In this extended conversation with RevDem editor Ferenc Laczó, Franziska Exeler – author of the new monograph Ghosts of War: Nazi Occupation and Its Aftermath in Soviet Belarus – discusses the extremely violent history of Belarus during the Second World War; analyses the various choices people made under the dire constrains of the Nazi German occupation and the challenges of drawing on Soviet sources to analyze those choices; zooms in on the issue of Soviet retribution and its ambiguities; and reflects on how the partisan experience and narrative has continued to shape the country.
Franziska Exeler is Assistant Professor of History at Free University Berlin and a Research Fellow at the Centre for History and Economics, Magdalene College, University of Cambridge. She received her PhD in History from Princeton University, and held postdoctoral fellowships at the European University Institute and the International Center for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences at the Higher School of Economics. Ghosts of War: Nazi Occupation and Its Aftermath in Soviet Belarus has been published by Cornell UP. The book is the recipient of the 2021 Ernst Fraenkel Prize awarded by the Wiener Holocaust Library in London.
Ferenc Laczó: Your book is essentially a study of WWII in Belarus and the ways the cataclysm of WWII has retrospectively been dealt with. Belarus, a long-understudied place, was a major epicenter of Nazi violence where, staggeringly, about every fifth person became a victim of the mass violence unleashed under Nazi occupation in the years 1941 to 1944. Let us perhaps begin our conversation with introductory questions of sorts: What were the major elements of this extremely violent history? In what ways might the experience of Belarus – which saw its territory change several times in the years under examination – have been similar or different from adjacent ones, and how can we account for the extreme levels of devastation in Belarus, unusual even in the context of WWII? And – last, but not least – what motivated you to focus so extensively on this underexamined area and which main questions were you trying to answer?
Franziska Exeler: Let me start with a few words about the general contours of the history of Belarus in the early twentieth century. Soviet Belarus, or, as it was officially called, the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, was an East European borderland that was particularly affected by the Second World War. Like the other Soviet republics, it was subordinated to the larger Union-structure and ultimately the Soviet leadership in Moscow. Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Jews, speakers of Belarusian, Yiddish, Polish and Russian, those who identified with one nationality or ethnicity and those who considered themselves primarily locals, all called this region their home.
Soviet Belarus is often thought of as a remote place. The opposite, though, was the case: Like few other places, the republic, created in 1919 out of the turmoil of war and revolution, encapsulated the extremes of twentieth-century European history.
During the interwar years, the Bolsheviks subjected the population of Belarus, like the rest of the Soviet Union, to violent transformations of its social fabric, political structure, and economic ways of life. In the fall of 1939, following the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the Soviet Union invaded and then annexed eastern Poland. As a result, Soviet Belarus doubled its territory and population, meaning what until then had been Soviet Belarus became the eastern part of the enlarged Soviet Belarus, and what until then had been northeastern Poland became the western part of Soviet Belarus.
In June 1941, Berlin broke the pact with Moscow and attacked the Soviet Union. By the end of August 1941, all of Soviet Belarus found itself under German rule. In the summer of 1944, after three years of Nazi occupation, the Red Army re-established control over Soviet Belarus.
Of all Soviet republics, indeed of all European countries, Belarus suffered proportionally the highest human losses during the war: About 1.7 to 2.1 million people, or 19–22 percent of the population that by June 1941 lived in the territories that would constitute post-1945 Soviet Belarus, were killed or died as a direct result of the war.
What might account for these extreme levels of violence? Of the 1.7 to 2.1 million people who died, at least 700,000 were Red Army soldiers from Belarus who died at the front or in German captivity. Of the remaining 1 to 1.4 million people, almost all were civilians. They died because Germany waged a war of extermination against the Soviet Union. The mass murder of the Jews, alongside the enslavement of the Slavic population, the economic exploitation of the occupied territories and the destruction of Communism as a political system lay at the core of Nazi ideology. Like in the other Soviet regions that were under German occupation, almost the entire Jewish population of Belarus, an estimated 500,000-671,000 people, was murdered.
Yet Belarus was not only a main site of the Holocaust. With its vast forests and extensive marshes, the republic offered naturally conducive opportunities for partisan warfare, which is why it soon became the center of Soviet partisan warfare against the Germans. Both pre-emptively and as punitive measure, the German army responded with great brutality to any perceived partisan activity. This is the reason why the civilian toll among the rural population was particularly high in Belarus. As part of so-called anti-partisan campaigns, the Germans razed approximately 9,200 villages to the ground, more than elsewhere in Nazi-occupied Europe, and killed up to 345,000 civilians, some of them Jews, but the overwhelming majority non-Jewish rural residents. The Soviet partisans in Belarus lost at least roughly 37,000 people, but probably many more, and killed at least 17,000 Soviet citizens, but probably more, in their own retributive measures.
