Lost in reconciliation? Poland, Ukraine and the Volhynia massacres

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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.

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