Could Lithuania’s Major Freedom of Speech Lapse be on Questions of History?



VILNIUS—The international uproar over Poland’s 2018 law criminalizing certain opinions about World War II and the Holocaust has led to coverage in mainstream mass media internationally (our own take). What seems to have been largely lost is that other East European countries have for many years been passing laws criminalizing opinions on these matters, laws that are arguably much worse, because they go beyond state anger at stereotyping or historic accusation to criminalizing opposition to a false narrative of history, specifically the Double Genocide model espoused by the nationalist establishment in much of Eastern Europe, particularly the Baltics and Ukraine. Such laws have been passed in Hungary (2010, maxing out at three years potential imprisonment), Lithuania (2010, two years), Latvia (2014, five years max) and Ukraine (2015, ten years). Then there was Estonia’s particularly curious “Valentine Day’s Law” of 2012. It could well be, that the parliamentarians who came up with the idea in Lithuania long before passage were the most honest about the motives. They made it clear that “in the Lithuanian legal system, acts regarding the crimes of Soviet genocide, i.e., their denial or justification, are not criminalized, and, experts say, this is an obstacle in attempting to equate the crimes of Soviet genocide with the Nazi genocide.”

JUMP TO 2018

It may well be that nobody has gone to prison, but each case cited below has resulted in loss or diminution of employment, ruination of career prospects and ability to make a living, legal action by police and prosecutors, harassment, humiliation at place of work, and at the extreme, such absurdities (in democracies) as confiscating all of an author’s books or sending Interpol to bother an elderly Holocaust survivor overseas over a book he’d published a dozen years earlier. Moreover, the laws themselves, and various acts by state-empowered institutions without necessarily referring to the laws per se, have served as a potent deterrent to talented young people, including graduate students in history and young journalists, from daring to question nationalist orthodoxies lest their careers be brought to an abrupt halt.

Here in Lithuania, the following are instances of potential application of the spirit of such laws, in a country that is in most respects a full-fledged Western-grade democracy. Strange to tell, it is on the question of history that the usual freedom for robust debate has been a victim of the powers that be. Surely, the citizens and residents of Lithuania deserve the same level of freedom of speech as their fellow Europeans further west. The following are examples over the past decade restricted to people resident in Lithuania (with the exception of the Holocaust survivor in Israel who received visitors from Interpol, an act of personal harassment). The list of critics from abroad subjected to “mere” defamation or empty legal threats would be rather longer.

2008: A new law “equally outlawing” Nazi and Soviet symbols is taken by Holocaust survivors and veterans of the anti-Nazi war effort to be prejudicial to the continuing celebration of May 9th (Victory Day), when World War II veterans, by then very aged, would love to dress up in their uniforms (with their “Soviet symbols”) and celebrate publicly. BBC reported. While there were no demonstrations of contemporary Russian or other “Soviet symbols”, swastikas had been permitted on that year’s neo-Nazi march in central Vilnius on Independence Day. Later on, in 2010, a “slight exception” to the law was carved out by swastikas being exempted from the law and explicitly permitted.

2008: Professor Dovid Katz, founder and research director of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute was told he would be dismissed if he continued to publicly protest prosecutors’ campaign of defamation against Holocaust survivors. More details  of the saga here. The massive effort, led by members of the state’s “red-brown commission” enveloped the institute’s then primary American donor, convincing him to go along with the discontinuation of the professor’s contact in 2010, in the absence of any replacement. Said donor was eventually rewarded by the foreign minister of Lithuania delivering a medal to his home in Los Angeles, California (as PDF). Meanwhile, the Yiddish institute is quite free of Yiddish teaching eleven months a year, and its director is a member of the red-brown commission. The neo-Nazi establishment followed up with an ongoing campaign of defamation and libel (samples here). In 2018, the Yiddish institute, no longer deemed necessary as a political toy, was abruptly closed down with no public appeals to fresh foreign support, its summer course discontinued with effect from 2019, and its massive library, largely donated by lovers of Yiddish from around the world, put away in a secret location out of reach of readers and scholars. So much for the “nationalist love of Yiddish”… Hopefully the library will at least be transferred soon to the National Library .

