O P I N I O N
Vytautas Landsbergis is one of the giants of the late twentieth century. Along with Poland’s Lech Wałęsa and then-Czechoslovakia’s Václav Havel, Landsbergis led his people from foreign domination to freedom and democracy. Nothing these gentlemen might later on have said or done to their own legacies, particularly in the subsequent century, can detract from their singular achievements in contributing to the downfall of the Soviet Union and the freedom of the subjugated nations on its western periphery.
If Landsbergis is sometimes credited less than the other two, it is perhaps because Lithuania is a much smaller country, and maybe even because the January 1991 events, in which thirteen Lithuanian civilians lost their lives, rendered the process there somewhat less than purely peaceful.
Both arguments are spurious. First, size doesn’t matter here; it’s location, location and location. Lithuania, unlike Czechoslovakia and Poland, was part of the Soviet Union, a constituent republic, annexed fully, not a nominally independent Warsaw Pact state with its own ostensible leaders and foreign diplomats. The courage needed was greater and the probability of success considerably lower at the outset. By leading the other two Baltic states in pursuing freedom with courage and perseverance, Lithuania under Landsbergis played a disproportionate part in the undoing of the Soviet empire. That particular role could not have been played by the Warsaw Pact states to the west on their own.
As for the violence of January 1991 in Vilnius, the USSR’s willingness to use tanks and guns against unarmed peaceful civilian demonstrators became a wake-up call to the world to support Lithuania’s and other states’ yearnings for peaceful transition to independence. The image seen around the world, of music professor turned freedom fighter Vytautas Landsbergis steadfastly informing the planet that he will not leave the Seimas (Lithuanian parliament) building come hell or high water, did not a little in causing Gorbachov to blink and climb down. To those of us who were here in Vilnius that winter, Vytautas Landsbergis will remain one of the most inspirational personalities of the era.
Full disclosure: In November 1990, I persuaded my superiors at Oxford University to send me as a representative to an event at the Lithuanian Legation in London honoring the visit of Professor Landsbergis in London in open and enthusiastic support for Lithuanian independence.
During his time as de facto head of state, Landsbergis played a pivotal role in offering all the country’s residents Lithuanian citizenship, irrespective of race, language or family history (in sharp contrast to Latvia and Estonia). Then, by stepping down gracefully after free and fair elections chose another candidate for the newly free country’s office of president, he cemented democracy with Washingtonian grace.
Fast forward to more recent years of the twenty-first century. Landsbergis’s unshakeable earlier role in history, which can never be changed retroactively, nor should it, does not imply agreement with the politics and ideas of the man’s twenty-first century incarnation as a right-wing member of the European Parliament.
Over the last decade, MEP Landsbergis has moved ever closer to Eastern Europe’s dangerous New Far Right, the suave and smooth in-power far right that tries hard to pass itself off as center-right to outsiders. That phenomenon came to wider attention during the British Conservative Party’s dalliance with far-right elements in Poland several years ago, without the slightest ill-will on the part of the UK party.
In 2005, he launched his campaign demanding that Soviet symbols be banned in the whole of Europe in exactly the same was as Nazi symbols are banned. It was the first shot in the movement to “equalize for all of Europe” (not just for local nationalist history) Nazism and Communism, itself closely related to the East European far right’s wish to obfuscate, diminish and altogether write the Holocaust out of history as unique event (without denying a single death, in a movement I have called Holocaust Obfuscation). In the case of the Baltics, where much of this was coming from, it was related in discernible measure to these countries having the highest rates of Holocaust murder of their Jewish populations in all of wartime Europe, and a desire to confound and confuse that record and the larger issues into one mush of “equal totalitarian regimes.”
In June 2008, he signed the Prague Declaration, which highlights the word “same” five times, in its insistence that all of Europe accept red-brown equality, overhaul all of Europe’s textbooks to reflect that mantra, legislate a mandatory mix-and-match day of jumbled remembrance for victims of both regimes and more nonsense of that ilk. The Prague Declaration has been condemned by Holocaust survivors, the Wiesenthal Center, and a wide array of Jewish and non-Jewish historians and community leaders. The British Parliament’s MP John Mann, a renowned champion of human rights, has called it a “sinister document.”
Most recently, MEP Landsbergis has drifted more and more to the edge. There is the litany of his efforts to undermine each and every piece of gay rights legislation to come before the European Parliament (example).
Then there are the repeated efforts to glorify local Nazi collaborators and actual killers on the grounds that they were actually anti-Soviet heroes. This is all well and beyond center-right.
