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Poles and Belarusians divided by a common history

Belarus is rewriting history to achieve political goals, and the country’s Polish community is paying the price.

World War II is embedded in the mental and emotional landscape of the borderlands, an area loosely stretching along the Poland and Belarusian border to Lithuania.

In the western imagination, this is either where Europe ends or is an uneasy no-man’s land between modernity and backwardness. That is modernity at the end of a gun – mainly in the form of Nazi and Soviet fire power, which wrought industrial-scale destruction on a largely pre-modern agrarian society. Either way, a vibrant world of different ethnic and religious groups that had lived side-by-side for centuries in a ramshackle attempt at political modernity and civic compromise lay in ruins in 1945.



The past remains heavily contested here: nationalist or civic, heroic or realistic, official and informal – where official historiography meets the complex intertwining of personal, familial, community stories, and justifications or denials of often dimly recalled past horrors or heroic deeds.

Jeffrey Blutinger defines three basic approaches to contemporary memory politics in Eastern Europe: “aphasia” – a taboo on memory (typical of the communist era); “deflective negationism” – the war is recognised, but all responsibility is placed on “outsiders”; and “open examination”.

Unsurprisingly, people want straight lines, simplified versions, good guys and bad guys, hence many countries remain trapped in the second approach – that of “deflective negationism”. The Soviets tried aphasia, the idea being to drown layered (“nationalist”) history into a single, Sovietised version.

In many ways, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) government’s Historical Policy is a similar attempt to impose a certain incomplete version on a complex layered reality, and thus drifts into its own home-grown version of ’deflective negationism.’ As the regime of Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk accuses Belarus’s Polish community of Nazi crimes, it appears the dictator is playing a similar game.

Poles as hostages

Belarus’s 300,000-strong Polish community is caught in the crosshairs.

Three Polish activists of the Association of Poles in Belarus (ZPB), Irena Biernacka, Maria Tiszkowska and director of the Polish School in Brest, Anna Paniszewa, were released by Belarusian authorities on May 25 after two months in prison, charged with propagating Nazism (“heroisation of war criminals”, “inciting national and religious feuds”, “rehabilitating Nazism”).

Paniszewa said she had been beaten, psychologically tortured and denied medical treatment for a spine injury during the two months of her detention. The three activists could face five to 12 years in prison. Andzelika Borys, head of the ZPB, was then arrested in Grodno and sentenced to 15 days in prison. Borys was first sentenced to detention for organising the traditional Kaziuki Fair, which the authorities said was an “illegal event”. Meanwhile, Andrzej Poczobut, also a member of the ZPB, was arrested in March.

Poland has expressed alarm over what it calls the targeting of leaders of Belarus’s Polish community, calling on Minsk to stop “taking hostages”.

The ZPB is the largest organisation of the Polish minority in Belarus. In 2005, the authorities in Minsk revoked its registration. ZPB activists have been recognised by Belarusian human rights defenders as political prisoners.

The Polish minority in Belarus is 287,693, according to a 2019 census, the second largest ethnic minority in the country after the Russians, with around 3.1 per cent of the total population. However, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Poland the number is as high as 1,100,000.

The Polish minority in Belarus was discriminated against during the Soviet era. By 1949 all Polish language schools had been replaced with Russian ones, and all Polish organisations and social clubs liquidated.

Condemnation

Josep Borrell, the EU’s representative for foreign affairs, has said the Belarusian authorities’ persecution of the Polish minority could mean new sanctions on Minsk.

Polish President Andrzej Duda said he had been assured in May by Helga Maria Schmid, the secretary general of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) that it would use all available diplomatic instruments to improve the situation of Poles living in Belarus.

Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said his government would support the Belarusian people struggling for democracy, after a senior member of his party suggested Polish solidarity might be conditional – this after Svetlana Tikhanovskaya met with Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski.

Ryszard Terlecki, a PiS MP, tweeted: “If Tikhanovskaya wants to promote the anti-democratic opposition in Poland and speak at Trzaskowski’s meeting, let her seek help in Moscow, and let us support a Belarusian opposition that is not on the side of our opponents.”

Tikhanovskaya, who was forced into exile in Lithuania shortly after a disputed presidential election in August 2020 (an election Lukashenko claims to have won with an implausible 80 per cent of the vote; most independent analysts believe Tikhanovskaya was the real victor), said that “repressions against Poles are unacceptable”. She said the imprisoned Poles will become used as political pawns. “It cannot be ruled out that they will be a bargaining chip in the future and we do not want to let that happen,” she said.

Tikhanovskaya’s husband, an opposition activist, remains imprisoned in Belarus. The authorities in Minsk have also compared the protest movement in Belarus to the Nazis, arguing, for example, that the white-red-white flag was used during the war by collaborators.

