E Y E W I T N E S S R E P O R T / O P I N I O N
by Geoff Vasil
This March 11, the day in 1990 when the Supreme Soviet of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic declared Lithuania sovereign and separate from the Soviet Union, was celebrated in Vilnius in the usual manner: neo-Nazis, skinheads, their young and naive followers and a gaggle of elderly politicians—both serving MPs and has-beens—assembled and marched up the main boulevard chanting nationalist and anti-minority slogans, scaring children and generally making the streets unsafe for normal activities.
There was a slight difference this year, but if you hadn’t been following the Lithuanian media—if you had just arrived in town, don’t speak Lithuanian and don’t make a habit of following the Lithuanian neo-Nazis and antisemitic press—you wouldn’t have known it.
The difference was no real difference at all, because the Lithuanian authorities have done this over and over again: they pretended they weren’t going to showcase the neo-Nazi march through the capital on Lithuanian independence day this year.
The situation looked hopeful back on the eve of February 16, Lithuania’s other independence day, when new prime minister Algirdas Butkevičius issued a statement saying racist slogans and swastikas wouldn’t be tolerated in Kaunas during the neo-Nazi march there. The marchers there almost complied, limiting their expressions of racism to yelling “Lithuania for Lithuanians,” and doing silly things such as waving copies of the Lithuanian translation of Norman Finkelstein’s “Holocaust Industry” at Efraim Zuroff and a few other observers as if it were a talisman to ward off the Jewish evil eye.
Expectations Lithuanian authorities might do the right thing this year were raised when the Vilnius municipality refused to issue an event permit to the neo-Nazi youth organizations for March 11. The neo-Nazis, represented by a collection of youth organizations led by Julius Panka, Marius Kundrotas and “Genocide research PR expert” Ričardas Čekutis, all of whom were present at the Kaunas debacle, took the city to court and lost, and lost both appeals. Vilnius mayor Artūras Zuokas appeared intractable and said the city would stand by its offer to allow the fascist youth marchers the venue of Upės gatvė, River Street, which the march leaders rejected out of hand because it was where the city of Vilnius decided to shunt Lithuania’s only gay pride march a few years back, out of sight, out of mind. Of course the march organizers weren’t afraid of contracting HIV from the pavement after all these years, they were interested instead in usurping the Lithuanian holiday for their own PR and recruitment opportunities. The neo-Nazis have gone to great trouble to get the Lithuanian media to call their marches in Kaunas and Vilnius on the country’s two independence day celebrations “traditional,” although the marches only began with one in Vilnius in 2008, during which they called for the murder of Jews, Poles and Russians. Such a fragile “tradition” of just five years during which the Lithuanian government and media have coddled and protected the neo-Nazis surely couldn’t withstand a break of even one year.
The Vilnius municipality did a wonderful job of simulating opposition to the march this year. They planned a real independence day with multiple events along Gedimino prospektas, the city’s main street. Finally, it seemed, it would be safe for average citizens to venture forth and maybe even have some fun on the main holiday of the modern Lithuanian state, without fear of being assaulted by neo-Nazis, or of being taken as fascist supporters.
Ričardas Čekutis, the “genocide research PR expert” (long employed by the state, incidentally) and fascist youth leader, argued the city had come up with a program of events no one would attend exclusively in order to deny the neo-Nazis a permit to march. The city argued in court, successfully, that the Lithuanian law on assembly grants priority to the state and municipal organs for public celebrations on state holidays. The city’s events program did appear hastily drawn up with a view to actually allowing other groups of citizens, non-fascists, to celebrate the holiday, which would have been a pleasant change of pace this year. As it turned out, the city did place a number of events on Gedimino that did have heavy public attendance, despite what was reported in the media before, during and after, and despite what the city of Vilnius decided to do a little later that same day: to allow the unsanctioned march of neo-Nazis, the naive and hangers-on to disrupt and sabotage those very same events planned and fully financed by the municipality and state.
Here’s what happened that day.
