiable and documented source and that this in turn should be available for scrutiny or cross examination by all interested parties. If it does not fulfil that criteria, it must remain speculation. Clearly the war crimes unit here in the UK shares my view as they recently told me “To date here is no substantive evidence which has been thus far produced that is sufficient to cause the extradition of any Ukrainian living in the UK to stand trial for any alleged war crimes committed whilst serving with the Galician Division.”
Occassionally I try and publically refute accusations based on the evidence I have, but more often than not I find those who make the allegations are unwilling or unable to debate the matter without resorting to blanket generalities or referring to secondary (ie; subjective) witness statements.