Lukashenka’s campaign against Nazism: one must imagine Sisyphus happy
On May 14th, Alyaksandr Lukashenka approved a new law on preventing the rehabilitation of Nazism. It quickly became a part of the regime’s strategy to suppress Belarusian civil society following the 2020 presidential election. The authorities also launched a criminal investigation into the genocide of Belarus’s population during WWII.
When commenting on the developments of this case, Andrei Shved, Belarus’s Prosecutor General, stated that the authorities have information regarding several still living Nazi criminals who participated in atrocities committed by various foreign units. These include battalions in the Lithuanian SS and the Home Army (Polish: Armia Krajowa, AK). This statement has already caused official reactions from Lithuania and Poland. On the one hand, Minsk’s questionable actions involve messages inconsistent with established historical facts, particularly those concerning the AK’s activities during WWII. On the other hand, the legislative and judicial tools used by the regime to tackle the issue of Nazism need to be thoroughly analysed in order to understand how they may impact Belarusian society. This article offers an overview of the implications of Lukashenka’s campaign against Nazism for Belarusian society.
Who are the Nazis according to Lukashenka’s regime?
The newly adopted law introduces several concepts that previously did not exist in Belarusian legislation, including ‘Nazism’ and ‘Nazi criminals’. These definitions refer strictly to the indictments of the International Military Tribunal (IMT) at Nuremberg and so are not difficult to interpret. As a result, the most dubious notion in the new law is the ‘accomplices of the 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”. This description explicitly lists the categories of those who qualify as accomplices of the Nazis. At the same time, there are two phrases in this construct that raise concern: “other persons” and “in any form”. Although they are mentioned in conjunction with the execution of the criminal orders of the Nazis, they still offer quite a wide field for interpretation. Decisions regarding who qualifies may subsequently be motivated by political expediency.
A similar issue for the same reason is the concept of ‘Nazi symbols and attributes’ as defined in the law. Among other things, these include flags and anthems that are discussed in indictments made by the IMT, as well as domestic, military, or occupation tribunals based on IMT rulings. Despite this, the phrase “as well as other organizations collaborating with such structures and organizations” (i.e. those pronounced as Nazi criminal organisations by the aforementioned tribunals) is rather ambiguous. Due to this, it also leaves room for politically motivated and foregone decision-making aimed at banning certain symbols.
In other words, the dubious nature of the provisions essentially undermines the country’s new anti-Nazism law. This is because it opens up opportunities for the state to manipulate history in order to target Belarusian society at large or specific groups.
Why does Lukashenka’s regime support this new law?
Back in March, Lukashenka publicly stressed that the genocide of the Belarusian people was performed under the country’s historical white-red-white flag. He also emphasised the government’s desire to “prove and show the whole world what genocide is”. In April, Prosecutor General Andrei Shved announced the initiation of a criminal case regarding the genocide of the population of Belarus during WWII. The official subsequently linked the need for this new case with the mass protests that took place in Belarus following last year’s fraudulent presidential election. The authorities interpreted the protests as “an attempt to seize power by unconstitutional means”. Minsk argues that these events posed a threat to Belarus’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The prosecutor general claimed that these alleged 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”. In the context of WWII, Shved 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”. As a result, his recent statement about the Home Army battalions is consistent with the overall logic of Lukashenka’s regime in recent months.
The authorities hope to make the new law a compulsory part of the country’s education curriculum. Certainly, Minsk views the legislation as “a basis of ideological, educational and informational work to preserve the continuity between generations and the memory of the people through understanding history”. It is clear that Lukashenka’s regime is trying to impose its own monopoly on historical truth and restrict any alternative interpretations of history. The way the authorities treat the politics of memory resembles a peculiar kind of filled with the content with the state of matter that could be effectively controlled.
Reinventing the wheel: the absurdity surrounding the AK soldiers
Poland and its society suffered significantly from Nazism and this is an unquestioned historical fact. It is also a fact that the AK fought on the site of the Allies against the Axis powers.
Despite this, disagreement surrounding the ‘cursed soldiers’ (Polish: żołnierze wyklęci) caused a diplomatic dispute between Belarus and Poland in March. This also triggered repressive measures against activists among Belarus’s Polish minority. The main trigger for this dispute was Romuald Rajs or ‘Bury’, who was responsible for the murder of 79 ethnic Belarusian civilians in the eastern parts of the Podlasie region in early 1946. In an official comment made in March, the Belarusian foreign ministry argued that the crimes committed by the ‘cursed soldiers’ 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.
The Belarusian authorities’ attempts to reinvent the wheel in this context seem to be useless, as they are not based on any real evidence. For example, Rajs’s atrocities have been properly investigated by the relevant Polish bodies and designated as crimes against humanity. At the same time, these atrocities took place on the territory of Poland in 1946, after the end of the war and the signing of the Polish-Soviet border agreement of August 1945. This suggests that the events were not of direct relevance to the events of WWII. Despite these atrocities, no connection of Rajs’s activities with Nazis could be established. Due to this, comparing his crimes against ethnic Belarusian civilians to those committed by the Nazis are baseless, politically motivated ideas that are not backed up by any real evidence. Nevertheless, these recent developments prove that the issue of Nazism could be effectively used to suppress the rights and freedoms of activists in Belarus’s Polish minority.
In his famous piece The Plague, Albert Camus wrote of “the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill”. In the case of the Belarusian authorities, this ‘right’ at the end could be changed to ‘common sense’. From a historical perspective, however, it seems that the Lukashenka regime’s attempts to stifle civil society under the pretext of combatting Nazism resembles nothing more than the fate of Sisyphus.
Kiryl Kascian holds a doctoral degree in Law from the University of Bremen. He is currently a board member at the International Centre for Ethnic and Linguistic Diversity Studies.
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