A Heroic Narrative in Violation of Good Conscience



by Leonidas Donskis


The ceremonial reburial of the head of the Lithuanian Provisional Government (PG), Juozas Ambrazevičius-Brazaitis, which recently took place, and the tension and details associated with it, said more about Lithuania today than all the news and commentary over the past twenty years put together.

Back when the Sąjūdis movement for Lithuanian independence was just beginning, we encountered Georgian filmmaker Tengiz Abuladze’s film Repentance and thought of it as a sensation or even a miracle, this film about the invasion by an almost Satanic totalitarian system of the human soul, taking away its sensitivity and memory. The destruction of the ancient holy place in the city is synchronized with William Shakespeare’s 66th sonnet, memorized by heart by the local murderer and dictator Varlam Aravidze and read by him to his future victims. It was a wonderful performance of an aria from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Il Trovatore (the cabaletta Di quella pira).

After his death, a woman appears whose family was murdered by the monster and who cannot come to terms with the idea that the remains of Varlam Aravidze be peacefully returned to the land of Georgia. It ends with the murderer’s son being convinced that something is not right and refusing to bury his father, having come to the realization that the loss of conscience and human sensitivity is too large a price to pay for remaining loyal. Failing to recognize the crimes of the past, the family’s and the entire nation’s present fails to congeal, and the present becomes instead the hostage and victim of the lie. Abel Arvidze’s son, the grandson of the murderer Varlam, is unable to bear the burden of shame and pain for the destroyed destinies of the town’s people, whose lives had become mere details or insignificant trifles in the family’s stories about their proud past and heroism.

I am not in any way comparing the character of the leader of the Provisional Government of Lithuania and the horrible Repentance. That would be somewhat of an overstatement, distasteful and, in the end, not clever. I am just talking about the Shakespearian dilemma which the Georgian film director understood so well in presenting his immortal film. What is more important: the historical tale which inspires the town and morale among its citizens, or the truth and conscience? Can these things in general coexist peacefully? Should small details and unimportant matters—which you will in any case not be able to preserve for the whole of the people with whom the current and future generations must live—be sacrificed for the sake of the heroic narrative?

Zygmunt Bauman has developed the theory of the adiaphorization of consciousness. He says that during times of upheaval and at critical historical junctures or intense social change, people lose some of their sensitivity and refuse to apply the ethical perspective to other people. They simply eliminate the ethical relationship with others. These others don’t necessarily become enemies or demons, they are more like statistics, circumstances, obstacles, factors, unpleasant details and obstructing circumstances. But at the same time they are no longer people with whom we would like to meet in a “face to face” situation, whose gaze we might follow, at whom we might smile or to whom we might even return in the name of recognition of the existence of the Other.

People who have lost their sensitivity temporarily or for a long time are no demons. They simply remove from their sensitivity zone certain people or entire groups. As the Greek stoics of antiquity and later religious reformers and thinkers in the Renaissance believed, there are things which are in reality inessential and unimportant, matters over which there is no point to argue or cross swords. This kind of unimportant thing is called an adiaphoron (Greek neuter singular, άδιάφορον, from ά- , a negative prefix marker, + διάφορος, “different,” making “indifferent”) and the plural is adiaphora. An example of usage is found in the letter that Philipp Melanchthon wrote to Martin Luther in which he said the Catholic liturgy was an adiaphoron, hence it was pointless to argue about it with the Catholics.

In Lithuania adiaphorization of consciousness and memory affects our historical narrative of World War II. The Jews appear in it as some sort of obstacle, hindrance, an annoying detail appearing in the wrong place, disallowing the construction of the heroic narrative of Lithuania and her aspirations to freedom. It is simply disappointing that they appear there. After all, History itself is against the Jews. The great military and political power coming after the (first) brutal Soviet occupation, then the sole power able to liberate Lithuania and restore her independence left the Jews no chances for survival and even threatened to turn upon us if we hindered their plans.

One must choose: (a) to separate from oneself a portion of the citizens of the Republic of Lithuania, to place them outside the category of citizens, to approve Germany’s Nuremburg laws on the seizure of Jewish property and their separation from other citizens, to renounce them as citizens, in no way to associate the justice system and the entire state with them and, finally, to give them over for destruction; or (b) to act the way the King of Denmark did, refusing to separate the Jews from other citizens and the state, and therefore to wear upon one’s breast, as the King did, the Jewish Star of David.

There is no third way. Either you give up some of your citizens for humiliation, robbery and death, or you protect them in the same way you would protect all of your other citizens, without regard to their origins and views. That’s all. Full stop. No compromise is possible in this ethical and political situation. Unless, of course, you want to say that not all people have the same right to life, but then that’s a concept of the Nazis. The theory that there are those unworthy of life laid the foundations for the adiaphorization of the consciousness of Europe.

Or, one can claim (as is often done in Lithuania) that, allegedly, one must act cleverly with Satan, i.e., with the Nazis, for the sake of a noble goal: the restoration of Lithuanian independence. For now let’s leave for the interpreters of Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky the question of whether it is allowable to sacrifice for the sake of the state the lives of those less worthy to live, or the life of even one innocent person (unless that person chooses to lay down his life for his country, but in that case this is his own free decision, not a matter for military bureaucrats and their social engineering), and let’s instead ask if a political elite who turn over some of their citizens for annihilation, or merely place them outside the category of human beings, are heroes, or whether they are traitors to their state and its citizens.

