Poles vs. Ukrainians during World War II

From Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe (St. Martin’s, 2012), Kindle Loc. 4091-4123, 4147-4157:

The borderlands of eastern Poland were invaded not once, but three times during the war: first by the Soviets, then by the Nazis, and finally by the Soviets again. The different ethnic communities that lived in this richly diverse area reacted to each invasion in different ways. Most of the Polish population resisted the Nazis and the Soviets alike, in the hope that Poland might somehow be able to return to its prewar status quo. The Ukrainian population, by contrast, was more divided. Almost all of them feared and hated the Russians because of the brutal way that they had ruled the Soviet part of Ukraine during the 1930s; but many welcomed the Germans, at least at first, as liberators. The Jews, meanwhile, did not know where to place their faith. Many hoped that the Soviet invasion might deliver them from Polish and Ukrainian anti-Semitism; later, some seemed to hope that the German invasion would save them from Soviet persecution. By the time the region was invaded for a third time at the end of 1943, the handful of Jews who still survived had lost faith in all outsiders, whatever their nationality.

Both the Soviets and the Nazis played these different ethnic groups off against one other. The Nazis especially sought to harness the nationalist sentiments of the Ukrainians, in order to suppress the rest of the population. Even before the invasion they had made contacts with Ukrainian far-right political groups, particularly the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). This was an illegal ultra-nationalist movement, akin to the Ustashas in Croatia or the Iron Guard in Romania, which embraced the use of violence to achieve its aims. The Nazis dangled the promise of Ukrainian independence before them in return for their collaboration. While the most powerful factions of this shady organization never trusted German intentions, other factions enthusiastically allowed themselves to be exploited – partly because they thought the Nazis would give them what they wanted, but also because they shared some of the Nazis’ darker intentions.

The most shameful collaboration between the OUN and the Nazis was the way in which they worked together to eradicate the Jews. The OUN had for years been speaking of ethnic purity, of a ‘Ukraine for Ukrainians’, and of the benefits of revolutionary terror. The implementation of the Final Solution, particularly in the region of Volhynia, showed followers of the OUN that the slogans were not mere rhetoric. These massacres, which occurred in full view of the general population, would provide the template for all future ethnic cleansing in the region. What once would have been unthinkable now became eminently possible.

During the course of 1941 and 1942, about 12,000 Ukrainian policemen became intimately acquainted with the tactics the Nazis used to kill over 200,000 Volhynian Jews. As collaborators, they were involved in the planning of operations. They gave assurances to local populations in order to lull them into a false sense of security. They were employed in the sudden encirclement of Jewish villages and settlements, and even took part in some of the killing itself. The slaughter of the Jews was the perfect apprenticeship for what would come later.

At the end of 1942, when it first became obvious that German power was waning, these same Ukrainian policemen deserted their posts en masse. They took their weapons and went to join the OUN’s new, armed partisan group, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (Ukrains‘ka Povstans’ka Armiia, or UPA). They used the skills they had learned under the Nazis to continue their campaign against their ethnic enemies – not only the region’s few remaining Jews, but this time also its large Polish population.

The massacre of Poles began in the same areas where Ukrainian policemen had been most intimately connected to the massacre of Jews: Volhynia. There were many reasons why the ethnic cleansing began here – the area contained extensive forests and marshes, and so was particularly suited to partisan activity, and the isolated Polish communities were much less well defended than in other areas – but the previous actions against the Jews certainly played their part. The taboos had already been broken: young Ukrainian men here had become both trained to kill, and inured to mass killing. When they embarked on their cleansing of the region at the end of 1942 they were therefore relatively free of both external and personal constraints.

In reaction to such events, some local Poles began to set up their own militias for the purpose of self-defence. The Polish underground also diverted resources away from resisting the occupation in order to protect Polish communities from the UPA. Some Volhynian Poles turned to the Germans for jobs as policemen so that they might have opportunities for revenge. (The Germans certainly appeared happy to recruit them, and a new wave of collaboration was born – ironically in the name of controlling former collaborators who were now running amok.) When the Soviets arrived in 1944, many Poles joined the Red Army or the NKVD – again, with the purpose of exacting revenge for all they had suffered. Ukrainian villages were burned, and thousands of Ukrainian peasants killed, in both official and unofficial reprisals for the actions of UPA. These reprisals, naturally, were used by Ukrainian partisans as further justification for their targeting of Poles and Polish villages. And so the situation degenerated into a vicious cycle. During the final year of the war, and in its immediate aftermath, the entire region was engulfed in what was effectively a civil war. What began in Volhynia spread to Galicia and central Poland. Poles and Ukrainians slaughtered one another and burned each other’s villages with an enthusiasm that far exceeded any of their actions against the German or Soviet occupiers.

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Filed under Germany, nationalism, Poland, Ukraine, USSR, war

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