Swedish Film Director Speaks Out on the Lithuanian Holocaust, Sort of, a Little Bit




O P I N I O N

by Geoff Vasil

 

Jonas Öhman is a Swede who has been coming to Lithuania and living here on and off from almost the beginning of modern independence in the 1990-1991 period. During that time he has produced a number of films, only one of which appears to his credit on the internet film database imdb.com, but all of which deal more or less with a mythologized version of the history of Lithuanian anti-Soviet partisans.

John Ohman with Lithuania's President Grybauskaite. Photo: Lithuania Tribune.

John Öhman receives Friend of Lithuania award from President Grybauskaitė. Courtesy Office of the President of the Republic of Lithuania. Photo by R. Dačkus.

In 2013 he was awarded the distinction of Friend of Lithuania, which might seem neither here nor there, but this is the level at which Lithuania’s so-called national security actually operates, as a circle of people whom those who consider themselves equivalent to the state call friends, and opposing and surrounding rings of enemies. In other words, Lithuanian national security operates at the level of high school cliques in the West, as it did in the period of independence between the two world wars, which is something to which I’ll return in just a second. Apologists for the Nazis continue to defame critics of Double Genocide politics, of the LAF (Lithuanian Activist Front) and PG (Provisional Government) Holocaust collaborators (both of 1941)  as “enemies of Lithuania” (in 2014). Öhman is officially named Friend. Which is the exact same form of address Lithuanian Communists used for the classic “comrade,” draugas, friend.

Öhman is a “friend” because he displayed that classic Western naiveté and provided moral support to the Lithuanian revisionist conception of the Holocaust. He understood “our” version of the story and presented it abroad, to some extent.

Now Öhman seems to have experienced an “oh yeah” moment regarding the Lithuanian Holocaust, which we here at Defending History are more than willing to applaud as a full-blown satori, a moment of enlightenment no less luminous than Guatama’s under the banyan tree. Hey, we’ll take what we can get, and let bygones be bygones when it comes to dealing with personal differences, even if we cannot and will not forget what happened from 1941 to 1945 or thereabouts.

People can change. In Öhman’s case maybe he never did buy into the new Lithuanian myths all that much anyway, and maybe he never fully embraced the idea Holocaust perpetrators are national heroes if they shoot unarmed Communists, too. Maybe he was never a Russophobe. I don’t know and that’s a matter for his own conscience.

This week he has had published a somewhat longish essay on the generally “government-friendly” Delfi website, which has never shied away from obfuscating the Holocaust and whose former director never turned down a Holocaust Obfuscation junket to Washington, D. C., but which has always been willing to stir the pot in any event, and sometimes allows a difference of opinion to shine through here and there. There can be no higher praise in thought-controlled Lithuania, of course.

The piece is entitled roughly “View of Holocaust Hinders Development of Lithuania.” He starts out by expressing his admiration for the State of Israel, a fondness which began with the Yom Kippur War, but says he has always been critical of Israeli treatment of Palestinians. What does this have to do with the Holocaust in Lithuania? He says he speaks of Israel because this will somehow make it easier for readers to understand. He means Lithuanian readers, of course. None of what follows seems to be easier to take in light of Israeli military victories, but whatever.

He then gets right to the point and presents his main theses, which follow here in translation:

“It should probably be said plainly, that in the Lithuanian context it’s not Jews themselves which interest me so much as does their contribution to Lithuania: as much as they were connected with the independence of Lithuania itself, its statehood, continuity and welfare. The [ethnic] Lithuanian understanding of this could be much better and wider. I see quite clearly that [their] attitude towards the Holocaust greatly hinders the normal development of this state. You cannot change history, but you can change your attitude towards the past over time.

“I say Jews were, are and, I hope, will be an indivisible part of the identity of Lithuania. Correspondingly I claim the destruction of the Jews and Jewish heritage is a part of the loss of Lithuanian independence. And I further state that a different attitude towards Jews in general and towards the Holocaust would only be of benefit to Lithuania in terms of its future happiness and welfare.”

Öhman hasn’t said anything new here, except to say he embraces what a number of others have been saying for years. Still, he’s saying it to the people who need to hear it, as a trusted foreigner with some sort of presumed objectivity.

