The recently intensifying memory conflict around the interpretation of some World War II events, between Ukraine and Poland, is distracting the two intertwined nations from their main international challenges and some critical tasks today. An increase of Ukrainian national security is in the core interests not only of Kyiv, but also of Warsaw.

An odd turn in Ukraine’s foreign affairs after the Euromaidan has been its increasing estrangement from the country the relations with which should have benefited most from Kyiv’s resolute turn westwards since 2014 – Poland. Post-Soviet Ukrainian-Polish relations had been constantly deepening since the break-up of the USSR in 1991. Especially after the Orange Revolution of 2004, Poland became for many Ukrainians a prime model case the recent development of which their own state should emulate with regard to both domestic affairs, such as economic and public administration reform, and international relations, such as accession to the EU and NATO. In addition, both nations harbor deep grievances towards the currently revanchist Kremlin leadership in connection with centuries-long Russian imperialism and the Tsarist as well as Soviet regime’s repression of Polish as well as Ukrainian cultural life and political independence. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and covert intervention in the Donets Basin, in spring 2014, have further increased Ukrainian and Polish perceptions of their nations’ community of fate. Last but not least, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian migrants – including refugees from Crimea and the Donets Basin – have settled in Poland during the last years, in search for well-paid jobs, decent education, and a better life.

Why Poles and Ukrainians are quarrelling

Given these as well as an array of other historic and contemporary determinants, the partnership between Kyiv and Warsaw should have significantly strengthened after Ukraine’s successful Revolution of Dignity three years ago. And indeed, public opinion polls in both Ukraine and Poland document a high degree of mutual sympathy among ordinary people. Nevertheless, in many fields of cooperation and in the political atmosphere between the two nations, the exact opposite has happened of the last years. Worse, not only governmental, but also some people-to-people relations have deteriorated since 2014, with increasingly frequent verbal and, sometimes, even physical clashes mostly caused by radicals of the two neighboring peoples.

The major – though not only – reason for this unfortunate development is a public international quarrel between the two neighbors around the interpretation and evaluation of the saddest episode in recent Polish-Ukrainian affairs – the so-called Volhynia Massacre (Ukr.: Volyns’ka riznia) that may have led to, according to different estimates, between approximately 50,000 to 90,000 unnatural deaths in today’s Western Ukraine. This 1943-1944 Ukrainian ethnic cleansing of Poles, which Poland now officially classifies as a “genocide,” extended also to Eastern Galicia, and went in parallel with a OUN-UPA cleansing campaign against the few remaining Jews who had survived the Holocaust. It was an attempt by radicalized war-time Ukrainian ultra-nationalists to prepare Volhynia and, to some degree, Galicia to become ethnically cleansed parts of a future Ukrainian state designed primarily for ethnic Ukrainians.

To be sure, Ukraine has formally acknowledged that this mass killing did happen, and official Kyiv has asked Poland for forgiveness numerous times. In 2015, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko kneeled down at the monument commemorating the victims of the Volhynia Massacre. Polish and Ukrainian institutions, organizations and groups have issued joined statements on this difficult episode. Moreover, some of the documents acknowledged that, before and after the massacre, there were also Polish killings of Ukrainian civilians (mainly in the Chelm area) – though on a smaller scale. In a certain sense, there is thus actually little disagreement between the two nations on the factualness, salience and tragedy of these events.

The problem rather arises from the fact that, at the same time, Ukrainian official memory policies have, on both the national and regional levels, been officially heroizing, since 2006 and especially since 2014, leading representatives of the two organizations – the OUN(B) and UPA – bearing the brunt of responsibility for these mass-killings. Stepan Bandera’s (1909-1959) radical wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) dominated the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (Ukraїns’ka Povstans’ka Armiia – UPA) – an armed mass resistance movement that emerged in 1943. The so-called Banderites provided Ukraine’s major anti-Soviet volunteer army with a fascist-like ideology that motivated and justified the UPA’s soldiers’ bloody ethnic cleansing of Western Ukraine. To be sure, even this connection between the OUN-UPA and the mass killing of Poles of 1943-1944 is questioned by only a few particularly escapist Ukrainian memory activists today.

