top of page

The price of Ukrainian Independence. Did Poland occupy Ukraine?

Source: “Istorychna Pravda

Olexander Zinchenko – November 8, 2018 (In Ukrainian)

Translation from Ukrainian original – Mirko Petriw (Vancouver)

On October 17, 2017 Polands Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued the following notice: “Poland never occupied Ukraine. Certain territories of today’s Ukraine were incorporated in the Polish Republic on the basis of international law.”

During the past year, Polish diplomacy could not find the guts to retract this claim and bring its position into agreement with past historical facts.

Poland’s MFA: “Poland never occupied Ukraine” (Official notice on its website on Oct. 17, 2017. )

About a weeka ago a conversation of Maria Pyzh with the head of Polands Institute of National Memory, Yaroslav Sharek appeared in Polish media. This publication was titled – “There was never a Polish occupation in Lviv, it was an Independent Commonwealth.

The following is a direct quotation of Yaroslav Sharek.

“This was not a Polish occupation. It was an Independent Republic. This Republic was the home of not only Poles, but for Ukrainians, Jews, Belorusians. (..) The occupation was German, Soviet, but there never was a Polish occupation of Lviv.”

It is quite wrong, when politicians ignore facts, which are known from historical sources.

On the 17th day of Polish Independence, November 28, 1918, the temporary head of the Polish state, Jozef Pilsudski, explains in instructions to his General, Tadeus Rozwadowski, the political basis of his order to occupy Ukrainian lands in Halychyna and Volyn’.

This document is well known to Polish historians, although it has never been published in Polish in its entirety. In the State archive in Lviv there remains the “Lviv” copy of these instructions of Pilsudski to Rozwadowski.

In this document, Pilsudski calls the occupation an occupation several times.

“…I consider that the only solution is to create on the territory of Eastern Halychyna, occupied by our armed forces, a military occupation, one for which we have the right due to the declaration by the Rusyns (Ukrainians) of open warfare against the Polish population that lives in Eastern Halychyna.”

Pilsudski continues:

“The military occupation allows us to temporarily not resolve political matters, which at this point are not yet ripe for a definitive solution.”

Then Pilsudski continues to explanations of what it is that General Rozwadowski needs to do on the occupied terrain.

The governing of the territory of Eastern Halychyna that is occupied by Polish forces, is a matter for military rule. A civilian government, as an auxiliary organ, is to be organized and confirmed by the military.

I am convinced, that the General, knowing well the relations in Eastern Poland, will be able to base this civilian government on Polish elements and will include various other nationalities into this structure only for the purpose of appearances useful to us.”

“In a previous instruction I defined that the region of operations, my General, is a land with a Polish and Ukrainan population. I use this term consciously, so as not to limit military action and occupation further East.”

“I ask you, General, to supply me with the names of the officers and soldiers who distinguished themselves in the taking of Lviv.”

Marshall Jozef Pilsudski

Marshal Jozef Pilsudski

These instructions by Pilsudski create awkward questions for todays Polish politicians:

If there was no occupation, then why does Pilsudski constantly refer to the expression “military occupation”? 

If there was no occupation of Lviv, why does Pilsudski ask for the names of soldiers who distinguished themselves in the taking of Lviv?

If this was not an occupation, why was governing transferred to military rule?

Which political matters did the military occupation “allow us to not resolve.”

Today’s leaders of Polish diplomacy and the Institute of National Memory shirk answering these questions.

The chronology of events contradicts both the official position of the Polish MFA and the words of the head of the Institute of National Memory.

By the end of October 1918 the contest between Ukrainians and Poles began, to see who would first declare statehood on the wreckage of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

On the 16th of October Kaiser Karl I issued a manifest, announcing the right to free self-determination for the creation of independent states for the nations that formed the “patchwork empire” of the Habsburgs.

This manifest was an echo of the “14 points” which the American President, Woodrow Wilson had proclaimed at the beginning of January of the same year.

Point 10 allowed that “the people of Austria-Hungary, whose place among the nations we wish to see safeguarded and assured, should be accorded the freest opportunity to autonomous development.”

