Poland and politics. Why politicians should not meddle in history

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Analysis & Opinion

Article by: Vitaliy Portnikov

On July 22, the Polish Parliament passed a resolution “in memory of the victims of genocide … committed by Ukrainian Nationalists from 1943-1945.” On August 25, some 90 prominent Ukrainian politicians and intellectuals called on the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s Parliament) to establish three Remembrance Days for Ukrainian victims of crimes committed by Poles.

A parliamentary resolution or declaration is an attempt to seek short-term political gains. At the same time, it is the failure to understand that there are quite a few shameful pages in the history of every nation and state.

Michał Dworczyk, the head of the Polish Sejm’s Commission for Relations with Poles Abroad, believes that the authors of the appeal by Ukrainian politicians and intellectuals to establish days of memory for the victims of Polish repressions committed against Ukrainians are fighting not for the truth but for “short-term political gains.”

But there is another no less important question — are the authors of the appeal lying? Did the events mentioned in the document take place? And do the victims of these events deserve respect? Moreover, the Polish Parliament itself has repeatedly spoken the same way as the Ukrainian intellectuals — for example, about “Operation Vistula.”

In the history of Ukrainian-Polish relations of the first half of the 20th century there is one very important difference. Ukrainians, after the defeat of the Ukrainian National Republic (UNR) and the  Western Ukrainian National Republic (ZUNR), did not have a state. Even when it came to joining the territories of Western Ukraine to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the decision was not made in Kyiv but in Moscow.

The decision to expel the Poles, to launch the persecution against them was approved by the Soviet political leadership — or more accurately, the Russian leadership. Ask Russians if they consider the government that was in power in the Kremlin at that time a foreign one? Do they consider Joseph Stalin foreign?

The events during the Second World War that led to the massive loss of civilians were also carried out by political organizations and paramilitary formations. OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists), no matter how one views the organization, was not a state. And the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) was not a regular army.

But on the Polish side, it was the state that acted. The state itself. The decision on the pacification of Ukrainians was made by the state. The Vistula decision was made by the state. Perhaps a puppet state, but a Polish one nonetheless.

Or, shall we argue about the discernible differences between the Polish People’s Republic and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic? I can even tell you what they were: the security forces in Poland were Polish, even if they were helped by Moscow. In Ukraine they were Russian, even if there were Ukrainians serving in them. And even during the Second World War, the same paramilitary formations whose soldiers were responsible for the death of civilians tried to act on behalf of the state. And many of them had been recognized by the Polish government in London. But there was no Ukrainian government — at least no one recognized the émigré government body and no one obeyed it.

Does this mean that we should judge the Polish state of the early 20th century based on the international law of the 21st century? I don’t think so.

This is precisely why historians should be the first ones to deal with questions of the historical responsibility of nations and states. Intellectuals should address these questions at forums. They should become chapters in school textbooks. But not resolutions or declarations in parliaments.

A parliamentary resolution or declaration is an attempt to seek short-term political gains. And at the same time, it is the failure to understand that there are many shameful pages in the history of every nation and state.

Poland, of course, is no exception. This is exactly what we tried to explain to Polish politicians and public figures when Volyn was discussed in the Sejm and the Senate. This is what I tried to convey to Michał Dworczyk, a man I respect, during a meeting on the eve of the infamous vote.

Bu the precise and unconditional assessment of the real nature of the actions by the Polish parliamentarians — the attempt to seek short-term gains — was made by Mr. Dworczyk only after the appeal by Ukrainian intellectuals and politicians to the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine.

Translated by: Anna Mostovych
Source: Espreso TV

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  • Alex George

    There are plenty of reasons why the nations of eastern Europe could be in conflict – many dark deeds have been done to each other in the past century. No-one has completely clean hands.

    Fortunately, higher forces are propelling then towards reconciliation. The sheer common sense of the EU as a means of resolving trade issues, and the obvious threat from the east, all combine to make a case for resolving issues like this

  • laker48

    “OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists), no matter how one views the organization, was not a state. And the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) was not a regular army (…)”
    So, what’s the problem on the Ukrainian side with the recognition of the 1943 carefully pre-planned and meticulously implemented Volhynia massacre of about 60 thousand of Poles and other national minorities as a genocide? http://www.volhyniamassacre.eu/zw2/history

    During the Action Vistula all Boyko, Hutsul, Lemko and Ukrainian civilians were allowed to take with them all their belongings, farm animals and implements, and were resettled at the state’s expense to the so called “Recovered Lands” the German population had been driven out of as the result of the postwar changes of the Polish borders. All of them received vacated by Germans, modern husbandries and state resettlement funds. Most of these people still live in western and northern Poland without demonstrating any propensity to come back and resettle to south-eastern Poland they were driven out of, and only between 12 and 15 thousand returned to their original locations after 1956 when it was allowed.

    It’s also worth to mention that within the Action Vistula between 140 and 150 thousand Boykos, Hutsuls, Lemkos and Ukrainians were involuntarily but successfully displaced with only few hundred random and far between casualties, while OUN/UPA-B (Bandera and Lebed faction) units and local Ukrainian peasants can be “credited” with carefully pre-planned and thought-through genocide, often in the cruelest imaginable way, of between 150 and 200 thousand mostly Polish civilians, but also Jews and other ethnic minorities in the Volhynia region, and throughout western Ukraine in the years 1939-1945.

    • Ihor Dawydiak

      Apart from engaging into any debate about questionable numbers (on both sides) as to who perished in this horrible conflict or for the reasons why this happened, both the current Governments of Poland and Ukraine have acknowledged that mass atrocities were committed by both sides and that the leaderships in both Germany and the Soviet Union at that time were equally guilty of aiding and abetting to the continuation of this conflict. Furthermore, there is no such thing as a winner when it boils down to genocide or the slaughter of innocents and regardless of the numbers of people involved. However, in as much as any inexcusable tragedy should never be forgotten, both the Governments of Poland and Ukraine have taken some major steps forward to not just recognize past failures but also to ask for mutual forgiveness. This in turn demonstrates a high degree of maturity and can only bode well for close positive relations between the people of Poland and Ukraine. For this both sides deserve to be lauded.

      • laker48

        Ukrainian journalist i political scientist Volodymyr Pavliv keeps repeating his opinion that Ukraine has a choice to go either with bandera, or Poland. He seems to be right, as there won’t be any real reconciliation between Poland and Ukraine as long as Bandera, Lebed and Shukhevych are Ukraine’s national heroes. This awkward situation doesn’t mean that Ukraine cannot be a potential strategic ally of Poland, but these relations will be taken with a grain of salt by both sides.

        BTW, the argument that the Action Vistula was a genocide of Ukrainians doesn’t hold any water for many reasons, one of them being that the people removed f4rom the eastern Carpathian regions of Poland were the Boykos, Hutsuls and Lemkos who in most cases don’t consider themselves Ukrainians and never supported UPA fighters.

        The second reason is that the fatalities were few and far between among more than 140 thousand of those wrongfully displaced people.

        The third one is that all those displaced people received land and husbandries in northern and western Poland. Nobody claims that it wasn’t a cultural genocide, but it cannot be compared, even by the wildest stretch of imagination, with the 1943-1945 physical genocide of between 120 and 200 thousand Poles, Jews and other ethnic minorities in western Ukraine.