The Troubled History of the Polish-Ukrainian Friendship in the 20th Century

Relations between Poland and Ukraine underwent significant change after the fall of the USSR. This twist should surprise us even more given the bloody history between the two nations.

Dec 26, 2023By Barbora Jirincova, PhD History
poland ukraine 20th century


In the 19th century, Ukraine underwent a national awakening like all European nations. People of Ukrainian origin realized that they were part of one nation. Similar to other nationalities, they did not have their own state. Both the Poles and the Ukrainians considered the area around Lviv today as theirs. To make things more complicated, most of the inhabitants were Jewish. The Western Ukrainian border and Eastern Polish border would become a stage for deadly conflicts.


You could build mountains using the bodies of people who died in countless feuds between Poland and Ukraine. Yet, when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, Polish mothers went to the border to leave their strollers for Ukrainian mothers fleeing from war. How could this have happened?


Poland and Ukraine after the First World War

map of Ukraine 1919
Map of Ukraine in 1919, via Wikipedia Commons


In 1917, the Russian Revolution dragged Russia away from the world war into the chaos of civil war. The Eastern front was closed, and formerly strong czarist Russia was finally weak. Thus, the Eastern Ukrainian state was born. It was a short-lived experiment, and the state relied on its alliance with Germany. The Eastern Ukrainian state crumbled as Germany lost the war, and the Bolsheviks began to win their war in Russia. The final blow came with the Polish-Soviet war in the 1920s. Poland, unlike Ukraine, got its state after the war because Polish soldiers fought in the First World War alongside the French, and peace treaties promised them their coveted independent state.


Polish-Soviet War in 1918 – 1920

polish soviet propaganda poster poland and ukraine
Polish soviet propaganda poster from Polish-soviet war, Stepan Mukharsky, 1920, via Russian State Library


On the other hand, Ukraine had no allies, and the Polish wanted Lviv and its surroundings for themselves. Poland allied with this new state in 1918 and decided to keep it alive as a buffer state between them and the emerging USSR. Yet, the Bolsheviks decided to swallow Ukraine and moved to Poland. In 1918 – 1920 the Polish-Soviet war was fought to determine where the Eastern borders of Poland would be. The Eastern Ukrainian Republic helped the Polish win this war.

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However, both Poland and Ukraine were depleted after the war. Poland was unable to hold the spoils. They decided to sign a peace treaty with USSR. While doing so, they betrayed their Ukrainian allies and sold them to the Russians so that they could keep their Eastern Polish regions.


Poland and Ukraine Between the World Wars

stephan bandera stamps
Stamps celebrating Stepan Bandera, one of the symbols of Ukrainian nationalism, 2009, via Wikimedia Commons


In the 1920s and 1930s, Eastern Ukraine was a part of the USSR and suffered under Stalinist rule — this was the time of catastrophic famine and Stalinist purges. Yet, the Western Ukrainians lived in the democratic Polish Republic. However, the Ukrainian nationalists did not want to be a part of this state; they wanted their own state. Thus, they created a militaristic terrorist organization that assassinated Polish officials and Ukrainians who cooperated with the Polish administration. The Polish authorities answered with repression that affected both the aggressive nationalists and the peaceful, law-abiding Ukrainian citizens and their national feelings. Thus the sense of injustice had a seed from which to grow and further poisoned the relationship between Poland and Ukraine.


The Ukrainian nationalists sympathized with fascist ideas, and even before 1939, they met with Nazi German officials and tried to find support for their national endeavors. Germany never treated Ukrainian nationalists as equals and never meant to give them their independent state. According to Adolf Hitler´s worldview, Ukraine had one purpose — to feed the German army. The people living in these fertile lands were supposed to make way for German settlers once the war was won. The Ukrainian nationalists served their purpose, though they could be used against Poland and the Russians. Thus, the alliance between Ukrainian nationalists and Nazi Germany began.


The Second World War on the Eastern Front

poland holocaust memorial
Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, Warsaw Poland, via Wikimedia Commons


After the Second World War broke out, the inhabitants of the Eastern Front faced unimaginable suffering. Belarus, Eastern Poland, and Ukraine lived through three consequent occupations. First, when the Soviets invaded them shortly after Germany attacked Western Poland; second, when the Germans invaded the USSR; and third, when the Soviets pushed the Germans back.


The brutality of the Soviet and nazi regimes was reasonably comparable. Only one group of people could recognize a significant difference. The Nazis deported the Jews, in what Timothy Snyder calls the Bloodlands, where most Jewish people lived before the German invasion. There were barely a few thousand left after the holocaust. The Jews, if they survived, might have welcomed the invading Soviets as liberators. The remaining nations could not.


The SS Galizia is Born

ss galizia troops
Heinrich Himmler overseeing SS Galizia troops, Markert, 1943, National Digital Archive in Krakow


The Eastern Ukrainians suffered under Soviet rule; 3 – 5 million died of famine and in the Stalinist purges aimed at the free peasants. When the Germans came, some welcomed them as liberators. Yet, their hopes proved to be illusions soon enough. All grain from the fertile lands was taken to the German armies, and the locals were left to starve once again.


