A ceremony took place June 24 in Lviv, western Ukraine. The presidents of Poland and Ukraine attended the opening of the Eaglets’ Cemetery, a place which for several decades was the focus of conflict between both countries.
Despite decades of declarations concerning a strategic Polish-Ukraine partnership and countless manifestations of friendship between politicians from both countries, the issue of the Eaglets’ Cemetery cast a shadow over good relations. The problem dated back to what might seem like the remote past, but is still much alive in the collective awareness of the two nations.
■ Brother vs. brother
In 1918 World War I was nearing an end. Countries which until recently had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire started to rise from the empire’s ruins. Polish aspirations for independence started to materialize and take on real form. Still, the Poles were not the only nation which hoped to create an independent country at a time of immense European upheaval—the Ukrainians also had their sights set on independence. The pursuit of an independent Ukraine and political concepts for the country’s creation found support among some politicians of the collapsing Habsburg monarchy and Germany, devastated by the war. According to those concepts, the Ukrainian state would be formed on territories with diversified ethnicity, where the Polish and Ukrainian nations had coexisted for centuries. In the 18th century, the land in question had belonged to the First Republic of Poland, a multinational country governed by Poles. Consequently, in the early 20th century, both Poles and Ukrainians claimed the area. The two nations claimed links to and the right to possess the city of Lviv.
While the territory had belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Lviv became an important academic, scientific and cultural center. The city had an enormous cultural and civilization heritage rooted in Polish influences dating back to the 14th century. Poles pursuing independence in 1918 had no doubt that Lviv was a Polish city and should be incorporated into the reborn Polish state. To Ukrainians, in turn, it was just as obvious that if an independent Ukraine emerged, Lviv had to remain within the borders of the new state and become an important intellectual and civilization center of the young state. The situation inevitably led to a conflict.
The first sparks flew Nov. 1, 1918, when Ukraine’s volunteer military formations attempted to take control of Lviv. Fights broke out at several sites in the city, as Polish military groups formed spontaneously to mirror the Ukrainian formations that had appeared in the city. The fight for Lviv continued through Nov. 22, 1918, when Polish flags eventually fluttered atop the city’s most important buildings. On the Polish part, the fights primarily involved extremely patriotic youth from Lviv who could not imagine the city under Ukrainian control. It was those young people that the Poles later dubbed the Eaglets of Lviv. Naturally, as the conflict in Lviv unfolded, Polish military backup came to the rescue from Cracow and Poland gained control over the city.
Hundreds of young Poles were killed in the November fighting. Initially they were buried at various spots in Lviv within provisional graveyards. In the summer of 1919, the Lviv City Board decided to build one cemetery as the final resting place for not only the bodies of the young defenders of Polish Lviv, but also soldiers and civilians who died in eastern Poland fighting the Soviet Army. The war, which historians later called the Polish-Bolshevik war, ended in 1920 with the defeat of the Soviet invaders. The Poles were aided by soldiers from France, the United States and other countries. Some of those who were killed were also buried in the Lviv cemetery.
■ History of the cemetery
A competition for the design of a mausoleum of the defenders of Lviv and Polish eastern territories was launched as early as 1921. The winner was Rudolf Indruch, an architecture student from the Lviv University of Technology. He designed a monumental cemetery complex comprising a domed chapel towering over the tombs below. Between the chapel and the tombs, Indruch placed catacombs where the exhumed remains of 72 fighters were laid to rest. Two monuments were erected to the French infantry and American pilots. Below, a Glory Monument was built in the form of a semi-circular colonnade with an inscription above reading “Mortui sunt ut liberi vivamus”—”They died so we could live free.” Two stone lions stood near a triumphal arch. The construction of the Eaglets’ Cemetery, as the memorial was named, continued until the outbreak of World War II. The cemetery had almost 3,000 tombs, including 300 of the young defenders of Lviv from 1918.
After World War II, western Ukraine, including Lviv, became part of the Soviet Union. The Eaglets’ Cemetery deteriorated and was systematically devastated. The lions were taken away, the colonnade pulled down, as were the monuments to the French infantry and American pilots. There were attempts to crush the triumphal arch with tanks and in the 1970s, bulldozers razed most of the tombs. The catacombs became a stonemasons’ shop. The Soviet authorities did their best to erase any traces of the Polish military cemetery in Lviv and consequently, the memory of the Polish presence in the city.
The situation changed with the rise of independent Ukraine. Good Polish-Ukrainian relations resulted in the Ukrainian authorities’ consenting to the reconstruction of the cemetery and restoration of its former splendor. Cleaning and renovation work was initiated by Polish companies operating in Ukraine. The workers received priceless assistance from Poles living in Ukraine. Later the Council for the Protection and Commemoration of Battle and Martyrdom Sites joined the project. The council is a Polish governmental agency whose tasks include caring for Polish military cemeteries outside Poland’s borders.
The main part of the Eaglets’ Cemetery was already renovated a few years ago. However, over those years both parties failed agree on several, seemingly insignificant issues. The Ukrainians did not agree to the reconstruction of the monuments to the French infantry and American pilots, the colonnade, nor to the return of the stone lions. A fundamental controversy surrounded the future inscription on the centrally situated tomb of five unknown soldiers. Representatives of the Lviv City Council repeatedly said they would not permit the opening of a Polish cemetery which glorified the Polish army.
The recent change of the political situation in Ukraine and Poland’s support for the Orange Revolution made Ukrainian politicians treat many controversial issues, including the Eaglets’ Cemetery, more favorably. A dialogue became possible and ended in a compromise. The Poles had to give up some of their expectations and the Ukrainians withdrew some of their reservations.
June 24 definitely marked the closure of yet another stage in the difficult process of Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation. Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko did not hesitate to say twice at the opening ceremony: “Without free Ukraine, there is no free Poland and without free Poland, there is no independent Ukraine.” It seems an awareness of this truth is finally present not only among Polish and Ukrainian politicians, but within the general public in both countries as well. Commenting on the future, Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski took the opportunity to remark: “We believe the moment will come when we can welcome you [Ukrainians] to the family of European Union states.”
It seems the ceremony in Lviv, so deeply rooted in history, was at the same time a signal concerning a future vision of Polish-Ukrainian relations. If it indeed indicates a new stage inPolish-Ukrainian reconciliation, its significance is invaluable.