Ukrainians are forcibly moved from their land by Polish soldiers in 1947.

Ukrainians are forcibly moved from their land by Polish soldiers in 1947.


Discussions about the assessment of historic events have always had their place in the public discourse in democratic societies, whereas totalitarian regimes such as the Communist one preferred an official version of history that is not up for debate. This is why a conflict-prone memory boom in the CEE was to be expected after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The only recently intensified trend is to fight memory wars with the means of memory laws, i.e. by using laws prescribing and proscribing certain representations of historic events as a weapon to protect one’s national collective memory from divergent interpretation by others. Such approach to governing memory wars are detrimental to the neighborly relations, i.e. turning them into un-neighborly ones.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2021:3, pp 37-41
Published on on October 25, 2021

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For those interested in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) it is hardly surprising that the first annual report from the new publication series by the CBEES was dedicated to the topic of memory management in the region. Indeed, one could go as far as to say that the post-Cold War Europe is in a state of yet another war: a memory war over the historical assessment of two totalitarian regimes that have shaped the political and social landscape of the continent in the past century. To paint a very simplified picture, it is “West” versus “East,” i.e. the collective Western European mnemonic narrative shaped around the Nazi regime and WWII versus its Eastern European counterpart that is constructed around the communist regime and the Cold War. However, since this memory struggle takes place simultaneously on several levels that partially overlap, the line dividing Europe in “West” and “East” is blurry, flexible, and relative. Also, even when identified as a “particular region of memory,” the CEE landscape is far from being uniform.

Discussions about the assessment of historic events have always had their place in the public discourse in democratic societies, whereas totalitarian regimes such as the Communist one preferred an official version of history that is not up for debate. This is why a conflict-prone memory boom in the CEE was to be expected after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The only recently intensified trend is to fight memory wars with the means of memory laws, i.e. by using laws prescribing and proscribing certain representations of historic events as a weapon to protect one’s national collective memory from divergent interpretation by others. Such approach to governing memory wars are detrimental to the neighborly relations, i.e. turning them into un-neighborly ones. There are more adequate ways to engage in mnemonic discussions in order to achieve reconciliation over the common historical past. In the following, the counterproductivity of memory laws as well as the potential and real dangers of memory wars will be demonstrated against the backdrop of intra- and interstate relations of Ukraine and Poland.

Memory laws in West and East

Memory laws are a Western European invention. The term first appeared in France in the 2000s and was used to describe the relatively novel development in law primarily concerned with the provisions penalizing Holocaust denial. The first bill of this kind was passed in Germany in 1985. Understood in a broader sense, memory laws comprise all state regulations concerning the collective representation of the past. Since a certain degree of memory governance is always present in the state function, e.g. public education, official holidays, toponymy etc., a very wide range of legislative efforts could be included. Therefore, in order to be an operable term, memory laws should be applied only to such commemorations that “are aimed at eliminating alternative narratives of the past from public circulation,” i.e. they are defined by focusing on the intention of the legal activity rather than its nature.

Memory laws are problematic from the legal dogmatics point of view first and foremost because they restrict the freedom of speech, and, as the historians point out, also the freedom of research as a consequence. The very idea of the existence of such a category of laws is a highly “contentious normative issue.” Particularly the so-called “decommunization” laws, which appeared in CEE after the collapse of the Soviet Union, are criticized throughout the academia. These regulations are characterized by their intention to protect “the good name” of the respective state, to present it in a favorable historic light at all times, “only as victims of major atrocities, never as perpetrators.” Thus, the classic Western memory laws are “self-inculpatory,” whereas the mnemonic legislation in CEE is “self-exculpatory.” This is congruent with the different approaches to history: the novel “non-national, self-critical, and cosmopolitan” in the West versus traditional, treating “the past as a source of collective national identities and values such as heroism or sacrifice” in the East.
The lamented consequences of the recent memory law boom in CEE is the deterioration of public discourse, and as such the rule of law in the new democracies. This in turn leads to the instrumentalization of the historical truth to suit the official historical assessment of events by those in power, support of the far-right populist agenda and growth of nationalism, discrimination of minorities, and, ultimately, the aggravation of intra-national and international conflicts. Thus, the new generation of memory laws changed from being a means of maintaining peace and seeking reconciliation to “one of the preferred instruments of the memory wars within and between many European countries.”

