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Nation-State Formation in Belarus in 1918-1920s

History of the war (overview)

At the beginning of the 20th century, two opposing alliances were formed in Europe: the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy (the Central Powers) and the Triple Entente of Great Britain, France and Russia (the Allies). The alliance members strove for supremacy in Europe and around the world. The colonial division of the globe had already been completed. Europe entered the phase when the economic and political differences between the countries with major colonial holdings (Great Britain and France) and the German Empire, which was founded in the second half of the 19th century and sought for dominance, and her allies reached their peak.

Each country pursued its own interests and sought to accomplish its goals at the cost of neighbours. Germany, who found herself deprived of territories and markets during their division, strove to defeat her economic rivals: to strip Great Britain of colonial power and mighty navy, to weaken long-time rival France and seize its colonies as well, and to capture a substantial part of Poland and the Baltics from Russia. Austria-Hungary sought to strengthen its position in the Balkans at the cost of Serbia and Montenegro. Germany's ally Turkey targeted to reconquer some areas in Transcaucasia taken by Russia previously. Bulgaria, supported by powerful player on the European scene Germany, strove to strengthen its position in the Balkans and settle its territorial claims in Serbia.

The Russian Empire had long dreamed of getting control over the Straights of Bosporus and Dardanelles and had plans for Galicia, then part of Austria-Hungary. Small Serbia targeted to gain Russian support and protect itself against the invasion of powerful neighbours Austria-Hungary and Turkey. Romania targeted to solve problems in relations with its neighbour Austria-Hungary.

The different geopolitical position forced each nation to choose which side to support in the increasing confrontation. The mass of contradictions between the states led to the outbreak of the largest war in history which affected dozens of countries across the whole globe. It is noteworthy that in most belligerent countries the desire to pursue goals by means of war was strong not only in the ruling circles but was supported by the public opinion as well. Patriotic enthusiasm was observed in almost all countries. All sides expected the conflict to be a short one and would solve many arising problems.


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The immediate trigger for the war was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, in the Bosnian town of Sarajevo. He was shot on 15 (28 N.S.) June 1914 by Serbian nationalist Gabrilo Princip, member of an illegal organisation that aimed to liberate the South Slavic peoples from the Austro-Hungarian dominance and to unite them into a single state.

Austria-Hungary blamed Serbia of supporting the organisers of the assassination and on 9 (23) July issued her an ultimatum demanding to stop anti-Austrian propaganda, dismiss all officers and officials involved in the plot and allow Austro-Hungarian police to search and trial terrorists in Serbia. Germany strongly pressed her ally for anti-Serbian actions and on 11 (25) July started a secret mobilisation of reservists, without a public announcement.

The Serbian government accepted all terms of the ultimatum, except the one claiming that Austrian police visit the country. Despite this, Austria-Hungary announced war on Serbia on 15 (28) July 1914. In support of Serbia, her ally Russia ordered partial mobilisation and then general mobilisation on 18 (31) July. At the same time, partial mobilisation was announced in France. Austria-Hungary's ally Germany demanded Russia to stop mobilisation. After receiving a refusal, Germany declared war on Russia on 19 July (1 August) 1914 and on France on 21 July (3 August). Great Britain announced a state of war with Germany on 22 July (4 August) and with Japan on 10 (23) August. Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia on 24 July (6 August). Turkey joined the war on the side of Austria-Hungary and Germany on 16 (29) October 1914. Italy, previously allied with Austria and Germany, joined the Triple Entente in May 1915 and Bulgaria joined the Central Powers in the autumn of 1915, while Romania joined the Allies in the summer of 1916 and the United States joined the Allies in 1917.

The combat operations in Western Europe spread mainly in Belgium and northern France. In Eastern Europe the fighting took place in Poland, Western Ukraine and later in Romania. On the Caucasian theatre the war spread in the area of Kars, then part of the Russian Empire.

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As the international situation worsened, the Council of Ministers of the Russian Empire on 13 (26) July 1914, a few days before the outbreak of war, adopted a resolution "On the introduction of the period preparatory to war". This document started mobilisation activities and conscription of recruits and reservists into the active army, particularly in the provinces of Vilna, Grodno, Minsk, Vitebsk and Mogilev, which was the first sign of the increasing military conflict.

On 19 July (1 August) 1914, the day when Germany declared war on Russia, certain measures were taken to improve control of the troops: the Vilna Military District was divided into Minsk (headquarters in Minsk) and Dvinsk (headquarters in Dvinsk, now Daugavpils, Latvia) military districts, which included Belarusian lands. On 20 July (2 August) 1914, Emperor Nicholas II signed a manifesto on the beginning of hostilities between Russia and Germany.

In the beginning of war, the Russian armed forces in the western direction formed the Northwestern Front on the border with East Prussia, then part of Germany, and the Southwestern Front on the border with Galicia, then part of Austria-Hungary. The General Headquarters of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armed Forces the Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich Romanov, uncle of Emperor Nicholas II was located in the town of Baranovichi.

The military operations of Russian troops in 1914-1915 in East Prussia and Poland were unable to stop the advance of enemy into the Russian interior. In the summer of 1915, during the so-called great retreat, the Russian troops left Galicia, Lithuania and most of Poland. On 22 July (4 August) they left Warsaw. In this period Belarus was still behind the enemy line. However, in February 1915 the German aeroplanes and dirigibles already bombarded the environs of Grodno and the German artillery shelled the town from the River Nieman. The war approached Belarusian lands.

On 4 (17) August 1915, the Northwestern Front was divided into Western Front (headquarters in Minsk, the front troops occupied large part of Belarusian lands - from the Lake Naroch to the River Pripiat) and Northern Front (the troops in the area of modern-day Belarus were positioned to the south of Braslav). A small part of Belarusian territory in the south, on the right bank of the River Pripiat was in the zone of Southwestern Front.

