Ever since it regained independence in 1918, Poland has sought to restore its former Commonwealth in one way or another. The region of Galicia, historically shared between Poles and Ukrainians, has been the focal point of this mission, both then and now. Poland, while arrogantly convincing itself that it is acting to ‘help’ Ukrainians here, has in reality been behaving like a former colonizer (a charge it hypocritically always accuses Russia of), and this idea has not been lost on Ukrainians themselves. In various shapes and forms, some extreme nationalists have resisted Polish hegemony by using the Poles’ own historic terrorist tactics against them, regardless if Poland really had their ‘best interests’ in mind when it interfered in their domestic affairs or not. By being the ‘ungrateful’ recipients of such Polish ‘help’, the Ukrainians are essentially backhanding their Polish patrons, and if history is any indication, then Poland has inadvertently worked against its own interests by summoning the ghosts of Ukrainian nationalism during EuroMaidan.
The Polish Annexation of Western Ukraine
Polish-Ukrainian antagonism goes back centuries, but concerning what is most relevant for the present day, it is necessary to begin at the Second Polish Republic (1918-1939). In its infancy, it was only supposed to compose mostly ethnic Poles, per the self-determination principle enshrined in the Treaty of Versailles. This wouldn’t be the case, however, as Poland would be the first country to go beyond this principle in fighting to extend its borders way past what the international community envisioned for it.
The Polish-Ukrainian War:
Poland’s territorial issue with Ukraine rested over Eastern Galicia. During the Imperial period of Austrian-Hungarian control, Vienna placed both the Poles and Ukrainians under the same administrative division, the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, with Poles being the majority in the west and Ukrainians the majority in the east. After 1918, Poland controlled Western Galicia, while Eastern Galicia was incorporated into the West Ukrainian People’s Republic (WUPR). Herein was the problem – Lvov (part of the WUPR), the heart of Eastern Galicia and the former Imperial capital of the region, was mostly inhabited by Poles, whereas the surrounding countryside boasted a strong Ukrainian majority. Hypocritically, although Poland wanted to incorporate as many minorities as possible under its new state, it was absolutely against Poles being a minority in other states. Consequently, Poland attacked and defeated the WUPR during the Polish-Ukrainian War and annexed Eastern Galicia, the cradle of Ukrainian nationalism and majority Ukrainian-inhabited.
The Polish-Soviet War:
Shortly afterwards, Poland entered into an alliance with Symon Petliura’s Ukrainian People’s Republic, an entity that was fighting against the Bolsheviks to establish a nationalist state in what mostly the territory of modern-day Ukraine. As part of this new partnership (which was the physical manifestation of Pilsudski’s Balkan-esque ‘Promtheism’ plan against the former Russian Empire), Polish forces surged eastward during the Kiev Offensive and occupied the capital of the former Kievan Rus. The consequent Bolshevik counteroffensive pushed the Poles back to Warsaw before the ‘Miracle at the Vistula’ and war exhaustion brought both sides to the negotiating table. The 1921 Treaty of Riga not only institutionalized the Polish annexation of Eastern Galicia and Volynia, but also moved Poland’s borders about 200 kilometers eastward of the internationally suggested Curzon Line, which was identified as the maximum extent of the majority Polish-inhabited areas of Eastern Europe (and thus, what should have been the border of Poland in accordance with the principle of self-determination). To put it another way, when taken together, the Polish gains in Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine represented the largest post-Versailles change of territory before Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939.
Second-Class Citizens in the Second Polish Republic
Poland’s annexation of Eastern Galicia and other majority Ukrainian-inhabited areas led to the government treating its new citizens with second-class status. Intense Polonization commenced, which sometimes included the banning of Ukrainian in schools. There were even attempts made to forcibly convert Orthodox and Uniate Ukrainians to Catholicism, which occasionally involved the closing and destruction of their churches. Poles were encouraged to settle in the new frontier and they attained privileged positions over the Ukrainian majority, all in an attempt to dilute the demographic imbalance to Poland’s favor. In what was perhaps the most radical move of all, suspected Ukrainian insurgents and other “anti-state” elements were sent to concentration camps (which up until then, only Russian prisoners of war had to endure), in a move that would later create a precedent for Nazi Germany to enact against Poles and others in its occupied territories, to the detriment of millions. More and more, it seemed to many Ukrainians that the Poles were the actual colonizers and the Austrian-Hungarians and Russians were benign and democratic administrators by comparison.
From Resistance to Terror
Ukrainians were obviously none too happy with their status in the Second Polish Republic, and some of them resorted to physically fighting back against their oppression. The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) was created in 1929 for this purpose, but it almost immediately resorted to terrorist tactics to achieve its objectives. In a paradoxical manner, this was very similar to what Josef Pilsudski’s combat wing of the Polish Socialist Party carried out against the Russian Empire. The high point of the UON’s pre-war terror campaign occurred in 1934 when they assassinated Polish Interior Minister Bronislaw Pieracki, to which the Polish government reacted by creating the previously mentioned concentration camps.
Notorious Ukrainian fascist and one of the leaders of the group, Stepan Bandera, was arrested for his involvement and sentenced to death, although this was later switched to life in prison. He left jail in 1939 after the Nazi invasion of Poland and immediately went to work collaborating with Adolf Hitler. A few days after the onset of Operation Barbarossa, he declared an independent Ukraine on 30 June, 1941, which eventually put him at odds with Nazi leadership and got him arrested and sent to Berlin. Before his release in 1944, his followers assembled the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and completely decimated the Galician and Volhynian countryside, carrying out savage genocide against the Poles that were living there. Altogether, at least 100,000 civilians were brutally murdered during this underreported ethnic cleansing.
Bandera was only released from prison in 1944 when the Nazis hoped he would lead a terrorist stay-behind army to attack the Soviets during their counter-offensive throughout Eastern Europe. He opted not to return to the front lines (let alone behind them) and instead remained in the Reich. After the end of the war, he stayed in Germany, where he was later killed in 1959 by a KGB assassin. Although the man was now dead, his fascist and genocidal ideas most certainly weren’t, and they would serve as the rallying cry for a whole new generation of Ukrainians during 2013’s EuroMaidan.
Andrew Korybko is the American political correspondent of Voice of Russia who currently lives and studies in Moscow, exclusively for ORIENTAL REVIEW.