2009-2012: A campaign of state officials’ harassment is launched against Rachel Kostanian, co-founder and long-time director of the Holocaust section  (known as The Green House, at Pamenkalnio 12), of the official state Jewish museum called the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum. Ms. Kostanian resisted all pressures to compromise the historical integrity of the narrative and exhibits. See the 2010 report by Esther Goldberg Gilbert, wife of the late Sir Martin Gilbert. On several occasions, Ms. Kostanian’s position was alleviated by rapid interventions by Sir Martin (e.g. June 2010). Some of Ms. Kostanian’s recollections are offered in the 2012 documentary Rewriting Historydirected by Marc Radomsky and Danny Ben-Moshe.

2011: Lithuanian prosecutors sent Interpol (!) to disturb Holocaust survivor and Litvak leader and icon Joseph Melamed at his Tel Aviv office to “investigate” his 1999 book on the Holocaust which contained lists of alleged perpetrators and collaborators. The international scandal reached the UK’s House of Commons.

2013: Holocaust survivor Professor Pinchos Fridberg is called a “liar” by the executive director of the state-sponsored “International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupational Regimes in Lithuania” on the commission’s official website, after he corrected a mistake made by a commission employee at an international conference. Professor Fridberg made valiant efforts to counter the efforts to defame him. A chronicle of the saga is here. The upshot of the affairs was that anyone who dares disagree with the commission’s “truth policies” would be subject to personal degradation and defamation, resulting, yet again, in discouraging young Lithuanian scholars and others from pursuing history with an open mind and access to a healthy diversity of opinions. See also Defending History’s Pinchos Fridberg section.

2014-2016: After an inspiringly courageous serious of articles on alleged Holocaust collaborators honored by the state as “national heroes” via street names, statues, squares, plaques, university halls and more, Evaldas Balčiūnas endured a series of nuisance police summonses, court appearances and harassment from police and prosecutors, starting in 2014  until finally being found “not guilty” in 2016. See our coverage from May 2014, his first response that month, developments in June 2014, July 2014, August 2014, October 2014, April 2015, June 2015November 2015, January 2016, June 2016, and the final exoneration in July 2016.

2017: Dr. Darius Udrys, a Lithuanian American with impeccable Lithuanian patriotic credentials, who settled in Vilnius many years ago, was fired from his position a director of the city of Vilnius’s public affairs unit, called Go Vilnius, after he dared, on his personal Facebook page, question whether the “Forest Brothers” (some of whom were recycled Holocaust perpetrators and collaborators) may have been wrong to murder Lithuanian citizens for working on Soviet collective farms in the postwar years.

2017: Under heavy pressure from high government officials, the publishing house Alma Littera, that had enjoyed huge success from best-selling author Ruta Vanagaite‘s books over the years, abruptly banned and withdrew from the market all her books, not just her 2016 book on the Holocaust co-authored with the legendary Nazi-hunter Dr. Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Lithuania’s first post-Soviet head of state published a devastating personal attack on her and as far away as Washington DC, Lithuanian officials were accusing her of collusion with Putinist forces. Report in the New YorkerMedia chronicle is here.

2018: Apparently as a result of Ruta Vanagaite’s 2016 book, and the ongoing publication of Defending History (and of its authors in various Lithuanian publications), the Economy Minister (!) of Lithuania on 2 April 2018 proposed a bill banning the sale of publications that “distort historical facts.” Coming as it does in the wake of a massive campaign of government manipulation of history, reported on by the New York Times on 30 March, there is little doubt about the intention. Incidentally, the Economy Ministry has never replied to queries about whether the major neo-Nazi blogger Zeppelinus (who has a certain fondness for photoshops of DH’s editor) is indeed a senior civil servant in the Ministry.

“But don’t the citizens of the Baltics deserve the same level of freedom of speech as everyone else in the European Union?”

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