Memory wars between Ukraine and Poland

The term memory wars was coined by the historian Nikolay Koposov to describe the phenomena of mnemonic legislation protecting the CEE countries’ sovereignty and national identity triggered by the “newfound Russian assertiveness in the area.” However, not all memory wars involve Russia. There is a number of historic incidents that have caused tensions in Ukrainian-Polish relations for decades. The two main events that have deteriorated the Ukrainian-Polish relations during and after the WWII, and are still the most important sign of mistrust and disagreement between both nations, are the mass killings of Poles in Volhynia and Galicia in 1943—1945 on the one hand, and the so-called “Operation Vistula” standing for the mass deportations of Ukrainians within Poland in 1947 on the other hand.
In 1943, a prominent member of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), Mykola Lebed’, “proposed ‘to cleanse the entire revolutionary territory of the Polish population’.” The mass killings in Volhynia and Galicia were carried out by the partisans of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). The historical background of the region and its population is very complex, so are the developments that culminated in the atrocities committed there during World War II. Both, Poland and Ukraine present the Volhynian events in the light of their respective nation’s suffering and hardships during the war, and blame each other for it. Particularly the number of victims is debated: the Polish side speaks of 100,000 Polish victims, and 12,000 Ukrainian ones, while the Ukrainian statistics puts the number of killed Poles much lower, at 35,000, and the number of the Ukrainian victims higher, at 15,000. Consequently, the respective national interpretations of the mass killings vary: Ukrainians speak of the “Volhynian tragedy,” while the Polish side calls it “Volhynian massacre.” The qualification of the mass killings as “genocide” by the Polish Parliament in 2016 gave rise to new controversial discussions.
The so-called “Operation Vistula” is sometimes referred to as an “attempted genocide” to underline the declared intent of the Polish government to “solve the Ukrainian problem in Poland once and for all.” In September 1944 the Polish Communist government (the Polish National Liberation Committee), and Soviet Union signed an agreement about the exchange of populations along the so-called “Curzon Line.” This allegedly friendly and voluntary resettlement agreement turned out to be a forced deportation and displacement of about 700,000 Ukrainians from Poland to Soviet Ukraine between the years of 1945 and 1946. Later on, in 1947, about 150,000 Ukrainian national minorities, such as e.g. Lemkos, remaining on the Polish territory were forcefully displaced by the Polish government from the Southern and Eastern border regions to the North-West of the country in the so-called “Operation Vistula.” The Ukrainian minority in Poland was regarded across-the-board as a potentially dangerous supporter of the OUN and UPA. Therefore, charged with collective responsibility, the ethnic Ukrainians were discriminated against in terms of religion, culture, and language.

The biggest international, biliteral Ukrainian-Polish, and internal Ukrainian controversy developed around the historical assessment of the OUN and UPA organizations as well as their leaders. Particularly contentious is the historical figure of Stepan Bandera, who is presented as a fighter for Ukraine’s independency by some Ukrainians, while being seen as a leader of a terrorist fascist organization that has committed numerous war crimes during the World War II by the vast majority comprised of, among others, Ukrainians, Poles, Russians, and Jews. The award of the title “Hero of Ukraine” to Bandera was harshly criticised by the European Parliament, and the respective memory laws caused an outcry of protest in the academic circles. On the one hand, one could argue that any organisation of Ukrainians fighting for independency from Poland before, during, and after the World War II is bound to be seen as a terrorist unit by the Polish state. However, on the other hand, accepting and endorsing actions of a Nazi-collaborator implicated in war crimes for the sake of “the wholesale condemnation of the entire Soviet period as one of occupation of Ukraine” goes too far, and cannot be covered by the principles of militant democracy.

