Even though Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently honored the victims of a 1943 massacre of Poles by Ukrainian nationalists, some Poles still think their country is owed an apology. Worse, such demands are symptomatic of a broader embrace of messianic victimhood that has taken hold in recent years.
WARSAW – July 11 marked the 80th anniversary of the Volhynia massacre, when Ukrainian nationalists fighting for their own state slaughtered nearly 100,000 Poles in a matter of days. People were killed with axes, their entrails and eyes gouged out. Children were thrown against walls, and pregnant women were pierced with bayonets. In response, Poles then killed 10,000-15,000 Ukrainians.
Whereas Polish historians speak of the slaughter as a genocide, Ukrainians recall a war between two underground armies that were both being savaged by the Nazis and the Soviets. To this day, the lack of a Ukrainian apology remains one of the biggest obstacles to a Polish-Ukrainian alliance. Even though Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky honored the victims of the massacre at a recent meeting with Polish President Andrzej Duda, some in Poland still complained, arguing that Duda should have demanded more.
But this is rather ironic, considering that Poland has a robust tradition of refusing to admit guilt for its own historical wrongs. In Poland, one never speaks about how their forebears brutalized and exploited Ukrainian peasants over the centuries. If you read historian Daniel Beauvois’ account of Ukraine’s treatment during the First Polish Republic and under the partitions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, your hair will stand on end. Yet, beyond a small circle of historians and bookworms, few people in Poland know anything about these matters. All they “know” is that they are owed an apology from the Ukrainians.
Consider the debate over whether the massacre qualifies as genocide, as opposed to ethnic cleansing. As Polish sociologist Lech Nijakowski of Warsaw University explains, “Ethnic cleansing … is not genocide, although it may consist of a number of massacres and pogroms, viewed by legal scholars as acts of genocide. They are distinguished from genocide primarily by the intention of the perpetrators – they want to gain full control over the disputed territory and chase the hostile national group out of it.”
This was the Ukrainian nationalists’ goal, and achieving it was the motive for their horrific acts. With ethnic cleansings, Nijakowski writes, “Spectacular torture, rape, and other atrocities have a rational purpose – they cause panic, which accelerates the exodus of the population.”
Most Poles want to ignore this context. But if they read scholars like Nijakowski, they might come to appreciate the importance of wartime demoralization, the Nazis’ murder of 98.5% of Volhynia’s Jews, and the extermination of Volhynian and Eastern Galician elites by both the Nazis and the Soviets. They also might be more sensitive to the deep resentments Ukrainians harbor for the centuries when Poland treated Ukraine like a colony.
Of course, Ukraine will tolerate a lot from Poland; it has bigger problems to attend to. Most of the aid that it is receiving in its war of self-defense against Russia comes through Poland, which has rallied to its side not so much from fellow-feeling as from fear. Before the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki had not even been to Ukraine. Poland’s populist government had effectively frozen relations with its neighbor.
Worse, Poland’s de facto ruler, Law and Justice (PiS) chairman Jarosław Kaczyński, still consistently puts historical grievances above Poland’s interests – for example, by conflating today’s Germany with the Germany of Hitler. It was not so long ago that Kaczyński’s late twin brother, Polish President Lech Kaczyński, refused to provide resources to conferences on Volhynia if the organizers used the term “genocide” in the title. Since then, PiS has tried to criminalize historical scholarship examining past Polish atrocities against Jews and Ukrainians. (Fortunately, owing to pressure from the United States, that law has since been neutralized.)
Faced with such behavior, Duda and his chancellery deserve credit for engaging sincerely with Ukrainian affairs, and for not demanding apologies from Zelensky for age-old offenses. Ukraine needs arms to defend itself, and it needs time to come into its own politically. It did not have the same opportunities that Poland did after 1989. The legacies of anti-Semitism, participation in the Holocaust, and the Volhynia massacre are topics that Ukrainians can address once they have finally secured their independence and democracy.
Poles should remember their own relationship with history. When Jan Gross published his pathbreaking 2022 book, Neighbors, about the burning of 400 Jews in a barn in 1941, he was savagely denounced in Poland. Too many of the country’s leaders have embraced victimhood and the idea of Polish messianism (with its slogan “Poland, the Christ of Nations”), an attitude nurtured by Poland’s partitions.
The time for dealing with historical grievances will come when the conditions are right. Pressing Ukrainians on such issues now, while they are fighting for their survival, will only deepen such grievances. Permitting historians to uncover and contextualize what happened on both sides will have a greater long-term effect on Polish-Ukrainian relations than any political grandstanding ever will.
Editor’s Note: Copyright, Project Syndicate. The following article was published by Project Syndicate on July 20, 2023, and has been republished by the Kyiv Independent with permission. The opinions expressed in the op-ed section are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the views of the Kyiv Independent.