What do the Polish Sejm and the Donetsk People’s Republic have in common? They’ve both contributed to the ongoing transformation of genocide into a term that has come to stand for little more than deplorable acts of violence.
On July 22, the Polish Sejm declared that the killing in 1943 by Ukrainian nationalists of “over 100,000” Polish citizens in Volhynia, in Ukraine’s northwest, was a genocide. On June 2, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the self-styled head of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, stated that “The public of Donbass initiates an appeal to the international organisations to stop the genocide of the people of Donbas by the Ukrainian authorities....”
Did Ukrainians commit a Holocaust-like mass killing in Volhynia? Are they pursuing a Holocaust-like policy of extermination in eastern Ukraine? In my view, the answer to both questions has to be no if we want genocide to designate an exceptional heinous crime. In contrast, the current legal definition embraces an array of wrongs that do not measure up to what many scholars and other experts consider to be genuine genocide.
Unfortunately, the Genocide Convention does not reasonably distinguish between genocide and lesser atrocities. Its definition of genocide is so broad as to include everything from a hate crime to the Holocaust. Inspired by the Convention’s exceedingly loose definitional criteria, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Court of Justice ruled that the Srebrenica massacre of 1995, in which about 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks were killed by Serbian irregulars, was a genocide, while, in 1998, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda ruled that systematic rape is also genocide, thereby decoupling genocide from killing altogether.
The Convention notwithstanding, a more reasonable definition of genocide should be based on two overriding criteria—magnitude and death. Genocides are mass killings of defenseless and innocent civilians. The Holocaust involved 6 million European Jews; the Holodomor—4 million Ukrainians; the Armenian genocide—1.5 million; the Cambodian—2 million.
Several hundred thousand victims would reasonably qualify as genocidal if they represent a large portion of a relatively small population: hence the generally accepted view that Rwanda’s Tutsis were genocide victims. A few thousand deaths, or even 100,000 deaths, should not qualify as genocidal, if the population concerned numbers about 25 million, as Poles did during the war. Zakharchenko’s invocation of genocide is transparently absurd, as Kyiv is responsible for a few hundred or a few thousand, mostly military casualties in a region with a civilian population of about 2 million.
The 100,000 figure is also problematic. Most scholars, including those highly critical of Ukrainian nationalists, place the number of Polish dead in the 50,000 range. Some maintain it was closer to 35,000. In addition, the Ukrainian side also suffered casualties, about 10-20 percent as many as the Poles. That’s not surprising, because Poles fought—or fought back, employing, as even the Sejm recognized, the same kind of brutal methods used by the Ukrainians and killing innocent men, women, and children.
Complicating the charge of genocide is the fact that the killings took place in the midst of armed conflict between Poles and Ukrainians in western Ukraine and between Poles, Ukrainians, Germans, and Soviets in World War II. The Ukrainians were organized in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army; the Poles were organized in the Home Army. Both sides also had armed individuals in the local police units that assisted the German authorities; Poles also enjoyed the support of Soviet partisans. Neither side had a state, and neither side was helpless.
In contrast, when genuine genocides occur, even if, like the Holocaust, in the midst of a war, the vast number of deaths are all on the side of innocent non-combatant victims, precisely because perpetrators of genocides are invariably states or state-affiliated militias that kill defenseless groups. As a result, states that perpetrate genocide suffer no, or almost no, casualties, while victims number in the millions.
Then there’s the question of who started the fighting and when. Scholars legitimately disagree on this point. One could place the beginning of hostilities in 1918, when Poles and Ukrainians first fought over formerly Austrian Galicia. Or in the early 1920s, when Ukrainian nationalists first engaged in political violence against the Polish authorities. Or in 1930, when the Polish police and army brutally “pacified” Ukrainian inhabited-territories of eastern Poland. Or in 1934, when Ukrainian nationalists assassinated the Minister of Interior Bronislaw Pieracki. Or in the late 1930s, when Poland incarcerated thousands of Ukrainians in a concentration camp in Bereza Kartuska. Or in 1939, when Ukrainians rejoiced upon seeing Germany and the USSR partition Poland. Or in 1942, when Polish nationalists killed several thousand Ukrainians in the Chelm region just west of Volhynia. Or in 1648, when Ukrainian Cossacks rebelled against Polish authority. Or a century earlier, when Polish magnates viciously exploited their Ukrainian serfs…
Whatever the starting point, scholars agree that both sides fought and that the local Ukrainian population greatly outnumbered the local Polish population, with the result that their losses were smaller than those of the Poles. Did the Ukrainians commit atrocities? Yes. Crimes? Yes. Massacres? Yes. Ukrainians must ask themselves some tough questions about just what some of their compatriots did in Volhynia in 1943. By the same token, did Poles commit atrocities, crimes, and massacres? Alas, yes, and Poles, too, must ask themselves some tough questions about just what some of their compatriots did in Volhynia in 1943. Who committed more atrocities, crimes, and massacres? The answer depends entirely on where you place the starting point of the fighting. In any case, if thousands or hundreds of deaths constitute a genocide, then the history of Ukrainians and Poles, like the history of all nations everywhere, becomes transformed into an endless series of “genocides.”
In an ideal world, Ukrainians and Poles would be asking themselves some tough moral questions, trying to come to some common understanding, and resolving to never let a mutual bloodletting happen again. Unfortunately, it is unrealistic to expect most Poles and Ukrainians to be reasonable and evenhanded about Volhynia, especially today, as Poland’s right-wing government seems determined to rewrite Polish history and settle old scores, while Ukraine is embroiled in an existential war with Russia. Instead, charges and counter-charges will fly, more and more “genocides” are likely to be discovered, and the real questions—what actually happened in Volhynia in 1943 and how can some closure be achieved?—will be sacrificed to endless and self-destructive overreaching accusations of genocide. In the process, the concept of genocide will be trivialized and lost in demagoguery, and Poland and Ukraine, two countries that should be the closest of friends, could drift apart.