Lithuanian Political Illusions: The “Policy” of the Lithuanian Provisional Government and the Beginning of the Holocaust in Lithuania in 1941

The Lithuanian Jewish Community is publishing a series of articles by the historian Algimantas Kasparavičius, a senior researcher at the Lithuanian History Institute.


Part 5

At the beginning of summer in 1941 it wasn’t just the LAF political leadership in Berlin and the Provisional Government in Kaunas who adhered to a pro-German, pro-Nazi strategy for the restoration of Lithuanian statehood, but also some of the Lithuanian diplomatic service in exile. That includes, for a time at least, the head of Lithuania’s diplomatic corps, Stasys Lozoraitis, Sr. At least two facts bear testimony to Lozoratis’s questionable actions at the end of June, 1941. As early as June 23 the head of Lithuanian diplomacy then in Rome sent congratulations by special telegram to fascist Italy’s foreign minister Gian Galeazzo Ciano on the Nazi invasion of the USSR, and then tried, unsuccessfully, to meet the ambassador of the Third Reich in Rome, again, “to express congratulations on the war against the Bolsheviks”. [1] Lozoraitis was unable to congratulate the Nazi ambassador at the time because the Nazi official refused the meeting and wouldn’t receive the Lithuanian diplomat. The sources show this activity by Lozoraitis was the result of his conviction that “the replacement of the Bolshevik occupation by the German occupation is a great step forward for us in the direction of the restoration of Independence.” [2]

Bearing in mind that from the beginning of the summer of 1940 Germany and Great Britain had been engaged in an existential battle on land and sea in what became known to history as the Battle for Britain, [3] that beginning June 16, 1941, United States president Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered all Nazi diplomatic representations in US territory shut down, that all of Hitler’s diplomats were expelled from the country and suspect people of German origin were imprisoned in special camps; and if we consider charismatic British prime minister Winston Churchill on the afternoon of June 22, 1941, in his address on BBC radio promised “we shall give whatever help we can to Russia and to the Russian people. We shall appeal to all our friends and Allies in every part of the world to take the same course and pursue it as we shall, faithfully and steadfastly to the end. We have offered to the Government of Soviet Russia any technical or economic assistance which is in our power and which is likely to be of service to them,” and pledged His Majesty’s government “are resolved to destroy Hitler and every vestige of the Nazi regime,” then we cannot pretend the actions by the head of Lithuanian diplomacy in those days was not at the very least strange and controversial.

In effect is proves Lozoraitis was unable in practical terms of orienting in a rapidly shifting situation and that he for some time naïvely swam in the wake of events dictated by the Third Reich. We cannot refuse to admit the policy of the remaining Western democratic world was headed in one direction and the policy of the head of Lithuanian diplomacy as well as of the Provisional Government in Kaunas was headed in the exactly opposite direction. If we fully understand the dichotomy of the political situation, of the vectors of international relations, can we feign surprise that Lithuanians abroad failed to form a government in exile during World War II, or at the political status into which Lithuania fell following the war?

Of course, it is neither especially odd nor inexplicable that the head of Lithuanian diplomacy Stasys Lozoratis thought and acted in this way—attempting to restore the Lithuanian state through the mercies of the Third Reich—in the summer of 1941. More than seventy years later, however, when even the average civilized person knows the policies of Nazi Germany and their consequences in Lithuania and Europe, that some historians even now approve of Lozoratis’s thinking seems to me very difficult to understand and to justify. All the more so since even back then in the midsummer of ’41 many Lithuanian diplomats were opposed to the idea of a pro-German restoration of Lithuanian statehood. Take, for example, Dr. Jurgis Šaulys, who, in the spring of 1941, even refused to attend the Rome conference because of the “general pro-German sentiments” dominant among Lithuanian diplomats and politicians in exile. [4]

Summarizing what was said earlier, several significant historical lessons must be noted. The strategy of a pro-German, pro-Nazi restoration of Lithuanian statehood during World War II proved to be a failed one, because the Provisional Government born of the uprising never controlled the situation in Lithuania in fact and fully for a single day. Not to mention that “new” Lithuania whose restoration was imagined by the insurgents was left without Klaipėda and a gateway to the sea.

