Arkadijus Vinokuras

Four Historical Shames Which Afflict Lithuanians

History forms the collective experience and mentality of the generations of today and tomorrow. Running away from the unpleasant facts of history which are perceived as shameful, the aspiration of denying or justifying them, leads to a psychological, cultural and political dead end. Today Lithuanians are afflicted by four historical shames. These are the impotency of the debased pre-war government of Smetona, the first Soviet occupation, the Holocaust and the second Soviet occupation.

The first historical shame for Lithuanians. The rule of Antanas Smetona, the period from 1939 to 1940. The fissure in the Lithuanian state began in 1926 when the Tautininkai carried out a coup. Civic society along with democracy which is characterized by a political opposition in parliament were buried almost as soon as they were born.

You can go as deep as you want into the negative and positive side of each and every political figure from the time, into his assumptions concerning political decisions, or look at the global geopolitical processes of the time. You also can, in the name of justification, use the argument “we cannot decide about the events of that time from the tower of our present knowledge” to justify any stupidity or crime against peoples and humanity. But the handover of Klaipėda to the Nazis without any fight on March 23, 1939 and that same year the consent to allow 20,000 Soviet soldiers into Lithuania, and finally the handover of Lithuania without any resistance to the Soviets on June 15, 1940–these things are unanimously considered shameful by the Lithuanian public today. Even the public back then understood non-resistance to the Soviets was shameful, as was president Smetona’s flight, the public sees these as negative. (It should be noted here that under international law consent received under duress or by force is not binding, it is null and void, and doesn’t change the fact of aggression and the occupation of Lithuania).

But a fair share of Lithuanians in all social strata, denying the historical shame they have experienced, now demand erecting a statue to Smetona. Unfortunately, there is no lack of plans in Lithuania to commemorate with plaques and statues traitors, Soviet and Nazi collaborators, murderers of Jews and even for a statue to a dictator in Vilnius. Are there no heroes and heroines in Lithuania who aren’t of dubious reputation, whose real and well-founded honor would ransom this mockery of commemoration? It’s interesting to think about how they will explain to students why a person who betrayed democracy and Lithuania is honored with a statue.

The second historical shame of Lithuanians. The first Soviet occupation from June 15, 1940, to June 22, 1941. After Smetona fled, the Soviet army crossed the Lithuanian border. Neither the Lithuanian government nor the soldiery defended the state. The last Lithuanian prime minister, A. Merkys, directed Lithuanian military leaders to greet the Soviet army warmly, and discussed with the leadership of the Soviet army the deployment of units inside Lithuania. General Stasys Raštikis was made responsible for integrating the Lithuanian military with the Soviet army. Two important Lithuanian officials were turned over to the Soviets, interior minister Kazys Skučas and State Security Department chief Augustinas Povilaitis. Both were later shot in Moscow.

In the context of rejecting or justifying the historical shames being discussed here, the interpretation by Lithuanian Constitutional Court chief justice D. Žalimas is not surprising. He said turning Lithuanian officials over to the Soviets was much deeper shame than turning the state over the Soviets without any resistance. But it is exactly this specific, tragic detail which is the revelation of the entire degradation of the political elite of the period.

Expressing the will of the Merkys Government, Lithuanian national defense minister and head of the military general Vincas Vitkauskas placed a requirement upon the Lithuanian military in order no. 56. “I demand from all soldiers calm, order, work and good relations with USSR soldiers.” Order no. 107 of June 15 from Vitkauskas and chief of the military chiefs of staff Stasys Pundzevičius ordered all commanders of military divisions and riflemen “to greet warmly the most friendly army of the USSR.” Acting Lithuanian prime minister Merkys in his speech of June 16 again stressed the new Red Army units “have arrived as a friendly, allied army, seeking only greater security for Lithuania herself and the Soviet Union.”

Lithuanian foreign minister Juozas Urbšys recommended the Government attempt to create the impression the USSR’s demands were not an ultimatum, but just preferences for security. The Government’s announcements that the Soviet military was deployed in Lithuania merely for security confused the people and the world, and helped make the occupation appear legitimate. Finally, Lithuanian president of Justas Paleckis appointed by Merkys and his fellows went to Moscow with the goal of confirming this “friendly union of peoples.”

