O P I N I O N
by Geoff Vasil
In May Lithuania celebrated the return of the ashes of the Nazi puppet prime minister of June, 1941, Juozas Ambrazevičius (who changed his surname to Brazaitis as a matter of convenience when he began using papers issued to one Brazaitis). The schizophrenic nature of the events were evident from the start, from the Kubilius government’s resolution allocating 30,000 litas in funding to celebrate the Lithuanian Nazi which, several items down the list, also allocated 3,000 litas for a project to “name the names,” to draw up a list of Lithuanian Holocaust victims, in conjunction with the Yad Vashem institution in Jerusalem.
The dissociative shell game continued when the government and state institutions sought to pawn off the events they financed on other institutions: the Catholic Church of the Resurrection of Christ in Kaunas, and an “academic conference/commemoration” planned at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas. After a scandal broke and former professor now MEP Leonidas Donskis published an eloquent protest on DH, the rector of VMU, who didn’t want the heat, told the Nazi celebrators to find another venue, one supplied by the Kaunas municipality, the chambers of the Kaunas city council. Then, in keeping with the theme of schizophrenia, VMU decided to allow another “academic conference” on university premises, initially with the exact same list of speakers as the banned event.
Obviously there is a problem when church and state get mixed up in officially commemorating an unelected, Nazi-puppet prime minister who was perfectly willing to send Jews to ghettos and concentration camps, and to seize their properties, and who sought to join the Axis powers in fighting the Allies during World War II. Arguably, the Church has its own rules and laws and was perfectly within its rights to bury the Nazi puppet as it saw fit, with or without pomp and ceremony, but the fact that pageantry was the order of the day—or two days, actually, as the ashes lay “in state” inside the Kaunas church before burial in the gravel courtyard—leads to some unsavory thoughts regarding the past of the current pontiff in Rome, who is presumably fully aware of what his archbishops are getting up to in the provinces.
The state’s visible participation featured lower-ranking officials—the chancellor of parliament, the same man who promoted and sponsored the Jew-less Jewish Public Library in Vilnius, and another parliament employee who has long been involved in national memory projects—and a military honor guard meeting and escorting the urn at the airport. This level of official public approval for Ambrazevičius is already technically illegal under the recent Lithuanian law which outlaws praising Nazi leaders (at least in my interpretation it does).
The “academic conferences” were probably intended to lend a veneer or patina of respectability to the state breaking its own laws. They were by far the more interesting of all the events, not so much because of what was said by the mostly true believers at the podium and in the audience, but because of what wasn’t said.
The academics at the first conference (may 19, moved from VMU to the Kaunas city hall), with the exception of historian Arūnas Bubnys, mainly viewed Ambrazevičius’s actions through the prism of post-war memoirs written by men who had a vital interest in painting themselves as heroes rather than war criminals. They also suffered from the attempt in Lithuanian exile community historiography to remotely understand the connection between the onset of the Holocaust in Lithuania and the so-called June Uprising, and even the idea that the Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF) and the Provisional Government were somehow separate entities.
Notable in this regard in Dr. Augustinas Idzelis’s presentation, which was the most exhaustive, was the space devoted to the idea the Voldemarists, who tried to usurp the unelected Provisional Government soon after it declared itself in power, were somehow responsible for the mass murder of Jews in Lithuania. This is an internal Lithuanian argument, and of course it’s not really an either/or proposition, since we know from survivors’ testimony that the mass murder of Jews in Lithuania was a universal phenomenon, cutting across political lines. There is the same weakness in the proposition that the LAF created in Berlin represented all Lithuanian political parties, excluding the Communists. This is not an argument in favor of the axiom that only a handful of underworld figures and outcasts murdered Jews in Lithuania.
These sorts of self-imposed blinders led to the absurdity of Idzelis’s penultimate rhetorical statement at the first “conference,” to the effect: “If Jews were fervent Lithuanian patriots, why didn’t they join in the uprising? Unfortunately we have no data that Jews did join in the June Uprising.” What incredible nonsense, asking why didn’t Jewish civilians try to “join” the marauding LAF purveyors of an anti-Jewish campaign comprising pillage, rape, assault, murder and mutilation.
Historian Bubnys recounted Ambrazevičius’s “anti-Nazi activity,” and Bubnys was honest enough in recounting it, and it amounted to very little: writing editorials in an underground newspaper. Did he at least argue against the Holocaust in those writings? Against that part of Nazi policy that dictated genocide of a major ethnic minority in his country? Bubnys didn’t go into such niceties. I was left with the impression Ambrazevičius wrote in favor of Lithuanian independence, after the Nazis removed the self-declared Provisional Government in favor of a German administration. There is also the strange story of Ambrazevičius’s “fleeing” the Gestapo after signing off on a telegram to Hitler in favor of Lithuanian independence (with about 25 other signatories). And where did he flee? To Nazi Germany… To hide from the Gestapo…
About half of the time in the first conference seemed to be devoted to alternately ignoring what happened to the Jews in Lithuania while claiming that in any event, Ambrazevičius and the Provisional Government were in no way responsible. The remainder of the time featured a lot of talk about what a good person and true patriot he was, justifications that while the PG couldn’t have known what would be the consequences, they had dealt with the Devil, and lost, but for the best of reasons, for the sake of Lithuanian independence.
