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The Volhynian Slaughter (Polish: rzeź wołyńska), known in Ukraine as Volhynian Tragedy, refers to the ethnic cleansing that occurred in Volhynia (Polish: Wołyń; nowadays: northwestern Ukraine, southeastern Poland and southwestern Belarus) and Eastern Galicia (nowadays: southeastern Poland and northeastern Slovakia) during the 1940s, with the main events occurring between 1943 and 1944.

The first emergence of Poland as a sovereign state occurred in the second half of the 10th century; from that point on, despite several periods of chaos and internal conflicts, it existed as a country until 1795. In contrast, the Ukrainians never had an independent state during that period: they were under Russian or Polish rule, and also at times the Zaporozhian Cossacks. The territories of Volhynia and Eastern Galicia were the disputed territories of both Poland and Russia from the 11th century onwards, and in the 14th century they became a part of Poland. They remained for nearly five centuries. The relations were not always harmonious, but native Poles and Ukrainians interacted with each other on civic, economic, and political levels quite smoothly over the centuries.


Although there were several nationalist movements in Ukrainian territories during that period (most notably the Khmelnytsky Uprising), the first major step towards the emergence of Ukraine as an independent state happened with the first Partition of Poland in 1772, when the territories were annexed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Unlike the other partitioning empires - Prussia and Russia - who were ruthlessly suppressing any nationalist sentiments by forced russification/germanization, Austro-Hungary was much more lenient, for example allowing the local schools and universities to use the Polish or Ukrainian language and allowing local patriotic organizations to exist. Combined with the rise of nationalist tendencies throughout Europe in the 19th century, the vision of a fully independent Ukraine become more and more of a reality, especially after the Revolution of 1848, when the Austro-Hungarian leaders, fearing the rising Polish independence tendencies in the Galicia region, started supporting the Ukrainian minorities to force a balance in the region.


As the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed after the Armistice of 1918, the tensions between Poles and Ukrainians started to escalate. The Poland government traditionally viewed Ukraine as a part of Poland; the Ukrainians under the leadership of Symon Petlura wanted the long dreamed of independence. The main point of conflict was the city of Lemberg (Polish: Lwów, nowadays Lviv), mostly Polish at the time, but surrounded with almost purely Ukrainian villages and cities. As the World War I drew to a close, during the night of 31 October-1 November 1918, the Ukrainian military units took control over Lemberg's retreating Austro-Hungarian garrison, proclaiming a West Ukrainian People's Republic with the capital city of Lviv, which included among other territories the Volhynia and Eastern Galicia. As neither the West Ukrainian People's Republic or Poland were internationally recognized and Poland's new boundaries had not yet been defined, the issue of ownership of the disputed territory was reduced to a question of military control. Thus a Polish-Ukrainian War of 1918-1919 started; the Poles could count on support of Polish majorities in major cities, while the countryside was almost purely of Ukrainian ethnicity. The war ended on 17 July 1919 with a Polish victory; on 21 November 1919, the Paris Peace Conference granted Eastern Galicia to Poland, a fact confirmed by the subsequent Treaty of Warsaw in April 1920. The Polish-Russian War of 1920 begun; it ended with a Treaty of Riga in March 1921, splitting the Ukrainian territories in two: Volhynia and Eastern Galicia became part of Poland, while the rest was annexed by the USSR. The lost war left a generation of frustrated western Ukrainian veterans convinced that Poland was Ukraine's principal enemy.


The former Ukrainian territories in Poland were organized as the Volhynian Voivodeship. While it was a Polish territory, it was inhabited mostly by Ukrainians, with Eastern Orthodoxy as the main religion. To polonize the voivodeship, a large number of settlers from Poland - many of them World War I veterans - came to Volhynia, settling on the land that, although Ukrainian, now was given to Poles by their government. The tensions between Polish settlers and long-time residents and Ukrainians started escalating quickly. It was fueled by the stark contrast: local people, who lived on the land for decades, were now subservient to richer Polish newcomers who were arbitrarily given the right to land. The growing civil unrest resulted in the Polish government passing a collective responsibility policy in Eastern Galicia: in 1930 Ukrainian community centers and libraries were demolished, property was confiscated, Ukrainian parliamentarians were placed under house arrest to prevent them from participating in elections, with their constituents terrorized into voting for Polish candidates. The Ukrainian pacification received the attention of the League of Nations; Poland was strongly condemned by European politicians. As a result, the conflict between Poles and Ukrainians was growing stronger.