The German troops advanced in the various sections of Western Front. On 13 (26) August, the Russian army left Brest-Litovsk and on 21 August (3 September) Grodno.

As the enemy approached, General Headquarters moved from Baranovichi to Mogilev. On 23 August (5 September) 1915, Russian Emperor Nicholas II assumed the post of the Supreme Commander of the Russian Army.

In late August - September 1915, the Russian troops conducted Vilna Operation. On 27 August (9 September), the German troops advanced towards Sventsiany into the gap between Russian armies (the so-called Sventsiany Breakthrough). On 1 (14) September, German cavalry divisions captured Vileika, approached Molodechno and cut the railway line Polotsk-Molodechno. On 2 (15) September the Germans captured Smorgon and on 5 (18) September Vilna. On the approach to Molodechno on 3 (16) September 1915 their advance was however stopped. In a counterattack the Russian troops defeated the German cavalry and threw it back from Molodechno to the Lake Naroch, on 7-8 (20-21) September they pushed the Germans to the outskirts of Smorgon and on 10 (23) September liberated Vileika. 

On 2 (15) September, the Russian troops left Slonim and Pinsk and on 9 (22) September Novogrudok.

In October 1915 near Smorgon the Russian troops were attacked for the first time in Belarusian territory by poison gas. Later the belligerents occasionally used chemical weapons in combat operations. The effective means of personal protection against gas attacks were quickly created, such as gas masks. However, thousands of men died or were injured by poison gas.

The basic small arms of Russian soldiers was the 1891 Mosin rifle. New types of modern weapons were machine guns and flamethrowers. Automobiles were rather widely used. Telephone communication was common.

In October 1915, German dirigibles bombarded Minsk. Russian aviation, aeroplanes and aerostats were extensively used as well. The largest aircraft in the First World War was bomber "Ilya Muromets" which was effective on the Russian Western Front.

In late October 1915, the front stabilised on the line Dvinsk–Postavy–Smorgon–Baranovichi–Pinsk and settled into a battle of attrition and trench warfare.

However, several other large battles took place in Belarus. In support of the French allies, who fiercely fought Germans in northern France, the Russian troops on 5 (18)–15 (28) March 1916 conducted Naroch Operation. The troops of the Northern left flank and the Western right flank attempted an offensive in the area of Dvinsk - Lake Naroch. They faced terrible weather conditions, no roads and poor support from the artillery. As a result, they achieved small tactical success but suffered heavy losses (78,500 men were killed or wounded only in one of the Russian armies that took part in the battle). German casualties were 30,000 to 49,000. Nevertheless, this operation diverted substantial German forces from fighting in Western Europe.

To support the Russian offensive against Austro-Hungarian troops on the Southwestern Front, the troops of the Western Front on 19 June – 16 July (2–29 July) 1916 conducted Baranovichi Operation. The strike was blown in the area of Gorodishche-Baranovichi. However, a weak artillery support, lack of ammunition and rifles and bad administration of troops made it impossible to break a well-equipped defensive line of the enemy. The killed, wounded and prisoners were nearly 80,000, over three times exceeding the losses of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

The Provisional Government that came to power after the February Revolution supported the continuance of war to a victorious end. However, by Order  ¹ 1 issued by the Petrograd Soviet on 1 (14) March 1917 the army units were placed under the control of Soviets and soldier committees. The principle of the unity of command was abolished, soldier committees focused their attention on political rather than military issues, all weapons were handed to the company and battalion committees. In May 1917, soldiers received a right of membership in political parties and participation in rallies. 

In the Russian army, renamed as "the revolutionary army of free Russia" the fighting efficiency dropped. Soldiers often refused to fight. Fraternisation between the combatants increased.

On 18 June (1 July) 1917, the troops of the Russian Western Front attempted an offensive in the direction of Oshmiany (Krevo Operation). The artillery intensively bombarded for several days and completely destroyed the defensives line of the enemy in some areas. But out of 14 divisions, assigned for the offensive, only seven went to attack, out of which only four were fully combat ready. One of the units who showed especial courage and bravery during the operation was a female shock battalion commanded by woman ensign M. Bochkaryova. Their efforts were however not supported by other Russian units, who refused to continue the operation and returned to their positions.

Five supreme commanders were replaced in the Russian army between March and November 1917.

In late August - early September 1917, the Supreme Commander-in-Chief L. Kornilov moved his troops against the Petrograd garrison pierced with anti-government propaganda. This was agreed, according to his word, with the Provisional Government who later, in fear of the loss of power, removed General Kornilov from the post of supreme commander, accusing him of an attempt to establish military dictatorship. Kornilov and his trusted generals were arrested and put under custody in the town of Bykhov.

After the October Revolution, one of the first resolutions taken by the new authorities was the Decree on Peace, adopted by the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets on 26 October (8 November) 1917, which proposed to start negotiations for peace with no annexations and indemnities. The Supreme Commander-in-Chief N. Dukhonin did not support this decision and was removed from the post. These proposals were also not accepted by the Entente Powers and the Soviet government began separate talks with the Austro-German coalition.

Between 7 and 14 November (20 November - 1 December) 1917, the Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian sides agreed to suspend hostilities in order to start negotiations for peace.

 The negotiations started in the German-occupied town of Brest-Litovsk on 20 November (3 December) 1917. At the same time, negotiations were held at the township of Soly, Oshmiany district, Vilna province (now Smorgon district, Grodno region, Belarus) to conclude an armistice between the Russian and German troops for two months. The armistice took effective on 23 November (6 December) 1917 on the whole line of Russia's Western Front (from Vidzy to the River Pripiat).

