Saulius Sužiedėlis Interview on Lithuanian Holocaust Collaboration

by Mindaugas Jackevičius,

U.S.-based professor emeritus of history Saulius Sužiedėlis says it’s inappropriate for the state to honor those who contributed in any way to the Holocaust, and calls upon Lithuania to review for whom statues have been erected

Sužiedėlis says Lithuania could have and should have done more to detect and prosecute Holocaust perpetrators. He says Lithuania doesn’t have to admit complicity in the murder of Jews, but finally needs to admit collaboration by Lithuanians without excuses and to stop downplaying the significance of that collaboration.

The historian says this is harming Lithuania’s reputation which is important for defending national sovereignty. Sužiedėlis says no one will want to defend a country with such a poor reputation.

Well-known German historian Dr. Christoph Dieckmann, who in 2011 wrote the fundamental work “Germany’s Occupation Policy in Lithuania 1941-1944” [co-authored by Saulius Sužiedėlis], in an interview with Delfi last spring raised the moral question of why Lithuanian society, seeing and hearing the Jews being killed around them, didn’t protest. Do you think this is a well-founded question?

I think the question is not completely justified, because there were few opportunities to resist. And let’s remember that in the first two months the Lithuanian consciousness was still focused on the deportations, and Red Army soldiers shot at least 1,000 innocent Lithuanians as they withdrew. The psychology was completely different. What Lithuanian would die for Stalin? So resisting would have been difficult psychologically.

The worst thing was the most anti-Semitic rhetoric spreading through the press. The press for some time was quasi-official, and the regional newspapers especially propagated violent, black rhetoric against the Jews. In the first issue of “Į laisvę” in June of 1941 and in the July 4 editorial of “Naujoji Lietuva” in Vilnius–there are no better examples of a brutal call to genocide, everything is clearly stated about what needs to be done with the Jews. You cannot dispute these facts. The only power which might have been able to put a halt to the mass murder immediately was the Germans who controlled the occupied country.

Historian Timothy Snyder explains that one of the most important factors enabling the mass murder and local collaboration was the destruction of the state under the Molotov-RIbbentrop pact. The state, which while at times was imperfect but still defended the rights of its citizens, including Jews, had collapsed.

Of course those who participated and the intellectuals who wrote the anti-Semitic texts weren’t forced to do this, they did it of their own volition based on their convictions. Murder was often committed for economic reasons, we see in the archives how much Jewish property was looted. This was an important incentive for participation. An atmosphere of chaos and impunity prevailed. Some of the murderers were simply homicidal maniacs.

Of course the moral issue is, how did people without any compulsion on their own volition participate in these acts? It was very rare than anyone was convicted for refusing to murder Jews.

There is disagreement in Lithuania whether those who did the murders were a handful of lowlifes or a larger segment of society.

I don’t agree with the idea it was a handful of lowlifes, social rejects or scum. There were intellectuals among the participants, teachers, students, military officers. Of course lowlifes also took part. Let’s remember there was an administrative structure controlled by the Germans. For instance, the Lithuanian Police Department in Kaunas was led by colonel Vytautas Reivytis, who was subordinate to [Nazi] lieutenant Joachim Hamann. It was Reivytis who organized the identification and concentration of Jews for slaughter.

Genocide cannot be accomplished by lowlifes and social rejects, it requires an administrative structure, local mayors. And who ordered the towns in the countryside to set up small ghettos? Local officials.

So I would say the number of participants is much larger than we’d like to admit. What participation means needs to be defined. So if Adolfas Ramanauskas “Vanagas” stood among a group of insurgents with a gun, guarded a site and shot at withdrawing Red Army troops, that doesn’t mean he collaborated in the Holocaust. You can’t put everyone in that category. Still, the number of collaborators needs to be counted in the thousands. We need to admit there were many more participants than we thought initially.

Should we feel collective guilt for what happened?

I don’t believe in collective guilt for one very important reason: collective guilt was the basis for the murder of the Jews. They were guilty under Nazi ideology.

It’s a very simplified claim to say the Nazis murdered the Jews merely because they were Jews. They murdered Jews because Nazi ideology found them guilty of crimes against the German people, they posed an existential threat to the Germans and the Aryan race. On that basis they were all guilty, they had all done something.