Lithuania’s real tragedy was that it was liberated by the Soviets instead of the British or Americans: after the first horrible trauma and degradation of Lithuania, when not a single shot was fired in reply to occupation, and after the attempt to wash away this shame with one’s own blood and the blood of others, the second historical blow hit Lithuania. If Lithuania hadn’t been “saved” by the Soviets, but instead liberated by the West, the political elite of democratic Lithuania would have tried the Provisional Government and the Lithuanian Activist Front as Nazi collaborators and traitors. This needs to be said and understood once and for all.

There is no doubt that the documents of the LAF and PG would be found to be proof of criminality. They would be interpreted as treason against the Republic of Lithuania, including Leonas Prapuolenis’s address in the name of the LAF over the Kaunas “Radiofonas” radio station in which he clearly stated the need to get rid of Jews, to cleanse Lithuania of them and (in a passage worthy of Goebbels) to rescind the rights of settlement that Lithuanian Grand Duke Vytautas the Great granted to Jews because of their treason against and lack of loyalty to Lithuania.

This did not happen, of course, and so Lithuania is still trying to battle against her historical humiliation, and this is characterized by the thinking that everything that is against the Soviets and the entire Soviet past is in and of itself good. It isn’t. This idea of “heroes by default,” heroes resulting from omissions from the historic record, or more precisely the suppression of history, sooner or later must come into conflict with both the West’s political-historical narrative of the Holocaust and with Lithuania’s own prominent personalities, with their courage, nobility and conscience.

For me that noble Lithuania is represented by Algimantas Mackus’s poem Jurekas, and Antanas Škėma’s novel Izaokas, and also Tomas Venclova’s essay “Žydai ir lietuviai” (“Jews and Lithuanians”) in his Vilties formos (Forms of Hope), and not by the idealism of the rebels of the June Uprising of 1941, who on the very first day of the uprising spread the vision of a Lithuania without Jews. The condemnation to degradation and death of a fragile and stigmatized part of the population in the name of even a grand political goal isn’t idealism, though; it’s the most terrible species of Realpolitik. The two concepts shouldn’t be confused.

If we have a dearth of heroes, what’s stopping us from building statues to commemorate Sofija Binkienė and the other righteous among the nations who rescued Jews? What isn’t allowing us to take pride in Lithuania’s unshakeable dissidents, such as Nijolė Sadūnaitė, or the humble and fearless Samogitian Viktoras Petkus, who so recently left us, and who so impressed his fellow gulag inmate Aleksandr Solzhenytsin? Or what’s stopping us, for that matter, from making Vytautas Landsbergis into a hero for all of Europe, a comrade-in-arms with Poland’s Solidarity movement and Vaclav Havel?

For whom is it still not clear that Sąjūdis and Lithuania’s historic victory against the Soviet Union in 1991 washed away forever the national shame over the humiliation of the Lithuanian people in 1940, or that the tables have now turned, and Vladimir Putin and others nostalgic for the Soviet Union will never forgive Lithuania for humiliating the empire in the international arena and in the eyes of the entire world? Is this still not clear to us? Do we really need to fight these senseless battles between ourselves and with our past, compromising Lithuania for no reason?

Unfortunately we have chosen a different logic of morality. Jews are not ours. They do not belong to Lithuania. They are unimportant things, inconvenient details, circumstances and academic footnotes pushed by historians. They are hindrances. Because of them, we are unable to create our gallery of heroes and our heroic narrative as we would like. All that remains is for us to ask ourselves whether all this supposed patriotic pragmatism is sensible. It is not serving the past and certainly not honoring the memory of the dead, but simply allowing for political mudslinging and sending the “right” message to voters. If so, that means we are choosing an immoral version of patriotism which no longer includes ethics, truth or conscience.

I am not casting aspersions upon the memory of Juozas Ambrazevičius-Brazaitis. He was an intellectual and a teacher. Let his family, friends and colleagues honor his memory. The Republic of Lithuania joining in with official honors, however, means only one thing in civilized politics: we approve of the policy carried out by his cabinet.

That means the Holocaust and its proposition were not our and the world’s great tragedy. That means we accept responsibility for the words and deeds of the Lithuanian Provisional Government. Even if in this case we are not talking about legal responsibility, it is still worth remembering that there is a thing called political responsibility. And moral responsibility, although that might be too much and too unpleasant a requirement. To be a hero, it is not enough to merely not be a criminal, you still have to at least nominally oppose the crime being committed in front of you. Or at least condemn it after some time.

It wasn’t angels and demons who fought World War II, unfortunately, it was frighteningly and terribly “normal” and healthy people. There were those who were veritable antisemites, but rescued Jews because they saw their suffering with their own eyes, rather than saying something abstract or signing documents for discriminating against them, robbing them and murdering them.

To see everything and remain silent, and to speak much without observing are two inherently contradictory existential and ethical situations. Those who did not see and signed off on it could later be struck by what they saw and could then rescue Jewish children. Antisemites were able to rescue Jews, and non-antisemites were able to turn them over in the name of their homeland, a concept from which they removed ethics, empathy, sympathy, and the human face with its pleading look and the long meeting of eyes.

This is why we differentiate between, on the one hand, the importance of weak, all-too-human, beloved-by-someone, awfully healthy and normal people in the eyes of their families and friends and on the other, the universality of ethics. At the same time we comprehend the different status of the political judgment of these people which might and unfortunately does produce horrible things. Otherwise, we will continue to build monuments to our traumas and humiliations, and rather than battle against our state’s problems, weaknesses and real defects, we will battle against those who dare see and speak differently.

There is no such thing as heroism without conscience and ethics. We know that. It’s just that, sadly, it’s more comfortable and more human to forget that. All too human.

Authorized translation from the original Lithuanian, which appeared on the author’s blog on 24 May 2012. The English version first appeared in DefendingHistory.com. Republication is permitted exclusively by explicit permission of the author, and with accreditation to DefendingHistory.com.


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