Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Ukraine and Belarus in WWII

Norman Davies in his No Simple Victory, World War II in Europe, 1939-1945, has promised to provide us a more comprehensive view of this war. Accordingly, the reader should encounter insights he has found in no previous history of this war. The following, about Belarus and Ukraine struck me as interesting.

On page 19 Davies tells us that “. . . Russians represented barely half of he USSRs population. And it was the western Soviet republics – not Russia – which were the scene of the heaviest fighting, and which bore the brunt of the German occupation.’

Further down, Davies looks for the European war’s “centre of gravity”: “Finally, on the subject of geography, one wonders if the war in Europe can be said to have had a ‘centre of gravity’ – a place which reflects the relative weight of military action to the north, east, west and south. No precise calculations can be made. But, given the overwhelming weight of the Eastern Front, the gravitational pull in that direction can have been only partly counterbalanced by the influence of other directions. The focal point would not have been Central Europe – halfway between East and West – but somewhere well to the east or south-east. The answer therefore is almost certainly Byelorussia (now Belarus) and western Ukraine. These countries lack all sense of individual identity in conventional histories of Europe. Yet they saw both the most intense warfare and the worst civilian horrors: the deportations, the Soviet and German occupations, the scourging of the Lebensraum and the Holocaust. They were involved in the thick of the fighting from the very beginning in September 1939 (when they were still best known to the world as eastern Poland) right to the final phase in 1944-5, when they provided the Red Army’s main point of re-entry into Central Europe. They provided the ground over which the war’s two biggest campaigns – Barbarossa and Bagration – were fought. It is no accident that Belarus lost a higher proportion of its civilian population than any other country in Europe, and that Ukraine lost the highest absolute number. The history of these countries deserves to be better publicized.”


I found this bit of information remarkable. Davies earlier points out that popular writers and even some historians were sloppy in referring to Great Britain as “England” and the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics as “Russia.” He admits that the shorter terms are more convenient, but points out that they can be misleading. Russia represented only about half the population of the USSR, and as Davies tells us, the colossal number of “Russian” deaths we hear about from that war were not all Russian. In fact, more Ukrainians died than Russians.

Davies hasn’t provided very much information at this point, and I’m not yet inspired enough to seek out a book on the Ukraine or Belarus, but if the modern day Russian is feeling a bit xenophobic and inclined to thump his chest over WWII achievements, I wonder what the modern day man from the Ukraine or Belarus is thinking.


Anonymous said...

Stumbled across your site while doing a little research.

I'm sure that you know that Davies' major focus in his research is modern Poland. He has also done major research into what happened in the Kresy region of Poland (today located in Belarus and Ukraine). Its not surprise that he calls that region the centre of gravity of the second world war. I know it is for me.

I was also in Belarus this past summer and I can tell you that there are reminders of what happened during the war all over the place. But there are some major differences between Belarus and the Ukraine, and I can't really speak for that country.

The effects of what happened there during the war are still felt around the world. I am actually a descendant of a family deported out of Belarus.

Lawrence Helm said...


I posted a response at http://www.lawrencehelm.com/2009/03/re-ukraine-and-belarus-in-wwii.html