Why Belarus is Missing in World War II History
Belarusian ruler Alexander 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 the History of the Great Patriotic War as an obligatory and separate subject not only in schools but also at all universities. The authorities are also building a new grand museum devoted to the war.
The attitude to the role and suffering of Belarus elsewhere in Europe is different. Although only a fraction of 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 simpler 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 Nazi Germany and neglect the fact that the war touched just a very small 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, when Belarus was sandwiched between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany in 1939. German troops occupied the land at the very beginning of the war and the Nazis retained the Belarusian territory for three years.
As a result, literally every Belarusian village saw at least some fighting at the beginning and end of the war. Many regions suffered as the frontline stayed there for many months, or partisan activities resulted in brutal collective punishment on behalf of the German administration. There is no Belarusian family which did not suffer in the war directly. This was certainly not the case in Russia, only a fraction of which was actually occupied.
It is common to hear or read in Russia and in the West the western territories of the USSR called “Russian” Read more
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 the western territories of the USSR being 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 Berlin's Topography of Terror museum, located on the site of the former Nazi secret police Gestapo headquarters, demonstrates the unfortunate habit of many western historians of labelling "Russian" anything to the east of Poland. These are hardly innocent typos, as Moscow continues to exploit the guilty conscience of Germans.
(pictures by YK)
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 died in the war. Lukashenka increased that number to every third. Yet there is evidence that around 1.9 million Belarusians, or 20 per cent of the pre-war population of the land, perished in the war. 500,000-600,000 of them were killed in the Red Army in combat, and more than a million civilians were 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 Soviet Belarusian ideology. The local Communist party presented the land as a “guerrilla country”. It was a safe form of Belarusian nationalism: it allowed them to portray Belarusians as heroes but it did not lead to a confrontation with the painful issues of Soviet policies carried out in Belarus.
Belarusians fought both for Soviet partisan groups and pro-German police and military units Read more
The guerrilla warfare in Belarus did not inflict many 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 units. For many of them it was not a free choice but rather a choice between the Gulag and the Buchenwald. People in western Belarus in particular 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 “partisan” Belarus. No doubt Belarusian partisans were more successful in their operations than their counterparts in other countries. Belarusian partisans fought under much harsher conditions than the Yugoslav fighters of Tito because Belarus – unlike the Balkans – was crucial to the German war effort.
Only in the eastern regions which had been part of the Soviet Union since the October Revolution was there a wide-scale indigenous guerrilla movement, albeit with strong control from Moscow. In the western half of Belarus there were mostly partisans which were sent or parachuted from Soviet-controlled areas, who were effective and well-trained commandos.
The Second World War remains a hot issue in Belarus
Belarusian history of the Second World War hides yet another skeleton in the closet – people who cooperated with the German administration in Belarus. There were very few, if any, true supporters of the Nazis. This can be seen clearly by the lack of support for the massacres of Jews in Belarus. Nazis themselves complained that Belarusians, unlike other European nations, were not enthusiastic about their anti-Jewish policies.
many people were willing to ally with anyone struggling against the Stalinist regime Read more
But many people were willing to ally with anyone struggling against the Stalinist regime. And when late in the winter of 1944 Nazis allowed the organisation of the Belarusian Land Defence Forces, tens of thousands of people joined that army. It was a very impressive number as the mobilisation took place only in Central and North-Eastern Belarus.
Those people began to cooperate with Germans, ready to fight against the return of the 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, led to 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 recently noted that all opinion surveys show Germany as the 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 Read more
Soviet Belarus 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 history of the Second World War as a compelling argument to support confrontation with the West.
The war remains an issue for Belarusians, including those who are sceptical of the official propaganda. A major Belarusian publisher once admitted that all books on the last war, even scholarly titles, sell better than any other books.
Belarus and Germany should address their history, acknowledge the facts of Belarusian suffering and the contradictions in Belarusians' attitude towards the German occupation. The current government of Belarus will never do so as it undermines its raison d'etre. But Germany as a democratic European state must do so. And they should work with Belarusian society directly and give it still further grounds to challenge the anti-Western rhetoric of the regime.
Mandatory Placement: A Soviet Remnant of Belarusian Higher Education
May is always a hot time for students in their final year at Belarusian universities. They have to prepare for their final exams, finish their papers and start thinking about graduation ball dresses. But besides that, nearly a third of the graduating students around the country have to worry about their first-job mandatory placement. These are the so-called “budget students” who study free of charge. The state demands that they work for two years wherever the authorities may send them after graduation.
