The following is an interview with George Liber, a professor of history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
MOTYL: Your forthcoming book, Total Wars and the Making of Modern Ukraine, 1914–1954, promises to revise much of the conventional wisdom about Ukraine. What are your main arguments?
LIBER: Between 1914 and 1954, the Ukrainian-speaking territories in East Central Europe suffered almost 15 million “excess deaths” as well as numerous large-scale evacuations and forced population transfers. These losses were the consequences of two world wars, the Holodomor, the Holocaust, violent upheavals, and revolutions.
Because all the political actors in East Central Europe, the strongest and the weakest ones, imagined that their national existence was on the line, they committed many horrific crimes in the course of the 20th century. Genocides and mass killings top the list, but mass evacuations and mass deportations (as televised images of Syrians fleeing ISIS or the Assad government remind us) were not an “orderly and humane” alternative to mass killings.
This continuous violence transformed the Ukrainian-speaking population of East Central Europe into nationally-conscious Ukrainians and Ukraine from a multi-cultural region into a bi-cultural one. Ukraine therefore emerged after independence in 1991 as a key geopolitical pivot and a somewhat divided state.
MOTYL: Ukraine wasn’t a full-fledged state or a geopolitical player in the first half of the 20th century, and yet it was the focus of so much total war. Why?
LIBER: Ukraine is located between Roman Catholic and Orthodox Europe, between Christian Europe and non-Christian Eurasia, and between the Slavic and non-Slavic linguistic zones. After the collapse of Kiev Rus’ in the 13th century, Mongols, Ottoman Turks, Crimean Tatars, Lithuanians, and Poles competed to dominate the territories of present-day Ukraine. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Polish Commonwealth, Muscovy, the Ottoman Empire, and the Crimean khanate tried to win control over Ukrainian lands. After the partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793, and 1795, the Austrian and Russian Empires dominated this area until 1914.
Then, in the 20th century, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia and the USSR, Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia clashed over Ukrainian territories. Ukraine served as one of the primary breadbaskets of Europe, and all belligerents during the two world wars needed Ukraine’s natural resources. Grain was just as important as oil for Europe’s mechanized armies. Without Ukrainian grain, they could not feed their armies or populations.
In the first half of the 20th century, these conflicts mobilized the majority Ukrainian-speaking people to demand respect, dignity, and equality with the Russians, Poles, Jews, Romanians, Hungarians, Czechs, and Slovaks. Ukrainians, in effect, started to demand national self-determination. In periods of war and conflict, these demands found mass support, unmaking the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Soviet Empires and undermining the concept of “historical” Poland—which once extended beyond the Dnipro River—which many Poles sought to reconstruct in the interwar period. Once Ukrainians embraced national independence, the conflict over this piece of Europe became even more brutal and ferocious.
MOTYL: Most students of nationalism assume that nationalists form nations. You’re arguing the opposite: that cataclysms do. Is it time to rethink our general understanding of how and why nations form?
LIBER: Not exactly. My point is that wars and revolutions are social accelerators of ideas and political movements. I believe in human agency. In periods of historical flux, individuals often have some options—not a full range of options, just some. Oftentimes they pick what they consider the best of several bad ones.
MOTYL: Several bad options? That doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement of human agency.
LIBER: Although we are all constrained by our environment, we make choices in that environment. Human agency exists. During these total wars, people had the choice to stay or flee. Those who stayed had the choice to fight or submit. Collaboration or resistance did not constitute the only possible responses to foreign occupation. Other possible responses included passivity, withdrawal, neutrality, passive resistance, passive cooperation, alliance-seeking, or merely the hope to survive. Sometimes people responded with a contingent mix of these reactions. Not everyone could consistently or consciously resist over a long, brutal occupation. Most people do not and did not engage in heroics; most sought to do the best they could in dangerous circumstances. Under conditions of such widespread violence, anyone who stood out could be arbitrarily detained or shot.
MOTYL: How does your thesis connect with events in today’s Ukraine?
LIBER: The current Russian war against Ukraine and the problems of the Donbas are not a recent phenomenon, but the product of a long evolution, dating back to the late czarist period, if not before.
MOTYL: Plus ça change?
LIBER: Yes. People, governments, and political cultures do not transform themselves instantaneously or completely over time. The embers of the past warm the present.
MOTYL: Your thesis suggests that Ukraine will continue to be the object of wars for many years to come.
LIBER: Your point is excellent. The historical conditions existing in 1991 (not in 1917–1920 or in 1939–1945) favored the creation of an independent Ukraine, dependent on the approval of Russia, Poland, the United States, and the major countries in Europe. Under President Putin, Russia changed its official position, openly questioning the legitimacy of an independent Ukrainian state and actively seeking to undermine, if not to crush, it. As long as Russia does not recognize Ukraine’s right to exist, a conflict will always simmer between Russia and Ukraine, even if it does not explode into a full-scale war.
MOTYL: History appears to have been very cruel to Ukraine and its many peoples. Are there any lessons, moral or otherwise, to be drawn from Ukraine’s experience with total war?
LIBER: Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians living on Ukrainian territories are like everyone else on this planet, with the same hopes and dreams to better themselves, their families, and communities. Unfortunately, Ukrainians have lived, and still live, in a rough neighborhood, among neighbors who have sought to control their natural resources and labor, and have had to make exceptionally difficult choices in exceptionally difficult circumstances. Historians seek to explore, from the inside, the conditions that affected—not determined—people’s choices and the outcomes of those choices. Moral lessons are easy to draw if one applies fixed moral schemes from the outside. They’re much more difficult if you understand exactly why people chose certain courses of action and not others.