341. The Perception of the Holocaust: Public Challenges and Experience in Lithuania

By
Saulius Suziedelis

Saulius Suziedelis is Professor of History at Millersville University and a member of the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania. He spoke at an EES Noon Discussion on September 26, 2007. The following is a summary of his presentation. The views expressed herein are his alone and should not be interpreted as reflecting in any way the official position of either the Commission or the office of the President of the Republic of Lithuania. Meeting Report 341.

The war in the East differed dramatically from that in the West in terms of human cost, ideological fanaticism and brutality. The contrasting fates of Denmark and Poland are instructive. The former was certainly the safest zone in Nazi-occupied Europe: between 1940 and 1945 deaths at the hand of the Nazis there numbered only slightly more than the total of automobile fatalities in California in one year. On the other hand, central Poland constituted a black hole of genocidal depravity, arguably the worst place in the world in all of the twentieth century. There is also the chronological dissonance—one can find a number of locales in Lithuania where more people were killed after V-E Day than during the Second World War. It is not difficult to see that the Western (primarily British and American) perspective and imagery of World War II is largely irrelevant to the experiences of the population inhabiting the regions between Germany and Russia. The vocabulary of the "good war," the Holocaust and the Greatest Generation is meaningless to many Lithuanians. Appreciating the conflicting memories and narratives of the war is crucial in seeking to understand Lithuanian perception of the country's difficult past.

Several issues complicate the discussion of Soviet crimes. The term "occupation" poses a barrier to Russians and Westerners unaccustomed to this characterization of Soviet rule. The notion that the Soviet forces "occupied" rather than "liberated" the Baltic lands evokes explosive reactions among Russians, while the liberation narrative strikes most Balts as puzzling, if not insulting. As any Pole knows, while Britain fought for survival against the Nazi onslaught in 1940, the Soviet regime conducted the first mass murders of Allied POW's. Or as some are wont to point out, Stalin's government did not cease being a criminal regime on June 22, 1941.

The concept of the Soviet "occupations" of 1940-1941 and 1944-1990 presents other problems: who was a pro-Soviet collaborator, and was the "collaboration" in 1940-1941, and 1945-1953, the same as in the 1980s? The issue of judicial proceedings and the so-called lustration issue complicate matters further. Who was or was not a collaborator and what judicial sanctions, if any, should be applied to the aged veterans of the 1940s and early 1950s, or the bureaucrats who administered the less harsh Soviet repressive apparatus after the 1960s? Finally, in contrast to the neat Western separation of Soviet and Nazi realities, many Lithuanians view the two totalitarian regimes as historically connected. The issue can be controversial: Is there a problem with comparing Communist crimes to those of the Nazis? And if we compare, do we automatically arrive at the contentious and fruitless discussion of which is worse?

Then there is the issue of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the period of Soviet-German cooperation between September 1939 and June of 1941. (One should not forget the importance of the Nazi-Soviet Pact as a mobilizing force in the Baltic independence movements of the late 1980s, especially the famous "Baltic Way"). This irritant in Russian-Lithuanian relations has evoked commentary by President Vladimir Putin who reiterated the standard historiography of the Soviet Union as the "rejected suitor" during the British-French diplomatic initiatives of the summer of 1939. Furthermore, the welcoming response of the German invaders by Lithuanians in June 1941 has become a staple in documentaries, but Lithuanians can reasonably claim that the egregious behavior of the Stalinists during 1940-1941 explains in part the rage of many countrymen in the first days of the German occupation. Unfortunately, this has led to a kind of "two genocides" theory: Lithuanians were victims of the Soviet genocide, while Jews were victims of the Nazi murders. This connection is viewed in the West as a thinly veiled attempt to justify collaboration in the murder of the Jews. And any research on the question of the relationship of Jews to Soviet power in 1940-1941, even when conducted in a meticulously scholarly setting, raises hackles.

Lithuanian Society and the Holocaust
The perception of the Holocaust in Lithuania must be understood within a political context which has changed remarkably during the past decade. But caution is in order. The Holocaust was an event so momentous that virtually any generalization about the Shoah can be contradicted on some factual basis. There are, in other words, exceptions for every general proposition and this provides room for both honest differences of opinion as well as creating an opportunity for agenda-driven manipulations of the past.