The Ukrainians started organizing. The remaining members of the Lviv government of 1918-1919, who fled to Vienna after the Polish-Ukrainian War was lost, founded OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) in 1929. The Ukrainian National Democratic Alliance (UNDO) was seeking the independence of Western Ukraine through peaceful means, while the OUN - especially the young, radical members - and the UVO (Ukrainian Military Organization) considered violence a viable means to fulfill their goals. In 1940, the OUN split into two competing and hostile factions: the OUN-M headed by Andrii Melnyk and the OUN-B (or OUN-R for "revolutionary") headed by Stepan Bandera. Each group had its strengths. The OUN-M's leadership was more experienced and had some limited contacts in Eastern Ukraine; it also maintained contact with German intelligence and the German army. The OUN-B, on the other hand, enjoyed the support of the majority of the nationalistic Galician youth, who formed the backbone of the underground Ukrainian nationalist movement. It also had a strong network of devoted followers.

Unlike Eastern Galicia, the Volhynia initially had a large degree of tolerance from Poland: Ukrainian culture was supported, Ukrainians were given religious autonomy, around 1,000 school buildings were constructed from scratch, some 2,000 elementary schools opened and over a dozen high schools, employing 4,500 teachers. The new projects in the usually poor towns and cities included city halls and magistrates, post offices, state police buildings, financial institutions, hospitals, and health clinics. In 1928 the Lwów railway line via Stojanów was inaugurated. The roads were being paved on a massive scale. Around 1925 telephone and telegraph lines were built. This was done mostly out of pragmatism: Piłsudski and his allies wanted to get Ukrainian loyalty to the Polish state and to minimize Soviet influences in the troublesome borderline region. After Piłsudski's death in May 1935, this approach was gradually abandoned. The tensions between Poles and Ukrainians once again started to grow, fueled by OUN-B violent acts (including the assassination of the Polish Minister of Interior, Bolesław Pieracki, in 1934). Gradually, new laws against Ukrainians were enacted in Volhynia, including the suppressing of Ukrainian culture and language, forced polonization, and giving all the political positions to Poles, even though roughly two-thirds of the local population were native Ukrainians. The powder keg was now waiting for a spark to blow up.

On 17 September 1939, the USSR invaded Poland, which was already battling the invasion of Nazi Germany forces. The Volhynia territory was now annexed by the USSR, who almost instantly imprisoned all the wealthy landowners and deported them to Siberia; local police forces, politicians, military leaders and social activists were arrested. On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the USSR: after a few days of resistance, the Red Army fled Volhynia on 30 June. Many young Ukrainians were joining German police units in occupied territories; they had weapons training and also assisted in the killing of 200,000 Volhynian Jews. While the Ukrainian police's share in the actual Holocaust was small (they primarily played a supporting role), the Ukrainians learned many genocidal techniques from the Germans: detailed advanced planning and careful site selection, the use of phony assurances to the local populace prior to annihilation, sudden encirclement and mass killing. With the Nazis' indifference (they were employing the divide et impera tactic and did not intervene in the local conflicts), the idea of cleansing the Volhynia of Poles - now dispersed, disorganized and without any leaders, nor without any state support - began to grow. OUN-M leadership (most notably Taras Bulba-Borovets) didn't believe that such an operation was advantageous; but the OUN-B under Mykola Lebed and then Roman Shukhevych intended to ethnically cleanse Volhynia of Poles.

