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The killings were directly linked with the policies of the Bandera faction of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN-B) and its military arm, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, whose goal as specified at the Second Conference of the OUN-B on 17–23 February 1943 (or March 1943 according to other sources) was to purge all non-Ukrainians from the future Ukrainian state.

In 2008, the massacres committed by the Ukrainian nationalists against ethnic Poles in Volhynia and Galicia were described by Poland's Institute of National Remembrance as bearing the distinct characteristics of a genocide, While relations were not always harmonious, Poles who lived in the Kresy region (which corresponds to modern day western Ukraine and western Belarus) and Ukrainians, along with Czechs, Germans, Slovaks, Jews, and other ethnic groups in the region interacted with each other on civic, economic, and political levels over several hundred years.

The ongoing policies of the Polish state led to the deepening of ethnic cleavages in the area.

In the 1930s OUN, formed in Vienna, Austria, conducted a terrorist campaign in Poland, which included the assassination of prominent Polish politicians such as Interior Minister Bronisław Pieracki, and Polish and Ukrainian moderates such as Tadeusz Hołówko.

After a long series of negotiations, the League of Nations decided that eastern Galicia would be incorporated into Poland, thus "taking into consideration that Poland has recognized that in regard to the eastern part of Galicia ethnographic conditions fully deserve its autonomous status." The decisions leading to the massacre of Poles in Volhynia and their implementation can be primarily attributed to the extremist Bandera faction of OUN (OUN-B) and not to other Ukrainian political or military groups.

The loss left a generation of frustrated western Ukrainian veterans convinced that Poland was Ukraine's principal enemy.

The OUN, on the other hand, was originally a fringe movement within western Ukraine, condemned for its violence by figures from mainstream Ukrainian society such as the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Metropolitan Andriy Sheptytsky, who wrote of the OUN's leadership that "whoever demoralizes our youth is a criminal and an enemy of our people." Just before the Soviet invasion of 1939, Volhynia was part of the Second Polish Republic.

According to Yale historian Timothy Snyder, between 19, Volhynia was "the site of one of eastern Europe's most ambitious policies of toleration".

As the Austro-Hungarian government collapsed following World War I, Poles and Ukrainians struggled for control over the city, known as Lwów in Polish, Lviv in Ukrainian and Lemberg in German, which was populated mostly by Poles, The area belonged to the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth until 1772, but later, with the Partitions of Poland, was annexed to the Austrian empire.

The conflict, known as the Polish–Ukrainian War, spilled over to Volhynia with the Ukrainian leader Symon Petliura attempting to expand Ukrainian claims westward.

The police conducted mass arrests, reported killing 18 communists in 1935, and killed at least 31 people in gunfights and during arrest actions over the course of 1936.

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