By Siarhei Bohdan
A cover of the book by Lubov Bazanon the history of Belarus.
Unavailable to the English language reader, publications on the history of Belarus conceal from the outside world the story of the nation whose residential territory exceeds in size the area of some European countries. Glagoslav Publications took a decisive step in bringing the history of Belarus to the English-speaking audience worldwide in the concise edition which encompasses the history of this country from ancient times till our days. The book is aimed at historians, slavists, students and popular science readers, interested in the history of white spots on the world map. For more information about this book , please visit Glagoslav Publications web-site.
Belarusian ruler Aliaksandr Lukashenka frequently refers to the Second World War in his quarrels with the West. Lukashenka added to the Soviet Victory Day celebrated on 9 May another official holiday - 3 July - the day when the Red Army took Minsk in 1944. In 2003 the government introduced History of Great Patriotic War as obligatory and separate subject not only in the schools but also at all universities. The authorities are also building a new grand museum devoted to that war.
The attitude to the role and suffering of Belarus elsewhere in Europe is different. Although only a fraction of the Russian territory had been occupied by the Germans they exploit their victory to the fullest extent possible even now. Belarus had been the main Nazi-Soviet battleground for years, but many in the West also prefer to label Belarusian territories and its people as "Russian". It may sound more simple to them but to Belarusians this sounds unfair to say the least.
Do Belarusian Victims Exist For Western Historians?
Today the Russian authorities exploit the Soviet victory in the war against the Nazi Germany and neglect the fact that the war touched just a very little part of Russia. The war devastated the non-Russian lands of the Soviet Union and in particular Belarus which saw the most fierce and prolonged fighting. No wonder, Belarus was sandwiched between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany in 1939. German troops have occupied the land at the very beginning of the war. Nazis kept the Belarusian territory for three years.
So literally every Belarusian village has seen some fighting at least at the beginning and at the end of the war. Many regions suffered as the frontline stayed there for many months or the partisan activities has caused brutal collective punishment actions on behalf of German administration. There is no Belarusian family which has not suffered in the war directly. This was certainly not the case in Russia, only a fraction of which had actually been occupied.
However, even now, two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is common to hear or read in Russia and in the West that the western territories of the USSR are called “Russian.” No need to go far to see evidence of it. The museum on Nazi terror in the centre of Berlin names the residents of Belarus “Russians”.
This photo gallery from the Berlin's Topography of Terror museum based on the territory of the former Nazi secret police Gestapo demonstrate the unfortunate habit of many western historians to label "Russian" anything to the East of Poland. These are hardly innocent typos, as Moscow continues to exploit the guilt feeling of Germans.
The human losses in Belarus were immense but the exact extent is still a hotly disputed topic. A prominent leader of Soviet Belarus Piatro Masherau, a former partisan himself, considered that every fourth Belarusian has died in the war. Lukashenka increased that number to every third. Yet there is evidence that around 1.9 million Belarusians or 20% of pre-war population of the land perished in the war. 500-600 thousands of them had been killed in the Red Army in combat, more than a million of civilian population have been murdered by Nazis and their collaborators. Most of those killed were Jews and peasants exterminated in anti-guerrilla operations.
Myths related to the Second World War were at the core of the ideology of the Soviet Belarus. Local Communist party presented the land as a “guerrilla country”. It was a safe form of Belarusian nationalism: it allowed to portray Belarusians as heroes but did not lead to confrontation with painful issues of Soviet policies in Belarus.
Belarusians fought both for Soviet partisan groups and pro-German police and military formations
The guerrilla warfare in Belarus did not inflict much military losses but caused immense civilian losses. Ultimately it became an internal confrontation as Belarusians fought both for Soviet partisan groups and pro-German police and military formations. For many of them it was not a voluntary choice but a choice between Gulag and Buchenwald. Especially people in the West of Belarus locals had no sympathy for Moscow because they became Soviet citizens only in 1939, after the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union divided Europe in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
Many questions remain unanswered about the “partisan” Belarus. No doubt, Belarusian partisans were more successful in their operations than their counterparts in other countries. Belarusian partisans have fought under much harder conditions than Yugoslav fighters of Tito because Belarus – contrary to Balkans – was crucial to the German war effort.
Only in eastern regions which were the part of the Soviet Union since the October Revolution there was wide-scale indigenous guerrilla movement although with strong control from Moscow. In the western half of Belarus there were mostly partisans which were sent or parachuted from Soviet-controlled areas, effectively well-trained commandos.
Second World War Is Still A Hot Issue in Belarus
Belarusian history of the Second World War hides yet another skeleton in the closet - people who cooperated with German administration in Belarus. There were very few if any true supporters of Nazis – as evidenced by lack of support for massacres on Jews in Belarus. Nazis themselves complained that Belarusians unlike other European nations are not enthusiastic about their anti-Jewish policies.
But many people were willing to ally with anyone struggling against the Stalinist regime. And when in late winter 1944, Nazis allowed organisation of Belarusian Land Defence Forces, tens of thousands of people joined that army. It was a very impressive number as the mobilisation has taken place only in Central and North-Eastern Belarus.
Those people began to cooperate with Germans ready to fight against the return of Stalinist terror. They were poorly armed and Germans had no trust in them and never used them on the front lines. These battle units, later repeatedly reorganised with the eventual formation of a Belarusian SS Division which did not participate in any massacres. The Nazi leadership decided to send them to fight in Western Europe and as soon as they had a chance most of them joined the French partisans. Their fate symbolises the tragic choice between bad and worse faced by Belarusians in that war.
Today Belarusians have almost no anti-German or anti-Western sentiments. Belarusian writer Siarhiej Dubaviec has recently noticed that all opinion surveys show Germany as the most favourite country for emigration among Belarusians despite all the official glorification of the Soviet anti-Nazi struggle in 1941-45.
A major Belarusian publisher once admitted that all books on the last war, even scholarly titles are selling better than any other books
Soviet Belarus has had no relations of its own with the rest of Europe to discuss their common history. Independent Belarus very soon returned to the old Soviet ideology which considered the Second World War history as a compelling argument to support confrontation with the West.
The war remains an issue for Belarusians, including those who are sceptical about the official propaganda. A major Belarusian publisher once admitted that all books on the last war, even scholarly titles are selling better than any other books.
Belarus and Germany shall turn to their history, acknowledge the facts of Belarusian suffering and contradictions in Belarusian attitude towards German occupation. The current government of Belarus will never do it as it undermines its reason d'etre. But Germany as a democratic European state has to do it. And they should work with the Belarusian society directly and give it one more ground to challenge the anti-Western rhetoric of the regime.