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Volhynian massacre

21 August 2013
  • European Network Remembrance and Solidarity
  • Second World War
  • remembrance
  • Volhynian massacre

In 2013 we commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Volhynian massacre - anti-Polish genocidal ethnic cleansings conducted by Ukrainian nationalists. The Volhynian massacre was one of the topics of a seminar Common Memory - fragments of presentations by Grzegorz Motyka, Piotr Tyma and Andriy Portnov below.

The massacres took place within Poland's borders as of the outbreak of WWII, and not only in Volhynia, but also in other areas with a mixed Polish-Ukrainian population, especially the Lvov, Tarnopol, and Stanisławów voivodeships (that is, in Eastern Galicia), as well as in some voivodeships bordering on Volhynia.

The time frame of these massacres was 1943−1945. The perpetrators were the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists−Bandera faction (OUN-B) and its military wing, called the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). Their documents show that the planned extermination of the Polish population was called an “anti-Polish operation.” (http://www.volhyniamassacre.eu/). The 11 July, 1943, is regarded as the bloodiest day of the massacres,with many reports of UPA units marching from village to village, killing Polish civilians.

On 17 June 2013, the History Meeting House was the venue for the international seminar Common Memory dedicated to the Polish, Ukrainian and German perspective of dramatic events from the 20th century history of Central and Eastern Europe. The event was organised by the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, the Polish-Ukrainian Cooperation Foundation, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the History Meeting House. Presented below are fragments of the panel entitled SECOND WORLD WAR – HISTORICAL REMEMBRANCE OF GERMANS, POLES AND UKRAINIANS, which placed a spotlight on the memory of the Wołyń massacre.

Dr Grzegorz Motyka (Jagiellonian University)

I will try to explain what the Second World War meant for Poles and Ukrainians and highlight some elements of remembrance of the wartime period. In reference to the overview of the conference, I would also like to discuss the problem of the Wołyń massacre.

First of all, the Second World War is an essential fragment of the national collective memory for both Poles and Ukrainians, for its historical events have shaped the current borders of both countries. Both nations have a sense that their wartime history demonstrates special significance and that they have suffered extraordinary injustice. Moreover, both countries attach major weight to their contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany – as we know, Poles cultivate the memory of the operations of Polish intelligence units, while Ukraine stresses that Ukrainians were the largest nationality group after Russians in the Red Army.

Differences begin to surface when we discuss resistance movement operations and the public attitude to war. An important element of the Polish memory is the Polish fight against two totalitarian regimes – Poland’s enemies included both Nazi Germany and the communist Soviet Union, spawning the cult of the Accursed Soldiers, which has been growing in recent years. From the Ukrainian perspective, the problem seems to be even more complex. Eastern parts of Ukraine continue to cherish the vivid memory of Soviet guerrillas fighting against Germans, while Western Ukraine demonstrates a sometimes apologetic attitude to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army which continued its ruthless campaign against the communists after the war. Ukraine is now witnessing a fierce discussion; its main talking points include: should the country grant veteran rights to former UIA troops and did they actually fight the  Germans? To be frank, most controversies are stirred by the post-war operations of the UIA and its attitude to the communist system.

I would like to take this opportunity to highlight another important issue, often confused in Poland and probably in Ukraine. Ukrainians who condemn UIA operations should not be confused with people who share the Polish view on the Wołyń massacre. Individuals who believe that the UIA was a group of fascist criminals may be also convinced that the Wołyń massacre is a chapter of history that should not be discussed.

The ethnic cleansing known as the Wołyń massacre continued from 9 February 1943 until 18 May 1945. The operation masterminded by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army took approximately 100,000 Polish lives. Polish historians agree that it was a methodical campaign demonstrating characteristic features of genocide. It was undoubtedly one of the biggest crimes against Polish people during the Second World War. Therefore, and this point has been raised by Dr Kazimierz Krajewski, it is the last crime not to be embraced by history textbooks. To identify the reasons for such omission, we should answer the following question: how can one factually and unemotionally describe the event as it unfolded? Contrary to Katyń, Auschwitz or the Warsaw Uprising, where it is easy to pinpoint the crime and the guilt of the aggressors, the Wołyń massacre saw citizens of the same country slaughtering each other. Another factor which makes penning a fair textbook description even more difficult is the fact that Ukrainians actually suffered major injustice in the Second Polish Republic.

