by Vytautas Bruveris
What are the methods for Lithuania as a country and society to demonstrate by deeds rather than words true solidarity with the country’s Jewish community, almost completely exterminated in the Holocaust, with the victims and with their descendants?
Long-Awaited Victory Celebrated
A third problematic bloc in modern Lithuania’s relationship towards the Holocaust is the definition, including legal, of Soviet crimes and oppression.
Should the mass murders and oppressions the Soviets carried out in Lithuania not just be called but legally recognized as genocide? Should they also be recognized as genocide outside Lithuania in the international arena?
For many Lithuanians these questions are wholly rhetorical and the answer is unconditionally in the affirmative. Especially in recent times when one of the main if not the main topics of public discussion is the threat of Russia.
As strict and as clear as possible assessment of the Soviet occupation and Soviet crimes, most importantly by the West, is considered one of the major methods for “information warfare” and the political battle against the Russian regime.
That’s why both the political elite and the most patriotically-inclined portion of society experienced such joy last fall when the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg again confirmed a decision the mass murder of post-war partisans carried out by the Soviets may be considered genocide in international law.
By this finding disputes ended over the genocide case against a Soviet collaborator who helped in the apprehension of the post-war partisan leader Adolfas Ramanauskas, disputes which reached Strasbourg from Lithuania.
Thus the signal was sent the West is finally beginning to really recognize the aim of Lithuania and other Central and Eastern European states for Communist totalitarianism to be equated with that other great evil of the 20th century, Naziism.
Viewing it from the point of view of purely formal argumentation and the law, this decision seems rather well-founded. After all, the court accepted and recognized Lithuania’s arguments the partisans were an important portion of the entire nation at that time who had significant influence on the country’s fully-fledged existence. At the same time the Soviets sought to destroy it entirely or in part.
Genocide is defined in international law as the attempt to destroy completely or partially an ethnic, racial or religious group in trying to restrict that group’s ability to function fully and survive into the future.
Lithuania placed barriers to herself on the road to this victory; until the present the state has based its claims on its own expanded legal interpretation of genocide. In Lithuanian law genocide is defined as the attempt to destroy wholly or partially not just ethnic and racial groups but also social classes and political groups. Its main aim is to raise the crimes of the Soviets, who murdered based primarily on social status and political orientation, to the level of genocide.
This definition always has conflicted with that used in international law and that continued until Lithuania began trying to demonstrate the Soviets annihilated social and political groups on a national basis as well, as a portion of the nations occupied.
In any event, it’s clear this problem goes beyond legal thinking and the frames of debate and falls into the domain of interpretations and discussions where these interpretations are conditioned by political and ideological arguments.
This is shown by the fact Strasbourg in finding in favor of Lithuania’s argument split, one group of judges found one way, the other group the other way.
If these kinds of judges and experts can’t agree among themselves, what can we say of politicians and other simple mortals? The concept of genocide long ago became the object of political battles, included international ones.
Are the Differences in the Mass Murders Mere Formalities?
In any event, it seems as if all Lithuania can do is just be happy about this still-fresh victory in the international arena, and to try to expand and develop her success.
Likewise, this success should also bring joy to other post-Soviet and regional countries who adhere to the same positions on equating the Soviet and Nazis regimes and on the definition of genocide.
But the main challenge and the great problem to which all those points in any case is the Holocaust hiding in the heart of Naziism which took place in Lithuania, too.
The main question which the genocide of the Jews in the countries occupied by the Nazis and their collaborators raises can be formulated like this: are the efforts to equate the mass murders carried out by the Soviets with the Holocaust justified, not just and not so much in the legal sense, but primarily in the moral and ethical sense?
In other words, can we truly place on the same shelf mass murders which were intended to exterminate to the last person all members of a group of people, and mass murders intended to exterminate partially one ethnic group, or, more precisely, one group within that nation, thus restricting and weakening that nation’s ability to thrive fully in the future and to oppose the aggression and oppression of the occupier/murderer?