What instead constitutes the main issue in contemporary Polish-Ukrainian relations is that the leaders and members of the war-time OUN-UPA are today promoted – by Ukrainian governmental institutions, major political commentators, and certain civil organizations – as impeccable “fighters for liberation.” It is true that the OUN-UPA was, during much of World War II and even after, engaged in an epic battle for the Ukrainian nation’s independence from Moscow’s ruthless and mass-murderous rule. In fact, most of the ordinary soldiers of the UPA were not guilty of any war crimes during their largely heroic resistance against Soviet as well as, occasionally, German troops.

Moreover, the vast majority of those nationalist partisans who did not manage to emigrate to the West were killed, tortured, imprisoned, deported or/and repressed in other ways by the USSR’s security organs, once the Red Army had reconquered Western Ukraine. Some had already perished under the Nazis’ killing machine, or been, at least, imprisoned by the Germans during World War II. Even a few of those Ukrainian nationalists who, after the war, lived in the West – most spectacularly the movement’s most prominent and radical leader Bandera – were assassinated by Soviet agents.

The issue today is that most of Ukraine’s memory politicians remain in a state of cognitive dissonance regarding certain difficult aspects of the history of Ukrainian nationalism. They dissociate the OUN-UPA’s fight for independence from the organizations’ crimes against humanity during World War II. This concerns not only Ukraine’s today ultra-nationalists, like those of the infamous Freedom (Svoboda) Party, but also numerous pro-Western and otherwise liberal Ukrainian politicians and intellectuals. Typically, they make a deliberate distinction between the, on the one side, heroic as well as tragic aspects, and, on the other side, “dark side” of the OUN-UPA’s battle against foreign rule. In support of this imagination, a large array of Ukrainian historical publicists formulates various apologies, justifications and moderations for the Ukrainian war-time ultra-nationalists’ crimes against civilians.

The many dimensions of current Ukrainian nationalism

Recalling practices of selective national remembrance in other countries around the world, many Ukrainians today tend to ignore, relativize or downplay Ukraine’s war-time ultra-nationalists’ fascistoid ideas, as well as their partly genocidal practices. Ukrainians who consider themselves “nationally aware” prefer instead to focus on the exceptional and indeed real courage, patriotism and sad fate of the majority of the UPA’s soldiers and their extraordinary anti-Moscow insurgency. Recently, this way of commemoration has, moreover, become heavily informed by Moscow’s ongoing war against Ukraine since 2014.

In 1959, above-mentioned Bandera was killed by a KGB agent, Bogdan Stashinski, in Munich. Today a former KGB agent in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin, is trying to destroy the Ukrainian state. During the current Russian-Ukrainian war, Putin’s regime has killed, tortured, evicted etc. hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians in the Donets Basin. During and after World War II, the Soviet regime had killed, tortured, deported etc. hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian patriots. That is the simple, but powerful connection that many Ukrainians make between the historic OUN-UPA’s and their own current fight against Russian imperialism.

To Warsaw, Tel Aviv as well as many Russophone Ukrainians, however, this is an untenable state of affairs. As the number of Polish OUN-UPA victims exceeds the number of Ukrainians killed by Poles, there is little willingness among Poland’s politicians and intellectuals to respect Kyiv’s claim for historical sovereignty. The tens of thousands of killed Polish civilians in Volhynia and Galicia are not only a matter of Ukraine’s history, as some Ukrainian politicians and intellectuals like to have it. Not only the OUN-UPA’s massacre of the Poles itself, but also the ethnic cleansing’s Ukrainian ideologists, instigators, perpetrators and justifiers are matters of Poland’s and not only Ukraine’s national history. The same argument applies to Ukrainian antisemitism, and its integral role for Jewish and not only Ukraine’s national history.

The Polish role in the radicalization of Ukrainian nationalism

On the other side though, as historians of Eastern Europe know all too well, the connection between Poland’s national history and the Ukrainian ultra-nationalists’ massacre of Poles is deeper than some Polish politicians and intellectuals might be keen to acknowledge. There happened a fundamental transmutation of Ukraine’s originally emancipatory, inclusive and leftish nationalism of the early 20th century into a more and more integral, ethno-centrist and ultimately fascist-like ideology, during the inter-war period. This transmutation happened not the least as a result of Polish anti-Ukrainian policies in Eastern Galicia – from where most of the radical leaders of the OUN came, among them Bandera himself.

