1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Ukraine, Poland mark 80th anniversary of Volhynia massacre

Jacek Lepiarz in Warsaw
July 11, 2023

Poland and Ukraine are staunch allies in the fight against Russia's aggression. But atrocities committed during the Second World War cast a shadow over their relations to this day.

Polish President Andrzej Duda (left) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (center left) attend an ecumenical service in the Catholic cathedral in Lutsk, Ukraine, July 9, 2023
The presidents of Poland and Ukraine, Andrzej Duda (left) and Volodymyr Zelenskyy (center left), remembered the victims of the Volhynia massacre at an ecumenical service in the Catholic cathedral in Lutsk on SundayImage: Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto/picture alliance

The surprise was great when Poland's President Andrzej Duda and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy arrived at the Catholic cathedral in Lutsk in northwestern Ukraine on Sunday. Their appearance there had not been publicized in advance.

The two heads of state participated in an ecumenical service to commemorate the victims of the Volhynia massacre 80 years ago, when Ukrainian nationalists slaughtered Polish civilians during the Second World War.

"Together we pay tribute to all the innocent victims of Volhynia! Memory unites us! Together we are stronger," Duda wrote on Twitter and Zelenskyy on Telegram. In a press release, Zelenskyy said: "Together with Andrzej, we honored the memory of all the victims in Volyn. We value every life, remember history, and defend freedom together."

Presidents Duda and Zelenskyy laid candles in front of the altar in the cathedral in a highly symbolic gesture of reconciliationImage: Alina Smutko/REUTERS

Both presidents laid candles at the altar and embraced. But the apology so earnestly expected by the Polish side never came.

Hopes of an apology dashed

"We expected more, but the Ukrainian side is not ready to make stronger gestures," Marcin Przydacz, head of President Duda's foreign policy office, told the television channel TVN the next day.

Nevertheless, he said, the presence of the Ukrainian president at the service was "a step in the right direction." Five years ago, on the 75th anniversary of the massacre, Duda commemorated the victims alone in Ukraine.

A good start; a long way to go

There was a mixed response in the Polish media to the presidents' joint gesture. "The service in Lutsk is the right signal. But the road ahead of us is still long," wrote Jerzy Haszczynski in the newspaper Rzeczpospolita, noting that the perpetrators, "the Ukrainian nationalists," had not been mentioned by name.

The criticism on the internet portal onet.pl was even stronger. The fact that Zelenskyy had used the words "all the innocent victims" suggested a "symmetry of blame," wrote former diplomat Witold Jurasz, who added that this was a distortion of history. "The fact that the Ukrainian president was incapable of uttering the word 'sorry' is proof of Duda's political and moral defeat," he wrote.

Long history of tension in Volhynia

Lutsk is the main city in the region of Volhynia, which was in the past claimed by both Poland and Ukraine. After World War I it became part of Poland. At the time, the Ukrainian minority felt discriminated against and resorted to terrorist acts against the Polish authorities. After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Volhynia came under Soviet control. Two years later, it was occupied by Nazi Germany.

'Together we pay tribute to all the innocent victims of Volhynia! Memory unites us! Together we are stronger,' Duda and Zelenskyy wrote on social mediaImage: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/REUTERS

When Germany began to show signs of weakness after its military defeat near Stalingrad, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), a nationalist partisan group founded in 1942, seized the opportunity and sought to drive Poles out of the region. The intention was that this ethnic cleansing of Volhynia would facilitate the creation of a Ukrainian nation state after the war.

Brutality and high loss of life

The first attacks on villages predominantly inhabited by Poles occurred in February 1943. The worst day of the protracted massacre was July 11, 1943 — known in Poland as "Bloody Sunday" — when no less than 99 localities were attacked.

The partisans of the UPA mobilized Ukrainian civilians, who used scythes, pitchforks and axes to slaughter their neighbors — in many cases after maltreating and torturing them — and torched their homes and farms. There were, however, also Ukrainians who risked their lives to save their Polish neighbors.

Public pressure on Poland's government and president to encourage Ukraine to issue an apology is growingImage: Tomasz Gzell/dpa/picture alliance

The violence later spread westwards towards Eastern Galicia and the region of Bieszczady in what is now southeastern Poland. Polish historians estimate that about 100,000 Poles were murdered by the end of the war in 1945. Up to half a million fled or were displaced. Between 10,000 and 15,000 Ukrainians were killed in retaliation by Polish partisans.

A difficult chapter in Polish–Ukrainian history

The massacre was taboo during the Communist era, and it was only after the Cold War that a slow, painful reappraisal of the past began.

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Poland became one of Ukraine's most important allies. Warsaw supplied weapons and took in several million Ukrainian refugees. Over one million Ukrainians still live in Poland. Addressing this dark chapter in the neighbors' history was put on hold.

Now, however, the public pressure on Poland's government and president is slowly beginning to grow. A rising number of journalists, writers and politicians are calling on Duda to use his influence on Zelenskyy to encourage the Ukrainian side to make a gesture of apology.

Thorny issues back on the table

The list of controversial issues is long. Victims' associations are complaining that the exhumation of Polish victims in Volhynia is being blocked by Ukrainian authorities. For its part, Ukraine rejects use of the term "genocide" for the Volhynia massacre, arguing that genocide can only be perpetrated by a state, while the atrocities in Volhynia were carried out by partisan units.

Revered in Ukraine; reviled in Poland: wartime nationalist Ukrainian leader Stepan BanderaImage: Serg Glovny/ZUMAPRESS.com/picture alliance

Ukraine also points to the anti-Ukrainian activities of the Polish authorities after the war. Because the Polish security forces could not bring the UPA under control in southeastern Poland, all Ukrainians in the region were forced to resettle elsewhere in the country in 1947. Their homes and churches were razed to the ground.

Stepan Bandera, the leader of the radical wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), which was politically responsible for the UPA, remains a bone of contention. In Poland, he is considered the epitome of evil; in Ukraine, he is honored as a hero in the fight against communism and the Red Army.

There are, however, optimistic voices too. One of those is Andrzej Dera, a close ally of Duda and Secretary of State in the office of the Polish president. He is optimistic about the future after the service in Lutsk. "In the 1960s, we succeeded in reconciling with the Germans. We will also succeed in reconciling with the Ukrainians," he said on Sunday during a television debate on TVN.

This article was originally published in German.

Jacek Lepiarz Journalist for DW's Polish Service who specializes in German-Polish subjects
Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

Skip next section More stories from DW