In terms of similarities and differences to other regions, let me briefly say that one of the main differences between Eastern and Western Belarus, and between Belarus and the other Soviet republics that were under German occupation relates to the role of small, radical nationalist (or extremist) groups. Their presence (or relative absence) had consequences for local dynamics of violence, in particular, in the summer of 1941. We could talk more about wartime choices later.
You also asked how I came to study this particular history and region. I originally started my research thinking that I would focus on the history of the German occupation of the Soviet Union. My focus soon broadened, though, to the postwar years. I first travelled to Belarus in 2010. I arrived in Minsk on a Sunday morning, having taken a night train from Kyiv. I had no tourist guide, and no knowledge of the place – and this was also in the era before mobile internet and the smartphone. I started wandering around the city and eventually found myself in a very central, yet somehow strange part of the town. In that neighborhood, streets would sometimes come to a sudden end, clearly not fitting in with the postwar socialist layout of the city. Some houses looked abandoned or burned out – and yet this was in the very center of the capital city.
At night I finally found an internet café, where I could do some research. Browsing the internet, I realized that the neighborhood that I had walked through was called Niamiha (in Belarusian, Nemiga in Russian). The Germans had turned this old, historic part of Minsk into the longest operating ghetto in occupied Soviet territory. That experience left quite a strong impact on me and made me begin to wonder about the postwar years. Of course, in some way you can say that in most eastern and east-central European cities, the Second World War is to this day visible in the urban landscape. But somehow, the experience of Minsk left a stronger impression on me than those of other places. If the scars of the war are still so very visible today in the urban landscape of Minsk, then how must it have been like directly after the war? I wanted to understand how after such a tremendous, almost unconceivable amount of death and destruction, it was possible to reconstruct one’s lives and social communities.
In a very basic sense, the main questions that motivated me were: What choices did individuals make under the most extreme moral circumstances? And how did these choices – what I call the ghosts of war – haunt state and society, local communities and individuals alike after the war? How do states and societies, social communities and individuals confront the legacies of war and occupation, and what do truth, guilt, and justice mean in that process?
It is often assumed that in societies that experienced war, occupation, or violent conflict, the act of seeking justice and accountability contributes to the development of free public spheres and democratic societies, a process also known as transitional justice. In contrast, I wanted to find out how this process of “confronting the past” played out within a dictatorship like the Soviet Union.
In that sense, my book conceives of Soviet Belarus as both a historical place and a lens onto larger questions of universal humanity.
You draw on fascinating stories of various individuals to tell of victims and perpetrators and also of victim-perpetrators. In one of your chapters, you detail how people in Belarus acted under the constraints of Nazi occupation and how they related to the limited options offered by the Germans. You also investigate here to what extent different personal experiences with prior Soviet rule affected individual wartime choices. Could you tell a bit about what you have found out about those options and constraints, and how the individual stories you have reconstructed and present in the book help you shed light on them? And to add a much-contested question to those: based on your findings, how did prior experiences of Soviet rule, whether of several decades or of less than two years – as in the case of what becomes Western Belarus – impact the various choices people made, or were forced to make, under the extremely difficult circumstances of 1941 to 1944?
There were two particular challenges in writing this book. The first one was to be able to account for the complexity of people’s wartime choices under Nazi rule, and the ways in which these changed over time. The German occupation regime was a regime of death and destruction – yet it was also a regime that depended on the limited involvement of some.
In the occupied territories, the German authorities pursued different strategies toward different population groups. While the Jewish population was singled out for destruction, the Slavic population was treated with a mix of brutality and co-optation. In both regions under military and civilian rule, the German administration depended heavily on the employment of Soviet citizens, and in each district, Soviet citizens were appointed as town and district mayors and as local policemen. As the Germans also kept the organizational structure of the Soviet administration’s lower levels intact, many who had worked as, for example, office clerks in a Soviet city administration continued to work in the same positions under the Germans.
All of this meant that for civilians in occupied territory, it was impossible not to come in contact with the occupation regime, and willingly or unwillingly, some people became complicit or entangled in Nazi crimes.
It is, of course, impossible to write about the choices that individuals make under foreign occupation without writing about “collaboration.” The meaning of that term, though, continues to spark much debate. Attempts at defining collaboration are often met with the concern that the notion fails to adequately capture the complexities of wartime reality. A town mayor or policeman who held power over life and death was both physically and morally in a very different position than someone who worked as a journalist for a German-sponsored newspaper.
And what to make of coerced engagement, such as when someone who had been forcefully recruited into police service became complicit in German crimes?
In my understanding of how local involvement with the occupiers came about, I follow Jan Tomasz Gross’ description of it as an “occupier-driven phenomenon.” People’s engagement with the Germans, its logic, appeal, self-justification, and social base emerged in each country at the intersection between the occupation regime’s intent and the occupied population’s perception about the range of options that people appeared to have at their disposal. In the book, I trace the reasons and motivations behind people’s actions, and how these in turn were perceived and assessed by others after the war. That is also the reason why the voices of individuals are so central to my book – because it is only through exploring a wide range of individual voices, perspectives, and experiences that we as historians are able to capture the complexity of human behavior.
