Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Two Versions of Reality in Occupied Belarus

Images can tell a story more quickly and clearly than any amount of words or statistics. But the exhibition at the Union Gallery titled "Confrontation Between Propaganda and Reality: Nazi Propaganda in Belarus 1941-1944," organized by a special project group of the Free University of Berlin, provides us with two rival sets of images telling rival stories.

The striking color posters produced by the Nazi propaganda machine during World War II in Belarus were all aimed at shaping public opinion around Nazi ideology and the idea of the Third Reich as a liberating force, one that would provide prosperity for all and an endless stream of bountiful harvests. Confronting the reality invented for propaganda purposes are the terrifying realities and brutalities of the war, represented in this exhibition by a series of black and white photographs, stark, simple but endlessly expressive images.

As its title suggests, the exhibition's guiding principle is precisely to show just how far the Nazis official picture of what was happening in Belarus differed from the actual course of events. The main bodyof the exhibits covers various aspects of Nazi propaganda, first in relation to Nazi ideology as a whole -- anti-Semitism, anticommunism, the principle of Lebensraum, or the space the Nazis believed was necessary for national existence -- and then moving on to cover propaganda relating specifically to events in Belarus.

Nazi propaganda in Belarus was initially directed at helping establish the occupying force. To this end, the posters attempt to provide both a positive portrayal of Nazism and a caricatured debunking of Bolshevik power. There is a memorable image of Stalin, having removed his "mask," the familiar mustached face, to reveal a fanged, fiery demon. One poster, which tries to highlight the entirely fictional benefits of life under the Third Reich, still has a certain poignancy in view of the events of 1989: Titled "The Wall Has Been Destroyed," it features curious Soviet citizens looking out from behind Stalin's red wall into an idealized West of lofty elegant buildings and endless blue skies.

The propaganda clearly did not have the desired effect on the loyalties of many Belarussians, as can be seen from the section devoted to the efforts of the partisans. Depicted in the Nazi posters as cowardly arsonists and bandits, photographs drawn from the Belarussian state photographic archives show partisans being assisted by local farmers, and mothers seeing off their fresh-faced sons as they leave to join the rebel bands. There are also images of people hanging from trees, executed by the occupying forces.

Having demonstrated the rift between the Nazi version of the occupation and the realities of the resistance movements, the exhibition moves on to cover yet another huge divide. Once under the rule of the Third Reich, Belarus became officially known as Weissruthenia, and correspondingly was portrayed as a loyal German province, supplying labor and raw materials in gratitude for the benefits of Nazi rule. In reality, however, the gratitude of Belarus was extracted by the occupying forces with terror, violence, theft and forced labor. We see executions, Belarussians being herded onto trucks, children lined up behind a barbed wire fence. We see a smiling German soldier making off with an entire herd of sheep, another walking away from the camera holding two chickens by the neck, a cloud of white hanging from each hand. There is much more we do not see and can only guess at.

It is estimated that 380,000 Belarussians were deported to Germany for forced labor. One poster proclaims that "Work for Germany Is Work for Belarus!" while another features the words "I am living in a German family and I am happy!" in lively red cursive. On one side we see a Belarussian woman writing home, on the other a series of pictures of incidents from her bright new life in Germany. Again, the reality is strikingly, but not surprisingly, far removed from the official picture. The "Workers From the East," as the 2.8 million men and women forcibly removed from Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe were known, lived in miserable conditions on the verge of starvation, under the constant threat of the concentration camps.

As the war turned against Hitler's armies, the emphasis of the propaganda shifted to a continued assertion of Germany's military might. The contrast to this is supplied by archive photographs of burned-out German tanks and planes and pictures of German soldiers being taken prisoner. The latter, and perhaps weaker, part of the exhibition covers the defeat of Nazi Germany, featuring the subsequent victory parades in Red Square.

The exhibition is generally very well put together, and besides the posters and photographs it brings to light a range of important documents. It continually seeks to juxtapose the reality invented for propaganda purposes with the one that followed its bloody course the world over from 1939 to 1945. There is ample reminder here of the horrors of this second reality: What meets the eye on entry to the exhibit is the violent and haunting image of the bared torso of a young woman, lying in snow with a rope still around her neck.

But the discrepancy between what happened and what the Nazis wanted to happen is only too well known, and although reminders of the atrocities of war can never be anything but timely, there is a sense that the posters don't really need to be juxtaposed with anything. Their interest lies not in whether they portrayed the truth, since it can be taken for granted that the reality of propaganda is a pure fabrication. What is important about the exhibition is not the photographs and documents that remind us of the brutality of war once it is too late to stop it, but rather the posters, the ideological propaganda, that remind us of the coldness and cruelty of its causes.

"Confrontation between Propaganda and Reality: Nazi Propaganda in Belarus 1941-1944," Union Gallery, 6 Smolenskaya Ulitsa. Exhibition runs through Dec. 3. Tel: 241-0255.