Deportations to Siberia, confiscation of property, dividing up land and allotting it to the landless began. And here arises the unpleasant fact, whether you want it to or not: according to the German historian Christoph Dieckmann, a Lithuanian Holocaust expert, when the Soviet government announced the redivision of land, about 200,000 Lithuanians applied for it. They knew full well the land belonged to someone else, that it belonged to their more affluent neighbor. (Dickmann and Vanagaitė, “How Did It Happen.“ 2020, Vilnius). One shouldn’t wonder why so many appeared who wanted to take over the property of murdered Jews as well.

The third historical shame for Lithuanians is the Holocaust. This was the time when the Law ceased to exist. But shame didn’t disappear, after all, Lithuanians are Christians. But the treason of their own politicians was so shameful that Lithuanian politicians of that time, whether they were anti-Semites or not, exerted all efforts towards redirecting the people’s anger towards Lithuanians’ fellow citizens, the Jews. Along with the proclamation Kazys Škirpa, who had great political weight in Lithuania, was the head of the Lithuanian Activist Front, it was proclaimed the rights of the Jews granted by Vytautas the Great were now annulled, and all Jews to the last person must be driven out.

Famous Lithuanian intellectuals and diplomats worked on the anti-Semitic platform of the LAF, including A. Maceina, and the diplomat Stasys Lozoraitis. The latter wrote: “May 10, 1941. Let the Jewish announcement go out. If, after 3 million Lithuanians lock them in prison, some innocent Jews suffer, there will not be an earthquake, the world will not end.: (Lithuanian Central State Archive f. 668, a. 1, v. 734, l. 199).

And there’s the writing by Bronus Raila, the head of the LAF propaganda commission, “What Do the Activists Fight For?” (spring, 1941) which states unambiguously who is to blame for the occupation of Lithuania. It’s the Jews: “The occupiers through their Jew-boys forced upon the Lithuanian people the Communist or so-called Soviet order.”

This is how the myth alleging Jews were responsible for treason against Lithuania was manufactured, a myth which is still dominant and being escalated today, while there is the real and bloody treason of the Lithuanian political elite, of the Lithuanian government and its generals who ordered the Soviets be “met with flowers” and their army comfortably lay forgotten. Someone has to cancel out the shame if you have no civic or political will to do so. The LAF invitation to drive the Jews out of Lithuania started, and ended with the almost complete extermination of the Jews of Lithuania.

As if the evil myth of Jewish treason weren’t enough, another myth was constructed about the “June Uprising.” This is when the mass murder of the Jews began in Lithuania. Not of Communist traitors, but of women, children, men and the elderly who had nothing to do with Communists.

Why do I put “uprising” in quotes? This would be the right place to come to agreement on the definition of uprising. An uprising is a nation’s resistance to occupation after the occupation is an accomplished fact. In historical Lithuania there were five uprisings: Tadeusz Kosciuszko’s uprising of 1794 against the Russian Empire and Prussia, the 1861 and 1863 uprisings against the Russian Empire, the post-war partisan uprising from 1944 to 1953 against the Soviet occupation and the peaceful uprising staged by Sąjūdis in 1990 to restore Lithuanian independence. But what did the men organized by the LAF rise up against? On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany invaded Lithuania and in the course of a week the Soviet army had left Lithuania and there were no Soviet occupiers left. So the “uprising” was really nothing other than an elementary revenge operation into whose meat grinders innocent and unconnected people fell. I have written before that the rejection of shame has a tendency to give birth to pathetic myths and worship of false heroes. Can any crime be justified in the name of love of Lithuania? In Lithuania it can.

Worship of the Lithuanian Provisional Government of 1941 falls into the same category. Even though it was the administration put in place by this government which actively contributed to the robbery of Lithuania’s farmers and businesspeople for the benefit of the Nazis occupiers. Neither the Lithuanian villages put to the torch nor the rounding up of slave labor to be sent to Germany caused any anger. Never mind the fact that without the efforts exerted by the Lithuanian administration, it would have been simply impossible to survey, count, arrest, rob and prepare for execution the approximately 140,000 Lithuanian Jews over the course of just a few months.

