Memories of the Second World War have been central for European societies. Although there are very few people who remember the events of the 1940s, images and stories of the war continue to form European thinking and perceptions. Postwar generations of historians have continuously pointed out a number of problematic aspects of the past that some European societies would want to forget. However, the efforts of historians fail when a society places legal restrictions on any discussions on the war that deviate from the ‘official’ versions, thus placing taboos on controversial and painful memories.
On the matter of the war, the current Belarusian government has developed strict guidelines of what is considered acceptable in the discussion of the WWII[i]. And after three generations the war remains a sensitive and politicized topic for Belarusian society. Collective memories are no longer bound by private memories of victims and witnesses of these events and are being replaced by politicized histories and a government-controlled narrative of the Great Fatherland War.
For Belarus, as for Russia, May 9 is recognized as Victory Day and the end of the Great Fatherland War that started on 22 June 1941, according to the Soviet historiography. Victory Day glorifies heroic resistance of the Soviet people during WWII. However, for Belarus it is not the only day for remembering the war. In 1996, a national celebration of Independence Day was moved from 27 July, when Belarus declared state sovereignty in 1990, to 3 July, which is the date of Minsk city liberation from Nazi occupation in 1944. It was a symbolic step, which signaled that war memories would occupy a dominant role in the Belarusian state ideology.
The conflict in Ukraine brought international attention to WWII commemorations in Russia, though war memories and WWII legacies have long divided the post-Soviet space. With the promise of the European integration came responsibilities of accepting a European perspective on the war and recognizing the centrality of the Holocaust. It also meant that the countries that set their goals on joining the EU had to reassess the horrific crimes that were committed during the war.
A painful process of dealing with the past in Eastern Europe has shifted the memory debate towards the discussion of Soviet totalitarianism and communist crimes. It also resulted in the signing of the Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism[ii] in 2008 that treats the denial of totalitarian crimes the same way as the denial of the Holocaust. What we currently observe in Ukraine with the adoption of decommunization laws[iii] had already had its precedents in the Baltic Three that passed national legislation condemning totalitarian crimes committed in the Baltic region by the Soviet regime. In response, Russia declared that any misrepresentation of the role of the Soviet Union in the WWII would be considered as a denial of Nazi crimes during the war and, potentially, as a criminal offense. How the role of the Soviet Union is viewed in the events of WWII, including the years of the Great Terror, broke up the post-Soviet region and created two incompatible memory regimes. As a result, affirming your geopolitical memory allegiance has become the key.
Belarus remains the last outpost in Eastern Europe that holds on to the Great Fatherland War narrative that is similar to the Russian perspective. However, being a notorious Russian ally in memory geopolitics has its downside. Sharing collective memories of the war with Russia can undermine the status of Belarus as a sovereign state and, most importantly, the legitimacy of the Belarusian government. To address this problem, the Belarusian authorities integrated a national dimension that views the war from a standpoint of Belarusian national suffering and the role of Belarusian forefathers in the Great Victory of the Soviet people. A reference to the Belarusian partisan movement during the war enabled the Belarusian government to find its own discourse that fits within Soviet historiography and glorifies the common victory. The narrative of Belarus as the Partisan Republic puts an emphasis on unique Belarusian people’s experiences and differentiates it in Russian mnemonic regime.
There is also another side of collective memories of the war that needs to be further developed in academic literature. This is a perspective of ordinary people. In marking the 70th anniversary we have to accept the fact that the majority of Belarusian people who commemorate this date have no private memories of the war. Studies of people’s perceptions of the war and their practices of commemoration help to uncover the role of state institutions and media in informing the people and analyze how alternative views are formed.
What I consider collective memories of the war are abstract cultural representations and images of WWII that were developed through literature, cinematography, education and architecture. These recollections, however emotional and detailed, constitute layers of politicized historiography and ideology of current and previous governments combined with societal narratives and family histories. When we enquire about collective memories of a certain society, we are discussing shared terms and perspectives that people use in reference to the war. Collective memories are also sensitive to social and political contexts. Specific political circumstances, which provide guidelines for acceptable public views, should become an integrative part of the analysis.
In Belarus, the official war commemorations display people’s support of the Great Fatherland War narrative. However, it does not mean that there are no alternative views and positions on the war in Belarusian society. Societal memories that carry family histories, private recollections of Holocaust survivors, oral histories and archival materials will keep collective memories diverse and conflicting though often hidden from public scrutiny. It takes significant human and scientific efforts to address painful events of the past and come to terms with them. One way of addressing this issue in scholarly work is to support new approaches and studies that look at WWII commemorations from a bottom-up perspective. When academic work challenges the role of people as spectators and transforms them into the subjects of analysis, it becomes possible to observe how people actually respond to and engage with state ideologies. The past has to be respected but respected amid its complexity, strangeness and problematic, painful even, issues. This is why scholarly representations of Belarusian collective memories should not be limited to the dominant narrative of glorifying the Great Fatherland War and should consider how ordinary people consume and engage, but sometimes ignore and deflect, ideological meanings of the war.
This extract is based on the original article Rohava, M. (2015). Die 9. Mai-Feirlichkeiten in Belarus. Religion und Geselschaft in Ost und West, 8.
[i] The Belarusian Ministry of Information has referred on several occasions to the concept of national security that was adopted by the presidential decree in 2010.
[ii] Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism, June 3rd, Prague. Full text is available online at http://www.praguedeclaration.eu/
[iii] On this issue, see for example the recent article of George Soroka in Foreign Affairs “The Spotless Mind. Behind Europe’s Attempts to Legislate Memory”. Available at https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/europe/2015-07-14/spotless-mind