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 - - CONTENTS - In­ter­viewed by Hanna Tre­hub

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.


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.


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