March of survivors in Molėtai
© DELFI / Karolina Pansevič

No-brainer questions in Vilnius

A bizarre debate has taken place in Vilnius a few days ago: should our municipality rename a street dedicated to Kazys Škirpa, a former Lithuanian diplomat notorious for his rabid anti-Semitic ideas, for his collaboration with the Gestapo and adulation for Hitler, for being the founder and ideologue of the Jew-killing LAF organization, and, according to Prof. Timothy Snyder, for using radio broadcasts to exploit the suffering caused by the NKVD to spur mobs to kill 2.500 Kaunas Jews in 1941 (Bloodlands, 2010 edition, p. 192).

To our city’s credit, Škirpa didn’t get a street dedicated to him because he inspired the Lithuanian Holocaust, but thanks to his action as a diplomat. Let’s talk about that: while Škirpa was supposedly defending Lithuania’s interests in Germany in 1938-1941, the Nazi regime he so much loved didn’t hesitate to barter his country away to Stalin with the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Even then, Škirpa did not dare to question his love for the Nazis.

All in all, we can probably compile a long list of Lithuanian diplomats far more successful and less ideologically stultified than Škirpa.

Convoluted objections to an obvious conclusion

The question should be a no-brainer: Škirpa’s street should be renamed. Yet this doesn’t seem to be a foregone conclusion to some. In an article on Lietuvos žinios on Dec. 6th, Vytautas Sinica presented a few reasons against the name change. His arguments are quite creative. In particular, let’s look at the idea that the LAF was not really anti-Semitic because “anti-Semitism is an ideology of hatred for the Jews as a people, not of the Jews for one or another tendentious action: the LAF condemned multiple times the Jews’ active participation in the occupation of Lithuania, the formation of Soviet structures in Lithuania and the 1941 deportations”.

The argument is a sophistry that recycles the old ideas of “Jewish Bolshevism” and collective guilt for the actions of some Jews who espoused Communism. Leaving aside the irony that Sinica is using precisely one of the key cornerstones of modern anti-Semitism, thereby confirming the very LAF anti-Semitism he’s trying to deny, his justification of the organization’s action seem to ignore two important aspects.

First, Sinica may not be aware of the existence of recent research by excellent scholars like Dr. Violeta Davoliūtė on the massive suffering inflicted on the Lithuanian Jews by the Soviet, which pretty much destroys the old stereotype of the Jews as “right hand” of the Soviet regime. Secondly, he may not know that the idea of collective punishment has been overcome by more advanced moral and juridical ideas a few centuries ago. Paradoxically, Soviet deportations were often “justified” by Stalin as collective punishment, so unless Sinica wants to forgive Stalin too, he should not let the LAF off the hook for using collective punishment as a method of action.

Making history up

Sinica also wants us believe that enforcing a coherent national historical narrative is key to ensure loyalty to the state, implying that for its sake, we should refrain from questioning the past of some of Lithuania’s controversial figures. I won’t discuss the dubious morality of suggesting that the Lithuanians should basically lie to themselves about their own history, or the implicit insinuation that they would not be intelligent enough to handle the truth. Let’s instead concentrate on the factual relevance of his claim.

History teaches a different story: enforced coherent narratives based on lies fall apart as soon as put under stress. One only has to look at what happened to France’s royalist narrative in 1789, or Fascist Italy’s once-widely-popular ultra-nationalism, or the Soviet Union’s enforced narrative of proletarian revolution. The first ended up in a basket with Louis XVI’s head, the second was hanged with Mussolini’s corpse in 1945, and the fourth was, thankfully, destroyed by the bravery of peoples like the Lithuanians, who called foul on the narrative and stood up against it. Coherent narratives they were. Durable? Not so much.

Misunderstanding Russian propaganda

Sinica’s most absurd statement, however, has to be his claim that criticizing Škirpa does Russia’s interest in the information war against Lithuania. This is a common idea, often repeated any time someone criticizes figures like Škirpa or Ambrazevičius-Brazaitis. Nothing could be more wrong. The defenders of such figures might not be fully familiar with the way Russian propaganda works abroad, especially among a Leftist audience. So, as a left-wing foreigner, let me provide some insight.

The most effective piece of Russian propaganda in Western European countries is not the claim that Lithuanians were fascists and anti-Semites (after all, many people were in the first half of the XX century, and Russians were definitely not an exception) but that they are now. Lithuanians abroad work hard to try to dispel this idea, but the Russian narrative is hard to crack. It resonates powerfully among audiences that had seven decades to develop antibodies against Fascism, and that often suffered it themselves.

