Having been annexed by its neighbors in the late 18th century, the Polish state, as reconstituted directly after WWI, had approx. 5 million Ukrainian inhabitants. This was roughly 16% of the population. In some south-eastern regions (Volhynia, Eastern Galicia) Ukrainians constituted the majority. Most Ukrainians from Volhynia and to the west in the Lublin Voivodeship were Orthodox Christians. The majority of Ukrainians in Galicia, however, were Uniates, or Greek Catholics (i.e., Christians preserving the Eastern rite, but recognizing the authority of the Pope), whose ethnic identity was much stronger. Over 90 % of Ukrainians in the Second Republic of Poland lived in the countryside, 3−6% worked in industry, and ca. 1% were intellectuals. According to the 1931 census, the population of the Volhynia Voivodeship was slightly over 2 million. Ukrainians constituted a vast majority of the local population — approx. 64% (ca. 1.5 million), followed by Poles — 15.6 % (ca. 340,000), Jews — 10 % (ca. 210,000), Germans — 2.3 % (ca. 47,000), Czechs — 1.1 % (ca. 30,000), and other less numerous minorities.
Pre-war Poland was rife with Polish-Ukrainian disputes. Following the overthrow of the Tsar in Russia, both the White Movement and the Bolsheviks made it impossible for Ukrainians to establish their own state with a capital in Kiev. The creation of the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic was hampered by the Ukrainian defeat in the Polish−Ukrainian War and the loss of Lvov (1918). Most Galician Ukrainians did not accept the political status quo. On the other hand, the Polish authorities did not deliver on their own promises. For instance, they failed to open Ukrainian university (as per the 1922 Act of Parliament) and they imposed restrictions on Ukrainian elementary and secondary education. Radical Ukrainian organizations began to use terrorism as a form of political pressure. The Polish politician Tadeusz Hołówko and the minister of the interior Bronisław Pieracki were assassinated in 1931 and 1934 respectively. These were the two most infamous assassinations conducted by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), founded in 1929. The OUN also used terror against pragmatic Ukrainian activists.
In reaction to the act of sabotage conducted by the OUN in the fall of 1930, the Polish authorities ordered pacification of Eastern Galicia. This operation consisted of arrests, beatings, the compulsory quartering of Polish troops in Ukrainian villages, and in the so-called vicious searches (combined with destruction of property and crops). Even though the Ukrainian National Democratic Alliance (UNDO) did reach an agreement with the Polish government in the summer of 1935 and won its own political representation in the Polish parliament, the Polish concessions (e.g., credits for Ukrainian entrepreneurs, partial amnesty, and the release of some OUN activists from the camp for political prisoners in Bereza Kartuska) were insufficient for the Ukrainians. Even the “Volhynian experiment” – that is, fairly liberal administration of the Volhynia Voivodeship under governor Henryk Józewski during 1930−1938 – did not change the situation. When taking office Józewski declared that “a way for the Polish and Ukrainian nations to coexist peacefully had to be found.” Nonetheless, his concessions, were also to prove insufficient. Moreover, in the late 1930s Polish authorities tightened policy towards Ukrainians, which led to Polonisation in Volhynia, especially in the Chełm region, combined with destruction of Orthodox churches.
The course of events sped up after the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. 110,000 of the one million soldiers of the Polish Army were Ukrainian. They fought arm-in-arm with the other soldiers of the Polish Army. At the same time, however, a Ukrainian nationalist terror flared up in Volhynia, particularly after the Soviet invasion of Poland on September 17, 1939. Instances of rape, looting, and murder spread across Volhynia. Polish manors and farms were set ablaze. The number of Polish victims is estimated at 2,000−3,000. Many of those people were soldiers, policemen, clerks, and refugees who had evacuated from Central Poland as it was being overrun by Hitler’s invasion force. Moreover, the Germans began to play the Ukrainian card. The “Sushko” legion is a good example. Six hundred men strong, this OUN detachment was trained by the Abwehr and organized by the Germany-based Col. Roman Sushko. The Sushko legion took part in the German invasion of Poland from the south.
The Polish territories that found themselves under the Soviet occupation stretched eastward from the Pisa, Narew, Bug, and San rivers and constituted 52 % of Poland’s territory (ca. 200,000 km²). Inhabited by over 13.7 million people, they were incorporated into the USSR.
The period of the Soviet occupation of Poland’s eastern territories was one of numerous repressions, mostly (but not solely) against Poles. The persecutions continued with varying intensity and in various forms until the German invasion of the USSR on June 22, 1941. By then hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens had been arrested, imprisoned, or deported to Siberia during four deportation campaigns. Various repressions were levelled against Polish political and social activists, reserve officers, priests, landowners, policemen, foresters, industrialists, merchants, military and civilian settlers and their families, along with escapees from the territories occupied by Germany. But in mid-1940 the Soviets intensified the repressions against Ukrainian nationalists.
After the German invasion of the USSR, the NKVD massacred almost all the people detained in Volhynian and Galician prisons before its evacuation from those territories. The number of victims in Łuck alone is estimated at 2,000−4,500. Similarly, approx. 500 people were killed in Dubno. Moreover, before their retreat from Lvov the Soviets murdered over 3,000 Polish, Ukrainian, and Jewish prisoners.
