Poland and Ukraine: History of Break-Downs

The ongoing crisis in Ukraine and unseemly role of Poland in its instigation and development makes us take another look at the historical context of the Polish-Ukrainian relations. We will focus on dramatic repressions of the Ukrainian minorities in Eastern Poland in 1921-1939 at the territories annexed by Jozef Piłsudski’s government from the Soviet Russia according to Peace of Riga 1921, which eventually triggered ultra-Nationalist Ukrainian terror against the Poles during the WWII (culminating in massacres in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia in 1943-1944).

Poland, which used to be a part of the Russian Empire, emerged at the European political map in November 1918 as a result of German’s defeat in WWI. The period of the so-called Polish Republic, which lasted until 1939, was characterized by the rampant Polish nationalism. The attempts of ethnic minorities – Ukrainians, Belarusians, Jews, Russians and Lithuanians – to preserve their national identity were quelled in the cruelest way. The regime of Juzef Pilsudski and its supports were reluctant to respect the basic minorities’ rights. It had greatly weakened Poland making it doomed to collapse as soon as Germany military delivered the first strikes in 1939. It suffered defeat not only due to military superiority of Wehrmacht over the Polish armed forces but rather because of internal divisions tearing up the Polish society from inside – only few were ready to offer staunch resistance to defend the country which was more like stepmother than motherland.

Here is the historical paradox. Winston Churchill made an apt remark calling Poland the «Greedy Hyena of Europe». For many Western historians this role of Poland paled once it became the victim of Hitler’s military intervention. The same way the crimes of German Nazism made pale the ethnic cleansings and rough treatment of dissidents that the regime of Pilsudski used to commit in its concentration camps.

Long before the notorious Nazi concentration camps where built in the Third Reich, Poland had acquired vast experience of getting rid of the dissenters who disagreed with the ruling regime. In 1934 the first concentration camp was organized in Bereza Kartuska (the territory of contemporary Belarus) to imprison those who were accused of «anti-state» activities: the activists of Ukrainian, Belarusian and Jewish national movements, Communists, members of underground groups and Orthodox Church clergymen…There were no clear rules about who to imprison – they were putting all dissenters without distinction into the camp. The «correctional education» included inhumane conditions, exhausting labor, harassing labor, beatings and tortures.

Polish “law enforcement” officers were closely linked to its Nazi German colleagues, the same way as their bosses, Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Göring regularly visiting Poland, foreign relations chiefs Joachim von Ribbentrop and Josef Beck were often seen together. Józef Kamala–Kurhański, the commandant of the camp in Bereza-Kartuska, had even received training in Germany. Ironically, he perished in Auschwitz in 1941. Germans were extremely pragmatic: when you are done, you can go.

Germany needed Poland to do what it wanted – ethnic cleansing in Kresy (today’s Western Ukraine, Western Belarus, as well as Lithuania) captured by Poland as a result of the 1920 war with the Soviet Russia. Nazi wanted those lands to be free from «aliens» like Ukrainians, Belarussians and Jews. The Polish regime coped with the task perfectly. Everyone non-Polish was forced to leave, the regime inspired Jewish pogroms in urban areas and coercive polonization was gaining momentum. No matter “aliens” accounted for 40 % of Kresy population with Orthodox Church parishioner prevailing, they were banned of their right to speak, read and teach children in their native tongues, as well as to pray in their churches. Only 37 Belorussian schools out of 400 remained in Western Belarus. 1300 Orthodox churches were demolished and plundered.

In order to increase the Polish population Piłsudski’s regime used to offer extensive land lots to the retired Polish military officers making them and their families settle down in Kresy (mostly in Volhynia). They were at the forefront of assimilation policy to evoke the feeling of hatred among non-Poles. Dr. Gennady Matveev argues that the regime made Poles hostages of their own ethnocratic policy leading to international strife, in particular the Volhynia massacre of 1943-1944, which claimed the lives of 80 – 100 thousand Poles and Jews killed by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UIA).

Another aspect is that UIA had its own Nazi ideology which left no place neither for Poles, nor Russians or Jews on the Ukrainian soil. Hitler used the gangs of Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych to cleanse the Volhynia-Podolian region, as well as some other areas of Reichskommissariat Ukraine, of Poles and Jews. Inhuman atrocities committed by Bandera followers became a routine matter. They formed special «instruments» to do the job – from battalion Nachtigall to Galicia Division. The Volyn massacre was not spontaneous, it was actually a paramilitary operation, thoroughly planned and “effectively” carried out by the UIA.

Today neither Warsaw nor Kiev seem to be willing to recall these stories. Moreover, they demonstrate rare solidarity when it comes to fighting the Russian national-liberation movement in Donbass. Polish involvement on the highest political level in punitive actions in Novorossia was repeatedly reported (e.g. check the cases of Othago private military company run by the former Internal Affairs Minister  Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz and Jerzy Dziewulski, the security advisor to ex-President Aleksander Kwasniewski).

Unsurprisingly, the Poles and Ukrainians who used to exterminate each other 80 years ago, today are united on the basis of Russophobia. Ideological descendants of Josef Piłsudski, disguised in democratic clothes, are using multiple rocket launchers and white phosphorus bombs against civilians in Donbass. Piłsudski and Poroshenko regimes are not exactly twins, but evidently birds of the feather flocking together.

It will hardly be a surprise if the Poles share their Bereza Kartuska experience with Poroshenko and Avakov. In June 2014 Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence came out with an initiative to build filtration camps for all adult people of Novorossia, including women, to find those who have ties with the «separatists». He suggested that others should be deported to other regions.

Again, as dozens of years ago, political leaders agitate people to make their wild instincts come out. The majority of Ukrainians and Poles are hardly prone to xenophobia and intolerance to another opinion, but they are directly incited to be hostile to the neighbors who want to speak another language and prey in different churches.

We don’t want to make open old and still hurting wounds; we’re not calling on the Polish people to always make Ukrainians remember that they were responsible for the Volhynia massacre. But the lessons of history should not be forgotten. Back then Hitler connived at Pilsudski supporters who were cleansing eastern Kresy of Ukrainians, Belarusians and Jews. Then Hitler’s special services were condescending when the UIA militants massacred dozens of villages to cleanse them of Poles. If Warsaw convinces itself that Russia is the main enemy and the Ukrainian ultra-Nationalists are their best friends, it will face another Volhynia tragedy. Perhaps it would be called differently but the consequences may be even more tragic.

No doubt if Poland admits its guilt and takes on responsibility for the deeds of the predecessors, the country situated between Western and Eastern Europe, would pave the way for new promising international prospects and play an important role defining the fate of the Old Continent.


Originally published on 2018-08-26

Original source in Russian: Strategic Culture Foundation

The original text was adapted by ORIENTAL REVIEW

Source: Oriental Review

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