While doing so, while examining people’s wartime choices, the second challenge was to account for people’s prewar experiences with Soviet rule, and how that impacted the choices that they made under German wartime rule. For that, we have to recall the different interwar histories of western and eastern Belarus. By 1941, when the Germans invade the Soviet Union, eastern Belarus had been Soviet for roughly two decades. The part that was western Belarus by 1941, however, had belonged to Poland in the interwar years. It was only annexed to the Soviet Union in the fall of 1939. The populations living in these two halves of Belarus had thus experienced Soviet rule in different ways.
To eastern Belarus, Sovietization, which included the violent collectivization of agriculture, had come as a revolution from within, with significant local agency. To western Belarus, it had come as an express Sovietization from abroad, in the form of Red Army soldiers and cadres from the east. In both cases, Soviet rule came with a significant amount of state violence, with people killed or deported, even more so in eastern Belarus than in western Belarus.
As to how these experiences shaped people’s wartime choices under the Germans, what I have found is that when the German army invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the decisions that people in eastern and western Belarus made were initially often influenced by their prior experiences with Soviet rule, or else their relationship to the Bolsheviks. Party members or individuals who held important positions within the Soviet party-state were more likely to flee east, while many who had previously suffered under the Soviets were among those who joined the German-organized police forces.
Once partisan warfare picked up in mid-1942 and civilians found themselves confronted with demands from both sides, though, people’s wartime choices came to be much more determined by situational factors. This included the will to survive, coercion, violence, patriotism (which was not identical with belief in communism) – or simply the proximity of one’s village to either a German garrison or a Soviet partisan zone.
In other words, people’s decisions and their consequences varied over time, and complicity and entanglement were questions of degree. Moreover, since the partisans were by 1943 mostly people from Belarus, and since the lower organs of the German occupation regime remained overwhelmingly staffed with people from Belarus, locals essentially found themselves fighting against other locals. In parts of western Belarus, this situation was exacerbated by the presence of the Polish Armia Krajowa, and in southern Belarus, by the presence of Ukrainian nationalist formations.
While members of these groups at times cooperated with the Germans (and some Polish units initially also with the Soviet partisans), in the end, the war behind the front erupted into a multi-dimensional conflict in which the Soviet partisans, the different nationalist partisans, and the Germans and their local representatives all fought each other – and civilians suffered amid the violence. Consequently, and adapting a term coined by Lawrence L. Langer, many choices that people in occupied territory made were “choiceless choices.” By that I mean that
when people were confronted with decisions, all options entailed a destructive effect on their personal lives, families, and local communities, for example when a village head had to decide whether to hand over villagers as forced laborers to the German authorities and fear reprisals from the partisans or refuse to do so and fear German collective punishment.
You have also asked about regional differences and I have thus far mostly spoken about similarities between western and eastern Belarus with respect to people’s wartime choices under Nazi occupation. There are two ways in which I see differences between the western and the eastern part of the republic play out during the war.
The first one pertains to the wave of local pogroms, in other words, violence committed by local residents against Jews, that swept through the East European borderlands in the summer of 1941, during the transition from Soviet to German rule. The perpetrators were usually local civilians or a mix of civilians and German-appointed local policemen. Some violence was committed before German troops arrived in a particular region or district, while at other times violence was committed with their direct participation or presence. Yet other pogroms took place after the Germans had already shown themselves in a given locality but then left shortly thereafter, leaving the town without clear authority for a few days.
Just as German participation varied from town to town, so did the level of local anti- Jewish violence. In terms of intensity, scope, and brutality, it was highest in western Ukraine (eastern Galicia and Volhynia), in the Białystok region (from 1939 to 1945 the westernmost part of western Belarus), and in the Romanian-administered regions of northern Bukovina and Bessarabia. Mass killings of Jews with local participation also took place in Lithuania. In Latvia and western Belarus, excluding the Białystok region, the level of local violence toward Jews was much lower. In Estonia, anti-Jewish local violence seems to have hardly taken place, probably because the republic’s Jewish community (which was numerically much smaller compared to Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, or Lithuania) had mostly managed to flee before the arrival of the Wehrmacht. In the old Soviet territories that came under German occupation (eastern Belarus, eastern Ukraine, and parts of Russia), local pogroms against Jews during the summer of 1941 appear to have been almost nonexistent.
How do we explain this regional variation in violence? As recent scholarship has shown, the presence – or absence – of radical nationalist groups or more generally the existence of a strong political Right played a crucial role.
The number of Jewish victims in the local pogroms was highest (with tens, if not hundreds of victims) when small groups of radical, antisemitic, and anti-Soviet nationalists were involved—with or without German presence and instigation.