Ten days later, on 2 (15) December 1917 an armistice was signed at Brest-Litovsk between Soviet Russia and all countries of the German alliance. On 9 (22) December 1917, negotiations started at Brest-Litovsk to conclude a full peace agreement between Soviet Russia on the one side and Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey on the other. The discussion of peace terms lasted about two months but the Soviet government did not agree to the annexation of Western territories from Russia (Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and part of Belarus). The Central Powers repudiated the armistice on 18 February 1918 (according to the new calendar introduced in Soviet Russia on 14 February 1918) and the German and Austro-Hungarian troops resumed an offensive on the whole front. On 21 February the German troops captured Minsk. In this situation, though the Soviet government later accepted the proposed terms, the enemy's advance continued. The 10th German Army occupied most of Belarus and stopped on the line Rossony-Polotsk-Senno-Orsha-Mogilev-Rogachev-Zhlobin-Gomel-Novozybkov.

The common desire of all sides to resolve the existing contradictions led to the resumption of negotiations at Brest-Litovsk and the conclusion of a peace agreement on 3 March 1918 known as the Treaty of Brest (took effective on 26 March 1918). As a consequence, Russia lost Finland, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and part of Belarus, about 1 million sq km with the population over 50 million people. The agreement terms included complete demobilisation of the Russian army.

The Belarusian lands were subject to division on the line Dvinsk-Sventsiany-Lida-Pruzhany-Brest. The German command planned to create a Lithuanian state, including the regions of Vilna and Grodno. The remaining part of German-occupied lands in Belarus was intended to supply material resources as part of reparations. It is noteworthy that Belarusian representatives were not accepted to the negotiations and Belarusian interests were not considered by either side.

At this time, the General Headquarters moved from Mogilev to the Russian town of Oryol. On 5 March 1918, the post of supreme commander-in-chief was abolished and on 16 March the General Headquarters were liquidated.

German troops in Belarus were opposed by the Red Army units which formed the Western Sector of Screen Detachments, reorganised in September 1918 as the Western Defence District.

On 27 August 1918, an additional agreement was signed between Soviet Russia and Germany to withdraw German troops from the area between the Dnieper and the Berezina, while the issue on lands west of the Berezina depended on the completion of financial obligations by the Russian side. In late October 1918, German troops began their withdrawal – they left Orsha and Mogilev and by early November a number of village districts in the area of Lepel, Mogilev, Orsha, Polotsk and Senno.

In the autumn of 1918, Germany's allies were defeated on the other theatres. Bulgaria, Turkey and Austria-Hungary capitulated. On 11 November 1918, after the German revolution and the signature of the Armistice of Compiegne between Germany and the Allies the hostilities in Europe ceased. The terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk were cancelled.

On 13 November 1918, the Soviet government annulled the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The withdrawal of German troops from Belarusian territory continued for another half year until the spring of 1919. On 6 November 1918, the Germans left Bykhov, 21 November – Zhlobin and Polotsk, 22 November – Rogachev, 28 November – Bobruisk, 2 December – Borisov, 10 December – Minsk, 14 December – Vileika, 18 December – Molodechno, 27 December – Novogrudok, 5 January 1919 – Baranovichi, 10 January – Lida, 12 January – Rechitsa and Mozyr, 14 January – Gomel, 25 January – Pinsk, 24 April – Grodno.

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From the first days of the war, a state of martial law was imposed in Belarus. The number of police, gendarmerie and counter-intelligence considerably increased. Court martials resumed their work. Armed resistance to authorities and criminal offences were severely punished, including death penalty. Meetings, marches, manifestations and strikes were prohibited. Distribution of information was strictly regulated – military censorship was imposed and by order of the army or front commander any newspaper or magazine could be closed, transmission of mail and telegraph messages stopped. Publication of confidential military data and public appeals to end the war were subject to imprisonment. Revolutionary parties were banned in the area of combat. The sale of alcohol was prohibited until the very end of war.

Despite the measures taken by authorities, many excesses were however committed. So, during peasants' mobilisation in Belarus about 60 landowners' estates were plundered in July 1914 within one week alone, the unrest spreading across 20 out of 35 Belarusian districts. 

The whole population in the front-line area, especially rural residents, were employed in defensive works (digging of trenches, construction of bridges, road works, guarding of military facilities etc). Enterprises and institutions were evacuated into the interior of Russia, as well as the financial assets, cultural valuables and archives. Families of servicemen, policemen and government employees left their homes.

The industry was redirected to the needs of the army. This mainly concerned the metalworking industry, as well as textiles, shoemaking and bread production, in which the number of factories and workers considerably increased. As a result of the ban on alcohol in early 1915 all the distilleries ceased their work. In 1916, three quarters of all workers served the needs of the army, producing military equipment and weapons. Many new temporary factories and workshops were created to support the war effort.

In all, in the period 1914-1917, the number of major enterprises in Belarus decreased from 829 to 297 and the number of workers from 37,700 to 25,100. Part of skilled workers were evacuated together with enterprises. In 1917, the produce of local enterprises intended for the civilian population comprised no more than 16 % of its pre-war level. With the outbreak of war, restrictions were lifted for working hours and labour of women and children who replaced the men mobilised for the war. In early 1917, the women, teenagers and children made up 58,4 % of all factory workers in Belarus. 

The war inflicted severe damage on the transport. Many sections of the road were in the enemy-occupied territory, railway stations and lines were bombarded, many buildings were burned down. Almost half of the transport served the military needs. The movement of passengers was disorganised. An additional burden on the transport were enormous masses of refugees.

Agriculture in Belarus was in extremely poor condition. Working hands did not suffice, for more than a half of all capable men in Belarusian provinces were mobilised for the war. 634,400 men were conscripted in Minsk, Mogilev and Vitebsk provinces alone. Peasants were employed on the construction of fortifications, digging of trenches, road works, transportation of military cargoes. Cattle, food and forage were requisitioned from peasants on a mass scale. The total number of livestock in peasant households in Vitebsk, Minsk and Mogilev provinces from 1914 to 1916 decreased by 11,4 %.

