Global Analysis from the European Perspective. Preparing for the world of tomorrow

Volhynia: a frozen conflict

They would cut out unborn babies from pregnant women’s bellies; they would chop off men’s hands and feet; they would impale little children on pitchforks and then hold a party to celebrate yet another act of ethnic cleansing. These events that occurred eighty (80) years ago remain oblivious to the Western reader who is otherwise so much sensitized to atrocities perpetrated anywhere around the world, in the past or at present. That the authorities of the nation that suffered such a bloodbath – the authorities of Poland – turn a blind eye to the fact that the perpetrators of the ethnic cleansing are regarded as national heroes in the neighbouring country, in Ukraine, is sickening. Imagine the state of Israel maintaining friendly relations with a Germany where Adolf Eichmann and Reinhard Heydrich have streets named after them and monuments devoted to them. Why are the Polish authorities operating as they are? Simply because Ukraine fights against Russia, the epitome of wickedness, as it is said on the Vistula, which is why – do you remember the classic novel? – now Oceania is our bosom friend and has ever been. Clear? And we should not wonder too much. As the saying goes: there are Poles who hate Russia more than they love Poland.

If these events had been taking place twenty or thirty years ago, they would have made headline in all the mainstream Western media; sadly, if these events had been taking place somewhere between 2014 and the present, the news about them would have been suppressed, the articles – heavily redacted, most of the information – withdrawn while YouTube would have banned videos, using the usual insolent excuse to the tune of an enigmatic community not wanting to have such material on the platform. What are we talking about?

We are talking about the bloodbath that took place in the summer and autumn months of 1943 in Volhynia, where Ukrainians would murder approximately 50 to 100 thousand defenceless Poles in the territory that had been a part of prewar Poland and is now a part of Ukraine. There are still survivors – witnesses to the atrocities committed by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, and many compelling stories – first-hand accounts – retold by them, gathered in books and articles as well as shown in documentaries.

In prewar Poland, the province of Volhynia was inhabited by a mixture of Ukrainians, Poles and Jews. This was due to the history of the region, which originally was a part of medieval Rus’, then came under Lithuanian rule, and as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania merged with the Kingdom of Poland in 1569, the territory became a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The higher classes – mainly the gentry – underwent Polonization and conversion to Catholicism, while the lower classes – mainly peasantry – remained “Russian” and Orthodox Christian. In the 19th, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth fell prey to the three neighbouring European powers, of which Russia incorporated the Commonwealth’s eastern territories, enforcing Russification in turn and stripping the Polish population of its property as punishment for its participation in anti-Russian insurgencies. Then came World War One and the reemergence of the Polish state, which reclaimed some of its previous eastern territories, among them – Volhynia. A process of re-Polonization was launched in that retired officers and soldiers would be given plots of land while attempts were made to turn Ukrainians into Poles, which bred resentment among them.

Ukrainian national activists would establish political organisations and create para-military units that dealt with terrorism with the aim of subverting the Polish state. Elaborate national ideas were developed and floated among the Ukrainian population. They challenged the Polish political and economic dominance and advanced a cause of creating a living space for Ukrainians, a space free of Poles and Jews. Ukrainian activists managed to win support of common Ukrainians while their ideas gained traction with the Ukrainian intellectuals, not excluding priests and bishops of the Orthodox Church, who cemented this belief among its flocks in the excpetionalism of the Ukrainian nation and the parasitic character of the presence of Poles and Jews.

On September 1, 1939 Germany attacked Poland, while the Soviet Union did it September 17 of the same year. Volhynia and other eastern Polish territories came under Soviet rule. At this juncture Ukrainians kept a low profile. It was only with the the attack of the Third Reich on the Soviet Union that Ukrainians saw an opportunity for the pursuit of their political agenda and they seized it. They forged and consequently executed a plan of ethnic cleansing in Volhynia, with its peak occurring in the summer and autumn of 1943.

To put things in perspective: the beginning of 1943 saw the end of the Battle of Stalingrad, in July the Allies invaded Sicily; in September that year Italy would surrender and in November the allied leaders would meet at Tehran.