Prior to Lithuania's independence in 1991, three views of the Nazi regime of 1941-1944 have prevailed: somewhat simplistically, they can be divided into the Soviet, Western and Lithuanian perspectives. The Soviet use of the Holocaust was directed at proving "bourgeois nationalist" complicity in the murder of the Jews and their service in the Nazi cause, with the purpose of discrediting both the large refugee anti-Communist diaspora in the West and the post-war anti-Soviet guerilla campaign. The Jewish specificity of the genocide was, with few exceptions, downplayed. The Western narrative of Lithuania's wartime has focused on the fate of the Jews, which inevitably highlighted native collaboration in the Final Solution. It has been suggested that the genocide of the Jews in the occupied Soviet Union could not have taken place without the participation of indigenous killers in the service of the Germans. One continuing problem of Western scholarship is the unfamiliarity of non-Baltic researchers with the languages of the region which denies them two important sources: the mass of primary documents on the 1940-1945 period that are now available as well as the increasing number of Lithuanian-language secondary studies.

The uninformed Western narrative can lead to a kind of German-less Holocaust, as well as confusion concerning the nature and extent of collaboration. A methodologically questionable formulation is that of Lucy Dawidowicz in her War Against the Jews 1933-1945 (1975): "The Baltic and Ukrainian populations [sic] collaborated voluntarily with the Germans in murdering the Jews." In 1996 Amos Perlmutter of American University declared flatly that "most of the Lithuanian people" collaborated with the Nazis (Washington Times, 28 December 1996). One researcher from Yad Vashem, in a paper delivered in Vilnius in 2002, portrayed the Germans of the summer and fall of 1941 as cinematic observers in a genocide carried out by locals.

Other misstatements, both significant and minor, are not uncommon. The infamous pogromist Algirdas (aka Jonas) Klimaitis, a small-time journalist and killer shunned by even pro-Nazi Lithuanian elements and unknown to most Lithuanians, was transformed into the head of the "anti-Soviet partisans" (a misreading of a German document by Raul Hilberg in his classic, The Destruction of the European Jews), later promoted to the head of the rebel anti-Soviet Lithuanian provisional government (Sol Littman, War Criminal on Trial: The Rauca Case), finally emerging as a Lithuanian "national hero" (Frankel and Kux, Los Angeles Times, April 29, 1990). Then there is the myth of the 100,000 anti-Soviet rebels during the uprising which coincided with the German invasion: proof of either great patriotism (Lithuanian authors) or extensive collaboration (Jewish writers). The actual number of insurgents was at least fivefold less.

For decades, Lithuanians both in the Soviet Union and the diaspora both proved largely immune to serious analysis of the Holocaust. Accustomed to self-perception as victims, the older generation of Lithuanian exiles in particular reacted defensively to any suggestion of Lithuanian collaboration with the Nazis. The minority of Lithuanian-American liberals and academics who argued for an open mind on the issue were often met with suspicion and charges of pro-Soviet bias. The exploitation of the Nazi connection in Soviet disinformation campaigns proved a convenient shield for anti-Soviet émigrés: charges of collaboration with the Nazis could easily be dismissed as KGB propaganda. There was nowhere for the younger generation to turn, even if they were put off by the fog of obfuscation and outright anti-Semitic prejudice of some of their elders. As noted, Western accounts of the Lithuanian role in World War II, whether in scholarship, media or fiction, were one-dimensional, often containing omissions and errors, ranging from the most elementary howlers to misidentification of persons and events. It was thus only natural that even those Lithuanians willing to open their minds were hardly likely to accept as guides authors who understood them so little. In Soviet Lithuania many people's well-founded mistrust of the Party line did little to enhance the regime's credibility when it fulminated against the crimes of the Nazis and their bourgeois henchmen

The first years of independence, however, did not augur well for a new openness in Lithuanian society's attitude towards the Holocaust. There was considerable interest in revelations of Soviet crimes, less concern with examining the Nazi occupation. The generally favorable international press coverage of Lithuania's march to independence tended to reinforce a self-image of heroes and martyrs rather than perpetrators. It was in this atmosphere that the rehabilitation scandal of 1991 came as a rude shock. The controversy, which alleged that the new Lithuanian government was massively rehabilitating Nazi war criminals, was accompanied by hype and overstatement exemplified by a bizarre photo and caption identifying what were clearly German Nazis as "Lithuanians greeting Hitler" in Jonathan Alter's and Michael Myer's piece in Newsweek ("An Unpardonable Amnesty," September 16, 1991).