Landowners who remained without labourers demanded the government allow them to use war prisoners as workforce and exempt agricultural workers from military service. By decision of the commander of the Minsk Military District, rural workers, refugees and other men "free of work" were obliged to assist in harvesting the private crops whose owners lacked working hands. Those who refused were arrested or fined. In the spring of 1916, over 8,000 refugees were sent to work on landowners' estates in Minsk province. During the war the sown area on landowners' estates decreased by 72,3 %, especially for such crops as potatoes, flax and hemp.

Prices for food and clothes in Belarus by 1917 increased five to eight times what they had been in 1913.

A struggle was launched against so-called German dominance, when the nationals of the states at war with the Russian empire were obliged to resettle into Russia's interior. Persons of foreign origin, in particular Germans, were ousted from Russian territory, despite the social status and the fact that many of them had lived in the Russian empire for many centuries. All of them were considered potential spies capable to help the enemy. Both the men of military age as well as women and children were deported elsewhere. Along with the activity of government institutions, a society for struggle against German dominance was created to mobilise the public forces.

Already at the beginning of the war, a system of social relief was organised to aid families of men called to the war and killed at the front. The relief work was conducted by government institutions, members of the Imperial House, civic organisations, the Church and private persons, who contributed money for the arrangement of hospitals and purchase of medicines and gathered donations for the relief effort. Families of the men killed in action received an allowance and families of recruits a salary. Students were organised into special labour groups to aid families of soldiers.

Various epidemic diseases – typhus, cholera etc. spread in the front-line districts in conditions of extreme poverty, hunger and overcrowding.

With the advance of the German army, a huge flood of refugees moved eastward from Poland, Lithuania and western Belarus. Official sources explained this as a purely voluntary escape from German crimes. However, an uncontrollable mass of people ousted from their homes were also a result of the military orders for forced resettlement. In early June 1915, General Headquarters issued an order directing that all left territories be cleared from the population and all valuables that could be taken by the enemy be destroyed.

Yet in July 1915, the Supreme Commander was reported of the discontent among the population caused by "unsystematic evacuation instructions", often seen by local residents as repressions. Food was requisitioned for the army needs, cattle was removed into the rear, the crops were destroyed. There were instances of the "destruction of private property" meaning that houses of refugees were burned by military squads.

In the beginning, the majority of refugees stayed in the front-line area. But on 4 (17) August 1915, a decision was taken for their mass resettlement into the interior parts of the Russian empire. The task of their relief was placed on local authorities in the provinces they arrived.

Refugees suffered great hardships – hunger, cold, diseases, dozens of men died every day. This was a heavy burden on the local authorities and residents in places where a huge mass of fugitives arrived.

Almost from the beginning of the war, a system of social aid to war victims was organised by the government, the Imperial House, civic organisations and private persons. A special council was founded to supervise the protection and placement of refugees and soldiers' families, which was active under both the Tsar and the Provisional Government.

A network of government institutions for refugee relief, called "Severopomoshch" (Northern Aid Agency) functioned in all the unoccupied territory of Belarus from August 1915 to the autumn of 1916. Food and medical points were created. However, due to lack of funds, the Northern Aid managed to fulfil only the basic needs of refugees and compensate a small part of losses they incurred. 

The so-called Tatiana's Committee under the patronage of the Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna provided one-time aid to war sufferers, assisted in the reunification of families, transportation of refugees to places of permanent residence and their employment, arrangement of invalids in hospitals and almshouses, admission of children to schools, organisation of asylums. The arriving refugees were met at the railway station, registered and given food cards.

In April 1915, the Belarusian Society for Assistance to War Victims was created in Vilna (Vilnius). The Society provided aid to refugees, organised food points, dining rooms, hostels, and medical assistance. The society's divisions were created in Minsk, Vileika, Disna, Polotsk and other places. The Minsk division founded several night asylums, an orphanage, three dining rooms and two workshops for refugees. From January 1916 the Belarusian Society for Assistance to War Victims was active in Petrograd.

Despite the war, the workers' movement was on the rise in Belarus. In April 1915, a manifestation was organised by workers and employees at the Gomel railway junction and in the summer of the same year the workers of the Libava-Romny railway went on strike in Gomel. In 1916, the strike movement encompassed 11 localities in Belarus, in which 1800 men participated. The main demand of the protesting workers was to increase wages. The organisers of strikes were arrested and sent to the front. Later they often spread revolutionary propaganda among the troops and called for an end to the war. 

The peasants' revolts were also common in Belarus during the war. They plundered landlords' estates, food stores and shops. Already at the beginning of the war, such incidents were reported in 20 districts in Belarus. In 1915, nearly 100 peasant revolts took place.

The defeats of the Russian army and enormous human losses aroused discontent among the soldiers. Poor supply of food and equipment, lack of weapons and ammunition increased unrest and mutinies. In all, 62 major actions were organised by soldiers in Belarus during the war; the largest mutiny took place at the Gomel transportation point in October 1916, in which over a thousand men participated. Desertion increased. The whole army units and formations refused to fight. Anti-government propaganda among the troops intensified, which was conducted by representatives of different revolutionary forces.

In the difficult war conditions the social sector was nevertheless developing and various events took place in the sphere of education, culture and public life. Many educational institutions were evacuated, but new ones were also created - a teachers seminary in Boruny, Oshmiany district in 1915, a female teachers seminary in Bobruisk in 1916. An important event in September 1917 was the opening of the Belarusian college in Slutsk with the teaching of the Belarusian language and the history and geography of Belarus.

The shop of Belarusian books was opened in Polotsk, the Belarusian publishing house and the Belurusian choir were founded in Minsk, the church archaeological museum was created in Mstislavl.

The major centres of Belarusian national movement outside Belarus were Petrograd, Moscow and other Russian cities in which Belarusian refugees created their organisations. The Belarusian political figures who scattered across the Russian empire focused their work on the establishment of refugee committees and relief organisations.

