Translated by Ollie Richardson for Fort Russ
6th February, 2016
“The first cocktail was thrown outside. It broke, the liquid spilled out, doors, and furniture, which we had used to barricade ourselves inside, started burning”. “The lights turned off, and there was real hell. Dark, burning glare, screaming, hysterical howling. The screams of dying men.” “People fell from the windows, they were finished off at the bottom”. “We started calling family and friends to say goodbye”. “They scoured the premises, axes had cut the doors open, those who were there, were killed.” It’s not the memories of the victims of the Nazis during the Second world war. These are quotes from interviews with eyewitnesses of the Odessa tragedy, included in the film of German journalist Ulrich Heyden – “Wildfire” (Lauffeuer).
On May 2nd 2014, in Odessa House of Trade Unions, according to official data, 42 people were burned to death. Another six were killed in front of the Greek Square. Dead Odessites were victims not only of fire, but of a conspiracy of silence in the Western media. The world simply did not notice them in the tragedy. Heyden’s film is an attempt to break through this information blockade. We spoke with the author himself on the topic of the film’s success.
MK: How big was the film’s budget?
UH: About 5,000 euros. In fact, we did the movie together with Marco Benson. Marco helped with his creative team in Berlin, Leftvision, which was engaged in the creation of social videos for social organizations and trade unions. Marco is fluent in techniques of shooting and editing, I worked as a journalist in Ukraine, I know of the political situation there. So we complement each other. We were working with donations, worked without a salary. Fundamentally we did not want to take money from any of the interested parties nor the government nor the entrepreneurs.
MK: What is the goal you set for yourselves, by shooting this film?
UH: My goal was to help Germans to understand what happened in Odessa. To make people not forget about this tragedy. In his first articles about the events I was very careful with the wording. Because if you write to the German media, you can’t say something without having enough evidence. And in the first days after May 2nd, I did not have full clarity, I didn’t have time to go there. But the longer I worked on this topic, the more I had evidence that it really could have been planned.
MK: It was planned, the mass murder of people?
UH: The clashes in Odessa were planned. But I can’t prove that it was pre-planned to round people up in the House of Trade Unions and burn them alive.
MK: When were you in Odessa?
UH: At the end of July 2014. I had a camera with a camcorder function. With his help, I recorded an interview. There are always eyewitnesses of the events in Odessa House of Trade Unions. There I felt that this was a key moment of European history, or even world history. In Moscow it was not so clear to me. But when you compare what these people say, and what I see on German TV, you realize that every word is of great value.
MK: Had German television covered the events objectively enough?
UH: When Maidan began, I saw that German media did not give the floor to the supporters of federalization. In November 2013 I wrote: if you urgently do not make contact between the Maidan and Eastern Ukraine, it will be a civil war. This view was unpopular in the German papers. In Germany, there was the emotional euphoria of Maidan. A fundamental rule of journalism is that it should always show the point of view of both sides of the conflict. In seeing this rule unceremoniously broken, I was shocked. So after the fire in Odessa House of Trade Unions, an inner voice told me that I had to go there.
|The ultras and the fighters of the Maidan self-defense force threw “Molotov cocktails” through the broken windows of the House of trade unions.|
MK: What publication were you working for?
UH: I usually work for several publications. By that time, the newspaper from which I was accredited, Sächsische Zeitung (published in Dresden), I was fired from. I was warned about dismissal in December 2013. Even before this, talking to my editors in Germany on the phone, I sensed something was wrong. I received orders of this type: “write an article about “Russian propaganda”. But in accordance with their professional principles, in writing about “Russian propaganda”, I can only do that if I also write about German propaganda. These sorts of articles our mainstream newspapers just don’t print. I tried to somehow mitigate the unpleasant situation. But it didn’t turn out very good. The newspaper became more and more one-sided, and they probably, although no one openly told me this, did not like the references I was making in their articles. I am currently accredited in Russia from the Swiss weekly Die Wochenzeitung. In parallel with the film I wrote a book about Ukraine, which is released in April. I used to think about how to make movies. But as a journalist I know: on the TV a lot is decided by money, there is an even more clan-based system and greater political control over the printed media. If you are a dissenter, it is easier to work in the newspaper. But we did it. The success of our film was a surprise to me.
MK: Did you cover the Maidan? This one-sidedness in covering the Ukrainian events in Western media, what was it like?
