Grzegorz Motyka: "Nothing divides Poles and Ukrainians except disputes about one piece of history – the Volyn crimes"
Polish historian on the dilemmas of Ukraine's and Poland's historical memory
The Ukrainian Week spoke to the Polish historian about the Volyn tragedy in modern political and media contexts, the potential of this theme as a tool for Russia in modern hybrid warfare and optimal historical memory policy for democratic societies.
Discussion of the Volyn tragedy has ceased to be purely historical and at a certain point moved into the political and media spheres, which changed its quality, in particular adding emotional intensity. When did this change occur and due to which factors?
In 2003, the administration of President Aleksander Kwaśniewski was preparing commemorations for the 60th anniversary of the Volyn Crime and expected a clear gesture condemning the "anti-Polish action" of the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) from its Ukrainian counterpart. By that time, a lot had already been said in Poland about Polish crimes against Ukrainians – suffice it to recall the condemnation of Operation Vistula (the forced resettlement of Ukrainians after the war) by the Senate of Poland in 1990 or President Kwaśniewski in a letter to participants at the 2002 Krasiczyn Conference. However, in Ukraine, Volyn 1943 was starting to be talked about as a war in which both sides committed such crimes. Today, this concept is most clearly conveyed by Volodymyr Viatrovych's book, although he simply summarised a concept popular among certain circles of the Ukrainian intelligentsia. The dispute first became evident during a discussion between the foreign ministers of Poland and Ukraine, Bronisław Geremek and Borys Tarasiuk, as part of commemorations in 2003. The former, answering questions about historical events, said that Poland should properly deal with Operation Vistula and Ukraine with Volyn 1943. In response, he heard that while Polish responsibility for the deportation is beyond any doubt, it is necessary to talk about common guilt for the events in the Volyn region.
What role did the issue of the Volyn tragedy play for the Solidarity movement that returned Poland to democracy in 1989? Why was much less to be heard of these historical facts back then, at least in UkrainianPolish dialogue?
After 1989, Polish collective memory policy focused on the communist legacy. Of course, this all happened gradually: today, we are seeing the removal of traces of quite insignificant communist figures, which sometimes leads to public discus- sion. In 2000, I organised an academic conference, The Armed Underground in the Lublin Region against Two Totalitarianisms. It concerned the soldiers of the Armia Krajowa who fought at first against the Germans and then against the Communists (the last combatant of the post-war underground, Józef "Lalek" Franczak, died in 1963). To my surprise, the conference was met with some resistance from professors. Today, from a 2017 point of view, it is difficult to believe that not even
20 years ago the struggles of the post-war underground whipped up so many emotions.
Speaking of Volyn-43, the leaders of Solidarity realised they were dealing with a serious problem. Here it would be appropriate to mention Jan Józef Lipski's essay “Two Fatherlands, Two Patriotisms”, in which he wrote that the Volyn events are clearly on the Ukrainians' conscience. After 1989, the concept that we must take example from the famous 1965 letter of Polish bishops to their German colleagues, in which they called for mutual forgiveness, prevailed among the elite of Polish Solidarity. In other words, the Poles should openly talk about their transgressions: the mistaken national policy of the Second Polish Republic, the 1938 destruction of Orthodox churches in Chełm Land or Operation Vistula. They hoped that in reply the Ukrainians would sooner or later condemn the anti-Polish purges in Volyn.
It was clear that intensive historical research was needed to dispel any doubts about those events. In 1990, Polish historians carried out a huge amount of research work and, despite some disparity, came to the single conclusion that in 1943-1945 there was an "anti-Polish campaign" organised by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. I first visited Kyiv in 1995 and spent three weeks in the archives, which assuaged my final doubts: the UPA and OUN(b) [Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists] organised the anti-Polish purges from beginning to end.
Ukrainians tend to find the situation where they are forced into reconciliation unacceptable. In particular, when it comes to the case of Volyn-43. Is this fact taken into consideration in Poland? Because ignoring this only fuels the conflict…
During Polish-Ukrainian discussions in 1990, the idea that nothing divides Poles and Ukrainians except history was often heard. I think today we can say that nothing divides Poles and Ukrainians except disputes about one piece of history – the Vo- lyn Crimes. Over the past 25 years, we have achieved a lot and this should be remembered. It is another matter that this dispute runs very deep and is largely modern. I will try to explain this in a few sentences.
For Polish society, the topic of Volyn-43 is very important. It is one of our bloodiest parts of World War II. Around 100,000 people were killed then (even Ukrainian historians who deny this figure acknowledge that tens of thousands of Poles fell victim). It is logical that this topic raises many emotions. Starting from the 1994 conference in Podkowa Leśna, two approaches took shape among Polish panellists.
According to the first, the Ukrainian underground during World War II and after it fought for Ukraine's independence, but the methods of this fight (massacres of civilians) can in no way be justified. Supporters of the second approach, mainly representatives of so-called Kresy groups say that the methods of the OUN(b) and UPA were so terrible and cruel that they discredit these formations' aspirations for independence. So they should not be considered as such.
Instead, the Ukrainians suggest a completely different description of the past. Advocates of the "Polish-Ukrainian War" theory, in which "both sides committed similar crimes" claim that the OUN and UPA, of course, fought for independence, but their methods were no better and no worse than those used by other underground movements. Such radically different interpretations strengthen the misunderstanding. I do not think I need to explain to you that when Poland denies the proindependence nature of the UPA, Ukraine immediately loudly points out that every nation has the right to choose its own heroes. However, it should be remembered that for Poles the approach of sym- metrical guilt sounds like "forget about Volyn and the victims from there, and if you do not do this, then you are xenophobes with postcolonial syndrome". Recently, I came across the phrase "Polish society is unable to forgive" in this context.