Home Army next

Belarusian prosecutors have now turned their focus to the Polish Home Army (AK), a World War II resistance movement. Attorney General Andrei Schved has called them “fascist criminals” and in April opened a criminal case against former AK members, accusing them of committing “genocide against the Belarusian people” during the war.

Warsaw has asked the Belarusian government to clarify whether the attorney general’s words represent the leadership’s “official line” or were a PR stunt. Michał Dworczyk, the head of the Polish prime minister’s office, described it as a further stage in Lukashenko’s “war of disinformation.”

Shved said the authorities have information on several living Nazi criminals who participated in atrocities committed by foreign units, including battalions in the Lithuanian SS and the AK.

Shved has linked the need for the case with the mass protests that started in Belarus following last year’s presidential election. The authorities interpreted the protests as “an attempt to seize power by unconstitutional means”. Shved said the threats derived from “some West European states involved in the mass extermination of Belarusians and representatives of other nationalities during the Great Patriotic War and the post-war period”. He also argued that “these states have launched an information war aimed at distorting historical events as well”.

Shved also mentioned some unspecified “nationalist gangs” and concluded that the glorification of these unspecified historical personalities “attempts to destroy the values on which Belarusian statehood is built”.

The initiation of proceedings in this case was announced in the prosecutor’s office of the Brest Oblast in connection with an event organised in a room rented by the Forum of Polish Local Initiatives and the Polish School. According to the prosecutor’s office, on February 28, an “illegal mass event” with the participation of minors and young people was organised there.

“Young people dressed in the national uniforms of the Polish scout organisation sang songs and read poems praising war criminals, including Romuald Rajs, known under the pseudonym ‘Bury’,” the prosecutor’s office reported.

In an official comment made in March, the Belarusian foreign ministry argued that the crimes committed by the accursed soldiers (żołnierze wyklęci) against Belarusians put them “on the same level with the Nazi punishers”.
Belarusian state-run media also accused Polish diplomats of promoting Nazism in Belarusian schools.

A newly adopted law has introduced concepts that previously did not exist in Belarusian legislation, including “Nazi criminals”. These refer to the indictments of the International Military Tribunal (IMT) at Nuremberg. However, critics suggest the new law is deliberately vague about “accomplices of Nazi criminals”, who are designated as “executors of orders of the Nazi regime, the military command of the Wehrmacht, SS soldiers, auxiliary police, and their allies from among the population of the occupied territories who voluntarily or upon conscription joined these units, as well as other persons who deliberately assisted in the execution of the criminal orders of Nazi criminals in any form”.

Poles deny the claims. “In Brest, at the event that became the basis for the initiation of criminal proceedings, I know from people who participated directly in this event, there was no mention of Rajs, and there was no mention of the National Military Union, there were mentioned local Brzeg organisations that operated in the Brest region in the 1940s. And it was not so much about the armed underground as the Union of Freedom Defenders, a conspiratorial and youth organisation,” Poczobut said.

Paniszewo on social media wrote that the accusations made by the prosecution were “invented” and that the purpose of the case was to liquidate the Polish School.

Burying the past

Under PiS, a cult has grown up around the anti-communist underground of the post-war era, with people like Rajs, a controversial resistance fighter and AK member, centre stage. “Bury” was also leader of a paramilitary unit and is accused of being responsible for the murder of dozens of members of the Orthodox minority in Belarus after the war.

PiS has honoured Rajs since taking power, and the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), the country’s state-run historical research institute, has called into question accusations against him.

The crimes that the former AK fighter is accused of took place in 1946, when the AK had been disbanded and some of its veterans, like “Bury”, had radicalised as a result of the imposition of communist rule in Poland.

In 1946 the unit under his command burned several Belarusian villages in the region of Białystok and massacred about 79 villagers. He was sentenced to death in a show trial held by the Polish communist government in 1949, charged with membership of the delegalised NZW and executed in 1949.

His death penalty was nullified by the Military Court of Warsaw in 1995.

Rajs is revered by regional nationalist Polish groups as a hero.

Nationalist groups regularly parade in commemoration of “Bury” through those villages in eastern Poland where people still remember his atrocities.

NZW’s goal was the liberation of Poland from Soviet rule, with a national-Catholic character. In January and February 1946, Rajs’ unit “pacified” six Belarusian villages, murdering 79-87 civilians and wounding dozens. In Zaleszany, Hajnówka, his men locked civilians in a building and burned them alive.

During January 1946 Rajs’ unit captured 40 horse cart drivers near Łozice and shot the 29 who were not Polish near Puchały Stare. The unit then went on a killing rampage in the villages of Zaleszany, Wólka Wygonowska, Zanie, Szpaki, Końcowizna, Popówka, Rajska, Sypnie, and Potoka, killing an additional 50 people. The killings were condemned by the NZW, which intended to court-martial Rajs, however this did not occur.

