‘They used axes to spare the ammo’: How modern Ukraine’s Nazi heroes massacred civilians during WWII
This feature was first published on February 9, 2022. Today is the 80th anniversary of the beginning of Massacres of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia.
The Second World War is usually seen as a confrontation between giant military alliances. However, in reality, many smaller separate conflicts unfolded within this epic war, and the struggle between peoples and countries was often conducted without compromise or mercy. One of the darkest and least-known pages of the Second World War is the Volyn massacre – an ethnic cleansing carried out by pro–Nazi Ukrainian nationalist groups in the Volyn region, which is now almost entirely part of Ukraine.
Volhynia has historically been a border zone. These swampy forests were part of Russia in the Middle Ages and later became part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – the Polish state in its heyday. The partitioning of Poland brought Volhynia into the Russian Empire. After the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Russian Civil War, Volhynia was once again part of an independent Poland. In short, this region, although a bit of a backwater, has changed hands often.
By the beginning of the Second World War, it was a good agricultural region with a diverse population. Approximately 70% of the region’s inhabitants were Ukrainians, 16% were Poles, and another 10% were Jews. In the first two decades of Poland’s renewed independence, Ukrainian national organizations were banned in Volhynia, and, most importantly, poverty was a very acute problem. The level of urbanization was extremely low, and there was little good land for peasants in Volhynia. National tensions had already existed, but their roots stemmed from economic problems. The Polish minority was, on average, more prosperous, and the central authorities distributed Volhynia’s best plots of land among Polish veterans.
In 1939, Germany began World War II by attacking Poland. Within a couple of weeks, the Polish army’s main forces were defeated. Against this background, on September 17, 1939, Soviet troops entered the territory of western Ukraine and Belarus. Though the Poles considered this a treacherous blow, Poland itself had acquired its eastern provinces by forcibly capturing them at the end of the Russian Civil War. From Moscow’s point of view, it had protected the local population from the Nazis while creating a buffer for itself in case of a major war. From whatever angle you look at these events, the national republics within the USSR were formed from territories with their own native populations. The borders of the ruined Russian Empire had evolved not according to some national principle, but were the results of hostilities. Now populated mainly by Ukrainians, Volhynia became part of Soviet Ukraine.
Naturally, redrawing the borders did not make national tensions disappear. The Polish minority was not happy about this at all, and the Polish government sitting in exile in London was not prepared to give up even an inch of land. The Polish government continued to see the ‘Kresy’ – the disputed territories in western Belarus and Ukraine – as its own territory.
In 1941, the Nazis began a grandiose campaign of conquest against Russia. The beginning of the war was disastrous for the Soviet Union. The Red Army immediately suffered a series of heavy defeats, and the Germans occupied Volhynia within literally one or two weeks.
However, the Nazis’ grip on Volhynia was not that tight. It wasn’t very important to them from a strategic or economic standpoint, so only a few cities were actually held by German forces. Moreover, there were a number of different guerrilla-insurgent groups operating in the countryside. The Polish ‘Home Army’ saw its task as restoring Polish rule. Soviet partisans fought against the Nazis in the interests of their own country. Volhynia was also one of the key centers of activity for the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. Although it tried to play an independent role, the OUN initially operated under the patronage of the Nazis and the organization itself was divided into factions.
However, all of the Ukrainian nationalist movements were united in their opposition to Volhynia’s non-Ukrainian populations. The OUN’s policy paper, ‘Instructions for the First Days of the Organization of State Life’, explicitly stated: “National minorities are divided into those friendly and hostile to us.” The latter included “Muscovites, Poles and Jews.” “Friendly” differed from “hostile” only in that “friends… can return to their homeland.” According to this document, “hostile” national minorities were subject to “destruction in the struggle.” This masterpiece of rhetoric was accompanied by the remark: “Our government should be terrible to its opponents. Terror for alien-enemies and their traitors.” In the text that follows, the ethnic cleansing program is described in detail. It is curious that this cannibalistic manifesto was actually compiled before the beginning of the Soviet-German war in May of 1941. Initially, there was a kind of segregation – the anti-Semitism of the Ukrainian nationalists brooked no exceptions, while the Poles planned to destroy “only” the intelligentsia and assimilate the ordinary peasants.
With the outbreak of the war, the nationalists followed the Wehrmacht with calls to destroy “Moscow, Poland, Magyars and Jews”, accompanied by demands that the population obey the OUN and its leader, Stepan Bandera. In fact, nationalist auxiliary units began killing Jews even before the Nazis did. The attitude of the nationalists towards national minorities was generally more vicious and uncompromising than the Germans’, and the range of people subject to unconditional murder was wider. The nationalists even tried to use the Gestapo to organize ethnic cleansing.
