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Emerging Europe – 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.

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