UH: I worked on the Maidan, and my materials were published. I was at the Maidan in January, in Kharkiv in March, and in May – in Donetsk. I focused on the East and south of Ukraine. Because I realized that information in Germany is sorely lacking about what was happening. Our main TV channels basically take someone else’s material, staff writers in the East and the South are very rare. During the fire in the House of Trade Unions, I followed articles in the popular paper “Spiegel-online”. For the first two hours they wrote almost the truth. Then it somehow faded away. Only occasionally mentioning that in Odessa there were fights between different groups and types but it was difficult to understand what happened there specifically. The TV channel ARD covered the events about the same. At some point, they suddenly became silent. At precisely the moment when it became clear that there was something terrible, some terrible crime. It was so obvious that our government, our editor didn’t want to put this in the spotlight.
MK: They reported fighting near the House of Trade Unions and the Greek Square?
UH: The Greek Square was too difficult for them. They did not mention it. You can’t even imagine how the events were simplified by the German press! If you are given 100 lines to write about Odessa, where are the nuances? And without them nothing is clear. 6 of the 48 victims were killed in the Greek Square. And no one’s aim was to investigate the events in Odessa. This is completely understandable, because usually during similar events in other countries, German TV channels are sent in the place of their reporters. This even happened in this episode. The chief reporter for ARD Golineh Atai, on May 2nd, said live-on-air that “the Pro-Ukrainians have forced the Pro-Russian demonstrators into the building and ignited it”. Although Golineh is very Pro-Kiev configured, I think. But the host, a former correspondent in Moscow, Thomas Roth, interrupted her and asked a question on a completely different subject. Of course, despite this general trend, many journalists are trying honestly to do their duty and speak the truth. For example, the ZDF reporter Britta Hilpert spoke about how, during the bloody days at the end of February 2014 in Kiev, she was forced to leave her hotel room by people who used it to shoot from the windows. In our film we quoted the journalist Stefan Stuchlik from ARD, who conducted an investigation on the snipers at the Maidan. He studied the bullet holes in the trees and proved that they were shot from the hotel Ukraine.
MK: In Odessa, too, there were mysterious shooters that killed 6 people in the Greek Square…
UH: Yes, and they played a key role. They initiated pro-Ukrainian demonstrators which committed atrocities. I can’t prove that there was such a clear plan from beginning to end. But many facts like this give across the image that someone wanted to infuriate the crowd. And they at least had a goal to destroy a tent camp on Kulikovo field.
MK: That was the scenario that developed in Kiev, which the Deputy head of the Odessa police Dmitry Fuchedzhi spoke about, which you mention in your movie. He has put forward serious charges against the government. It he a reliable witness?
UH: Fuchedzhi anyway bears responsible for what happened. The Ministry of Internal Affairs knew that pro-Ukrainian paramilitary demonstrators were coming to the city. And that the city had strong anti-maiden groups. It was obvious that there would be clashes. Probably Fuchedzhi had received instructions from authorities that they were not bringing a serious police force to the streets. If you’re in this situation, not seeing more power on the streets, but on the contrary, in 12 o’clock you call the leadership of the Odessa Interior Ministry for a three-hour meeting, and are ordered to switch off cell phones – this is a crime. The authorities did everything to ensure that there were victims. I can’t prove that they planned the fire in the House of Trade Unions. But the result of victims, the authorities contributed with both hands.
MK: They specifically called a meeting of the heads of the police, and did not prevent the violence?
UH: I think so, yes. The fact there was a fire in the House of Trade Unions, by accident or not, is most important. It is important that there is already plenty of evidence that certain forces that had power in Odessa, did much to ensure the lieutenants and supporters of the “Right Sector”, who arrived to Odessa on 2nd May 2014, felt completely free during their violent actions. The authorities knew that there would be an attempt to attack the tent camp on Kulikovo field, but did not protect the people there. Though after clashes in the Greek Square, a police cordon could have been setup on Kulikovo field. Odessa has always been a multinational city. There was no inter-ethnic clashes before. Now the representatives of the opposite camps hate each other. Many people in Russia love this city, it is part of Russian culture. I think anyone who is associated with Russian culture, now feels like they have had a body part ripped away.
|Inside the House of Trade Unions in the first days after the fire.|
MK: It is surprising that you, a citizen of Germany, understand this. For me what happened in Odessa was a real shock. Mass murder of peaceful people in a peaceful European town, burned alive as if history has reversed and we are back in the days of Hitler. It seems to me that the morning of May 3 is the same shocking experience, a turning point of history. And it was a disappointment when I realized that nothing had changed, that “the civilized world” just doesn’t want to see this tragedy…
UH: Honestly, it’s such a shame. We Germans have had 20 years of trying to teach Russia how to build a democratic society, how to operate the media. I was ordered to write 100 articles at the time when there were the conflicts with NTV, Novaya Gazeta, when Politkovskaya died. And the events in Odessa, I had no orders and nothing printed. It does not register in my head. I don’t want to criticize her colleagues, because they also are under pressure. When you get a job, you eventually begin to understand: this cannot be printed. And a choice stands before you: to resign or to write what is published. This is true not only of Ukraine, but in general, it is inconvenient for those who do not fit into the mainstream. They say: our readers are not interested. We have other important events: Libya, Syria or something else.
