Lost in reconciliation? Poland, Ukraine and the Volhynia massacres


Photo: Roger Gorączniak, via Wikimedia Commons

The crime of genocide was recently at the heart of one of the Polish parliament’s most heated and publicized debates of the past months. The crime was discussed in relation to the Volhynia massacres – one of those episodes in Eastern Europe’s World War II history which until now have not been ultimately reckoned with and continue to stir unwelcome animosities.

Prior to WW II, ethnic tensions in Volhynia worsened gradually in the thirties. This was largely due to Poland’s departure from the toleration policy it had initially adopted towards  the Ukrainian majority living in eastern borderlands of the country. The rise of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists triggered further repressive measures inflicted on the Ukrainians by the Polish government. These tensions eventually led to horrifying events. It is estimated that between 1943 and 1945 up to 100 thousand Poles were killed by units of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists−Bandera fraction (OUN-B) and its military wing, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) (OUN-UPA). The so called “butchery” took place mainly in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia between February 1943 and February 1944 and reached its peak in mid-July 1943. The supposed objective was to clean the Volhynia of ethnic Poles and thereby lay groundwork for an independent state of Ukraine. Although Poles were probably the main target of this OUN-UPA campaign they were not the only one. Many of those belonging to Jewish, Czech, Armenian and other ethnic groups which inhabited Vohlynia and Eastern Galicia were killed. Among the victims were also Ukrainians, either politically opposed to OUN-UPA or simply those whom the organization considered as too lenient towards the Polish occupant. In response to the attacks Poles soon organized themselves in self-defense groups and killed Ukrainians in acts of retaliation. It is estimated that 10 to 30 thousand Ukrainians lost their lives in the 1943 – 1947 clashes that continued in Volhynia and Western Galicia. To complete this brief summary of events, straight after the war, the newly formed communist government of Poland forcibly re-settled thousands (estimated at over 140 000) of Ukrainians from the south east of the country to the former German territories ceded to Poland at the Potsdam Peace Conference of 1945. The official aim of this Wisła operation was to remove any possible OUN-UPA support.

In the advent of the 70th anniversary of the July massacres in 2013, the upper house of the Polish Parliament (Senat) agreed on a commemorative resolution which referred to “the organized and mass dimension” of the massacre and characterised it as “an ethnic cleansing bearing traits of of genocide”. The wording of the resolution resembled a similar one adopted by the Parliament in 2009. This year however, some MPs took a more direct stance and called upon their fellow parliamentarians to qualify the events as genocide. The debate continued in the Sejm (lower house), and to the disappointment of nearly half of the Sejm’s deputies, concluded in voting down the “genocide amendment”.

Apart from the disputed qualification of the crimes committed in Volhynia, the resolution pays tribute to victims of the massacres and their relatives. It further acknowledges the acts of retaliation, points to the reconciliation efforts made so far on the Ukrainian side and stresses that sincere reconciliation can be built only if founded on truth and joint condemnation of the past crimes. Sadly, these paragraphs faded away in the political quarrel.

Genocide is defined in the UN Genocide Convention as an “act committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such”. This legal definition of genocide in its limited scope and vague wording has indeed left considerable room for political debates.

In the past month’s discussion, many MPs have referred to the definition in support of their line of argumentation. The reasoning on both sides seem to be of merit, although it had little to do with the law. The “pro-genocide” faction expressed concerns about the historical truth as a necessary prerequisite for building reconciliation, cooperation and mutual understanding. It is difficult not to agree with this approach no matter how naïve in its detached idealism it appears to be. At the other end were those who declared that the Parliament’s recognition of the Volhynia massacre as a genocide would trigger distrust among the two countries and thus, jeopardize the 20 yearlong mutual efforts spent on developing friendly relations between Warsaw and Kiev. Radosław Sikorski, the Polish minister of foreign affairs, noted that “escalating” the definition would denigrate Ukraine and put another obstacle on its road to the Association Agreement with the EU (scheduled to be signed this November). One finds it difficult to oppose this politically sensible reasoning as well. Ironically, there does not seem to be much of a difference between qualifying an act as genocide or calling it “a crime of ethnic cleansing bearing traits of genocide”. Given the politicization of the debate, was there much more to it than just playing with semantics?

A less political perspective on the matter comes from the Institute of National Remembrance (the IPN), established in 1998 by the Parliament and charged with, among other things, conducting research, documentation, investigation and prosecution of crimes against peace, humanity and war crimes. According to the Institute, which commenced its activities in 2000 and has since been involved in investigating the Volhynia massacres, the crimes in question can be categorized as “a crime against humanity in its special form, that is, genocide”. The Institute’s investigations are based on article 118(1) of the 1997 Criminal Code, which sets the crime of genocide in domestic law. Because of the Institute’s strong institutional ties to the Parliament, one could easily question its impartiality, even though some of its investigations concern the killings of Ukrainian civilians conducted by the Polish self-defense groups.

The genocide hypothesis is not a commonly approved one. Some, without denying the heinous character and the massive scale of the Volhynia massacre, assert that the crimes committed throughout the OUN-UPA campaign in 1943-1944 fall outside the scope of the UN’s genocide definition. One of the arguments of the latter is that Poles were not the only victims of the said massacres, despite them being (allegedly) the main target of the OUN-UPA campaign. Others raise that there was no general genocide plan or campaign, although, some of the OUN-UPA commanders have expressed orders which could be interpreted as supporting the allegation of their specific genocidal intent.

The debate itself has prompted various responses:

  • A letter acknowledging the Volhynia genocide addressed by 148 Ukrainian deputies representing the ruling Party of Regions and the Communists to the speaker of the Polish Parliamentarians;
  • the extreme right Svoboda party calling the Polish Parliament’s resolution chauvinist and anti-Ukrainian;
  • a harmless egg thrown at the Polish president, Bronislaw Komorowski during commemoration ceremony in Luck, Ukraine…

To reckon with crimes of the past and reach reconciliation, a politically imposed sense of guilt by one parliament onto another will surely not suffice. In Ukraine, where the OUN-UPA has contributed to the country’s independence, people know very little about the Volhynia massacres. Likewise, they do not know much about it in Poland. For societies who for large parts of their history have countered geo-political and cultural oppression it might be natural to hang on to their victimhood narrative. Taking responsibility for the darker, less heroic episodes in their recent history tends to be rather difficult (see for instance the Jedwabne pogrom debate in Poland). At this point, one cannot tell whether the recent debate has seriously impaired relations between Ukraine and Poland. Nevertheless, it is a long way ahead before both sides will learn and acknowledge their respective truths about the Volhynia past. Local initiatives such as staging the July 1943 massacre in a village of Radymno in south east Poland, only rub salt into the wounds. An open and inclusive debate at the people’s level will always be a better alternative to burning fake houses and throwing eggs at each other.

2 thoughts on “Lost in reconciliation? Poland, Ukraine and the Volhynia massacres

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful, balanced analysis of a controversy that I hadn’t heard before.

    In relation to the politics around the label ‘genocide’, I can see some parallels with the Australian situation, where our Human Rights Commission in a 1997 report described the state-orchestrated removal of indigenous children from their families ( in the context of a broader effort to whiten the indigenous people / accelerate what was seen as their ‘natural’ demise), as genocide.


  2. Pingback: Stuck in the Middle — The Forgotten (and Bloody) History of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army |

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