The truth about the Volhynia Massacre must be spoken clearly and strongly, but it is not about revenge or retaliation, Polish President Andrzej Duda said in Warsaw during the commemoration of the anniversary of the Volhynian massacre.
“The difficult debate on this issue between our nations has been going on for decades… It is a difficult subject – for us, it is extremely painful, demanding that the truth be told firmly,” the President explained. “For the Ukrainians, it is difficult because, above all, it is extremely shameful.”
“We need this great responsibility for the future on both sides of this border, about which not so long ago President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that in principle it almost does not exist anymore,” Mr Duda emphasised.
He also stressed that the dramatically tragic mistakes must never be repeated if both the countries are to continue existing in this part of Europe and the world as two sovereign, independent nations.
“I firmly believe that we will cope with this extremely difficult challenge and that what has been happening recently, over the course of these last months, is a future emerging from the ruins, a new image of Polish-Ukrainian relations, truly neighbourly and truly fraternal,” Mr Duda said.
He also reported that his Ukrainian counterpart on Monday sent a bill to the country’s Parliament on granting special status to Poles in Ukraine.
Today we honour the Victims of the massacre in Volhynia.
It is our duty to remember this tragic moment, scarred by the suffering of many Poles and being one of the most challenging chapters of ???? relations.
The uneasy history of both nations must not derail our joint future. pic.twitter.com/tomkb7qKQi
— Ministry of Foreign Affairs ?? (@PolandMFA) July 11, 2022
“The borderland Poles were murdered twice – once with axe blows and the second time by concealment, and the latter death was more horrible than the former,” Polish Prime Minister, also present at the ceremony, said.
“That is why this is my commitment – I will not rest until we find the last grave, the burial place of those murdered from Volhynia and the entire eastern borderlands,” he declared.
He also said that “there will be no reconciliation based on falsehood, forgetfulness or lies.”
What’s at the heart of the matter?
The Polish Ukrainian border has moved for centuries, leaving many minorities from both communities to remain on lands which they historically owned. This constant flux resulted in tensions over many generations between people who lived in the same region but felt that one or the other was occupying the land unfairly. Matters came to a fore during the general mayhem of WWII.
Up until 1939, Volhynia had been a part of Poland. On September 17 of that year, the territory was occupied by the Soviet Union as part of a deal between Hitler and Stalin. In 1941, Nazi Germany – which had already occupied much of Poland – invaded the Soviet Union and occupied this particular region.
What were the massacres?
The Volhynia massacres consisted of anti-Polish genocidal ethnic cleansings conducted by Ukrainian nationalists. 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.
The timeframe 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).
These Ukrainian forces had been hostile to the Soviets and were sympathetic to the Germans, whom they saw as potential allies against the Soviets. From 1942 onwards, they began to attack the Polish population.
Documents from the period show that the planned extermination of the Polish population was called an “anti-Polish operation.”
Why did they take place?
The anti-Polish drive of the pro-Bandera Ukrainian underground during WWII, together with the subsequent Polish retaliation it largely spawned, undoubtedly mark the bloodiest period of the Polish-Ukrainian conflict in the 1940s.
This conflict raged in territories which were within Poland’s interwar borders (basically, the country’s south-east), and which, taken as a whole, had nearly equal Polish and Ukrainian populations.
The perpetrators – Bandera’s Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN-B) and its military wing, that is, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) – used the codename “anti-Polish operation” in their documents in to refer to the planned extermination of the Poles.
Bandera’s followers carried this aim out during 1943−1945 on the disputed territories of Volhynia, Eastern Galicia, and the south-eastern Lublin region (centred on Chełm), which they regarded as “indigenously Ukrainian.”
The “anti-Polish operation” was a direct result of the larger Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists ideology of integral nationalism (until 1939) and its radical faction’s fascination with fascism (at least until 1942/1943).
The ethnic policies of the Soviets and Germans (1939−1942) on the occupied south-eastern territories of the Second Republic of Poland were surely another factor. The former conducted deportations during 1940−1941, while the latter systematically exterminated the Jewish population, with help from some Ukrainians, beginning with the summer of 1941.
In consequence, the Bandera supporters concluded that they could follow the example of the two totalitarian powers to successfully solve the ethnic problems standing in the way of the establishment of a radically nationalist Ukrainian state.
The Ukrainian point of view
The main difference between the approach of Polish and Ukrainian historians is in the terminology which they use to describe and evaluate the conflict. Some Ukrainian historians tend to treat those events, which the perpetrators themselves called an “anti-Polish operation,” as a stage in the “second Polish-Ukrainian war of 1942−1947.”
The supporters of this argument regard the massacres of 1943-1945 as a continuation of the Polish-Ukrainian War of 1918−1919 for control over Lwów and Eastern Galicia, which ended in Ukrainian defeat. More moderate Ukrainian researchers use the term “Volhynian tragedy.” In contemporary Ukraine, Bandera and his forces are largely considered as freedom fighters attempting to recapture Ukrainian land and create an independent state of Ukraine.
The meaning of the term ‘genocide’
“Genocide” is a legal category. The Volhynian massacres have all the traits of genocide listed in the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which defines genocide as an act “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.”