Memory laws impacting Ukraine–Poland relations

Both Poland and Ukraine have institutionalized their collective memory governance by establishing respectively the Polish Institute of National Memory (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej) in 1991, and the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory (Український Інститут Національної Пам’яті) in 2006. These “ministries of memory” act as “mnemonic warriors” on behalf of the respective government “using history to pursue ideological agendas” by “popularizing scholarship, gate-keeping of archives, and instrumentalization of history.” The Polish and the Ukrainian Institutes of National Memory are equally well-known for their numerous legislative efforts. This commentary, however, focuses only formal memory laws passed by the respective Parliament (the Verkhovna Rada in Ukraine, and the Sejm in Poland) that directly impact the Ukraine-Poland relations.
The relevant Ukrainian provisions consist first of all of the posthumous award of the “Hero of Ukraine” title to Stepan Bandera, the leader of the main faction of the OUN, and to Roman Shukhevych, the supreme commander of the UPA in 2004. Secondly, the law no. 2538 “on the legal status and honoring the memory of participants in the struggle for the independence of Ukraine in the 20th century” from the memory package of four laws passed in April 2015 by the Ukrainian parliament is relevant. The first stage of the mentioned memory laws was a controversial back-and-forth commemoration process in Ukraine, depending on the president in power, the region, and the international pressure until the law no. 2538 bindingly “declared the OUN and UPA to be fighters for Ukrainian independence and made it illegal for Ukrainian citizens or foreigners to express public disrespect to members of these organizations.” It is worth mentioning that the 2015 memory laws package drafted by the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory was “passed with a speed rarely seen in the Ukrainian legislative body and by overwhelming majorities,” which can only be explained with the Russian-Ukrainian conflict over Crimea in 2014.

The Polish Senate reacted to the Ukrainian memory laws by qualifying the Volyn mass killings as genocide in 2016, after the initial declaration of the anti-Polish actions of the UPA and the OUN during WWII to be “ethnic cleansing with signs of genocide” in 2013. Another Polish reaction to the legal glorification of the OUN and UPA in Ukraine is the 2018 Amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Memory from 1998. Among other things, the Amendment authorizes the Polish Institute of National Memory to investigate “crimes of Ukrainian nationalists” committed between 1920 and 1950, as well as “crimes and gross human rights violations against Polish nationals and citizens committed between 8 November 1917 and 31 July 1989.” Remarkably, the wording of the law juxtaposes “Ukrainian nationalists” and “Polish nationals and citizens” even though the majority of the former held Polish citizenship for the most of the mentioned time period. This could suggest an exclusively ethnic understanding of the “Polish nation.” It certainly fits the selective approach of the Polish historical discourse, where e.g. Polish Jews are “silently subsumed into the number of Polish victims of fascism, but at the same time excluded from the Polish nation in ethnic terms.”
As a consequence, the mutually exclusive Ukrainian and Polish memory laws lead to a situation where nobody can discuss the historical events in question without being (criminally) liable in one of the countries.

Memory laws as an instrument in memory wars

The negative impacts of the Ukrainian-Polish memory wars can hardly be exaggerated. First of all, the usage of military jargon in politics is always potentially dangerous as it can lead to aggravation of existing and spurring up of new conflicts. Secondly, such memory battles are detrimental to the countries’ internal as well as external relations, and security. Memory laws are meant to provide ontological security through the unification of the nation’s identity via prescribed collective memory. Yet, they are counterproductive to this goal. Not only memory wars by means of memory laws are “nesting Orientalisms” (using the conceptual variant of Edward Said’s Orientalism suggested by Milica Bakić-Hayden) as they try to glorify one’s own nation at the cost of demonising the Oriental, i.e. the inferior “other.” More significantly, such legalised memory practice takes the controversial historical narrative out of the sphere of political, out of the public discourse by prescribing the one and only acceptable version of the events. Particularly in the post-Communist countries this is a remarkable approach to history as it replaces the totalitarian Communist non-talk by penalising the “other” historical memory with the help of the so-called “decommunization laws.” Thus, one could claim that World War II has caused the Cold War, which in turn has caused the present memory wars in CEE.
In the case of Ukraine, the legal glorification of the OUN, UPA, and their leaders has declared the minority’s assessment of the historical past a non-negotiable collective memory, and, hereby, “contributed to the de facto breakup of Ukraine manifested by the secession and the Russian annexation of Crimea and the civil war in Donbas.” Poland, on the other hand, is one of Europe’s most homogenous countries, whose population is for sure more unified in terms of ethnicity, language, and religion than Ukraine. However, this does not mean that all the Poles subscribe to one and only historical narrative. Thus, in spite of the legal efforts of the ruling PiS party to mainstream “the cognitive patterns of Poles,” “the Polish culture is still far from unity.” Particularly the efforts to restore and develop “the ethnic-centered version of national histories” are bound to lead to internal conflicts in both countries in the long run.

