As a historian, I have written a lot about the Polish-Ukrainian conflict of the 1940s, which I consider a war. It was the two nations’ second one in the 20th century, after the clash between Poland and Western Ukrainian People’s Republic in 1918-1919.
Both conflicts took place roughly on the same territory: The lands that are now part of western Ukraine and eastern Poland, which were claimed by Ukrainians, the ethnic majority, and the Poles who pointed to their investments into the development of these lands.
The war took place within the framework of the global conflict, World War II. The Third Reich and the USSR played a significant role in fueling the confrontation between the Ukrainians and the Poles. In the end, the border issue was solved after World War II without the participation of either, after which the Communists in the USSR and Poland changed the ethnic configuration of these territories by force.
The main participants of the war were not states but underground military formations -- the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) and the Polish Home Army (AK). During this war, both the militants of the UPA and AK committed war crimes, which, undoubtedly, have to be condemned. They cannot be justified as retaliations or preventive strikes.
However, neither of these armies can be considered an evil formation, no matter how hard some political forces are trying to brand them as such.
Military crimes were an inherent part of World War II. There are plenty of reasons to accuse all participating armies of them. Both Ukrainian and the Polish insurgents set themselves the goal to protect their population and restore the independence of their state -- a goal that deserves the highest respect in any society.
In some places and times such goals led different societies to collide, thus causing wars. In the Polish-Ukrainian war neither side could win, and the only one who benefited was the USSR, which strengthened its rule in Ukraine and spread it to Poland.
At this point, I will stop the talk about the past, even though it’s the focus of my professional interest, because I am no less aggrieved by modern events linked to political use of this history.
The information campaign in Poland, dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the Volyn tragedy (which peaked with the massacre of Poles), has reached its crescendo. It will clearly go on until the end of 2013, but is unlikely to produce any new quality of arguments.
The scale of this campaign is no smaller than that of 2003, and one of its results is better knowledge about his tragedy among Poles. At the same time, its assessment is increasingly one-sided: sociologists note that, more and more, it is the Poles that are considered the sole victims of the tragedy, while Ukrainians are blamed for starting it. Thus, more than half of those polled say the past is something that divides our people.
Polish historians can take full credit for this result, since they should be the main speakers for the past. Any interested party can find plenty of fresh commentary and political declarations. But you will be hard-pressed to find new research. The voice of truly professional historians in this heated discussion is barely audible.
The most unpleasant trend of 2013 is an absence of dialogue between Ukrainian and Polish specialists. These parallel monologues started off with a conference organized by the Institute of National Memory in Lublin in February 2013, to which Ukrainian academics were not invited. The organizers said they did not “want to see their Ukrainian colleagues to avoid arguments.” Similar events in Ukraine followed, leaving out the Poles.
In June 2013, the central conference in Warsaw invited some Ukrainians, but only those who share the sentiment of their Polish colleagues.
Also, Polish academia ignored the opening in Ukraine of the former KGB archives that has taken place in recent years, allowing access to over half a thousand documents on the subject.
They challenged the key thesis of Polish historiography that backs the genocide concept: there was no political decision to conduct a planned military operation; it remains unclear who destroyed the village of Parasolya (but it wasn’t by the UPA unit of Hryhoriy Perehyniak as Polish historians insist, as they try to present it as the first anti-Polish rebellion of the insurgents); there is no Polish, Soviet or German documentary proof of mass destruction of Polish villages on July 11, 1943; there are no sources to reasonably back the number of 100,000 massacred Poles.
Instead, there are new additional sources about the Polish terror in Chelm against the Ukrainian population, the destruction of Ukrainian villages in Nadsyannya, and the role of the Soviet factor in the conflict.
There has been no professional discussion, and the desire of the Polish colleagues to stick to their opinion has served politicians well, as some of those unproven theses made it to the Polish Senate resolution.
The historians who should have condemned the current level of discussion and move it to closer understanding of the past, have failed to complete their mission. Some even got trapped by the political wave and started changing their views.
The political interest has a negative impact on the understanding between countries. There were many steps made for reconciliation in 2003: Presidents Leonid Kuchma and Alexander Kwasniewski made statements, the two parliaments approved a joint statement.
On the background of this significant progress, a new resolution by the Polish Senate containing false references that contradict international law (such as “ethnic cleansing with elements of genocide”), is a definite rollback on the path to reconciliation between the two peoples. It may not be the last if the model gets adopted by Ukraine’s politicians.
