Splintering of Eastern Europe: Poland and Ukraine

Splintering of Eastern Europe: Poland and Ukraine



With regards to European History, there is no region more complex and nuanced than the borderlands, sometimes called the “frontier lands”; these are Eastern European countries that are located between Germany and Russia. Two of the most prominent countries in the history of this region are Poland and Ukraine. Both countries have rich histories full of ethnic, cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity. Simultaneously, both countries have fought for autonomy and survival for centuries—sometimes between one another, sometimes between themselves and foreign occupiers: Germany and the Soviet Union. With shifting politics and borders, these countries experienced excessive violence in the twentieth century. But despite their shared border and status as “borderlands,” the histories of Poland and Ukraine are starkly different but ever intertwined. In this way, both countries serve as benchmarks for conflicts that have persisted into the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


Learning Objectives

  • Evaluate how both the West and Russia responded to Poland and Ukraine during the interwar era (1919 – 1939).


Key Terms / Key Concepts

borderlands: countries in Eastern Europe that are located between Russia and Germany

Polish-Ukrainian Conflict: conflict between Poland and Ukraine in 1918 – 1919 over the territories of Galicia and Volhynia

Galicia and Volhynia: territories on the Polish-Ukrainian borders that were heavily fought over because of oil and agrarian resources

Polish-Soviet War: major war between Poland and the Soviet Union (1918 – 1921) in which Poland stopped the communists from spreading their revolutionary ideology across Europe

Battle of Warsaw: decisive turning point for the Poles in the Polish-Soviet War

Antisemitism: anti-Jewish ideology

Pogrom: physical attacks on Jewish communities that often result in arrests, beatings, murders, and seizure of Jewish property

Polonization: attempt by Poles to minimize Jewish culture in Poland and promote ethnic Polish culture, which focused on Catholicism, cuisine, dress, and language




For centuries, Poland has played an integral part economically, politically, and militarily in Central-Eastern Europe. Just east of Germany, it is historically rich in agricultural production, coal, and natural resources. Poland is equally rich in its cultural diversity. The country has historically been ethnically Slavic and religiously Catholic, but also the home to some of the largest Jewish communities in Europe. Historically, Poland has been targeted for exploitation and violent conflict within its borders and with its closest neighbors.




During the late nineteenth century through World War I, Poland did not exist as a country. For this reason, Poles fought on both sides in World War I, although predominately with the Allies. During the war, the lands of present-day Poland were some of the primary regions of conflict on the Eastern Front. The war devastated Polish communities economically and socially, leaving the peasants with little to survive on.

When the Allies won the war in 1918, England, France, and the United States insisted that Poland, which had once been a sovereign nation, regain their former land and become an independent nation once more. President Woodrow Wilson was so committed to the restoration of an independent Poland that he devoted principle #13 to argue for it in his famous Fourteen Points. Its borders were created from lands that were, at that point, part of the three strong empires that surrounded it: Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia.  

On paper, the Allies’ support for Poland’s independence appeared altruistic. And perhaps, some of the western politicians supported the movement based on altruistic, humanitarian principles. Behind closed doors, though, western politicians supported the re-establishment of an independent Poland to counter the threat growing in Eastern Europe—the communist Bolsheviks. Drawing on their history, the Allies (correctly) assumed that the Poles would not willingly join with the Bolsheviks. An independent Poland, supported by the Western Allies, would act as a buffer zone between Russia and Western Europe, thus reducing the threat that Lenin’s revolution would sweep across Europe.

Regardless of the motivation, Poland regained its independence following the end of World War I in late 1918. From afar, the Western Allies knew they had been right on two points: Lenin was on the move to seize Europe’s borderlands, and Poland would resist the Soviet tide to the last man.


Second Polish Republic


In late 1918, the Second Polish Republic was born. Following World War I and the collapse of the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian Empires, political and economic instability reigned across the borderlands. Poland did not escape these social disruptions. As a country, though, it did achieve something enviable to many of the other borderland countries—independence supported by Western Allies, which involved restoration of their former territory.


Polish map showing the borders of the Second Polish Republic (1918 – 1939).
Poland is shown in yellow.


Throughout the 1920s, Poland struggled to stay afloat financially, particularly after the Great Depression. Poverty was high, especially in the eastern part of the country. Inflation was rampant. Despite their independence, social tensions were elevated due to the instability within the country and the external threats it faced. Much of the land that fell into Polish hands at the end of World War I was deeply contested by all their Eastern neighbors. Belarus, Lithuania, and Ukraine all believed that borders of the Second Polish Republic incorporated territory that belonged to their nations. As a result of these disputes, Poland engaged in numerous conflicts throughout the 1920s, including wars against Lenin and the Soviets, as well as a war with their next-door neighbor, newly-born Ukraine.


