O P I N I O N A N D E Y E W I T N E S S R E P O R T
by Evaldas Balčiūnas
A conference called “United Europe, United History” took place at the Lithuanian parliament on November 15th and 16th. The conference organizers and speakers repeatedly spoke of upcoming changes in the government (16 November was the first day the newly elected parliament assembled), and conference organizer and “Red-Brown Commission” chairman Emanuelis Zingeris even tried, unsuccessfully, to explain the poll results as the bad influence of the long Soviet occupation on the mentality of the people… (It was probably a good thing he didn’t call for a an international tribunal to provide compensation for the losses suffered by his party).
But one thing at a time.
At the start of the conference the speakers sat at a table on the stage: executive director of the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupational Regimes in Lithuania — Ronaldas Račinskas; Lithuanian prime minister Andrius Kubilius; MP and occasional historian Arvydas Anušauskas; and a Swedish politician Goran, not coming up with anything historical for the conference. Neither did the state Jewish museum director and author, Markas Zingeris, hiding behind the flags; or MP and commission chairman Emanuelis Zingeris, arriving late with some drama as every attention-seeking politician should.
All of these politicians, incidentally, belong to the same school of thought. They’re all members of the right-wing, and all of the Lithuanians on stage belonged to the same Homeland Union Conservatives faction.
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Račinskas provided the introduction. He called upon speakers to speak “so that others might hear us,” warning them not to compete among themselves and not to get into disputes. He spoke of the sacred work of his commission.
Lithuanian prime minister Andrius Kubilius gave the welcoming address. It left a strange impression. He said the foundation of the state is the “unanimous conception of history.” Then he talked about the Prague Declaration of 2008. He reminded the audience that the characterization “blood lands” was applied to us. He said the incontrovertible phrase, “It’s not right to say let’s forget, it’s right to say let’s remember, so that it never happens again,” but he seemed to be using the phrase to talk about Russia and quoted that country’s prime minister, Medvedev and spoke about the crimes of Stalinism. But Kubilius’s “unanimous conception of history” turned out to be an extremely short history course in the best traditions of the All-Union Communist Party and the short history by Stalin that we once had to learn, all to promulgate a unified history of the sacred Party…
The constant adulation for the Prague Declaration recalled nauseating political pronouncements in the duplicitous and hypocritical old Communist spirit, to rally “our own” by waving around the image of an enemy.
Zingeris’s speech featured abundant political meanderings. On both totalitarian regimes, he seemed to be justifying and delivering one polemic at one and the same time: “I don’t know whose idea it was to put an equals sign. Our idea was to strengthen both memories… Everything else is speculation.” He grew silent and said he wouldn’t say exactly who the speculators were or whence the speculation emanated.
Neither did his attempt to mitigate what he called the episode of the Lithuanian government paying for the 2012 ceremonial reburial of Provisional Government Nazi puppet prime minister Juozas Ambrazevičius- Brazaitis this past spring in Kaunas sound very sincere. Such a denial of the obvious was unbefitting.
He said that next year the seventieth anniversary of the Vilnius and Warsaw ghettos would be commemorated. He repeated the obvious by saying the Holocaust was unique. He said the Commission had stood in solidarity with the historian [Yitzhak] Arad, though the Commission never came out with a single official word about Dr. Arad, one of its own founding members.
Another aspect demonstrated the clearly political nature of the conference: a series of video messages due to “tight schedules” by politicians unable to attend. This is how MEPs Hans-Gert Pottering and Sandra Kalniete “clocked in.”
Arvydas Anušauskas, MP and member of the State Security Committee in our country’s parliament, who traded in the profession of historian for politician, found sanctuary in the lack of a shared view in Europe of Soviet crimes. Anušauskas called crimes committed by the Soviets “genocide.” After Lietuvos rytas reporter Vytautas Bruveris asked him to explain his expanded and unusual usage of the word, Anušauskas didn’t defend his usage but changed the subject. Emanuelis Zingeris then tried to “fix” everything by saying he wouldn’t descend to the common practice of calling poverty in Lithuania the genocide of pensioners.
Markas Zingeris told of the lost culture of the Litvaks and said this was a bridge which joined Lithuania to Western Europe through broad cultural exchanges. He said there was a time when books published in Vilnius were to be found throughout Europe.
In the afternoon Dr. Kęstutis Girnius delivered a paper on whether the 1941 Provisional Government of Lithuania was collaborationist or not. He delivered his lecture in the Lithuanian parliament in English. It seemed that it was a sensitive topic, that the speaker was excited and spoke as quickly as possible. The translators failed to keep up and much of the lecture was lost on the audience attempting to listen to the translation. The main point seemed to be that the Provisional Government attempted to restore Lithuanian independence. Collaboration, he explained, is when there is cooperation with the enemy against one’s own people, but the cooperation of the Provisional Government with the Nazis was directed against the common enemy — the Soviets.
Clearly such an interpretation, even delivered in English, couldn’t stand without reply. And there were some people in the hall who understood it. Emanuelis Zingeris, trying to suppress his emotions, or perhaps that was just an act — it’s so hard to tell with politicians — posed a question through a long and mixed-up statement about why the Provisional Government hadn’t tried to restore independence by reviving the constitution of 1938 instead of adopting the statute “On the Situation of the Jews.” Girnius replied that we just don’t know why they acted that way.
I asked whether those 200,000 (Jewish) Lithuanian citizens whose rights were trampled upon by the Provisional Government which collaborated with the Nazis and who were to be murdered, hadn’t been, as he said earlier, cooperating with the enemy against one’s own people.