Nearly two million people entered Russian captivity in WWI. In 1917 in Belarus they numbered 70,000 in the Minsk Military District alone. Prisoners of war were employed in metal-working, wood-working, food production, agriculture, road works etc. They received wages but its one third was transferred to a special fund and the maintenance costs were deducted from the remaining part. The captured soldiers were fed according to the norms for the rank and file in the Russian army. These requirements were at times violated, provoking protest actions, strikes, refusal to work and escapes.

The growth of economic problems and political contradictions as well as the tsar's failure to cope with the situation led to the bourgeois-democratic February Revolution in the Russian Empire. After the general strike in Petrograd on 23 February (8 March) 1917, caused by food shortages and workers manifestations which turned into the armed revolt, Emperor Nicholas II abdicated on 2 (15) March 1917.

The Provisional Committee of the State Duma (Parliament) was reorganised into a Provisional Government which assumed all power in the state. A number of legal acts were adopted to extend citizens' rights and freedoms. Provincial, district and rural executive committees (also called commissariats), food committees and other executive bodies were created across the country. In general, however, the Provisional Government failed to keep the economic and socio-political situation under its control.

Along with the Provisional Government, the Soviets (Councils) of Workers', Soldiers' and Peasants' Deputies were created in most cities – social political organisations which sought to assume control of the country. The leaders of many Soviets were members of the Socialist-Revolutionary and Social-Democratic Labour parties, mainly the Mensheviks.

In Belarus, the Soviets expressed support to the Provisional Government. This was approved at the congresses of Belarusian national representatives, soldiers, officers, workers of the military enterprises of the Western Front, peasants' deputies from Minsk, Vilna, Mogilev and Vitebsk provinces, as well as at the Congress of the Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies of the Western Region.

The congresses of Soviets demanded that the Government establish a democratic republic, terminate the war, transfer land to peasants, introduce an 8-hour work day etc. The Provisional Government, however, did not fulfil these demands.

In March 1917, the All-Russian Conference of Soviets adopted a resolution under which the Congress of Soviets in June 1917 approved the formation of the Western Region – a temporary union of Vilna, Minsk and Mogilev provinces with centre in Minsk.

On 25-27 March (7-9 April) 1917, the Congress of Representatives of Belarusian National Organisations was held in Minsk. The congress supported the autonomy of Belarus as part of the Russian Federative Republic and elected an organ of political representation of Belarusian national movement – Belarusian National Committee (BNK). The Provisional Government agreed to establish contacts with the Belarusian National Committee and appointed its special representatives. As a whole, however, the proposals of the congress did not find understanding. In the conditions of political confrontation the Belarusian National Committee failed to fulfil the assumed tasks in full. The congresses of peasants' deputies in Minsk and Vilna provinces and congresses of teachers in Minsk province did not accept the Committee's proposals on the future governmental and cultural status of Belarus.

The First Congress of Soldiers' and Workers' Deputies of the Western Front Army and Rear with the participation of deputies from the front army units and working organisations in Vitebsk, Minsk, Mogilev and Smolensk provinces, which took place on 7-17 (20-30) April 1917, adopted a resolution on the continuation of the war and support to the Provisional Government and elected the Front Committee of the Western Front.

On 22-25 May (4-7 June) 1917, the Congress of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies of the Western Region took place in Minsk, with the majority of the Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks. The congress supported the Provisional Government, spoke against the transition of power to Soviets, condemned the continuation of the war. 

In July 1917, the Polish Corps was formed in the Russian army under the command of General Yu. Dovbor-Musnitsky, which was located in the provinces of Vitebsk, Minsk, Mogilev and Smolensk.

In July 1917, the Congress of Belarusian National Organisations and Parties supported a political autonomy of Belarus as part of the Russian Federative Democratic Republic and protested against the claims of the Polish State Council to the Belarusian lands. The Belarusian National Committee was abolished, the Central Council (Rada) of Belarusian Organisations was formed, and its executive committee was elected. The Central Council was shortly reorganised as the Belarusian Great Council.

The political situation worsened. Anti-government protests increased. In July 1917, the Government ordered troops to shoot at the mass demonstration of workers and soldiers in Petrograd which took place under the slogan "All power to Soviets". Public discontent with the Provisional Government led to the growth of radical attitudes among the masses who demanded speeding up social reforms, while the Bolsheviks increasingly gained more influence. The Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, held in late July-early August, marked the final split between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks, who took a course for the Socialist revolution. Their task, in particular on the Western Front, was to support the spontaneous growth of revolutionary masses of soldiers, destruction of the army hierarchy, propaganda of the revolutionary termination of the war.

In August-September 1917, the Temporary Revolutionary Committee of the Western Front was formed with the aim of combating the possible actions in support of General Kornilov, created by the initiative of the Western Front Executive Committee, the Minsk Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies, Council of Peasants' Deputies of Minsk and Vilna Provinces and the Minsk City Council.

Though the High Command refused a petition to convene a congress of Belarusian military organisations, the event nevertheless took place. On 31 October-6 November (13-19 November), the Congress of Belarusian Soldiers of the Western Front, 12th Army of the Northern Front and the Baltic Fleet formed the Belarusian Central Military Council with the goal to create Belarusian army units, which was approved by the Supreme Commander N. Dukhonin. Due to the efforts of the Council, the Belarusian Uhlan Regiment was formed in Pskov, which was later transferred to Orsha, the Infantry Regiment was formed in Vitebsk, and the Minsk Regiment started to form.

The Bolsheviks demanded the transfer of all power to the Soviets, though the majority of local Soviets supported the transfer of power to the Constituent Assembly due to be elected at the beginning of 1918.

