Throughout its history, Belarus was the scene of many destructive wars. In contemporary history the largest and most brutal was the Great Patriotic War 1941-1945, a most significant part of the Second World War 1939-1945. The Great Patriotic War was fought between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (the USSR), including Belarus (the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, BSSR) on the one hand and Germany with its Axis allies on the other from 22 June 1941 to 9 May 1945. In Belarus, military operations were conducted from 22 June 1941 to 28 July 1944.
The war started as a result of Germany's attack on the Soviet Union and for the Soviet people it was a war of liberation against the aggressors. The aims of Nazi Germany were to destroy the Soviet Union as a military and political power, to Germanise the European part of the USSR, and either to exterminate or to resettle the bulk of its population.
According to Hitler's plan for the war against the USSR codenamed Operation Barbarossa, Germany and its allies (Italy, Rumania, Hungary, and Finland) put against the Soviet Union 190 divisions supported by four air fleets (in all, 5.5 million troops, 47,200 guns and mortars, about 4,300 tanks and assault guns, and 4,980 combat aircraft). The Soviet side was considerably less in strength: 170 divisions and two brigades (2.9 million men), 37,500 guns and mortars, 1,800 heavy and medium tanks, 1,540 combat aircraft of new model, and light tanks and battle planes of older models.
On the eve of the war the German Wehrmacht was a highly professional and well equipped military power. The plans for future military operations were thoroughly designed. A focus was placed on the preparation of tank and mobile units. Many officers and soldiers had gained combat experience in military campaigns of the Second World War that had now lasted for nearly two years. The German industry was oriented towards the needs of the army. The troops trained for attack were stationed in the frontier districts ready for combat. On 13 June, the divisional commanders received combat orders for starting the offensive, the exact date of which, 22 June, was announced on 15 June, and on 16 June the regiment commanders were informed of the combat missions for the offensive operation.
In the Red Army, including the Western Special Military District, many new units had been formed in a few prewar months, basically manned with new recruits and not always ready for combat. The fortified zones along the new frontier, which was established after the inclusion of Western Belarus into the Belarusian SSR, were complete only in part. The new types of tanks and aircraft had just begun to enter the army and their crew lacked experience needed to operate them effectively; there was not enough fuel for their training. Another negative point was the fact that the army lost many experienced commanders during the campaign of political purges in the late 1930s. The newly appointed commanders often did not have enough military education, stayed in their position for a relatively short time, and were not always able to show a needed level of command. Noteworthy is that the preparation of partisan bases conducted in case of war in the late 1920s – early 1930s was suspended; its organisers were subject to repression. Before the very beginning of the war, the Soviet leadership repeatedly made statements in which they denounced various reports of an impending German attack as misinformation. The population was told not to believe the rumours and the military command to avoid provoking Germany in all circumstances.
The German ground forces meant for the attack on the Soviet Union were divided into three operational strategic formations – Army Groups North, Centre, and South. Belarus had to withstand the most powerful of these armies – Army Group Centre (at the outset of the war – 50 divisions and two motorised brigades, including 595,620 men, 823 tanks, 11,027 guns and mortars supported by 1,677 combat aircraft; during the first week of the war the number of divisions increased to 60).
Facing the Germans were the Soviet troops of the Western Special Military District, reorganised on 22 June into the Western Front, which numbered 52 divisions and 12 brigades. On 1 June 1941, the District included 2,900 tanks (2,192 serviceable), 14,265 guns and mortars, and 1,923 aircraft (303 of new class).
The beginning of the war was extremely unfavourable for the Soviet troops. On the first day of combat in Belarus they lost 738 aircraft and remained without air protection for a long time. The soldiers often lacked the needed ammunition. The communication lines were disrupted by the enemy. The command of the Western Front lost control over the army, failed to launch the planned counterattacks and could not stop the enemy in the frontier area. Many units found themselves encircled and in bloody battle attempted to break through and join their troops.
The situation of the civilian population was also difficult. The continuous bombardments turned inhabited localities into ruins. The Belarusian roads were full of refugees. From the late June an organised evacuation was carried out mainly from the eastern parts of the Republic. The archives of the party and soviet institutions, the values of savings banks and the State Bank were transported to the far hinterland; the cattle was driven away in an organised way. According to official data, they managed to evacuate 124 large industrial enterprises and 1.5 million people (some researchers now think this figure is inflated almost thrice).
