Polish-Ukraine Relations in the 20th Century

Poland and Ukraine’s relations in the 20th century were characterized by military confrontation and political upheavals on an ethnic basis, resulting in massacre and forced migration.

Jun 5, 2024By Tsira Shvangiradze, MA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l Relations

poland ukraine 20th century


Following the end of World War I, an independent Poland emerged, whereas Ukrainians were split between the Polish and Soviet territories. The period of 1918–1920 witnessed both the war between Poland and Ukraine for territorial gains and their alliance against Bolshevik Russia. Shattered hopes for building an independent Ukrainian state galvanized frustration and anger in the Ukrainian nationalist movements. Hence, the interwar period saw deteriorated Polish-Ukrainian relations, culminating in the massacres of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia, imprinting national traumas in both states.


Poland and Ukraine: The End of World War I

Ukraine und Kaukasien by Julius Iwan Kettler, 1918. The map shows the linguistic unity of the young republic of Ukraine. Source: KBR


The end of World War I in 1919 shifted the international order and political boundaries on the European continent. The German, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian empires collapsed, changing the balance of power. With the demise of these empires, prospects of establishing independent, sovereign nations arose. Poland and Ukraine, successor states to the collapsed Russian and Austrian empires, had aspirations of creating their own nations, much like other liberated countries from colonial and imperial rule. The interests of these nations clashed over the territorial distribution of the lands, resulting in the Polish-Ukrainian War from 1918 to 1919 over the territory of east Galicia, the largest province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


During Poland’s first partition in 1772, Austria acquired the territory of Eastern Galicia. Galicia had been in Poland’s possession since the mid-15th century and included historically important Polish cities (Kraków, for instance). However, eastern Galicia, with an ethnically mixed population of approximately 5 million people, was inhabited by the majority of Ukrainians, about 3.1 million; Poles, 1.1 million; and a small portion of Jews, nearly 620,000.


Map of Ukraine in 1919. Source: Wikimedia Commons


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In October 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed. The idea of establishing an independent Ukrainian state was revived with the establishment of the Ukrainian National Council. The council consisted of Ukrainian political leaders from the former Austrian parliament, Ukrainian political parties, and regional Ukrainian representatives, including those from Eastern Galicia. It also announced the intention to form a single state by uniting the West Ukrainian lands, which would include Galicia and its provincial capital, Lviv. Conversely, Poles also declared their determination to establish a united Polish state, envisaging Eastern Galicia as their primary interest, as almost all historically significant Polish cultural centers, including Lviv, Kraków, and the territory of Galicia-Volhynia.


On November 13, 1918, Ukrainians proclaimed the West Ukrainian People’s Republic and announced Lviv as its capital. Ethnic Ukrainians made up the majority of the population of the newly formed Ukrainian Republic, although Poles also held majorities in many of the urban settlements, including Lviv. The sudden announcement left the Polish people feeling both confused and frustrated. They found themselves in the newly formed Ukrainian state when the boundaries of the new sovereign Polish state were still in the process of forming. The dispute over the territories of Eastern Galicia resulted in the Polish-Ukrainian war stretching from November 1918 to July 1919.


The Polish-Ukrainian War (1918–1919)

General Paul Henrys, the Chief of the French Military Mission to Poland, being cheered by the crowds in the center of Lwów, February 1919. Source: Imperial War Museums


The military confrontation began on November 1, 1918 in Lviv. The Poles opposed the Ukrainian efforts to establish control over the city. The Polish resistance spilled over to other territories, including Drohobych, Sambir, Jarosław, and Peremyśl. In an effort to contain the growing Polish resistance, the newly formed Ukrainian government established the Ukrainian Galician Army.


The conflict reached its peak by January 1919, when the Polish government in Warsaw dispatched troops to the Eastern Galician provinces. At this point, about 20,000 Polish soldiers and 40,000 soldiers from the Ukrainian Galician Army were engaged in a military confrontation.


