The Polish-West Ukrainian Conflict over East Galicia in 1918−1919

Dr. Vladislav B. Sotirović

The eastern portion of Europe and the end of WWI – The end of WWI resulted in significant changes concerning the political boundaries of Central, East, and South-East Europe. The extent of these changes resulted in regional wars over the land distribution in several mini-regions in the eastern portion of Europe, and it was to take around five to six years before new borders between the states were finally established and stabilized. This continued at least up to 1938.

The political transformation of the eastern portion of Europe after 1918 was a direct result of the collapse of both the German Second Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the last months of 1918, as well as due to unsettled western borders of the ex-Russian Empire (collapsed in 1917) which still was involved into the revolution and civil war. Most of the boundary changes in this half of Europe after WWI were direct result of decisions reached by the Entente powers (Allied and Associated Powers during WWI) at the Paris Peace Conference that began in early 1919. This resulted in five peace treaties, named after the castles outside Paris where they were been finally signed. Each of these peace treaties dealt in part, but in some cases entirely, with states in Central Europe. This was the case, for instance, for Poland which was already in the post-WWI military-political conflict with the West Ukrainian nationalists over the land of East Galicia.

The state borders of post-WWI Poland were decided by the Paris Peace Conference by three means: 1) Through decisions of the Council of Ambassadors; 2) Plebiscites held under Entente direction; and 3) By the result of the war between West Ukraine and Bolshevik Russia. Concerning Poland, the final settlement of its eastern borders became the most complex. In fact, the first boundary problem was Galicia, or more precisely East Galicia, where Poles went to open war with Ukrainians. On November 1st, 1918, when the rule of Austria-Hungary finally collapsed in the region, local Ukrainian nationalistic leaders proclaimed the independence of the West Ukrainian National (People’s) Republic. This new state claimed the whole of East Galicia (eastward from the San River with Lwiw) to be Ukrainian followed by North Bukowina and Carpathian Rus’. However, these territorial claims became immediately challenged by local Poles who fought all over Galicia to be united with the post-WWI Poland. Consequently, the result was a Polish-Ukrainian War that lasted from November 1918 until the summer of 1919, when the Galician-West Ukrainian military detachments were expelled from East Galicia which finally became a part of the interwar Poland.

East Galicia and Central Powers – The land of East Galicia was before WWI included in Austria-Hungary (Austrian part) having mixed ethnic composition (as a majority of the provinces of the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy at the time). East Galician population before WWI was almost 5 million: a majority of it was “Ukrainians” (3,1 million), Poles (1,1 million), and Jews (620,000) followed by several other small ethnolinguistic communities. The Ukrainians (whatever this ethnic term meant at that time) had population domination in the countryside (villages), but the towns and cities were inhabited by the Polish and Jewish majorities.

In general, there was a tolerant policy in Vienna toward national minorities which resulted in Ukrainian, Polish, and Jewish political and national organizations existing side by side in peace.

Ukrainian national organizations have been struggling to defend their own ethnic-regional autonomy and to strengthen Ukrainian national identity among the local Slavic people. However, the reality on the ground was not favorable for Ukrainian national propaganda. The reason was that regardless of the intelligentsia which was quickly developing towards accepting Ukrainian ethnolinguistic identity, while on other hand, an overwhelming number of the peasantry (majority of the population of East Galicia) was not attuned to the Ukrainian national identity’s propaganda. Another fact was that both ethnic Poles and Jews had clear domination over the areas of education, culture, regional economy, and civil administration. The Poles regarded the city of Lwów/Lviv/Lemberg/L’viv (which was the crucially important settlement in East Galicia) as one of the most important cities of Polish culture and nation following Cracow, Warsaw, and Wilno/Vilnius.

During WWI (1914−1918), the Central Powers, and especially Germany, stubbornly supported Ukrainian national identity, nationalism, and national goals – all of them directed against Russia and Russian national interests. On February 9th, 1918, in Brest-Litovsk the peace treaty between one hand the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire) and the Ukrainian People’s Republic (the UPR) was signed - the Brotfrieden in German (“Bread Peace”). The peace treaty ended the war in East Galicia and recognized the sovereignty of the UPR. One of the most important points of this peace treaty was that the victorious Central Powers promised Ukraine some territories which included the Kholm region (populated by the Polish-speaking majority). There was also a secret initiative to transform both the provinces of Bukovina and East Galicia into a crownland of Austria-Hungary (Austrian part) but the plan soon became extremely problematic on the issue that the Poles opposed it. They insisted on the indivisibility of the whole of Galicia, in which they would be a dominant ethnicity. In other words, for the Poles, the pro-Ukrainian policy of the Central Powers during WWI and especially in 1918 was not only anti-Russian but even more anti-Polish. Therefore, due to the policy of Berlin regarding the Ukrainian Question in 1918 the interethnic conflict between Poles and Ukrainians became, in fact, unavoidable.

The conflict – In the autumn of 1918 during the collapse of the Danube Monarchy (Austria-Hungary), national workers of several ethnic groups within the monarchy had been preparing plans for the creation or re-establishment of their own (united) national states after the war. That was the case as well as with the Polish politicians in Galicia who wanted to include the whole region of Galicia (Western and Eastern) into the united national state of the Polish people. However, the Ukrainian political workers from West Galicia opposed such a Polish idea and on the night of November 1st, 1918 organized a coup. As a result, helped by Ukrainian national units, they succeeded in occupying Lviv and other cities in East Galicia. At the same time, they proclaimed the West Ukrainian People’s Republic as an independent Ukrainian state. The Poles of Lviv (being a majority of the city) were taken by surprise but organized a military defense (including schoolchildren) and soon expelled Ukrainian forces from most of the city. Nevertheless, in other cities of East Galicia, the Ukrainians had the greatest success, except in the city of Przemyśl/Peremyshl. Polish troops made advances in other cities in the western portions of East Galicia. On the other hand, Poland failed in several attempts to resolve this Polish-Ukrainian conflict by arbitration. In other words, before Poland proclaimed its independence on November 11th, 1918, the war between Polish and Ukrainian forces already was going on over East Galicia and its most important city – Lviv.

The Polish armed forces expelled the Ukrainian military from Lviv on November 22nd, 1918. However, Lviv was under siege including constant firing by the Ukrainian military until April 1919 (five months). Nonetheless, immediately after the Ukrainian forces were driven away from Lviv, the pogroms against the Jews occurred in which up to 80 people died. The issue was that the local Poles accused the Jews of supporting the Ukrainian side regarding the destiny of Lviv. Especially, the Jewish paramilitary units being armed by the Ukrainian side were accused by the Poles of anti-Polish policy in the city.

During the war between the Polish and Ukrainian forces over East Galicia in 1918−1919, the Polish side was gradually winning. For the Ukrainian side in the conflict, the crucial problem was that the West Ukrainian political-military leaders did not succeed in mobilizing the biggest part of the Ukrainian peasantry for their side as the peasants were much more involved in their economic than the political aspects of existence. Another problem/question is how much they have felt themselves as “Ukrainians” at all as a reason to fight against the Poles. In such a political situation, to attract the peasants for the Ukrainian course, the Ukrainian nationalists tried to make use of social-economic slogans and promised the peasantry an agricultural reform after the war –distribution of land (the same as the Russian Bolsheviks were propagating at the same time). Nevertheless, the Ukrainian nationalists used all means of force to mobilize the peasants of West Ukraine for the Ukrainian military to fight Poles in East Galicia.

The mediation by Entente – After the Great War, in 1919 the Entente powers attempted to mediate in this Polish-Ukrainian war to bring the war to an end as quickly as possible and take into account the post-war peace conference in Paris. In fact, their priority was the fight against Russian Bolshevism and, therefore, the Polish-Ukrainian War was simply weakening the European forces against the potentially aggressive policy of the Bolsheviks who at that time supported all kinds of left revolutions in Central Europe. In other words, this war occurring on the borders with the Bolshevik Russia was preventing the creation of a united anti-Bolshevik Polish-Ukrainian front which could block eventual aggression of Europe by Lenin’s Red Army. The first practical move by the Entente forces concerning the making of peace between Ukrainian and Polish military forces occurred in February 1919 when a special French-led military commission negotiated both a truce and a demarcation line between Poland and Ukraine. According to this proposal, the city of Lviv and the oil region to the south around Boryslav would go to Poland. In other words, some 2/3 of East Galicia would be included in West Ukraine.

