In December I travelled to Minsk for a seminar with a group of European historians. A few miles outside the capital of Belarus, we visited places where both the Nazis and Stalin’s secret police had committed some of the worst crimes of the 20th century. During those few days, I also spoke with some young locals who offered glimmers of hope as to what a truly united Europe could one day look like.
It was the most instructive trip I’ve made in years: a deep dive into conflicting European memories, highlighting the difficulty of overcoming stereotypes and ideological narratives, as well as the legacy of the cold war in people’s minds.
It may sound odd, but for anyone trying to keep abreast of what Europe means, the best view could arguably be found right there, in those flatlands of marshes, pine trees and spruce, dotted with towns and villages on which the past weighs heavily.
Minsk is, of course, outside the European Union, in a nation where a dictator rules, in something of a grey zone between Europe and Russia. Few people in western Europe know about Belarus, let alone have been there. Yet it should be prominent in our consciences. “Belarus was the worst place to be in world war two,” the historian Timothy Snyder once noted. In his book Bloodlands, Snyder recounts how 14 million people were murdered between 1933 and 1945 in an area that stretches from the Baltic sea to the Black sea, with Belarus worst affected: a quarter of its population were killed as a result of both Stalin’s and Hitler’s policies.
We ignore much about our continent’s history if we overlook the plight of this region, where the two totalitarian systems converged with horrific consequences – at once plotting together and competing as they laid claim to territory and exterminated those living there, or deported people there to die.
Of all the places I’ve visited in Europe, nowhere is that complex history more poignant than in the forests outside Minsk, where three sites of mass carnage, only a few miles apart, are commemorated in very different ways.
A fork in the road in Maly Trostenets is where tens of thousands of Jews, many from Germany and Austria, were shot over pits by SS commandos, their corpses later burned. Construction of a monument has recently started there, but strikingly it doesn’t indicate the victims’ names. This is because Belarusian officials are uneasy with commemorating the Holocaust – much as the Soviet authorities were. Instead, on trees nearby, families of victims have placed small yellow posters bearing the details of those who perished.
Not far from there, in the forest of Kuropaty, lies a place where Stalin’s men shot thousands during the 1930s. Wooden crosses of Orthodox Christianity have been planted by Belarusian civil groups and opposition activists as a way of honouring the victims. But there again, no names. And there is no official monument at all. The cult of Stalin remains untouched in Belarus, much like it has been restored in Putin’s Russia.
And a little further, in Khatyn, is a clearing in the forest where a village once stood. The Nazis massacred its entire population, pushing families into a barn and setting it on fire. They decimated hundreds of villages in Belarus this way. And here the full spectrum of Soviet‑era commemorations is deployed: a monument with names, a museum, tour guides. Khatyn symbolises the persecution of an entire nation – but it is an exclusive emblem, sitting alongside huge omissions. In Belarus the crimes of Stalinism are left largely untold, as are those perpetuated by the Nazis against the Jews.
These places should rank prominently in our European minds, yet they don’t. Dealing with the full dimensions of what happened is hard enough for Belarusians dominated by autocracy and propaganda. But it is just as difficult for many of us elsewhere, because we tend to remember the 20th century from a western point of view, not from a fully continental perspective. The iron curtain, which lifted three decades ago, still lingers in our heads.
Yet I took back another, much more uplifting message from this trip: young people I met privately shared their hopes of breaking down barriers and connecting with their generation in other parts of Europe. Far from our constant debates about populism, Brexit, Donald Trump and the EU’s struggles, they asked: “What do the young British want? Or the French?”; “Do they worry like us about the environment?”; “How can we share more with them?”
In this part of Europe, which experienced the worst of 20th-century nightmares, I found signs of a positive energy, a striving for the basics of democracy and dialogue. It’s a quest no doubt hampered by a regime that likes to lock up dissidents. All the same, which energy seemed to want to burst out of the cold ground like budding flowers in spring. With crucial tests for Europe looming (not least the Brexit endgame, and European parliament elections in May), it was in Belarus that I found more reasons to hope than to wallow in gloom. I also came back more convinced than ever that Europe’s travails will only be addressed once we show a greater curiosity for other peoples’ memories.
The historian Tony Judt once said: “Getting history right can require a new generation coming along.” He added: “There is probably a limit to how much you can break taboos.” It is at a human level, through exchanges, contacts, dialogue, and more awareness of history (especially in the media), that we can bring down some of those walls in our heads. Accepting differences, after shedding light on them, is surely as important to Europe’s future as trade deals or deficit targets. Walking down those frozen forest tracks in Belarus and discussing Europe with young people there felt like the start of a long road – one that holds promises, too.
Natalie Nougayrède is a Guardian columnist.