A Brief History
On March 22, 1943, a battalion of military police fighting for Germany was attacked by Byelorussian partisans near the village of Khatyn.
The Nazi 118th Battalion was commanded by a German officer, but mostly manned by Ukrainians that hated the Soviet regime, criminals, and Soviet prisoners of war and deserters willing to oppose the Soviet Union.
Suffering 4 men dead from the attack by partisans, including their commander, the enraged battalion went through the village of Khatyn and forced all the population into a barn. The Nazis, having committed similar atrocities throughout Belarus and other Soviet areas they had overrun did not hesitate to immediately carry out a reprisal. The barn was burned with the population in it, and the few that tried to escape were gunned down.
Of the 149 people massacred, 75 had been children. Two other children did survive, as did one adult, though all three were injured. These unfortunate victims were just a few of the 2 million or so civilians murdered by Nazis in Belarus during the war, out of population of little over 8 million!
The Ukraine had suffered millions of people intentionally starved by Joseph Stalin and the Soviets in the 1930’s and many Ukrainians were eager to strike back. Germany took advantage of this and put them to use, often in an anti-partisan role.
A cracked fact is the 118th Battalion commander killed in the attack by partisans was Hans Wollke, the 1936 Olympic gold medalist in the shot put, perhaps contributing to the notoriety of the massacre.
Soviet courts tried one of the 118th’s platoon commanders in 1975 and the battalion chief of staff in 1986, both of whom were sentenced to death. Publicity was kept to a minimum in order to avoid nationalistic animosity between Belarus and The Ukraine.
The Khatyn Massacre is memorialized in Khatyn with a complex built in 1969 that includes three trees and an eternal flame, the trees representing the population of Belarus that survived and the flame representing the quarter of Byelorussians that died. The memorial also features a statue of the lone adult survivor holding his dead son.
A final fact, President Richard Nixon had visited the Khatyn memorial, as had other world leaders such as Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat.
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever visited the visited the Khatyn memorial? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Himka, John-Paul and Joanna Beata Michlic. Bringing the Dark Past to Light: The Reception of the Holocaust in Postcommunist Europe. University of Nebraska Press, 2013.
Mikaberidze, Alexander. Atrocities, Massacres, and War Crimes [2 volumes]: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO, 2013.