A few disturbing examples.
In August 2011, MEP Landsbergis’s Sąjūdis organization, was one of three organizations (along with two pro-fascist partners, the “Lithuanian Union of June 22-28 Insurgents” and “Friends of the Lithuanian Front”) that signed a public letter (English translation here) urging Lithuanians to honor the 1941 Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF) fascists who in effect unleashed the Holocaust by launching murder, mutilation, humiliation and plunder in dozens of Lithuanian towns before the Germans even arrived. Their earlier leaflets made their intentions regarding Jewish citizens of their country rather clear.
The most disturbing paragraph in the August 2011 statement by the three organizations, including Landsbergis’s Sąjūdis, reads as follows:
“So separately we would bring the attention of thoughtful members of the Jewish community to the fact that the NKVD “furazhki” who are now replaced by yarmulkes [in other words: the KGB guys have now replaced their classic NKVD/KGB hats with yarmulkes] might also have their own, special agenda. An agenda that does not in any way serve social harmony and justice.”
This was an untoward threat to the country’s small and fragile remnant Jewish community, urging that community to not dare have an opinion of the 2011 events set up to honor the perpetrators that differs from that of the right wing elites in government and elsewhere.
Then, on 19 October 2011, Landsbergis, flanked by MP Zingeris and the neo-Nazi parade leading MP Songaila, at a European Parliament conference, delivered an infamous attack on the European Parliament’s refusal to legally redefine the concept genocide as he would wish, insensitively baiting colleagues with the words “But if they were not all Gypsies…” In other words, if Soviet crimes did not target “Gypsies” (Roma), it must be for that reason that Europe won’t call these crimes genocide. This was an untoward and insulting-to-Roma diatribe. All part of the “basement end” of the Holocaust Obfuscation movement, that would like all crimes to be genocide so that in effect none are genocide.
During the shameful May 2012 episode of glorification of the 1941 Nazi puppet “prime minister” Juozas Ambrazevičius (Brazaitis), including his reburial with full honors in Kaunas, MEP Landsbergis served as backbone of the effort, wholly insensitive to Jewish and Western concerns. The American and other embassies helped persuade current national leaders who had signed the order financing the events to keep away themselves, but that did not affect him. Professor Landsbergis attended and defended the reburial of the fascist leader who personally signed the protocols confirming Nazi orders for “all means” against the country’s Jews (though avoiding “public executions”), for a concentration camp to be set up for Jews (it was actually the already active torture and murder site at the Seventh Fort near Kaunas), and for “all of the Jews of Kaunas” to be locked up in a ghetto within four weeks. Not to mention that the puppet prime minister presided over the ongoing slaughter of Jewish citizens all around him from day one by thousands of white-armbanded “heroes.” The small but proud Jewish community in Lithuania did not remain silent.
Are those the European values that MEP Landsbergis now espouses?
It seems so. He issued a “Dixi” statement (English here) attacking the forty-one Lithuanian intellectuals who signed the “post facto letter” (too little too late, but better than nothing) criticizing the honoring of the 1941 Nazi puppet prime minister once all was said and done (bold Lithuanian citizens spoke out unequivocally during the events).
Landsbergis’s statement, dated 12 June 2012 (just over one month ago, this is all “current events”), published in Bernardinai, is deeply disturbing. Not enough that he himself descended to honor his country’s participation in the Holocaust in 1941; he goes on to discredit those who signed a mildly worded protest after the fact, accusing them of being
“not brave enough to withhold their names to what was on offer. Some ― I see from the names ― should have been shaking considerably more…”
The statement begins with an attack on his fellow MEP, Professor Leonidas Donskis, whom Landsbergis seems to hold responsible for there being any criticism at all of the honoring of a major Holocaust collaborator. Within minutes of the scandal breaking in May, Professor Donskis had issued a courageous statement, which he followed up with an outstanding essay. MEP Donskis thereby did much to save Lithuania’s honor in recent months and deserves a medal, not a snide reference to his former television talk show, “Without Anger,” itself a huge credit to free and respectful discourse in Lithuania.
It is both ironic and sad that in his statement, Landsbergis tries to use himself as an example of someone whose legacy could be wrongfully twisted:
“I can only imagine what they will write about me. Perhaps some psychological complex affects these writers specifically, not necessarily as signatories [of the open letter]. It seems as if that’s the origin of the nervousness and inappropriate words, [inappropriate] even to the facts. But I won’t dispute it. We live in a very difficult and probably decisive time, we need to be less destructive over a single sentence.”