How did the bloodbath come about? Villages with Polish residents would be attacked at dawn or at night, usually surrounded by Ukrainian troops to prevent anybody escaping the dreadful fate. Then looting would begin accompanied by acts of arson, while men, women, and children would be hunted down and mercilessly murdered, usually subjected to torture before death. Pregnant women had their bellies cut or punched, men had their limbs lopped off, while little children were impaled on pitchforks. No one was spared. The acts of atrocity were committed not only by the henchmen of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, but also by common Ukrainians, who had the bad habit of partying on the debris and ashes of the annihilated villages. The toll of life on the Polish side was enormous.

Why are we reminding the reader of these events? Well, German perpetrators of cruelties were duly put on trial and punished. It was not the case with Ukrainians. First, after the war, the territories were incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and its authorities had no interest in prosecuting Ukrainians for hostile acts against Polish residents. The Polish state was dependent on the Soviet Union and according to its ideology it strove to operate on friendly terms with the big brother from the east. Ukrainian crime was not forgotten or suppressed at that time in Poland, though: there were a few publications and even a couple of feature films devoted to the problem. Yet, generally, the authorities were not interested in exploring this particular historical theme.

The year was 1989. Poland became – if for a short time – a sovereign state. Survivors and the families of the survivors of the Volhynia massacre raised their voice and tried to make themselves heard. The authorities made believe they were concerned about the problem but somehow they always adopted a soft stance towards Kiev. Why? Yes, you guessed it right. First, Ukraine was to be used as a counterbalance against Russia, and, second, it was not in the West’s interests to have Poland conflicting with Ukraine and perhaps – God forbid! – allying herself with Russia. Warsaw stood idle by when in Ukraine monuments to the leaders of the Ukrainian insurgent army were raised, when streets and squares received names of Ukrainian national heroes whose hands were all red with the blood of the Polish residents of the eastern territories of prewar Poland. Despite the copious amount of historical evidence and painstaking research done by historians proving Ukrainian engagement in the mass slaughter of the Poles, Kiev refused to admit guilt, to make apologies, to tear down the monuments; Ukrainian historians would exonerate the murderers, undermine the research efforts of their Polish counterparts, challenge the authenticity of the evidence and eye-witness accounts, and they would claim that the numbers of the victims were inflated. What did Warsaw do? Nothing.

Then came the year 2014: overnight, Ukraine began to be perceived as an innocent victim of an unprovoked aggression, a victim who stood in need of aid, as a consequence of which any redress of past wrongs was suspended to an undetermined, later date. Websites that ran articles about the Volhynia massacre were shut down, while school historical contests that had been held annually on the same theme for many years were banned. For some time now the Polish authorities have been displaying and continue to display sheepish submission to Kiev and it looks like they have lost their moral compass. The same is true for the majority of the Polish nation, who hate Russia so much that they are ready to forgive Ukrainians everything. This attitude of the Polish nation stems from the historical resentment vis-à-vis Russia and the impact of the propaganda that in between 1989 and 2023 has presented Russia as the arch evil-doer on the planet.

It looks like this continued miscarriage of historical justice will have no end. The marching orders are: provide aid for Ukraine whatever the price and demand absolutely nothing in return. Millions of Ukrainians have found home in Poland, which was by no means reciprocated by Kiev with a gesture of historical good will, with an act of reconciliation, with the settlement of the Volhynia Massacre accompanied by some sort of apologies. Poles are told that they are friends of Ukrainians while Ukrainians are friends of Poles. Both parties have been told so – nay, reassured – many times before, throughout centuries. Sadly, most people let themselves be duped again and again and again. Historical memory does not usually extent beyond an individual’s lifetime, and not infrequently it does not stretch back even within this period. Yet, one may rest assured: in the relationships between Poles and Ukrainians we are facing but a frozen conflict. The two nations have had a bone to pick again and again throughout history. To think that now it will be different is like thinking that somehow this time I will not get intoxicated after I have drunk one over though eighth.

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