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Historical Politics: Trends of the Passing Year

The passing year was rich in events and commemorative historical dates, whose modern interpretations induced a significant public response not only in Belarus, but also far beyond. We can state with confidence the emergence of new trends in reviewing the events of the past, which directly affected the Belarusian historical policy. Some of them are positive, while the content of others is unconstructive and brings certain risks for the Belarusian national and state identity. Let's consider the most important, in our opinion, trends in 2020 historical policy in chronological order.

"New" perpetrators of WWII unleashing

The beginning of the year was marked by the continued "war of memory" between Western countries and Russia after the European Parliament had adopted a September 2019 resolution on the importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe, which unpacked the trend of the "equal responsibility" of the Soviet Union along with Nazi Germany for unleashing the Second World War.

According to the West, the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact contributed to the beginning of the world massacre. After its conclusion, the USSR entered the war as an "ally" of Nazi Germany and took part in the joint "partition" of Poland, and subsequently – the occupation of parts of Finland, Baltic States, Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina.

Russian President V. Putin's reciprocal statements in late 2019 – early 2020 on issues related to the "trend" assessments of the WWII events demonstrated determination and commitment of the Russian side to take asymmetric measures towards such reassessment of the past.

The package of counterarguments contained the following: the Soviet Union has never been an aggressor; the signing of treaties with Germany in August-September 1939 was a forced step due to unconstructive stance of Great Britain, France and Poland; Poland which in 1938 took part in partition of Czechoslovakia under Munich agreement, is responsible for unleashing the WWII along with Nazi Germany. In 1930s, Poland was a major ally of Germany, openly supporting Nazi anti-Semitic policy and xenophobia within the country.

Today, the events of September–November 1939 associated with Western Belarus' joining BSSR and the USSR, are evaluated in different ways by Polish and Belarusian historians. Separate attempts are made to impose alternative interpretations of these events in Belarus as well. In a number of publications emerged in September 2019 in connection with the 80th anniversary of the events, the unification of the Belarusian people was reduced to the primitive thesis that this process was an accidental side result of "Stalin and Hitler collusion".

Interpretation of Belarus unification as aggression resulted from signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact carries with it connotations to de-legitimize the formation of the modern territory of Belarus and to provoke tensions between Belarusians and Poles in the public space. This is one of the reasons why not only authorities, but also most Belarusian historians reacted negatively to the resolution on the importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe adopted by the European Parliament in September 2019.

New reading of Holocaust

In the course of the Fifth World Holocaust Forum held in January 2020 in Jerusalem, Vladimir Putin in his address managed to reconcile the tragedy of the Jews killed by the Nazis, whose International Commemoration Day is celebrated annually on January 27, with the date of the lifting of the Nazi siege of Leningrad, which also took place on January 27. Special attention was focused on the complicity of the local population with the Nazis in countries where the mass extermination of Jews took place.

Russia has received Israeli consent to open in Jerusalem a Memorial Candle monument to the Leningrad siege victims. Erecting such a memorial is a unique case in history given consolidated attempts by a number of European states to re-examine the WWII history. The effect was in Russia's finding a reliable ally in the emerged historical dispute and even forcing some of its foreign policy opponents to justify themselves.

It should be noted that modern Belarusian historians have identified and significantly expanded the issue of Holocaust in Belarus as a separate field of research. Unlike some of its neighbors, our country has never sought to justify the national collaborationist organizations that were created by the German occupation authorities and participated with them in implementing the Nazi genocide policies.

Revision of WWII time frame

Back in June 2019, Chairman of the Russian Historical Society Sergey Naryshkin put a proposal for discussing the time frame of World War II. As one of the arguments, he cited the fact that in China, hostilities with millions of casualties took place several years before the officially recognized date of the beginning of the world tragedy (September 1, 1939).

However, 2020 is marked by revising the end, not the beginning, of World War II. In April, Russia amended the law on dates of military glory – the Date for end of World War II and moving it from September 2 to September 3. As a result, the legislators "increased" the WWII duration by one day.

The State Duma's decision was quickly endorsed by the Russian Military Historical Society (RVIO). The Society's Scientific Director Mikhail Myagkov asserted that historical justice is returning. Despite the fact that Japan signed the act of unconditional capitulation on September 2, 1945, it was followed by Soviet troops operations on the South Kuril Ridge. In addition, according to him, September 3 was declared a holiday back in 1945 by "our Supreme Commander-in-Chief".

