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Franziska Exeler: Ghosts of War. Nazi Occupation and Its Aftermath in Soviet Belarus, Ithaca / London: Cornell University Press 2022, XIV + 344 S., ISBN 9781501762734, EUR 35,95
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Iryna Kashtalian
The New Institute, Hamburg
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Iryna Kashtalian : Rezension von: Franziska Exeler: Ghosts of War. Nazi Occupation and Its Aftermath in Soviet Belarus, Ithaca / London: Cornell University Press 2022, in: sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 9 [15.09.2023], URL:

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Franziska Exeler: Ghosts of War

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Immersion in the atmosphere of post-war Soviet Belarus through the prism of oral history draws the attention of the researcher to two global traumas witnessed by contemporaries: Nazism and Stalinism. In a way, persecution for "wrong" behavior during the war had a unifying effect on them. This type of repression by the Soviet authorities was most common in the last decade of Stalin's rule. The fact of having been in Nazi-occupied territory in the Soviet Union had a negative effect on people's future, and the fear of being labelled a collaborator could alter a person's behavioral strategy. In order to avoid problems in everyday life, people could hide their identity, keeping quiet about tragic events of the war that could be misinterpreted, in the hope that fellow survivors - who understood the ambiguity of these events - would not denounce them. At the same time, the constant "life in disguise" due to the threat of being hurt changed people's personalities.

Franziska Exeler's book focuses on this topic, on how the war and the forced choice of different survival strategies resulted in the "ghosts of war" remaining with people for the rest of their lives, on how individual memory differed from the official memory policy, and on how the perception of society and the individual what guilt and complicity are varied from the comprehension of the authorities. For those living in Belarus now, this topic is very relevant in the context of the instrumentalization of the theme of World War II and the appeal to a modernized Soviet version of the official perception of memory, which shows a reluctance at the official level to see multiple perspectives of critical examination of the period.

The first chapters of the book describe the pre-war era, including the development of the western and eastern parts of Belarus. The time of war is presented in three dimensions - the German occupation in 1941, the Holocaust and the partisan movement. The author examines a large number of factors, which influenced people's decisions on the choice of specific behavioral strategies during the occupation. Part three then turns to the post-war period, i.e. the return to civilian life and the difficult integration of those who remained under occupation and those who were able to go to the rear or to the front. The focus of the state's view on individual lives and communities is represented, showing how the choices of behavioral strategies made during the war affected one's position in post-war society and what the evolution of punishment was for those who were labelled as "traitors". The different actors of the "partisan republic" picture are described, as well as the exclusion of Jews, Poles, and women from it.

The author has used materials from 16 archives in 7 countries, including various types of sources which have become known for the first time. It is the oral history that stands out here and provides answers, including what is absent from the public space, what was kept quiet and what were the hidden conflicts. The book weaves together the different fates of actors who did not know each other, but are united by the post-war elaboration of the experience of the occupation and the influence of the general policy of the Soviet state on it. This study is not about how the threads of people's fates are traced, but how specific cases from their lives allow us to see the key points in post-war everyday life from the perspective of eyewitnesses.

The researcher took a difficult topic, for which it was necessary to show both the general context and to go deep into the memories in order to draw a general picture of the era as it was perceived by those living there. The detailed description of the general connections is designed for non-Belarusian readers, who need clarifications to better understand the main milestones of the twentieth-century history of Belarus. This is explained by the fact that there are almost no similar studies on the Belarusian themes in English [1], and this book should close the gaps of information for those who are interested.

