Belarus (1/5): The Worst War

, 08.05.2021
Chronicle from Belarus

During the Second World War, no country suffered more than Belarus. Beyond the country itself, almost no one will mention its name. In today's post, which is the first in a series of five about contemporary Belarus, I will describe the horrors of the German occupation. It is a subject of my book Bloodlands, where you can find citations and greater detail about the atrocities on the eastern front.

Belarus was the geographical center of the confrontation between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, which was the heart of the Second World War. Germany's invasion route to Moscow led through Belarus. The country had the right terrain for partisan warfare, and was a major homelands of the Jews of Europe. These are some of the reasons that its population would suffer so terribly.

Before the war began, Belarus was a republic of the Soviet Union. Some territory where Belarusian was the spoken language was a part of neighboring Poland. Poland suppressed Belarusian cultural institutions; the Soviets murdered the country's cultural elite. 

When the Second World War began, it was with a German-Soviet alliance against Poland, a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939, and the Treaty on Borders and Friendship of 1939. After Poland was destroyed by German and Soviet invasion, the Soviet republic of Belarus was extended to the west. Poland no longer existed, and the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany now had a common border, in the middle of where Poland had been.

It was along this border that Germany (and its allies) massed for the attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941. Stalin chose to overlook the signs of trouble. He denied that Germany could be invading the Soviet Union, and refused to make preparations. At first the advance of Germany's Army Group Center through Soviet Belarus was rapid. The German air force bombed Minsk into submission on June 24th. The German army had to wait for the flames to die down before entering the city. Its officers and soldiers then shot thousands of educated people, and created a ghetto for the Jews.

Thanks to Stalin's incompetence and to the rapid German advance, millions of Soviet soldiers were captured. Throughout the occupied western Soviet Union, the Germans simply placed them behind barbed wire and allowed them to starve in the open air. More than three million people were killed in this way. Perhaps the deadliest of all of these POW starvation facilities was Stalag 352, a complex of buildings in and around Minsk.

The mass murder of Jews accelerated in autumn and winter. To celebrate Christmas, an SS commander send thousands of pairs of children's gloves and socks to Germany. These were taken from Jewish children in Belarus before they were shot. It was also in Belarus that the Germans experimented with gas vans as a method of murder. They would patrol the cities, looking for children, who knew what was coming. Some of their last words are recorded: "Please sirs, don’t hit us, we can get to the trucks on our own." In May 1942 the Germans completed a death facility at Maly Trastsianets, outside Minsk. German women remembered it as a good place to collect fur coats.

In December 1941 the advance of Army Group Center was halted near Moscow, and the Red Army began to counter-attack. A gap was held open that allowed the Soviets to supply (and control) the partisans in Belarus. By summer 1942 Stalin felt confident enough to support a partisan movement in Belarus. Soviet partisans prevented local peasants from delivering food to the Germans. Then Germans murdered those peasants. Each time the Soviets sabotaged a rail line, the Germans would murder everyone who lived nearby. Soviet partisans laid mines, which the Germans swept by forcing locals, Belarusians and Jews, to walk hand in hand over minefields.

The Germans reacted with killing campaigns. Perhaps the most notorious SS unit of all was Special Commando Dirlewanger, which was sent to Belarus. It herded the populations of villages into barns, set the barns on fire, and shot with machine guns anyone who emerged. This unit alone murdered at least thirty thousand civilians in Belarus. Because the Germans needed labor to replace the men they were sending to the front, they changed their approach in autumn 1942. Now only children and women were murdered, whereas men were sent to Germany. When the Germans had to withdraw from Belarus, they took the livestock, and burned everything they could. Some 350,000 people were killed in the anti-partisan campaign.

On the territory of today's Belarus, about two million people were killed during the Second World War. More than a million more people fled the Germans, and another two million were deported or displaced. Beginning in 1944, the Soviets deported another quarter million people to Poland, and thousands more to the Gulag. By war's end, something like half the population of Belarus had either been killed or moved.

Understandably, the war became the central focus of memory when Soviet power returned. Leonid Brezhnev's Soviet cult of the Great Fatherland War in the 1970s struck a powerful chord in Belarus. As elsewhere in the Soviet Union, though, there was little room in this recollection for the Jews, who were portrayed as peaceful Soviet citizens, and no room for the starved prisoners of war, who were first presented as traitors and then forgotten.

But the partisans could be remembered, as could the villages that were destroyed in anti-partisan operations. In independent Belarus, this particular way of remembering the war became a central legitimator of the Lukashenko regime. No one understands how we fought and suffered, the threat comes from the West, salvation comes from the East.

Last summer, a new discussion about the Belarusian past began. After President Alexander Lukashenko announced that he had won presidential elections that he had clearly lost, Belarusians began months of protests for the idea of democracy and clean elections. As peaceful demonstrations were put down by riot policemen, the hold of the regime on the language of the war began to dissolve. Although Lukashenko tried to present his opponents as agents of the imperial West, few Belarusians were persuaded.

Indeed, some protestors began to speak of the regime itself as "fascist," thereby switching the poles of the entire discussion. Perhaps more interestingly, they also began to speak of a longer and deeper Belarusian history, one which preceded the Soviet Union and the war, and which provided alternative schemes of the historical past, and so fresh ways to think about the future. That new Belarusian nation will be our next subject. 

Timothy Snyder is the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.

First published on Timothy Snyder’s Substack “Thinking About...”​​​​​​