The tough memory of conflict and war can only be dealt with as a dialogue, overcoming the one-sided desire to only talk about one’s own grief.
Volodymyr Viatrovych is a Ukrainian historian and former head of the Security Service archives.
“Why be so harsh? Why are the Poles once more bringing up Volyn?” Ukrainian journalists ask me. The answer lies in facts and emotions.
Facts. After the fall of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, Volyn and most other lands inhabited by both Poles and Ukrainians found themselves within Poland’s borders. While the state tried to reach out to its Ukrainian minority, it was unable to find the right policy to manage the multiethnic state, and the rights of Ukrainians were not respected. With no country of their own, Ukrainians became increasingly radicalized under Polish policies, leading to the foundation of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) in 1929. The 1930s were marked by growing confrontation between the two sides.
World War II significantly changed the landscape, further deteriorating relations. Three main causes led to the escalation of hostilities. Firstly, the question of whom Eastern Galicia and Volyn belonged to was once again open. Secondly, both occupying forces -- but especially the Germans -- showed the locals how ethnic problems can be solved, through expulsion and extermination. Thirdly, Polish and Ukrainian elites were among the first casualties, demoralizing both communities.
In these conditions the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), an armed formation established by the OUN-B (the fraction led by Stepan Bandera), decided to proceed with the cleansing of lands they saw as Ukrainian, that were to join an independent Ukraine after the war. The new Ukrainian state, in line with the ideology of Ukrainian nationalists, was to be ethnically pure.
Regardless of whether the leadership of OUN-UPA wanted to chase the Poles away, or eliminate them physically, the result was horrific. Polish inhabitants of Volyn -- including women, children and the elderly -- were brutally murdered by their Ukrainian neighbors. Ukrainians were also killed by Poles, or by their compatriots, if they were too friendly with the Lachy (a derogatory term for Poles). The Polish historian Grzegorz Motyka estimates that some 100,000 Poles and 20,000 Ukrainians perished. Not being a historian, I believe him. Not because he is a Pole, but because I respect him as a competent researcher, unlike some of his Ukrainian colleagues.
The ideology of OUN-UPA, Poland’s interwar politics, and the policies of Nazi Germany and the USSR led to events that the Polish Senate described this year as “ethnic cleansing with features of genocide.” Many Poles believe it to be outright genocide. The definition of genocide in international law is in many ways imprecise. But it defines genocide as “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” through acts that include “killing members of the group.” The anti-Polish actions of OUN-UPA meet these criteria.
Emotions. Polish hearts beat with history. This is both because Poland was once a great power, a past that Poles can look back on with pride, and because for Poles history is the basis of the nation’s martyrology -- just as it is for Ukrainians. In recent years Poland has seen a growing interest in national history. In Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko spurred a similar phenomenon; in Poland, this happened under the governance of Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczyński.
An important element of historical memory in Poland is the old Kresy, the borderlands. These lands once belonged to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and are now part of Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. The countries of Western Europe had their colonies (the French had Algeria, the British had India); Poland had its Kresy. Just as some Russians still mourn the loss of Kiev, to say nothing of Odessa or Sevastopol, so, too, do some Poles long for Lwów.
Volyn was part of the Kresy. Ukrainian inhabitants of these lands do not remember Polish rule fondly. But Poles have a different, idealistic, image of those times. They imagine a quaint countryside with pre-war towns and villages, where Poles, Ukrainians and Jews live in harmony -- until the OUN-UPA pushed their Ukrainian neighbors to infamy, that is. The Banderites murdered the innocent inhabitants of Volyn, and the blood that was spilt is crying for vengeance to the heavens. Moral law demands that we bury, honor and weep over the dead -- this is what the Polish hearts call for.
Sadly, they say, this is being withheld from us. In the name of geopolitical calculations, understanding towards our Ukrainian neighbor, a desire to pull it out from Russia’s influence and toward the European Union, Polish authorities do not want to talk about the Volyn crimes. This “hushed up genocide,” has caused the victims of 1943 to once again be sacrificed for politics.
Regarding the facts, most of the Polish elites agree. But emotions divide. The discourse featured above is typical of the so-called Kresy interest groups, whose spokesperson has become Father Tadeusz Isakowicz-Zaleski. Since the death of President Lech Kaczyński in 2010, it is also increasingly supported by Poland’s biggest opposition group, Law and Justice. But Ukrainians often overlook that others, too, are playing on the Pole’s emotions over Volyn: coalition member, the Polish People’s Party, and even part of the ruling Civic Platform. The Kresy people are potential voters, and Volyn is a way to be elected -- that’s why Polish politicians can’t ignore them, even if this damages bilateral relations.
