Historical memory as tool for Ukrainian and Polish nationalism

Author : Yaroslav Hrytsak

21:47, 19 February 2018

Historical memory as tool for Ukrainian and Polish nationalism

Author : Yaroslav Hrytsak

The well-known Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak explains why the so-called anti-Bandera law appeared in present-day Poland and what lessons we must take from this situation

21:47, 19 February 2018

poland ukraine

When we talk about the current state of Polish-Ukrainian relations, first we must abandon the logic that "the Poles think so" and "Ukrainians think differently." In fact, both in Polish and in Ukrainian societies, different groups think differently - and, accordingly, refer differently to the Polish law on the Institute of National Memory (hereinafter - INM). As among the Ukrainians and among the Poles there are large groups that hate Bandera, and those who joyfully support what the Polish Sejm did because they believe that it is to their advantage. And it's not only separatists in Crimea or Donbas, but I suppose that many Ukrainians in the East and the South of Ukraine think so as well. But there are many Poles (in particular, among those I know) who believe that these laws are bad, stupid and even criminal. It is very important to understand: there is no "wall to wall" - there are different groups. The worst thing in this situation is that it weakens positions of those groups on both sides who are in favor of Ukrainian and Polish reconciliation because with the growth of antagonism the field for compromise and consensus is narrowing. This is the first thing.

Secondly, when the Poles talk about Ukrainian nationalism, and we talk about the national liberation struggle, then we use two different terms to mean the same thing - nationalism as a phenomenon. Nationalism in the modern world is notorious - because it is associated primarily with bloody conflicts and genocides. But this is a journalistic or political understanding. The scientific understanding of nationalism is much broader and more neutral: any movement and any ideology are nationalistic when it believes that every nation must have its own state. And since two neighboring nationalisms often struggle for common territories, the victory of one of them inevitably means the defeat of the other. And the winner, of course, will resort to his rhetoric: we were patriots - and our enemies are bloody nationalists.

And the main tool for creating such a noble image of their nation and denigrating the stranger is a historical memory. We must understand one simple rule: historical memory is not history. It is rather a distorted image of the past. As the great nationalist theorist Ernst Rennan said: "misunderstanding of history is part of the nation's being." That is, if we correctly understand history, we cease to be a nation. This applies to Americans, French, Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews alike.

The misunderstanding of history is that we want to forget those moments from our past that are unpleasant to us. Therefore, strange as it may sound, historical memory is not so much a memory as a forgetting. We try to forget about those things that show our ancestors in an unattractive light. And vice versa, to highlight the history that is convenient for us. Which makes us great, honest, moral, and the like. This is a general universal rule. Ukrainians and Poles did not invent anything new.

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The interpretation of Polish law as an anti-Bandera is too narrow. It is primarily directed against the previous authorities and the current opposition. Kaczynski and his authority say that the previous government pursued a "policy of shame" towards the Poles. He recognized the crimes committed by the Poles against other nations, primarily against Jews. Calculations show that during the Second World War, Poles killed more Jews than Germans. In the 2000's on this account, there was a great Polish discussion, and the Polish government and the Polish church recognized this and apologized. Now the Polish authorities believe that this was not only a big mistake but a great shame. And now we (ed. - the current Polish government) will carry out a "shameless" policy of restoring our own national dignity.

Therefore, I want to warn everyone that you shouldn’t perceive this law as "anti-Bandera". "Antibandera" is only part of the law. And if we focus on this, we will lose. And we must see the whole picture. And we must criticize the current Polish government not because they are against Bandera, but in general for the meaning of this law. Because it is false in content and just ridiculous.

Talking about Bandera. The recent polls that we conducted have shown that in Ukraine a significant part of those Ukrainians who support Bandera are friendly to the Poles. Even greater surprise: the number of those who support the erection of the monument in his city or village, among Poles in Ukraine is almost twice more as much as among the Ukrainians. That is, it confirms what many of us said before: the Bandera myth in Ukraine does not have a definitely anti-Polish direction. It is rather anti-Russian, it is especially active in the conditions of Russian aggression. But many Poles in Poland do not think so. In their understanding, the Bandera myth is an anti-polish myth. Because they connect Bandera with Volyn. Although we all know that Bandera did not have a direct relationship with this because he was at that time in a German concentration camp. Perhaps he would have done such deeds if he was free, but he did not lead the Bandera movement at that time - that's a fact. Conventionally, Polish historical memory is built on a wrong, very selective, schematic, biased choice or interpretation of certain historical details. And the trouble is that the present Polish government is now actually promoting this kind of memory.

