|Ethnic Ukrainians being deported from a village in SE Poland during Operation Vistula|
Some argue that the operation was an unfortunate but necessary measure to prevent further inter-communal violence in the Polish-Ukrainian borderlands. It can also be seen as a response to the various massacres of Polish citizens carried out by the UPA during the war. Others argue that Operation Vistula was a shameful act of collective punishment and ethnic cleansing carried out by a totalitarian regime. The following article makes the former argument, whilst a second article to be translated and posted some time soon(ish) makes the latter argument from the point of view of an eyewitness who was deported as a child.
Although 65 years have now passed since Operation Vistula, it does not provoke any less discussion and controversy than it did in the past. One could even say that it creates more debate now than when it was carried out...
|Polish civilians murdered by Ukrainian nationalists in the Volhynia region.|
In mid-1944, partisan bands of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) started to murder Poles in the south-east of modern-day Poland. The campaign was based on the earlier massacres in Volhynia. The UPA were implementing a directive issued by the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) who wished to 'cleanse' western Ukraine of Poles. The UPA and OUN did not accept the post-war borders, agreed by the 'Big Three' at Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam. Ukrainian nationalists wanted the region of Eastern Galicia, located on the Polish side of the new border, and so they set up their own underground state in the region-- Zakierzoński Country. At this time, the UPA were engaged in combat with soldiers from the USSR's 1st Polish Army as well as units of the Armia Krajowa (AK) (Polish resistance-CK) and National Armed Forces (NSZ) (Right-wing Polish paramilitaries-CK) When the Eastern Front approached the territory of pre-war Poland and when the Polish Committee of National Liberation (PKWN) (Soviet controlled provisional government-CK) signed an agreement with the Ukrainian S.S.R to exchange populations (September and October 1944) the UPA units operating in Eastern Galicia / Zakierzoński changed their objectives.
The UPA now wanted to prevent the transfer of Ukrainians to the USSR. Their targets now included railway lines and stations, bridges and telephone lines, as well as villages and towns inhabited by Poles. There were also attacks on army and police posts and the offices of the resettlement commission. The UPA employed a scorched earth policy. Villages which had been vacated by deported Ukrainians, Lemkos and Boykos were burnt to the ground so that they could not be inhabited by Poles arriving from the USSR side of the border.
Obviously, the Polish authorities could not allow the continued existence of Ukrainian partisan units. The decision to carry out Operation Vistula was taken by the Political Bureau of the Polish Worker's Party (PPR). The direct trigger for the operation was the death of General Karol Świerczewski in an ambush at Baligród on March 28th 1947. Although the operation began on 28th April 1947 the plan had been created beforehand under the direction of General Stefan Mossor, a soldier in Piłsudski's legions, one of the planners of Poland's war against Germany and the post-war vice chief of staff (1946-1947). Mossor was also in charge of the unit which would carry out the operation. The aims were twofold: resettlement of civilians and the liquidation of UPA units. Both objectives were interconnected, as the UPA enjoyed the support of a large proportion of the Ukrainian population who aided and supplied the partisans.
|A map of operation Vistula. Yellow shows areas of Ukrainian settlement before deportation and light blue indicates areas of resettlement.|
Operation Vistula was also motivated by international factors. Firstly, the victorious 'Big Three' recognised the transfer of populations as helpful, and even necessary. Secondly, the Polish government could not allow the existence of hostile armed partisans, or a large number of hostile civilians who did not recognise the Polish state and had plans to create their own state, on Polish territory. Of course, Operation Vistula was not a painless action. At times it was cruel and brutal. It caused many tragedies, some of which remain unrecognised to this day. It was, however, necessary. Not only the government of the time believed this. The post-war authorities had to look at the bloody inter-communal violence and predict what would happen if they did not take any action, as well as what would happen further into the future. Even in post-Communist Poland we can find hear echoes of the Polish-Ukrainian conflict-- as with the situation in Przemyśl 5 years ago-- although thankfully they are of a much less violent strain. The rising power of nationalism in Western Ukraine should not be forgotten either.
Operation Vistula still creates controversy and various politicians have entered into the debate. In 1990 the Polish Senate condemned the action. In 2002 President Aleksander Kwaśniewski expressed regret and 5 years ago President Lech Kaczyński and Ukrainian President Victor Yuschenko condemned Operation Vistula in a joint speech and labelled it a violation of basic human rights. Yuschenko then said on 27th April that the 'perpetrator of the operation was the totalitarian Communist regime'.
These opinions do not find much support amongst many Poles, including historians. Ewa Siemaszko, co-author of a monumental work on the Volhynia massacres, argues that Operation Vistula was vital to bringing an end to the anti-Polish ideology and actions of the OUN-UPA.
Ewa Siemaszko's opinion shows that Operation Vistula cannot be viewed in isolation but has to be seen in the wider context of Polish-Ukrainian relations. The decision of the government (regardless of what one thinks of that government's legitimacy) to start the deportation of Ukrainians from the border region was widely supported at the time. Operation Vistula will no doubt contine to stir emotions fro years to come and it will continue to raise the question of whether the interests of the state are more or less important than the rights of the individual. This debate will be carried out not only by historians but also by politicians. What is the future of Polish-Ukrainian relations? Only time will tell, and they say that time is a healer...
Author: Paweł Dybicz Taken from 'Przegłąd' magazine