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The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists was an underground terrorist group founded in 1929 committed to the establishment of an independent Ukrainian state on lands regarded as ethnically Ukrainian. Its origins lie in the Ukrainian movement that emerged in Austrian eastern Galicia before 1914, where Ukrainian activists challenged the traditional dominance of Polish nobles. At the end of World War I, Ukrainians attempted to establish a West Ukrainian People's Republic with a capital in Lviv (Lvov). This attempt was defeated by superior Polish forces in 1919, and eastern Galicia was incorporated into Poland in 1923. Discontented Ukrainian veterans founded a Ukrainian Military Organization, which in 1929 merged with student groups to form the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN).

OUN leaders were preoccupied with the failure of Ukrainians to create their own state in 1918. They blamed poor leadership, inadequate discipline, and (in central and eastern Ukraine) attachment to liberal or socialist ideals. Central and eastern Ukraine were incorporated by the Soviet Union, and nationalists failed to exert influence in Soviet Ukraine. Their main task in the 1930s was to gain the loyalty of Ukrainian youth in Poland. A decalogue, which the OUN inherited from a student organization, described the required sort of commitment. Ukrainian nationalists were expected, according to the OUN's "Decalogue," to "win a Ukrainian state or die in the battle for it" and to "aspire to expand the strength, riches, and size of the Ukrainian state even by way of enslaving foreigners." The Ukrainian nationalist thinker Dmytro Dontsov was influential within the OUN, but was not a member. The fascism of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was the most appealing European model.

Within Poland the OUN had to compete with other Ukrainian parties. In Galicia socialist and democratic parties had greater public influence. In Volhynia, north of Galicia, it was outmatched by the Communist Party of West Ukraine. Where the OUN distinguished itself was in the practice of terror. After the regime of Józef Piłsudski tried to engage Ukrainian society, the OUN began a wave of robbery and arson in July 1930. This brought Polish pacifications. In August 1931 the OUN assassinated Tadeusz Hołowko, the leading Polish advocate of reconciliation with Ukrainians. In this way the OUN attempted to prevent Ukrainian accommodation to Polish rule. Polish diplomats negotiated non-aggression pacts with the Soviet Union (1932) and Nazi Germany (1934). This ended the hopes of many Ukrainians that Moscow or Berlin would help the Ukrainian cause and led to cooperation of legal parties with the Polish state. Seeing Germany as the power most likely to destroy Poland, leading members of the OUN cooperated with German military intelligence.

In 1938 a Soviet agent assassinated Ievhen Konovalets, leader of the OUN. The OUN split into two fractions, conventionally known as the OUN-M and the OUN-B after the names of their leaders, Andrii Melnyk and Stepan Bandera. Both fractions sought to exploit the opportunities they saw after September 1939, when the joint German–Soviet invasion destroyed Poland. The OUN-M provided personnel for the Ukrainian social institutions the Germans permitted in occupied Poland. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the invasion force included two battalions of Ukrainian nationalists. OUNB activists in L'viv declared the existence of a Ukrainian state, but were arrested by the Germans. Both fractions supplied personnel for the German occupation authorities. Policemen collaborated in German occupation policies, including the murder of the Jews. As the war turned against Germany, the OUN-M accepted the German proposition to create a Waffen-SS division. Some OUN-B leaders, veterans of German service, decided to create their own Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), mainly from former policemen. The UPA defended Ukrainians from German repressions and fought Soviet partisans. It also ethnically cleansed native Poles from western Ukraine in 1943 and 1944.

From 1944 the UPA fought against returning Soviet forces and the emerging communist regime in Poland. In 1947 Polish communist authorities used the pretext of UPA activity to ethnically cleanse Ukrainians from southeastern Poland. A few thousand Ukrainian nationalists, largely veterans of the Waffen-SS Division Galizien, managed to reach Italy in 1945. They were airlifted to Great Britain, whence some of them apparently took part in British or American missions inside the Soviet Union. Despite continuing factionalism, nationalists managed for several decades to dominate Ukrainian cultural life in western emigration, especially in Canada. In the independent Ukraine that emerged in 1991, the OUN played a visible but unsubstantial part in public life. By the time of the Orange Revolution of 2004, the OUN had redefined its own achievement, in Ukraine at least, as the preservation of Ukrainian language and culture.

See alsoUkraine.


Armstrong, John A. Ukrainian Nationalism. Englewood, N.J., 1990.

Motyl, Alexander J. The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929. Boulder, Colo., 1980.

Snyder, Timothy. "The Causes of Ukrainian-Polish Ethnic Cleansing, 1943." Past and Present 179 (2003): 197–234.

Timothy Snyder