The biliteral Ukrainian-Polish relations have moved away from the reconciliation and cooperation course held up until the middle of the 2010s. There is a clear decline in cooperation efforts, and lack of mutual interest in each other’s affairs apart from the confrontation regarding the memory politics. Previously, the disagreements about the assessment of historical events were significant primarily on the local level, i.e. in the border regions in West Ukraine. While arguably being artificially over-emphasized by the (local) politicians on both sides, these memory debates neither influenced the people-to-people relationships as such, nor the mainstream politics in whole of Poland, and Ukraine. Just over a decade later, the respective memory fronts are significantly hardened, with both countries having memory laws in place, protecting their respective view on the historical events, proscribing and prescribing collective historical narratives for their own people, and the “others.”
After recognizing the fact that memory wars cannot be won by means of “memory laws,” one should give up on this strategy as counterproductive not only to the ontological but also real security of one’s country. Furthermore, one could acknowledge that complete mnemonic security cannot be achieved, and embrace a national narrative that constantly renews itself instead of aiming at an utopic static one. Such a position of being prepared to question oneself and respect the right of the other, fellow countrymen and foreigners alike, to hold different views on important historic events in principle, without having to agree, only appears to be weaker — agonistic political discussion with unlimited freedom of speech, i.e. the very basis of a democratic society, will win in the long run.


Memory wars are potentially dangerous and certainly detrimental to the present Ukrainian-Polish relations. These “wars” cannot be won by means of “memory laws.” On the contrary, the latter tend to amplify the conflict and harden the fronts. In case of post-communist countries such as Ukraine and Poland, it is several times harder to observe that the assessment of historic events is being legalised instead of being politicised by the very laws that claim to deal with the totalitarian communist past. In order to achieve true reconciliation over the tragic events in common history, both Ukraine and Poland need to firstly acknowledge the right of the respective other to hold a different view in principle. Secondly, they should seek an agonistic political dialogue intra- and internationally. And, last but not least, they ought to concentrate on the present more than on the past, and work to revive the positive developments of the 2010s in mutually beneficial cooperation recognizing the benefits of good neighborly relations. Surely, this requires strength and a feeling of security, and it is not easy or a fast fix, but there is simply no other way. ≈