By early afternoon the weather was turning cold with light snow and pedestrians were beginning to thin out along Gedimino. The base section of the street nearest the Cathedral and Cathedral Square, where the neo-Nazis planned to assemble for the march, was occupied by three- and four-sided stands with large photographs of ruins of Lithuanian castles and manors in Belarus placed in the exact middle of the street, which in recent years has been made into a pedestrian mall. This exhibition was still attracting moderate interest from passers-by. Next up was what seemed a sort of open-microphone event inside a tent in front of the Drama Theater, where there was poetry and song concerning Lithuanian independence. Next was a gap, to about the section of street where the Government building is located, where there was a large sound stage with pop and Lithuanian ethnic music performers. There was a small vendor’s shelter before this with hot drinks and snacks and a number of tables under shelter. Further up, beyond the sound stage progressing toward parliament, there were groups of children and young people engaged in demonstrating various sports, including a netted-in area with a machine pitching baseballs at batters. The last stand along Gedimino was a tent structure with the name of a radio station on it containing sound equipment and girls doing choreographed dancing outside.
Even as the weather continued to turn sour, there was heavy pedestrian traffic in the street for these events and activities. The pedestrians included numerous small children and toddlers with their parents.
The venue where the fascists planned to assemble at 3 PM, Cathedral Square, was surrounded by police. There were groups of five officers in green vests with a distinct leader milling about and stationed at the base of Pilies gatvė (Castle Street) and close to the Presidency. The police on Pilies checked bags of people headed towards the square which they selected by some unknown process of divination. The searches didn’t seem serious or comprehensive, and intended to impress the idea of “heavy security” on the public more than anything else. A large two-section bus was parked near the Gediminas statue at the square and was completely filled with police. Another bus full of police was parked across the street near the Interior Ministry. There were police vans as well, and what turned out to be a police staging area at the opposite end of the square next to the clock tower and across the street from the beginning of Gedimino. Gaggles of five officers patrolled the square and the base of Gedimino, as well as pairs of officers stationed along Gedimino. The staging area seemed to contain several armored personnel carriers, a large, even oversized white truck, and was joined by a police truck with some sort of non-lethal crowd control weapon mounted on top, either a sound canon or microwave gun.
Police also patrolled the park behind the square and there were police mounted on horses as well.
As 3 o’clock drew near, skinheads began to appear on Gedimino walking in the direction of Cathedral Square. At the square many cast furtive glances about themselves as they debated whether it was now time to come out and wait for the others, or to continue posing as passers-by. There was something of the air of 1988 about it, when Lithuanian dissidents assembled near this spot to mark the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, fully knowing their ranks were filled with Soviet security agents. There were those types lurking about as well, unapologetic now, agents of Lithuanian security posing as members of the “Aryan underground.”
Mere minutes before zero hour armbands suddenly appeared all over, not the flaming trinacria on white of Kundrotas’s crew so prominent in Kaunas even this year, but the three colors of the Lithuanian flag arranged in non-Rastafarian order. With just seconds to go, several young men appeared from the direction of Gedimino bearing an oversized Lithuanian flag on a pole. This seemed to serve as the signal for all these random passers-by on the square to begin unfurling their own banners and flags, and suddenly there was a small, quite small, group next to the statue of Gediminas on a horse. As the clock struck three, there were probably less than 50 marchers. It hadn’t been certain when the march would take place, since the dedicated neo-Nazi march site, kovo11eitynes.lt, had provided two separate times, 3 and 4 PM, on the same page. Nor was it known beforehand to the general public whether the march would go up Gedimino, or take the alternate path suggested through the Old Town up Pilies gatvė. The marchers knew, and since they knew, so did the police. There were no police to speak of on Pilies, the forces were concentrated at the square, along Gedimino and at the intersection at Lukiškės square, before parliament on Gedimino.
The group under the horse statue slowly, very slowly, grew, and a small contingent of old men under a sign reading “Signatarai” made their way across the square. This was the usual sympathizers and supporters of the Lithuanian fascist youth marches, both current and former MPs, including Romualdas Ozalas, Kazimieras Uoka, joined by Petras Gražiulis, Patackas and a few others. “Signatarai” refers to people who signed their names to the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet’s act declaring Lithuanian independence from the Soviet Union on March 11, 1990. I’m not sure all of the politicians under this sign were actually signatories, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to press the verdict of the Lithuanian courts in a case brought by Lithuanian MPs over freedom of assembly as guaranteed by the Lithuanian constitution and limitations on that right under the Lithuanian law on assembly. The courts found the constitutional right superseded limitations in the administrative/criminal code and that it wasn’t a requirement that an assembly planned petition and receive permission from a municipal body, as far as I recollect the case. This appeal to the fundamental right to assemble appeared in a document from standing MPs posted on the official fascist march site kovo11eitynes.lt to government leaders calling for allowing the neo-Nazi march to go forward this year. The “Signatarai” group included signatories to that document as well.