As to a future Polish state, Wilson stated: “An independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, …”

The problem lay in the fact that a large part of the Polish elite wanted to include in an independent Poland, lands which were inhabited by other nations, and where Poles were but a minority – large swaths of the Lviv, Ternopil, Transcarpatia, and Volyn’ regions did not have a majority Polish population.

For example before the war, in the Lutsk county, in 1911 there was less than 10% of Polish populace. And that was the largest percentage in all of Volyn’. In all other counties this percentage was even less.

But in Lutsk itself there was barely 10% Ukrainians. The cities in Halychyna and Volyn’ remained as Polish and Jewish islands in a Ukrainian sea.

That is why the military occupation (as stated by Pilsudski) of these Ukrainian lands was contrary to both the Manifest of Karl I and the “14 points” of Woodrow Wilson.

Pilsudski understood this very well. That is why he chose the path of fait accompli – to present the international community with the fact that “Lviv is ours! Lutsk is ours!”

Howecer, he could not ignore these documents entirely, as they created the legal framework and foundation for the legitimate creation of Polish independence:

“The Manifest of the former Kaiser Karl is recognized by Poland only in as much as the Polish Liquidation commission was created on its basis …”

Thus the rejection of this Manifest was possible only at the price of losing legitimacy of the Liquidation commission, which had been one of the key instruments of the creation of an independent Polish state in the fall of 1918.

But this self-same Manifest was similarly the basis of the proclamation of the Ukrainian independent state, as it gave self-determination rights to Ukrainians as well.

Ukrainians had fully taken advantage of that opportunity. Just two days after the announcement of the Manifest – Ukrainian deputies to the Austrian parliament and the Halychian and Bukovynian regional councils created a Ukrainian National Council.

On October 19 (1918) the Ukrainian National Council declared Ukrainian statehood, which today we refer to as the Western Ukrainian National Republic. 

The Proclamation of the creation of the Ukrainian State Oct. 19, 1918

Ukrainians took advantage of the legal instruments for the creation of statehood from the pieces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

What was left for Pilsudski under these circumstances, who only on Nov. 10 arrived in Warsaw after his incarceration in Germany?

Only the politics of fait accompli: military conflict, and in the case of success – military occupation of conquered lands and long negotiations with his western partners, to legitimize the occupation of Eastern Halychyna and Western Volyn’.

Pilsudski writes to Rozwadowski:

“The military occupation allows us to temporarily not resolve political matters, which at this point are not yet ripe for a definitive solution.”

In plain English this means: we are occupying these lands, and then – let us see how soon we can reach agreement with the international community.

Pilsudski understood well that these actions contravened the principles formulated in the Manifest of Karl I and in Wilson’s “14 points”. He understood that the path of negotiations is longer than that of military occupation. And so he ordered his Generals to take the shorter path.

To legalize the annexation of Eastern Halychyna and Western Volyn’, which had a majority Ukrainian population took 5 years of warfare and negotiation.

Only in 1923 was there eventually formed a system of agreements, which legitimized the inclusion into Poland conquered lands that were populated by Ukrainians. And yet this Mandate of Poland was not unconditional: it included a list of conditions, which in truth were never fulfilled.

That is why the Polish MFA is dissembling when in claims that Poland NEVER occupied Ukraine.

The actions of Pilsudski underpinned the basis of fresh tensions in the spiral of the Polish – Ukrainian conflict.

Interwar Poland did not become a motherland for Ukrainians. For Ukrainians Poland became a step-mother.

Ukrainians remember these times as a period of occupation. Ukrainians did not have equal access to education nor to participation in the government. For many it was a time of censorship, “Bereza Kartuzka” (concentration camp) and the “Sokal border” (a line of demarcation preventing the spread of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church to Volyn’ and the liquidation of all community and cultural structires therein), military “pacifications”, destruction of Orthodox churches, Polish colonization, and – in reply to this assault on human rights – Ukrainian terrorism against the Polish State.

Politically, Pilsudski gave birth to Bandera.

During WW2 this conflict exploded in a horrendous bloody solution.

The Volyn’ Slaughter would never have happened if Poland, in the fall of 1918, did not occupy lands settled by Ukrainians. That was a mistake for which both Poles and Ukrainians paid a horrible price. It does not excuse slaughter, but it does explain one of its causes.

Todays Polish political leadership has shown itself incapable of critical reflection on its own history, incapable of acknowledging mistakes.