Such radical nationalist groups also existed in Belarus in its post-1945 borders, above all in western Belarus. However, compared to western Ukraine or the Białystok region (which was handed back to Poland in 1945), they were much weaker. Many of them were former émigrés and only arrived with the German army in 1941.
Another difference that we can see between the western and the eastern part of Belarus pertains to the level of interwar interethnic integration. While there was a tremendous amount of state violence in Soviet Belarus in the 1930s (in the part that became eastern Belarus in 1939, after the annexation of eastern Poland), in the cities, levels of interethnic integration were by the 1930s higher than in northeastern Poland (the part that became western Belarus in 1939). The reasons for that were manifold and had to do with Soviet state-sponsored campaigns against anti-Semitism as well as the social mobility that was offered to many people living in the Soviet Union. As a result of two decades of Sovietization, intercommunal relations among certain urban groups in eastern Belarus—younger people, those who no longer practiced a religion, and people who closely identified with the Soviet project—were less defined by traditional social and religious markers of identity than in western Belarus.
During the war, the non-Jewish civilian population in eastern Belarus displayed the same behavioral spectrum toward the Jewish population as in western Belarus, ranging from acts of rescue and providing shelter to expropriating Jewish property, blackmailing or denouncing neighbors in hiding, or even taking part in the killings. Still, one notable difference between the two parts of the republic was that higher levels of interethnic integration in eastern Belarus increased the chances there that Jews in the urban centers would be able to depend on the help of non-Jewish friends or colleagues, especially if they were fellow Komsomol or Communist Party members. In this respect, higher prewar levels of interethnic integration in eastern Belarus shaped the makeup of support networks there during the war—a difference in how legacies of prewar Soviet rule bore on the choices that individuals in western and eastern Belarus made under Nazi occupation.
Let us talk a bit about sources, methods, and also about remaining uncertainties. You argue that investigating what Soviet citizens had done in German-occupied territory was a task of utmost importance, inextricably linked to the reestablishment of Soviet authority in Belarus and the successful rebuilding of its party-state institutions. You underline that extensive documentation was carried out and a tremendous amount of information was soon amassed. How was knowledge about what happened during the German occupation produced? Do these Soviet sources perhaps pose special methodological challenges to the historian? And what level of uncertainty does a historian of Belarus in these cataclysmic times have to accept and try to deal with?
As the Red Army began to reconquer the territory and push German troops from the Soviet western regions, one question hovered over encounters between the returning Soviet authorities and those who had lived under Nazi rule, between soldiers and family members, re-evacuees and colleagues, Holocaust survivors and their neighbors: What did you do during the war? In the postwar years, the pursuit of truth was a common goal for individuals, communities, and the Soviet authorities alike – yet they often held different understandings of what that meant.
For local party leaders, state security officers and members of the judiciary and procuracy, finding out what people in occupied territory had done was a task of utmost importance, inextricably linked to the reestablishment of Soviet power. In their investigatory process, the state security organs drew on a range of different sources. This included the help of partisan units and information provided by them, informer networks, captured German documents, witness statements collected by the Extraordinary State Commission, the ChGK, and prewar surveillance and policing tools.
Of course, each of these sources comes with its own set of methodological questions. To give one example: due to the psychological and physical pressure that Soviet investigators exerted during the pre-trial interrogations of suspects, we cannot use transcripts of these interrogations as sources that could tell us anything about the motivations why individuals came to work for the Germans. The material that we have from these interrogations are also protocols, in other words summaries that the suspect had to sign at the end of each interrogation, and not word-by-word transcripts of the interrogations. Contrary to that, witness statements given to the Extraordinary State Commission, or what one could call a Soviet war crimes commission, are overall not less reliable than witness statements given during pre-trial investigations in a democratic, liberal justice system.
In my research, I have tried to bring together as broad a spectrum of sources as possible: Soviet state documents such as party reports and reports from the state security organs, documents from the Nazi occupation regime, court files from postwar Germany, published and unpublished personal and autobiographical material such as memoirs and shorter recollections, interview transcripts, Jewish memorial books and diaries, complaint letters to the Soviet authorities, as well as oral history interviews that I conducted in Belarus, Israel, and Germany.
At their core, the analytical challenge for these different sources is the same: to reconstruct how humans experienced and interpreted an event, to understand who speaks, from what position, and in relation to whom and what, and to identify the limits of what could have been said, and what was left unsaid.
In the book, I therefore juxtaposed different sources relating to one particular process or phenomenon. At times, however, this was not possible, and all I could work with was one source, or even just a fragment of one pertaining to a single event.
The reason for that lies in an imbalance in the source basis, and more specifically, within the available personal and autobiographical material. While members of all social strata wrote complaint letters to the state, urban residents overall left more detailed written traces than rural residents, and men more than women. Memoirs by Holocaust survivors, in particular, by survivors from western Belarus who left the Soviet Union immediately after the war and later settled in the United States or Israel, are also more numerous than memoirs by other population groups.