And this is the essence of the current discussions being held by Polish historians. It is true that studies on the Wołyń massacre have only been conducted for twenty years, yet there is a consensus that a fundamental set of facts has been sufficiently defined to address the narrative of this event. The situation is different in Ukraine – the evaluation of the Wołyń massacre in  public debate is ambiguous. Some Ukrainian historians fail to negate the organised character of the campaign and merely discuss the legal qualification of acts committed by the UIA. A more common notion of the Wołyń massacre depicts it as a people’s rebellion which evolved into a Polish-Ukrainian war, with both sides of the conflict committing similar crimes. A historical Ukrainian website defines the Wołyń tragedy as ‘mutual ethnic cleansing.’ At the same time, many recent publications argue, often in a very ahistorical way, that the crime was not a methodical operation.

Undoubtedly, attempts at describing the Wołyń massacre as a certain type of social revolution in Ukraine reflect the struggle to maintain the ethos of the UIA as a heroic guerrilla movement. Obviously, this phenomenon casts a shadow on Polish-Ukrainian relations as it leaves little room for history and fully embraces mythology. Having collected key data, Poland is now witnessing the beginning of the ‘textbook process’, while in Ukraine, with minor exceptions, we are seeing attempts to expand the accountability for the Wołyń massacre, an act of desperation considering the records we have accumulated which dispel all doubts.

Piotr Tyma (the Association of Ukrainians in Poland)

I would like to present a perspective slightly different from the dominant ‘Poles-Ukrainians’ perspective which focuses on the historical remembrance of Polish citizens of Ukrainian nationality, or Ukrainians who live in the borderland between Poland and Ukraine. I will try to describe the perception of the image mentioned by Dr Grzegorz Motyka as seen by this community.

Long before the anniversary of the Wołyń massacre, our community initiated a discussion whose leitmotif was how to address the artificial periodisation, which was, by the way, introduced by the title of Dr Motyka’s book From the Wołyń Massacre to Operation Vistula (Od rzezi wołyńskiej do akcji „Wisła”), and to what extent those two events brought together reflect Polish-Ukrainian issues, especially in the context of the borderland population. In my presentation, I will capitalise not only on my own experiences but also studies published in Ukraine to prove that they fail to embrace the memory of Ukrainians from Polish borderlands despite its immense impact on the remembrance of citizens of modern Ukraine.

Recently, a novel about the life of a resident of Carpathian Ruthenia has been published in Zakarpattia. There is one scene in the book when Carpathian Sich POWs are being marched by Hungarians who have just seized the region. One of the soldiers asks his commander, a former Ukrainian Galician Army soldier: ‘What is going to happen to us? Will the Hungarians put us in front of a firing squad?’ The Commander calmly responds: ‘Not Hungarians … but they are handing us over to Poles.’ Published in the 1990s, records of the 2nd Division of the General Staff prove that these were not isolated cases or events steeped in literary confabulation. The documents I have mentioned describe the sabotage operation Crowbar whose objective was two-fold: on one hand, to destabilise Czechoslovakia and on the other, to undermine the Ukrainian influence in Zakarpattia and stifle attempts to establish the Ukrainian state. In my view, operations of Polish sabotage units in Zakarpattia and Zaolzie were no different from German sabotage operations on the eve of the Second World War (the Gleiwizt incident).

The second aspect which is present in both Ukrainian narratives and Polish remembrance, but is never analysed in the context of the root causes of the conflict, is the fact that after the collapse of the Ukrainian state in Zakarpattia, troops of the Border Protection Corps executed Galician volunteers joining the ranks of the Carpathian Sich on the newly established Polish-Hungarian border. Recent exhumations in the Verecke Pass have revealed the bodies of five hundred people shot in a single site. I have mentioned it because these developments give rise to a whole new narrative, which has also been stressed by Prof. Wolfgang Templin; a narrative which sees the source of the conflict in the events of 1928 and early 1939, and not in those of 1 September 1939.