From the first hours of the war Belarus became the scene of severe fighting in which both regular troops and civilians alike took part. No frontier post surrendered to the enemy or left its position without orders. For more than a month the garrison of the Brest fortress held out. Desperately fought the Soviet soldiers at the approaches to Minsk. Yet, after fierce battle on 28 June the Belarusian capital was taken. The number of men killed, missing and taken prisoner totaled 341,000. The defenders of Mogilev held out for more than three weeks, including a 10,000 people's volunteers who put up a stubborn resistance against the enemy. In summer 1941 in Belarus the Soviet troops not only fought in defence but also conducted offensive operations. Several towns were liberated from the Nazis in the result of the Lepel and Rogachev-Zhlobin counterattacks (the towns of Rogachev and Zhlobin were retaken by Germans only a month later). On 14 July 1941, the Katyusha rocket launchers were used for the first time against the enemy near the town of Orsha.
The strong resistance put up against the enemy in Belarus at the beginning of the war desrupted the German plans for Blitzkrieg and a quick breakthrough to Moscow. But despite bravery and heroism, the enemy was not stopped; and by September the whole area of Belarus had been occupied by the Germans.
Nearly eight million civilians and about 900,000 Soviet prisoners of war found themselves under German occupation in Belarus, which lasted for nearly three years (the dates of Nazi occupation of Belarusian towns). The whole control over the conquered area was exercised by the German military and civilian authorities who, with the support of the SS and SA squads, the SD Security Service, the criminal and defence police and local collaborators established the Occupation regime in Belarus.
According to the Nazi plan Ost, the so-called New Order was established on the occupied territory, a system of political, military and economic measures aimed to liquidate the Soviet state and its population. As a main tool of the New Order the Nazis used the policy of genocide, terror and mass killings. The extreme measures of penalty, most often execution, were used for minor violations of rules in all spheres of life. 400,000 people were taken to forced labour in Germany; almost half of them did not return, were killed or died. Nearly 250 camps of Soviet POWs and 350 concentration camps, prisons and other places of incarceration operated in Belarus. 206,500 people were killed only in the village of Trostenets near Minsk, where one of the biggest death camps was located (the number of victims at Trostenets is estimated to be the fourth largest after Auschwitz, Majdanek and Treblinka). The executions of the Jewish population of Belarus and the Jews transported from other European countries were carried out on a large scale; over 530 places of their execution, camps and ghettos have now been ascertained.The occupiers carried out over 140 punitive expeditions, which aimed to suppress resistance, enslave the civilian population, and plunder their property. During the punitive expeditions they annihilated about 5,500 localities, including 630 villages together with their inhabitants. The scorched village of Khatyn became a terrifying symbol of Nazi crime in Belarus.
Belarusian resistance against the occupation was unprecedented in scale and character. The Partisan movement involved 374,000 fighters and played a major role in undermining the Nazi regime. Representatives of various Soviet nationalities and anti-Nazi fighters from many European countries participated in the guerrilla warfare in Belarus. The hidden partisan reserves numbered over 100,000 local civilians annually. There were over 20 partisan-controlled zones which the Germans failed to conquer. By the end of 1942, partisans controlled 30% of the occupied territory and by the end of 1943 over 108,000 sq km (59%), of which 37,800 sq km were completely cleared from the enemy. The partisan activity was directed by the Central and Belarusian Partisan Headquarters. The support to Belarus was given from the unoccupied districts of the Soviet Union. Direct air communication was established with the Soviet hinterland. Over 50 partisan airfields were built during the occupation. From March to September 1942, through the Vitebsk (Surazh) Gate – a 40 km corridor between Velizh and Usviaty free from the occupiers – 35,000 people were evacuated from Belarus into the Soviet rear, partisans received arms and supplies, and agricultural produce came from Belarus to the Soviet rear. Partisans inflicted heavy damage to the enemy - they annihilated hundreds of thousands of Hitlerites, raided 948 headquarters and garrisons, blew up 1,355 tanks and armoured vehicles. Particularly extensive was the Partisan Operation "Rail War" for the massive destruction of the enemy's railway communications in the occupied territory; over 11,000 German trains were derailed.