In the end another 50,000 Jews were also murdered. The Provisional Government ordered the establishment of the TDA to whose ranks flocked a good portion of the “insurgents” from the “uprising.” The TDA was party to the mass murder of Jews in Kaunas and throughout Lithuania. “The documents show acting prime minister Juozas Ambrazevičius, and also Zenonas Ivinskis, Juozas Girnius and Jonas Virbickas, compiled the first issue of the newspaper “Į Laisvę” where the leading editorial by K. P. (Kapitonas Pyragius?) called for mercy for ethnic Lithuanians who had collaborated, while identifying Jews (children, mothers, the elderly) with Bolshevism, saying they were one and the same indivisible thing.”

The leaders later tried to defend themselves saying they had never seen this program. But Leonas Prapuolenis who announced the restoration of Lithuanian independence in his speech to generalkommissar von Renteln on August 6 cited it in whole, including the rescinding of hospitality granted to the Jews. The Kaunas LAF leadership signed off on his speech: general St. Pundzevičius, general headquarters staff lieutenant colonel Iz. Kraunaitis, general headquarters staff colonel M. Mačiokas, engineer Ad. Damušis, colonel J. Jankauskas, engineer colonel J. Vėbra, K. Bauba, P. Žukauskas and J. Valiulis. The newspaper “Išlaisvintas Panevėžietis” published the entire speech at the height of the Holocaust. (see “K. Škirpa: nepriklausomybės gelbėtojas ar nusikaltėlis žmonijai?“ [Kazys Škirpa: Savior of Independence or Criminal against Humanity?] by A. Kulikauskas, 2017). What should one do, how should one behave with such shame? We reject it. And thus we discredit our true heroes and true insurgents.

The fourth historical shame for Lithuanians. The Soviet period from 1944 to 1990. Why has Soviet historiography vanished? The topic is completely taboo. Who, after all, wants to remember the mentality of the Soviet lackey which pervaded the entire nation? Meaning, me and you. Remember, for the gravy train, that is, your neighbor’s property, a better job, an apartment, a place in the bureaucratic, educational and artistic elite of Soviet society, permission to make purchases at special stores, to go to special hospitals–all of those primitive privileges which encouraged people to turn their relatives in to the NKVD and later the KGB. Historian Arūnas Bubnys estimates there were about 150,000 such people. It is believed there were up to 300,000 formal informants. They were there in every public enterprise.

Cronyism and kolkhaz corruption gave birth to a stupid, primitive person who constantly got by at the expense of others, for whom justice and morality were unknown concepts. We have suffered from this sort of person for 30 years now. These types simply shine forth in our parliaments and municipal governments. Don’t we remember the politicians of the degraded Lithuanian government of 1939? It was with good foundation that president Gitanas Nausėda noted in his first speech of this year: “It is shameful that we sometimes allow the accountability of our high-ranking government officials to hit rock bottom. It’s as if all actions which aren’t punished by prison time are legitimate, just and legal.”

Exactly. As long as we won’t admit and won’t make a negative assessment of our historical shames, in the psychological sense we will have to face their consequences every single day. This infantile vegetative state affects our daily political, economic and cultural decisions and prevents us from seeing ourselves and life as a whole. It prevents us from living a live without fear of our loved ones, from trusting our political representatives and it prevents their moral transformation. Only a new kind of politics can create a political culture based on honesty, selflessness and respect for democratic principles. While we remain hostages to shame, that “rock bottom” becomes the bottomless pit of immorality.

Full text in Lithuanian here.

About the Author
A professional journalist for 35 years in Sweden and Lithuania. Articles are published in Europe, Sweden, Lithuania. A member of the Lithuanian Jewish community. A frequent guest on Lithuanian TV channels and radio talk show. Comments on the internet daily of Lithuanian National Radio and TV Political observer. Writer and professional actor.