Despite all the political and diplomatic speculations of chief LAF commander ideologue colonel Kazys Škirpa who was supposed to become the prime minister of the Provisional Government, the Third Reich never recognized and never planned to recognize the independence of Lithuania or the legitimacy of the Provisional Government. To the Third Reich’s credit (if such a thing is even possible), it must be stressed the Nazis acted rather honestly and conscientiously towards colonel Škirpa in Berlin and never promised him to recognize Lithuanian independence or to tolerate Lithuanian statehood in the “New Europe” they were creating. On the contrary, multiple Nazi officials on numerous occasions told the LAF chief to his face Nazi-occupied Lithuania would only remain a province of the Third Reich.

Speaking more generally of Third Reich ideology and geopolitics and the “principles” and methods of Nazi foreign and domestic policy, it has to be said they were actually sufficiently well known in Lithuania and harshly criticized in the Lithuanian press beginning in the mid-1930s when Lithuanians came face-to-face with Naziism in the Klaipėda/Memel region; on November 9 and 10, 1938 when the Nazis horrified the whole world with their Kristallnacht; at the end of 1938 when Lithuanian president Smetona rejected Škirpa’s idea of coming to Berlin to negotiate with Hitler directly on the retention of Klaipėda and the preservation of Lithuania, citing Hitler’s insane racial policies as the reason for not making the trip; and finally in March of 1939 when Germany seized Klaipėda from Lithuania.

Therefore the claims often cropping up in Lithuanian historiography and especially parahistorical literature to the effect the June 23 Uprising insurgents and the Provisional Government “didn’t know the Nazis’ real plans” are, to put it mildly, dishonest. At least if we’re discussing the political leadership of the uprising who knowing full well the real plans of the Nazis hastened the uprising and the formation of the Provisional Government in Kaunas exactly in order to present Berlin a fait accompli and thus force Hitler to change his mind… Bearing in mind the leaders of the LAF could not have not known all the stages in Hitler’s career from 1933 to 1940, and knowing full well no one would force him to change his mind—French prime minister Edouard Daladier, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, Popes Pius XI and Pius the XII and Poland’s proud foreign minister Jozef Beck had all tried and failed—these sorts of hopes among the political leaders of the uprising were deeply out of touch with reality and were in fact utopian.

Judging the initiators and some of the proponents of the pro-German, de facto pro-Nazi strategy for the restoration of Lithuanian statehood politically, morally and psychologically, it’s important to note their characteristic political waffling. Inconsistency. Desperation. Fervent incompetence. We can find many examples of this, but perhaps the most marked is the political high-wire balancing act of interwar Lithuanian prime minister and foreign minister E. Galvanauskas, who somehow managed both to be a member of the so-called People’s Government of Justas Paleckis and to serve the LAF.

Usually balanced and reserved, Škirpa’s political beliefs underwent a radical transformation here. Up till the coup d’etat of December 17, 1926, colonel Škirpa was known in Lithuania for his left-leaning views, his anti-Polish stance and his pro-Russian geopolitical orientation. It was not without Škirpa’s knowledge and blessing that then-prime minister and foreign minister Socialist People’s Party member Mykolas Sleževičius came to a “gentlemen’s agreement” with the Soviets in Moscow in September of 1926 [5] politically aimed against Poland and partially against Latvia as well. Somewhere in 1934 and 1935, however, colonel Škirpa revised radically his political views and geopolitical orientation and now sought to decouple the train car of Lithuanian foreign policy and hitch it to a pro-German locomotive instead. These activities of his reached a certain kind of apogee in January of 1939 when the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry and president Smetona himself considered expelling Škirpa from the diplomatic service for not heeding instructions, not towing the policy line and for carrying out his own completely independent “škirpish” foreign policy.

The Provisional Government which was politically selected by the LAF and arose out of the uprising with acting prime minister professor Juozas Ambrazevičius at its head did engage in political collaboration with the Third Reich. This is demonstrated by examining the minutes of the sittings of the Provisional Government, full of anti-Jewish, and often anti-Polish and anti-Russian as well (closure of the Vilnius Polish Drama Theater and the Musical Comedy Theater) discriminatory legislation and decrees with typical Nazi rhetoric. That’s beside the fact this quasi-Government established the National Labor Battalion and a concentration camp for Jews, drafted and passed the infamous Regulations on the Status of the Jews, wrote the entirely original preamble to these regulations and never lodged any official protest against the Holocaust in Lithuania.