According to Oleg Latyszonek, a Polish historian of Belarusian ancestry, the massacre led to the Belarusian minority growing more loyal to the Polish communist regime of that time.

The historian also points to the visit of President Duda to the region this week. In Bielsk Podlaski he met with representatives of the Belarusian minority. Duda paid a visit to the Orthodox Monastery of Saints Martha and Mary on Święta Góra Grabarka and went to the village of Zaleszany in the Hajnówka district, where he laid a wreath under the crosses commemorating the murdered inhabitants.

“This is a place once marked by the suffering and death of Belarusians living in the Commonwealth, a place where people died, where innocent women and children died. I prayed for those who died there,” Duda said. “This is important as part of the commitment to respect and memory. It is important that, together, Poles and Belarusians – as a community of citizens of the Republic of Poland of different nationalities – should be able to pay tribute to these important aspects in a spiritual sense. Because I have no doubts that despite the differences, we constitute such a community and this is what I wanted to express with my presence in Podlasie.”

Off the hook?

In 1995, the Military Court of Warsaw nullified the 1948 death penalty given to Rajs and his family received compensation from the state.

In 1997, relatives of Rajs’ victims appealed to the Białystok court to overturn the verdict and an inquiry determined that the victims were not involved in the structure of the communist state and therefore that Rajs’ crimes were crimes against humanity.

In 2002, the case was taken over by the newly formed Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), which found evidence that the motivation for the crimes was ethnic hatred. The IPN stated that “it must be stated categorically that the murder of [Belarusian] wagon-drivers and the pacification of [Belarusian] villages in January–February 1946 cannot be seen as part of the battle for an independent state, since they bear the marks of genocide.”

However, last year the IPN, now under the influence of PiS and an integral part of its “historical policy”, revised its conclusion. Referring to a more recent article by two historians, it claimed that Bury’s deeds cannot be regarded as genocide since, if he had wanted to set more Belarusian villages on fire, he could easily have done so.

On February 2, 2012, on the anniversary of the 1946 massacre, the Polish Sejm introduced a Day of Commemoration of the Cursed Soldiers on March 1.

Rajs remained obscure until his memory was taken over by the National Radical Camp (ONR), a nationalist group.

Along the border with Belarus, glorification of Rajs has become a way to express anti-Belarusian sentiment. During late 2015, the ONR placed his name was placed on several public and private buildings in which Belarussians live in Hajnówka. Since 2016, a march to commemorate Rajs is held by the ONR in the town. The march was first organised in Hajnówka in 2016. Among the organisers are the same far-right groups, such as the National Radical Camp (ONR), that are behind the controversial annual Independence Day march in Warsaw.

The first march was initially advertised as being under the official patronage of the president, Duda. However, following criticism, the president’s office announced that it was refusing to lend its name to the event.

The organisers of the march said Hajnówka was a town that was “administratively” but not “mentally” part of Poland, and were there to “overthrow the last bastion of communism in Poland”. Only 150 people took part, according to police estimates.

The mayor of Hajnówka, who was behind previous efforts to ban the march, appealed to residents to ignore the march. Locals feel that the situation has taken them hostage.

Manipulating history

“The Home Army was not saintly and, of course, its soldiers committed deeds during the Second World War that could be described as war crimes,” according to Belarusian historian Alexander Pashkevich.

“If you wanted to, you could find a lot of evidence that innocent people died because of them and that people with weapons, in general, committed all kinds of atrocities. But we know how brutal this war on our territory was and we can say with certainty that both sides were guilty of such acts. But it is a great exaggeration to say that the Home Army carried out genocide against the Belarusians as part of a deliberate agenda,” he says.

The politics of memory nurtured by the Soviets, Pashkevich argues, was designed to paint a negative image of the AK because it was regarded as an ideological enemy. Poland could also be painted as a class enemy, a nation of landowners in the feudal imagination. Poland’s ‘Triple Identity’ is crucial to grasp in this part of the world – not only stuck between two great powers, but also a ‘minor great power’ of its own for Ukrainians and Belarusians.

Meanwhile, the lasting legacy of war trauma cannot be underestimated even today. Belarus suffered far more than most other European countries in World War II. According to official data, human casualties were 2.2 million. Vitali Silitski notes that war casualties were more than French, British, and American casualties combined. The population returned to its pre-war level only in the mid-1970s.

But Minsk’s interest today is very clearly the result of current realpolitik. It does not appear to be a topic of great concern to Belarusian society, despite Grodnenskaya Prawda newspaper publishing reports about the “true motives of the Polish Home Army”. There have also been reports and programmes on the topic on state TV.

Belarusian political scientist Valeri Karbalevich argues it is “evident that this entire campaign is about the struggle against National Socialism and is politically motivated, with history merely being instrumentalised to achieve political goals.”


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