The international community made several diplomatic attempts to get Poland and Ukraine to agree to a cease-fire. The Polish-Ukrainian Armistice Commission, chaired by General Louis Botha and established on April 2, 1919, was part of the Paris Peace Conference to end World War I. The commission recommended that Poland be granted control over Lviv. Ukraine, on the other hand, would acquire Boryslav and Drohobych, towns located in eastern Galicia. The Polish government rejected the suggestion, claiming the whole territory of Eastern Galicia.


General Paul Henrys, the Chief of the French Military Mission to Poland, inspecting Polish Guard of Honor on the outskirts of Lwów, February 1919. Source: Imperial War Museums


During the spring of 1919, the international situation rapidly changed. Poland had successfully used the narrative of Bolshevik Russia invading Poland to acquire international support and managed to persuade European powers to transfer around 68,000 men from France to its territory. The move significantly advanced Polish positions in Eastern Galicia, and by July 19, 1919, Poland had regained control over the disputed territories, including Boryslav and Drohobych.


Eventually, Poland won the war, albeit with heavy casualties from both sides. Around 10,000 Poles and 15,000 Ukrainians lost their lives during the military campaigns.


In 1923, the Council of Ambassadors (composed of France, Great Britain, the United States, Italy, Japan, and Belgium) officially recognized the sovereignty of Poland over this territory. Three provinces were created there: Lwów, where Poles accounted for 57% and Ukrainians for 34%; Stanisławów—22% Poles and 69% Ukrainians; and Tarnopol—49% Poles and 46% Ukrainians. The Volhynia Province (belonging to the Russian Empire during World War I) was also nationally mixed, with only 17% Poles and 69% Ukrainians. The loss and the experience of fighting for an independent Ukrainian state further intensified the nationalistic aspirations and sense of self-determination in Ukrainians.


The Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921) & An Unusual Alliance

A caricature for the Riga treaty signed in 1921: “Down with the infamous Riga partition! Long live a free, peasant, indivisible Belarus!” Source: Radio Free Europe


Aiming to spread the wave of the Bolshevik Revolution beyond Russia, the Bolshevik’s Red Army and the newly-established Polish self-defense troops clashed soon after the defeated Germany abandoned the city of Vilnius in December 1918. As early as January 5, 1919, Bolsheviks entered the city and proclaimed the short-lived Socialist Soviet Republic of Lithuania and Belorussia. On the other hand, Poland aimed to move its frontiers eastward to restore the borders that existed before the First Polish Partition between Russia, Prussia, and Austria. War for control of Vilnius appeared to be unavoidable.


Józef Piłsudski, leader of Poland, played a decisive role in planning and executing the offensive against Bolshevik Russia. In the beginning, both Poles and Russians were limited in their resources to launch an aggressive military campaign; Bolsheviks had their own struggles against the White Russian troops, and Poles needed time to mobilize. Józef Piłsudski successfully used this time to acquire Ukrainian support and form an unusual and unexpected alliance with Symyon Petliura, president of the Ukrainian People’s Republic.


Propaganda poster from the Polish-Soviet War by Stepan Mukharsky, 1920. Source: Russian State Library


The essence of the Polish-Ukrainian alliance was utterly anti-Russian and anti-Bolshevik. It was driven by the strategic calculations of both states. The Bolsheviks, under Vladimir Lenin, aimed to spread communism in Eastern Europe, and both newly independent states tried to deter the process. Additionally, Bolshevik troops were rapidly advancing to the western Ukrainian lands.


The Polish-Ukrainian alliance was officially established in April 1920, and in the same month, allied forces took control of Kyiv. The Bolsheviks were forced to withdraw.


Western powers, particularly Great Britain, supported a united Polish-Ukrainian eastern front against the Bolsheviks, which had also provided additional incentives for cooperation. The Battle of Warsaw on August 25, 1920, and subsequent Polish advances resulted in a ceasefire on October 18, 1920. The Treaty of Riga was signed on March 18, 1921. Poland was granted parts of Belorussia and Ukraine, and its border closely resembled its old one during 1793–1795. The treaty remained in force until World War II.


