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The genocide myth and Poland’s victimisation complex

One of the best examples of fake news in the post-communist world is the finger pointing by Russia and Poland towards Ukraine. Instead of looking in the mirror at the mainstreaming of nationalist discourse both countries point to “nationalists” in Ukraine. Yet, populists with nationalistic tendencies receive between 40 and 70 per cent support in Polish or Russian elections respectively, while in Ukraine they are unable to cross the four per cent threshold to enter parliament. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s Solidarity party has never given its support to rallies of nationalists.

December 1, 2017 - Taras Kuzio - Articles and Commentary

This text is a part of a two-voice series: “Poland and Ukraine – Two voices”. Read the other voice here.

While Polish President Andrzej Duda condemned the hateful messages seen during the November 11th march in Warsaw, Interior Minister Mariusz Blaszczak described it “a beautiful sight” and said “We are proud that so many Poles have decided to take part in a celebration connected to the Independence Day holiday”. The Polish National Foundation, a body with strong ties to Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, defended the events that took place on Poland’s Independence Day on November 11th. Nationalism in Russia and Poland is a growing part of the mainstream as seen in the unanimous vote by the Polish parliament to declare the 1943 killings of Polish civilians as “genocide”. This was evident during a recent Vilnius conference when two scholars from the excellent Center for Eastern Studies (OSW) harangued me about Volhynia in 1943 and voicing their support for the genocide myth.

The root cause of Russia’s and Poland’s finger pointing is a disrespect for Ukraine and Ukrainians who have never been seen by Russian and Polish nationalists as a real nation. In August 2009, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sent an open letter to his Ukrainian counterpart, President Viktor Yushchenko, outlining a host of demands to change Ukrainian domestic and foreign policies. One can now hear similar demands coming from officials in Poland. Such a situation forces a question: How would the ruling Law and Justice party react if Poroshenko demanded that Poland be excluded from the EU because its membership is incompatible with honouring Roman Dmowski, the pre-war antisemitic and fascist ideologue of the National Democrats (Endecja) who is honoured by a monument in Warsaw’s Na Rozdrożu Square. Polish President Andrzej Duda has said that Ukraine’s membership of the EU is incompatible with Stepan Bandera. And yet, Bandera never denied the existence of Poles, while Dmowski denied Ukrainians as a nation. Bandera remains buried in Munich where he was assassinated by a KGB agent in 1959.

What would be the reaction in Warsaw if Poroshenko demanded the replacement of the “anti-Ukrainian” director of the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, as has Duda of the “anti-Polish” director of Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, Volodymyr Viatrovych who is now banned from travelling to Poland? One also would wonder what the reaction would be in Warsaw if the Ukrainian parliament voted to declare the killings of Ukrainian civilians from 1938-1947 and the ethnic cleansing of Ukrainians in 1947 (the Vistula Action or Akcja Wisla) as “genocide”?

It cannot be denied that the seeds of the bitter Polish-Ukrainian antagonism that exploded into mutual killings in the 1940s were laid in part by the Polish nationalist policies in inter-war Poland. Polish nationalistic policies transformed Volhynia from a hotbed of Ukrainian national communism to Ukrainian nationalism – as exemplified by Danylo Shumuk who moved from the KPZU (Communist Party of Western Ukraine) to UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) and later became a dissident and political prisoner in Soviet Ukraine.

Poland’s genocide myth

There are three conundrum’s facing supporters of the genocide myth. First, Raphael Lemkin’s definition of genocide is more applicable to the murder of Poland’s military elite in the Katyń Forest in 1940 and the ethnic cleansing of Poles from Galicia and Volhynia by Soviet forces in 1944-1946. Lemkin supported the use of the term genocide to describe Joseph Stalin’s Holodomor (forced famine) in Soviet Ukraine in 1943 which led to the deaths of 4-4.5 million Ukrainians.

Second, Polish historians have sought to find Ukrainian nationalist documents planning or calling for genocide against Poles in Volhynia, but they have failed. Indeed, there is no Polish equivalent of the two-volume, 1,400-page collection of 478 documents on Ukrainian-Polish relations edited by Viatrovych (volume 1 here; volume 2 here). Ukrainian historians believe the reason is because documents and archives would undercut Poland’s genocide myth. In other words, no known OUN (Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists) instructions exist that ordered UPA units to kill Poles in Volhynia.