The increasing crisis and political confrontation led to the October Revolution, which took place in Petrograd on 25 October (7 November) 1917. The armed revolt of workers, soldiers and Baltic Fleet sailors, led by the Bolshevik Party, overthrew the Provisional Government. The power transferred to the newly created government – the Council of People's Commissars (SNK).

On 26 October (8 November) 1917, the General Headquarters at Mogilev called upon the army to oppose the Bolsheviks. On 20 November (3 December), the Headquarters were seized by revolutionary troops and the former Supreme Commander N. Dukhonin was killed.

On 27 October (9 November) 1917, the Belarusian Great Council and the Belarusian Central Military Council made an address to the Belarusian people, in which they described the October events in Petrograd as anarchy and called for resistance to the new authorities.

The struggle for Soviet power in Belarus and at the Western Front was headed by the Northwestern regional organisation of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (of Bolsheviks). The Minsk Soviet, led by Bolsheviks, issued an order for transition of power to the Soviets. The Military Revolutionary Committee of the Western Front proclaimed itself a supreme body in the unoccupied territory of Belarus.

The defenders of the Provisional Government set up the Committee for Salvation of Revolution of the Western Front, which was supported by the Belarusian Great Council. However, soon the Committee for Salvation of Revolution was dissolved by order of the Military Revolutionary Committee.

The Soviet Government began to implement significant reforms in the social, economic and political life. The Decree on Land, the first legal act of the new authorities abolished landed proprietorship and declared the land as state property. All citizens were granted equal rights to use land, without the employment of hired labour. Many soldiers hoped to receive the land confiscated from landowners, the tsar and the church and this increased a mass desertion from the front.

The majority of Soviets in Belarus took the October Revolution as a Bolshevik coup d'etat and did not recognise the decrees issued by the Council of People's Commissars. As a result, the new government dissolved the old Soviets and the new ones were formed mainly from the Bolsheviks and members of the parties loyal to them. On 19-21 November (2-4 December) 1917, the Congress of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies of the Western Region, which consisted two-thirds of the Bolsheviks and one-third of the left Socialist-Revolutionaries, recognised the power of the Council of People's Commissars and called upon all Soviets to assist in implementing the Decree on Land.

After the October Revolution, the Western Region, then part of Soviet Russia, included the provinces of Vilna, Vitebsk, Minsk and Mogilev. The legislative body of Soviet power in this territory was the Regional Executive Committee of the Soviets of Workers', Soldiers' and Peasants' Deputies of the Western Region and Front (Obliskomzap).

In November 1917, the Belarusian Regional Committee was formed in Petrograd to lead the national movement.

On 2 (15) December 1917, the Obliskomzap adopted a resolution banning the creation of Belarusian army units. A new supreme commander, ensign N. Krylenko issued an order on the ban of national congresses in the front-line area.

On 5-8 (18-31) December 1917 in Minsk the Belarusian Great Council and the Belarusian Regional Committee organised the All-Belarusian Congress  – the first national representative forum of the Belarusian people. The Council (Rada) was elected to address political issues, including the future status of the enemy-occupied provinces of Vilna and Grodno, the inadmissibility of division of Belarusian lands etc. The Congress adopted a resolution on the formation of the All-Belarusian Soviet of Peasants', Soldiers' and Workers' Deputies as a temporary governing body in Belarus. The All-Belarusian Soviet was to shortly convene the All-Belarusian Constituent Assembly in order to finally legalise the right of Belarus to self-determination and to create a permanent government. However, the Bolshevik leaders actively sought to take control of the power. By order of the Council of People's Commissars of the Western Region and Front on the night of 18 (31) December 1917 the Congress was dispersed by the soldiers. On 21 December 1917 (3 January 1918), the Congress's Council, which went underground, formed the Executive Committee of the Council of All-Belarusian Congress.

After the October Revolution, the Soviet government permitted the Dovbor-Musnitsky Corps to be stationed in Belarus. The Polish circles expected these troops to be used in the annexation of Belarusian lands to Poland. Dovbor-Musnitsky was also supported by the Entente Powers. The Corps' command refused to fulfil the Soviet orders for the election of army commanders, introduction of the post of political commissar in troops, etc. They opposed the confiscation of private property and nationalisation of enterprises by Soviets. Consequently, in January 1918 an order was issued to disband the Corps. In response, Dovbor-Musnitsky declared war on Soviet Russia. The Corps captured Rogachev, was in a few days pushed out by the Red Guards, and then captured Bobruisk. On 20 February 1918, the Corps captured Minsk. On 26 February 1918, the Corps was placed under German command and was later disbanded.

* * *

The German-Russian front in the autumn of 1915 divided Belarus into two parts. The occupied territory was nearly 50,000 sq km, approximately 25 % of today's area of Belarus.

In the autumn of 1915, a military-administrative entity of the Ober Ost was formed from part of the Germany-occupied lands in Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland with an area 109,000 sq km. After repeated internal changes, this territory was divided in the spring of 1917 into three administrative units: Courland and also Lithuania and Belostok-Grodno District which included lands inhabited by Belarusians. Belostok-Grodno District comprised one third of all occupied Belarusian lands with an area about 17,000 sq km and included the towns of Grodno, Lida, Volkovysk and Shchuchin. In 1916, the local population in the Ober Ost was 2.9 million people.

The remaining part of the occupied territory in Belarus (approximately 33,000 sq km) was in the military-operational zone between the Ober Ost and the front line. This included the towns of Baranovichi, Kobrin, Novogrudok, Oshmiany, Pinsk, Pruzhany and Slonim. The town of Brest was in special position under the command of the army group located there.

The movement of local residents was restricted and a curfew was imposed. Special permission was required to travel outside the district or to move by any transport.

The German military authorities conducted requisitions of horses, cows, food, forage, clothes, footwear from local residents and organised forced labour for the needs of the front. Prices rose dramatically and there was shortage of food. 