However, the honeymoon of the Nazis and the Ukrainian nationalists turned out to be short-lived. The Germans came to see nationalist leader Bandera and his plans to create an independent Ukraine as obstacles to their own plans, which didn’t envision any independent states within the occupied territories of the USSR. Bandera was quickly arrested. The Germans used the nationalists within their own units, and the OUN decided to change course. So as not to play into the hands of Moscow, they did not fight the Nazis. In fact, clashes with the Germans were random and rare. The nationalists operated underground and were mainly engaged in propaganda for quite a long time. They had enough weapons – some were received from the Germans in the summer of 1941, some were retrieved from battlefields, and others were obtained by bribing the occupying forces.
By the end of 1942, it became clear that Germany was losing the war, and the nationalists’ plans changed. They were still planning an armed uprising, but the solution to the “issue of national minorities” was updated again. The attitude towards the Russians softened – now only “activists” were to be destroyed. Jews were only to be deported since they were considered to have “great influence.” But the Poles – the largest national minority in Volhynia – were to be dealt with in the most brutal way: “to evict everyone and destroy those who refuse to leave.”
At the beginning of 1943, the Ukrainian auxiliary police formed by the Nazis began to desert en masse and join the ranks of the OUN. In total, up to 5,000 former policemen went underground. These people had already managed to participate in the extermination of Jews as part of the Holocaust, as well as the murders of Russians and Belarusians. The Nazi occupation of the USSR was insanely cruel. Without exaggeration, the population of the occupied territories spent two to three years inside a meat grinder. In many areas, up to a quarter of the population was killed through executions and village burnings, as well as organized famines and humanitarian catastrophes. Many villages and even small towns were completely massacred. Auxiliary nationalist units were often directly responsible for perpetrating these acts of intimidation and genocide. As is easy to guess, these people did not suffer from an excess of scruples or moral principles.
In the spring of 1943, the situation in Volhynia forebode disaster. The fragile balance of power between Soviet, Polish, and Ukrainian partisan groups was broken and, for a while, the nationalists became the main force in the forests. The theoretical framework for killing a lot of people had already been created, and the nationalist underground was replenished by a horde of Nazi policemen unburdened by a humane worldview.
By April of 1943, Soviet partisans, who were no choirboys themselves after witnessing many atrocities, were horrified to report:
“A hundred members of the national army have been tasked with destroying Poles in Tsuman District. The local population was slaughtered and settlements in Zaulok, Galinovsk, etc. were burned down. On March 29, 18 people were hacked to death in the village of Galinovk. The rest fled into the forest. Bandera nationalists were led to a Polish doctor by his wife, and they cut off the doctor’s ears and nose. Up to 50 Poles were shot in the village of Pundynki.”
After a short discussion, the leadership of the OUN approved the mass extermination of Poles. The key instigator of this purge was Dmitry Klyachkovsky, aka ‘Klim Savur’, who had previously been arrested for extremism in both Poland and the USSR. Having escaped from a Soviet prison during the Wehrmacht offensive, he now became the architect of the massacre as one of the key commanders of OUN forces.
The attacks were preceded by primitive propaganda campaigns. One of the rioters, Juhim Orlyuk, later told the USSR’s secret police during interrogation:
“In approximately May or June of 1943, two people arrived in the village of Mogilnoye. There was one named Vladimir Volynsky who the villagers called ‘Iron’. He was from the village of Ostrovok, which is about 1 kilometer from the mountains. I didn’t know the other person. They gathered all of Mogilnoye’s Ukrainian residents at the village school and announced that they had been sent by the Ukrainian insurgent army. Next, ‘Iron’ asked those present if they wanted to or were willing to fight the enemy (against whom specifically, he did not say). Those present replied that they were ready. He went on to say that the Germans would lose the war, that a revolution would break out in Germany, that the Red Army would only reach the old border, and that, at that time, the Ukrainian insurgent army, which had a lot of people in it, would rise up, and an independent Ukrainian state would be created.”
Volhynia was not a major area of activity for either Polish or Soviet partisans. The partisan forces in Volhynia were small. The Poles had few weapons, and the Russians were mainly focused on other areas. The Soviet partisan detachments were waging a desperate war against the Germans, and the appearance of a new front was an unexpected problem for them. The Poles created self-defense detachments called plyatsuvki, as well as mobile partisan groups to aid them. Groups of ethnic Poles also operated in Volhynia as part of the Soviet partisan movement. However, all these forces suffered from a severe shortage of weapons and ammunition and were often simply powerless to stop the killers. The Soviet partisans focused mainly on sabotage against German military installations and did not have enough forces or equipment to protect villages. To make matters worse, there was a distinct lack of trust between the Soviet and Polish partisans.
Meanwhile, events were rapidly developing. The incident that kicked off what would later be called the Volyn massacre is considered to be a raid on the village of Paroslya on February 9, 1943. The militants did not waste bullets: Poles were hacked to pieces with axes. A number of villages were dealt with in a similar fashion. In March, the village of Lipniki was destroyed. Among the survivors was a one-and-a-half-year-old baby, who had been accidentally overlooked. The infant, whose grandfather had been stabbed with a bayonet, was found the next morning by chance, lying in the snow among the dead and dying. He would grow up to become the first Polish cosmonaut, Miroslav Germashevsky.
