On the surface, Poland and Ukraine are close allies; Warsaw is a consistent supporter of its eastern neighbor’s aspirations to join NATO and the European Union. In reality, tensions related to the continued denial of the genocide of tens of thousands of Poles by Ukrainian nationalists complicate the prospect of full reconciliation. Denial of the genocide is not only a disservice to Polish memory; it is also toxic for Ukraine’s nascent post-Soviet identity.
For centuries, Western Ukraine was ruled by Poland. After the independent Polish state re-emerged in 1918, the majority-Ukrainian regions of Eastern Galicia and Volhynia again came under Polish rule. The Second Polish Republic (1918-1939) pursued discriminatory policies against the Ukrainians, forcibly converting Ukrainian schools into bilingual ones and encouraging the settlement of Polish colonists there.
As a response, in 1929 the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) was formed. It engaged in terrorism, such as the assassination of the Polish minister Bronisław Pieracki in 1934. OUN was influenced by the fascist ideology of Dmytro Dontsov, who sought to violently establish an ethnically homogenous Ukrainian state. The OUN had two factions, a more moderate one led by Andriy Melnyk, and a genocidal one led by Stepan Bandera.
In 1939, Western Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Ukrainian nationalists rejoiced, and in 1940 the Bandera faction of the OUN formed the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). In 1943, UPA sought to exterminate all non-Ukrainians in Western Ukraine. They were above all Poles, but also Jews, Armenians, and other minorities, as well as anti-nationalist Ukrainians. Upwards of 100,000 civilians were murdered. UPA’s methods were sadistic; pregnant women stabbed with bayonets in the belly and children forced to drink their murdered parents’ blood were commonplace.
After Western Ukraine was annexed by the USSR, Stalin threw UPA members into the gulags, where, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, they led rebellions. Since Ukraine became independent in 1991, it has been divided on this matter. In the eastern half of the country, the UPA and Bandera are overwhelmingly considered to be fascist scum. In the west, however, many see them as heroes.
Viktor Yuschenko, Ukraine’s president in 2005-2010, bestowed the highest state honor upon Bandera. His successor, Viktor Yanukovych, stripped him of it. Under Petro Poroshenko, president since 2014, UPA and Bandera are again national emblems. Poroshenko has repeatedly praised UPA for fighting for Ukrainian independence and its “heroism,” and he has made the anniversary of the foundation of UPA a national holiday. The Ukrainian parliament has ratified a bill that criminalizes criticizing UPA. Recently, a street in Kyiv was renamed in honor of Stepan Bandera.
Since joining NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004, a key aspect of Poland’s foreign policy has been bringing Ukraine and other former Soviet republics into these structures. Because Ukrainian nationalists are supporters of Ukraine’s move to the West, Poland’s government has not recognized the events of 1943 as genocide, much to the chagrin of many Poles. The liberal Civic Platform party, which ruled in 2007-2015, blocked the passing of parliamentary resolutions condemning the events in Western Ukraine as genocide, claiming that this would worsen Polish-Ukrainian relations.
Last fall, the conservative Law and Justice came to power. Its Ukrainian policy has been similar to that of its predecessor. Law and Justice is more open to condemning the genocide, but the party is divided. Recently, the its head Jarosław Kaczyński called the events of 1943 “genocide;” however, Law and Justice’s speaker of the lower house of Parliament has refused to submit a draft by senators from the party calling the tragedy a genocide for a vote.
Much of Poland’s media is also wary of the term “genocide.” For example, the right-wing Gazeta Polska fired Father Tadeusz Isakowicz-Zaleski, a Catholic priest and Solidarity veteran who had been a columnist for the paper, after he wrote an article criticizing Maidan protestors for glorifying UPA. Meanwhile, Adam Szostkiewicz of the leftist Polityka has written that the Ukrainians need UPA and Bandera because every nation needs mythology.
Some Ukrainians have tried to make amends, but these attempts smack of apologetics. Recently, Ukrainian intellectuals, politicians, and bishops sent an open letter, asking for forgiveness and forgiving the Poles for their past sins. However, the words “UPA” and “genocide” never appear; instead, the letter euphemistically refers to the “Volhynia tragedy.” Meanwhile, Ukrainian historians like Jaroslav Hrytsak present the 1943 genocide as part of a convoluted Polish-Ukrainian conflict with the same level of wrongdoing on both sides. Recently, Andrzej Brzeziecki wrote in Gazeta Wyborcza that the origins of the genocide were in the interwar Polish policies towards the Ukrainian minority. Such statements betray ill will; the Second Polish Republic was no paradise for Ukrainians, but there is a difference between Polonizing schools and genocide.
In the long run, not acknowledging the events of 1943 as genocide will have negative consequences for not only Poles, but for Ukraine as well. As Ukraine, mired in war and poverty, shows no signs of rebounding from its misery, it is likely that Ukrainians will continue to migrate to its wealthier neighbor Poland. Some estimates place the number of Ukrainians in Poland at one million. Without a Ukrainian apology, tensions between the two nations will grow. One poll shows that Ukrainians like Poland more than any other foreign country. However, this is unrequited love. Many Poles harbor grievances against the Ukrainians for 1943.
By contrast, Polish grudges against the Germans, who also committed enormous crimes against the Poles at that time, are dying out. This is largely because the Germans have apologized for atrocities against the Poles, starting with Willy Brandt’s 1970 visit to Warsaw. By glorifying UPA, Ukraine’s government is exacerbating bitter feelings amongst Poles.
Next, if both Poland and Ukraine want the latter to join NATO and the EU, it is not too much to expect Ukrainians to adopt Western values. Brussels has made Turkey’s acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide a conditio sine qua non for accession. That a country ruled by a government that openly glorifies genocidal nationalists should be in the EU is unthinkable. With only 25 years of independence under its belt, Ukraine is a young nation that is only starting to form its national mythos. If nothing changes, UPA and Bandera could become pillars of Ukraine’s identity.
Those who claim that Ukraine needs Stepan Bandera and UPA to have a strong identity are ignorant of Ukrainian history. When Yuschenko gave Bandera Ukraine’s highest award in 2010, the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization devoted to fighting anti-Semitism, suggested that Ukraine instead honor those Ukrainians who hid Jews during the Holocaust. The nationalist cancer metastasized only to part of Ukrainian society, and many noble Ukrainians were killed for hiding their Polish and Jewish neighbors. Rather than honoring Stepan Bandera, Kyiv should promote Ukrainians fighters for independence who were immune to chauvinism, such as Symon Petliura, head of the short-lived independent Ukrainian People’s Republic. Petliura was allied with Poland during the Polish-Bolshevik War and opposed anti-Semitism, intervening to try to stop pogroms.
Every nation has dark chapters in its past, because nations are composed of fallible humans. Confessing to past transgressions and renouncing them only makes societies more mature. It is not the continued glorification of UPA and Stepan Bandera, as Adam Szostkiewicz has suggested, that will strengthen Ukrainian identity. Only an objective evaluation of a nation’s past, both its achievements and its failings, can make it stronger.
Filip Mazurczak is a Polish and American journalist and translator. He holds degrees in History and Spanish and Hispanic Studies from Creighton University and in International Relations from the George Washington University.