Legally and formally, the answer is probably yes, which is what the European Court of Human Rights found. The basis for the crime of mass murder doesn’t change depending on quantitative results and on differences between the intentions of the murderers [sic, intention is key in the international definition of genocide].
But this formal logic doesn’t offer some kind of relief from the intellectual and psychological unease which is raised in the context by, for example, the story of a single Jewish man from the island of Leros which well illustrates genocidal totality of the Holocaust.
You can hear this story at one of the main Holocaust and Holocaust victim commemoration sites in the world, the museum and memorial, educational and research center Yad Vashem established in Jerusalem.
In 1944 the Nazis were losing the war and sought to kill as many Jews as quickly as possible everywhere they had reached. They collected together the Jews on the Greek islands and transported them to Auschwitz. Together with the Jews of Rhodes and Kos, the only Jew of the island of Leros was also transported by ship to the Greek mainland and on to the content to his death.
The ships which carried thousands of Jews from Rhodes and Kos sailed several tens of kilometers further especially for him after the Nazis learned he lived on that island.
This specific story clearly demonstrates and makes plain one of the main features of the Holocaust: they intentionally and wholly attempted to exterminate all Jews to the last person as quickly and as effectively as possible.
This is what is always pointed out by those who criticize the attempt to say Soviet crimes and mass murders are genocide and that they are equal to the Holocaust, placing them on the same level next to the Holocaust.
The critics with such an aim say the Soviets didn’t attempt to exterminate the nations and societies under their yoke as the Nazis did the Jews, exterminating them to the last person as quickly and effectively as possible, erasing them and their memory from the face of the earth.
The Soviets tried to exterminate completely or partially or deport those portions of an ethnic population who posed a threat to the government and who were important for the existence of those peoples in the long term and for resistance to occupation and assimilation.
So it is said these differences between the mass murders carried out by the Nazis and by the Soviets are not just quantitative and formal, but have deep qualitative dimension.
It is difficult to formulate this qualitative difference clearly and articulately because understanding it is more an emotional than a rational matter. In any case this difference exists. This gives rise to the axiom these two mass murders cannot be compared also because they often took place in the same place, but those who contributed to the murder of the Jews were to a greater or lesser extent also those who were victims of the Soviet regime, and those who fought for it.
This last fact is the biggest barrier to Lithuanians and other nations who suffered the same historical fate who seek to proclaim Soviet crimes genocide.
Competition is not the appropriate way. Two Yad Vashem historians with whom www.lrytas.lt spoke, Robert Rozett and David Silberklang, disapproved of the idea of calling Soviet crimes genocide.
“Yes, I always remember that genocide is not just mass murder aimed at totally exterminating some ethnic, racial or religious group, but also a portion of that group, with the aim of restricting that group’s ability to live fully and in general survive in the longer term.
“In this sense what the Soviet regime did with the occupied countries and their peoples really does have features of genocide. The Soviets’ goal was to destroy as many people and namely certain people in order to stop the occupied countries from being able to resist and, perhaps, also to survive in general in the long term,” Rozett said.
Even so, he says, calling Soviet crimes genocide is incorrect both in terms of reasoning and results.
“First, this is an emotional action and a kind of competition attempting to demonstrate your people’s suffering and losses are not less than those of others. The attempt is for your people’s tragedy to be of the highest degree.
“In this competition the Holocaust is chosen intentionally or even unintentionally as the greatest tragedy and then another is raised to its level,” the historian said, adding the Holocaust thus becomes not just the main landmark but a competitor.
Another reason, the Yad Vashem historian says, is the desire to diminish and relativize the fact many of the members of the nations who took part in the Holocaust were those whose members suffered from Soviet crimes.
“Yes, there were those among us who murdered Jews, but we were also murdered, we were also victims of genocide, besides which, many of the Communists were Jews, and so on. On the other hand there were very few of those who did the killing and in general the Germans are responsible for all of it,” Rozett recounted the popular narrative in countries which experienced Soviet occupation.
Rozett says this “competition” emphasizing the common features of the Holocaust and the Soviet terror marginalizes the main difference between these crimes.
