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  • What Did You Do during the War? Personal Responses to the Aftermath of Nazi Occupation
  • Franziska Exeler (bio)

Nazi Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 marked a crucial rupture in Soviet and East European history. Within weeks, the Soviet western regions came under German control. During the ensuing occupation, some worlds were completely eradicated, foremost the world of East European Jewry, while others underwent fundamental change. After the Soviets returned, the choices that people in occupied territory had made, and the choices that they had been forced to make, haunted state and society alike.

Determining what Soviet citizens had done under German rule was a task of utmost importance for the communist leadership.1 As recent scholarship has shown, in the formerly German-occupied territories, the Soviet state’s politics of retribution were inextricably linked to the reaffirmation of Moscow’s authority. Those deemed traitors (izmenniki) and German accomplices (posobniki) were arrested and prosecuted for “betrayal of the [End Page 805] motherland” (izmena rodine).2 Overall, however, the scholarly literature has a clear tendency to focus on the Soviet state, its policies and practices. What we do not yet know much about is the perspective of individuals and social communities as these were emerging from Nazi occupation.3 What did you do during the war?—that question was not only of concern to the Soviet authorities, most notably to party-state representatives and the Soviet secret police. It also hovered over private and public encounters between returning evacuees and colleagues, soldiers and family members, Holocaust survivors and their neighbors.

In this article, I analyze personal responses to the aftermath of Nazi occupation. Drawing on memoirs, oral history interviews, and letters of complaint, as well as secret police and party reports, I examine the ways in which people investigated, addressed, and evaluated the issue of someone else’s wartime behavior. How did individuals find out about another person’s wartime actions? How did they respond to this information? And how did people try to seek what they perceived as justice and retribution—that is, punishment [End Page 806] that they believed to be morally right? In pursuing these questions, I draw inspiration from research on transitional justice and social reconstruction, a field that has been shaped by anthropologists, political scientists, and lawyers. Working on contemporary postconflict societies like Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, they have asked how individuals and local communities cope with the aftereffects of war and extreme violence, and they have examined the different meanings of guilt, justice, and punishment in this process.4

Geographically, the article focuses on a region—the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belorussia—that was particularly affected by World War II. Belorussia doubled its territory after the Soviet annexation of eastern Poland in 1939 and was then under Nazi occupation from 1941 to 1944. A main site of the German war of extermination in the East, this multilingual, multiethnic, and geopolitically crucial borderland was also at the center of Soviet partisan warfare. Of all the Soviet republics—indeed, of all the European countries—Belorussia suffered proportionally the highest human losses. About 1.7–2 million people, or 19–22 percent of the population that by the summer of 1941 had lived in the territories that would constitute postwar Soviet Belorussia, were killed or died as a result of the war.5

This article makes three main arguments. First, investigating, addressing, and evaluating someone else’s wartime behavior was a highly personal and individualized process, contingent on a multitude of interacting factors, circumstances, and personal experiences. The moment of return threw into sharp relief that some individuals (in particular, Jews) had lost more than others during the war. It also made visible just how fragile and transitory feelings of “home” and “belonging” were. While the urge for justice and retribution was widely shared by inhabitants of postwar Belorussia, people pursued this goal in different ways: with the help of the state, through nonstate channels, or by a combination of the two. Some confronted neighbors directly, demanding the restitution of property that these had acquired during the war. Others resorted to revenge violence: for example, by beating up a fellow [End Page...


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pp. 805-835
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