To compensate for this, I drew as much as possible on complaint letters, and also conducted oral history interviews myself. As mentioned, I undertook these interviews in Belarus, Israel, and Germany. In that process, I was particularly looking for the voices of those that I had not yet found represented or had found underrepresented in other sources.
Perhaps as a side note, these interviews were incredibly memorable experiences. I was usually able to reach out to potential interview partners through friends or acquaintances, if, for example, someone asked me if they should ask their grandmother if she would be willing to talk to me. I am incredibly grateful to my interview partners for sharing their difficult, traumatic experiences of the war and postwar years with me – and me not just as a researcher and historian, but also as a German citizen.
These interviews have, among others, helped to compensate for the fact that rural residents left fewer written traces than urban residents. Ultimately, though, it is impossible to even out that imbalance entirely – that is simply one of the uncertainties that we as researchers have to contend with. Still, I do think that the available primary source material can provide evidence of similarities and differences in human perception and behavior, it can reveal discrepancies and concurrences between institutional and personal responses to the aftermath of Nazi occupation, and, if interpreted cautiously, provide a sense of scale.
Let us turn to what you call the search for truth and justice and the different understandings of what constituted guilt and complicity in the aftermath of WWII. You clearly underline that the Soviet punishment of suspected wartime traitors was swift, harsh, and sweeping. At the same time, you emphasize that different objectives and interests had to be weighed against each other when it came to retribution, and Soviet policies of retribution evolved over time. You argue that rather contradictory practices resulted from tensions between ideological imperatives and pragmatic concerns, but such contradictions also resulted from tensions within Soviet ideology. Could you explain how Soviet policies of retribution evolved and what you mean by these different types of contradictions? And more generally, what kind of trials would you say took place in Soviet Belarus in the aftermath of the Nazi occupation, under a deeply illiberal regime where unprecedented levels of mass violence had been unleashed by invaders?
There were two types of trials that took place in the postwar Soviet Union: trials of German and other Axis soldiers, and trials of Soviet citizens who were deemed wartime traitors, in other words, who were deemed to have collaborated with the Germans during the war. We also have to distinguish between trials that took place in secret (the majority of them) and trials that took place in public – and we have to account for how these trials changed over time.
Let me focus in my answer on the trials of Soviet citizens, because the timeline of the trials of German and Axis soldiers differs slightly.
In absolute numbers, no country that was occupied during the Second World War prosecuted as many of its own nationals for what they had done under foreign rule as the Soviet Union.
(China might be an exception, but we have no reliable numbers in that case.) The majority of Soviet citizens who were charged with treason were convicted in secret, in quick trials that lacked fundamental standards of rule of law-based legal systems such as an independent judiciary, independent defense attorneys, and the assumption of “innocent until proven guilty” that form the precondition for any trial to be considered as impartial as possible. While a variety of different actors (state security officers, military prosecutors, judges, and party-state leaders) were involved in the punitive process, the general course was always set by the leading Bolsheviks in Moscow and was to be applied uniformly across the Soviet western regions.
As you mentioned, the Soviet punishment of suspected wartime traitors was swift, harsh, and sweeping. At the same time – and contrary to official wartime proclamations –, punitive practices were not static but rather varied over time, alternating throughout the postwar years between more lenient and stricter, less active and more expansive phases.
The prosecution of Soviet citizens accused of wartime treason began in late 1941, after the Red Army, in its first counteroffensive, regained territories in western Russia.
In this early phase of reconquest, punishment was particularly strict and indiscriminate, and the death sentence common.
Soon, however, the Politburo grew alarmed by military tribunal reports that stressed the state security organs’ improper qualification of crimes, and it tried to clarify the legal basis of punishment. In 1943, several political and judicial central bodies in Moscow issued a series of instructions that introduced a legal distinction between traitors and accomplices, specified the corresponding acts, and set different sentences ranging from imprisonment to the death penalty.
The real turning point in the state’s politics of retribution, however, occurred during the first half of 1944. By the late spring, the Red Army had pushed the German army from western Russia, eastern and central Ukraine, including Kyiv, and parts of eastern Belarus around Homel.
During these first months of 1944, a noticeable change took place: overall, punishment became less strict.
As reports by Soviet military tribunals operating in eastern Belarus show, during the first post-occupation weeks and months, the death penalty was less common than one might have expected. The ratio of death penalty to prison sentence dropped further in the next two years. A similar trend – i.e., that labor camp sentences were much more common than the death penalty – was also observed in Ukraine between 1943 and 1945.
The moderation of punitive practices should not be mistaken for an increase in due process of law. Rather, it was brought about by shifting political circumstances, which led to a recalibration of state priorities. As the Red Army was reconquering more and more territory from the Germans, retribution evolved into a process in which different objectives and interests had to be weighed against each other: reclaiming authority by way of punishment, yet also portraying the Soviet state as liberator and guarantor of justice even as it was facing a shortage of experienced personnel.