After talking about Jewish networks in Eastern Europe and not entirely debunking the myth of Jewish dominance in the original Lithuanian Communist Party but at least claiming it irrelevant, Öhman begins his treatment of the Holocaust with “I am entirely convinced there would have been no Holocaust in Lithuania without the German Nazis.” Sort of like saying there would be no milk without cows, but since he’s talking explicitly about his personal viewpoint, we’ll forget the semantics in favor of his intended meaning. His intent is to say Germans did the Holocaust and initiated it in Lithuania.

Which, of course, plays well with the misinformed Lithuanian audience, who will assume this is true and something so axiomatic that no one could question it. But of course people do. Even the eminent Holocaust scholar Dina Porat, who has recently agreed to serve, effectively, as a token foreign academic Jew on Lithuania’s official state-funded Holocaust obfuscation panel, the so-called International Commission for the Assessment of Crimes etc. etc (replacing Yitzhak Arad, who has lived to tell the tale). This Commission even recognizes the problem at an official level, and thus claims the Holocaust did not begin in Lithuania in late June, 1941, but a few weeks later. It’s not quite the fine distinction the Commission would like to present to the world, it goes to the heart of the matter and the cover-up. Many Holocaust scholars—real ones, not lackeys funded by the Lithuanian state,—say the Holocaust began in Lithuania. Apart from some hesitant first steps towards mass murder in German-occupied Poland, the mass murder of Jews on a truly vast scale began in Lithuania. Not quite the PR image the contemporary state wants: “Welcome to Lithuania, Birthplace of the Holocaust!”

Worse, in terms of modern PR, the Holocaust didn’t begin without the Lithuanian “partisans” first inspiring the Nazis towards new heights of mass murder during the first days of the invasion. Some of the correspondence of the German troops in Lithuania to their loved ones at home in Germany contains a record of the shock the Germans felt upon seeing the barbarity of the Lithuanians towards their Jewish neighbors. Sort of like the Devil himself calling someone evil. Despite the various attempts by Lithuanians to interpret the Stahlecker report to mean there was a conspiracy to ruin the image and reputation of Lithuania, the truth is Stahlecker was trying to take some credit at least for something he had not done, which was the pogrom in Kaunas during which Lithuanians used axes, saws, hammers and clubs to murder thousands of Jews and behead rabbis.

What Öhman hasn’t asked himself is the corollary to his statement above, which is, Would there have been a Holocaust in Europe without the inspiration provided by the Lithuanian Nazis?

He goes on to claim the self-proclaimed, Lithuanian Nazi puppet Provisional Government of 1941 merely looked on without interfering in the mass murder of Lithuanian Jews by German Nazis. He says their government resolutions were “passively antisemitic.” The Provisional Government was the leadership of the Lithuanian Activist Front, formed in Berlin, which carried out the mass murder of the Lithuanian Jews. The LAF sent leaflets from Berlin calling upon members of their underground cells in Soviet Lithuania to prepare for the mass murder of their Jewish neighbors. The Provisional Government passed resolutions for creating concentration camps in Kaunas during the first days of the PG’s existence. When it became clear the Nazis didn’t want concentration camps just yet, the PG passed resolutions for the establishment of a Jewish ghetto, in line with Nazi Germany’s plans. At no time was there a break in the mass murder of Jews from the establishment till the liquidation of the PG, extermination carried out under the command of Jurgelis, who was under the command of the PG. How Öhman interpreted this to be “passive antisemitism” is a mystery, either an unwillingness to countenance the truth or a simple lack of interest.

The author then presents what is probably his most important point:

“One could also perceive a moral responsibility by Lithuanians in connection with the loss of independence. Independence, it is self-evident, is not just a consequence of flags, constitutions, governments and so on. Independence expresses itself through integrated principles of operation, which come as much from informal mechanisms among people, groups, organizations and their (official and unofficial) agreements and actions as it does from official agreements and common public goals. I have formulated a ‘Layered Theory of the Loss of Lithuanian Independence.’ In the genre of tragedy this would be the loss of independence–and finally resistance–through three actions.

“What happened in summer of 1940 was the First Layer, or the City (Kaunas) Layer of the loss of independence, when the Lithuanian government was not resilient at all against pressure from Moscow. One can emphasize here that not only did the government not resist, but the next day a portion of the pre-war Lithuanian government actually went to work for a new master. The fact of surrender is not in question, and that’s why until now it hasn’t been easy to resist pressure from Moscow on the varying versions [interpretations] of these events.