1 “Constructions and Instrumentalization of
the Past: A Comparative Study on Memory
Management in the Region,” CBEES State of
the region report 2020 (Centre for Baltic and
East European Studies, CBEES, Södertörn
University, December 2020), accessed June 4,
2 Maria Mälksoo, “Nesting Orientalisms at
War: World War II and the ‘Memory War’ in
Eastern Europe,” in Orientalism and War,
ed. Tarak Barkawi and Ketih Stanski (Oxford
Scholarship Online, September 2014), 2,
accessed June 4, 2021, doi:10.1093/acprof:o
3 Barbara Törnquist-Plewa, “Eastern and
Central Europe as a Region of Memory. Some
Common Traits,” CBEES State of the region
report 2020 (December 2020): 15, accessed
June 4, 2021,
4 Nikolay Koposov, “Memory Laws, Memory
Wars: The Politics of the Past in Europe and
Russia” (Cambridge University Press, 2017),
Kindle edition, 15—16.
5 Marta Bucholc, “Commemorative
Lawmaking: Memory Frames of the
Democratic Backsliding in Poland After 2015,”
Hague Journal on the Rule of Law 11 (2019): 92,
accessed June 4, 2021, doi:10.1007/s40803-018-
0080-7. Bucholc proposes the classification
of “memory politics” in three groups:
memory laws, applied commemoration, and
commemorative law-making.
6 Eric Heinze, “Law and Historical Memory:
Theorising the Discipline,” Verfassungsblog
on matters constitutional (07 January 2018),
accessed June 4, 2021, doi:10.17176/20180108-
103453; Grazyna Baranowska and León
Castellanos-Jankiewicz, “Historical Memory in
Post-communist Europe and the Rule of Law:
An Introduction,” European Papers — A Journal
on Law and Integration, 5 (2020): 100, accessed
June 4, 2021, doi:10.15166/2499-8249/386.
7 Uladzislau Belavusau and Aleksandra
Gliszczyńska-Grabias, “Memory Laws:
Mapping a New Subject in Comparative Law
and Transitional Justice,” forthcoming in
Law and Memory: Towards Legal Governance
of History, ed. Uladzislau Belavusau and
Aleksandra Gliszczyńska-Grabias (Cambridge
University Press, 2017), 15, accessed June
4, 2021,
Arguably, the “classical” memory laws on
denying or diminishing the crimes of the
Holocaust are less problematic. The academic
discourse in this area is lead among the lines
whether “legally regulating historical truth”
is effective or rather counterproductive, see
Aleksandra Gliszczyńska, “Law and Memory,”
Verfassungsblog on matters constitutional
(04 January 2018), accessed June 4, 2021,
doi:10.17176/20180104-103227. Also, there is a
fundamental discussion whether freedom of
speech is “just another” right or a “condition
for both democracy and human rights,” see
Heinze, “Law and Historical Memory.”
8 Heinze, “Law and Historical Memory.” See
also Florence Fröhlig, “Victimhood and
Building Identities on Past Suffering,” CBEES
State of the region report 2020 (December
2020): 23—28, accessed June 4, 2021,
9 Uladzislau Belavusau and Aleksandra
Gliszczyńska-Grabias, “The Remarkable
Rise of ‘Law and Historical Memory’ in
Europe: Theorizing Trends and Prospects
in the Recent Literature,” Journal of Law and
Society 47(2) (2020): 333, 337, accessed June
4, 2021, doi:10.1111/jols.12228. Belavusau
and Gliszczyńska-Grabias describe the
self-inculpatory memory laws as having
“the naïve yet noble purpose of defending
historical ruth and the dignity of Holocaust
victims.” They also provide the best
description of self-exculpatory memory laws
as “efforts to whitewash problematic and
sometimes shameful episodes in national
history by politicians currently in power and
bent on promoting their own, simplified,
black-and-white historical narrative, drawing
stark lines between good and bad, guilty and
innocent, while ignoring the ‘shades of grey’
and all of the dilemmas indelibly etched in the
history of World War II, and people’s actions
and choices at that time.”
10 Barbara Törnquist-Plewa, “Eastern and
Central Europe as a Region of Memory,” 17.
11 Koposov, “Memory Laws, Memory Wars,”
22—24; see also Barbara Törnquist-Plewa,
“Eastern and Central Europe as a Region of
Memory,” 20.
12 Grazyna Baranowska and León Castellanos-
Jankiewicz, “Historical Memory in Postcommunist
Europe and the Rule of Law:
An Introduction,” European Papers — A
Journal on Law and Integration, 5(1) (2020):