Police formed a loose cordon to the sides of the slowly swelling crowd of marchers and it was apparent from the placement of police the marchers would be marching up the main boulevard, Gedimino rather than Pilies in the Old Town, and certainly not across the river where they could legally march as per the permit. Some of those milling about began singing traditional Lithuanian patriotic songs. The “Signatarai” had some sort of public address system they used to play canned Lithuanian music, and the two efforts at song overlapped in cacophony. Spectators of all sorts lined the steps overlooking the square, putting distance between themselves and the marchers. Police walkie-talkies announced the arrival of “Paleckis” at the other end of the square. The attitude of police varied: some were heavily engaged in looking professional, others smiled at and sympathized with the assembling marchers. Others seemed genuinely engaged in their work. Unfortunately, as discovered later in words by the Lithuanian prime minister, that work wasn’t containing neo-Nazi aggression, the Nazis being perceived as harmless, but rather in containing “provocateurs.”
What this word means to the prime minister, and what it means to police, and to the neo-Nazis, isn’t exactly the same, but isn’t all that different, either, as it turns out. For Lithuania’s Hitler Youth, a provocation includes the presence of a Jewish-looking man as an observer at any of their supposedly public events. Having dark skin is a provocation as well. For the powers-that-be, the idea of provocateurs has come to include anti-fascist, or antifa, activists, those who are willing to publicly counter the glorification of Nazis with peaceful protest. This was the keynote for the neo-Nazis on February 16 this year, to avoid provocations. This was the endnote made by the prime minister for the March 11 march this year: it took place without provocations.
As police variously looked on and a few more marchers showed up at their staging area, the non-lethal crowd control weapon appeared at the police staging area near the tower across the square. Police made random checks of people entering the square from that direction, again, more for show than anything else. The five police at the Presidency were removed and sent to the square as the marchers set off along the well-choreographed and agreed route, up Gedimino.
A word on numbers: the media are reporting that, according to police sources, there were 3,000 marchers this year. Other reports by the marchers themselves claim there was a much larger crowd than last year. Neither of these is true. The marchers who set out and who arrived at their final destination numbered under 500, more like 300, and even that’s being liberal. While there were likely 3,000 or more people on Gedimino, and that is perhaps the sole number of significance for police crowd control, the number of fascist marchers and their dupes was less than last year’s march, which was variously estimated at between 1,000 and 1,500, as I recall. What happened was that some of the spectators who wanted to remain separate from the marchers attempted to follow them up the maze of event stands on Gedimino on the sidewalk. Moreover, Gedimino, despite the neo-Nazis’ claims parroted in the media, was crowded and full of non-marchers when they arrived. The number of people on Gedimino caught up in this parade of hate was much greater than the gawkers who followed them from Cathedral Square. The reason there were fewer marchers this year was that some of the fearless defenders of Aryanism actually believed the municipality’s simulation of disallowing them this year, and feared arrest for unlawful assembly, hate crimes and disturbing the peace.
If this is too long and you’re only skimming it, pay attention to this one fact: the non-lethal crowd control weapon mounted on the police truck and the APCs cleared a path up Gedimino for the neo-Nazi marchers. The weapon was facing the people in the crowd at the official events sponsored by the city and the state for Lithuanian independence day, and not on the neo-Nazis following in the wake of the police vehicles, sirens blaring and lights flashing. The sirens did not drown out the loud announcement of the neo-Nazis at the base of Gedimino, where they yelled in unison at the top of their lung capacity Lietuva Lietuviams “Lithuania for Lithuanians” for several minutes. People cowered in doorways or sought egress from the thoroughfare. One man, apparently a visitor from the Indian subcontinent buying tickets at the Drama Theater, sheltered in the doorway there, looking slightly mystified at the goings-on. Undoubtedly a provocateur, even if an unwitting lackey of the forces of International Jewish Banking and the Kremlin.
