Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN)

[by Jenna Brightwell]

Ukrainians who resented Polish annexation of ‘Western Ukraine’ founded the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (Orhanizatsiya Ukrayins’kykh Natsionalistiv, OUN) in Galicia in 1929 after the Treaty of Riga, ending the Polish-Soviet War, set the eastern border of Poland.  The OUN employed radical, violent methods to further their goal of a purely Ukrainian state.  The OUN continued to operate in Galicia and Volhynia until it was largely disbanded in 1947.

Creation of the OUN

Five million Ukrainians lived in Poland, three million inhabited the formerly Austrian territory of Galicia and two million inhabited the formerly Russian area of Volhynia. Polish rule was stricter toward Ukrainians in Galicia, though their actions were far from repressive.  Polish authorities hoped to assimilate Ukrainians gradually; for example, in 1924, Stanislaw Grabski imposed bi-lingual schools to slowly integrate Ukrainians into the Polish education system (Snyder, 144).  Any attempts at assimilation only angered the OUN, who believed that “only the complete removal of all occupiers from Ukrainian lands will allow for the general development of the Ukrainian Nation within its own state” (Snyder, 143).  They officially opposed all the countries with Ukrainian minorities, but only actively worked in Poland. The OUN viewed themselves as being “at war with the Polish state (Snyder, 143).

The OUN began acting out violently, leading to a cycle of repression by Polish authorities met with increased resistance from the OUN.  OUN hostilities began with assassinating Polish leaders and Ukrainians who accepted and collaborated with Polish rule.  When Josef Pilsudski became the president of Poland in 1926, the OUN hoped to manipulate his less radical policies through a “campaign of sabotage designed to force [his] …hand” (Snyder, 144).  When Pilsudski learned of their tactics, he enacted oppressive counter measures.  However, this only further instigated violence and resistance from the OUN (Snyder, 144).  Through this cycle of uprising and repression the treatment of Ukrainians in Poland continually changed.

Ukrainian Minority in Poland

Ukrainians in Poland did have less educational and civil employment opportunities than under their previous rulers, which made the OUN increasingly appealing especially for educated youths.  While minorities did not hold representation in the Polish government, legal Ukrainian political parties did exist.  The Ukrainian National Democratic Alliance (UNO), the main, legal Ukrainian party, which generally supported working with the Polish state, often suffered from Polish repression caused by OUN violence (Snyder, 150-151).  Most western Ukrainians viewed the Soviets as the protectors of the Ukrainian nation because of their role in creating the Ukrainian SSR.  Pro-soviet propaganda was especially well received in Volhynia, where majority of the people worked on the land.  When Polish elites entered the region, they began to enact pro-Polish land reforms; the Soviets used this opportunity to gain the support of the Ukrainians who resented these policies.  Ukrainians and Belarusians filled the ‘Polish’ Communist Party (Snyder 142-145). West Ukrainians generally supported socialism and communism instead of the overly radical method of the OUN. OUN ideology required war with Poland, which did not appeal to the majority of the Ukrainian population (Snyder, 152).

OUN action during World War II

When Poland fell to the Nazis and the Soviets in 1939, the Ukrainian populations, though still not necessarily dedicated to OUN ideology, refused to ever again resubmit to Polish authority.  The OUN needed to gain their legitimacy from a greater power and initially looked toward the Nazis for validation.  Like the OUN, most of the Ukrainian population initially celebrated the fall of Poland to the Nazis; many Ukrainian elites collaborated with the Nazis during the war and Ukrainians could generally find better employment in the Generalgouvernement than under Polish rule (Snyder, 156-157).  However the terror and oppression caused by the Nazis, Poles, and Soviets during World War II soon shifted Ukrainian support toward nationalization and the OUN.  The Poles attempted to destroy Ukrainians organizations, Nazis arrested Ukrainian elites and repressed national movements, and the Soviets deported elites.  The only Ukrainian organization that survived oppression from these authorities was the OUN, so it became the only infrastructure for national organization (Snyder 163-164).

In spring 1941, the OUN split into two distinct groups, OUN-Bandera, centered in Volhynia, and OUN-Mel’nyk, centered in Galicia.  OUN Mel’nyk, led by Adrii Mel’nyk, included older, better-educated Ukrainians.  As the Germans retreated from the Soviets, they became more willing to arm the volatile Ukrainians as a last resort against their enemy.  The members of the OUN-Mel’nyk joined the Waffen SS Division Galizien; they believed that they were setting up a future Ukrainian army rather than just collaborating with the Nazis.  In West Ukraine, the SS Galizien mostly killed Polish partisan resistant groups, however soon the Nazis sent them to quell revolts in Yugoslavia and Slavakia.  The Ukrainians refused to stifle these national movements, and many deserted the SS Galizien in favor of the OUN-Bandera.  This undermined the power of the OUN-Mel’nyk, making the OUN-Bandera the dominant group in the region.  The OUN-Bandera attracted the younger, more eager and radical Ukrainians.  Treatment of the Ukrainians during the war by the Nazis, Poles, and Soviets dramatically radicalized Volhynia, making it a perfect host of the OUN-Bandera.  When the Germans began to retreat, they saw it as an opportunity to assert independence. In March 1943, they created the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (Ukrains’ka Poustans’ka Armiia, UPA) to both fight the Nazis and cleans West Ukraine of its Polish inhabitants (Snyder 162-167).  The UPA was very efficient during their attacks against the Poles: “Ukrainians who mass murdered the Poles in 1943 followed the tactics they learned as collaborators in the Holocaust in 1942…Volhynian Poles in 1943 were nearly as helpless as Volhynian Jews in 1942” (Snyder, 162).

West Ukrainian-Polish War, 1944

The OUN-Bandera alienated both the Nazis and the Polish population because of their actions in 1943.  The Nazis resented the OUN-Mel’nyk and other Ukrainian nationalists for deserting the SS Galizien and ethnic cleansing of the Poles infuriated the Polish government-in-exile, who controlled the Polish Home Army.  The Home Army and the Nazis worked together against the UPA; the West Ukrainian-Polish War began in Volhynia in 1944.  The OUN used Polish collaboration with the Nazis as evidence of Polish atrocities to gain support for their army and their movement.  Ethnic cleansing of Poles in Galicia began in June 1944 and both the UPA and the Polish Home Army began killing entire villages of the opposite ethnicity (Snyder, 172-176).  As the Soviets pushed the Nazis out of West Ukraine, it came under Stalin’s authority.  Both the OUN and the Polish believed that Galicia and Volhynia belonged to their nation, but to settle the dispute, Stalin decided to give West Ukraine to the Ukrainian SSR.  To conflict from breaking out again, Stalin deported Poles from Galicia and Volhynia and deported Ukrainians from the rest of the Polish region (Snyder 183).  However, the OUN disapproved of resettlement, so they continued their resistance movement in Poland, making Poland more aggressive in their deportations: “resettlement was designed to ensure that Ukrainian communities could never again arise in Poland” (Snyder, 197).  The final push for total resettlement in 1947, named “Operation Vistula” by Polish authorities, removed Ukrainian presence from Poland.  Because they lacked a Ukrainian presence, the OUN and UPA became obsolete by 1947 (Snyder, 192-200).


Works Cited

  •  Timothy Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).