Various taxes were imposed on local residents like personal tax, taxes on land, trade, industry, animals, including dogs, a number of indirect taxes and taxes in kind. Special militarised squads were created to collect taxes.

To support Germany's economy and the occupation army the Germans cut down forests and made attempts to produce peat and other raw materials on the occupied territory.

For work in military facilities, agriculture and logging, the local residents, both men and women, were forcibly assembled into labour companies and battalions, in which the conditions were extremely hard, food was insufficient and payment was poor.  

In the countryside the main figure was a German commandant who had unlimited powers and rights. All the land was strictly registered by the district administration, who gave instructions where and what should be cultivated and what kind of cattle to raise. Estates of landowners who moved to Russia were subject to confiscation. The remaining landowners were obliged to strictly watch their field to be sown, the harvest collected on time and with no losses. They ought to collect a fixed amount of produce in their district. For this purpose, about 10 to 30 German soldiers were appointed to each large household, who also performed the functions of the police.

The centre of public life in the occupied territory was Vilna. The Belarusian Society for Assistance to War Victims and the Belarusian People's Committee, both founded in 1915, were active here, as well as the Belarusian Club, the Belarusian Scientific Society, the Belarusian library and book store.

The German side, interested in isolating the local population from Russian influence, pursued a policy of equal attitude to different nationalities that inhabited Ober Ost. In early 1916, by the German order for schools the Belarusian language was declared equal to Polish, Lithuanian and Jewish languages. Teaching in Russian in elementary schools was prohibited and Belarusian became an obligatory language for many subjects, including religion lessons. It was allowed to use Belarusian in various cultural and entertaining events, publishing of books, newspapers and magazines. The most popular newspaper was Homan, which was printed in Vilna. 

In 1916, the Belarusian teachers courses were opened in Vilna. Later the Ober Ost authorities opened a teachers' seminary in Svisloch, which trained 144 teachers for Belarusian schools in the period 1916-1918.

In late 1915 - early 1916, the Belarusian People's Committee started developing the idea of the Belarusian-Lithuanian statehood, in particular the Confederation of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. This idea was rejected by representatives of the Polish movement. Against a united Belarusian-Lithuanian statehood were also many Lithuanian politicians, who sought for the creation of a Lithuanian national state. 

In this situation, some representatives of the Belarusian national movement were forced to rethink their attitude to the union of Lithuania and Belarus. In the summer of 1917, an illegal organisation was founded under the name "The bond of independence and indivisibility of Belarus", which aimed to create an independent Belarusian state within its ethnographic boundaries.

In September 1917, the Lithuanian State Council (Tariba) was founded at the conference in Vilna as a supreme body of Lithuania with a purpose to create an independent Lithuanian state. The Belarusian representatives had only two places in the Tariba.

In January 1918, the Vilna Belarusian Council (Rada) was created as a coordination centre for Belarusian political and social organisations.

On 20 February 1918, when the Soviet leadership of the Western Region abandoned Minsk in view of the German advance, the Executive Committee of the Council of All-Belarusian Congress resumed its work. The Committee adopted the First Constituent Charter to the peoples of Belarus and set up its executive body, the People's Secretariat of Belarus. On the following day, the German troops captured the city and expelled members of the Council and People's Secretariat from their offices.

After the Bolsheviks signed the Peace Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which ignored interests of Belarus, the Executive Committee of the Council of All-Belarusian Congress adopted the Second Constituent Charter, which declared the Belarusian Democratic Republic. This action was supported by the Vilna Belarusian Council. Germany refused to recognise the document and considered Belarus as occupied part of Russia. 

The Council of All-Belarusian Congress was reorganised into the Council of Belarusian Democratic Republic, in which several members of the Vilna Belarusian Council were incorporated. The plenary session of the Council of Belarusian Democratic Republic on 25 March 1918 adopted the Third Constituent Charter. This document proclaimed Belarus as a sovereign state.

In April 1918, the Germans announced a ban on the People's Secretariat. Later they however softened their position and the commander of the10th German Army accepted members of the Council and People's Secretariat.

In these conditions, members of the Belarusian Democratic Republic acted within the limits of the possible. Much success was achieved in the sphere of culture and education. There were Belarusian schools, several Belarusian colleges, teachers training courses. Books and newspapers were published in the Belarusian language. A preparation commission was set up to open a University in Minsk. Trade, industry and social welfare were placed under the command of the People's Secretariat. However, the occupation authorities opposed the creation of the police and armed formations.

On 11 October 1918, the Council adopted a temporary constitution of the Belarusian Democratic Republic.

In the German-occupied area in Belarus, a partisan movement was organised under the leadership of the Bolsheviks and left Socialist-Revolutionaries, especially in the southern districts. There were over 100 partisan units in Bobruisk, Bykhov, Gomel, Mogilev, Minsk, Rechitsa and Slutsk districts alone, the largest of them consisted of several hundred men. The Northwestern regional committee of the Russian Communist Party (as the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party was called from March 1918) elaborated a plan of partisan actions in the German rear. The Minsk district conference of the Bolshevik party, held underground on 19 July 1918, announced the preparation of the armed revolt on the occupied territory as a major task of the party organisations with the aim to restore the Soviet power.

As the Red Army advanced across Belarus after the cancellation of the Treaty of Brest, members of the Council and Government of the Belarusian Democratic Republic moved to Vilna on 3 December 1918 and then to Grodno on 27 December.

* * *

The First World War officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919.

The global military conflict of 1914-1918 involved 38 countries, in which nearly 70 % of the world population lived. The armed struggle lasted 1568 days, with the front line stretching for 2500 - 4000 km. New weapons and equipment were used: anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns, mortars, flame-throwers, chemical gases, airplanes, tanks, submarines. The war brought about great destruction and huge human losses. During more than four years of the war, about 73.5 million people were mobilised, over 9.5 million of them were killed in action or died of wounds, over 20 million were injured, 3.5 million became permanently disabled. By some estimates, over 5 million civilians were killed during military operations or died from disease, famine and epidemics.