Many Ukrainians hoped that the Third Reich would help create a Ukrainian state. In the summer of 1941 Ukrainian inhabitants of many localities enthusiastically welcomed the arriving German detachments. Ukrainians erected arches to welcome the Germans and they put up Ukrainian flags. On 30 June OUN-B set up Jaroslaw Stećko government in Lvov. Germans, however, were not interested in this political offer and sent the OUN-B leaders (including Bandera) to concentration camps. In the summer of 1941 Germans initiated a series of pogroms of Jews in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia, which the Ukrainian militia formed by Banderites, took part in. For instance, during the Petlura Days (July 25-27) approx. 1,500 people were killed in Lvov. The former Volhynian Voivodeship and parts of the Lvov and Polesie voivodeships were incorporated as Generalbezirk Wolhynien und Podolien into Reichskommissariat Ukraine with its capital in Równe. Not only German, but also Ukrainian administrative bodies were established in those territories. The latter were to ensure delivery of provisions for Germans, recruit laborers to the Third Reich, and construct and repair roads. Lvov became part of the General Government as the capital of District Galicia (Distrikt Galizien).
The occupier waged terror throughout Volhynia, which some Ukrainians greeted with dismay. The Ukrainian nationalists from the OUN, however, chose to support the occupier. The Germans conscripted approx. 5,000 volunteers into the newly-created Ukrainian auxiliary police. At the very beginning of the occupation the Germans executed several hundred representatives of the Polish and Jewish intelligentsia on the basis of lists drafted by the OUN. These massacres took place in Krzemieniec, Kostopol, and Równe. Moreover, the Germans carried out arrests, executed inmates in prisons, and conducted public executions. After they had captured Lvov, the Germans inspired a pogrom against the local Jews and murdered 25 Polish professors at Wuleckie Hills in Lvov. Thousands of Poles were detained in concentration camps.
Soon, the Ukrainian police in German service and Einsatzkommandos began to organize mass executions of Volhynian Jews. The Jews from the ghettos were not transported to death camps, but killed on the spot, that is, in ditches outside cities or at the edge of forests. By October 1942 the Germans had killed approx. 247,000 Volhynian Jews (97 % of all local Jews).
The executions of Jews in Eastern Galicia began in the fall of 1941. Most victims were intellectuals or “unproductive elements” (that is, people incapable of work). Deportations to death camps (mostly Bełżec and Sobibór) began in the spring of 1942. The Ukrainian police also participated in the Holocaust in Galicia. The brutal extermination of Jews proved that people could be killed on an unprecedented scale, with impunity, and in keeping with binding German law.
Following the mass deportations and arrests carried out by the NKVD and after the subsequent German repressions (e.g., deportation to the Reich to forced labor, arrests, detention in camps, and mass executions), by 1943 Poles constituted only 10−12 % of the entire population of Volhynia. Poles became an ethnic group deprived of most of its social activists, intellectuals, and military men. Thus, the Poles did not seek to create conflict situations. On the contrary, they did everything to avoid them. This fact should be stressed because some Ukrainian historians try to dispute it. Contrary to the truth, they suggest that the Volhynian massacres were not the first, but the second stage of a bloody Polish-Ukrainian conflict. According to their version, which has no basis in reality, the first stage began in the spring of 1943 as a “peasant war” (a “Jacquerie”) — spontaneously, and not inspired or controlled by Bandera’s OUN. The war was purportedly declared by the “masses of Ukrainian refugees” from the Chełm region who had fled across the Bug River eastward as early as 1942/1943. In Volhynia they inflamed the anti-Polish sentiments among Ukrainian peasants by telling them about the atrocities Poles had purportedly committed against Ukrainians in the Chełm region. All this is in line with the pro-Bandera propaganda put forward during the last stages of World War II and successfully promoted after the war by émigré Ukrainian nationalist historians associated with OUN-B.
The first particularly cruel massacre of Poles took place on February 9, 1943 in the colony of Parośla located 1 km from Sarny. The number of Polish victims exceeded 155.
In early 1943 the Ukrainian auxiliary police in Volhynia and Podole had nearly 12 thousand members. In March and April approx. 5 thousand of them deserted from the German service taking weapons and ammunition. Many of them had previously participated in murdering Jews of Volhynia. Majority of the deserters joined UPA, and many of them became commanders. From that moment on the number of initially sporadic massacres of Poles increased.
The OUN-UPA terror assumed a mass scale in the summer and fall of 1943. The massacres of Poles initiated in the Sarny, Kostopol, Równe, and Zdołbuny counties spread across to Dubno and Łuck counties in June 1943. In July of that year they affected the Kowel, Włodzimierz Wołyński, and Horochów counties, before spreading further still to Luboml county in August. The month of July 1943 proved particularly tragic, with the Sunday of July 11, 1943 being especially bloody. At the crack of dawn that day UPA detachments (often actively supported by local Ukrainians) simultaneously surrounded and attacked 99 Polish villages in the Kowel, Włodzimierz Wołyński, and Horochów counties, as well as in a part of Łuck county. Ukrainians ruthlessly slaughtered Polish civilians and destroyed their homes. Villages were burned to the ground and property was looted. Researchers estimate that on that day alone the number of Polish victims may have amounted to some 8,000 people — mostly women, children, and the elderly. The perpetrators used bullets, axes, pitchforks, knives, and other weapons. Many Poles were killed in churches.