The police cleared a path through the street up to Government House, where the large sound stage blocked progress. They parked two APCs across the road and sidewalk on the left-hand side to force the marchers onto the right sidewalk and past the stage. The exotic-weapon truck then cleared a path up the street past the various demonstrations of sport. At about this point a British fellow standing with several women in the doorway of a restaurant on the right-hand side of the street began shouting in Lithuanian: Lietuva visiems! “Lithuania for everyone!” He was immediately pounced upon by media vultures who surrounded and began taking pictures. “Accredited” reporters and photographers were overly visible in the crowd because they had been issued neon orange road-worker vests with the words “Media representative” emblazoned in black. The first scent of blood reached the police as well, who surrounded this mild protest, presumably to protect the unsanctioned marchers from any unpleasantness from illuminati Jew-enabling “provocateurs.” In earlier years, when the neo-Nazis enjoyed de jure permission and hence approval from the municipality to terrorize the streets, the police acted even more harshly against peaceful dissent, arresting people for hoisting anti-fascist signs. This time the British accent and the presence of so many media probably prevented a harsher response, but it was still clear who the police believe had a right to usurp the street—the neo-Nazis—, and who was a potential threat—anyone who doesn’t like neo-Nazis.
The idea the city and Vilnius police were somehow balancing the interests of different groups of the public was given the lie by the next group of provocateurs: the last stand, literally, on Gedimino was that group of cheerleader-like young women dancing outside a tent set up by a local radio station. As the attention-getting siren rang out at them at full blast and the sound canon bore down on them, the cheerleaders stopped dancing, looked up like deer caught in headlights and moved aside to make way for the Aryan revolution, that rag-tag column of the elderly, the naive young and old, skinheads in White Power jackets and “signatarai.”
The police did the same trick of blocking the route with APCs to herd the marchers into Lukiškės Square, the dirt-track park across the street from the so-called Genocide Museum where earlier marches have culminated. Mounted police and buses full of cops were the backdrop for the 300 or so marchers who assembled in the center on the dirt where the famous statue of Lenin once stood. A large security detail guarded the side of the park leading towards the parliament building, and the groups and gaggles of five police coalesced around the marchers in the center. The marchers listened to some speeches, sang some songs and dispersed after about a half hour as the sun began to dip toward the hills in the west.
Planning and Post-Event Follow-Up
It was obvious the police and the march organizers coordinated and choreographed this year’s march up Gedimino, as evidenced by, among other things, the replacement of flaming trinacria on white armbands worn by the neo-Nazi march guards in the past with a new armband that looked positively police-like and read: “Police coordinating group.”
Čekutis was correct in saying the events the municipality planned for that day were “straw men” (he didn’t actually say that, but I did), because they were easily knocked down by police under the at least partial command of that same municipality to serve the interests of the neo-Nazis.
There were no police to speak of along Pilies gatvė, one of two venues the march organizers said a spontaneous unorganized march might take, while there were police everywhere along the officially less likely Gedimino prospkektas route.
Vilnius mayor Artūras Zuokas spent a sizable amount of tax-payers’ money to fund events for Lithuanian independence day which he apparently in the event sacrificed for the sake of the neo-Nazi elements. He continues to make statements about allowing the march next year because, apparently, the marchers were so good this year and didn’t carry (many) swastikas. In other words, he’s trying to position himself as the broker for the neo-Nazis, the come-to guy who can make it happen for them, in exchange for this or that. If the neo-Nazis outside of their brethren engaging in making deals with Zuokas learned any lessons this year, it’s that they don’t need the city’s permission to march, and would probably do well not to seek it next year. Zuokas, usually an astute if not Machiavellian political mind, seems to have shot himself in the foot this time.
Dalia Grybauskaitė, the Lithuanian president and former European commissioner, shot herself in the foot this year as well, but not the first time. In previous years she has said anything—meaning the neo-Nazi marches—that stimulates Lithuanians to think about patriotism is a good thing. This year, in an interview before the march on March 11, she corrected her interrogator’s question about the march by nationalists, saying she preferred to think of them as “ethnic-pride youth” rather than … skinheads? This was right after she said she supported gay marriage in Lithuania, but didn’t support it, because… well… society wasn’t ready for it yet. By any measure, a country which elects a possibly gay president is ready to countenance at least the idea of gay marriage, if she was democratically elected in free and fair elections in massively homophobic Lithuania. Luckily, she has advisers, one of whom told the media it was counter-productive to ban such marches because it only made them more attractive to the public. For a thorough sweep of this interview and its political implications, in Lithuanian, see Nida Vasiliauskaitė’s article.
