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Ghosts of Polish-Ukrainian past resurface with divisive Bandera commemorations

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Krakow, Poland – January 1st marked the 114th birthday of Ukrainian nationalist leader and militant Stepan Bandera. This year, the official commemoration of his legacy in Ukraine provoked fresh criticism from the Polish government even as the two countries have drawn closer together.

While a national hero to many Ukrainians, in Poland, Bandera is seen as a Nazi collaborator who played a key role in the genocide of ethnic Poles and Jews during World War II. 

Treading lightly

This tension quickly came out into the open as Ukraine’s parliament acknowledged the day with a tweet juxtaposing Bandera and Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Ukraine’s current commander-in-chief of the armed forces. This tweet was followed up by similar statements applying Bandera’s words to Ukraine’s current struggle against Russia.

These potentially controversial posts were quickly removed, but not before they were registered by the Polish government and media.

Polish MP, and influential member of the Law and Justice party (PiS), Radosław Fogiel, promptly responded, saying that “the commemoration of Stepan Bandera, responsible for the mass murder of the Polish population in the eastern territories of the Second Polish Republic, on the profile of the Supreme Council of Ukraine must raise objections. This needs to be made clear, especially to friends. The more so that Ukraine has new, true heroes today.”

This protest was then followed up by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, Łukasz Yasina, stating that “our attitude towards the crimes committed by the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army)  remains unchanged, we hope that the rapprochement of the Polish and Ukrainian nations will lead to a better understanding of our common history.”

While no official Ukrainian response to this incident was forthcoming except for removing the tweets, a comparison can be drawn to a similar controversy which emerged earlier in June 2022. In this case, Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany Andrii Melnyk downplayed Bandera’s part in the genocide during the Second World War. After protests by the Israeli and Polish governments, Ukraine’s foreign ministry distanced itself from the ambassador’s statements.

Who was Stepan Bandera?

The historical context of Bandera helps to explain why this legacy has become such a persistent sticking point in Polish-Ukrainian relations. 

He emerged as a political figure in the tumult of the interwar period and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The creation of the short lived West Ukrainian People’s Republic and its struggles with the nascent Polish state over the regions of East Galicia and Volhynia galvanised the nationalistic struggle that would define Bandera’s legacy.

A great deal of the controversy arises with Bandera’s dominant position in the OUN-B (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists – Bandera), which would go on to form the UPA. From here critics note Bandera’s cooperation with Nazi occupation forces, though Bandera’s insistence on Ukrainian independence would ultimately place him in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp as a political prisoner. 

Towards the end of the war. it was Bandera’s faction of the OUN-B and the UPA which would be accused of “ethnic cleansing” in the disputed border regions, or what would become known as the “Volyn Tragedy” or the “Volyn Massacres.” These massacres account for the deaths of anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 Poles and other minority groups.

Conflicted memory

The topic of Stepan Bandera and ethnic conflict in the borderlands and the Volyn Massacre has long been a contentious issue in Polish-Ukrainian relations. The legacy of imperialism and of shifting political and ethnic boundaries continues to impact national culture, and leaves much to be resolved. 

In 2016, the release of the Polish film Wołyn (Hatred in English), which addressed massacres linked to Bandera’s movement, sparked similar tensions, which neatly summarised the larger historical and cultural conflict. From both the Ukrainian and Polish perspectives, the film laid bare stereotypes including those perpetuated by Russian propaganda (the initial Russian invasion of Ukraine had already occurred) and those of Poland’s historical imperialist approach to the so-called Kresy or “borderlands.”

The effect of this film and of subsequent diplomatic incidents, reveals the still volatile nature of historical interpretation in the region. Yet looking at Poland and Ukraine, current events have cast the two as natural allies bound together by shared experience, showing that as easily as history can be seen as the root of conflict, it can also serve as the basis for cooperation.

With memories of foreign occupation, colonisation and oppression still fresh in the minds of many, and with Ukraine’s ongoing struggle against Russian imperialism, the influence of historical experience cannot be dismissed. While Bandera’s legacy can remain an underlying cause of rancour between the two nations, for the time being pragmatic interests are served best by finding the common historical ground.

By Nathan Alan-Lee

Nathan is a research assistant working with the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and a PhD student at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. He completed his Masters degree in European studies at the Jagiellonian University, focusing on party politics in Central and Eastern Europe. Currently, he is pursuing a study of politicisation and partisan influence in society, emphasising memory and historical revisionism.