New film on Wołyń massacres unites Poles in praise – but reconciliation with Ukraine will be harder

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By Daniel Tilles

In Poland’s deeply polarised society, it is rare these days for anything to bridge the country’s social, cultural and political divides. However, a new film about the WW2 Wołyń massacres by director Wojciech Smarzowski appears set to achieve this, winning rave reviews across Polish media after its screening at the Gdynia film festival, writes Daniel Tilles.The film (a trailer for which can be viewed here) comes at a highly sensitive time. The massacres – in which as many as 100,000 ethnic Poles, most of them women and children, were killed by Ukrainian nationalists as part of an ethnic-cleaning operation – have long been a source of contention between Poland and Ukraine. However, tensions have become particularly acute in recent months, following the actions of nationalist politicians in both countries.

In July, both houses of the Polish parliament (controlled since last year by the conservative-nationalist Law and Justice party) passed resolutions declaring the Wołyń massacres to have been a genocide. In the same month, the party’s chairman and de facto leader of the government, Jarosław Kaczyński, said that he ‘hopes the Ukrainian[s]…will recall…that the Wołyń massacre was a genocide’.

The Ukrainian government, however, responded by accusing Poland of ‘politicising history’, and its deputy speaker of parliament promise ‘retaliation’. In the same month, Kyiv city council provocatively named a street in honour of Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, then in August a Ukrainian MP put forward a resolution of his own declaring that Poland itself had committed genocide against Ukrainians in the years 1919-51.

Thus, the new ‘Wołyń’ film – the first ever to be produced on this historical episode – has the potential to either exacerbate or soothe tensions. The director himself says that he made the film in the hope of improving relations between the two countries, and that it is ‘aimed against extreme nationalism’. He has tried to present the history in a way that is ‘balanced’ but honest, as one ‘cannot build a relationship by sweeping the truth under the carpet’. He admits that it ‘will of course stir emotions’, but hopes that ‘when the emotions subside…politicians will create a positive environment for the work of historians, both Polish and Ukrainian, to confront the evidence’.

According to Poland’s liberal media, he may achieve his aim. Gazeta Wyborcza notes that the film does not just focus on events during WW2, but places them in a longer-term context, ‘revealing the entire chain of evil’, including the pre-war Polish state’s mistreatment of its Ukrainian citizens. Even when it comes to the massacres themselves, ‘Poles in this film are not only victims, but also avengers’, conducting violent reprisals against Ukrainians. As such, the film ‘does not judge’ and nor does it, as many had feared, play into any group’s ‘historical politics’: it will not ‘disrupt fragile Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation, support Polish nationalism or the Russian point of view’.

NaTemat agrees that the film ‘does justice to the thousands of Poles murdered’ in the massacres but without resorting to ‘simple generalisations: not every Ukrainian is a devil, not every Pole has a pure soul’. It shows, for example, that while some Ukrainians murdered Poles, others attempted to save them. The reviewer believes that the film will, in the words of the director, act ‘as a bridge, not a wall’ between Poland and Ukraine.

‘Wołyń’ has also won praise on the more conservative side of Poland’s often bitterly partisan media, although with a touch more skepticism about its positive effect on relations with Ukraine. Rzeczpospolita hopes that the ‘groundbreaking and painfully true’ film can act as ‘a powerful opening for genuine Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation’. However, it pointedly adds (and this, of course, is the crux of the problem from a Polish perspective) that ‘the only question is whether Ukrainians are ready to accept the truth’. The newspaper also notes that the lessons of the film can just as easily be applied to other massacres, be they the Polish murder of Jews at Jedwabne or more recent atrocities in Bosnia or Rwanda.

wPolityce describes “Wołyń” as Smarzowski’s ‘magnum opus’ and ‘one of the best films about history ever made in Poland’. It praises the director in particular for covering such a morbid subject in a way that is ‘painfully honest’ but doesn’t resort to gratuitous depictions of the shocking violence that took place. Like Rzeczpospolita, it expresses hope that ‘in an ideal world, a Ukrainian honest about his own history could not consider this film anti-Ukrainian in any way’ and would see that it is ‘aimed at good relations between the two countries’. However, the reviewer acknowledges that, in reality, ‘many Ukrainians, even those who are sympathetic to Poland, will come out of cinemas outraged’. (Although they may not get to the chance to, given that no Ukrainian distributor has so far been prepared to touch the film.)

Rzeczpospolita and wPolityce are no doubt right to express such skepticism. It is easy for commentators on the Polish side to praise the film given that, despite their many other differences, there is relatively little disagreement among the general Polish public about this particular historical episode. For example, a recent poll found that 73% agreed that Wołyń should be described as a genocide, and only 7% did not. Yet most Ukrainians,  even if they acknowledge that killings took place, hold very different views on precisely what happened, as well as the causes and consequences.

Where differences do arise within Poland is over how this legacy should be dealt with. While, as mentioned above, those on the conservative-nationalist side have often favoured unilateral statements of condemnation and demands that Ukraine admit its historical sins, others have favoured a more conciliatory approach. Earlier this year, a number of political, culture and religious figures associated with the liberal section of Polish society – including three former presidents – published an open letter honouring victims on both sides of the ‘fratricidal Polish-Ukrainian conflict’ and urging ‘our countries to forgive each other’.

Senior figures in the Polish government have been attempting to mediate between these two approaches, with President Andrzej Duda visiting his Ukrainian counterpart at the end of August in an attempt to initiate mutual dialogue on historical issues. At the start of this month, the two governments agreed to work together to ‘overcome some minor contradictions in historical interpretation’, with the Ukrainian side promising to ‘evaluate the scale of the Wołyń tragedy’. One hopes that the film can contribute to such progress, rather than hindering it.

The issue is a particularly important one to resolve, because it unnecessarily allows a historical dispute to distract from many shared contemporary interests for the two countries, in particular standing up to Russian aggression and increasing ties between Ukraine and the EU. However, Poland’s government faces a difficult balancing act to find a compromise that satisfies both its nationalist domestic base and its allies in Ukraine. In all likelihood, the issue will continue to fester, flaring up each summer when the anniversary of the start of the massacres comes around.

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