After Stalin’s death in 1953, as part of limited de-Stalinization efforts, the state moderated its punitive policies and in 1955 issued a partial amnesty. However, in the 1960s, domestic and international changes spurred a second wave of public trials. As a statute of limitations did not exist for treason, the prosecution of Soviet citizens accused of wartime collaboration continued until the late 1980s.
This balancing act, however, was not free of tensions and contradictions.
The Soviet leaders were determined to punish local participation in German atrocities, for example local policemen who had participated in the Holocaust – and they did prosecute and sentence many of them. At the same time, the search for those deemed traitors was also about defining political loyalty. That meant that despite the relative moderation of punishment that began in 1944, the Soviet leadership continued to regard the war as a test that revealed people’s true loyalties. In consequence, they showed no understanding for the moral gray zones of occupation.
In their rulings, Soviet military tribunals did not consider external pressures, constraints, or intent as mitigating factors and dismissed any recourse to pragmatism as a justifiable reason for people’s wartime choices. In other words, “choiceless choices” – that some individuals in occupied territory were forced to choose between two options that had a similarly destructive effect on their communities – did not exist for the returning authorities.
At the same time, the authorities were willing to accommodate their own pragmatic wartime choices – and also did not hold everyone accused of treason accountable by the same standard. During the war, Moscow actively encouraged Soviet citizens who served in the German-organized police forces to join the Soviet partisans. This was a deliberate policy. It was promoted by none other than Panteleimon Ponomarenko, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Belarus and also the head of the Soviet Partisan Movement, and it was approved by Stalin.
“Traitors-turned-partisans” were later also the only group in whose cases Soviet military courts systematically took mitigating circumstances into account, lowering their sentences significantly.
Such contradictory practices resulted from tensions between ideological imperatives and pragmatic concerns, but they also resulted from tensions within ideology. On the one hand, the state maintained that the civilian population in occupied territory had fully supported the Soviet partisans. On the other hand, Ponomarenko and other high-ranking Bolsheviks believed that the war had helped to uncover mass enemies in hiding, eternal enemies who had gone into hiding in the interwar years, yet who had resurfaced and joined the Germans in 1941. Ultimately, the authorities were unable to establish a consensus on just what exactly “working for the Germans” (rabotali u nemtsev), as internal state documents put it, had entailed.
While the case of policemen and village heads seemed easy to judge, more confusion continued to exist with regard to teachers, agricultural specialists, or office clerks who had worked in the German-overseen administration. Given the dire lack of cadres, the Soviet state continued to employ many of them. Still, the authorities’ suspicion, palpable in the denial of higher education or professional advancement, did not diminish over the years. Indeed, anyone who had lived under Nazi rule could be suspect – as best expressed in one line on the bibliographical questionnaires that Soviet citizens had to fill out before beginning a new job or entering university. There it said: “Did you live in occupied territory?”
The kind of Soviet state that emerged from the Second World War, then, was able to quickly reassert its authority in the formerly German-occupied territories, yet at the same time was quite ambivalent about its politics of retribution.
Belarus was known as the Partisan Republic of the USSR and there was even a powerful notion of an “all people’s partisan war.” What can we say about the partisan movement in Belarus, its phases, participants, and their deeds? How did former partisans fare after the war? And in connection with that, how did different actors come to shape, contest, and reshape this highly important postwar partisan narrative?
The Soviet partisan movement in Belarus developed in several stages. The first members of the early partisan groups in the summer of 1941 were either state security officers who went to the forests, or Red Army soldiers who got trapped behind the frontline. During the first months of the war, these partisans were primarily concerned with their own survival. Scattered throughout the forests, the men usually had no connection to other units or the Soviet rear. By the winter of 1941, and with the exception of a few units that held out in heavily forested areas, the partisan movement had effectively ceased to exist in the German-occupied Soviet regions. From the spring of 1942 on, however, the number of partisans began to increase again.
In Belarus, the growth of the movement was initially focused on the old Soviet territories, in particular on the Minsk and Vitsebsk oblasts, but a few units also emerged in the western regions, most notably around Navahrudak in the dense Naliboki forest (the Jewish Bielski partisans), in the Mahilioŭ (Mogilëv) oblast, and in Polesia, the large wetland region bordering Ukraine. With its vast forests and extensive marshes, the republic offered rather conducive opportunities for partisan warfare.
Outside of Belarus, the growth of the partisan movement was concentrated in the old Soviet territories and here again in regions with extensive forests, in particular northwestern Russia around Leningrad, Smolensk, Kalinin, and Briansk, and in the Ukrainian part of Polesia. In most of the rest of Ukraine, the open steppe made it very difficult for partisan units to form. For a variety of reasons, Soviet partisans would only become a noticeable force in the three Baltic republics and in East Galicia during the last stage of the war, shortly before the Red Army reconquered those regions.
The main reason for the growth of the partisan movement in the spring of 1942 was German conduct, and the extreme brutality with which the Germans sought to combat any resistance, real or imagined.