To be sure, the Polish Second Republic’s repressive policies regarding Ukrainians’ striving for autonomy, cultural life and political participation as well as later Polish regressions against Ukrainians cannot serve as a justification. They cannot diminish Ukrainian responsibility for the Volhynian massacre, as some Ukrainian “patriotic” commentators argue. Still, the inter-war Polish state’s manifold repressions of Ukrainians under its control, between the two world wars, were among crucial historic preconditions for the eventually genocidal turn of Ukrainian ethnic nationalism, in the early 1940s.

This means also that the origins of this Ukrainian radicalization, in the inter-war period, were rather different from the sources and nature of the simultaneous escalation of German nationalism. The latter became radicalized within the more or less sovereign nation-states of Germany and Austria. In contrast, the parallel emergence of an extremist form Ukrainian ethno-centrism was mainly determined by a continuing lack of a state as well as Polish and Soviet political repression of most forms of Ukrainian patriotism (as well as by historical learning from German and Italian fascism). While the ideology of Bandera’s OUN eventually displayed certain semblances with that of the Nazis, the historical conditions of the rises and the eventual political aims of Ukrainian and German ultra-nationalism after World War I remained more dissimilar than alike. In particular, Ukrainian ultra-nationalist ideology still had as its main aim political independence. Though, as turned out in 1943, it was also eventually mass-murderous, the OUN’s agenda lacked the ruthless eliminationism, strident chauvinism and megalomaniac imperialism of the Nazi doctrine.

In another way, Polish politicians and intellectuals may also take a second look at their disagreements with Ukraine’s current memory policies. Poland’s and many other countries’ view of their national histories is, as indicated, often also selective. Without any doubt, for instance, the fight for independence of the famous Polish “doomed soldiers” (Żołnierze wyklęci) of 1944-1963 was a highly tragic and often heroic one. Curiously, it was partly reminiscent of the UPA’s fighters’ battle, fate and suffering.

This Polish history of resistance has, however, also some “dark pages” which are only reluctantly co-remembered by many nationally engaged commentators in Poland. The heated Polish discussion around the Jedwabne massacre of July 1941 should illustrate to Poles why it is so difficult for Ukrainians today to modify their traditional view of themselves as exclusively innocent victims of Stalinism as well as Nazism. Polish politicians should be better than others able to understand why and how it is so difficult for Ukrainians to acknowledge themselves as a nation that also included organized perpetrators of mass crimes who were following a perverted idea of the Ukrainian national good.

As Ukrainians are eager to point out, there were Polish crimes against Ukrainian civilians too, before and after the Volhynian massacre. Such “whataboutism” can, of course, not diminish the significance and responsibility of Ukrainians’ numerically larger killing of Polish civilians. Yet, the instances to which the apologists of the Volhyhnian massacre refer are often real and numerous.

According to a leading Canadian expert on Ukrainian nationalism Myroslav Shkandrij, “ethnic cleansing in one way or another was practiced by the Poles throughout the interwar period, and the Polish government in exile and underground was preparing to reclaim all of Western Ukraine for post-war Poland. Moreover, ethnic cleansing of Ukrainians was conducted on a massive scale by the Polish government at the end of the war and in the postwar period.” Not only Kyiv, but Warsaw too is insufficiently active in adapting its official memory policies so as to adequately commemorate Polish anti-Ukrainian crimes and publicly name their perpetrators. Warsaw too could be today, on a smaller scale, accused of those omissions and commissions that many Poles detect in current Ukrainian behavior.

Academic history versus politicized remembrance

Finally, Poles may want to distinguish between, on the one hand, dilettante memory activists, and, on the other hand, those Ukrainian academic historians that are internationally published. The latter include, among others, well-known older historians, like Yaroslav Hrytsak and Oleksandr Zaitsev from Western Ukraine, or younger recognized experts, like Andriy Portnov or Yuri Radchenko from Eastern Ukraine. Some of the most pertinent, critical and original recent interpretations of war-time Ukrainian ultra-nationalism and the pathologies of Kyiv’s post-Soviet memory policies have come from Ukrainian female researchers at established Western universities including Olesya Khromeychuk (Newton, England), Olena Petrenko (Bochum, Germany), Yuliya Yurchuk (Stockholm) and Oksana Myshlovska (Geneva). Prominent senior Ukrainian diaspora scholars in Canada – among them, John-Paul Himka (University of Alberta) and Myroslav Shkandrij (University of Manitoba) – have over the last years published a number of critical accounts of the OUN and its current remembrance in Ukraine. Most of those serious Ukrainian scholarly researchers of war-time Ukrainian ultra-nationalism, and its commemoration today who have published in peer-reviewed high-impact journals and book series present interpretations that are closer to the Polish academic mainstream’s opinion on the OUN(B)’s responsibility for the Volhynia massacre than to recently whipped-up Ukrainian historic patriotism.