Attacks on churches were indeed common, as the Bandera followers wanted to murder as many Poles as possible. On “Bloody Sunday” of July 11, the Ukrainians killed approx. 200 parishioners in the church in Poryck. The local parish priest, Father Bolesław Szabłowski, a Pole, was killed a bit later. Similarly, the Polish priest Father Jan Kotwicki died along with some 150 parishioners in the church in Chrynów. Father Józef Aleksandrowicz, aged 74, was killed in similar circumstances in the Zabłoćce parish. Furthermore, Polish parishioners died in the churches in Krymno and Kisielin (approx. 40 and 80 victims respectively).
Poles had to abandon their homes and seek shelter in the cities and towns which had posts of Hungarian and German troops. It was an irony that in order to escape from the UPA Poles had to seek protection from their oppressors: firstly from the Germans, and during 1944−1945 from the Soviets. The Germans deported Polish escapees to the Reich to forced labor. To escape the massacres some escapees tried to get to the General Government, particularly to the Lublin District. Finally, a small number of Poles created self-defence centers to protect themselves, with the most well-known ones located in Przebraże (where 10,000 Poles defended themselves), Huta Stepańska (600 Poles dead), Zasmyki, Dederkały, and Ostróg. Due to the lack of arms, ammunition, and a cadre of commanders most of the approx. 100 Polish self-defence centers were defeated.
The tragic events of 1943 in Volhynia had a significant influence on the development of the Polish underground, including the formation of the largest partisan unit of the occupation period, that is, the 27th Volhynian Infantry Division of the Home Army. Formed within the framework of Operation Tempest (January−February 1944), the division had up to 7,000 soldiers. Initially (that is, until mid-March 1944) the division fought against the UPA to protect the surviving Polish population as well as against the German Army. Thereafter, it joined the Red Army in frontline combat against German and Hungarian troops. Moreover, several thousand Poles (mostly in Polesie Wołyńskie) fought in the ranks of Soviet partisan units, where Poles sought help and protection from the UPA for their families. For these same reasons, in the summer of 1944 at least several thousand Poles joined the “destruction battalions” — Soviet auxiliary military police subordinate to the NKVD. It remains uncertain as to what extent those destruction battalions formed in early 1945 protected Poles against the UPA and to what extent they provoked the UPA to carry on with its campaigns.
In 1944 the anti-Polish terror of the OUN-UPA shifted to Eastern Galicia (the Lvov, Stanisławów, and Tarnopol voivodeships) as well as to the Lublin region. Polish researchers cautiously estimate the number of Polish victims of the Volhynian massacres, which started during the winter of 1942/43 and ended in mid-1945, at approx. 100,000 (40,000–60,000 victims in Volhynia, 30,000−40,000 in Eastern Galicia, and at least 4,000 in today’s Polish territory, including up to 2,000 in the Chełm region— as was called the south-eastern part of the Lublin Voivodeship was called). Moreover, the Ukrainian partisan units forced at least 485,000 Poles (125,000 from Volhynia, 300,000 from the Eastern Galicia, and 60,000 from the Chełm region) to flee to central Poland to avoid death. It should also be said that in the spring of 1944 nearly 20,000 Ukrainians from the Chełm region abandoned their homes for fear of the Polish underground.
The number of Ukrainian victims of Polish retaliatory attacks until the spring of 1945 is estimated at 10,000−12,000 (approx. 2,000−3,000 in Volhynia, 1,000−2,000 in Eastern Galicia, and, until 1947, 7,000−8,000 on present-day Polish territory, including 2,500 in the Chełm region). Some Polish retaliatory attacks were war crimes. According to Polish historians, however, those attacks cannot be equated with the organized anti-Polish operation of the OUN-UPA.
The Roman Catholic Church lost approx. 200 members of the clergy (priests, monks, and nuns) on the Eastern Borderlands during 1939−1947. It is also estimated that Ukrainian nationalists killed 28 Greek Catholic clergymen and approx. 20 Orthodox clergymen in Volhynia.
The Łuck diocese in the Volhynian Voivodeship lost 50 Catholic churches (i.e., 31 % of all temples). Another 25 chapels (15 %) were burned down, vandalized, or destroyed. As a result of the UPA raids ca. 70% of all 166 parishes ceased to exist. All rural parishes (churches, chapels, and rectories) were destroyed.
It is estimated that 1,500 of the 2,500 Volhynian localities inhabited by Poles in 1939 ceased to exist due to the operations of the OUN-UPA (they were burned down or otherwise destroyed). Today in only 150 localities are there crosses commemorating the tragic death of the more than 10-thousand Polish victims of the massacres (monuments are less frequent still, and some are not even on the burial site). Thus, in ca. 1,350 Volhynian localities there are still no crosses on the graves of Polish victims of the OUN-UPA.