So the concept of collective guilt is very confused. But there is the concept of collective shame. For instance, I learned about the Holocaust in adulthood. That’s when my eyes opened a bit to what had happened in Lithuania. I felt great shame. How could people speaking my language, my people, mainly Catholics, act like this? This is the moral feeling of collective shame, but I personally don’t feel any guilt over the Holocaust. And there’s no reason to assume that guilt.

Following Rūta Vanagaitė’s statements about Ramanauskas and then admissions of mistakes there have been attempts to dismiss her book “Mūsiškiai,” which allegedly libels Lithuanians, with critics saying nothing more should be expected from her. What significance do you think this book has had for Lithuania?

“Mūsiškiai” includes an interview with me, and I don’t want to criticize this book too much. It’s a polemical work, a book written in an interesting way. It contains much truth about Lithuanian participation in the Holocaust. I think the book has caused something healthy, which is discussion, albeit sometimes angry and controversial. But we have started to talk about it.

The later scandal over Ramanauskas, I think one important thing has been missed here. We need to speak honestly and in good will about these things. It’s fine she apologized, but I think this is not an honest approach to the problem. It’s possible to hold two different opinions, and after hearing the facts and consulting the sources, I do change my mind sometimes. This was something entirely different. I think we shouldn’t expect some sort of good will and honesty especially from Efraim Zuroff on this issue. Especially when it’s said about this person who was interrogated and clearly tortured that he inflicted the harm on himself. That’s very unseemly. And there is no evidence of Ramanauskas’s complicity in the Holocaust.

There have been discussions in Lithuania for many years now but no agreement on people such as diplomat and officer Kazys Škirpa, military officer Jonas Noreika and partisan Juozas Krikštaponis and their involvement in the Holocaust. What is your opinion, is establishing collaboration in the Holocaust impossible, is this a war of principles by politicians and a desire to quell such talk about the “heroes?”

I would agree this is a battle of principles. But here the case of Krikštaponis is very clear, he was an officer in the battalion of Antanas Impulevičius. This was a battalion of murderers who shot thousands of innocent people. An officer who was party to these operations, without regard to what else he did, is not an appropriate person to whom to erect a statue, this is morally unacceptable.

On the tragedy, of course, of Škirpa, a person who once held progressive leftist views, who founded the Lithuanian Activists Front, who became a pro-Nazi political figure. I think he may be described in history in all sorts of ways, but building monuments to him and naming streets after him is inappropriate. When you erect a statue, you assume a moral obligation to honor that person.

The same goes for Noreika. Although he was at Stutthof [concentration camp], he belonged to that group of people who contributed to anti-Jewish repressions administratively. Although he perhaps did not murder anyone personally, he was still part of the administrative structure.

And then there’s the monument to Vincas Kudirka. There is much anti-Semitism in his writings, but we have to draw the line somewhere: Kudirka didn’t murder anyone, held democratic views and wasn’t the only one in his era to adopt such an attitude. This, I would say, is a different sort of case.

But any figure, whether it’s Juozas Ambrazevičius-Brazaitis, Škirpa or anyone else who in any way contributed to the tragedy of 1941, should be honored publicly at the state level.

At a conference held in parliament last summer the idea was aired that Lithuania is entering dangerous territory in the eyes of the world as a nation of Jew-murderers by avoiding the topic of the Holocaust and Holocaust research. Do you perceive such a danger?

The problem isn’t that there is no writing about the Holocaust. The problem is that the majority of society either isn’t interested, or doesn’t know, or doesn’t want to accept the facts calmly and objectively. We should examine ourselves calmly, take stock of what happened here and understand this was a tremendous tragedy for Lithuanians, not just for Jews.

First we must integrate Jewish history in the Lithuanian history curriculum at schools and universities. Even if the communities lived in parallel rather than together, the Jews were integrated with the history of the Lithuanian state. Second, we need to introduce more Holocaust history into the 20th century history of Lithuania. Because this is the bloodiest page in the history of Lithuania, and is written about too little in the textbooks and discussed too little in the schools. Third, we finally need to admit, without circumlocution, without pulling the wool over our eyes, the issue of the collaboration of Lithuanians in the Holocaust, to come to terms with it, without trying to reduce the significance of that collaboration and so on. It’s a fact there will be people who exploit the Holocaust for their own goals. This will happen abroad as well, we cannot avoid it.

