Although the western media’s coverage of Poland’s controversial amendment to the bill on the Institute of National Remembrance has focused on its impact on Polish-Israeli relations (previously written about here), it has also driven a wedge between Poland and Ukraine. While wartime atrocities by Ukrainian nationalists against Poles need to be addressed honestly, history should not be a source of Polish-Ukrainian conflict.
From allies to foes
Poland is the largest post-communist state in NATO as well as the European Union, and it has made bringing ex-Soviet republics like Ukraine closer to the West a cornerstone of its foreign policy. Since the 2004 Orange Revolution, all of Poland’s governments have openly supported Ukraine’s pro-Western ambitions.
Since the conservative Law and Justice party came to power in 2015, however, history has dented Polish-Ukrainian relations. In 2016, the Polish parliament passed a resolution declaring the systematic murder of 130,000 Poles (as well as Jews and anti-nationalist Ukrainians) in 1943 a genocide. The atrocity was committed by the OUN-UPA (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists-Ukrainian Partisan Army), which Ukraine’s government openly praises. Then, in February 2018, Poland adopted an amendment to its law on the Institute of National Remembrance. One clause criminalizes denial of crimes against Poles and Jews by Ukrainian nationalists.
Ukrainian authorities criticized the bill. In Ukraine’s parliament, 242 of 450 deputies voted in favour of a resolution condemning the Polish law, while an anti-Polish march was held in Lviv. Participants shouted: “Lviv is the city of Stepan Bandera [the head of the genocidal faction of the OUN-UPA].”
Since Poland joined the European Union in 2004, two million Poles have left for Western Europe. This and the sharp decline in Poland’s birth rate in the 1990s have left Poland facing an acute labour shortage.
Since 2014, two million Ukrainians have immigrated to Poland, thus saving the Polish economy. It’s hard to imagine a more desirable immigrant group: as speakers of a Slavonic language, Ukrainians learn Polish fast. Ukrainians are hard workers and assimilate quickly, as evidenced by the increasing rate of Polish-Ukrainian marriages. Although emigration has caused a brain drain in Ukraine, remittances help the long-suffering Ukrainian economy.
For its economy to continue growing, Poland needs Ukrainian immigrants. For them to stay, they need to feel welcome. Meanwhile, Ukraine needs Poland to be its ally to get it away from Putin’s grip and closer to the West. Thus, both sides need strong relations.
From Giedroyc to Poliszczuk
Until recently, Polish governments have avoided discussing the genocide of Poles by Ukrainian nationalists. The current ruling party, Law and Justice, also tried to avoid this topic, but ultimately gave in to pressure from its voters.
Since 2004, Polish foreign policy towards Ukraine has been guided by the so-called Giedroyc Doctrine. Jerzy Giedroyc was a Polish émigré who lived in Paris, where he published the influential Kultura journal and works by Polish literary greats like Czesław Miłosz or Witold Gombrowicz that were banned in communist Poland, during the Cold War.
Giedroyc argued that Poland should create a buffer zone against Russia consisting of Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania, though he knew that the most vocally anti-Russian people in those countries were nationalists. The problem was that these nationalists were also anti-Polish, so he proposed to avoid the discussion of their wartime crimes against Poles.
This policy was myopic as the lack of discussion didn’t cause Poles to forget the murder of their countrymen by Ukrainian nationalists in Volhynia or Lithuanian auxiliaries in Ponary. On the contrary, the fact that Ukraine’s government praises the OUN-UPA and that until recently Warsaw turned a blind eye to this has led to a growth in anti-Ukrainian sentiments in Poland.
A much better approach would be a political doctrine based on the thought of Ukrainian lawyer and historian Wiktor Poliszczuk. Poliszczuk was an Orthodox Christian and Ukrainian patriot. He lived in Poland after the war, ultimately immigrating to Canada in 1981 after experiencing ethnic discrimination. In his book Bitter Truth, Poliszczuk implores Poles to understand that the OUN-UPA represented only a small part of Ukrainian society; that there were Ukrainians who opposed its murderous ideology and rescued their Polish neighbours; and that the OUN-UPA were not the legally elected representatives of the Ukrainian nation, like the Nazis in Germany, but instead were a fringe group financed by German intelligence. At the same time, Poliszczuk documents the atrocities of the OUN-UPA and asks Ukrainians to reject this nationalist ideology, or else Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation will never be sincere.
Today, many Ukrainians associate the OUN-UPA with the fight against the Soviets in the post-war era and are unaware of its crimes against Poles, Jews and anti-nationalist Ukrainians. Thus, penalising denial of these crimes is to not the best approach; education, rather than jail sentences, is a more effective tool against ignorance.
However, Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation must be based on the truth. Poles are rightly indignant when nationalists who murdered tens of thousands of their countrymen in order to make Ukraine ethnically pure and independent are publicly glorified. Polish-German reconciliation occurred after Willy Brandt’s gestures of remorse in Warsaw in 1970.
It is encouraging that only a slim majority of Ukraine’s parliament voted in favour of the resolution condemning the Polish bill. It shows that a large part of Ukraine’s political establishment is not intent on glorifying nationalist war criminals and instead wants good relations with Poland.
A field of cooperation
However, history policy could also foster Polish-Ukrainian cooperation. In 1940, the NKVD shot 22,000 Polish reserve officers in the Katyn forest. The Soviets blamed the crime on the Germans and did not confess their guilt until Gorbachev, although everyone but dye-in-the wool communists knew the truth. For decades, Poles fought for the truth about the crime.
Likewise, the Ukrainians were victims of the Soviets in the twentieth century, albeit on a much greater scale. In 1932-1933, as a punishment for widespread Ukrainian resistance to the collectivization of agriculture, Stalin deliberately starved to death between four and five million Ukrainian peasants by requisitioning every last grain of wheat.
Raphael Lemkin, the great Polish lawyer of Jewish origin who coined the term “genocide,” was a vocal proponent of considering the Holodomor, the man-made famine in Ukraine, as an example of the horrific crime he gave a name for.
While the Holodomor ranks alongside the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide as one of the greatest mass murders of the twentieth century, it is largely forgotten outside Ukraine. Lemkin’s legacy and the Poles’ and Ukrainians’ mutual experiences of suffering at Soviet hands that later was later forgotten or denied could bring the two nations together. Polish government and cultural institutions could raise public awareness of the Holodomor by organizing international conferences or exhibits.
Likewise, 2020 will mark the hundredth anniversary of the Polish-Bolshevik War, during which Polish troops defeated the Red Army, which planned to conquer Poland and then spread revolution by force to Western Europe, at the gates of Warsaw. Many Ukrainians fought alongside Poland and played a major role in defeating the Bolsheviks. In 2020, the governments in Warsaw and Kyiv could emphasize their common successful efforts to save Europe.
While Polish-Ukrainian relations must be based on honesty, history can be a source of cooperation, not only conflict, between the two nations. From the perspective of geopolitics and economics, a breakdown in their relations would be disastrous for both.
Filip Mazurczak is a translator, journalist, and historian. Currently, he is pursuing an MA in oral history at Columbia University in New York.