by Thomas Walkom
The controversy over whether Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s grandfather was a Nazi collaborator says a little about her. It says more about the West’s current fascination with Russian disinformation.
The basic facts about Michael Chomiak’s activities during the Second World War are now well known.
A Ukrainian nationalist living in what was soon to become part of the Soviet Union, Chomiak and his wife fled into the German-controlled part of Poland after the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact was signed.
He then edited a Ukrainian-language newspaper published under the aegis of the Nazis – first in Krakow and later in Vienna, before landing in Germany at war’s end.
The family emigrated to Alberta where Chomiak’s granddaughter, Freeland, was born and raised.
I don’t judge Chomiak. War presents impossible choices. Presumably, he and his wife reckoned they would fare better under a Nazi dictatorship than a Soviet one. If they were Jewish, they might have made a different calculation.
None of this would matter if Freeland had not talked and written glowingly about the influence these grandparents exerted on her. But she did.
“(Their experience) had a very big effect on me,” she told Star national affairs writer Linda Diebel shortly after being appointed to cabinet in 2015.
“They were also committed to the idea, like most in the (Ukrainian) diaspora, that Ukraine would one day be independent and that the community had a responsibility to the country they had been forced to flee.”
This fascination with the ideas of her maternal grandfather certainly doesn’t mean that Freeland is a Nazi sympathizer. But it may help explain why journalists and others began to look into the background of a man who had so affected her thinking.
I say “others” because governments, like corporations, encourage the publication of material that promotes their cause.
So it should be no surprise that, following Freeland’s promotion to foreign minister in January, stories about her grandfather began to appear on websites favourable to Russia.
Russia routinely argues that its enemies in the current Ukrainian standoff are neo-Nazis. Freeland, a vocal backer of Ukraine in that standoff, is seen by Moscow as too friendly to its adversaries. For supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Chomiak story was a gift.
But it was neither Russian disinformation nor false news. It was true. Freeland’s grandfather had worked with the Nazis. The newspaper he edited did publish anti-Semitic material.
Documents attesting to this fact exist in an Alberta archive, according to the Ottawa Citizen. Freeland’s uncle, a historian, had written about it in a 1996 academic journal.
And, as the Globe and Mail eventually reported, Freeland has known of her grandfather’s wartime activities for at least two decades.
The lesson for Freeland is that she should be more straightforward. Her response when asked about her grandfather’s wartime activities last week was dodgy. Without actually answering the question, she suggested that she was the victim of a Russian disinformation campaign.
The lesson for the rest of us is that we should be more careful about accepting such pat explanations.
The tendency today, which has been magnified by Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election, is to treat Putin as a master puppeteer.
Democrats, still angry that their candidate lost, blame Russian hacking for Trump’s success. Putin is said to be planning similar interference in various European elections.
The anti-Putinists forget two things. First, disinformation is not unique to the Russians. It is what intelligence agencies do.
During the First World War, the British confected stories of German atrocities. During the original Cold
War, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency routinely planted false stories in the foreign press.
Second, not all news that seems to favour Russia is false. The world is a complicated place. Choices are rarely binary.
Nothing illustrates this as neatly as the Freeland affair. The foreign affairs minister, a former journalist, is widely respected. She is smart and capable.
By contrast, Putin is viewed as a villain controlling an army of evil minions. Anything that supports the villain by casting aspersions on this nice woman’s treasured grandfather couldn’t possibly be true.
Except, of course, when it is. This time, the minions weren’t lying. That too can happen.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services