95, accessed August 24, 2021, https://www.
13 Nathaniel Copsey, “Echoes of the Past in
Contemporary Politics: the case of Polish-
Ukrainian Relations,” SEI Working Paper No
87 (Sussex European Institute, University of
Sussex, October 2006), accessed June 4, 2021,
14 Timothy Snyder, “The Causes of Ukrainian-
Polish Ethnic Cleansing 1943,” Past & Present
179 (2003): 202, accessed August 24, 2021,
15 Snyder, “The Causes of Ukrainian-Polish
Ethnic Cleansing 1943.”
16 Hromadske, “Ukraine and Poland Debate
Volyn Tragedy,” July 24, 2016, accessed
August 24, 2021,
17 Georgiy Kasianov, “Ukraine-Poland: Quest
for the Past,” Ideology and Politics Journal
2(16) (2020): 168, 170, accessed August 24,
2021, doi:10.36169/2227-6068.2020.01.00017.
To read about the historical assessment of
Volhynia mass killings from the Polish point of
view: Łukasz Adamski, “Ukrainian ‘Volhynian
Negationism’: Reflections on the 2016
Polish–Ukrainian Memory Conflict,” Journal
of Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society
3(2) (2017), accessed August 24, 2021, https://
18 Askold S. Lozynskyj, “Attempted Genocide
— ‘To solve the Ukrainian problem in Poland
once and for all’,” Ukrainian Echo, Mai 10,
2017, accessed August 24, 2021, http://www.
19 UATV English, “Operation ‘Vistula’ — Making
History,” September 28, 2019, accessed
August 24,
watch?v=eO93lQlIesQ&t=379s; Lozynskyj,
“Attempted Genocide.”
20 Ivan Katchanovski, “Terrorists or national
heroes? Politics and perceptions of the
OUN and the UPA in Ukraine,” Communist
and Post-Communist Studies 48 (2015): 218,
224, accessed June 4, 2021, doi:10.1016/j.
21 European Parliament, Resolution of February
25, 2010, accessed August 24, 2021, https://
22 David R. Marples, “Open Letter from Scholars
and Experts on Ukraine Re. the So-Called
“Anti-Communist Law,” Krytyka, March 2015,
accessed August 24, 2021, https://krytyka.
23 Marples, “Open Letter.”
24 Per Anders Rudling, “Institutes of Trauma Reproduction
in a Borderland: Poland, Ukraine,
and Lithuania,” CBEES State of the region
report 2020 (December 2020): 55, 60, accessed
June 4, 2021,
25 Rudling, “Institutes of Trauma Reproduction,”
26 Rudling, “Institutes of Trauma Reproduction,”
27 Rudling, “Institutes of Trauma Reproduction,”
28 Katchanovski, “Terrorists or national
heroes?,” 217.
29 John-Paul Himka, “Legislating Historical
Truth: Ukraine’s Laws of 9 April 2015,” 2015,
accessed June 4, 2021, https://www.academia.
30 Katchanovski, “Terrorists or national
heroes?,” 217—218.
31 Katchanovski, “Terrorists or national
heroes?,” 218.
32 Himka, “Legislating Historical Truth.”
33 Rudling, “Institutes of Trauma Reproduction,”
62. However, Rudling notes
that “the generous application of the term
‘genocide’” is common to both states, Poland
and Ukraine.
34 Uladzislau Belavusau, “The Rise of Memory
Laws in Poland: An Adequate Tool to Counter
Historical Disinformation?,” Security and
Human Rights 29 (2018): 42, accessed June 4,
2021, doi:10.1163/18750230-02901011.
35 Jörg Hackmann, “Defending the ‘Good Name’
of the Polish Nation: Politics of History as
a Battlefield in Poland, 2015—18” Journal of
Genocide Research 20(4) (2018): 602, 603,
accessed June 4, 2021, doi:10.1080/14623528.2
36 Hackmann, “Defending the ‘Good Name’ of
the Polish Nation,” 591.
37 Rudling, “Institutes of Trauma Reproduction,”
38 Maria Mälksoo, “‘Memory must be defended’:
Beyond the Politics of Mnemonical Security,”
Security Dialogue 46(3) (2015): 3, accessed
June 4, 2021, doi:10.1177/0967010614552549.
39 Mälksoo, “Nesting Orientalisms at War,” 1.
40 Mälksoo, “Memory must be defended,” 5.
41 Katchanovski, “Terrorists or national
heroes?,” 227.
42 Bucholc, “Commemorative Lawmaking,” 104.
43 Kasianov, “Ukraine-Poland: Quest for the
Past,” 166.
44 Compare Copsey, “Echoes of the Past”
to Gabriele Wojdelko, “The Polish-
Ukrainian Battle for the Past,” Carnegie
Europe (December 15, 2017), accessed
June 4, 2021, https://carnegieeurope.
see also Kasianov, “Ukraine-Poland: Quest for
the Past.“
45 Mälksoo, “Memory must be defended,” 10.
46 Mälksoo, “Memory must be defended,” 20


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