Contorted attempts to obfuscate the horrifying ideological past of people like Škirpa won’t help: an RT video or a Sputnik article about him or any other Lithuanian collaborationist will always circulate and resonate more than any counter-narrative from Škirpa defenders, and people abroad will always ask themselves why can’t the Lithuanians find better heroes to dedicate streets to. Once the idea that “Lithuanians are fascist anti-Semites” settles in, you can make Western Europeans believe any type of nonsense, despite commendable attempts to problematize the narrative.

We should not waste time trying to save the memory of people like Škirpa. The best way, actually the only way to disarm Russia in the propaganda war is to make its narrative unsustainable: be the first to strike, facing the past head on. Get rid of vestiges of a controversial history, liberate the country from dubious heroes, and celebrate others instead. Lithuanian history is rich of heroes who fought hard to liberate the country from Russian imperialism, from 1794 to 1991. Why do we need 1941?

Why do we hesitate to do what our grandparents did?

Sinica is upset because he somehow thinks we judge criminals from 1941 on the basis of today’s politically correct concepts of tolerance, democracy, human rights and anti-racism. He is wrong: these are not “today’s concepts”. They were already around before WWII: Tolerance since the Enlightenment; democracy since the Greeks; human rights since Bartolomé de Las Casas, four centuries ago, or at least since the First Geneva Conventions in 1864; and anti-racism since Hamilton wrote against slavery almost three hundred years ago, and since millions offered their life to smash slavery in the American Civil War.

We could trace these concepts further back, and so could easily do people like Škirpa, who lived at a time when they could choose between a wide range of ideologies, from moderate ones like liberal democracy, non-violence, traditional conservativism or social democratic ideals, to extreme ones like ultra-nationalism and ethnic cleansing. Like their Nazi comrades, they chose the latter. Their own contemporaries didn’t fail to condemn them for this, and they judged them based on the values of their time: the Nuremberg Trials started in 1945, after all, not in 2016. Why should we fail to even criticize what our grandparents succeeded in condemning?

Daring to face the past

Yet here I want to put forward an argument that may sound unorthodox to some, and might create some controversy: Lithuanians are daring to face the past head on, and I would even argue they are doing it far better than most. Stay with me on this.

When I first arrived in the Baltics back in 2009 I immediately got interested in the topic of historical memory. I remember numerous conversations with Western European diplomats serving in Latvia and Lithuania at that time. Shrouded in our sense of “Western” superiority, and encouraged by a simplistic media narrative that attracts easy clicks, we were quick to agree that the Balts were really bad at acknowledging the dark spots of their past,.

Time has given me a different understanding. When looking in perspective, Lithuania is actually doing remarkably well. Let’s look at some facts: Lithuanians have had the chance to openly and freely discuss their national past only since independence, twenty-five years ago. Of these, the last eight have been heavily influenced by a feeling of defensiveness in the face of Russian neo-imperialism, first in Georgia, then in Ukraine. Debates have become difficult, but they haven’t weakened. Quite the opposite.

Opening and healing old wounds

In these twenty-five years, Lithuanians have rediscovered a whole pantheon of heroes, such as the Forest Brothers or the 1941 Uprising fighters; they have embraced them and, surprisingly quickly, they have also started questioning their actions.

Debates about people like Škirpa make people passionate. Conferences about the role of Lithuanian collaborators in the Holocaust draw people to discuss complex issues. Books like Rūta Vanagaitė’s “Mūsiškiai” sold well, got discussed in tens of presentations and newspaper articles and triggered hundreds of debates on social networks. Commemorations of the massacre of Molėtai’s Jews drew three thousands people earlier this year, a number rarely heard of anywhere in Europe for this kind of events.

The latest marches to commemorate national liberation I had the chance to witness were a festive gathering of thousands of people, and in this year’s edition here in Vilnius we could see flags from all over the world, from the USA to Kenya, from Spain to Georgia, from China to Ukraine. By contrast, the Nazi march that took place shortly afterwards was a sorry parade of some 200 people, vastly outnumbered by sceptical bystanders. Ask our Russian or Polish neighbours, or the Italians, or the Germans, what it really means to have neo-Nazis on the loose.