We don’t need to defend ourselves, instead we need a sincere recognition that this happened, the story, and that we will research and recognize the complicity of those who were complicit in the Holocaust, so that similar things never happen again in the future. This is the correct answer to the problem.

You mentioned foreign countries. Russia’s references to the Holocaust in our country has become a sort of red cape to Lithuania. In Lithuania often the reaction is an hysterical leap to self-defense and an attempt to lessen our involvement. And the Western states also talk about this, if more subtly. Does Lithuania need to change the rhetoric, or is it enough to judge the involvement of certain figures in the Holocaust on principle and take down a few monuments?

This is a large political and public relations problem. At the same time it’s a moral problem. This is seen from abroad, even by our very good friends who are favorable towards Lithuania, for example, former US ambassador Anne Derse, who raise the issue not because they want to criticize us, but because they want to help us, to improve the country’s image. The country’s image is important, even for defending national sovereignty; no one wants to defend a country whose reputation is so poor.

The only solution is for us to present our history honestly, to admit what happened. That doesn’t mean, however, we cannot criticize those who distort history. If the works of Aleksandr Dyukov are published in Russia which contain much non-sense and biased claims, we may respond to that and criticize it.

I think one of the biggest mistakes made is the attempt to justify the Provisional Government’s activities, to white-wash that. The more I examine their activities, the gloomier it appears to me.

A few years ago you said Lithuania was know for the mass murder of Jews in the US. But as politicians and historians have noted, the Holocaust didn’t happen in Lithuania alone, it also happened in other countries. Why are we exceptional?

I perceive several reasons for this. One of them is the remarkable influence of Litvaks in the world, they remember what happened to their families, and I don’t blame them for holding this view of Lithuania. Another thing is that the story of World War II in the West has few points of connection with the Lithuanian experience. Our experience was different.

But anyone, anyone who collaborated at all with the Nazis, instantly becomes a bad guy. And it needs to be said that for the majority of Lithuanians, including my parents who lived through World War II, the German era wasn’t the worst chapter of life. During the period of the German occupation relatively few Lithuanians died, compared to the post-war period there was a gigantic difference. This has a psychological effect.

I also think the Lithuanian exile community in the USA did well-intentioned harm. They were staunchly anti-Communist, which is fine, but their anti-Communism was primitive and intermixed with anti-Semitism, and Americans realized that very quickly, they are very sensitive to that. That has continued.

When Sąjūdis arose, in 1990 everyone in the West was expecting a positive portrayal of the country, but instead there was a flood of articles about Nazis, collaborators and Algirdas Klimaitis (the leader of the Slobodka pogrom). There was complete non-sense published. I remember a photo in Newsweek magazine which showed Hitler driving the streets of Klaipėda in 1939. The inscription said Lithuanians are welcoming the arrival of Hitler, but there are Germans, not Lithuanians, standing there, local German Nazis. This is a misunderstanding of what occurred in Lithuania, an inability to navigate the nuances. This also has an effect. But I think the situation has improved somewhat recently.

But when little scandals arise, such as the one about Ramanauskas, Rūta Vanagaitė suddenly becomes a heroine, a martyr to freedom of speech whose books are being piled up for the bonfire.

Do you agree that when there is discussion of the Holocaust in Lithuania, the rescuers of Jews are forgotten?

As with the murderers, this was not a handful of people. Currently nearly 900 rescuers have been recognized. But the lists of rescuers do not include many who did rescue Jews, just as not all murderers were tried. I would say the number of rescuers is two or three times larger than the list in Jerusalem, so we are talking about several thousand. Sometimes that number is exaggerated to 12,000 on a very superficial basis.

This wasn’t such a small handful, it was a minority but compared with other countries there were not just a few in Lithuania. A monuments needs to be erected to the rescuers. They were heroes, and in the summer and fall of 1941 there was little heroism.

In 1995 Algirdas Brazauskas in Israel promised to prosecute the guilty. How much has Lithuania done since 1990 in terms of assessing the tragedy and punishing the guilty?

This is a black page. Lithuania could have and should have done more. There were people who could have been tried, even if they were old and in poor health. This should have been judged legally and publicly. This was a mistake, especially since former Communist henchmen were tried for crimes committed after the war. The question arises naturally from other countries: why did you punish these people, but not those?

Full interview in Lithuanian here.