The monograph is written in a rather light manner, which allows a wide range of readers to get acquainted with all the ambiguity of the period for the Belarusian territories. For those who have studied post-war reflections on the behavior of German society during the war, it will also be useful to look at another perspective. The author's arguments about the relevance of the official figures of Belarus' losses in the war (245-251) are very valuable. Her calculations reasonably contrast - downward - with the figures presented by the Belarusian ideology. However, it should be noted that there are certain details in the study which raise questions for those working with Belarusian issues. It is possible that these shortcomings are related to too much coverage of the period, as well as to certain stereotypes due to the small number of available studies on Belarus in English. These include the author's reference to the 1863 uprising as a Polish one (the uprising took place on the territory of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which included the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania), and the assertion that the 1917 revolution was brought to Eastern Belarus from within (the Bolshevik coup in Belarus took place with the help of the soldiers of the Western Front; it had no real support from the local population) (28-29). At the same time, the study provides insufficient emphasis on the history of the Belarusian People's Republic and the events of 1921, i.e., how the western Belarusian territories became part of the Polish state, in order to better understand the subsequent perception of the war by the population.

The characterization of Kaldycheva and Maly Trascianiec as concentration camps (67) is taken by the author from Soviet historiography, although researchers would rather refer to them as extermination sites according to international classification standards. The figure of 50,000 deported Jews killed in Belarus during the war also raises questions (247). Lists of the deported are known, containing about 23,000 names, and Petra Rentrop's monograph represents this topic very well [2]. The author also has a tendency to use russified names of places and people instead of following the linguistic norms of the Belarusian language, which would be more correct for the region.

The study has a particular emphasis on individual choices and extreme moral challenges. The author has successfully combined the processes of individual memory, forgetting and silence in her examination, focusing on the nuances of individual subjectivity in relations with the state, which cast suspicion on those who lived in the occupied territory by introducing the blurred concept of "working for the Germans". For Soviet officials there were no "choiceless choices" [3] that were later officially understood as "wrongdoing" strategies of ordinary people, which then influenced a person's place in society and his or her social relations. Those who had survived the war in occupation rapidly became second-class citizens to the authorities; they were to be checked and preventively punished depending on whether or not they were found to have collaborated with the Nazis. At a minimum, they were at risk of unemployment and not getting an education, and faced problems in everyday life in family formation and humiliation by people who supported the official stigmatization of them as possible traitors. The psychological shock of being questioned about survival, especially in a ghetto or concentration camp, is something witnesses carry through their lives, regularly referring to this experience in their life stories.

The Holocaust and life after it occupy a special place in the book, including how non-Jews helped Jews during the terrible times of genocide, and how the property of persecuted people was treated. Many represented topics are uncomfortable and tabooed in Belarusian society, such as the complicity of the local population in the tragedy (80), the behavior of partisans towards civilians and denunciation. The non-Jews had more room to maneuver during the occupation. Much in people's behavior during events depended on situational factors; a grey area of moral occupation was formed. People often had "choiceless choices". Everyone in the society had pre-war friends and acquaintances among the victims and local executors during occupation, whom they knew better than the Germans. The factor of local people's relations was decisive and influenced deviations in behavior and perceptions afterwards. The researcher was careful not to consider behavior classed by the Soviet authorities as the facts of collaboration, but simply fixed on examples, taking the stories of people with different backgrounds and belonging to different groups and showing the influence of their previous life experiences on their behavior.

The book ends in the 1960s, although persecution for behavior during the occupation continued right up to the end of the Soviet Union. What is missing is a little reflection on how the theme continued to evolve in society. Even still, the theses stated by the author, which present the public with a critical reflection on the period, contribute greatly to the struggle against the instrumentalization of history in Belarus itself, where the appearance of such a publication is not yet possible due to the current political situation.

[1] Anika Walke, Pioneers and Partisans. An Oral History of Nazi Genocide in Belorussia, New York 2015; Iryna Kashtalian, The Repressive Factors of the USSR's Internal Policy and Everyday Life of the Belarusian Society (1944-1953), Wiesbaden 2016.

[2] Petra Rentrop, Tatorte der "Endlösung". Das Ghetto Minsk und die Vernichtungsstätte von Maly Trostinez, Berlin 2011, 171; 206.

[3] This term was first used in: Lawrence L. Langer, The Dilemma of Choice in the Death Camps, in: Centerpoint: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 4.1 (1980), 53-58.

Iryna Kashtalian