MK: How does Germany now see Russia?
UH: To the West it is portrayed like this: Russia is an aggressor, is expanding, is brutal. The German citizen feels like a bearer of values that are not found in Russia, or are under threat. And we need to protect these values. And Maidan supports these values. Of course, we will support the Maidan, because these are our values.
MK: What role did Germany play at the Maidan?
UH: It’s no secret that Klitschko supports and promotes the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. It is the Foundation of the German party Christian Democratic Union. With the support of the Fund Klitschko has become a prominent political figure. So, it is still possible to explain. But the fact that the German Foreign Minister was at the Maidan is, in my opinion, absolutely unacceptable for a diplomat!
MK: Germany cannot see the “Dark”side of Maidan?
UH: In Germany the knowledge about Ukraine is almost zero. When the Maidan began, no one knew who Bandera is. They had no idea about the history of Ukrainian nationalism. When openly anti-Russian and anti-Semitic party “Svoboda” got 10% in the parliamentary elections in 2012 and was able to create their own faction in Parliament, our newspapers published articles in the amount of 30 rows. The red-black flag of “Svoboda” is used by the anarchists. That is the flag of Bandera, known only to specialists. It was suppressed in the East and South of Ukraine by Russian-speaking people, who are drawn to Russian history and culture.
MK: Do you personally believe fascists were at the Maidan?
UH: I was there in January. I’ve seen people who are prepared to street fight. I saw portraits of Bandera seized in the city administration. My feeling is, firstly, the Maidan was a real civil protest against corruption, against the oligarchs, for visa-free entry to Europe, for a decent life. It was a protest of the masses. But from the outset, these peaceful demonstrations used radicals. They, alongside the peaceful protesters on 1st December, seized the Kiev city administration and stormed the presidential administration. They used the peaceful protest for their own purposes. Within two months they were more and more determined by the spirit and strategy of the Maidan. They used the European flag as cover. Because the Right Sector – “Trident”, “Patriots of Ukraine”, etc. – they are not for Europe. They are for Ukrainian nationalism. But it is obvious that the West has made these people, who are not even the bearers of European values, play a decisive role. They occupied 11 buildings, made it their headquarters, and then on 20th February they opened fired from these buildings. It was proved by a Canadian researcher, Dr. Ivan Katchanovski of the University of Ottawa. He published his first scientific report, which gathered many facts, which strengthened the assumption that Maidan demonstrators were shot from a captured building by activists of the “Right Sector”. But in Germany this study was noticed by only a few people. It completely ignored the media relating to the so-called “mainstream”. It is clear to me that the coup in Kiev would not have happened without paramilitary nationalists who deliberately escalated the situation. I guess they have to seriously prepare for it somewhere. To teach shooting, hand-to-hand combat. Maybe in Western Ukraine or in Poland.
MK: It’s no secret that some Ukrainian Jewish organizations and public figures supported the Maidan. It was amazing to see Jews where waving UPA flags and carry portraits of Bandera. Now many claim that Bandera, not so bad that the Ukrainian nationalists love Jews… And have you noticed in Ukraine anti-Semitism
UH: I was in Lviv, I visited a Jewish charitable organization, and they have a small museum. And they gave me a huge amount of material about anti-Semitism in the city. They were able to talk about this frankly with only Western correspondents. These people made a film about the German occupation, where there are clips of Ukrainians kissing the hands of a German soldier. But the Council banned showing the film in Lviv schools. I went to Lviv in the Museum, not knowing what awaits me inside. I asked: “where is the hall of the German occupation?” he replied, “It is closed. We are transferring it to another building, newly built for the Museum”. The attendant nevertheless opened it for me. There I first saw photos of the Lvov ghetto. The worst thing that I saw there were photos of machines for grinding bones, which was created by the Germans in 1943. When the Red’s approached, the Germans destroyed the bones of deceased persons, to remove the evidence of Nazi crimes. In Lviv I saw a lot of evidence that the information about the ghetto was purposefully suppressed.
