: Apologies for Historical Injustices and Other Ways for Reconciliation

16:16 Jul. 8, 2016

Apologies for Historical Injustices and Other Ways for Reconciliation

Tablet with names of Poles killed in Berezowica Mala, in present-day Ukraine (photo source: wikipedia.org)

Ukrainian historian and diplomat on how common European history should unite instead of stimulate rivalry

This article is the second in a series of reviews focusing on political interpretation of history. The issue becomes so urgent amidst an active dialogue between Poland and Ukraine with both countries trying to overcome evasions and resentment they both suffered following the tragic events in history. Also, the political interpretation of history is vital in terms of Crimea's annexation and its reflection in political life of Russia and Ukraine. 

Recent weeks saw Ukraine and Poland making another attempt to treat the wounds within the collective memory of both nations. The trauma caused by the "Volhynian tragedy", as Ukrainians call the events of 1943-44, or the "Volhynia Massacre", as the same events are defined by the Polish term, isn't something that may be easily healed. However, politicians, intellectuals and public figures of the two countries have tried their best to advance the necessary historical therapy. Not everybody welcomed their endeavors, and there's a great deal of those who are dissatisfied with the depth of ‘the other side's' grasp of the problem. Nevertheless, the exchange of good messages has taken place, and Poland, once more, has shown a noble and much appreciated resolve to support Ukraine through her contemporary travails.

Click to enlarge (Source: volhyniamassacre.eu)

Read also: Polish presidents, intellectuals, public figures ask Ukraine to forgive historical crimes

There is a voluminous scholarly polemic on the whole matter of official apologies for the injustices of the past. Many distinguished participants of the debate believe that governmental acts of the said nature are able to stimulate pronouncedly positive responses within large groups of society. Perhaps, such a response may be ascribed to the ‘post-Volhynian' dialogue between Ukrainians and Poles, although it would appear very inaccurate to praise solely the two state's official institutions for all the progress in this dimension. Important as they are, the reconciliatory rituals performed by stately dignitaries cannot substitute for relevant interaction at the level of civil society.

Read also Polish Senate calls for recognizing Volyn massacre as genocide

At present, one may name a few significant areas, within which Ukrainian and Polish citizens communicate in a civilized mutually pleasant manner. Academics and members of the intellectual professions play the leading role within this conversation intended to bring the nations in question irrevocably closer. Despite often heated hair-splitting, the mentioned stratum provides resourceful and quite comfortable platform for correcting painful wrongs of 1940s.

Read also 'Poles killed Ukrainians too. Nobody conceals it' - Polish deputies

In the meantime, one may rightfully ask: What about other societal groups? What about ‘the people', ‘the masses', or ‘the common folks' inUkraineandPoland? Should they take part in the debates, as well as in the settlement of the matter?

Well, they are already doing it in the capacity of the ‘general public' or the civic body of voters. That constitutes a much greater majority if compared to the numbers of those who have the status of ‘intellectuals'. According to the established ideologies of Modernity, it is ‘the people', and not ‘the intellectual elites', that represent the nature and the psychology of a ‘nation'. Can this majority (including the groups with noticeably aggressive attitude towards ‘the other side') play a constructive role?

Ensuring such a role does not seem an easily achievable task. The 19th and the 20th centuries played many a serious trick with historical consciousness of European and non-European peoples. In the nation-states that already existed, the discourses of ‘national greatness' were pompously upheld by the state apparatuses. Within the empires of classical type or such imperial entities as theSoviet Union, official nationalisms functioned alongside oppositional nationalistic ideologies of those national entities that were striving for the statehood. Enhanced by the culture of Romanticism, pre-WWI propaganda, and, finally, by the unstoppable brainwashing in the era of totalitarian/authoritarian regimes, these ideologies schooled ‘the masses' to glorify their nation and their state as a Mother- or Fatherland. Because of its rigid simplicity (typical for propaganda on a massive scale), the glorification of such a kind did not presuppose any particular warm feelings for neighboring nations existing behind or sometimes within a state border. Instead these neighbors were almost always deemed as competitors or rivals, and this primitive idea of confrontation created the very basis for historical mentality of ‘common people'. Contemporary nationalisms, accepted by the masses in the present-day nation-states, follow this old hat trend, not displaying any significant readiness to review the practices of inevitably chauvinistic self-praise.

Read also: Moscow avenue in Kyiv renamed after controversial Stepan Bandera

The cure for the mentioned illness, we'll dare to suggest, could be found in a different understanding of the past – the one that is not going to herald the unpreventable antagonism of nations. In the case of Ukrainians and Poles, it is the things we had in common that are to be celebrated – such as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Notwithstanding all the conflicts that emerged within this polity, its history offers us a solid ground for defining common traditions. In addition to other political and social phenomena, the early modern culture of Sarmatianism and the glamour of the Sarmatian Baroque (rather that the traumas of dark totalitarian 20th century) are the things that should inspire our collective identities.

Among intellectuals this return to the early modern roots of Ukraine's and Poland's connection has been conventional for quite a while. As for the wider parts of society, there's still much work to be done. However banal it may sound, there has to be historical education ‘for the masses' – the popular education of the kind that will manage to show shared cultural heritage while refraining from the pompousness of nations' self-aggrandizement.


Read also Poland initiates creation of Assembly for Visegrad Four, Romania and Ukraine

Such a format would be a good idea not just for Ukraine and Poland. An all-European historical project ‘for the people', a project dedicated to ‘common European past', could do much good if it were implemented. Theoretically, the institutions of the EU, the Council of Europe, and European organizations dealing in the area of cultural matters should be interested provide a joint umbrella for such an endeavor.

Then, having embraced the history that unites instead of stimulating rivalry, the communities of this continent (as well as those beyond its margins) would find it much easier to overcome the traumatic memories of the previous century.  

Dmytro Ishchenko, PhD (candidate of science), historian, policy analyst, diplomat at the MFA of Ukraine and the Mission of Ukraine to the EU (2002-2010).

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