Polish-Ukrainian Conflict


As World War I ended, conflict between Poland and its eastern neighbor, the newly independent Ukraine, escalated into military action. In October 1918, the two countries attacked one another for possession of the lands known as Galicia and Volhynia. These regions lay between the Polish and Ukrainian borders. Both sides sought to gain control of the region. Because of its oil reserves, Galicia was especially important to both nations. In contrast, Volhynia remained largely rooted in agriculture and animal husbandry, which are also important resources because of the enormous amount of food that could be produced in the area.


Map showing the territories of Galicia and Volhynia in 1918.
Galicia was important to nations because of its oil reserves.
Volhynia, contrastingly, was very agrarian and served as a breadbasket of Eastern Europe.
Today, most of the former territory of Galicia is part of Ukraine.
Volhynian territory is divided among Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania.


Poland defeated the Ukrainian troops in the conflict by the summer of 1919 due to better organization, discipline, and Western support. To their delight, the Poles retained control of Galicia and Volhynia. However, the Polish government treated the Ukrainian people who lived in the territories as second-class citizens, which ensured a lingering tension. Furthermore, the Poles did not anticipate the horror that would result from their possession of the two territories, as they became zones of intense fighting during World War II.


Polish-Soviet War


Poland engaged in minor wars with all of its eastern neighbors during the interwar era. But by far the most significant threat remained the communist Soviet Union. As the Western Allies predicted, Lenin was keen to spread his communist revolution across Europe, and possibly topple democracies in the western half of the continent.

Following Germany’s defeat in World War I, the Russians annulled the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and moved to claim territory in central Europe for the Soviet Union. Poland was believed by both the Russians, and the Western Powers alike, to be the one country which could halt the surging red tide. Therefore, it is not surprising that Lenin set his sites on taking control of the nation.

The Poles had no interest in losing their independence, culture, or religion to the Bolsheviks. Battles raged between the Catholic Poles and the seemingly “godless” Red Army. They mounted a dramatic offensive that resulted in their securing territory throughout Belarus, Lithuania, and Poland by early 1920.


Polish troops resisting the Red Army during the Polish-Soviet War.


The Polish army experienced several significant defeats as the Red Army advanced through Lithuania toward Warsaw. Before the Russians could secure the capital city, the Poles launched a massive defense at the Battle of Warsaw. The massive Polish defense of the city repelled the Russians and forced a ceasefire.

In spring 1921, the Poles had decisively won the Polish-Soviet War. The Peace Treaty of Riga was signed, securing Polish territory in eastern Europe. For the time, Poland had expelled the Russian communists from its lands and intended to remain a democratic nation.


Antisemitism and Polonization 


Instability in the borderlands was due to not only external threats but also the disparities among civilians and communities. Active attempts were made to create a Polish identity based on Catholicism, as well as the Polish language and culture. Historically, Polish lands were rich in ethnic diversity. Jews were the largest of the minority groups to live in Poland. They had developed large communities called shtetls throughout the country. For centuries, the Poles and the Jews had developed a workable, if not always harmonious, relationship that enabled them to work and live among one another. However, during the interwar era Polish attitudes shifted dramatically toward their Jewish neighbors—particularly in the poorer parts of the country. Antisemitism spiked across the country. Poles began to circulate the idea that their country and people had suffered so intensely during World War I because of Jewish collaboration with occupying forces. Moreover, they saw the Jews as natural allies of the Russian communists. Thus, in the interwar era, the Poles launched a campaign of Polonization in Galicia and other regions that had large Jewish communities.

During the Polish-Soviet War, and through the early 1920s, Poles engaged in pogroms across the country. These attacks on Jews resulted in hundreds of arrests, widespread murders of Jews, and seizure of Jewish property. While the attacks did not come close to matching the murderous regime of the Nazis in the 1940s, they did signal hostility between Poles and Jews that would persist into World War II to disastrous effect.




During the interwar years, Poland achieved independence that always seemed under threat. Political, social, and economic strife produced the allusion that the democratic government stood on a narrow precipice and that it could fall if the wind blew too hard. And yet, despite their setbacks and instability, the Poles repelled the Bolsheviks in 1921. Thus, they stopped Lenin’s attempt to spread the communist revolution across Europe. In the process of halting Soviet expansion, Poland created enemies and allies that would become important in World War II.

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