Paradoxically the milieu which today forms the daily order for Poland mingles an imperial paternalism to “younger bretheren” with a victim complex – a “Christ of nations”.

A victim complex creates a negation of subjectivity – that is any responsibility for one’s own actions.

And yet Imperialism is never passive. Imperialism is overbearingly paternalistic to “younger brethren”.

However the history of a significant portion of Polish society today – is a history of those that cannot decide if Poland is a subject or an object of this history. This history – is about the courage to take responsibility for its actions.

Pilsudski had this courage: he bravely made mistakes, which later cost both Poles and Ukrainians tens of thousands of lives. But he at least accepted responsibility for himself when he gave orders to realize a military occupation of lands to which he had no right.

The current political leadership is more comfortable playing the victim: “Poland NEVER occupied Ukraine.”

But this way of thinking tears at all linkage between cause and effect of events of the interwar twentieth century. The military occupation of lands which were 70-80% populated by Ukrainians which desired their own independent state – could not but create new tensions between Poles and Ukrainians. The explosion of 1943-44 was but a result of the decisions made in 1918-1923.

Thus now when a portion of Polish society rejects the paradigm of victimhood and acknowledges the responsibility of the reborn Polish state for making certain decisions in the past, acknowledges mistakes and their horrendous cost – it ruins the entire lovely logic of the history of an interwar “Arkadia”.

This image is already a part of the new Polish identity, identity being the answer to the question, who am I, and Who am I not. And suddenly it turns out that the lovely “Arkadia” for some in those times resembles (Moroccan) Maghrib under French colonial rule, and the “Christ of nations” in the eyes of others becomes the “(Pontius) Pilate of nations”.

Such reflection is painful. It is hard to accept. That is why Ukrainians must approach the complexes of such people that define Polish politics with understanding. It is difficult to realize that for some you were a Pilate when you want to see yourself as Christ.

The head of the Polish Institute of National Memory says in the aforementioned interview:

“I want to remind you – relations in Poland with the Ukrainian minority during the times of the independent Rzeczpospolita were far from ideal… The Ukrainian population had its own rights. I just want to remind you what was the fate of Ukrainians behind the Soviet border. In Poland there was no Holodomor, there was no terror…”

From the perspective of Ukrainians in Halychyna and Volyn’ these words sound like – why are you upset – we oppressed you more gently than the others did.

And now comes the key matter: the military confrontation of Poles and Ukrainians and the resultant occupation of Ukrainian lands became one of the reasons why Ukraine lost its independence.

Holodomor, The Great Terror and “Bereza Kartuzka” – all this was a result of the loss of Ukrainian independence.

The generations of Poles that struggled for their independence, gained it in 1918 and then lost it in 1939 better understood why Poland ended up so weak against external challenges.

The Polish state did not have the necessary internal strength. There was no national unity: all the worlview, political, and class divisions of Polish society had their effect. But most importantly – it is difficult to expect unity when a large portion of your citizens feel they are under foreign occupation. “A house divided cannot stand”.

But the generation of Polish independence and the generation of their sons had the courage to speak openly of the mistakes of interwar Poland – clearly those that were free of any victim complex.

For Ukrainians – there is still another lesson: not only to acknowledge their mistakes which led to the loss of Ukrainian independence 100 years ago, but to imagine that past in a way so that the injuries of the past do not dominate our consciousness.

The loss of Ukrainian independence cost us some 16 million lives during the XX century. And today, for many Ukrainians the victim complex is also an excuse for some distasteful behavioral stereotypes. That which is happening in Polish society is a fearful sign for Ukrainians who bathe in their own complexes: you need no enemies to cause yourself the greatest harm.

At one time, among Poles there were such giants as Jerzy Giedroyc, and Jacek Kuron. They did not live off the victim complex of their fellow citizens. But today among Polish politicians we do not see such movers, there are none that have the courage to tell Poles of the mistakes of the past.

Jacek Kuron repeated many times that at least twice in the XX century Poland stood in the way of Ukrainian independence.

Poland gained its independence at the price of Ukrainian independence.

The time has come to say this openly.

Instructions of Marshal Juzef Pilsudski to General Tadeus Rozwadowski November 28, 1918

2 views0 comments


Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page