But the controversies did force some towards a reexamination of questions which much of the older generation would have preferred to let rest. A series of public statements by Lithuanian leaders expressed regret at the participation of Lithuanians in the Holocaust, culminating in the 1995 visit of President Algirdas Brazauskas to Israel during which he asked forgiveness "for [the actions of] those Lithuanians who mercilessly murdered, shot, deported and robbed Jews." Still, academic and public discussion of the Holocaust was marked by a turbulent atmosphere. President Brazauskas's statement in the Knesset evoked a public (and disgraceful) protest by the ‘patriotic' intelligentsia, some of whom actually demanded that Jews, in turn, apologize for their crimes against the Lithuanian nation during the Soviet occupation.

Less dramatic, but no less important, were the changes that penetrated the country's academic circles. In September 1997, an international academic conference on the history of the Jews and the Holocaust was held in the seaside resort in Nida, the first such gathering convened at the initiative of Lithuanians. At the same time, generally unnoticed in the West (partly because of the language barrier and partly because of a condescending disbelief that Lithuanians were capable of examining difficult issues on their own) academic research on the Holocaust was involving an increasing number of Lithuanians. Not everyone welcomed this development. As expected, many Lithuanians instinctively resisted this "blackening of the nation's past," but it was also clear that some Jews were less than enthusiastic about the Lithuanians' incursion into a history which, until now, had been ‘owned' by scholars with roots in the Jewish community.

Governments themselves became involved in addressing the Holocaust. Confronting the half-century of foreign domination, a past rife with charges and counter-charges of collaboration, had created domestic and international political difficulties. In May 1998, the three Baltic countries approved in principle the creation of international historical commissions. The International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes, was barely out of infancy when it was immediately criticized as a conflation of the Nazi and Soviet occupations, a charge that resonated among Israelis and diaspora Jews. A number of Holocaust survivors attacked the entire enterprise as political ‘facade-painting,' intended to improve Lithuania's international image. Some Lithuanian émigrés, suspecting (correctly) that the Commission would undertake an investigation of native collaboration in the Holocaust, charged that President Adamkus's initiative was a Jewish-financed plot, or, at best, a sop to the West under American pressure. The usual postcommunist problems of xenophobia and anti-Semitism amid a weak civil society continue to pose serious difficulties for Holocaust research and education. And while it would be naive to believe that research and education are a panacea, they are, nonetheless, indispensable in steering society in a moderate and tolerant direction.

The work of Lithuania's international Commission, divided into two separate sub-commissions to study the crimes of each of the occupying powers, has proceeded despite the criticism. In addition to research, it also sponsors conferences and encourages educational outreach programs. The country's National Holocaust Education Project has been cited as an example for other postcommunist societies. Several academic conferences have been convened, the latest in Vilnius on September 23-25, 2002, which included scholars from Israel (including the preeminent authority on the Holocaust, Yehuda Bauer), the United States, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, Poland and other states, and was the largest scholarly gathering on the Holocaust ever held in the Baltics.

In the end, unanimity of views among Jewish, Lithuanian, American and German scholars working on the Holocaust is neither possible nor desirable. Unless they wish to exist as chroniclers for established views, productive historians must be ‘revisionists' to some extent. To hold differing perspectives based on honest scholarship, accepted scholarly method and a judicious use of the sources can only contribute to solid academic research. These sorts of exchanges of opinion are all to the good. This interaction is fundamentally different from clashes of views based on stereotypes, dogmatic assertions, beliefs based on hearsay, and intransigence founded on untested or outmoded notions.

Perhaps, more important than the work of the Commission, is the gathering momentum of Holocaust research in Lithuania, especially among the younger generation. The time is approaching (if not already here) when the most innovative research on the Holocaust in Lithuania will be carried out by Lithuanians, whose research on the Holocaust will develop in ways that will not simply duplicate Western perspectives. It will not please everyone, nor will it answer all questions. There can be no closure concerning a crime as massive as the Holocaust. But one can hope that the journey by what were once but a few open minds will attract ever more travelers in a changing land.
 

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