On 29 June in Maly Trostenets, Belarus, a ceremony was held to unveil a monument commemorating the victims of the former Nazi German death camp there. Besides the president of Belarus, the presidents of Austria and Germany, as well as the representatives of other countries (including Poland) took part. The organisation of the ceremony was one of many activities of the Belarusian authorities aimed at an exit from international isolation.
In this current district of Minsk in 1941-1943, there was a concentration camp in which an estimated 200,000 people were murdered, including Soviet prisoners, Jews from the present-day territories of the Republic of Belarus, deported citizens of Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia of Jewish origin, as well as Polish and Belarusian political prisoners. In previous commemorations, only an indefinite description of the victims as national “peaceful-minded Soviet citizens” or “victims of fascism” was used. The ceremony, which was held a few days before the Belarusian Independence Day (3 July), fits in with the country’s historical policy of underlining both the struggle of the nation with its occupiers and the range of victims.
The extermination of Jews on the territory of present-day Belarus was not significant under either the historical policy of the USSR or the independent Belarusian state to now. Commemoration of the Holocaust had been the result of external initiative, namely the Jewish Diaspora of Belarus, Polish researchers focused on the former Polish territories (including those working through a project by the POLIN Museum, “Virtual Shtetl”) and independent Belarusian historians and oppositionists. The majority of Belarusians remained indifferent to this aspect of historical memory and unhelpful for political reasons. Belarus, therefore, had been on the sidelines of the discussion about wartime exterminations that took place in other countries of the region. However, now there have been the first attempts to change this situation, including the creation of the Jewish Museum in Navahrudak (Nowogródek).
German Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Austrian Alexander van der Bellen took part in the celebrations, not only as representatives of the perpetrators’ nations but also to commemorate their citizens of Jewish origin who were murdered. The visit is part of the activities of Austria and Germany to develop cooperation in expert and journalistic circles, in addition to their economic ties to Belarus (e.g., in the banking sector). In these countries, Belarus, along with Russia and Ukraine, are becoming an important subject in the historical discussion devoted to World War II. For the Belarusian authorities, the organisation of the ceremony was the next step in the policy of emerging from international isolation and establishing political relations with the leaders of western European states.
With the growing importance of historical policy in international relations, we can expect Belarus to engage in more activities involving other countries, including Poland.
Although the official message about World War II opens Belarus to commemorating the memory of Polish and Jewish victims, it is random and often manipulated. Polish researchers have not received access to the so-called “Belarusian list” from Katyń or a census of Poles murdered by the NKVD in the former Belarussian SSR. The most important elements of Belarusian historical policy remain maintaining a positive image of the “Great Patriotic War”, including the role of Belarusian partisans and the memory of Nazi German crimes (in the more than 200 regions in the countryside). At the state level, however, there is still a lack of discussion about Stalinist crimes, as evidenced by the lack of a commemoration of those murdered at Kurapaty.
A problem in the mutual relations, however, may be in the approach to the role played by the Red Army, clearly perceived by the Belarusian side as a liberator. Disputes on this background and the Belarusian authorities’ emphasis on the brotherhood of the Belarus and Russian armies can also be used by Russia to try to inflame Polish-Belarusian political relations. An example is the current dispute over the liquidation in Poland of so-called “monuments of gratitude” to the Red Army, with Belarus having lodged a protest in this matter.