When past comes a knockin’. The unceasing grip of history in Lithuania.

Jorens Jakovlevs

On October 12, 1956 a covert KGB operation to detain Adolfas Ramanauskas, known by his codename Vanagas – the Hawk, the last commander of the Lithuanian Partisans took place in rural Lithuania. In the aftermath of the Second World war, groups of underground resistance fighters across the Baltic states known as the Forest Brothers took up arms and waged a guerilla war against the Soviet regime. Finding refuge and shelter in the dense forests of the Baltic region, these partisan groups had developed well-defined chains of command and organizational structures, and enjoyed widespread support from rural populations. By 1956 however, all resistance had been suppressed. The once powerful Union of Lithuanian Freedom Fighters, which in 1949 had signed a declaration assuming the responsibility to lead the restoration of independent democratic Lithuanian state and had effective control in rural districts was pushed underground. Its leaders were killed, their supporters and family members – imprisoned or deported to Siberia. At the time of the KGB operation, Vanagas, and his wife Birutė Mažeikaitė had been living in hiding for years. Once betrayed by a former classmate, the couple was taken into custody, where Vanagas was severely tortured and later executed, while Mažeikaitė was condemned to eight years in a Siberian prison camp. This episode, while seemingly negligible in the wider context of Soviet atrocities in the Baltic states, has recently gained increased international attention due to its appearance in the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg. On March 12 of this year the chamber of the court decided to uphold a previous decision of the Lithuanian Supreme court, sentencing Stanislovas Drėlingas, a senior lieutenant of the KGB who participated in the detention, for genocide charges. The then 25-year-old Lithuanian former agent was sentenced as an accessory to genocide for which there is no domestic statute of limitations. The argument of the Lithuanian courts was based on the view that the partisans had played a key role in protecting Lithuanian identity and that by virtue of this they were the representatives of the Lithuanian nation as a whole. As Ramanauskas had been a prominent leader of the partisans – for his role he was posthumously recognized as the Head of the Lithuanian State by the national parliament and was given a state funeral in 2018 – his execution was construed as an intentional attempt to eliminate a part of the national group, which falls under the definition of genocide under the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. 

While Drėlingas himself was not directly involved in the execution of Ramanauskas, the court ruled that as an officer of the security forces he must have been aware of the eventual fates of the two resistance members. His blind obedience to the orders was enough to constitute a human rights abuse, reminding us of Hannah Arendt’s insight of the banality of evil in the case of Adolf Eichmann, espousing the mundane mechanisms of the oppressive totalitarian state apparatuses. At the time, Drelingas should have been aware that he could be prosecuted for genocide in the future. 

This historic ruling sets a new precedent in international law and sheds light on the contested memory landscape of the Baltic states. The court’s decision marks the first time that an international judicial institution has recognized Soviet atrocities in Lithuania as constituting a genocide, thus providing legitimacy to the grievances of many Lithuanians and others, who doubt the uniqueness of the Holocaust and claims that another genocide, perpetrated by the Soviets, took place in the Baltic states during and after the Second World. A greatly contested topic in many eastern European countries and Germany alike, the double genocide thesis draws an equivalence between the Nazi and Soviet crimes against humanity, and seeks equal recognition and justice for the victims of Stalinist terror. In the case of the Baltic states, said grievances of the national ethnic groups who suffered under the Soviets have completely overshadowed the remembrance and education on the Holocaust, which only recently has entered the public consciousness. In this contested memory landscape, the Holocaust has taken up a rather obscure and ambiguous role. As stories concerning war time collaboration and the details of Holocaust become more openly disclosed, the significance of preserving the mythical martyrdom of the national populations becomes ever more important. An example of this is the the unambiguously titled “Museum of Genocide Victims” in Lithuania’s capital Vilnius. The museum and its genocide research center use a broad definition of genocide, applying it to the political and social groups targeted by Stalin, even though only a few historians considered these events a genocide and it is not recognized as such under international law. While the suffering of the victims of Soviet terror is documented elaborately, up until recently the museum did not even have an exposition on the Holocaust, which was added only following international criticism. The omission is made even more remarkable by the scale of the Holocaust in Lithuania, as more than 90% of an estimated 250,000 Jews were murdered, surpassing the numbers in Germany, both in relative and absolute numbers. 

Lithuania is by no means a unique case, as in its neighboring countries Latvia and Estonia the word genocide has also taken on a life of its own. After regaining independence from the Soviet Union, the prominent historical memory myths focused almost entirely on the Soviet deportations and mass killings, which had been covered by the regime. Much in the spirit of authoritarian states, these countries set up “truth-seeking” historians commissions that were to uncover and safeguard the correct histories of the region. Increasingly, genocide became the go-to word, referring to the mass deportations to labor camps in Siberia. 

The emphasis on national victimhood and the collective forgetting of the Holocaust in the Baltic states has been criticized by various international bodies and observers. Doubts have been cast on the integrity of the legal systems of the Baltic states since not a single Nazi war criminal has been put on trial, while over a dozen ex-Soviet agents have been tried for crimes against humanity. In Lithuania, laws criminalizing Genocide denial have been proposed, while local collaboration with the Nazi’s is deemphasized and some of the most gruesome collaborators are still celebrated as heroes due to their strong anti-Soviet convictions. In Latvia and Estonia alike, the Soviet terror and deportations have officially been declared as crimes against humanity and in Latvia they have even been institutionalized as the Genocide Against the Latvian People by the Totalitarian Communist Regime. However, the extent of the criticism has never quite reached the scale of, say, Serbia, and was only a minor obstacle in the countries’ accession process. 

In fact, political activists and statesmen from the Baltics have been successful at promoting their side of the story on a European level since joining the European Union. Despite being at odds with the supremacy of the Holocaust narrative in Europe, the efforts of Eastern European politicians and activists has paid off, as the memory of Stalinist terror has slowly entered the public consciousness of the west, as the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism, established on 2009, is observed on August 23rd. 

The decision has been criticized by dissenting judges and legal experts for “expanding the scope of genocide far beyond the frame defined in today’s international criminal law” and for an alleged banalization of genocide, often called the ultimate crime. If the act of killing a single person can legally be considered genocide, the door to many claims of such kind may be opened, as many states may be tempted to follow Lithuania’s example in putting past offenders on the bench for the accused. A freer retrospective interpretation may benefit those who seek retroactive justice for themselves or their relatives but at the same time it may also open up old wounds and reignite tensions between ethnic groups.  

All arguments dealing with the definition and existence of a genocide are inseparable from discourses of national and international politics and have a significant effect on the communal cohesion and foreign relations of a given country. How and if the Lithuanian government decides to employ its newly gained leverage to seek justice for victims of Stalinism or instead utilize it for purposes of nation-building by cultivating national myths, remains to be seen. The international recognition of the genocide against the Lithuanian people is yet another example of the constant presence of memory contestations in Eastern Europe, even in the contemporary era of integration and globalization. Competing interpretations of historical events play an immeasurable role in determining our subjective collective positioning in time and space. Because of this, narratives that exclude other groups or attempt to present an absolutist interpretation of history are unwelcome as they render any productive discussion impossible. In places like Lithuania where events from a bygone era are still a common cause for disdain and antagonisms between groups and people, an inclusive perspective that liberates people from the burdens and deeds of their ancestors is to be sought after. The instrumentalization of histories remains one of the most effective tools to forge unity and cohesion, as well as to sew seeds of hostility and disdain. As such it is to remain a preferred tool of democrats and authoritarians alike. 


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