That the Provisional Government was in the thrall of the Nazis in the summer of 1941 was even clear to president Antanas Smetona living in the United States at that time. Barely a week after the Provisional Government resigned, he wrote Lithuanian ambassador to Argentina Dr. Kazimieras Graužinis, his new friend, a letter, saying: “returning to the past a bit, today we can judge the errors in the flow of our political currents. There was too much belief in Berlin in the (good) intentions towards Lithuania by Germany. [6] The activists [7] believed after Germany drove the Bolsheviks out of Lithuania they would give at least a part of governance over to them. It happened another way completely: Hitler ordered the commander he had appointed in Ostland to announce the independent life of the Baltic countries had been a big mistake.” [8] In a later letter in fall of the same year Smetona observed ironically and bitterly to Graužinis in Buenos Aires: “And here are the new leaders: Go, Škirpa! Go, general Raštikis! Onward, Ambrazevičius, onward one after another under the protection of the National Socialists.” [9]

Finally it has to be recognized that not only did the June Uprising and the Provisional Government which came out of it not win back Lithuanian independence, but in some senses even brought a dubious international “glory” to Lithuania. The pro-German strategy of the restoration of Lithuania’s statehood gave rise to the situation where the US State Department queried Lithuanian ambassador to Washington Povilas Žadeikis whether perhaps the Lithuanian Provisional Government had declared war on the United States. Much later, in the summer of 1942, some British politicians and diplomats with favorable views towards Lithuania confided with regret Lithuanian ambassador to London Bronius Kazys Balutis that following the well-known events in Lithuania in the summer of 1941, it had become very difficult to counter ally Josif Stalin’s contention the Baltic states were strategically vital to the Soviet Union because the Third Reich would always be able to exploit them for its own interests.

Furthermore, surviving archival materials show Antanas Smetona, the only legitimate president of the Republic of Lithuania and now living in the United States, was very critical of and concerned about the June 23 Uprising, its political heroes and the consequences of the uprising, and was prepared to correct the political errors of the insurgents publicly. By April 24 he had appealed through a mediator to Ray Atherton, head of the US State Department’s European Division, with a proposal to send an open telegram to president Roosevelt. Lithuanian president Smetona explained to the American diplomat and assured him that he, the legitimate president of Lithuania, would “never recognize the legitimacy of Soviet rule in Lithuania” and would “in no way recognize the legitimacy of any other government formed in German-controlled Lithuania” because he “very firmly and actively adhered to the anti-Hitler position.”

[1] Asta Petraitytė-Briedienė, Lietuvos diplomatijos šefo Stasio Lozoraičio veikla (1940–1983). Doctoral dissertation. Kaunas: VDU leidykla, 2011, p. 47.

[2] Ibid. [3] Patrick Bishop, Fighter Boys: The Battle of Britain, 1940, New York: Penguin Books, 2004.

[4] Asta Petraitytė-Briedienė, Lietuvos diplomatijos šefo Stasio Lozoraičio veikla…, p. 40.

[5] Algimantas Kasparavičius, Kauno ir Maskvos „džentelmeniškas polonezas” Varšuvai (1926–1936).in: Lietuvos diplomatija XX amžiuje, Vilnius: Vaga, 1999, p.92–118.

[6] Smetona used a shortened for of Lithuanian “Vokietija” to refer to Germany, “Vokia.,” and sought to spread its usage among Lithuanians.

[7] Meaning the Lithuanian Activist Front, or LAF.

[8] Lietuvos Respublikos prezidento politinėje tremtyje A. Smetonos 1941 08 12 laiškas Lietuvos nepaprastąjam pasiuntiniui ir įgaliotąjam ministrui Buenos airėse dr. K. Graužiniui, in: Darbai ir dienos, Kaunas: VDU leidykla, vol. 52, p. 264.

[9] Lietuvos Respublikos prezidento politinėje tremtyje A. Smetonos 1941 10 11 laiškas Lietuvos nepaprastąjam pasiuntiniui ir įgaliotąjam ministrui Buenos airėse dr. K. Graužiniui, in: Ibid, p. 269.