Of course, Lithuania never has banned any of the marches, so what progress has been made in countering the rise of dangerous ethnocentric cults in Lithuania? Conversely, since the ban has never been applied, and instead only simulated (in order to drive up public interest?), is there any evidence to support the idea a ban would in fact embolden the marchers? The superior simulation of a ban this year actually kept a large number of the “patriotic youth” from attending.
Of course, and it’s an uncomfortable thing to have to bring up in a journal dedicated to maintaining the historical truth, such marches do take place in lands considered strongly democratic. There are neo-Nazi and KKK marches in America, even as America struggles with debates about parts of its constitution and civil rights violations in the name of security. Traditionally, the idea of a Republic is that minorities and minority opinions are protected by the state against the depredations of the majority, and so rankly unpopular movements such as the Aryan Nations, the People’s Temple and the KKK enjoy exactly the same rights to speech, assembly and belief as anyone else. The task of the police thus becomes one of balancing competing interest groups’ rights, so that all groups and individuals are able to enjoy those rights. In the strong democracies, such hate organizations are invariably met by mighty counter-marches who make clear the majority’s opposition. In the simulation of opposition just carried out by the Lithuanian authorities, Zuokas pitted the rights of run-of-the-mill Lithuanians to celebrate independence day publicly and without fear against those of neo-Nazis who feel they are entitled to own the street on that day.
This could have been an interesting social experiment in Western-style city management, but then the city openly sided with the neo-Nazis against the rights of all its other citizens. Furthermore, the neo-Nazis, while they like to play the victim publicly, are not an oppressed minority. The interest of the Republic should have been in allowing the public at large to celebrate, with provision made for the neo-Nazis as were made by suggesting they march across the river on Upes gatvė.
That is, if that same republic didn’t have such a dark and shameful history when it comes to Nazis, a history which even now the state and collaborators in the media are attempting to hide at all costs. I am talking about the murder of some 96% of Lithuania’s Jews, mostly at the hands of ethnic Lithuanians.
The ugly truth is that if this genocide had been perpetrated on the Lithuanians themselves, all that would remain of the country of under 3 million would be the population of the small provincial town of Alytus, surrounded by endless square kilometers of the now-silent killing fields, stretching beyond the horizon, a cemetery the size of a country.
The failure of the Lithuanian leadership to take the threat of ultranationalism seriously is troubling and becoming ever more so. One editorial in Lietuvos Rytas, the main daily newspaper, paraphrased the prime minister as saying, post-march, “If they say ‘Lithuania for Lithuanians’ with a frown, it’s bad, but if they say it with a smile, then it’s OK.” Perhaps the writer was engaging in some sort of hyperbole, but then again, perhaps not.
The sheer volume of antisemitic literature and continuing efforts in that direction are a sort of tidal wave dwarfing the humble efforts of a very limited number of Lithuanian thinkers, artists, writers, educators and politicians working for tolerance and understanding. At the march in Kaunas, they brandished copies of Finkelstein’s Holocaust Industry as if they were magic wands to ward off the Jew. The feedback between Lithuanian ignorance and invention regarding the Holocaust and antisemitic forces in the West is apparent, an isolated pocket of the same virus lending the main infection genetic tenacity.
You can’t completely blame the young and deluded for this ignorance, either. It has been a long time in the making, especially among Lithuanian immigrants abroad, who often had a vested interest in denying Lithuanian complicity in the Holocaust. In some respects the Lithuanian “patriotic youth” are, spiritually, an embattled minority, laboring under great delusions but keen to preserve their own identity even in a sea of disinformation. Unfortunately, since they are so misinformed, they are intellectually incapable of defending their culture and easily susceptible to manipulation by political forces on all sides.
