Remembering the 1943 Volhynian Massacres

This month marks the 70th anniversary of the brutal Polish-Ukrainian conflict that tore apart Volhynia in 1943 and produced tens of thousands of deaths.

There are several points of controversy. First, just how many people were killed? Second, who did the killing and why? Third, how should the killings be characterized? And fourth, who should condemn the killings and/or apologize for them?

Estimates of Polish victims of Ukrainian violence range from 30,000 to 100,000 (the spread is reminiscent of the estimates for the Ukrainian famine of 1932–1933: 3 to 10 million); estimates of Ukrainian victims of Polish violence range from 15,000 to 30,000. All the estimates are “guesstimates.” After all, documentation is either non-existent or unreliable; it’s difficult to determine who was killed and who fled (and many thousands obviously fled); and survivors always have a tendency to inflate the numbers of victims (earlier estimates of those who died in the Gulag reached as high as 40 million, many times the real number). In addition, some people count only one region and a narrow time period; others look at several regions and many years. Considering that Ukrainians were extremely poorly armed, a 100,000:15,000 “kill ratio” strikes me as implausible: we’d expect that kind of imbalance from a conflict between a regular army and guerrillas. That said, it’s pretty clear that Ukrainians did far more killing than Poles. The difference in the number of casualties may be due to the greater ruthlessness of the Ukrainians or, more likely, to the larger size of the Ukrainian population in the contested region. Other things being equal, majorities usually outfight minorities, and the Poles were a minority in Volhynia.

Who carried out the killings? Fingers usually get pointed at Ukrainian nationalists on the one hand and Polish nationalists on the other. According to the simplistic narratives, both sides were presumably driven by their extremist ideologies—the Ukrainians by a desire to cleanse the territory of Poles, the Poles by a desire to keep the Ukrainians oppressed. The reality was rather more complicated. Volhynia was part of the Reichskommissariat Ukraine, ruled by the brutal Erich Koch, who treated Slavs as Untermenschen. By 1942–1943, the Germans were playing Poles off against Ukrainians, while Soviet partisans were making forays into and destabilizing the region. After Stalingrad, Polish nationalists hoping to control Volhynia in anticipation of a Nazi withdrawal were cooperating with the Soviets. Ukrainian nationalists were fighting the Germans and the partisans and, fearful of a Soviet return, also aspired to control the area. Given the depth of preexisting Polish-Ukrainian animosity (in large part caused by the oppressive policies of the interwar Polish state), it was no surprise that the violence erupted as part peasant Jacquerie, part armed resistance, part political struggle, and part ethnic violence apparently initiated by one Ukrainian nationalist guerrilla commander.

How should the killings be characterized? There is no doubt that they were “mass killings.” But were they also forms of ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and, perhaps, even genocide? Or were both sides simply conducting brutal “national liberation struggles” or a “war”?

The case for war is pretty strong. Both Ukrainians and Poles had armed forces and political organizations attempting to establish, to quote Max Weber’s definition of a state, “a monopoly of violence” in a given territory. When armies fight, we often call that a war. The case for national liberation struggle is also persuasive, as both Ukrainians and Poles were obviously hoping to free their nations from presumed oppression and build states. There is no doubt that both sides committed atrocities and war crimes, with Ukrainians probably committing more than Poles. The case for ethnic cleansing is weaker, inasmuch as the violence appears to have been only partly premeditated. The case for genocide is weakest. We usually restrict the term to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, and we usually insist that the perpetrators suffer few or no casualties. My own preference is for “ethnic violence,” a category that immediately places the Polish-Ukrainian conflict in a comparative framework and enables us to make sense of it in social-science terms. Whatever your preferred term, it’s clear that there was widespread savagery. For what it’s worth, contemporary Poles and Ukrainians can take heart from the fact that the atrocities their countrymen and countrywomen committed pale in comparison to the Gulag and the Holocaust as well as to scores of World War II mass killings such as Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Nanking, Dresden, Lidice, and Katyn.

Who should condemn the violence and killings? The answer is obvious: everyone. Whoever is concerned with violations of human rights in any part of the world has a moral obligation to condemn all violations of human rights in all parts of the world. But be careful. Human rights entail a huge responsibility: for your condemnation of violence by Ukrainians and Poles to be credible, you must be no less condemnatory of violence perpetrated by Americans, Russians, Germans, French, Chinese, Jews, Palestinians, Turks, Brazilians, Paraguayans, and everybody else. If only Ukrainian or Polish violence bothers you, than you are in fact being indifferent to human rights and pursuing a political agenda. 

Who should apologize? It can’t be “Poland” or “Ukraine,” because neither state existed in 1943 (although there was a Polish government-in-exile in London) and neither existing state has the right to speak on behalf of individual Poles or Ukrainians in 1943. (And, besides, would it work for President Yanukovych to act as Ukraine’s conscience given the harm his own party has done to the country?) It can’t be “the Poles” or “the Ukrainians” either, because collective guilt does not exist.

Obviously, as in all cases of wrongdoing, the people who should apologize are the people who committed the wrongdoing. Truth and reconciliation committees along the lines of those in post-apartheid South Africa might be the way to go for both Poland and Ukraine: let the few surviving perpetrators confess and tell the truth and then go home.

Finally, the Ukrainian and Polish political organizations that claim lineage with their wartime undergrounds might want to issue apologies. They’ll protest on the grounds that apologies would sully their sacrifices on behalf of the cause. But they’d be wrong. The best way to underscore that their principles are grounded in genuine liberation and genuine freedom is to condemn unsavory aspects of their pasts and thereby signal that their visions of national liberation rest on an unwavering commitment to human rights for all.


Photo Credit: Grzegorz Naumowicz 

OG Image: