World War II isn't quite over in what historian Timothy Snyder called the Bloodlands. The nationalist government in Poland is eager to confront Ukraine about an ethnic cleansing episode in 1943, and the Ukrainian authorities, whose own nationalism is a sometimes violent reaction to Russian aggression, are torn between glorifying the perpetrators of those crimes and apologizing to the Poles, their closest allies in Europe.
In the Volhynian massacre, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), the military wing of Stepan Bandera's Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, killed up to 100,000 Poles mainly in the Volhynia, or Volyn region that is part of today's western Ukraine but was part of Poland before World War II. The reasons the Ukrainian nationalists did this were twofold. Between the two world wars, Poland had oppressed Ukrainians living in the area, forcibly converting them to Catholicism and generally treating them as second-class citizens. And in 1943, many Volhynian Poles sympathized with the Red Army, which had turned the tide against Nazi Germany's onslaught, and cooperated with Moscow-backed guerrilla units.
By 1943, Bandera himself was in a German concentration camp, and his allies in Ukraine were disillusioned with Germans as allies who would help them set up an independent Ukraine. They also hated the Soviets with a passion (after the war ended, they kept up resistance against them in the woods for another four years). They realized they would have to fight alone, without any foreign support, and they moved to destroy what they saw as a fifth column. In his book about the region's bloody history, Snyder, who is sympathetic toward modern Ukraine, thus described the chain of violence:
The OUN-Bandera, the nationalist organization that led the partisan army, had long pledged to rid Ukraine of its national minorities. Its capacity to kill Poles depended upon German training, and its determination to kill Poles had much to do with its desire to clear the terrain of purported enemies before a final confrontation of the Red Army.
Snyder goes on to explain how the ethnic conflict launched by the anti-Communist UPA's actions only strengthened Stalin's hand. Stalin attached the contested territories to Soviet Ukraine and continued purging them of Poles.
Last week, the upper house of the Polish parliament, the Senate, recommended that the lower house, the Sejm, pass a resolution describing the Volhynian events as genocide. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the ruling Law and Justice party, has promised that the Sejm would comply; he can probably be trusted on that since his party dominates the parliament.
The Sejm has long hesitated to do this. In a 2009 resolution, it used a milder formula: "ethnic cleansing with the characteristics of genocide." Attempts to toughen it were shot down by the previous centrist government. Former Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski argued that though the massacre had all the markings of genocide, saying so would weaken Ukraine's recent pro-European bent.
He had good reasons to think so: Since the "Revolution of Dignity" in 2013-2014, the veneration of Bandera and his nationalist collaborators has become part of the new Ukrainian ideology that has helped unite the country against the Russian aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. To some of the volunteer battalions fighting in the east, Bandera is an indisputable hero: All he and his supporters did was in the cause of national liberation. Last year, the Ukrainian parliament passed a law that made it illegal to "disrespect" the memory of UPA fighters. Last week, as part of its "decommunization" policy that envisages the removal of Soviet statues and symbols and the mass renaming of towns and streets, the Kyiv city council voted unanimously to rechristen the capital city's Moskovsky Prospekt (Moscow Avenue) after Bandera.
That was a move designed to irk Russian President Vladimir Putin, to whom Bandera is a Nazi butcher, in keeping with the Soviet tradition. Moscow reacted immediately: The Russian Foreign Ministry's Konstantin Dolgov called the renaming "a direct mockery of the memory of those who died fighting Nazism," and Putin's press secretary Dmitri Peskov expressed "regret," adding that "the historical kinship between Russia and Ukraine cannot be eradicated" in this way.
Yet the timing of the name change was woefully insensitive: It came just before the Polish commemoration day, July 11, angering many in Poland. "With their move, Kyiv politicians have weakened the position of Ukraine's friends in Warsaw and worsened the situation of their compatriots in Poland," wrote Olena Babakova, a Ukrainian journalist who works for Radio Poland in Warsaw. "If Ukrainians don't want to refrain from potentially conflict-generating decisions, they could at least take care to pick less inopportune moments for them."
The timing was all the more unfortunate because last weekend, Warsaw hosted a North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was in attendance, seeking aid against Russia.
The Ukrainian leader sought to mollify his Polish hosts, kneeling before a memorial to the victims of the Volhynia massacre. The gesture failed to satisfy Polish nationalists. Witold Listowski, president of a patriotic organization of the "Borderlands," as Volhynia is often described in Poland, called it "a hypocritical propaganda gesture." Ukrainian lawmakers, for their part, are preparing an angry response to the Polish Senate's resolution, which Boris Tarasyuk, deputy chairman of the Ukrainian parliament's foreign affairs committee, has called "essentially anti-Ukrainian."
With nationalists in power in both countries, a conflict over history is poisoning a natural relationship: Ukrainians and Poles can even understand each other's language, and Poland is the shining example for pro-European politicians in Ukraine. To official Kyiv, condemning Bandera would be a concession to the Kremlin. To official Warsaw, Bandera veneration is incomprehensible: The Volhynia massacre ranks with the worst of Soviet atrocities against Poles.
Kyiv could still take a conciliatory step toward its Polish neighbor: Mayor Vitaly Klitschko has not yet signed the decree renaming the avenue. It could do more to acknowledge the massacres and teach that shameful side of the history, correcting school textbooks that commemorate Bandera and his followers as heroes. "Banderism has become part of state ideology," former Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller wrote recently, "and the genocidal Volhynia murders serve the formation of a new Ukrainian identity."
Poland and Ukraine are still drawn together by pragmatic considerations and a common fear of Russia's assertiveness in the region. Yet the spat over the Volhynia murders shows that when nationalists come to power, pragmatism can take a back seat to the refighting of old wars and bitter arguments over history. National identities built on blood perpetuate such conflicts, dragging them into the present regardless of how impartial historians apportion blame.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg View