Seeking Peace in the Poland-Ukraine Conflict

by Hugo Lane
Flushing Meeting


Quakers dislike admitting that we have conflicts among ourselves. Yet, we are drawn to conflicts outside our community. The history of Quakers working to promote reconciliation among others is long. In that spirit, I have dedicated my adult life to studying a conflict not generally on Friends’ radar: the conflict between Poles and Ukrainians that has now endured longer than a century. Here I offer some thoughts I have gleaned about conflict and conflict transformation based on that work.


The Polish-Ukrainian conflict arose in the 19th century, as both peoples became caught up in nationalist political movements. Having lived in proximity to each other for centuries, mutually acceptable boundaries were hard to draw. Consequently, a significant Ukrainian minority ended up in Poland, just as a sizable Polish minority ended up in the Soviet Ukraine. World War I stirred the pot further. The other significant minority of the region, Jews, fell victim to the Holocaust, while Poles and Ukrainians fell victim to the promise of ethnic cleansing, forcing each other out from the border regions starting in 1943 against the larger scale slaughter of WW II. Loss of life and homes on both sides created symmetrical grievances that simmered underneath the ostensibly peaceful postwar order.


When I first began engaging in my research, I had the hubris to imagine that an outsider like me had power and insight that Poles and Ukrainians themselves did not have. I believed a narrative that brought all the grievances together would supersede Poles’ and Ukrainians’ opposing stories. I soon realized that adjudication and healing are not the same. I gave up the idea of restoring a lost golden age and began to see that the conflict was only a symptom of other broader factors. The nations had emerged as vehicles to fill the void as old identities, based on the social hierarchy that had existed for centuries, lost their meaning.


I wish Polish and Ukrainian relations were transforming. Regrettably, as I write, Polish-Ukrainian relations are at their lowest point in ten years. Perhaps someday my scholarly efforts will help change that, but people on both sides find the conflict more comfortable than the prospect of change and renewal. I am grateful, however, for the lessons my research has brought me. They have been much more spiritually profound than this essay may suggest.


First, noble as it is to aspire to be a peacemaker, outsiders still enter the process with logs in their eyes even if they are not hypocrites. Second, the narrative of conflict helps sustain the conflict and inhibits transformation and growth. Third, conflict is transformed when the participants reframe the story to see the truth in the shared experience of the whole, rather than this side or that side. Third parties can be good at that, but in the end it is the people directly involved in the conflict who can be the peacemakers.


The experience has also changed me. I am less afraid of conflict and have become comfortable with the fact that unavoidable as conflict is, it does not have to lead to a final violent rupture; just as the resolution of one conflict only opens the way for a new conflict to enlighten us further. Indeed our Quaker way of listening to the different perspectives in loving discernment is not just about agreement, it is an admission that we need each other’s differences to find the truth. True, the way to unity can sometimes be obscured, but without those difficulties we would not experience the joy of division becoming unity again and again and again.