Some Russian historians and analysts have linked the "extension" of the WWII with the aggravation of Russian-Japanese relations over the "northern territories". In addition, attention was drawn to the Russian Federation's commitment to take the initiative away from the U.S. in anticipation of the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII and to declare that militaristic Japan was defeated thanks to the efforts of the USSR, and not in connection with the American nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Therefore, moving the date of September 2 symbolically related to Japan's signing their surrender aboard the U.S. Navy battleship USS Missouri, to September 3, the date stamped on the Soviet medal "For the Victory over Japan", acquired a certain logic.

In this way Russia has demonstrated a striking example of implementing a proactive historical policies. As a result, not only Russian, but Belarusian historians as well faced with the fact of necessity to adjust the approaches to the WWII time frame that were established in Soviet historiography.

Until 2020, the main area of concern in the said context for many countries was, when to celebrate the Victory over Nazi Germany (May 8 or 9). Now, one more has been added, when to celebrate the end of the WWII (September 2 or 3). Unlike the first question, the second one is not so fundamental for Belarus.

The "only" perpetrators of unleashing WWII

Amid another round of the "war of memory" that emerged at the end of 2019 and continued in the first half of 2020, highly unexpected was the Der Spiegel May 2020 publication "There can be no politics without history" co-authored by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and Director of the Leibniz Institute for Contemporary History, Co-Chairman of the German-Russian Commission of historians Professor Andreas Wirsching. The main leitmotif of the article is that by attacking Poland, Germany solely unleashed the Second World War and is solely responsible for the Holocaust crimes. Those feeding doubts about this and imposing a criminal role on other peoples, commit injustice to the victims, abuse history and split Europe.

Each of the sides to the historical conflict about the responsibility for unleashing of the Second World War and its consequences for the European peoples saw in H. Maas's article only what it wanted to see. Russian information resources drew attention to Germany's support for the message that the Soviet Union was not guilty of unleashing a global massacre. The Baltic states, referring to the Der Spiegel publication, noted there were no grounds for Russia's attempts to accuse them of being involved in the Holocaust.

It appears that the new trend highlighted by H. Maas in the policies of memory is not as altruistic as it seems at first glance. The German Foreign Minister once again publicly confirmed what the FRG leaders had done before him in 1970s and 1980s, unconditionally condemning German Nazism and admitting his guilt for unleashing the war and the policy of genocide. He only tried to smooth the sharp wording about the Soviet Union as an aggressor and ally of Nazi Germany, which was included in the text of the resolution adopted by the European Parliament in September 2019. On the other hand, the thesis of Germany's sole responsibility for the Holocaust contradicts one of the key narratives of Russian historical policies: the responsibility of local national collaborators, along with Germany, for the extermination of Jews.

Glorification of anti-communist “resistance movement”

In anticipating the 75th anniversary of the Victory over Nazism, Presidents of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in a joint statement noted that "the end of World War II does not mark freedom to the nations of Central and Eastern Europe". After the war, "the Soviet Union used overwhelming military force, indiscriminate repression, mass deportations and total ideological control to subjugate the Baltic nations. One totalitarian regime was replaced by another". In the article published by "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" (May 2020), the Foreign Ministers of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Ukraine emphasized that "the Soviet Union occupied and annexed" the Baltic states. The "resistance movements" were brutally suppressed. The fate of the Baltic peoples was shared by the Ukrainians. Even German Foreign Minister H. Maas in the above-mentioned resonant article "There can be no politics without history" did not fail to note that for people in Poland, the Baltic states and other countries in Eastern Europe the "joy about the defeat of the Nazis is tinged with the start of another form of oppression and external domination".

These facts show that a new trend has emerged in the European narrative – the issue of the anti-communist "resistance movement" which directly affects the Belarusian memory policy. The new trend is a continuation of the old narrative about glorification of the anti-communist underground actively promoted since the 1990s by Poland, Baltic states, and Ukraine.

At the ceremonial burial of the 1863-1864 insurgents' remains in Vilnius (November 2019), Polish President A. Duda, along with Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians and Ukrainians, called Belarusians the conservators of the historical heritage of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, who fought together for "liberation from the Moscow yoke". He compared the 1863-1864 insurgents to members of the anti-communist underground in Poland ("cursed soldiers") and the Baltic states ("forest brothers").

The author has already expressed his opinion about the image of the Polish Home Army (AK) fighters and «cursed soldiers», Lithuanian «forest brothers» formed in the historical consciousness of Belarusians, as well as the well-established narrative in the Belarusian memory policy. We will only stress once again that the study of this issue is a new direction of Belarusian historiography, which has been actively developing after 1991.