Another factor that contributed to the growth of the partisan movement had to do with frontline developments, and an ensuing improvement in communications with the Soviet rear. Contact was usually established through special secret agents who were moving back and forth across the front, and through radio transmitters.
As long as German violence was mostly aimed at Jews or prisoners of war, the partisans weak, and rumors about the defeat of the Red Army rife among the population, few among the Slavic civilian population had an incentive to expose themselves to the dangers of partisan life. Life in the forests was harsh and dangerous, a constant battle with cold, hunger, and lice. Only the young and physically fit could hope to be able to survive the extreme conditions in the forest, especially during the winter. For certain population groups, above all for the elderly and children, leaving for the forests was never really an option.
Once German violence against non-Jewish civilians became much more frequent and widespread, however, the composition of the partisan units began to change. In 1942, former Red Army soldiers still constituted the majority of Soviet partisans. Within a year, the situation was very different. By 1943, most of them were local residents of Belarus.
According to official data compiled by the Belarusian Staff of the Partisan Movement on January 1, 1946, the partisan movement in Belarus comprised 360,491 individuals in total, i.e., from the summer of 1941 to its disbandment in the summer of 1944. By the end of 1943, most of the partisans active in Belarus were prewar inhabitants of the republic, and most of them peasants, Belarusian-speakers from the villages.
Some people left for the forest because they wanted to evade deportation as forced laborers to the German Reich. Others joined the partisans because they had no family and no livelihood to return to after their village had been razed to the ground. Fighting the Germans also offered a way to take revenge for the murder of loved ones, or to take an active part in the liberation of one’s home region and country from foreign invaders (which was not necessarily the same as fighting for communism). Some individuals were also drafted by force into the partisan units. In other words, there were many different reasons why individuals joined the partisan movement.
After the war, all of this complex history was streamlined and sanitized by the Soviet leadership.
Within the larger Soviet narrative of the war as an “all people’s war”, Belarus came to occupy a special place as the republic where the “all people’s partisan war,” the vsenarodnaia partizanskaia voina, had taken place.
According to that narrative, the Soviet partisan war against the Germans was made possible through the undivided support of the local population. In other words, Moscow and Minsk maintained that, with the exception of a few who were deemed traitors, people had stood firmly behind Soviet power.
By narrating the years of war and occupation, the authorities created a new linear story of Soviet Belarusian statehood – one that firmly united eastern Belarus, which had been Soviet for two decades prior to the war, and western Belarus, which had only been annexed from Poland in 1939 – under the banner of the “Partisan Republic.”
Constructing and upholding an image of Belarus as the place where the “all people’s partisan war” had been fought, however, produced its own set of internal contradictions, distortions, and omissions. As acts of public remembrance contributed to public silencing and forgetting, party leaders increasingly omitted Jewish and Polish inhabitants of Belarus from the official war memory – as resisters, but also as victims, thereby revealing the mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion that were underlying the postwar memory-making process.
At the same time, even many ethnic Belarusians found that their actual experiences were not reflected in the state’s narrative, which left no space to acknowledge that the relationship between Soviet partisans and civilians in occupied territory had been fragile, unequal, fraught with conflict and at times antagonistic. This is a story that has to be examined with a lot of nuances.
At the heart of this fragile relationship between partisans and civilians was the fact that the Soviet partisans were armed, and civilians were not, and that the partisans depended for survival on the food given to them – or taken from – the local population. Much of the violence that Soviet partisans inflicted on civilians took place at night, when partisans were entering village huts, looking for food or alcohol – yet that aspect of people’s wartime experience was not reflected in the official narrative of the “Partisan Republic.” Privately, individuals tried to make sense of the discrepancy between official and private memory by distinguishing between “real partisans” (who could be paid tribute to) and “bandits,” thereby attempting to rationalize the abuse they had encountered from some partisans – yet even this reframing of their wartime experiences could publicly only be articulated at the cost of exclusion from the larger political community of Soviet Belarus.
What is also interesting about the Partisan Republic war narrative is that it was mostly advanced by a small group of leading Bolsheviks in Belarus, high-ranking party members like Panteleimon Ponomarenko, Lavrentii Tsanava or Petr Kalinin.
They styled themselves as former partisans – yet although they had directed (or helped to direct) the movement from the rear, Ponomarenko, Tsanava, Kalinin and others had no personal experience of what it meant to be living and fighting in the forests during the war. Contrary to the official image of the republic, in the immediate postwar years, these men were removing many rank-and file partisans who had actually fought in the forests from local positions of power, from the lower levels of the Soviet party-state apparatus in Belarus.
In short, there were many discrepancies that existed between official commemoration and private memories of the war, between postwar representation and actual wartime experience. Still, Soviet official memory was not static and was frequently contested.