On the other side are supporters of dialogue, understood otherwise than imposing ones views. Here one should consider the community around daily Gazeta Wyborcza, some major non-governmental organizations, like the Batory Foundation, once financed by George Soros, some individuals who are personally engaged in Polish-Ukrainian dialogue (Henryk Wujec, Bogumiła Berdychowska), and finally the Catholic Church, which as an institution speaks with a different voice than Father Isakowicz-Zaleski.
So what must be done? Undeniably, historians face the biggest task -- they must research Polish-Ukrainian life, hoping it will allow us to better understand our past. It will be difficult to develop a common historical memory, but we should at least agree on the facts. While common memory will elude us, we can unite around “a common suffering” (our ancestors suffered from Ukrainians, yours, from Poles; this unites us). But the most important dimension on which we can come together should be religion. Both Poles and Ukrainians are Christians, and the Lord forgives our sins. “Forgive and you will be forgiven; We forgive and ask for forgiveness.”
Andrzej Szeptycki is an assistant professor at the Warsaw University’s Institute of International Relations and a member of Polish-Ukrainian Partnership Forum.
We owe such young people gratitude at a time when politicians and others with an ideological axe to grind aggressively foist their interpretation of the events of that time. Over recent months Ukrainian media sites have been full of articles talking of the “Polish side” and the “Ukrainian side”.
children were axed to death because they were Polish, or Ukrainian,
there can be no “sides”. Those who committed such
atrocities committed a foul crime whatever motives they used to
justify their actions.
It is profoundly frustrating that 70 years after those events, the accounts in Ukrainian and Polish textbooks are so different, and most Ukrainian history textbooks make it next to impossible to understand what happened.
about numbers of victims, Polish attempts to classify the massacre as
genocide are eagerly used to imply the existence of two separate
“memories”. Many such attempts are made by Ukrainian
of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists [OUN] and Ukrainian Insurgent Army [UPA] who reject Polish charges that there was a policy of ethnic cleansing ordered by the Bandera supporting faction of OUN. Most arguments are unfortunately at the level of rhetoric, whereas their position would be better served by unemotional reference to facts and documents, including proof that other documents are Soviet forgeries.
They have a valid right to defend their position. What neither they, nor Polish nationalists, are entitled to do, is to try to minimize or distort historical facts in order to push their line.
The facts are basically known, including the key perpetrators. The first massacre of an entire village -- Parośla -- was carried out on Feb. 8 or 9, 1943 by a unit of UPA led by Hryhory Perehynyak which had just carried out the first armed attack against the Nazi occupier.
Ukrainian publications mention the attack on the Germans, but most avoid talking about the village. According to historian Grzegorz Motyka, at least 155 villagers were massacred. Much is known about the events thanks to the testimony of a survivor, Witold Kołodyński, 12 years old at the time. He can to this day show the marks on his skull from the axe wound he sustained.
During the following months, and especially in July and August 1943, there were widespread attacks on Polish villages by Ukrainians, with the bloodiest massacres on July 11, 1943. Although plans to drive the 8 percent Polish population out of Volyn had been discussed earlier, there remains controversy over how much this was known and approved by the leadership of the Bandera branch of OUN-UPA.
A particularly fateful role in the carnage was undoubtedly played by Ukrainian auxiliary police who had served the Nazi occupiers and began defecting in large numbers during those months. Many joined UPA and took part in what is now known as ethnic cleansing.
As well as desperate attempts to defend themselves, there were also revenge massacres of Ukrainian villages by the Poles.
This is not an attempt to give a historical account of these events. Whatever Ukrainians saw as their grievances against Poles, whatever grounds for wanting revenge there may have been, the victims were children, innocent civilians, and there quite simply can be no justification.
Nor is there justification in politicizing painful memories, or distorting historical facts. Attempts to place the ethnic cleansing in Volyn 1943 in some kind of “broader context”, which includes the crimes committed against Ukrainians during the Operation Wisła are like attempts by many Russians to deny the very specific nature of Holodomor by adding it to the unquestionably huge list of Stalin’s crimes.
On June 27, 2013 in Warsaw, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Patriarch of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church asked forgiveness from “every Polish family who lost relatives at the hands of my compatriots”. I can say it no better.