He says it’s clear the Holocaust the crimes committed in the name of Communism do appear similar, as do all huge crimes in general, but are not the same.
“Soviet society’s terrorization, deportation and mass murder was intended for self-reform, removing from that which, as they understood it, hindered this or posed danger. That these actions were directed against specific peoples is clearly shown by their national orientation and motivation.
“In the long term Soviet oppression policies tried to disable these societies’ ability to exist fully and develop. The main and intentional goal was either to assimilate them or dissolve them in the homogenous, integral ‘Communist society.’ That’s why I say this has the clear hallmarks of genocide in terms of motives and goals.
“But the Nazis directly sought the physical destruction of all Jews whom they understood as the main evil in the world and dangerous to the world overall. So you could say they thought they were saving the world by trying to destroy totally this danger as quickly as possible. Life or death, by all means.”
Didn’t the Soviets also try to exterminate, for example, all Lithuanians to the last person?
“No,” Rozett said.
He says just as this difference also doesn’t allow for placing Soviet crimes and the Holocaust so close together even as it allows naming one and the other genocide. The historian said this was the opinion which some of the jurists on the European Court of Human RIghts held.
Therefore, he said, there is the basic question: how do we understand and judge these differences? Does placing these crimes in the same category with the same name, throwing them together in the same pot and defining them uniformly aid in better understand, on the one hand, these differences, and on the other, the individual features of both?
“I think not. This doesn’t help understand them better, neither in the sense of knowing history nor in human understanding. Overall there appears a clear danger here that everything can become everything else. More precisely, that any evil or crimes of history can be called genocide, for example, slavery.
“So, in my opinion, it isn’t necessary to seek these things at any cost, to try so hard to compete. The best and most needed thing is to learn more about this honestly, openly and consistently, to try to come to a deeper understanding, to feel it in as human a way as possible,” the Yad Vashem scholar said.
He said Soviet crimes can be qualified as crimes against humanity, which is not a lighter criminal qualification than genocide, if we want to follow the same flawed logic of competition.
He said the main thing is learn more and research all these crimes and to present findings to the public, especially to young people. He said a fuller and more complete knowledge of history restricts the possibility of manipulating history the most.
How Can We Show Solidarity?
Rozett’s colleague David Silberklang says the main arguments preventing placing the Holocaust and Soviet terror together and calling them both genocide are of a moral and ethical nature.
“Without doubt the countries seized by the Soviets experienced great losses and suffering, and people were deported en masse and even murdered. The Holocaust, however, was a total destruction based on ethnic membership and something more than other mass murders. They tried to exterminate all Jews directly. Although all victims are equal, the actions, motives and breadth of their murderers were not the same.
“The most important thing, however, is that among those who took part en masse in the Holocaust were representatives of those nations on whose land it happened. And often the desire to belittle this fact is also the main argument for equating Soviet and Nazi crimes. And even if there is no desire to belittle or hid this participation, should this equality at least be avoided just because of that participation?” Silberklang wondered.
He said Lithuanian participation in the various stages and activities of the Holocaust–not just in executions–was rather broad, especially in rural locations.
“Some of those who survived the Holocaust in Lithuania are certain that it wasn’t the Lithuanians who were collaborators with the Germans, but the Germans who collaborated with the Lithuanians. Keeping that in mind and also the fact there were also many Lithuanians who rescued Jews, I just want to say the engagement of Lithuanians in the mass murder of Jews, unfortunately, was rather broad.
“On the other hand, among those Lithuanians were those who heroically battled the Soviet occupation and were victims of the Soviet regime. It is because of these two things that equating Soviet crimes and the Holocaust should be avoided,” the historian said.
He said this avoidance would help protect not just from direct manipulations and belittlement of the Holocaust and participation in it, but also from suspicion and accusations this is taking place. It would also be a very clear gesture showing Lithuania stands in solidarity with Holocaust victims and their suffering.
And shouldn’t it be this which is the main indication of the maturity of Lithuanian historical memory?
Full text in Lithuanian here.