In a republic, the rights of the minority are supposed to be protected by the state from the predations and harassment of the majority. Lithuania in the inter-war period was nominally a republic, one founded incidentally, with great contributions by Lithuanian Jews, not excluding those of Oskar Milosz (his mother was a Jew from Warsaw) who from the beginning fought for Lithuania in French diplomatic circles and then at the League of Nations as a representative of the Lithuanian state. Many many other Jews fought, some literally, for the rebirth of the Lithuanian state (there was a well-known association of Jewish war veterans of Lithuania’s War of Independence). The modern Lithuanian state was a republic, based on Lithuanian ethnic boundaries, but with an eye to the past, to the heritage of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Lita of European Jews, with its capital Vilna.
It was in no way the intention of the LAF nor the self-appointed PG (self-appointed in Berlin, incidentally) to restore the independence of the Lithuanian state as it had existed up till then, neither as a republic, nor as the monarchy the Germans proposed in 1918, nor as the Grand Duchy with territorial pretensions extending to the Black Sea.
By their own words and documents, the LAF and the PG (which are the same thing, keep in mind) proposed and promised a Nazi-style national socialist territorial unit, Judenrein, and by their own words abrogated the privilegijas extended by the Lithuanian grand dukes to the Jews for centuries. They mouthed the Nazi propaganda about “the workers of the nation” and their rights. They glorified Hitler as the builder of and genius behind the “New Order” in Europe, and they, too, sought to build this “New Order” in Lithuania. They praised the power of the “brave” Wehrmacht even as the German military overran Lithuania, which they claimed to represent. They respected only the “Fuerher-principle” of seizing power and of course had no plans for democratic elections, even among ethnic Lithuanians, once they had purged the country of Jews and then Poles. They had no authority to form a government, except the power they arrogated for themselves with Nazi patronage.
Further, they had to know beforehand the Nazis were not going to countenance a collection of rump client states in the East. They knew the role they were playing for the Germans, which was two-fold. First, the German military wasn’t sure what sort of Soviet opposition to expect in their drive to the east in Operation Barbarossa. As it turned out, most Soviet forces withdrew, and Germans ended up in large part firing on civilians as two army groups fanned out, the force from Tilsit marching to Kaunas and then on to Dunaberg/Daugavpils in Latvia.
Second, the “secret meaning” of the still-secret contents of Barbarossa dealing with immediate “liquidation” of Judaeo-Bolshevik commisars was known beforehand to the LAF, who instructed from Berlin their cells inside the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic to prepare to kill their Jewish neighbors months before the invasion. Some Jews were warned about this, according to testimonies by survivors, but simply couldn’t and wouldn’t believe that such a thing could happen.
What the LAF and PG really sought, besides personal power and wealth within the Nazi career ladder, was “protectorate status” for Lithuania a la Slovakia, with what they called “full independence,” actually only a Nazi satellite state, being used as a starting point for negotiations. This is just my opinion based on my reading, of course. If the “deal with the Devil” the Ambrazevičius-worshippers means they think the LAF and PG sacrificed the Jews of Lithuania in order to curry Nazi favor as a geopolitical unit, they ought to come out and say so.
Instead they go to extreme lengths to differentiate things that aren’t different and to distance their heroes from the deeds those heroes actually did on the ground.
After the battles at Stalingrad and Kursk, when the tide of war turned, and when Lithuanians were being taken for “voluntary” labor in the Reich, it didn’t cost much to grumble in private about Nazi policies. And living in the West after the war, it was easy to exaggerate this as anti-Nazi activity. One of the final ploys of the Third Reich propagandists was to try to convince various members of the Allies, and even Allied POWs in German camps, that the Nazis and the West were united in a struggle to save Western Culture from the Bolshevik hordes. When the OSS transformed into the CIA just after the war, this propaganda found a home, and over the objections of the widow Eleanor Roosevelt, the war-time correspondent William Shirer and many others, the US began importing Nazi war criminals, not just a few and not just a few thousand, and not just scientists, but menial technicians, theoreticians, military personnel, to the United States to help win the new Cold War.
However much current Lithuanian leaders want to curry favor with the West and the United States specifically, honoring Nazis through rather obvious back channels, through the church and university with government funding, isn’t the way to accomplish this.
Pretending the Jews of Lithuania were somehow “collateral damage” to what was basically a very sound policy—joining World War II on the side of the Axis as the sidekick to the Third Reich—or that their murder didn’t really happen, didn’t matter and isn’t important anymore in any case, won’t work. Distorting history to serve the new national myth might work locally, but not when it comes into contact with the rest of the world.
Pursing projects to honor both the Nazis and the dead Jews ultimately leaves the state on the side of the Nazis, not the Jewish and other civilian victims.
Despite many projects to commemorate the Holocaust and buy off worldwide criticism of Lithuania over Holocaust distortion, the Kubilius government is nothing other than an apologists-for-the-fascists government in the final analysis, because it is honoring local Nazis as heroes. One doesn’t need to hate Jews to be a Nazi, just as one doesn’t have to be an antisemite to be a Holocaust perpetrator or collaborator.
It is also counter-productive for the State of Israel to court certain right-wing governments and movements in Europe, even those which have traded antisemitism for anti-Arab and anti-Islamic hatred. It is counter-productive because the constituencies of these groups remain the same, with the same old hatred of Jews just below the visible surface, and with no progress toward educating and teaching tolerance.
The Kubilius government has seen many similar games being played on the Lithuanian people, none of them very convincing in the long run. And why bother with sociological games like this, when there’s so much to be done in the world, so much Israel and Lithuania, Russia and the EU and other countries could be working on together instead of getting caught in the mazes of history, whose stone walls disappear under the light of the simple truth?