At around 10 a.m. on October 12, 1957, a middle-aged man with strong-willed features was walking quickly to his place of work in a building located at 8 Karlplatz in Munich. He must have been in quite a hurry, because he didn’t notice a stranger with a folded newspaper waiting for him in the entryway to the building. As the man drew level with the unfamiliar gentleman, the stranger darted forward with a jerk, causing the unsuspecting man to stagger and collapse. Doctors and police who arrived on the scene established the cause of death as “heart paralysis.” The stranger vanished without a trace.
The deceased, or rather murdered, man was 45 year-old Lev Rebet, one of the most outstanding political leaders of the Ukrainian national movement in the 1940s and 50s, professor of the Ukrainian Free University (Munich), editor of the weekly Ukrayinsky Samostiynyk [The Ukrainian Independent], chairman of the OUN Political Council (abroad), a celebrated journalist, political scientist, and historiosopher. It was subsequently revealed that he had been murdered. His assassin, a veteran agent of the Soviet special services Bohdan Stashynsky, aimed a pistol wrapped in newspaper, which was loaded with potassium cyanide capsules, into Rebet’s face and pulled the trigger. Two years later, on October 15, 1959, Stashynsky stalked Stepan Bandera in Munich and killed him the same way.
Explaining what motivated him to kill Rebet, Stashynsky told a court years later that he had discovered that Rebet was “the leading theorist of the Ukrainians in exile,” since “in his newspapers (Suchasna Ukrayina [Contemporary Ukraine], Chas [Time], and Ukrayinska Trybuna [Ukrainian Tribune] — Author) he not so much provided accounts of daily events as developed primarily ideological issues.” This explains why the Soviet special services resorted to liquidating Professor Rebet. We find more answers in his biography and the ideas that he developed and championed. Let us begin with an overview of his life.
Lev Rebet was born in 1912 into the family of a postal official in the town of Stryi, Lviv oblast. Since childhood Rebet was known for his profound piety and dedication to the Ukrainian national idea. He was a member of the youth Plast movement, joined the Ukrainian Military Organization (UVO) at age 15 while still a student at the Stryi Academic High School, and went on to join the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). Recalling those years, Rebet wrote: “The main base of the OUN was youth, primarily students. These young people had been raised in the traditions of Ukrainian statehood. They remembered the existence, even if short- lived, of their independent country and saw the Ukrainian army with their own eyes. In short, they had once experienced the independence of the Ukrainian state for which they intended to struggle. For them, national independence was not an unfeasible fantasy; the young people had seen this independence, and it had a real shape in their imagination. All they had to do was achieve it.”
This was Lev Rebet’s lifelong goal. Like thousands of his contemporaries, participants of the national movement, Rebet had hungered for action since his youth, and was not content only to speak beautiful but abstract words about freedom. Lev joined the OUN almost immediately after its creation in 1929. The Polish occupational forces accused Rebet of being an OUN member and jailed him. His organizational skills and dedication to the national cause were duly appreciated by the OUN leadership: between 1934 and 1938 Rebet served as the leader of the OUN Territorial Executive in Western Ukraine. Characteristically, after the OUN split in 1940, Rebet sided with Stepan Bandera and not Andriy Melnyk.
When the restoration of an independent Ukrainian state was proclaimed on June 30, 1941 in Lviv, Lev Rebet was appointed Deputy Chairman of the Ukrainian State Government headed by Yaroslav Stetsko. After Stetsko was arrested, Rebet temporarily served as Prime Minister of the government. Later he was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned in Auschwitz until the fall of 1944. Between 1945 and 1948 Rebet served as chief justice of the External Units of the OUN. At this time he moved to Munich. From 1948 he was one of the leaders of the OUN Political Council (abroad) together with Mykola Lebed, Ivan Butkovsky, and Myroslav Prokop, and soon became its chairman. In his final years, from 1954 to 1957, Rebet was a professor at the Ukrainian Free University.
This article will not discuss the political aspect of Rebet’s activity, in particular his complex relationship with Stepan Bandera, which is a subject for a separate, long discussion. Instead we will focus on his studies on the theory and history of the Ukrainian nation, such as The Theory of the Nation (1955), Formation of the Ukrainian Nation (1951-1957), and Light and Shadows of the OUN (a book of historical memoirs, 1955-1956). Rebet’s ideas dating back fifty years have not lost their validity and justly deserve greater attention. The goal that he pursued in all these studies is both simple and extremely complex: to discover the meaning of the nation as a general phenomenon, and to uncover the meaning of the Ukrainian nation, its historical process of formation and development, and its future prospects.
The following is Rebet’s key thesis of his Theory of the Nation: “The relationship between external and internal manifestations of national life is determined by the cycle in which objective reality brings forth the idea, and the idea forms objective reality. Man lives in the system of these relations both as part of a natural process (i.e., he is born in his environment) and out of his own choice (i.e., he shapes his identity and realizes his ambitions). A nation as a community has the greatest influence, and a man belongs to it with all of his essence and all aspects of his life...For this reason, nations are lasting forms of human existence, and the historically conditioned social and socio-psychological structure of every nation is directly related to the structure of the state, which reflects the nation’s whole nature. For states basically exist as nation-states, while the state and the nation are linked in the same way as form and content.”
The question that preoccupied Rebet the publicist was how the Ukrainian nation was formed; what were the stages and chronology of this process. After examining the complex historical collisions of the Khmelnytsky period, he arrived at the controversial conclusion that “the Ukrainian people under Khmelnytsky had not yet taken the shape of a modern nation. As a representative of the Polish nobility, Khmelnytsky himself was in thrall to its worldview, while the Cossack leadership, mostly formed from representatives of old Cossack or Polish noble families, tended to build the state on the foundations of an estate society as they saw fit. It is therefore natural that privileges, the basis of an estate system, were one of the Cossacks’ main pursuits in all their uprisings against Poland.” This, Rebet concludes, “is undeniable proof of the absence of a modern nation; this is evidence of an archaic approach to state building, which has long since exhausted itself.”
What was his idea of a future independent Ukraine, in the realization of which Rebet never doubted? He primarily saw it as a democratic state. Therefore, he flatly rejected the slogan “Ukraine for Ukrainians,” which drew criticism from Stepan Bandera’s representatives. Rebet believed that “the Ukrainian nation, an Eastern Europe people with the most ancient grain-growing culture, has the potential to generate the most advanced ideas of humanity in these parts. Ukraine can and must become an example of political culture, and instead of the tyranny represented for centuries by the white and red Russian empires in the East, be a model of a modern democratic state, where personal freedom and dignity are not mere noise.”
Obviously, the Soviet secret services considered such ideas to be extremely dangerous for the indestructible USSR. Hence the order was given to kill Rebet (it has not been ruled out that the facts that would substantiate this are still buried in archives). Although the Soviets succeeded in killing an outstanding politician and scholar (who was also a doctor of law), his ideas live on. We are now witnessing a democratic rebirth of the nation that would have been impossible without such figures as Lev Rebet.