The blood was intoxicating, and the carnage became more and more ferocious. Polish women were raped, and many Poles were brutally tortured before being killed. The murders were mainly carried out using farming equipment or other improvised means. As is often the case, political violence begot criminal violence. The most unscrupulous of peasants tried to appropriate other people’s land by nefarious means, often employing the simplest method – killing the owners. In addition, the nationalists bound ordinary peasants together by blood. They drove prisoners into a pile and forced the Ukrainian peasants to kill them.
The Nazis used the massacre with truly diabolical ingenuity. Police detachments made up of Polish collaborators who had already killed Ukrainians were brought into Volhynia, so many peasants took the Germans’ atrocities to be revenge by the Poles.
The ethnic cleansing of Volhynia went on for several months, gradually shifting from east to west. The experience the killers had acquired in punitive operations with the Nazi police was not wasted: the massacre was carried out methodically, with the discipline of an army operation. For example, it was characteristic of the Nazis to gather villagers in one building and then burn them alive, and about forty Poles were killed in Guchin in the same manner. A Ukrainian who had hidden a Polish woman was executed along with the Poles. Another common technique was to appear friendly to the Poles at first, so they would not immediately flee, and later gather the victims together in one place under some plausible pretext.
Victims were thoroughly robbed, houses were burned. The murderers tried not only to execute the people but destroy their cultural values as well. After about a hundred Poles had been shot en masse in Poritska, nationalists blew up an 18th-century church with the help of an artillery shell and then set fire to what was left of the building. The commanders did not hesitate to personally participate in the killings. For example, Pyotr Oleinik, aka ‘Aeneas’, who led the OUN forces near Rivne, executed captured Poles himself.
Gender and age were no protection – 438 people were killed in the village of Ostrovki, of whom 246 were children under the age of 14. “The entire Polish population, including infants, was destroyed (cut and chopped up). I personally shot 5 Poles there who were fleeing into the forest,” a captured militant later told Soviet investigators during interrogation about his participation in an attack on another village.
As a rule, the main murder weapons were peasant tools – axes, pitchforks, knives, and hammers. In some cases, places were swept a second time to find people who had managed to hide during the first attack and returned to the ashes. The Poles’ attempts to organize negotiations failed. The Home Army sent Sigmund Rummel, an officer and poet who spoke Ukrainian well, to parlay with the leaders of the OUN. He, as well as the officer and guide accompanying him, were seized and tortured to death.
The peak of the atrocities fell on July 11, 1943, when nationalists ravaged up to a hundred Polish villages at once – villages were cordoned off, after which designated groups entered and carried out reprisals
The killings continued on a smaller scale until the winter of 1944. According to various estimates, from 40,000 to 60,000 Poles were killed in total. Up to 7,000 people escaped by joining Soviet partisan detachments or taking refuge in cities where OUN detachments were not active. In addition to Poles, almost a thousand ‘disloyal’ Ukrainians, more than a thousand Jews, and about 135 Russians were killed. In addition, the forces of the Polish Home Army, as well as pro-German collaborators, killed more than 2,000 Ukrainians.
In the 1944 campaign, the Wehrmacht was defeated, and Volhynia was liberated by the Red Army. For the Soviet government, the OUN and the ‘Ukrainian Insurgent Army’ (UPA), which had been formed during the Volyn massacre, became a major headache, as the numerous armed groups posed a serious problem. By 1945, the main forces of the nationalists had been defeated. The Volyn massacre was certainly a crime from the standpoint of the Soviet authorities. Consequently, Yuri Stelmaschuk, who had been one of the key OUN commanders during the massacre in Volhynia, was arrested in January of 1945 and brought before a tribunal.
At the trial, Stelmaschuk tried to dodge the charges, claiming that he had tried to sabotage Klyachkovsky’s order to massacre the Poles. Nevertheless, he was found guilty of murdering 5,000 Poles, sentenced to death, and shot. Pyotr Oleinik, the commander of the OUN forces near Rivne, was shot during a special NKVD operation in February of 1946. Finally, Dmitry Klyachkovsky, the leader and organizer of the massacre, was eliminated thanks to the capture of Stelmaschuk, who revealed his hiding place under interrogation. A large NKVD detachment surrounded and defeated Klim Savura’s detachment, and the executioner himself was mortally wounded during the pursuit.
For modern Ukraine, the Volyn massacre is an inconvenient story. Ukrainian nationalists of the Second World War are considered national heroes, and the fact that these people stained themselves with horrific crimes creates a serious problem – especially since the victims were Poles, and modern Poland is seen as an ally and even a patron of Ukraine. However, this hero worship is unlikely to change anytime soon. Ukraine’s entire public agenda is heavily influenced by nationalists who revere the OUN, so the murderers are destined to remain on a pedestal for now.