MK: On the 22nd February, after the victory of Maidan, I walked through the streets of Hrushevskoho and Instytutska, and all counter Maidan protesters asked who they are and where they came from. I did not meet that day a single representative of Eastern or southern Ukraine. Only from Lviv, Ternopil, Ivano-Frankivsk… And Crimeans, residents of Odessa, Donetsk at this time came out on antimaidan…
UH: I also asked people in the Kiev city administration where they came from. Mostly from Western Ukraine. The impression was that they protested in shifts. Came, left alone and went home. They were replaced by others. All these details are not shown. Our media was silent about the fact that in Ukraine there are different nationalities, different regions with different interests. To create the impression that the Maidan was the will of all Ukrainian people. A German citizen who knows nothing about Ukraine depends entirely on the reporters who give one-sided information. Recently it was the anniversary of the events on the Maidan. A correspondent from a leading German media agency wrote about those events like so: Yes, the change of power in Ukraine took place not quite within the law. But Yanukovych himself is to blame; he violated the agreement, because he disappeared from Kiev. And that was a direct threat to the life of Yanukovych; the Party of Region members came under pressure from supporters of the Maidan – this is all passed over in silence. This material was published by, for example, one of the leading German newspapers “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”. This is a newspaper for the business community, for people who make decisions. And even such people are unable to receive full information about events in Ukraine. Such one-sidedness in covering the events in Germany was last seen 50-60 years ago, during the cold war. These were the days of my childhood, and I remember how my parents discussed the launch of Belka and Strelka. So the first thing I learned about Russians is that they launch dogs into space. I felt sorry for these dogs. I remember my father was proud that after the war he managed to buy his first amphibious “Volkswagen” car. It was such a small paramilitary machine, but it knew how to swim. And my father said: if the Russians come, we will be able to cross the river and escape. After the war, German society, one could say, lived in a state of sleep. It did not discuss the topic of the Holocaust. Only in the early 80’s did they begin to discuss it…
St. George ribbons tied on the branches of trees on Kulikovo field
MK: But it is believed that the Americans held denazification in West Germany, and all traces of the “accursed past” had been scorched.
UH: This denazification was not thorough enough. Where did they take the staff of special services, for example? I can tell you the names of former members of the NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers Party), who were given great posts in the security services, who became members of the Christian Democratic Party. The Chancellor of Germany (1966 to 1969) Kurt Georg Kiesinger was a member of the NSDAP. The Chairman of the Association of German entrepreneurs, Hans Schleyer, who later became the victim of left-wing terrorists, held in 1943 a high position in the Nazi occupation administration in the Czech Republic. This is one of the reasons that we, in 1968, began a student revolution. I lived in these years in Germany, denazification, and no I did not feel this process. For example, when we talked about what our parents did during the war, any questions were just met with silence. They gave us the Marshall plan, we had built our economy, we had really started to live. Our life was prosperous, but our recent history was taboo. For example, the writer Christa Wolf believes that the reason for anti-Russian sentiment in Western Germany is that they never seriously reconsidered their story. It is necessary to analyze what happened, we must openly talk about it. You have to ask what he was doing in those years, granddad, dad. I remember in the late 80’s a monument was erected in front of the University in Hamburg on the spot where the Jews were gathered in the city before deportation. And in the 90’s, bronze plaques were put on the sidewalks in front of houses where Jews lived, the so-called “stumbling blocks”. This is already a great result. But it is the merit of the public and not the government. This movement came from below. In 1968, a whole generation of young people, my generation (I was born in 1954) had lost confidence in their parents, teachers, professors. They began to ask what they did in the days of the Nazis. Then this process was strongly radicalized. There were different currents, especially left-wing, pacifist. There were people who said that we should cooperate with Russia, it is necessary to go there to find out what’s there, because we knew nothing about Russia – it was the iron curtain. After 15 years, this protest wave was integrated into society. Then some of these activists were even Ministers.
MK: I’ve seen pictures where the American officials forced the Germans – ordinary men, women, civilians – to dig up the remains of the victims of the Nazis, then carry them to the cemetery to bury… Isn’t this denazification? It’s very radical, though…
UH: It is dangerous to study the history of the photos. I think this is not very typical. I know these pictures, but it seems to me that it wasn’t in droves. Many crimes have not been investigated. People still live who participated in the destruction of people in concentration camps. There are still a few such people who on the loose and have never sat in prison. On 21st April, for example, in the German town of Lüneburg, the process against a former member of the Waffen-SS began. He’s on trial for complicity in the murder of 300,000 people at Auschwitz in 1944, although he is already 93 years old.
MK: Why have these people not been convicted yet?
UH: Because they are well hidden. They still find these people, they are already over 90 years old usually. Judicial proceedings begin. Our people have remained silent for 30 years. It is very difficult to talk about it, but I see that what we have really is a process of revisionism.