The good news for Professor Landsbergis will hopefully be that history will not detract from his own historic achievements for freedom, justice and democracy in the late twentieth century because of whatever nonsense (alas much more than one sentence) he uttered in later decades.
The bad news is that he would compare his own gallant record with the shameful 1941 Nazi puppet who did the exact opposite, failing to stand up to an evil empire, failing to treat equally all his citizens and to stand up for the vulnerable amongst them, and then failing to tell the truth during his subsequent decades. The 1941 Nazi puppet went much further, signing Nazi papers mandating the isolation, incarceration and humiliation of citizens of a certain ethnicity, even as “patriotic mobs” of the LAF and related groups were on the streets slaughtering thousands of Jewish citizens before his very eyes.
We rush to the defense of the twentieth century Landsbergis, taking sincere umbrage at the twenty-first century Landsbergis who dares compare his own old true self with the shameful 1941 Nazi puppet whose ceremonial reburial will not redeem him from the junk pile of European fascist history. Quite to the contrary, it served to draw attention to East European state-sponsored glorification of Nazi murderers, collaborators and puppets.
In other East European countries, politicians who participate in the glorification of Nazi collaborators, and whose organizations warn local Jewish communities not to dare express dissent about Nazi-glorification would tend to keep a certain diplomatic distance from “Jewish things.”
Not in Lithuania. Some of the same leading right-wing politicians who would attend an event on a Monday to honor a Nazi collaborator complicit in the murder of Lithuanian Jewish civilians in 1941 might have no hesitation heading out on Tuesday to unveil a plaque in memory of Holocaust victims, and a meeting on Wednesday with naive North American, west European or Israeli visitors to talk about his country’s dedication to embracing the Litvak heritage of its murdered Jewish population. (Actually, “hijacking” the legacy of the annihilated minority is more accurate than “embracing” here. There is something of a Fake Litvak industry.)
In part, the double game is enabled by the unique situation in the region of having a “court Jew” in parliament. When the Prague Declaration was produced in 2008, Lithuania’s MP Emanuelis Zingeris became the only Jew in Europe to sign. It is of course still open to him to simply issue a statement saying he made a mistake…
But this is not only about the one Jewish MP. The desire to usurp and identity-thieve the Litvak heritage as a neat and swell cover for historic revisionism has led to many projects, usually Jew-free in their leadership, which claim to carry the Litvak heritage forward. The list is long enough for a proper study. One of the gems was the “Litvak Foundation” whose director wrote an antisemitic article shortly after stepping down from his post. Then there was the mostly Litvak-less “Litvak Forum.” The list goes on. Today’s central Vilnius is dotted with high-value property featuring an array of “Jewish” institutions that do not have a single Jewish member of staff (just think of the ramifications, say, of an analogous string of snow-white entities dedicated to African-American culture in a city in the United States).
In wider terms, the right-wing government in power has learned to speak the language of naive foreign Jewish dignitaries and roots-tourists, clueless Western descendants of Litvaks, and American diplomats, persuading them to concentrate on this or that plaque or memorial event, and to make light of state-sponsored enabling of neo-Nazi marches in city centers on independence day holidays; the criminalization of free debate on the Holocaust; the glorification of perpetrators; the defamation of survivors who resisted; the toleration of front pages of national dailies reminiscent of 1930s Germany.
In this context, it is perhaps not a surprise that the name of MEP Vytautas Landsbergis appears on the board of the “Maceva” project to preserve and record Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania (a most laudable goal, supported by this journal). Its founder-director, Mr. S. Kanovich, happens to be the husband of Mr. Landsbergis’s private secretary. [Update of 15 Deb. 2018: after years of professional grade monitoring of the “international Litvak scene” and, allegedly, incredible success in manipulation on social media etc. and “keeping under review and in check” criticism of gov. Holocaust policies, he was just awarded a medal from the president of Lithuania.]
For the remnant of Lithuanian Jewry, the “double game” being played by the New Far Right is distressing. Hostility toward the victims and survivors of the Holocaust, toward the accurate history, robust living Litvak culture, and the present Jewish community and its stalwart liberal supporters, can, they think, be “fixed” by joining this or that board of a “Jewish” project. In this case, to focus in on the graveyards of Litvak Jewry.
How convenient. And symbolic. Buried Litvaks are just the kind the double-gamers feel comfortable with, especially when state-sponsored identity-theft is in the works.
Graveyards don’t talk back. But their souls go marching on, and the handful of genuine and loyal Litvaks will continue to speak up. As required by authentic Litvak tradition: loud and clear.