The Polish-Ukrainian Memory Quarrel and Its Repercussions

In 2013, Ukrainians pushed their country toward a resolute turn westward with the eruption of the Euromaidan revolution in a move that should have improved its foreign relations with Poland. Instead, the two countries have become increasingly estranged since 2014.

Post-Soviet Ukrainian-Polish relations had been constantly deepening since the break-up of the USSR in 1991. For many Ukrainians, especially after the Orange Revolution of 2004, Poland became the prime model of recent development of which their own state could emulate in both domestic affairs such as economic and public administration reform, and international relations such as accession to the European Union and NATO. Additionally, both nations harbor deep grievances towards Moscow resulting from centuries-long Russian imperialism and Moscow’s repression of Polish and Ukrainian cultural life and political independence.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and covert intervention in the Donets Basin in the spring of 2014 have further increased Ukrainian and Polish perceptions of their nations’ community of fate. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian migrants—including refugees from Crimea and the Donets Basin—have settled in Poland during the last years in search of well-paid jobs, decent education, and a better life. Public opinion polls in both Ukraine and Poland document growing mutual sympathy among ordinary people. Nevertheless, some people-to-people relations have deteriorated since 2014 with almost monthly verbal and, sometimes, even physical clashes mostly caused by radicals of the two neighboring peoples.

The major—though not only—reason for this unfortunate development is a public international quarrel between the two neighbors regarding the interpretation and evaluation of a tragic episode in Polish-Ukrainian affairs—the so-called Volhynia Massacre (Ukr.: Volyns’ka riznia) that may have led to circa 90,000 unnatural deaths in today’s Western Ukraine in 1943-1944. Poland now officially classifies this Ukrainian ethnic cleansing as a “genocide.” It was an attempt by radicalized war-time Ukrainian ultra-nationalists to prepare Volhynia and Eastern Galicia to become ethnically cleansed parts of a future Ukrainian state designed primarily for ethnic Ukrainians.

To be sure, Ukraine has formally acknowledged that this mass killing did happen, and Kyiv has officially asked Poland for forgiveness numerous times. In 2015, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko kneeled at the monument commemorating the victims of the Volhynia Massacre. Polish and Ukrainian institutions, organizations, and groups have issued joint statements on this difficult episode acknowledging that, before and after the massacre, there were also Polish killings of Ukrainian civilians (mainly in the Chelm area)—though on a smaller scale. In some ways, there is thus actually little disagreement between the two nations on the factualness, salience, and tragedy of these events. Even the connection of the responsible Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) as well as the involved units of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (Ukr. abbrev.: UPA) to the mass killing of Poles of 1943-1944 is questioned by only a few particularly escapist Ukrainian memory activists.

The issue today is that many Ukrainian politicians and publicists remain in a state of cognitive dissonance regarding the different aspects of the history of Ukrainian nationalism – a psychopathological phenomenon observable in the collective memory of many nations. In the Ukrainian case, the OUN-UPA’s fight for independence is by many disassociated from these organizations’ crimes against humanity during World War II. Not only ultra-nationalist, but also numerous pro-Western and otherwise liberal Ukrainian state officials, parliamentarians, journalists and intellectuals make a deliberate distinction between the heroic aspects on the one side, and the “dark side” of the OUN-UPA’s battle against foreign rule on the other side. A large array of Ukrainian historical publicists formulates various apologies, justifications, and moderations for the Ukrainian war-time ultra-nationalists’ crimes against civilians.

Given the high number of Polish victims of radical Ukrainian nationalism, these excuses, rebuttals and distractions as well as Kyiv’s growing official cult around the OUN-UPA are not well-received in Poland. Obviously, the war-time history of the OUN-UPA is not only a Ukrainian matter, as much of Ukraine’s elite likes to have it. Given the OUN-UPA’s many crimes against Poles, these organizations and their leaders are also protagonists in the Polish narrative of Poland’s fate during World War II.

On the other hand, as historians of Eastern Europe know all too well, the connection between Poland’s national history and the Ukrainian ultra-nationalists’ massacre of Poles is a deeper one than some Polish politicians and intellectuals may be keen to acknowledge. The transmutation of Ukraine’s originally emancipatory and leftist nationalism of the 19th and early 20th century into a more integral and ultimately fascist ideology, towards the late inter-war period, happened not the least as a result of Polish anti-Ukrainian policies in Eastern Galicia—from where most of the most radical leaders of the OUN came, among them Stepan Bandera (1909-1959).

The Polish Second Republic’s repressive policies regarding Ukrainians’ striving for autonomy, cultural life and political participation, as well as post-war Polish regressions against Ukrainians, to be sure, cannot serve as a justification for, balance to, or diminution of, the Volhynian massacre, as some Ukrainian “patriotic” commentators argue. Still, the interwar Polish state’s manifold repressions of Ukrainians under its control, between the two world wars, were—among other determinants, such as Soviet anti-Ukrainian policies, transnational fascist influences, endogenous developments within Ukrainian nationalism etc. —crucial historic preconditions for the extremist turn of Ukrainian ethnic nationalism in the late 1930s – early 1940s. This means also that the origins of this Ukrainian radicalization were—in some critical aspects—different from the sources of the simultaneous escalation of German racism which became genocidal to far larger degree than Ukrainian ethnocentrism and did so within the more or less sovereign nation states of Germany and Austria.

Against this background, Warsaw should abstract its assessment of Ukrainian domestic affairs and the formulation of its policies towards Kyiv from the apologetic discourses of certain Ukrainian actors like the current staff of the Ukrainian Institute for National Remembrance (Ukr. abbrev.: UINP). While being a governmental organ, paradoxically, the UINP pursues a confrontational foreign political line vis-à-vis Warsaw in dissonance with the approach towards Poland of Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Presidential Office. The UINP promotes an interpretation of the OUN’s role in recent Ukrainian history that is criticized, to one degree or another, by most internationally acknowledged Ukrainian academic experts on this matter. The UINP’s idiosyncratic discourse on the OUN has also been harshly criticized by the few Western specialists on this topic. Ukraine’s current official memory policies, as represented by the UINP, are in blatant contradiction to a February 2010 European Parliament (EP) resolution—i.e. to a part of the acquis communautaire that Ukraine would be obliged to fully accept, if it wants to become an EU member—where the EP asked Kyiv to stop the heroization of the leaders of the OUN.

Although the Polish elite can hardly remain silent in response to some unfortunate signals from Ukraine’s nationalist memory activists, Warsaw’s policies towards Kyiv should still follow Polish strategic interest and use the various instruments at Polish disposal to help make the current grey zone in Europe more secure. In spite of the current memory conflict with parts of Ukraine’s elite, Warsaw should—out of its own national concerns—fully support the stability, resilience, and development of the Ukrainian state. Poland can do so through various activities ranging from lobbying Ukrainian interests in the EU and NATO or enhancing Ukrainian energy independence to the design of specifically Eastern European responses (security alliances, joint actions, transnational cooperation etc.) to the continuing Russian threat.



Andreas Umland is a board member of the German-Ukrainian project “Kyiv Dialogue” and Eichstaett Institute for Central and East European Studies (ZIMOS), as well as editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” published by ibidem Press at Stuttgart and distributed by Columbia University Press at New York. Prof. Yaroslav Hrytsak (Ukrainian Catholic University), Prof. Myroslav Shkandrij (University of Manitoba) and Dr. Per Anders Rudling (Lund University) made useful comments on an earlier draft of this text. 

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