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4 July, 2011  ▪  Oleksandr Pahiria

Different Paths, One Independence

Liberation movements were a natural response of oppressed peoples to occupation

Having emerged under conditions of Polish rule in the Western Ukrainian territories in the interwar period, the Ukrainian Military Organisation (UVO) and the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) relied on the previous experience of secret revolutionary groups in stateless nations in the 19th and early 20th century. The OUN was not a classical party of the parliamentary type but emerged as a political movement with its own original ideology and methods of struggle. The very model of a secret organisation was borrowed from the experience of secret societies in the Balkans where local nations fought to reunite their lands and cast off Ottoman and Habsburg rule. The historical analogs of the OUN include Filiki Eteria (Greece), Bulgarian Committees, Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, the League of Prizren, the Committee for the Liberation of Albania, Black Hand and People’s Defense (Serbia). A parallel could also be drawn with secret Irish national liberation organisations which fought against the British colonial administration for a long time since the late 18th century to secure national rights for Ireland: the Society United Irishmen, Young Ireland, the Fenians and the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Most of them were characterised by a clear hierarchical structure, distinct symbols, initiation rituals, oaths, strict secrecy, military discipline, as well as a preference for underground and guerilla warfare, rebellions and terrorist methods of struggle against colonial officials.

The ranks of revolutionary organisations were filled with radically minded young people, intellectuals, peasants and from the military. Perhaps the closest analog to Ukrainian realities is found in the activity of Polish national liberation movements in the 19th and early 20th century (Patriotic Society, Polish Democratic Society, the Union of Polish People, the General Confederation of the Polish Nation, Polish Union and Polish Military Organisation) which at various points in time also established their structures in Western Ukrainian lands. It was this Polish experience that was arguably the biggest formative factor for the Ukrainian underground in the 1920s through to the 1930s.

Turning for help

The UVO and the OUN used methods of struggle that were common practice at the time: individual terror against Polish officials and policemen; sabotage (arson and destruction of communication lines), bomb explosions and the expropriation of local government’s assets. The same methods were used by the Russian narodniks, Social Revolutionaries, Bolsheviks, anarchists, Polish socialists in the Russian Empire, Croatian Ustashe in Yugoslavia, Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation in the Balkans, the Vietnamese National Party in Indochina and the Irish Republican Army in the British Isles. In the Ukrainian case, terror was not a goal unto itself but merely a method in their political struggle. The OUN did not overestimate or absolutise individual terror and claimed that only the general movement of the people, the Ukrainian national revolution, would pave the way to an independent Ukraine. This set it apart from, for example, the People’s Will in Tsarist Russia.

During the 1935-36 Warsaw trial of OUN members who were charged with the murder of Polish Interior Minister Bronisław Pieracki on 15 June 1934, some representatives of the Polish public compared this act with the terrorist activities carried out by the military wing of the Polish Socialist Party (PSP) led by Józef Piłsudski in the Russian Empire in the early 20th century.
The OUN’s attempts to involve Germany in the Ukrainian issue before and in the early part of the Second World War were not an ad hoc invention. In various periods in history, national liberation movements and organisations were set up by stateless nations seeking allies among enemies of the oppressor countries. For example, Irishmen on numerous occasions sought external support as they fought for their national rights: from Napoleon’s France during the anti-British Wexford rebellion of 1798, from Germany during the Easter Rising of 1916 and from the United States during the 1919-21 Irish War of Independence. Since the outbreak of the First World War, Piłsudski and his PSP faction counted on Germany and the Central Powers in their bid to restore Poland’s independence and soon found themselves in the victorious camp. During the Second World War the leaders of many national movements in Asia sought the support of militarist Japan to resist European colonisers.

Illegitimate player

The liberation struggle of a stateless nation can safely be described as that of an “illegitimate player” in international politics. Such peoples pursued their foreign-policy objectives and calculations depending on how forces were distributed across the geopolitical chessboard at any given moment. The Ukrainian independence movement was no exception here. Owing to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), the partisan units of the OUN, armed struggle against the Nazis and their allies in 1943-44 in Western and Right-Bank Ukraine, the Ukrainian independence movement became an inalienable part of the pan-European resistance movement in the Second World War. However, its nature and tasks were more complicated and varied.