In Eastern Galicia, the antagonism between Poles and Ukrainians also intensified due to perceived Ukrainian collaboration with the Soviet government in 1939–1941 and with the later German administration. Suggestions of limited Ukrainian autonomy, as was being discussed by the Home Army in Warsaw and the Polish Exile Government in London, would find no support among the local Polish population. At the beginning of 1943, the Polish underground came to contemplate the possibility of rapprochement with Ukrainians, but this proved fruitless as neither side would be willing to retreat from its claim to Lviv.

From the OUN-B perspective, the Jewish population had already been annihilated, Russians and Germans were only temporarily in Ukraine, but Poles had to be forcefully removed from the Ukrainian territories. The OUN-B realized that it had to act fast while the Germans still controlled the area in order to preempt future Polish efforts at reestablishing Poland's prewar borders. The local OUN-B commanders in Volhynia and Galicia (if not the OUN-B leadership itself) decided that an ethnic cleansing of Poles from the area, through terror and murder, was necessary. For most of 1942, the OUN-B was not able to control the situation in Volhynia, where in addition to Soviet partisans, many independent Ukrainian self-defense groups started to form in response to the growth of German terror. The first OUN-B military groups were created in Volhynia in autumn 1942 with the goal of subduing the other independent groups. In the spring of 1943 OUN-B partisans started to call themselves the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). In March 1943 approximately 5,000 Ukrainian policemen defected with their weapons and joined the UPA. Well-trained and well-armed, this group contributed to the UPA achieving dominance over other Ukrainian groups active in Volhynia including four OUN-M units and the Ukrainian People's Revolutionary Army; along the way Bandera-faction partisans killed tens of thousands of Ukrainians for real or supposed links to Bulba-Borovets. The OUN-B undertook steps to liquidate "foreign elements", with posters and leaflets urging Ukrainians to murder Poles. Its dominance secured (in spring 1943, UPA actually gained control over the Volhynian countryside from the Germans), UPA began large-scale UPA operations against the Polish population.

On 9 February 1943, a group of UPA soldiers entered the village of Parośle I; after convincing the locals they were the Soviet partisans, the Ukrainians murdered almost everyone (various sources give 149 to 173 fatalities, including several babies; 8 to 12 people survived). This is nowadays considered to be the first act of the Volhynian Slaughter. The attacks began gradually to spread throughout Volhynia; in March and April 1943, a total of approx. 7000 people were murdered. In June 1943, Dmytro Klyachkivsky, head-commander of UPA-North, issued a secret directive saying: We should make a large action of the liquidation of the Polish element. As the German armies withdraw, we should take advantage of this convenient moment for liquidating the entire male population in the age from 16 up to 60 years. We cannot lose this fight, and it is necessary at all costs to weaken Polish forces. Villages and settlements lying next to the massive forests, should disappear from the face of the earth.

Realizing the attacks on Poles in Volhynia were becoming more and more organized, the Home Army decided to begin negotiations with the UPA leaders. Two representatives of both the HA and Polish Government in Exile, Zygmunt Rumel and Krzysztof Markiewicz - both fluent in Ukrainian and raised in the Volhynia territory - went to Volhynia; they were captured and tortured for three days and on 10 July 1943, they were tied to horses and dismembered alive in the village of Kustycze.

This was merely a prelude to what happened on the next day, Volhynian Bloody Sunday, 11 July 1943. The local populations of Poles were earlier informed that the attacks would cease and that they are safe. Then, on 11 July at around 3:00, the massacres began. The Polish villages were surrounded by UPA soldiers and local Ukrainians, armed with pitchforks, scythes and knives, to make sure no one got out. The victims were then tortured to death, regardless of age and gender. The few survivors depicted, among others: disemboweling, eyes gouged out, sawing in half, cutting off limbs, scalping, burning alive, flaying; babies were impaled on bayonets or picket fences; pregnant women were bayoneted in the belly. The methods were purposefully savage: the UPA hoped that the news of the massacres would cause the remaining Poles to flee in terror (and it did). In many cases, people were caught during Mass; the churches were simply locked and then set on fire. The remains of the villages were then looted, and everything was burned to the ground. In the case of Polish-Ukrainian families, one common UPA instruction was to kill one's Polish spouse and children born of that marriage. People who refused to carry out such an order were often murdered together with their entire family. The massacres continued until July 16; the death toll of the six days was estimated at 40,000 at least. Up to 800,000 Poles fled west in terror.