It was a part of the German extermination program; why feed the people who were supposed to free the lands for German settlers? Yet, the Western Ukrainians never witnessed the famine, believing that the Germans would help them finally get their independent state. The Nazi regime used this sentiment and recruited young angry Ukrainian men into the newly formed SS units called the SS Galizia.


The Massacres in Volynhia: Poland and Ukraine at War

volyhynia massacres poland and ukraine at war
Plaque for victims of Volhynia massacres at Church of St. Bridget in Gdańsk, 2008, via Wikipedia Commons


The SS-Galizia were auxiliary units trained to assist the Germans in doing their worst. They helped with the purges of the Jews and the massacres of the Soviet partisans and formed police units to keep the local inhabitants in line. Thousands of boys in these units started as teenagers, and during the few years under German training, they got the brutality of the SS units under their skin. In 1943, as Nazi rule in the region started to crumble, they kept their weapons and formed independent partisan units. These units acted in the name of Ukrainian nationalism but lacked a central leadership.


During the spring and later summer of 1943, these units in various parts of the Volynhia region decided that the time had come to drive the Polish away. And because for years their job was to murder and torture people, they performed the craft that the Nazis taught them with utmost brutality. Whole villages were massacred most inhumanly, so the remaining Polish would get scared and leave.


But the Polish did not leave; most had nowhere to go anyway, and they answered the war cry with their own massacres. Some joined the Germans, and some joined the Soviets, only to get weapons. As they could not lay hands on the partisan units, so they took revenge on Ukrainian civilians with a brutality matching their previous attacks. When the Soviet army came to Volyhnia in 1944, they found the area in an unimaginably bloody civil war.


The Deportations in the Eastern Block

the population exchange between poland and ukraine
Resettlement of Ukrainians from Nowosielce to USSR, March 1946, via Wikipedia Commons


Stalin had his idea of what Poland and Ukraine should look like. Thus, when the war was over, the two states — the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic (now part of the USSR) and Poland, under Soviet dictates, signed a treaty guaranteeing new borders. Galizia and Volyhnia became part of Ukraine, and Poland promised never to question this decision. Furthermore, no ethnic violence was supposed to happen ever again in the peaceful socialist republics. To guarantee it, the areas should have been “ethnically clean.” One state, one nation, no minorities.


Due to this decision, thousands of Polish inhabitants were deported from Galizia and Volyhnia to Poland, and the Ukrainians living in Poland were deported to Ukraine. This happened to other nations within Poland and the USSR. The populace moved from one place to another in the tens of thousands. They were forced to leave their homes, take what they could carry, board a crowded train, and go to some civilized land, if they were lucky, to Siberia if luck was not on their side. The Polish government took part in this operation enthusiastically, and many Ukrainians died in the concentration camps awaiting deportation, suffocated on the train, or starved in the wilderness when the train reached its destination.


Poland and Ukraine after the Fall of the Soviet Union

George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev at a conference, Yuriy Somov, 1989, via Wikipedia Commons


The wounds of the 1940s healed during the period of communism in Poland and the Soviet Union. The Eastern nations were supposed to be brothers under the rule of mighty Russia, and no history lesson would talk about the deportations or the famine. Yet, history teachers reminded their pupils of the Volyhnian massacre; the Ukrainian nationalists who allied with the Nazi served as a scarecrow that showed what nationalism and alliance with the West does and what happens when mighty Russian rule is questioned.


But in 1989, the Soviet regime broke down, a revolution in Poland brought a democratic government, and Ukraine, as part of the Soviet Union, spoke of independence. Would the old wounds bleed again? Poland gave up Galizia and Volyhnia because Moscow ordered them to do so. Now that Moscow´s power had fallen, what would happen? Surprisingly, nothing happened at all.


Poland and Ukraine between the East and the West

leonid kravchuk author of friendship between poland and ukraine
Leonid Kravchuk in the Polish Senate, by Michał Józefaciuk, 2013, via Wikimedia Commons


Poland, after 1989, had trouble in the West. As Eastern and Western Germany announced their unification, the Polished feared that Germany would lay claim to the regions that Poland gained after the war. Thus, they proclaimed that they fully respected the postwar status quo and would never question it. In this diplomatic game, they officially gave up all claims on Galizia and Volynhia in order to keep their Western regions. The Eastern European lands wanted the Western powers to accept them as equals. They had to cooperate. So, Poland supported Ukraine in its struggle for independence from the Soviet Union. During the 1990s, the lands signed multiple treaties of friendship, for the protection of their national minorities, and for the security of their borders.


For the first time in the history of the nation, the Ukrainian state had a trustworthy ally and was willing to forget the blood and tears to see the future. Poland had its agenda. Poland desired to belong to Europe and be part of Western institutions. And to do that, all disputes in the East had to be solved. Thus, a friendship evolved, and side by side, Poland and Ukraine entered the 21st century, where new challenges awaited them.

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By Barbora JirincovaPhD HistoryBarbora is a historian and a university teacher from the Czech Republic. She studies the history of women and the early modern ages. She holds a Ph.D. in history from Charles University in Prague, where she teaches. She is passionate about teaching history to the broader public. Understanding history can make the world a better place. She is also a contributing writer and copywriter and loves writing on various topics.