Several years ago now German chancellor Angela Merkel basically declared the European Union dead when she said “multiculturalism hasn’t worked.” The EU must be multicultural, if nothing else. That’s its whole premise. Since then the EU has caved in to a whole series of attacks by the hedge funds, derivatives-mongers, financial auditors and financial hyenas, leading to the prospect of wholesale collapse of the euro-zone, which would likely lead to the end of the EU itself. Meanwhile, Lithuania’s Nero, president Dalia Grybauskaitė, who diddles while Europe burns, is saying Lithuania must press forward as rapidly as possibly to join the euro-zone. Be that as it may, there is a vacuum of power opening up, a collision in the road ahead now dimly seen in the headlights, and pirates and outlaws classically thrive during such interregna. In Europe’s case, in this case, those pirates and outlaws will be represented by those who are already on the margins and ready to take control, the same sort of right-wing youth groups, who are keen to preserve their own cultures against the depredations of a perceived surrounding miasma of bureaucracy, and the autonomen DIY types whose sole representatives on the Lithuanian scene are probably commonly known only as “antifa.”
Unfortunately, Lithuania’s “patriotic youth” are ill-positioned to assume the responsibilities of providing basic infrastructure during a societal breakdown. If they aren’t paper-pushers such as Čekutis, historians such as Kundrotas, they aspire to the same cosmopolitanism they allege they despise, albeit a violent cosmopolitanism. Lithuanian autonomen types are fewer and further between, a species rarely encountered in the wild, and then only fleetingly.
As economies collapse and things turn dire for the average European, there is a slight chance Lithuania could “wriggle through,” employing some prudent financial decisions which do not include massive expenditures for covering up the Holocaust and simulating opposition to neo-Nazis, and by getting things right now, before things get hot. The government doesn’t have to force the lessons of the Holocaust, figuratively and literally, on Lithuanian youth, they only have to come clean in public and admit what happened, and if they don’t know, they need to educate themselves. The ugly truth probably won’t “rally the troops” but it will relieve an incredible mental and financial burden borne by the Lithuanian public. Fears this will somehow lead to massive reparation claims and claims on most Lithuanian real estate by Jews are misplaced, as misplaced as the disinformation spread by anti-Jewish editors and authors in the Lithuanian media that Efraim Zuroff has called every Lithuanian a “Jew-shooter,” the claim by a Lithuanian MP that the Lietūkis Garage massacre was a joint Gestapo-NKVD psy-op to blacken Lithuania’s reputation (and besides, the Jews were there to steal trucks so they could deport Lithuanians to Siberia!), or that Lithuanian Nazi Juozas Ambrazevičius Brazaitis is a national hero.
The real core of apprehensions over telling the truth about the Holocaust, however, are elderly figures such as MEP Vytautas Landsbergis, who somehow confuse the present for Soviet times, when the Holocaust was used by the Soviets to justify the occupation of Lithuania. Landsbergis can continue to pull his strings from Brussels, and imagine he is controlling the sociological landscape in Lithuania remotely, but that old opposition to telling the truth about the Holocaust in Lithuania doesn’t hold anymore, because even if the Soviet occupation of Lithuania were justified by Lithuanian complicity in the Holocaust, the Holocaust and the Soviet Union are long gone.
Memory isn’t a basketball game where you can fake your opponent out, even if your team is ten times larger than the opposing. It is unacceptable to allow ethnocentric and chauvinist screams of “Lithuania for Lithuanians!” to disturb the public on main street in the capital on independence day. The misguided well-meaning neo-Nazis and the cynical realist real neo-Nazis all tend toward the common denominator of ethnic exclusivity and are not harmless, neither in Lithuania, nor Hungary, nor Great Britain.
That the Lithuanian neo-Nazis achieved a great public relations victory is sadly true, and furthers their agenda of presenting themselves as right-thinking, good-hearted patriots and citizens, the sort of people you’d have over to dinner. That is their technique for infiltrating the political process, and always has been. Some like Dalia Grybauskaitė can be duped and counted upon to fall for this trick, but not astute politicians such as Zuokas, Landsbergis, and even the new prime minister but seasoned politician, Butkevičius. As is always the case, it’s important to set the youth on the correct course, while there is still time, to avoid the mistakes of the past. It has never been more important than now, when the future teeters on the quantum probability wave of several options, one of which is a very dark, xenophobic and violent land where culture and cultural survival are irrelevant.