I agree with your scepticism regarding a "mandatory" apology. Discussion on this topic is very complex, because it is immediately interpreted as an attempt to force one side to bow to the other. Therefore, first of all I suggest that they both openly condemn the crimes committed. It would be enough to say one sentence that no representative of the Ukrainian state has ever said: "the UPA organized anti-Polish purges and crimes that cannot be justified – we condemn them." In July 2016, Petro Poroshenko made a step in this direction, which I really appreciate, by laying flowers in Volyn Square, Warsaw.
NO ONE LIKES TO ADMIT TO MISTAKES – THEIR OWN, THEIR FAMILY'S OR THEIR NATION'S. GOOD HISTORICAL MEMORY POLICY SHOULD CREATE A SPACE WHERE IT IS ALSO POSSIBLE TO TALK CALMLY ABOUT THE TRANSGRESSIONS COMMITTED BY ONE'S OWN PEOPLE
Russia, which is now waging a hybrid war against not only Ukraine, but also the Euro-Atlantic community, does not hesitate to take advantage of any conflicts and points of dispute, particularly between Ukraine and Poland. Do Poles take this factor into account when it comes to discussion about the Volyn tragedy (and at the same time about the vision for our region's future)?
The Volyn-43 issue does not affect the current cooperation between Warsaw and Kyiv. Poland has supported and supports Ukraine's actions to preserve territorial integrity and we all should be important to stay so in the future.
However, the debate on Volyn-43 was quite passionate. The controversy started because of the Ukrainian parliament's decision to recognise the OUN and UPA as fighters for independence (with penalties for those who deny this fact), which was made one hour after President Bronisław Komorowski's speech.
Many times I have heard that the voting time was chosen by accident, that it was just carelessness and so on. Maybe that is true. But perhaps it was something else – a cold-blooded move, because it was obvious that the Polish president in the middle of an election campaign would not be able to protest strongly.
Many Poles took this decision by the Verkhovna Rada as a slap in the face.
I say this sincerely, because I am convinced that only open conversation will help us overcome misunderstandings in historical matters. For a significant number of Ukrainians, the UPA is important because of its fight against the Soviet Union for independence. But only open discussion about the crimes of this formation against ethnic minorities will allow others to understand the Ukrainian position. Denial will not help...
The broad historical narrative of the Second World War, unfortunately, does not include a level that would describe these local conflicts that the clash of two totalitarian regimes gave rise to in Europe, nor the uncertain fate of nation states that lingered since the end of World War I. This applies to Ukrainian-Polish relations in particular. There is still much unsaid about this local history. How can these topics be articulated?
In the case of formations that led an armed struggle during the war, it seems that examples of various war crimes can always be found. The Polish Underground also sometimes resorted to contemptible acts and atrocities. Many books have been written on this topic in Poland. But this does not mean that we should equate the activities of the Polish and Ukrainian underground. The OUN(b) and UPA made a decision to depolonise and eliminate the Polish minority from the territory of Volyn and Eastern Galicia (the territory from Ivano-Frankivsk all the way to KrynicaZdrój in present-day Poland). They wanted to expel or physically destroy the Poles, and this decision was made by the central leadership of the Ukrainian underground. On the other hand, the Polish movements were not given such orders – the murders of the Ukrainian population were at the initiative of local commanders. This is the fundamental difference.
Decommunisation is a very important issue that has caused debate in Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic States. During the Second World War, Central Europe was caught between two totalitarian systems (German Nazism and communism). Both committed terrible crimes, though they found their victims in different ways. It is quite difficult to accept the fact that the Red Army, i.e. the armed forces of a totalitarian state, defeated the Nazis and saved the people of liberated countries from a policy of genocide. One occupation replaced another, although the second one did not foresee the destruction of entire peoples. Communism was not good, but the destruction of Nazism was. I follow the discussion in the former Soviet Union with great interest: who should be the beneficiary of its victory over the Third Reich – Russia alone or all the nations of the former Soviet Union? Remember that, after Russians, Ukrainians were the second largest group in the Red Army, so the victory over Nazism belongs to them too. In this debate, it is important not to whitewash the crimes of communism, but at the same time pay tribute to those who destroyed Nazism.
What, in your opinion, should historical memory policy look like in order to preclude speculation, propaganda and bad faith? It is no secret that history and the way it is presented to society has changed under different governments...
Even in authoritarian states, government must reckon with the mood in society. In Poland, the memory of Volyn-43 survived, although the authorities did not allow research on this topic. Equally, the cult of the UPA was preserved in Western Ukraine, despite excessive force from the Soviets who did much to destroy it. Paradoxically, when we gained our freedom at the beginning of the 1990s, those who remembered Volyn and those who venerated the Ukrainian Insurgent Army could consider themselves victims of the totalitarian regime.
For me, good historical memory policy should be based on professional research. The worst thing is when it is run by people who like a sugar-coated version of their own history that is far from the truth. This often leads to the manipulation of public sentiment. Let's remember one more thing: no one, of course, likes to admit to mistakes – their own, their family's or their nation's. So good historical memory policy should create a space where it is also possible to talk calmly about the transgressions committed by one's own people.
THE VOLYN-43 ISSUE DOES NOT AFFECT THE CURRENT COOPERATION BETWEEN WARSAW AND KYIV. POLAND HAS SUPPORTED AND SUPPORTS UKRAINE'S ACTIONS TO PRESERVE TERRITORIAL INTEGRITY AND WE ALL SHOULD BE IMPORTANT TO STAY SO IN THE FUTURE