Dr Grzegorz Motyka mentioned the mythologisation of the Ukrainian underground movement. I have an impression that a similar approach has been recently adopted in Poland in relation to the interwar period. In an article recently published on an Internet portal, Dr Lucyna Kulińska declares that the Polish state actually introduced a policy towards Ukrainians as late as in 1938. Everyone who studies the history of this period realises what sort of acts were committed by Polish troops as part of efforts to reinforce Polishness in the eastern territories of the pre-war state. It also seems to me that these elements should be objectively and factually analysed as part of reflections on the Second World War, not in the context of the Ukrainian quest for justification, but in reference to all drivers of the conflict.

I would also like to address the Ukrainian discussion about Wołyń. I have the impression that the Polish perception of its discourse is simplified. Representatives of the current government coalition are determined to put the spotlight on Polish victims – a vital element of the discussion among other numerous issues related to the complicated historical remembrance of the Ukrainians. Giving in to a certain mindset, Poles project their notions into the Ukrainian discussion which is far more diversified.

For the sake of a common discussion, we should agree that the Second World War brought suffering to a number of different communities, not only in terms of the number of victims, but also losses in material culture and the extinction of traditions. Our dialogue will always be imperfect if we fail to adopt this assumption – not only because the Ukrainian party is evading responsibility for the Wołyń massacre, but also because its Polish counterpart continues to see certain issues as taboo.

Dr Andriy Portnov (Humboldt University / Historians.in.ua)

My presentation is intentionally provocative, as I believe that contrary to diplomatic language, the language of provocation gives everyone a better insight into the essence of the problem.

There is no fundamental consensus in Ukraine on the interpretation of the Second World War, which is often overlooked in Poland. What we are dealing with is an enormous fragmentation of the memory about it, whereas the dominant discourse does not focus on the Bandera-led Ukrainian Insurgent Army, but the Soviet narrative of the Great Patriotic War. Shards of this memory form two-way relations, which sometimes compete or reinforce each other. There is the memory of the UIA, the memory of the Red Army, the memory of occupation (not only the German one). Narratives which are neglected in this context include the distinctive memory of the Crimean Tatars, with additional problems posed by the memory of Jews. Finally, we have the Polish theme, subordinated to other elements in the current debate, often mentioned in the wider context of the UIA and the anti-Soviet resistance movement.

Nevertheless, the two dominant narratives include the post-Soviet (or neo-Soviet) and the nationalistic one. In this context, both parties claim their rights to interpretation of the Wołyń massacre. The nationalists see it as a roadblock hindering the development of the national narrative and thwarting the prospects for dissociation from the Soviet tradition. In the neo-Soviet discourse, the theme of the UIA and the Ukrainian underground movement boils down to Wołyń and certain anti-Jewish campaigns, which distorts the social context of the theme. I am also convinced that there is no understanding in Poland for this aspect of the Ukrainian debate.

It also seems to me that the discussion about the Wołyń massacre is now only a Polish-Ukrainian dialogue. Everyone in Poland has heard about it, while few people in Ukraine are aware of the Wołyń massacre. This topic has never been discussed in countries such as Germany, France or Israel. I am convinced that it would be beneficial to have our discussion expanded and publicised on the international scene. We ought to set the Wołyń massacre in the broader context of the war in Europe, pre-war developments and erstwhile ideologies.

To describe the contemporary Polish-Ukrainian debate, I will use the metaphor of the discussion of Ivan Vyshenskyi with Piotr Skarga. Both of them may have apt remarks, yet they are using a different language. We can clearly see it on our website where the text written by the Polish historian, who apparently uses the same terms, is set in a wholy different context that the reply of the Ukrainian historian. It is not a way to conduct a bona fide dialogue as it only reinforces certain stereotypes and political threads.

Finally, I would like to present several ideas concerning the discussion dedicated to the Wołyń massacre – they may appear to be trifling and obvious, yet they are often not articulated directly in various publications and debates. First of all, the criminal nature of the anti-Polish campaign in Wołyń does not mean that the Second Polish Republic had no problems with its nationality policy. Secondly, the contextualisation of the Wołyń massacre is not a denial of this crime, although, obviously individuals who negate the slaughter try to guise their efforts as contextualisation. Thirdly, analysing the discussion itself, we should ask ourselves: are we seeking adequate analytical tools or political gains? Fourthly, the history of the UIA should not be reduced to the Wołyń massacre – just like this chapter of history should never be excluded from the annals.