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Ghosts of War - Nazi Occupation and its Aftermath in Soviet Belarus

Title:Ghosts of War - Nazi Occupation and its Aftermath in Soviet Belarus
Writer:Exeler, Franziska
Published:Cornel University Press
Published in:2022

Belarus is among the countries most heavily affected by the horrors of World War II. It faced a ruthless German occupation regime that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of its inhabitants and resulted in the destruction of countless villages. Jewish residents who could not escape in time were at great risk of being killed by the German Einsatzgruppen or perishing in ghettos and concentration camps. Additionally, a brutal partisan war unfolded in Belarus, causing significant civilian casualties on both sides.

This history, though gruesome, is widely known. Historian Franziska Exeler (affiliated with institutions such as Freie Universität Berlin) adds various perspectives to enhance the depth of her study. The extensive range of sources she consulted contributes to this depth, as Exeler conducted research not only in Belarusian archives but also in Germany, Israel, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, and the United States. Ghosts of War depicts the German occupation of Belarus not as a standalone period but as part of a broader era that began in the 1930s and extended into the post-war decades. This historical context partly serves as an explanatory factor for the events during the horrific years of 1941-1944.

Exeler aligns herself with a historian like Timothy Snyder, who, in his renowned work "Bloodlands," employed a broader time frame, explicitly situating the German occupation years within what preceded and followed them. This perspective clarifies that countries such as Belarus, Poland, and Romania experienced a "double occupation" by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Regarding Belarus, Exeler highlights two determining factors from the pre-war years. First, the Germans invaded a country on June 22, 1941, that was itself a totalitarian dictatorship. Second, part of Belarus had only recently become part of the Soviet Union. As a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939, Hitler and Stalin brutally divided Poland, incorporating the eastern part into the Soviet Republic of Belarus.

The western, "new" part of Belarus was subsequently "aligned" in the distinct Stalinist manner, involving purges, arrests, and disappearances. When German troops entered that area a year and a half later, a portion of the population (particularly Polish speakers) regarded the second invasion as a continuation of the existing occupation. Some even hoped for improvements, perhaps expecting the Germans to put an end to forced collectivization in agriculture. Tragically, even among the Jews, there were those who, based on their experiences during the earlier German occupation in the First World War, believed they had little to fear from the Nazis.

Franziska Exeler demonstrates that existing social structures influenced the developments regarding persecution and resistance. The spontaneous pogroms against Jews in the early months of the German occupation appeared to occur primarily in the western, formerly Polish, part of Belarus. This can be attributed to the larger Jewish population in those western areas, but Exeler also links it to the fact that the eastern, "old" part of Belarus had already experienced several decades under Soviet rule. Consequently, according to Exeler, there was less fertile ground for the flare-up of radical nationalist (and antisemitic) movements as seen in Ukraine and Romania.

The German occupation of Belarus lasted for approximately three gruesome years, starting in the summer of 1941 (the capital, Minsk, was liberated in July 1944, with the eastern regions liberated earlier, as one would expect). Although Stalin had ordered the population in the occupied Soviet territories to engage in an uncompromising fight against the Germans, daily life unfolded differently. There were opportunists who voluntarily sided with the Germans, but many ordinary Belarusians were forced to find a kind of "modus vivendi" with the German occupiers. After the fall of Stalingrad in early 1943, the growing partisan movement increasingly demanded support from the population. Immediately after liberation, there was a reckoning with collaborators – a term that, according to Exeler, was not used by Soviet authorities. She points out that victims had to turn to a government that, at its core, was unjust, in order to seek redress and punishment for the perpetrators. This injustice was evident in the post-war years not only in the punishment or lack thereof of "wrongdoers" but also in the way the Soviet administration sought to handle the memory of the Second World War. The narrative was regularly revised, with historical truth being subordinated to the ideological message of communism. In this official Soviet historiography, there was no room for shades of gray, nor for the persecution of Jewish citizens of Belarus.

Franziska Exeler published an impressive book in which she analyzes societal processes that must have occurred not only in Belarus but also in other parts of Eastern Europe in a similar manner before, during, and immediately after the terrible war years.

Rating: Excellent


Article by:
Jan-Jaap van den Berg
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