Reassessment of the past are happening in increasing number, and surprisingly fast for a nation that had barely one generation to elaborate on it. Every person who takes part in such debates, or walks to commemorate events like Molėtai’s, is taking a bullet away from the hands of the Russian information war. Every article by Lithuanian authors that critically assess their country’s past sends propagandists in Moscow wondering what to invent next to discredit the Lithuanians. If events like this August’s march in Molėtai become the norm, the idea that “Lithuanians are all fascists and anti-Semites” will be soon buried in the dustbin of propaganda.

Getting rid of some “Western” pride

Let’s not even discuss Russia, whose history as first Holocaust obfuscator has been well documented in its complex forms. How are we “Western Europeans” doing, compared to Lithuania?

If we only look at the crimes of Nazi and Fascist regimes, not well: Spain had forty years to rid itself of Francisco Franco’s legacy in the country’s streets. They’re starting to do that only now. Austria had such a shallow and incomplete de-Nazification that it was the first country to vote a neo-Fascist party in power back in 1999, and got close to repeating the endeavour twice, this year alone. Japan is still in love with its murderous history of nationalist imperialism.

Let me talk a little bit about my home country, Italy. My hometown still has a commemorative plaque dedicated to a guy who died fighting to help Franco establish his Fascist regime, and the nearby city was discussing re-instating Fascist-era statues. Cities like Bolzano still feature massive fascist-era decorations.

Ninety-four years have passed since the Fascists imposed an occupation regime on Libya that oversaw mass starvation, massacres of civilians and all sorts of brutalities that would become common in WWII. Eighty years have passed since the Fascists gassed Ethiopian civilians during the Italian colonial adventures. An almost equal time has passed since my country locked 300.000 Slovenian civilians in concentration camps, killing tens of thousands, while depriving our ethnic minorities of their identity.

How are we commemorating all of this? We are not. We are not even at the stage of acknowledging these facts’ existence, let alone discuss responsibilities or commemorations. History books briefly mention the crimes in Ethiopia, and there is some awareness of the role of Italian fascists in shipping our Jewish population to the Nazis, but what was done to Libyans, Slovenians, Albanians and Greeks, or any other ethnic group in the Italian-occupied Balkans, remains obscure to most people, three or four generations after these events happened. We don’t dare to face our past.

Failing to question our own past: a Western specialty

If we expand the perspective beyond Fascist crimes, the situation is even more depressing. Germany, often hailed as a champion in historical self-criticism, has been very sincere with the Holocaust, but much more contradictory and slower with the Herero Genocide it committed in 1904-1907. Streets and squares were still dedicated to imperialist Gen. von Lettow-Vorbeck, decades after his involvement in far-right coup attempts in the 1920s became clear. Despite Germany’s role in letting the Armenian Genocide happen, it took a full century to the German Parliament to recognize the event as genocide.

Belgians still find it ok to flirt with the idea of their ancestors’ habit of mutilating Congolese slaves, which they were killing in the millions until a century ago. Americans haven’t lowered confederate flags in the South, one and a half century after slavery ended. Acts of healing of America’s past vis-à-vis its Native population are still too rare. British public consciousness and neo-liberals have still not fully come to term with the responsibility of English Free Marketers in letting millions of people starve to death in the Irish famines and in the Indian famines during the XIX century: well over a century and a half has passed since those events, yet a mass commemoration like Molėtai’s is still unseen. Imperialist Cecil Rhodes’ statue still decorates Oxford University, and people like Boris Johnson and Niall Ferguson still try to cast a good light on British imperialism.

Optimism lies ahead

All of these examples are the reason why, despite occasional faux pas like Sinica’s article, I remain convinced that Lithuania can, and will, set an example for the speed with which a nation can come to terms with its past. In a quarter of a century years people here have arguably dared to do more than the Spanish in forty, the Italians and the Japanese in seventy, the Germans in one hundred, the Brits and the Americans in one hundred fifty years.

There is no need to enforce fake narratives: the new Lithuanian generation is already working hard to make Russian propaganda fail. Articles that still try to hide dust under the carpet may slow down the process and give the Kremlin a few more years of easy shots at this country, but the process cannot be stopped, and soon the Russian information war will be out of ammo.

* Fabio Belafatti teaches at Vilnius University’s Centre of Oriental Studies. Originally from Italy, he has lived abroad since 2009, and relocated to Vilnius in 2011. His research interests include the problem of pro-Russian bias in Western European media, and diminishing or racist narratives against Eastern European peoples.

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