The massacres were not universally supported by the Ukrainians. The Ukrainian Central Committee opposed them (and a number of its representatives were murdered as a result). Many Ukrainians actually sheltered their Polish neighbors; Polish historians document 1341 cases where Ukrainians helped Poles, with 384 of them being killed in retribution.

The Poles quickly began to organize self-defense units. Initially most of them were either disbanded by the Germans or destroyed by the UPA, but in late July 1943, some of the organizations received support from the Home Army. Also, the Poles began killing Ukrainians in reprisal: a total of 2500-3000 Ukrainians were murdered as a result. To prevent such actions and to further organize the resistance against the UPA, the Home Army formed the 27th Home Army Infantry Division in January 1944.

In late 1943, the murders spread to Eastern Galicia. While in Volhynia the Poles were attacked without warning, in Eastern Galicia they were sometimes warned and given 48 hours to leave. Still, a number of massacres occurred there, including the infamous Huta Pieniacka Massacre on 28 February 1944, where all 1200 inhabitants were murdered. As the Galician Poles fled behind the San River, the massacres gradually ceased, and in the second half of 1944, they were directed mostly at those cooperating with the Red Army and NKVD entering Polish territories. Still, major (if isolated) UPA actions occurred up until mid-February 1945. The Polish reprisals also happened: in March 1945, in the Pawłokoma village, about 3,000 Ukrainians were brutally murdered by Poles.

After the end of World War Two, the Volhynia region was mostly annexed by the USSR, while Eastern Galicia became mostly Polish, now named the Bieszczady region. With a large Ukrainian presence in the area, the conflicts were still rife, but now the Polish People's Army was dispatched to deal with the UPA. As the Ukrainian nationalists in the Bieszczady region had strong support from the Ukrainian minority, in 1947 the Polish government initiated the operation known as Action Vistula: forced resettlement of the Ukrainians and the Lemkos minorities to other regions of Poland, mostly the Recovered Territories in the West. A total of 141,000 people were deported. The UPA activity in Poland ceased in late 1947, with minor incidents in following years; it remained active in the USSR until 1949.

The death toll of the Volhynian Slaughter is still open to debate, as in many cases there were no survivors to give even an approximate number of people murdered. The Polish National Remembrance Institute estimates that between 74,000 and 104,000 Poles were murdered, with up to 20,000 Ukrainians killed in reprisals.

Today, the Volhynian Slaughter still remains a bitter and divisive episode in Polish-Ukrainian relations, mostly because of the fact that many UPA commanders involved (most notably Shukhevych and Klyachkivsky note ) and the UPA itself are an extreme case of Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: apart from their actions during the massacres, they remain important and major figures in Ukraine's quest for independence, and are considered instrumental in the emergence of Ukraine as a sovereign state in 1991. There are many monuments dedicated to both the UPA and its leaders across the country (and new ones are erected now and then), which sparks a bitter resentment in Poland, where Operation Vistula and its organizers have been condemned for a long time. (It should be noted that while OUN-B was Stepan Bandera's fraction, known in Poland as banderowcy, Bandera himself was at the time of the Slaughter in a German prison and was not involved with the planning or preparation of the cleansing itself.)

On 22 July 2016, the Polish parliament officially recognized the Volhynian Slaughter as a genocide.

List of Works that Depict and Address the Volhynian Slaughter

As of 2017, due both to the extremely violent nature and very touchy subject, the Slaughter has found little recognition in popular culture; there was a number of short films and written works (mostly non-fiction documentaries). The post-1945 fights between the UPA and the Polish Army were depicted in a few movies, most notably Fire Master Kaleń. The Volhynian Slaughter and the events leading up to it were first tackled by the 2016 Polish film Volhynia, which was both a critical and commercial success in Poland. However, it was banned in Ukrainian, and the Ukrainian actors who participated in it socially and financially punished, highlighting that conflict remains.


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