In addition, there are publicly and academically prominent non-Ukrainian scholars who have published or/and are continuing to publish influential critical accounts of the OUN(B) and its leaders. To name only some examples from two important Western countries, they include, in the United States, Omer Bartov (Brown University), Jared McBride (UCLA) and Timothy D. Snyder (Yale University), or, in Germany, Frank Golczewski (University of Hamburg), Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe (Free University of Berlin) and Kai Struve (University of Halle-Wittenberg). Against this background, the current aberrations in Ukrainian memory policies may constitute temporary phenomena that should not be taken – neither by Warsaw nor by Tel Aviv, Brussels, Berlin, Washington etc. – to signify more than they actually do.

Towards a Polish-Ukrainian alliance

The current trends in official Ukrainian memory policies are unpleasant for many Poles, and encounter sever criticism from the international – including parts of the Ukrainian – scholarly community. Yet, they are not that unusual for a young nation state with, moreover, gravely underdeveloped academia, as demonstrated by the low places or plain absence of Ukrainian universities, in international higher education rankings. One hopes that these aberrations are temporary teething troubles in the building of an extremely troubled nation which has only recently achieved proper independence within its own state, for the first time in modern history.

Ukraine is under existential threat from Putin’s Kremlin which obviously wants the Euromaidan project to fail as spectacularly as possible. In a worst-case scenario, a collapse of the Ukrainian state – as a result of a continuing Russian hybrid war or even further military advances into rump-Ukraine – could destabilize the whole of Eastern Europe. A downfall of Ukraine will have not only catastrophic consequences for the Ukrainian people. The repercussions of such an apocalyptic, yet entirely possible development would also touch upon the core national interests of Ukraine’s immediate neighbors – above all, of Poland.

Against this background, Warsaw should abstract its assessment of Ukrainian domestic affairs, and the formulation of its policies towards Kyiv from the apologetic discourses of controversial Ukrainian memory activists. This concerns above all the current staff of the Ukrainian Institute for National Remembrance which pursues a foreign political line distinct from that of Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Instead, Warsaw’s policies towards Kyiv should prioritize and follow long-term Polish strategic interests.

Warsaw can apply various instruments at Polish disposal to help making the current grey zone in Europe – i.e. the post-Soviet countries that are neither in NATO nor in Moscow’s so-called Collective Security Treaty Organization – more secure. There is an array of potential opportunities for supporting the stability and development of the Ukrainian state. They range from lobbying Ukrainian interests in the EU to support for Ukrainian energy independence and to the design of specifically East European responses to the continuing Russian threat.

The latter’s direction most prominent tool could be a revival of the Polish concept of an Intermarium coalition of the countries between the Baltic, Black and Adriatic seas. This abortive inter-war project can today be used as a reference point for closer East European political and military cooperation to better protect the former Tsarist and Soviet colonies from Putin’s irredentist Russia. Such a security alliance existed, for example, for a brief moment in 1920 when Poland’s and Ukraine’s leaders Józef Piłsudski and Symon Petlyura concluded a defense pact against the Red Army. One hopes that Polish politicians, diplomats and intellectuals will be able to see the bigger picture in these stormy times, and not miss their chance to help Ukraine passing through her currently complicated phase of state-building.


Andreas Umland, Dr. phil. (FU Berlin), Ph. D. (Cambridge), is general editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” published by ibidem Press at Stuttgart, and distributed by Columbia University Press at New York. Dr. Łukasz Adamski (Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding, Warsaw), Prof. Yaroslav Hrytsak (Ukrainian Catholic University, L’viv), Prof. Myroslav Shkandrij (University of Manitoba) and Dr. Per Anders Rudling (Lund University) made useful comments on an earlier draft of this text. A shorter version of this article was printed, in spring 2018, in the “Harvard International Review” (vol. 39, no. 2, pp. 53-57). Unfortunately, that printed version contains a number of unauthorized editorial changes that partly changed its contents, and, in one case, led to a manifestly absurd sentence. Please, do thus not refer to this unapproved printed article, but to the above text when quoting from it.