When, in December 1918, the Red Army captured Minsk and the short-lived (established on March 25, 1918) Belarusian People’s Republic (BPR) ceased to exist, multiple nationalist activists fled Belarus and found refuge in several European countries, including Germany. After Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist (Nazi) Party came to power in inter-war Germany, some of these Belarusian expatriates sought out potential help from war-minded Berlin to liberate Belarus from the Bolsheviks. For example, in April 1939, the second “president” of the BPR, Vasil Zakharka, sent a memorandum to Hitler expressing his enthusiastic support for the Nazi cause. Then in June of that year, Belarusian nationalist activists convened in Danzig (Gdansk) and established the Belarusian Bureau of Trust (BBT) in Berlin under the guidance of Florian Akinchits. Multiple associates of that entity subsequently became leaders of civil administrations in German-occupied Belarus (Gennady A. Kosmach, “On the History of the Berlin center of the Belarusian Political Emigration (Spring 1939–June 1941),” 2005).
However, despite some preparation, upon invading the Soviet Union in June 1941, Nazi Germany largely treated Belarus as nothing more than a vague geographical term. According to multiple and unrelated sources, this was primarily because Belarusian identity was still feeble among the general population (e.g., Nickolas Vakar, Belorussia: The Making of a Nation, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956; Jerzy Turonek, Bialorus pod Okupacja Nimiecka, Warsaw: Ksiazka i Wiedza, 1993; Oleg Romanko, Belorusskie kollaboratsionisty: Sotrudnichestvo s okkupantami na territorii Belorussii, Moscow: Tsentrpoligraf, 2013). Only after the assassination of Wilhelm Kube, the leader of the occupation administration of Belarus, in September of 1943 (see EDM, January 30), and following the overall success of Soviet-led guerilla activity, did Germany decide to play the Belarusian patriotism card.
Jerzy Turonek, the author of one of the most informative sources on World War II–era Belarusian collaborationists (BC), showed that the bond between the German-appointed Belarusian activists and rank-and-file Belarusians was tenuous at best. For quite some time, the leaders of the Berlin-based BBT, which was later succeeded by the Belarusian Central Rada, resented the fact that the Germans would often appoint Poles, not Belarusians, as mayors, policemen, and managers of larger farms in Belarus. “The Belarusian leaders,” writes Turonek, “saw causes of that [situation] not in their weakness but in the all too liberal attitude of the German civilian administration to the Poles” (Turonek, 1993, p. 99).
Nevertheless, by April 1944, the Belarusian Regional Defense Corps, under the guidance of Nazi Germany, had 21,628 members. And the German-organized Union of Belarusian Youths (UBY) had about 90,000 members. Upon liberation, the Soviets would arrest close to 100,000 Belarusian people accused of aiding the invaders (Svoboda.org), May 11, 2010).
In 1944, many BCs left Belarus with the retreating German army. In 1945, some of them made it to the American and British occupation zones. In the overall commotion, “it was easy for collaborators to claim that they had worked on their farms until [being] deported by the Germans and had since lost their papers… Despite rules excluding former collaborators from displaced person status and therefore also from access to emigration under [United Nations] regulations, many slipped through the net.” For example, out of the 342 members of the Mir rayon [Grodno Oblast] police force, who were appointed by the Germans, 104 escaped to the West. And no information exists about the whereabouts of 129 of the former policemen (Martin Dean, Collaboration in the Holocaust: Crimes of the Local Police in Belarus and Ukraine, 1941–44, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000, p. 155).
John Loftus, in his book, The Belarus Secret (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), described the successful post-war careers of some former BCs in United States government agencies during the Cold War. The 1985 TV feature film, “The Belarus File,” was produced on that basis.
On May 6, 2005, on the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty, Jan Zaprudnik, a former member of the UBY, suggested that “a person is morally responsible for his conduct only when he has freedom of choice” (RFE/RL, May 6, 2005). Revealing that he was a witness to German-appointed Belarusian police pursuing and executing Jews in the aforementioned locality of Mir, Zaprudnik averred that it was patently obvious the incidents were “atrocities.” But even assuming that the vast majority of local people did not approve of such deplorable and deadly policies, available evidence suggests that in Belarus, in 1941–1942, local perpetrators of the Holocaust outnumbered Germans in proportions ranging from 5:1 to 10:1; and in 1943–44 the ratio exceeded 10:1 (Dean, 2000, pp. 101, 197). According to Zaprudnik, however, the “question of moral responsibility for what was done under the German occupation is closely linked with the question of moral responsibility of [Soviet leader Joseph] Stalin’s collaborators under the Bolsheviks.”
Valyantsyn Taras, who as a Belarusian partisan fought “on the other side,” disagrees with Zaprudnik. According to Taras, “in those years, deep down the character of the war was not so much conditioned by Stalinism as by popular resistance to foreign invasion, people’s fight for not just historical but also physical survival.” Also, “the people saw instantaneously […] who came to Belarus, and resistance to Germans was spontaneous.” Under Stalin, “my wife’s family was purged and deprived of property,” Taras noted, adding “In 1937, my father-in-law was arrested and spent one year in a gulag. However, in 1943 he became a partisan. He never joined the party, he hated Stalin, and yet he consciously aided partisans” (RFE/RL, May 6, 2005).
According to Belarusian historian Zakhar Shybeko, in Belarusian historiography the interpretation of World War II remains “an ideological barricade,” but in the minds of the overwhelming majority of ordinary Belarusians, wartime collaboration with the occupiers is a stigma (Zakhar Shybeko, “Novaya I noveishaya istoriya Belarusi: vazhneishiye sobytiya i osnovnye tendetntsii,” Russikii Vopros, No. 2004/2). But as Yury Shevtsov points out, “in Belarus, the war was brutal, and the cultural-political polarization of Belarusians turned out to be tough and across-the-board.” Shevtsov notes that, “During the crushing defeat of the Nazis, the proponents of the non-Soviet version of Belarusian identity were killed or left the country, forming the core of Belarusian emigrant communities in the West. The hatred of the victorious version of Belarusian culture toward the collaborationists is usually automatically transferred to historic Belarusian symbols that those collaborationists used and on everything that is linked with the non-Soviet version of Belarusian identity and ideology, including literature and (sometimes) the Belarusian language. There is also reciprocal rejection by Belarusian emigrants in the West of all aspects of Belarus’s life after the war.” He concludes, “This split in the nation has not been overcome” (Yury Shevtsov, Obyedinionnaya Natsiya: Fenomen Belarusi, Moscow, Yevropa, 2005).
Perhaps generational change and the national consolidation of Belarusians currently underway (see EDM, October 24, 2014; October 30, 2014; January 23, 2015) will cure such wounds, and this divisive question can ultimately be left behind.