Lemkin wrote that genocide requires a prior ideological propaganda campaign to mobilise people to commit the crime, as seen in Nazi Germany and Rwanda. In 1942-1943 there was no propaganda campaign by the OUN against the Polish population. Indeed, the opposite existed with OUN repeatedly seeking to negotiate alliances with the AK (Polish Home Army) but these efforts were being thwarted by the London-based Polish Government-in-Exile. Both Polish and Ukrainian partisan groups discussed the deportation of Ukrainian and Polish populations and those politically loyal and partisan groups affiliated to the pre-war National Democrats (Endecja) even laid out plans for deportations of Jews in the late 1930s and Ukrainians after World War II ended. The genocide myth is based on the exaggerated claim of a mass attack by UPA on July 11th and 12th, 1943 against 146 Polish settlements. Such a massive operation was impossible to undertake for the UPA units that existed at that time who did not yet dominate Volhynia because of a conflict with competing Taras Bulba-Borovets Ukrainian partisan units. Ukrainian historians do not deny that attacks and killings took place but limit these to an absolute maximum of 20-25 settlements.

Polish settlements were not defenceless, as the genocide myth claims. Polish settlements had self-defence units who had been given weapons by the Nazi’s and the AK and they were often bases for the AK and Soviet partisans. Historian Timothy Snyder has written that the majority of Soviet partisans in Volhynia were Poles (numbering between 5,000 and 7,000) and Jews (numbering between 1,000 and 1,500). Poles in Volhynia viewed the Soviets as potential allies against the Ukrainians and Polish self-defence units co-operated with Soviet partisans and the Nazis in attacks against the UPA. In Volhynia and Polissya there were 100 Polish self-defence bases.

A partisan in this conflict – similar to partisans and guerrillas in other wars – is a peasant who carries a weapon and the killing of a partisan could also therefore be described as that of a civilian (Polish Communists reported killing many more “UPA partisans” than existed in Zakerzone because they included murdered civilians). Indeed, Polish and Ukrainian civilians would often join partisan and Nazi (Ukrainian and Polish) police attacks on Ukrainian and Polish villages holding pitchforks and other agricultural implements with the hope of stealing goods from the civilians who had been killed.

Third, how many civilians need to die before a crime is classified as a “genocide”? The genocide claim is discredited by only applying it to killings of Poles and by manipulating dates to begin the Polish-Ukrainian war in 1943.  Historians in Ukraine and the West (including Viatrovych who has become a bogeyman to Polish nationalists and yet whom few have read in Poland) do not deny that Ukrainian nationalists and communists killed Poles or even that more Poles died than Ukrainians. What they do dispute though, is the inflated numbers of Polish victims which through the tabloidisation of history now reaches into the hundreds of thousands. Ukrainian historians cite the Polish Institute of National Remembrance as having collected the names of 23,000-31,000 Polish casualties in Volhynia and Galicia.

Grzegorz Motyka (Od Rzezi Wołyńskiej do Akcji Wisła), one of Poland’s most well-known historians on the 1940s cites Władysław and Ewa Siemaszko estimate of 33,000 Polish deaths in Volhynia. Of these, 19, 000 names have been collected.  Motyka expanded their estimate of 33,000 (without explaining how) to between 40,000-60,000 and reduced his earlier estimate of Ukrainian casualties to 1,000-2,000.  Motyka’s estimates of Polish casualties in Volhynia are similar to those of Snyder (50, 000). Nevertheless, Motyka’s estimate of Ukrainian casualties in Volhynia is far lower than those estimated by Snyder (10,000-20,000) or other historians of Ukraine, such as Paul R. Magocsi (20,000), Myroslaw Shkandrij (15,000-20,000) and Serhii Plokhy (15,000-30,000). Widely different estimates of civilian casualties in the Polish-Ukrainian war in the 1940s can be found within Poland, between Polish and Western historians and especially between historians in Ukraine and Poland. 

Historians of Ukraine and objective historians of Poland, such as Timothy Snyder, place the 1943 killings in Volhynia in historical context that began in 1938-1942 and ended in 1947. The number of victims was dependent upon whether Poles or Ukrainians dominated a region. Poles were in a minority in Volhynia and therefore at a disadvantage. In Kholm, Hrubeshiv, Brest, Polissya and Zakerzone (south eastern Poland) Ukrainians were at a disadvantage and suffered proportionately more. Galicia was more evenly balanced and both populations suffered in similar numbers. In Kholm and Hrubeshiv (where Polish forces began the first round of killings of Ukrainian civilians in 1941-1942) and Zakerzone, for example, upwards of 10,000 in the former and 4,000-5,000 Ukrainian civilians in the latter were killed by Polish forces. In regions where Ukrainians were in a minority, such as these, the UPA acted as their only protective force.