Girnius agreed, saying that “the observation is appropriate,” and gave the impression that his paper had been a typical Lithuanian “boo-boo” that happened when we are speaking and forget that the Jews also had and have the same right to live in Lithuania… I wasn’t able to pin him down further because he and Emanuelis Zingeris dashed away from the conference (together) before the time slated for the afternoon break. Apparently they, too, had tight political schedules.
Alvydas Nikžentaitis who spoke later about other matters responded more simply. He said the Germans hadn’t allowed the Provisional Government to collaborate fully, but that the fact of collaboration was obvious.
Dr. Nerijus Šepetys was a break from politicized issues and spoke about how young people understand history. His suggestion seemed paradoxical: to contrast and compare the Nazi and Soviet regimes, but not to mix them up, and to judge them separately.
Professor Saulius Sužiedėlis offered what promised to be an interesting speech in the evening, but I was unable to attend. The next day I had the pleasure to read an interview with the professor which I recommend to everyone interested in this topic (in Lithuanian).
The second day (webcast was here) also started off with speeches by politicians: MEP Radvilė Morkūnaitė attempted to tell of her efforts to tell her politician colleagues about Lithuanian history.
Joke van der Leew-Roord of the Netherlands delivered an interesting and educational report. She cast doubt on the need for a unified understanding of history, and instead suggested that if you want to be heard, you have to learn to listen. She called it paradoxical that those who speak of a shared understanding of European history are the same people who do not want to hear about the experience of others. She noted that countries afflicted by serious social problems most frequently cite the need for a unified understanding of history, whereas countries which are somewhat better off usually don’t find the need for a united view so important. It seemed to me that most of the audience ignored this speaker’s sober and honest words in the spirit of simple common sense, honesty and openness.
That could be because they were rather more interested in Arimantas Dumčius’s account of the suffering of people deported by the Soviets. It seemed a large part of the (really small) audience was comprised of people who felt wronged by the crimes committed and pressure exerted by the Soviet regime.
I thought the comprehensive and touching paper by Dr. Andrzej Kacorzyk on the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum was interesting. This was the one paper that made the conference worth attending.
Edvinas Šnore, director of Soviet Story, spoke about the Holodomor in the Ukraine this time. It seems we will have yet another popular anti-Soviet film quite soon.
Genocide Research Center director Birutė Burauskaitė surprised me by saying that the enumeration of crimes committed by the Nazis was progressing well, whereas research on Soviet crimes was at a stand-still because the courts and prosecutors were attempting to delay these cases.
Another politician entered the hall as she was speaking: MEP Vytautas Landsbergis. This seemed to enliven the spirits of part of the audience. Those gathered began to express anger over the slow publication of names of perpetrators of Soviet regime crimes and their light sentencing. Landsbergis had spoken of this several times earlier and demanded the names be named.
I mustered the courage to ask Birutė Burauskaitė about that area where she said everything was fine. In fact, at the beginning of the summer the Center for the Study of the Genocide and Resistance of the Residents of Lithuania published [material on] more than a thousand people who took part in crimes of genocide. The names were not published. My questions was whether there were any efforts being made to publicize those names?
The answer was, well, cursory. She said this had only been an historical study. There was no legal judgment. She said her center was going to turn the research material over to the commissioning party — the Lithuanian government, by the end of the year, and didn’t know if the study would then be given to the prosecutor for assessment or not. After this answer, it wasn’t clear to me what exactly had progressed “well” in enumerating the crimes committed by the Nazis.
I used the break to approach the director and asked her whether it was in order that the acts of more than a thousand suspected war criminals hadn’t been assessed legally. Račinskas, who was standing next to us, tried to evade the issue by claiming that the Soviet courts had judged their crimes. I might have been satisfied by that if not for my knowledge of current Lithuanian legal findings according to which evidence collected by Soviet courts is totally unrecognized by the Lithuanian legal system without further new investigation. The activities of these people, whatever they might have done, requires a new legal judgment.
I further asked how many of those more than a thousand people in the historical study performed, those Holocaust perpetrators, had been posthumously honored by the current Republic of Lithuania. I received a frankly insincere answer: “Perhaps two, but that was immediately corrected and their awards annulled.” Over two decades in independent Lithuania that legal judgment on the Nazi murderers has gotten lost. Those who pay attention note that one after another, murderers sentenced during the Soviet period have been rehabilitated, or even granted the status of resistor and freedom fighter against the occupational regimes. Some even have plaques in their honor and streets named for them.
The desire to ask questions passed. As did the desire to remain at the conference and listen to the speech by Vytautas Landsbergis. Neither did Emanuelis Zingeris’s announcement at the beginning of the conference, boasting gleefully that Landsbergis had promised to appear with a “conceptual report,” whatever that is. Actually, Landsbergis sent in two pages of “notes” on unifying European memory in very strange English for the audience to enjoy on the first day and promised to appear in the flesh on the second day. But I had had enough of the conceptual aspirations by the right-wingers to manipulate history.
Unfortunately, there was very little history in the two-day conference, much less than self-serving right-wing political claptrap on historical topics.
What the conference actually seemed to be was a report to supporters (the majority of the “fixed” audience) by the Conservative Party which has held power for the last four years on efforts to spread an imposed, ultranationalist and self-serving version of history. The guests from abroad, especially those who due to “busy political schedules” only sent in their video congratulations on the conference’s convening, served merely to demonstrate the Conservatives’ impressive foreign political connections.
Authorized translation from Lithuanian by Geoff Vasil.