The Inter-War Period in Polish-Ukrainian Relations

Stamps celebrating Stepan Bandera, one of the symbols of Ukrainian nationalism, 2009. Source: Wikimedia Commons


From the very beginning, the fragility of the Polish-Ukrainian alliance was apparent. The war over Eastern Galicia, Ukrainian losses, and the anti-Ukrainian Polish authorities throughout the 1920s contributed to the rise of Ukrainian nationalists. The policies of Polish authorities in Eastern Galicia and Volhynia are also referred to as the policy of “Polishification.” It entailed forced assimilation by suppressing the function of Ukrainian schools and institutions, banning Ukrainians from governmental jobs, and suppressing opposition, all under the name of “pacification” of Polish-Ukrainian relations.


Hence, the interwar Polish political climate was discriminatory and further intensified anti-Polish sentiment among many Ukrainians.


The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) emerged as a leading nationalistic movement in the early 1930s. The OUN carried out several attacks against the official representatives of the Polish government, including the assassination of Tadeusz Hołówka, a deputy to the Sejm, in 1934. As reported, during 1921–1939, 36 Ukrainians, 25 Poles, one Russian, and one Jew died as victims of the Ukrainian nationalists.


In September 1939, at the onset of World War II, both the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin and Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler invaded Poland. Eastern Poland fell under Soviet control. Joseph Stalin decided to incorporate it (including eastern Galicia) into the Ukrainian SSR. Aiming to sustain Soviet rule, Stalin ordered to suppress, eliminate, or deport the Polish upper and middle classes of the annexed territories. On the other hand, the Holodomor, a Soviet-caused famine in Ukraine during 1932–1933, and the abolition of the Ukrainian political parties provided fruitful ground for the extremist OUN to flourish, as it appeared to be the only group left with a substantial organizational structure.


WWII: Massacres of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia

Plaque for victims of Volhynia massacres at Church of St. Bridget in Gdańsk, 2008. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Bandera faction (named after its leader Stepan Bandera) of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, also known as OUN-B, and its military unit, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), emerged as a key anti-Polish movement by the beginning of 1942. The attack of Nazi Germany on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, and the subsequent Red Army retreat eastward had significantly contributed to the rising influence of the OUN-B. Opposing Soviet rule, Bandera openly supported the Nazis and managed to penetrate a significant number of villages—213 reportedly—in Eastern Galicia and the Volhynia region, where Nazis were also present.


There, OUN-B militias carried out exceptionally cruel raids against Poles and Jews in 1942. especially damaged was the city of Lviv. These actions were in parallel with Germany’s so-called “Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” which entailed mass deportation, repressions, forced labor, and detention of Jews and other ethnic minorities in concentration camps. These measures contributed to the fact that, by 1943, only 10–12% of Volhynia’s population was of Polish origin.


Following the Battle of Stalingrad and the defeat of Nazi Germany on the Eastern Front in February 1943, the collapse of the Third Reich in World War II was almost inevitable. The strategic calculation of Bandera’s faction relied on the experience of the post-World War I redrawing of Europe when new borders were demarcated based on the national composition of the population. Following this vision, OUN-B and UPA declared that they would “clean out the Polish element,” aiming to cleanse Volhynia and Eastern Galicia of the Polish population. The violent and bloody measures were named the “anti-Polish operation.” To some extent, it resembled the Nazi policies towards Jews, as it centered on the nationalist notion of claiming rights to lands based on ethnic purity.


Heinrich Himmler overseeing SS Galizia troops, Markert, 1943. Source: National Digital Archive in Kraków


One of the UPA documents stated, “The resistance of the Polish self-defense diminished to such an extent that the Ukrainian operations recall German actions against the Jews.”


The UPA unit’s actions were brutal and bloody. The massacre was not limited to only Volhynia but spilled over to other regions populated by Polish and Jewish minorities. For example, Lviv, Tarnopol, and Stanisławów. As estimated, 60,000 Polish civilians were killed during this time, making the massacre in Volhynia one of the most tragic chapters of Ukraine-Polish relations even in the 21st century.


