Genocide, Ethnic Cleansing, and Deportation: How Volhynia Became West Ukraine, 1939-46
At a presentation at the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center, Timothy Snyder, Assistant Professor of History, Yale University, explained that his research found that Poles and Ukrainians engaged in “ethnic cleansing” against each other in what is now Western Ukraine during the early 1940s. Following the eradication of Jews in the region, which finished in this region by 1942, about 94% of Poles in what became Soviet Ukraine and 95% of Ukrainians in what became Poland were forcibly resettled.
Snyder began his presentation by dividing the events into three separate stages: First, in 1942, a Ukrainian national army began to “cleanse” Poles in the Ukrainian western region of Volhynia: Second, from 1944-46, a series of official population exchanges resulted in ethnic Poles and Ukrainians being deported to their respective countries: The third stage, in 1947, was a Polish operation known as Operation Vistula in which Polish Communists forcibly moved ethnic Ukrainians from one part of Poland to another.
According to Snyder, a number of factors encouraged violent conflicts to occur in the regions of Volhynia and Galicia. Snyder noted that the destruction of the Polish state and the deportations of the Polish elite and Jewish populations by the occupying Soviet and Nazi forces created a political vacuum in which Ukrainian nationalists were able to rise to power. A second precondition was the fact that the many unemployed Ukrainian young men had joined forces with the occupying forces of the Soviet army and later, the German secret police for work, and had received training in ethnic warfare. Snyder then stated that Ukrainian nationalist leaders used various forms of propaganda to convince the Ukrainians to carry out ethnic cleansing against the Poles.
Snyder concluded by saying that many parallels can be drawn between the ethnic cleansing in 1943 Volhynia and the genocide that occurred in Bosnia during the early 1990s. First, the collapse of a state in both pre-war Poland and Yugoslavia in the 1990s created a situation where one ethnic group could aggressively attack another. Second, Snyder noted, in both cases, propaganda was used to incite various ethnic groups to carry out genocide. Finally, in both 1940s Ukraine and 1990s Yugoslavia, there was this idea of preemption. In both situations, leaders convinced their people that if they did not cleanse the other ethnic group then they would be subject to attacks. Snyder pointed out that once people were convinced of this, they quickly became more willing to carry out “ethnic cleansing” against their enemies. Snyder ended by saying that “ethnic cleansing” is a matter of political history rather than ancient hatreds, and that all factors must be addressed when examining how it occurs.