The anti-Hitler resistance movements in Western, Eastern and Southern Europe emerged after Germany and its allies conquered these countries and established inhuman regimes on these territories. Some nations relied on support from their governments in exile and the financial, material and political support of Western allies (Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Forces, Armia Krajowa (Home Army) in Poland, Draža Mihailović’s Yugoslav Army, Napoleon Zervas’ National Republican Greek League (EDES), underground organisations in Czechoslovakia, etc.). They targeted mainly German invaders and sought to restore the sovereignty of their respective nations. At the same time, the communist resistance movement in Europe, organised and sponsored by Moscow, was more than just a factor of the anti-Nazi struggle in the rear –it was also a powerful tool to promote communist regimes in the post-war Nazi world. The Yugoslavian Communist Partisans, the Greek People's Liberation Army, the Bulgarian National Liberation Army, People's Army in Poland, the National Liberation Movement in Albania and communists in Italy, France and Belgium were working not only to overcome Fascism but also to spread the communist revolution throughout the world.

At the same time, the UPA’s activities during the war were both a manifestation of the pan-European anti-Nazi resistance movement and a stage in the Ukrainian liberation struggle aimed at establishing an independent Ukrainian state. Moreover, it was a form of an anti-colonial armed movement in a stateless nation. This was a structured insurgent guerilla formation which emerged without any external support and relied exclusively on the local population and an underground network.

Since its inception fighting the Nazis was one of the UPA’s main lines of activity, but not a decisive one. Ukrainian insurgents engaged in battles and military campaigns to counteract the Nazi colonial exploitation of Ukraine and economic plundering and to liberate entire regions. At the same time, the UPA’s key strategic goal at the final stage of the war was, on the one hand, to prevent the Soviets from returning to Ukraine and on the other, thwart the attempts of the Polish underground and the Polish government in exile to restore Polish rule in Western Ukraine.

From pseudo-statehood to independence

The ideological cornerstone of the UPA was a wide-ranging anti-imperialist and anti-colonial resistance against two totalitarian systems: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The coordinated struggle of the oppressed peoples for their independence and against any forms of dependence was perceived as the way to topple these monstrous regimes. Ukrainian insurgents called on all European and Asian peoples to join them in their anti-colonial cause and establish a new model of international relations which would be based on cooperation among independent ethnic states. The OUN was active in defending the national and social rights of all oppressed peoples of the world. In view of this, historical prototypes of the Ukrainian national resistance should be sought not only in Western European resistance movements but also in the anti-colonial struggle in Asia.
For example, the national independence movement in Indonesia received a powerful impetus late in the Second World War. Japan’s capitulation was a signal to Indonesia to proclaim its independence on 17 August 1945. The country was then headed by Sukarno, leader of the Indonesian National Party.

In continuing their struggle in Western Ukraine after the war, the UPA and the Ukrainian nationalist underground were not alone in fighting the Soviets in Central and Eastern Europe. Remnants of Armia Krajowa (the Freedom and Sovereignty organisation) were active until 1947, refusing to accept the People’s Republic of Poland established by Moscow. Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian anti-communist “forest brothers” were active in the Baltic states until the early1950s. Sporadic anti-Soviet insurgencies were recorded in the postwar period in Bulgaria, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. However, the Ukrainian nationalist underground was the most powerful one in terms of its scale, robustness, organisation and ideology. The leadership of the OUN and the UPA tried to assume the role of the vanguard and organiser of the anti-Soviet struggle in all of Central and Eastern Europe. The platform for this goal was the conception that anti-totalitarian revolutions would win independence for oppressed peoples in Europe and Asia. Despite the failure of this cause in the 1940s and the 1950s, the aspirations of Central and Eastern European nations finally came to fruition in 1989-1991.


The oath taken by members of Serbia’s Black Hand:

“I (...), by entering into the society, do hereby swear by the Sun which shineth upon me, by the Earth which feedeth me, by God, by the blood of my forefathers, by my honour and by my life, that from this moment onward and until my death, I shall faithfully serve the task of this organisation and that I shall at all times be prepared to bear for it any sacrifice. I further swear by God, by my honour and by my life, that I shall unconditionally carry into effect all its orders and commands. I further swear by my God, by my honour and by my life, that I shall keep within myself all the secrets of this organisation and carry them with me into my grave. May God and my brothers in this organisation be my judges if at any time I should wittingly fail or break this oath.”

The oath taken by OUN members:

“I hereby swear and commit before God, before the Ukrainian people and before my own conscience that as a member of the Revolutionary OUN I shall work and fight for the Ukrainian Independent Sovereign State to realise the ideas and programme’s of the OUN for the good and glory of Ukraine, the Ukrainian people, individuals and, thus, for the good of entire humankind. I swear to expend all my efforts in this work and struggle for anything that shall be required at any given time and, if necessary, lay down my life. I hereby pledge to accurately and conscientiously fulfill all the duties of an OUN member and to carry out all its orders and instructions. May God help me in this endeavour.”

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