“The second layer of loss, which is intimately connected with the Jews—happens in 1941 initially. I would call this the Town Layer of the loss of independence. I am talking about the ‘shtetl’ culture, about the towns which constituted a vital, strategically important medial space between city and country in the interwar period. The destruction of the main (Jewish) [social] stratum affected the towns especially painfully and even now affects the development of the towns. The role of [ethnic] Lithuanians in this state, contributing directly to the destruction of this [social] stratum, is not the main factor [in the murder of Jews], but still rather important.

“The third layer in the loss of independence took place in the post-war period with the Loss of Independence of the Rural Layer, mainly through deportations and collectivization. Incidentally, here again is a period when the question of independence ends up in the Village: Lithuanians, both proudly and in pain, voluntarily and independently, rise up against the occupier and, finally, the answer of the Lithuanians is given to the world and themselves that, after all, independence is a value, and, even if unsuccessfully at that time, this message is written in blood and ‘transmitted’ over time and space.

“I think that in looking at it in this way, the evolution of the loss of independence is seen from a wider perspective, from which independence and the scope and breadth of its loss are perceived more clearly. The history of Lithuania’s losses, including the Holocaust, acquire a somewhat different significance.”

Obviously the final portions of this extract are informed by a romantic and somewhat naive reading of the history of Lithuania, but I think what Öhman is getting at in the first part is somewhat interesting. He is claiming, in effect, that Lithuanian independence was lost in part because of a breakdown in society, a dysfunction in the joint efforts that gave rise to social cohesion earlier.

One could argue this atomization of society led to successes by the Nazi propagandists in demonizing the Jews of Lithuania.

One could argue that, but one would be incorrect. First, the Lithuanian state in the interwar period did not reflect social cohesion or the lack thereof. Lithuanian statehood wasn’t born out of struggle, out of violence and warfare, but was, rather, born by decree, by Wilson’s points and the League of Nations. Thus Lithuanian independence was never taken seriously by practitioners of realpolitik, neither by Hitler nor Stalin. It hadn’t “paid its dues,” so to speak. The leadership of the interwar Lithuanian state couldn’t include statesmen or seasoned diplomats because there was really no political history of the state prior to the declaration of independence. The best that could be done was to include Jews, members of the Polish aristocracy and others who had “crossed over” to the Lithuanian side among what were basically a corpus of ethnic Lithuanian peasants in training serving as the nominal leadership.

Second, there was very little operational cohesion at work in society at large. There were what might be called today interest groups, what were once called the “staats” or estates in the Netherlands, groups defined by various criteria, including the old aristocracies and ethnic groups. These estates were not, by and large, much welcomed in interwar Lithuanian politics, which was dominated by the same forces dominating the ethnic Lithuanian population, namely, the formulation of a naive nationalism based on ethnic Lithuanian agrarian peasant traditions rather than traditions of statecraft inherited from the Grand Duchy or the Commonwealth/Republic with Poland.

Foreign intelligence services operating in interwar Lithuania were at first entirely mystified by the way in which the Lithuanian spies cloaked their activities, until the foreign agents finally realized they weren’t picking up on Lithuanian intelligence because there wasn’t any. Indeed, it was all just at the level of a boys’ club, with a sign on the ladders to tree house, “no girls allowed.” Actually, the Lithuanian State Security Department formed in the interwar republic initially did have female staff, largely used as prostitutes to elicit “pillow talk,” but that’s another story. It might be called progress that Lithuanian national security has climbed down from the tree house to form the high school cliques model now, but perhaps that’s another story as well.

If Öhman thinks a general breakdown in social cohesion led to the Holocaust and collaboration with the occupying regimes, he’s incorrect. In fact, the “last gasp” of ethnic Lithuanian social cohesion was displayed exactly by those Lithuanians who chose to join up with the self-declared, pro-Nazi Lithuanian leaders who perpetrated the Holocaust. It was the social cohesion implicit in the preplanned rape, plunder and murder of the entire Lithuanian Jewish population. If one wanted to claim they had been co-opted, “instrumentalized” to serve Nazi policy goals, one would be correct, as far as that goes. Except that the Nazis they served happened to also be ethnic Lithuanians, and that the policies in question were still of a provisional, quasi-character, not set in stone, neither set in motion until the impetus and inspiration was provided by Lithuanian volunteers.

 

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