Friday, July 03, 2009
How Belarus fought the fascists
Today marks the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Belarus from the Nazis. Here’s my Morning Star article on the massive contribution Belarus made to the anti-fascist struggle.
Question: Which currently existing nation lost the largest percentage of its population in World War II - a higher percentage than that of France, Britain and the US combined?
The answer is Belarus, which lost a staggering one-third of its people in The Great Patriotic War - a total of 2.5 million citizens.
As Stewart Parker states in his excellent book The Last Soviet Republic, "the destruction wrought on Belarus was immense in terms of human life and of infrastructure." Thousands of towns and villages were destroyed, many, like Katyn, burnt to the ground with all their villagers.
This week marks the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Belarus from the nazi occupation and the event will be commemorated across the country and in Russia too.
To find out more about the sacrifices that Belarus made during World War II in the struggle against the nazis - and the way that its experiences during the war has helped shape the country's foreign policy today - I met up in London recently with the country's ambassador to Britain Aleksandr Mikhnevich.
"Not a single country involved in the hostilities was faced with such appalling atrocities and destruction," Mikhnevich told me. "The war left a deep mark in history and in the minds of the Belarus people."
I asked him for some examples of heroism in his country's anti-nazi struggle.
"One can talk for hours about the heroism of the Belarussian people and all the peoples of the USSR during the war. I will give one example. A small garrison deployed in the Brest Fortress was fighting with invaders for a month. The German troops were already near Smolensk but battles in Brest - 600km from the front line - were still underway. Even Hitler arrived by plane to Brest in July 1941 as he couldn't understand why his powerful army could not capture this small islet on Belarussian soil."
By the end of 1941, six months after the launch of Operation Barbarossa, the whole of Belarus was under nazi occupation. But the people refused to lie down and lick the jackboots of the illegal invaders. The resistance movement was strong and determined.
By 1943, there were 75,000 partisans active in the country. Overall, a total of 370,000 partisans fought in Belarus, with fighters coming from other Soviet republics and from western European countries too.
"The scale of the partisan movement was self-evident as single partisan zones sprang up in 1943 - two and half years before the hostilities were over," says Mikhnevich. "Around 60 per cent of the occupied territory was recaptured by the partisans. Government was restored in those areas, bringing the life of civilians back to normal. Belarussians took part even in the French Resistance."
Arguably no other country invaded by the nazis did more to protect its Jewish population than Belarus. In July 1941, the nazis established a Jewish ghetto in the capital Minsk with over 100,000 inmates.
Parker relates how the head of the ghetto, Yefim Stolerovitch, recounted after the war that though the Germans did find individual collaborators, "they were the exception and not the rule. The dominant characteristic of the Belarussian population was one of friendship and sympathy towards the Jews."
An example of this took place on July 21 1941, when the nazis roped a group of 45 Jews into a pit and then ordered 30 Belarussian PoWs to bury them alive. The PoWs refused and subsequently the Germans shot all 75.
Such acts of solidarity in Belarus were, as Parker notes, "in stark contrast to the overt anti-semitism that was reported by Germans in Polish, Baltic and Ukrainian territories."
The role that Belarussians played in protecting Jews in World War II has been acknowledged by the Israeli authorities. The Righteous Among the Nations is a secular award given by Israel to gentiles who risked their lives in the Holocaust to save Jews. There are no fewer than 587 recipients of the award in Belarus.
One of the Belarussians so honoured is Galina Imshenik who, together with her husband, rescued a little Jewish toddler named Yelena Dolgov. Sixty-five years later, Yelena and her husband care for Galina, who is now 96, round the clock. It's a wonderful story of human kindness being repaid.
Eventually, the combined might of the Red Army and the partisans evicted the nazi invaders from Belarus. Due to the worldwide recognition of the role that it had played in defeating fascism, Belarus, despite not being a sovereign state at the time, was made a founding member of the United Nations. And at the very first session of the UN general assembly a resolution proposed by Belarus was passed on the extradition and punishment of war criminals.
The enormous losses the country incurred during World War II continues to shape the foreign policy of Belarus today.
"Belarussian people as nobody else value peace, prosperity and universal values," Mikhnevich told me. "Our foreign policy is aimed exactly at the creation of a zone of neighbourliness. We will never forget the price of our freedom."
Since becoming a sovereign state in 1991, Belarus has taken a consistently pro-peace and anti-war line, opposing both the illegal NATO attack on Yugoslavia in 1999 and the equally unlawful aggression against Iraq in 2003.
The country that was at the forefront of the anti-fascist resistance 65 years ago is still standing up for the rights of free, independent nations today.