MK: What are the signs of this revisionism?
UH: Have you seen the movie “Our mothers, our fathers” (“Generation War” in English – OR)? They show life from the point of view of young people who have a party before being sent to the Eastern front. Then it shows their suffering on the front. No Nazi ideology, nothing. This is a real falsification. The trick is that the actors in the movie play today the role of non-fascist youth. They are ordinary contemporary cheery guys who were suddenly caught by the war. But then there is another youth, infected by the ideology of Nazism. This film is one of the signs that our society again slowly loses its historical memory and responsibility. Here’s another example. The German TV channel ZDF showed a report, filmed in the East of Ukraine, in which fighters of the Ukrainian battalion “Azov” wore emblems of SS on their helmets. (The SS insignia were in the form of a double rune “Sieg” (victory), symbolizing lightning. The battalion “Azov” consists of ideological Nazis) the footage was accompanied by the comment of the correspondent Bernhard Lichte, that a “wide political spectrum” makes up the side of Kiev’s volunteers. In Germany, we have many proactive community groups that investigate cases of secrecy and distortion of truth about Ukrainian events. There is one group that specializes in television programs. They made an official statement that condemned the display of fascist symbols on TV and that journalists were not distancing themselves from it in their comments. During the events in Ukraine it was evident that the permissible bar in relation to Nazi symbols and false coverage of the Second World War had been lowered.
MK: This report may be useful because it demonstrates what actually represents the “Azov” battalion.
UH: A reporter can show this, but they need to condemn it. Giving their assessment on this phenomenon, as was done, means almost legalizing this symbolism. The ARD correspondent, Golineh Athay, covered the story about Ukrainian volunteers. One of them said that he studied military science at UNA-UNSO. Then the reporter says: he said he was trained in the UNA-UNSO, because they have “a good war experience with the Russians”. And this is broadcasted on the air without any critical evaluation. It turns out that it’s okay to learn from nationalists who have a good experience of war with the Russians. I see that there’s a subtle, very quiet process. If society is asleep, terrible things happen.
MK: Do you have the feeling that the forces of the losing side in the Second world war, are now trying to take revenge?
UH: No. It is much more complicated. In the West there are 2 camps: Germany and America. Germany has a complicated past, the lost war. But it is not as influential as America. America determines the course of events more. But they did not lose the war. America, unfortunately, is using these Nazi forces in Ukraine and closes their eyes to their actions, because it is profitable in the grand strategic plan. America can not see that in Germany there is a process of revisionism regarding the Second world war. For example, a Jew in Berlin cannot walk on the street alone because of the danger from right-wing radical thugs or Islamic fundamentalists. There is a danger that the failure of the policy of the European Union and the economic crisis will increase the influence of parties on the right flank. For Germany it’s dangerous. During this crisis, the factor of nationalism is likely to increase.
MK: Returning to the subject of Odessa: what was the mood during your business trip?
UH: I had a feeling that the whole city was in shock. People didn’t understand what was going on. They are from a peaceful life and were in a complete nightmare, and no one helped them. People are afraid to talk to reporters. I wanted to go to the hospital to talk to the patients and doctors, but the activists told me that we shouldn’t do this, they will substitute the doctors. People are afraid that Odessa will be bombed, like Donetsk and Lugansk. And I think that fear is justified. In March 2014, Russia took over the Crimea, many Russian people thought: “why not us?” They thought it would happen to them, like with Crimea, or there will at least be a serious military protection from Russia. But this does not mean that the people were ready for secession from Ukraine. This was a small part. People have become accustomed over the years to live in a relatively independent country. There’s quite a conservative society, and it was difficult to expect immediate radical steps from them. But at one point they were thrown into cold water: the President had escaped, the anti-terrorist operation began. These people didn’t know how to be and what to do.
MK: Should there be an international investigation into the events in Odessa
UH: Definitely. But now I don’t any force that will take this upon itself. Only civil society activists will deal with this. I think our film will contribute to this. I have already received calls from several German cities, they want to show it. This is a very sensitive issue: 42 people were killed, and our press is silent about it. I’m still waiting for at least one German newspaper from the “mainstream” publications to write about German journalists who have made such a film. If not for policy reasons, at least for cultural ones. But as of now this hasn’t happened. There were only a few publications in the leftist press. They should at least accuse us of selling out to Putin. But there is nothing at all. However, I am pleased that about 30% of our population is already annoyed with the one-sidedness of the way information about Ukraine is presented in the German media. This is clearly seen on the forums in the Internet and on TV talk shows. Many people feel that they are inaccurately and incorrectly informed. It gives hope that our society is still alive.