My advice on what to do about it will be very simple: do not pay attention. I think that the statement to the Polish Foreign Ministry to the Ukrainians was quite an adequate response. Because the Polish government has caused such a flurry of attacks, primarily from Israel and Europe, that personally, I would not want to be in its place. This is a law that completely compromised the very idea of historical politics. The irony is that Ukraine looks attractive enough in the context of this law. As one Polish publicist wrote: "We wanted to teach Ukrainians how not to be nationalists, and now they showed the world that we are still bigger nationalists than Ukrainians."

Important, if not decisive, is the position of Kaczynski himself - the leader of the party and, as a matter of fact, the unofficial leader of that wing of Poland, which now requires revision of the historical policy. It should be noted that his brother when he was president, was never a patron of any conference that dealt with the Volyn massacre. This was a principled position. The current Kaczynski did not occupy this position for a long time. We remember that both Kaczynski were on Maidan: the first - on the first one, and the second - on the second one.

What happened then? It's just that Yaroslav Kaczynski after the Dignity Revolution had a certain scheme. And it cannot be overcome because it is a scheme of not quite an adequate person. It says that his brother did not just die - he was killed by Putin for Ukraine. Because Lech Kaczynski very strongly supported Ukraine. And how did Ukraine thank? With heroization of Bandera!

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Each point of this provision is doubtful. Because, firstly, we do not know what really happened in 2010 in Smolensk and whether Russian special services played a role in this catastrophe. It’s enough to say that until recently the military minister in Poland was a man who put everything at stake to prove "Putin's hand" - and he did not prove anything and resigned. But even if we ignore this point, the point about Bandera's glorification is false: it's hard to stop doing what you do not do. It's hard to stop the "banderization" of Ukraine if it does not exist. After all, the survey shows that Bandera - whether you like him or not - remains a regional hero. And not even in the whole Western Ukraine, but only in Galychyna and Volyn. In Bukovina and in Prykarpattya this cult is not accepted, at least for now.

This does not deny a growing number of people who are positive about Bandera, especially among young and educated Ukrainians. But this group remains in the minority, it is, relatively speaking, a niche.

And thirdly and the main: every time Bandera cult grows when there is aggression. Most of the monuments to Bandera were established before EuroMaidan, under the rule of Yanukovych - as a symbol of resistance to his pro-Russian policy. That is, at its core the Bandera cult is not active, but reactive is a reaction to certain events. This is very important to understand. Here is the last example: when the Polish parliament adopted the so-called anti-Bandera law, the regional councils in Galychyna expressed a recommendation during all official holidays next to the blue-yellow flag to hang red-black.

Why Ukraine needs Bandera? It's very simple - it's the myth of a nation that fights. He has a strong anti-Russian and anti-Soviet context, despite the fact that Ukraine is now fighting against Russia. And this myth is very strong, although it is not the main one. We also know as much about real Bandera as Poles know. My thesis is that Bandera is credited with crimes he did not commit, as well as achievements to which he has no relation. At least because since 1939 he has never been in Ukraine. The movement that acted on his behalf during and after the war had no direct relationship to him. Conversely, those people who created this movement after they were in exile, entered into a very acute conflict with Bandera. Because Bandera did not understand what happened during the war, and how far the evolution of the Bandera movement had been over the years of his absence in Ukraine.

That is, Bandera is an extremely complex figure that requires a good biography. And not the one that would make him a bandit or a hero, but a real biography that would allow you to conclude who he really was and what he really did.

About the situation around Bandera in Polish-Ukrainian relations. It is hardly possible to expect the same attitude of the British and Irish to Cromwell (ed., Lord Protector of England in the middle of the 17th century, who was a military leader during the Civil War and considered an English national hero, despite the ambiguity of his actions). In such a situation, one must try to reconcile around conflicting symbols. I think that under the present government of Poland this is impossible. The Poles themselves say that "the Pole is wise after harm." The damage has already been done, and now we will see whether the government will become wiser. I repeat: here I am more a skeptic. I think that the changes can occur only with the coming to power of a new opposition. But when this happens, it's hard to predict. Because this government, thanks to its populist politics, remains popular. And historical politics is part of this populism. Even more: we do not expect that the changes will occur immediately after the arrival of the new government. Therefore, we must be ready for a long enough difficult period in relations with Poland. But we must not stop working for Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation. For this reconciliation, there is no another alternative.

And last but not least. I really would not want us to adopt the present Polish experience as an example for imitation. The postwar European model is built on two pillars: reconciliation between peoples and the recognition of common responsibility for crimes, even if they were committed by a minority of a particular society. By its policy, the current government deliberately shakes this model - because it works to weaken, not strengthen the European Union. But our strategic interest is strong, not divided West. And if our European integration intentions are serious, we must overcome history, and not get stuck in it more and more.

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