As the lobbying efforts by surviving members of the 1941–42 Minsk underground show, it was at once possible to challenge parts of the official narrative while striving to be included in it. This early resistance organization, the 1941–42 Minsk underground organization, did not operate under the command of Moscow. Some of the underground’s members were members of the Communist Party, yet others were not. They began to organize and conduct resistance activity early on into the war, on their own initiative. The existence of this group was thus an embarrassment to the political leaders of Soviet Belarus, who had fled Minsk on the night of June 24–25, 1941, a few days before the German army arrived there – which is why the leaders of Belarus denied that the 1941–42 Minsk underground had been an actual resistance organization, instead calling it the work of “traitors.”
But after the war former members of the 1941–42 Minsk underground continued to contest this narrative and their efforts eventually bore fruit. After two decades, the resistance organization went from being deemed the work of provocateurs and traitors to the heroic achievement of Soviet patriots. That such a radical reinterpretation became possible had largely to do with power shifts in the Politburo in Moscow following the death of Stalin in 1953, combined with personal rivalries and changes in the larger Soviet war narrative that became more personal and inclusive beginning in the late 1950s. However, it could not have occurred had it not been for the many complaint letters and petitions that former underground members sent to the republic and central authorities.
Investing in the war narrative, then, did not preclude diverging opinions, and within certain limits, people in the Soviet Union were able to test the boundaries of the official war narrative to see whether these could be stretched or altered.
After much neglect, in the past couple of years Belarus has received more extended attention in the West. One thing many people have noticed is how the memory of WWII and the partisan war narrative continue to be highly important in the country. As a final question, could I ask you to comment on why you think that is, what might explain the continued salience of the partisan experience and its political interpretations?
This is a very complex question. I would like to share some of my impressions with you which come from having lived in Belarus for substantial periods of time, but also from discussions and conversations with friends and acquaintances, and a general kind of participatory observation, if you will. For one, we have to ask: who would have an interest in contesting that state narrative, given the extremely difficult political circumstances in today’s Belarus, but also already prior to the August 2020 protest, which led the Lukashenko government to further increase its authoritarian grip on society?
My sense was that the memory of the fragile, unequal, and often complicated relationship between local civilians and Soviet partisans was very much alive within families who had experienced that problematic relationship, and that stories of the misconduct of Soviet partisans were passed on among family members like a secret.
In personal conversations, people would tell me things like: “you know, my grandmother told me this and that about the partisans.” At some point during my research, I also talked to anthropologists in Minsk who had regularly conducted excursions and study trips into the countryside, and they told me that recollections of the complicated relationship between local civilians and partisans were widespread among the rural population – they found it literally everywhere.
But both in the Soviet Union and in independent, authoritarian Belarus today, contesting the state’s unambiguously positive depiction of the Soviet partisan movement would carry high social and professional costs. This is not to say that some historians have not done it, but most of them have left Belarus by now… Similarly, it is impossible to build a professional university career in Belarus on critical assessments of Soviet interwar state violence, such as the tremendous amount of violence that came with the collectivization of agriculture in the early 1930s. And that is understood by everyone – investigating such sensitive topics, or put differently, problematic aspects of Soviet history, comes with personal costs.
To add another, different aspect to these reflections, it also seems to me that the Partisan Republic narrative, as the victory over Nazi Germany in general, might have helped some people in their personal grief.
After such a tremendous, almost inconceivable amount of violence brought by Germany over the Soviet Union and in particular over the occupied Soviet western regions, a morally unambiguous state narrative might have made it possible for some to find meaning in the death and destruction of the war.
Put differently, participating in the state narrative, in something more collective, could assign meaning to the utter catastrophe of the war so that the violence – and one’s personal losses – did not just appear senseless or inexplicable.
Among younger people, I have also found a sense of “one does not question the tremendous sacrifice that one’s grandparents (or great-grandparents) made during or after the war.” That can include not doubting some of their grandparents’ recollections and not asking critical follow-up questions to stories that are being told within families, or, on a more collective level, challenging some aspects of the official state narrative. Doing so would be considered almost unethical, demeaning to the memory of one’s grandparents, to the memory of their sacrifice and personal suffering.
Also, when we speak of younger people, we are by now talking about the fourth generation that was born after the war. If you grow up in a state whose official war narrative in terms of its main outline and arguments has remained quite stable even after the fall of the Soviet Union, then this also raises the question of what knowledge people actually have of the war years, what they learn in school and how that shapes their understanding of the war. Like in Russia, when it comes to the Second World War, high-school history education in Belarus is meant to serve patriotic, nationalistic purposes. It is not about learning how to interpret sources, analyzing different kinds of perspectives, and assessing what counts as historical evidence and what not.
Especially now, in the aftermath of the August 2020 protest that has led to a harsh crackdown on anything and everything that the Lukashenko government perceives as dissent – and especially in light of the government’s current attempts to brand the white-red-white flag a fascist symbol – where could and where might one possibly want to find the space to pose critical questions about the Partisan Republic narrative?