Estimated 70,000 people fought in the urban underground organisations. They collected intelligence on the enemy, disseminated anti-Nazi propaganda, carried out subversive activity. Minsk resistance fighters with the assistance of partisans killed the General Commissar of Belarus, Gauleiter Wilhelm Kube. In view of its significance the Belarusian resistance was called the Third Front, and Belarus the Partisan Republic.
The initial phase in the liberation of Belarus began in the autumn of 1943, when the Soviet troops liberated the south-eastern part of the republic. The final phase in the complete liberation of Belarus from the Nazi invaders was the Operation Bagration (23 June – 29 August 1944), when the Red Army together with the partisans defeated the German Army Group Centre. The Soviets had 2.4 million men, over 36,000 guns and mortars, 5,200 tanks and self-propelled artillery guns, and about 5,300 aircraft. The German side had 1.2 million officers and men, 9,500 guns and mortars, 900 tanks and assault guns, and 1,350 aircraft. During the offensive the Red Army entirely destroyed 17 Hitler's divisions and three brigades; 50 German divisions lost over half their strength. 105,000 troops were destroyed in the Minsk pocket and 40,000 troops during the Bobruisk offensive. Operation Bagration resulted in the liberation of Belarus, the major part of Lithuania, a part of Latvia, and eastern parts of Poland. The Red Army came to the border of East Prussia.
The aftermath of the war was dire. The Belarusians is one of the nations who suffered most in this war. Belarus lost over half of its national wealth. 209 towns and 9,200 villages were destroyed and burned down. But the most painful and huge loss was the loss of life. The figure of 2.2 million people given in the records of the Extraordinary State Commission for Investigation of Nazi Crimes is now considered by many researchers of the subject to be undervalued. According to other estimates, based on additional documentary sources, about three million people - almost every third resident of Belarus - perished in this war. In the opinion of A.A. Rakov, the author of a classical monograph "The Population of the Belarusian SSR" the intensity of the direct military loss in Belarus was three times higher than in the whole Soviet Union and higher than in any other country.
The reconstruction of Belarus began immediately after its liberation and was achieved through the sacrifice and heroic efforts of the whole population with the assistance from other regions of the Soviet Union.
The Belarusians fought against the Nazi Germans until the complete ending of the Great Patriotic War. After the liberation of Belarus, 600,000 men were sent from its territory into the Red Army. In all, over 1.3 million Belarusians and natives of Belarus fought at WWII fronts; 446 of them were decorated the highest Soviet award of Hero of the Soviet Union, four people received this title twice. About 400,000 Belarusian soldiers were awarded the combat orders and medals. Over 400 Belarusians were promoted to generals and admirals during the war. Many Belarusians actively participated in the European Resistance.
The contribution made by the Belarusian people to the Victory over Nazism received the recognition of the whole world. In view of this, the San Francisco Conference, which was held on 24 April 1945 to establish the United Nations, selected the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic as one of its founding members.
The memory of the Great Patriotic War remains alive during all post-war years. In recognition of the heroic struggle against the occupiers the Belarusian capital of Minsk, among the other twelve cities of the Soviet Union, was awarded the honorary title of Hero-City. The Brest fortress received the title of Hero-Fortress. In Belarus there are nearly 6,000 obelisks, monuments and memorial complexes dedicated to war victims and the people's heroism in this war. The Belarusian State Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War is an important scholarly and cultural institution which contains 140,000 war exhibits. A remarkable monument to the heroism of the Belarusian people is a 146-volume edition of the historical documentary chronicles called Memory. This series lists by name the Soviet soldiers who perished in battles for Belarus, our compatriot soldiers who lost their life at the war fronts, urban fighters, partisans, the civilian victims of the Nazi policy of genocide, and the participants of the Second World War who returned home.
Memory of the war is kept in 29 Belarusian state archives. The bulk of the records relating to the Great Patriotic War are held in the National Archives of the Republic of Belarus and the Belarusian State Archives of Films, Photographs and Sound Recordings. In addition, the documentary sources for the Great Patriotic War are available in the Belarusian State Archives-Museum of Literature and Art, the Belarusian State Archives of Scientific and Technical Documentation, six regional state archives, three regional archives of public organisations, and 16 local state archives.