Mandatory placement is supposed to give the state powers to distribute young labour force effectively. In reality, it fails to accomplish this goal. Mandatory placement breeds corruption and produces serious collateral damage. As a result, more and more young Belarusians decide to study abroad. The situation can hardly improve unless the government liberalises education and the labour market.
What is First-Job Mandatory Placement?
Belarus inherited the system of mandatory work placement from the Soviet Union. Then it served as an organic part of the command economy with central planning. Communist ideologues wanted to plan and control all economic activities in the country. For that they also needed to educate a certain number of professionals in different fields and distribute them according to the general plan. Thus, all young specialists had to start their careers where the government sent them upon graduation.
the main argument was the need to tackle the huge deficit of professionals in small towns and rural areas Read more
After the collapse of the USSR, first-job mandatory placement survived in Belarus as optional for university graduates but the authorities did not enforce it everywhere. However, at the beginning of the 2000s they decided to restore the system. In those days the main argument was the need to tackle the huge deficit of professionals in small towns and rural areas. The absolute majority of university graduates chose to stay in Minsk or other big cities after they received their diplomas. The supporters of the idea believed that a revived mandatory placement would help solve the problem.
However, there is one major difference with the experience of the USSR. In the Soviet times all universities taught their students free of charge. But after Belarus gained independence more and more universities started to introduce “commercial places” for students alongside with “budget places”. A number of private universities also emerged: today there are 45 state and 10 private universities in Belarus.
Despite the myth of free education in Belarus, the majority of Belarusian students now pay for their education from their own pocket Read more
Despite the myth of free education in Belarus, the majority of Belarusian students now pay for their education from their own pocket. In 2011, out of the 107,000 first year students about 70,000 were self-funded. And their number is growing. Of course, the state cannot dictate to such students where to work after graduation. That is why the system of mandatory placement applies to “budget students” and only in exceptional cases to self-funding students.
Mandatory Placement Proves Ineffective
A decade after the reintroduction of mandatory work placement it is obvious that the system is highly ineffective. The depopulation of rural areas, which mandatory placement aims to prevent, continues at a bewildering pace. According to the National Statistics Agency, in the last 10 years the population of almost all rural areas and small towns has decreased, while the population of cities and big towns has grown.
The main reason is the difference in the living standards. And the system of mandatory work placement is unable to break the trend. In the majority of cases graduates who go to work in rural areas leave after two years of obligatory work there.
the system of first-job mandatory placement contributes to breeding corruption Read more
Besides, the system of first-job mandatory placement contributes to breeding corruption. As no one wants to work in rural areas, graduates and their parents try to find ways to stay in Minsk or, at least, in one of the regional centres. Sometimes the only way to do that is to bribe officials or employers.
Employers also suffer from this system. Under Belarusian law, once they offer jobs to recent graduates it is very difficult to fire them even if they manifestly fail to properly perform their duties. Therefore, most employers try to avoid hiring such young specialists. One of the collateral effects of this avoidance is that it is extremely difficult for young people to find a job without a previous two year-long professional experience.
Young Belarusians Simply Leave
A growing number of Belarusian families choose one of the two pragmatic options to avoid the communist-style mandatory placement. The first option is to pay university fees from their own pockets. However, this option has become problematic for a large part of the population as the universities increased fees after the dramatic devaluation of the Belarusian rouble in 2011.
The second option is to leave Belarus and study abroad. According to the Global Education Digest 2010, in 2008 around 15,000 Belarusian students preferred not to study in their own country. Most of them – nearly 8,500 – went to Russia. Other popular destinations included Germany, Poland and Lithuania. About 1,500 students from Belarus went to each of these countries.
Unfortunately, very few programmes provide Belarusian citizens with full scholarships to study abroad Read more
For the same economic reasons this option is also burdensome for most families – not only do they have to pay their fees, but also living expenses in a foreign country. Unfortunately, very few programmes provide Belarusian citizens with full scholarships to study abroad.
Liberalisation of Education and the Economy Is the Answer
The authorities are now trying to alleviate the problem of mandatory placement. Last year a new Education Code entered into force. One of its novelties is that upon graduation “budget students” can pay back the money that the state spent on their degree. In this case graduates are free to work where they want. The government also decreases the number of “budget places” in certain programmes that, in its opinion, are not needed in the labour market. For example, this year they cut the state financing of economic and legal programmes.
But these are all superficial measures. They really need to do away with the remnants of communism in Belarusian education and the labour market. Graduates should be free to work where they choose and employers to hire whom they deem suitable and without excessive paperwork. Otherwise, the gap between the universities and labour market in Belarus will only grow bigger.