The Nazi-installed administration of Volhynia did not interfere in the UPA’s bloody actions. Armia Krajowa (AK), a military underground army of the Polish government in exile, managed to mount a resistance only later. The resistance actions were called “revenge-preventive operations.” It was executed without any tangible positive outcome in terms of deterring Ukrainian nationalists. Around 10,000 Ukrainian civilians were killed as part of the operation.


During 1943–1944, the UPA’s planned massacre based on the ethnic purges cost the lives of up to 100,000 people of Polish origin, mainly civilians (including in Eastern Galicia).


Post-World War II & Cold War Era in Poland and Ukraine

Poznan in 1956. Source: Gazeta Wyborcza


Following the end of World War II, the borders of Ukraine and Poland were once again altered under the Potsdam Agreement. The Soviet Union acquired control over Eastern Galicia and Volhynia. Ukrainian nationalists still opposed the new regime. Aiming to suppress the nationalistic wave, the Soviet Union launched Operation Vistula. In 1947, executed by the Soviet-backed Polish authorities, the operation resettled about 150,000 Ukrainians from the southeastern territories of Poland (Krakowskie, Lubelskie, and Rzeszowskie) to the so-called Recovered Territories to the west (controlled by Nazi Germany before World War II). Operation Vistula managed to successfully end the guerrilla warfare and subsequent hostilities in the region by cutting human resources for the UPA.


UPA and its leader, Stepan Bandera, continued to attack the Red Army units until mid-1950; Bandera was eventually murdered in 1959 in Germany, and UPA’s flame died down—though not in Ukrainians’ collective memory. A number of streets are named after Bandera in Ukraine, and monuments praising Bandera’s role in fighting off communism have been erected in different Ukrainian locations even in the 21st century. This is widely regarded as ethically unjustified by Polish society.


Poland became the Soviet Union’s satellite country in the Eastern Bloc, while Ukraine was part of the Union itself. Hence, for most of the Cold War, Polish-Ukrainian relations were limited and tense.


Ukraine’s commemoration of wartime nationalist leader Bandera, 2023. Source: Notes from Poland


The policies of Joseph Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, altered the established Polish-Ukrainian relations. Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization policies and “thawing” of communist rule loosened Moscow’s grip on its satellite countries in Eastern Europe, including Poland. The anti-communist revolution of October 1956 in Hungary rapidly spilled over to Poland and turned into the “Polish October.” The Soviet government brutally suppressed both nations’ attempts at breaking away from the central government. However, with the Khrushchev Thaw, Soviet leadership allowed the rise of a well-known politician and more liberal Polish Communist Party faction headed by Władysław Gomułka.


Early in the 1950s, Gomułka introduced the idea of “the Polish road to socialism.” Under this policy, Gomułka limited collectivization and rapid industrialization and supported cultural initiatives, particularly with the Soviet Union. The strategy aimed to maintain and strengthen Poland’s independence while adhering to the principles of Marxism and Leninism. The Ukrainian SSR, as part of the Soviet Union, enjoyed more socio-economically and culturally open relations with the People’s Republic of Poland until Gomułka’s resignation in 1970.


The rise of the independence movements in the Eastern Block in the mid-1980s, and particularly the enhanced influence of Poland’s Solidarity movement, changed this trajectory to some extent. The new political circles and intellectuals in Poland advocated for a new, re-formulated foreign policy for the newly independent Polish state, which dictated the abandonment of territorial claims towards neighboring countries, including Ukraine. Indeed, Poland was one of the first countries (along with Canada) to recognize the independence of Ukraine on December 2, 1991; thus, the tightly sealed Iron Curtain became loose.

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By Tsira ShvangiradzeMA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l RelationsTsira is an international relations specialist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Politics and a BA in International Relations from Tbilisi State University. In her spare time, she contributes articles in the field of political sciences and international relations.