Casualties of the Russian army in 1914-1918 were about 4 million killed and wounded. 340,000 civilians were killed and 730,000 civilians died.

The world map was significantly redrawn. The colonial system collapsed. Four great empires ceased to exist. New states appeared in Europe and Asia. In some of the countries the monarchy was replaced by a republic.  

The Russian statehood underwent radical changes, both territorial and political, and the political system changed twice during the year. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which appeared on the site of the Russian Empire and the Russian Republic, produced a completely new form of public relations, which had no precedent in history.

The area of Belarus was one of the main theatres of operations. For two and a half years, a 400-km front line stretched across Belarus, with over 2.5 million people concentrated on both sides. The consequences of the war were extremely severe. Over 800,000 Belarusian residents were mobilised, nearly 70,000 were killed on the fronts fighting in the Russian army, about  60,000 civilians were killed or died from disease.

According to incomplete data, about two million Belarusians became refugees who scattered across the Russian empire. Over 400,000 of them never returned home and stayed in new places of residence forever.

The war caused huge economic damage. In Belarus, the sown area of rye dicreased by 18,7 %, wheat 22,1 %, potato 34,2 %. 432 enterprises were moved eastward or demounted in the German-occupied territory alone. 201 educational institutions were evacuated, many cultural valuables were lost.

At the same time, the First World War fuelled the process of national self-identification in the Belarusian people (mainly the refugees), accelerated the Belarusian national movement and the formation of political parties and organisations with Belarusian national orientation. As a result of complex historical collisions, Belarus received opportunity to obtain national sovereignty. However, its implementation had significant difficulties and negative sides: its forms repeatedly changed within a short time and the declared independence found no confirmation in practice.

On 1 January 1919 in Smolensk the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus (SSRB) was declared, which included the provinces of Vitebsk, Grodno, Minsk and Mogilev and Belarusian districts in the provinces of Vilnius, Kaunas and Smolensk. But already on 16 January 1919 the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party (of Bolsheviks) adopted a resolution on the inclusion of Vitebsk, Mogilev and Smolensk provinces into the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR). In February 1919 the Soviet republics of Belarus and Lithuania were joined into the Lithuanian-Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (Litbel), which lasted another half year. This was replaced by the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR), proclaimed on 31 July 1920.

At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919-1920, which concerned with the postwar reorganisation of the world, representatives of the Belarusian Democratic Republic demanded the discussion of the right of independence for the Belarusian people. The Entente governments, however, ignored their efforts. 

In Belarus the military actions de jure ceased only after the signature of the Peace Treaty of Riga on 18 March 1921. But the formal juridical act which finally ended the First World War in Belarus was the Treaty of Rapallo concluded with Weimar Germany in 1922. Here the Belarusian  state (BSSR), which signed this document, appeared for the first time in modern history as an independent subject of the international law. It should be noted that despite the declared independence Belarus had no real opportunity to take decisions on its government system up to the 1990s.

* * *

In the post-Soviet area the First World War has been called a forgotten war, as it was declared imperialistic and unjust by Soviet ideology and the war events were often silenced. In Belarus the memory of this tragic time nevertheless survives and has been reflected in works by writers and scholars, public initiatives and measures taken by the State.

First-hand accounts of the war were written by participants and witnesses of the events. Yanka Kupala, Zmitrok Biadulia, Ales Garun and Yakub Kolas wrote and published many of their poetic and prosaic works in the war years. In the 1920s-1930s, the memoirs of M. Goretsky "At the imperialistic war" came out; Tishka Gartny, Kondrat Krapiva and Mikhas Lynkov turned to this topic. Later the theme of the war was continued by Mikola Khvedorovich. Among the works of modern authors is the novel "The East" by V. Gnilomedov, who showed one of the most tragic pages of the war in Belarus – the refugees.

In Belarus there are many cemeteries of Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers. The work is now underway on their restoration and cataloging (the area is being improved, new monuments are being erected, several hundred registration cards have been compiled). Until recently this was done mainly by individual enthusiasts and regional specialists, but from the early 1990s the process accelerated. The Belarusian Public Organising Committee was set up to perpetuate the memory of WWI soldiers. The People's Union of Germany for the Care of Military Graves takes part in the maintenance of burial grounds in Belarus together with the Belarusian side. In recent years these issues have been given special attention by the Department for Commemoration of Fatherland Defenders and War Victims of the Belarusian Armed Forces, which runs a special search battalion. 

A large memorial complex was created in Minsk on the site of the former common cemetery of WWI soldiers. A memorial ensemble "On the confrontation line of 1915-1917 in the First World War" is being constructed at Smorgon.

Materials relating to the First World War are exhibited at the State Museum of the Military History of the Republic of Belarus.

A museum of the history of the First World War was created in the village of Zabrodye, Vileika district by the efforts of the Belarusian artist B. Tsitovich.

From the beginning of the 1990s, Belarusian historians significantly expanded research on the First World War. This is the topic of many scholarly dissertations, conferences, workshops and exhibitions. WWI documents have been published in a number of monographs, Encyclopaedia of the History of Belarus, Belarusian Encyclopaedia, scholarly magazines, a series of documented chronicles "Memory". The theme of refugees was further developed. Its research started in 1917-1918 by the Belarusian scholars F. Kudrinsky and E. Kancher and was later  investigated by N. Ulashchik. In the 1990s-2000s several studies devoted to Belarusian refugees were published in Poland, as well as the reminiscences by participants in those events.

By order of the President of Belarus, an organising committee was set up for preparing and holding events to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The plan includes a national day of unpaid work to raise funds for improvement of war memorials, field search for WWI military graves, development of tourist routes, organisation of exhibitions, conferences, patriotic actions, an international requiem meeting, theatrical shows, etc.


List of sources

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