The Entente’s commission also decided that the West Ukrainian People’s Republic was a failed state – not a viable one. The real reason for such a conclusion was the fact that the East Galician movement of independence was based only on an extremely tiny stratum of intelligentsia without general support by the people, especially people living in the countryside. The Ukrainian nationalists and politicians promised agrarian reforms to attract the local peasants of East Galizia as well as the houses and castles of Lviv. However, the West Ukrainian national fighters lost control over the peasant movement they had themselves inspired.

As a matter of fact, the Polish leaders involved in the conflict accepted (half-heartedly) the set of piecemeal conditions required by the Entente Commission. However, the Ukrainian leaders rejected these conditions and, automatically, ended the previously agreed Polish-Ukrainian truce. As a consequence, the Ukrainian armed forces on March 10th, 1919 started a new offensive to occupy the city of Lviv which soon collapsed – just after ten days. In essence, that became a real turning point in the 1918−1919 Polish-Ukrainian War over East Galicia and the making of a final border between newly re-established Poland and newly to-be-formed Ukraine. Nevertheless, from mid-March 1919, the Poles took military and political initiatives over the Ukrainians. Basically, it became obvious that the Ukrainian side would lose the war against Poland concerning East Galicia and the city of Lviv. During the night between April 14/15th, 1919, the Poles launched a successful attack resulting in Lvov not firing at the city with Ukrainian artillery fire. The Polish offensive was so successful that in May 1919 Poles took several other East Galician cities (Stanislawów in Polish or Ivano-Frankivsk in Ukrainian) – that was at that time the headquarters of the Ukrainian political and military authorities.

At the very beginning of June 1919, West Ukrainian military detachments were in control of only some areas of East Ukraine. What happened, was that pressure by the Entente Commission on the Polish side was renewed to stop further offensive, and the bilateral truce negotiations between Poland and Ukraine were renewed. Nevertheless, West Ukrainian leaders did not respect the truce agreement and suddenly started an offensive on June 7th, 1919 with the result of recapturing some areas of East Galicia from the Polish side. Therefore, Poles blamed Ukrainians for the prolongation of the military conflict in and over East Galicia to such an extent that Entente states were compelled to send a commission to the city of Lviv to investigate serious complaints about crimes committed against the civil population in the city, in fact, by both sides. The commission finally did not find relevant evidence of Polish war crimes but, on the contrary, a lot of war crimes were perpetrated by the Ukrainian side. What is of probably crucial importance to emphasize here is the fact that the commission found a very enthusiastic reception of the Polish troops by the city dwellers as liberators against the terror of the “Ukrainian bands”.

The commission, comprising the representatives of the Entente powers, proposed that the whole territory of this region be occupied by the Polish troops in order to finally solve the problem of East Galicia. In fact, they consequently, included it in the post-WWI Polish national state. For that reason, the Council of Foreign Ministers in Paris on June 25th, 1919 gave open permission to the Polish government in Warsaw to launch a new military offensive in East Galicia for the final purpose of expelling all West Ukrainian military detachments from the region and occupy it completely. It was agreed that the Haller Army (armed in France) was to be sent to Poland and deployed in the struggle against the communist units. For Eastern Galicia, autonomy had to be given within Poland, and the final decision on the status of East Galicia would be decided by referendum (organized by the Polish authorities).

Finally, the Polish army led by Piłsudski himself, on July 2nd, 1919 started its decisive military attack against West Ukrainian military troops and succeeded in expelling them from the complete territory of East Galicia. On July 18th, 1919, the forces of West Ukraine, composed of some 20,000 soldiers, crossed the Zbruch River and entered the territory of the Ukrainian People’s Republic and the destiny of East Galicia was decided in favor of Poland up to WWII.