The activities of the anti-Soviet armed underground on the territory of the Belarusian SSR during the Second World War and in the post-war period are assessed today not only in the context of the struggle of the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany, but also in the context of modern approaches to the theory of national security and the history of the formation and development of the Belarusian statehood. The actions of the AK, Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), and the "forest brothers" on the territory of the Belarusian SSR were both of anti-Soviet and anti-Belarusian nature. The process of neutralizing anti-Soviet Polish, Ukrainian, and Baltic underground groups is being considered today in the historical policy of Belarus as the factor that has contributed to the strengthening and development of the national and state identity of Belarusians.

The "forgotten" genocide

On November 20-21, Moscow hosted the International Scientific and Practical Forum "Lessons of Nuremberg". In his video address to participants, Vladimir Putin emphasized the newly discovered facts of Soviet people massacres by Nazis on the Russian territory. As an example, he cited the recent decision of the Soletsky District Court, which for the first time in Russian legal proceedings recognized as genocide the massacre of Soviet people near the village of Zhestyanaya Gorka in the Novgorod region.

Following Putin's theses, Prosecutor General of Russia Igor Krasnov asserted that apart from Zhestyanaya Gorka massacre, the "No Statute of Limitations" federal project has initiated six criminal cases related to new facts of Nazi war crimes.

Chairman of the Russian Military Historical Society (RVIO) Vladmir Medinsky suggested that the policy of the Nazis in the USSR occupied territory should be recognized as the conscious genocide of the Soviet people, and to build a memorial by the 80th anniversary of the Victory to pay tribute to the victims of this genocide.

Chairman of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation Alexander Bastrykin said that the Committee has created a department for investigating crimes of fascism. The part of functions of the department are also prevention of attempts to rehabilitate Nazism.

At the same time Moscow hosted the 6th Interdepartmental Research Conference "The System of Interdepartmental Cooperation in Addressing the Defense Issues of Russian Federation". V. Medinsky, speaking about elaborating the historical policy, introduced a new term - "historical sovereignty" (the state's ability to independently interpret its own history and the path of development), and defined "the struggle for history" as "part of competitive struggle of states".

The attention of the Russia's supreme leaders to such issues indicates the beginning of a new phase of Russian historical policy. In addition to the further making purposeful counter-arguments to the attempts to present the Soviet Union as the perpetrator of unleashing WWII, promotion of the new own memory policy trend on recognizing the Nazi occupation policy on the territory of the USSR as a deliberate genocide of the Soviet people, has begun.

It's highly probable that a new stage in Russian historical policies will be projected on the Belarusian one, and not only in the context of the bill announced at supreme level to counter the glorification of Nazism. Unlike Russia, the entire Belarusian territory was occupied during the war and survived the Nazi genocide on a scale not inferior to Russian. Besides, the existing Belarusian scientific and information array about Nazi genocide can be used within forming a consolidated Russian-Belarusian policy of WWII remembrance. The Russian initiative also deserves attention in the context of countering attempts to glorify national collaborators and their symbols in Belarus.

To sum up, we might say that in the conditions of the "west-east" confrontation on the issues of memory policy, Belarus is continuing to act as a virtual battlefield for the right to interpret history, thereby being the object of information influence. The West wants Russia and Belarus to completely abandon the legacy of the Soviet war narrative and support trending historical claims ("Soviet aggression", glorification of the "cursed soldiers", "forest brothers", etc.). The study of new "Western" trends in interpretation of historical meanings (mainly the events of the WWII) reveals a very wide range of theses that contradict not only the "Russian" and "Belarusian" approaches, but often the objective course of history as well. At the same time, the analysis of understanding by Belarus and its strategic partner Russia of the "complex topics" of the war shows that most positions are not compatible in terms of worldview criteria and the scale of events perception.

In the current situation, the mission of the Belarusian historical policy is to consistently exercise the right of the Belarusian people to their own understanding of WWII and Victory significance for Belarus and its future generations.

Any analysis is not only based on the study of facts, but also serves as a basis for forecasting. Although forecasts, not just the weather, is a thankless job. Despite this, there is every reason to say that, both in the passing and the coming 2021, the main source of new trends in historical politics will remain the events of the Great Patriotic War and the WWII. The main historical topic of the passing year was the 75th anniversary of the Victory over Nazi Germany. All of these trends are directly or indirectly related to this greatest event in the world history.

The new "historical" year will be marked, among other things, by the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Great Patriotic War and related events that are significant not only for Belarus and Russia (the defensive battles of the Red Army in the summer and autumn of 1941, the Battle of Moscow, the Red Square parade on November 7, 1941, the beginning of the Siege of Leningrad, the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, etc.). For sure, the identified trends about perpetrators of unleashing of the war, new and "forgotten" aspects of the Nazi policy of genocide (including the Holocaust), and the modern appraisal of the anti-communist "resistance movement" will find their continuation and receive a different perspective. Trends not previously predicted will also appear.