Although historians of Ukraine and Snyder present different numbers of Poles and Ukrainians who were killed, they roughly reach a similar conclusion that the overall proportion was two Polish to one Ukrainian killed. Ivan Patryliak, whose work on Ukrainian nationalist groups is regarded as the best in Ukraine, calculates that 39,000-40,000 Poles and 17,000-21,000 Ukrainians were killed.

Poland’s victimisation complex

There are five factors that underlay Poland’s victimisation complex. The first is an unwillingness to accept that Poland was an imperialist power and thereby to only view Poland as a victim of attacks by its neighbours or treachery by its citizens (as in the case of Ukrainians in 1939). Polish historiography does not see a country or people to its immediate east but “wild fields” empty of anything resembling a real nation where Poland, defending the edge of Europe, had a civilising mission. The second, as discussed earlier, is an unwillingness – unlike Ukrainian historians and some historians of Poland such as Snyder – to accept that the killings in Volhynia were not a one-off historical event. They were in fact a part of a bitter war that germinated in the late 1930s and ended in 1947 with Akcja Wisla.

The third is that extreme nationalists not only existed on the Ukrainian side. Polish and Russian nationalists have never viewed Ukrainians as a nation and in interwar Poland anti-Ukrainian policies (which included the burning of hundreds of Ukrainian Orthodox Churches in Kholm and Pidlachia in 1938) meant that few Ukrainians mourned the destruction of the Polish state in 1939. In that same year, Ukrainian nationalists fought against Hungary (and its Nazi and Polish allies) in Carpatho-Ukraine after the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. In 1943-1944, Ukrainian and Polish nationalists believed the Nazi’s had lost the war and both wanted to take control of territory before the arrival of the Soviets. This was the logic of AK’s “Operation Tempest” throughout Poland. To Ukrainian nationalists, who always viewed the USSR (not Poles) as their main enemy, their memory of defeat in Lviv (Lwów) in 1918 was something they sought to prevent from happening a second time.

The fourth is the pervasive view that only the UPA were criminals while the AK were not. There is abundant archival evidence that the AK, Peasant Battalion and NSZ (National Armed Forces loyal to the Endecja) committed crimes against Ukrainians. Sometimes this was in alliance with Soviet partisans. In March 1944, AK and peasant battalion units participated in the murder of 1,500 Ukrainians in what became called the “Hrubeshiv Revolution”. Former Volhynian AK partisans demobilised by Soviet forces were re-employed in Polish communist and KBW (Internal Security Corps) units that committed numerous killings of Ukrainians in Zakerzone.

The fifth is the widespread myth that only Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazi’s. In fact, both Poles and Ukrainians served in the Nazi police and both these forces committed crimes. The Nazi’s arrested and murdered 80 per cent of OUN’s leaders in the second half of 1941. OUN and AK launched their anti-Nazi partisan struggles at the same time in early 1942. Ukrainian police defected from the Nazi’s in March 1943, nearly a year earlier than the Polish police. Therefore, Ukrainian and Polish police respectively joined the UPA and AK. In 1943-1944, Polish police and the Nazi’s killed numerous Ukrainian civilians in Volhynia. Polish police working for the Nazi’s and self-defence units armed by the Nazi’s contributed the largest number of volunteers to the AK’s largest unit, the 27th Wołyń Division.


Most countries in Europe have skeletons in their closets, especially connected to their imperialist pasts. Of the Axis powers, Germany alone has pursued a policy of rigorous de-Nazification while ignoring until recently its genocide of the Herero, Nama and San people in Namibia in 1904-1907. England celebrates Oliver Cromwell as the father of parliamentary government while Irish history views him as a butcher of Irish Catholics.

There is evidence that nationalism is becoming a part of the mainstream in Poland and Russia, which I argue is not the case in Ukraine – where civic patriotism is dominant. The genocide myth and Poland’s victimisation complex is a product of two factors. The first is the current rise in nationalism throughout Europe and the US. The second draws on historical writing and deep-seated stereotypes and chauvinistic attitudes towards Ukrainians that existed in interwar and communist Poland. These were hidden from view in the 1980s and 1990s when the Jerzy Giedroyc, editor of Kultura journal and the architect of the policy of mutual forgiveness influenced the Solidarity generation and dominated Polish attitudes towards Ukrainians.

A victimisation complex and search for enemies will remain in place as long as nationalism is part of the country’s mainstream. Unfortunately, this will distract from Poland’s strategic objectives of thwarting Russian aggression and supporting Ukraine’s integration into Europe.

Taras Kuzio is the author of the recently published Putin’s War Against Ukraine: Revolution, Nationalism, and Crime and co-author forthcoming (with Paul D’Anieri) of The Sources of Russia’s Great Power Politics: Ukraine and the Challenge to the European Order.


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