Final remarks – The war between Poland and West Ukraine was going on from November 1918 to July 1919. According to different scholars, the war took around 25.000 lives of the soldiers from both sides: around 10.000 Polish and 15.000 Ukrainian. However, due to the lack of sources, we can hardly estimate the number of losses among the civilian population. Nevertheless, we can assume that it was less than the overall number of soldiers lost in combination from both sides. Another feature of this war was the fact that atrocities committed against both the civilian population and prisoners of war were not on a large scale compared with some other cases during WWI, for instance, Serbia which lost around 25% of its population.

This war between the Polish and Ukrainian sides, nevertheless, poisoned Polish-Ukrainian relations for decades and became clear during WWII when Ukrainians committed a large-scale genocide on the Poles (and Jews) in Galicia.

The Polish-Ukrainian dispute was over the land:

⦁ For the Polish side, the problems concerning the ownership of East Galicia did not end with the military defeat of West Ukrainian armed forces in July 1919. Quite the opposite, the problem continues for the next two decades, reflecting the focal influence in both inner and foreign affairs of Warsaw.
⦁ For the Ukrainian side, the problem was solved by J. V. Stalin at the end of WWII, when according to his decision, East Galicia became annexed by Soviet Ukraine. The local Poles were forced to live outside their motherland – Poland up to the present day - while Ukrainians succeeded in creating within the USSR a Greater Ukraine by the annexation of the land from all neighbors.
⦁ The Entente powers, nevertheless, being concerned with the direct threat of the export of the Bolshevik revolution from Russia to Europe, granted East Galicia (temporarily) to Poland having in mind to create at such a way a stronger defense corridor against Bolshevik Russia. However, the Treaty of Saint Germain signed in September 1919 gave only West Galicia (westward from the San River to Poland), leaving, therefore, the final resolution of the belonging of East Galicia as a problematic issue to be solved in the future.
⦁ In December 1919, the British statesman Lord Curzon proposed two possible boundary lines throughout Galicia: 1) One of which would serve as the southern extension of what he proposed should be the eastern borders of Poland. That was officially accepted to be named as Curzon Line. The 2) variant, which was further east and included Lwów, would serve as Poland's border. In reality, no one of these proposed solutions was accepted by Warsaw, whose annexation of all of East Galicia was, in March 1923, recognized by the Entente Council of Ambassadors.

Dr. Vladislav B. Sotirović
Ex-University Professor
Research Fellow at the Center for Geostrategic Studies
Belgrade, Serbia © Vladislav B. Sotirović 2023

Personal disclaimer: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity, which does not represent anyone or any organization. These are his personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution. – VBS

English edit: Dr. Tanja Barth.


Image-1: © Polacy w Vancouver i nie tylko: On 16 July 1919 the Ukrainian Galician Army (Ukraińska Armia Halicka) was forced to withdraw behind Zbruch River and the Polish-Ukrainian War (1918-19) ended. The defence of #Lwów (Lviv) became legendary with, among others, the #LvivEaglets (Orlęta Lwowskie), defending heroically the city. The city, nicknamed since 17th century "#SemperFidelis", was awarded in 1920 by #Pilsudski with the medal of #VirtutiMilitari (medal-awarding ceremony in the picture). As a result of the war, #Poland was granted sovereignty over Eastern Galicia and the Piłsudski-Petlura agreement was signed, starting #Polish-Ukrainian cooperation (short-lived) against Bolshevik Russia. Image-2: © Pinterest: 9th. Sept. 1914. The Battle of Galicia was a major battle between Russia and Austria-Hungary. The Austro-Hungarian armies were severely defeated and forced out of Galicia, while the Russians captured Lemberg and, for approximately nine months, ruled Eastern Galicia. Falling between the crossfire of 2 Russian batteries (Drohobicz and Lviv) this entire section of Austro-Hungarian artillery, was destroyed along with its horses. Image-3: "Soldiers at rest" Vintage Everyday


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