Ethnic relations in World War 2 Lithuania (1939-1945) | True Lithuania
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Ethnic relations in World War 2 Lithuania (1939-1945)

During World War 2, Lithuania experienced alternating occupations and genocides (Soviet-Russian 1940-1941, Nazi German 1941-1944, Soviet-Russian after 1944). Each occupational regime had ethnic groups it supported and the ones it condemned to murders and persecutions. While many people of Lithuania would have preferred continuing freedom to any occupation, idealistic hopes for this were dashed. Instead, people often had to choose the "less evil" power of the two, and which one was "less evil" for you depended on which community you came from. This created a bitter divide between the ethnic communities that would linger on throughout the 20th century.

Lithuanian-Russian relations (1940-1945). Soviet occupation of Lithuania soon brought in heavy persecution of Lithuanians. Most of the perpetrators were Russians who formed the bulk of Soviet officials and occupational army (in Lithuanian language the "Soviet occupation" is thus often referred to as the "Russian occupation"). Lithuanians who had any associations with patriotic, devout religious or non-communist political beliefs arrested and killed. Even Boy Scouts, those who simply owned a Lithuanian flag or those who did not cast their vote at a single-candidate mock election was targetted. By 1941 June the persecution turned into genocide, as 2% of the entire population of Lithuania were expelled to Siberia in a single week, most to die there. In the same month, Lithuanian mutineers and German soldiers forced the Soviets out of Lithuania, but only after the Soviets had mass-murdered Lithuanian political prisoners in order for them not to be liberated. The Soviet occupation was replaced by Nazi German occupation. However, the fresh memories of Soviet terror were so potent that even at this time it was the possible return of the Soviets (rather than the Nazi German persecutions) that caused the greatest fear amongst Lithuanians. After Soviet return became inevitable (~1944) some 100000 Lithuanians decided to flee westwards instead of facing nearly certain death. Tens of thousands of others took up weapons, launching a guerilla war. Still, Russians restarted their genocide that was at the cruelest in Lithuania Minor, which was entirely Russified with both population and placenames replaced (now most of it is known as Kaliningrad Oblast). But hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians were also expelled from Lithuania-proper, even though the calls for all-out destruction of Lithuanians by a Russian minister for Lithuanian affairs Mikhail Suslov ("There will be Lithuania but without the Lithuanians") were not materialized. Some Lithuanians escaped persecutions by collaborating with the Russians, which often included giving out or even killing their own relatives and neighbors. Others made it seem that they are pro-Soviet by keeping their real opinions in secret, often even from their own children. Lithuania's Russian minority, on the other hand, often genuinely collaborated with the new Soviet regime, as that regime was based on Russian culture and language which were both better understandable to them than the Lithuanian culture.

Lithuanians murdered by the Soviets in Rainiai massacre, one of many brutal mass murders of Lithuanians masterminded by Russians in World War 2 Lithuania. Out of the at least 73 bodies only 27 could be identified due to mutilations. Prior to death, the victims were tortured: their genitals severed and put into their mouths, eyes picked out, bones crushed, skin burned by hot water and acid, they suffered electrocution. The victims were recently arrested by the Soviets for such 'crimes' as participating in the Boy Scout movement or owning a Lithuanian flag.

Russian-Jewish relations (1940-1945). Communist and pro-Soviet thoughts became popular among Lithuanian Jewry in the 1930s. At different times ~1940 Soviet occupation of Lithuania, Jews made up from 30% to 80% of Lithuania's communist party ranks despite being merely 7% of the total population. As Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, large numbers of Jews welcomed the occupational army and a disproportional number of Jews thus became collaborators with the Soviet occupational regime. Even to non-communist Jews, it often seemed as if it was better (safer) to conform to the Russian rule and culture, just as they had previously conformed to the Lithuanian rule. After all, both Lithuanian and Russian cultures were equally foreign to Jews. After the German occupation of Lithuania (1941) which heavily persecuted and murdered Jews, Russians also became seen as the power most likely to drive Nazi Germany out of Lithuania. This was another reason why many Jews joined Soviet partisans in the latter stages of World War 2.

Ethnic composition of the Soviet partisans operating in Rūdninkai forests, responsible for, among other crimes, the mass murder of a Polish-Lithuanian Kaniūkai village. Such ethnic composition, with Russians and Jews the two dominant ethnicities, was common in most of Lithuania's genuinely pro-Soviet institutions and organizations of the early 1940s. This particular table was made by historian Rimantas Zizas, translated by True Lithuania.

Lithuanian-German relations (1940-1945). As the situation under Soviet (Russian) rule became more and more tragic, Lithuanians developed hopes that Germans (the only other great power in Continental Europe) would liberate them, which partly came to the truth in 1941. Lithuanians even believed that Germans would allow them to restore independent Lithuania and attempted to form a government in 1941 as the Nazi German armies invaded. However, Germans stripped this government of any powers and the government disbanded itself not wishing to be used to legitimize German war crimes; all Lithuanian political parties were then banned. While the Soviet-style mass murders of ethnic Lithuanians ceased and most anti-Lithuanian discriminatory Soviet measures were canceled, a slow realization came that Germany was just another imperial Power, itself responsible for the deaths of some 20 thousand ethnic Lithuanians. Underground anti-Nazi cells started to spring up in Lithuanian cities. They mostly worked in non-violent ways, such as publishing anti-Nazi press and hiding Jews from the Holocaust. Lithuanians were reluctant to take arms against Germany because every loss of Germany would make the Soviet re-occupation of Lithuania more likely, which was what Lithuanians feared the most. As the re-occupation started to seem inevitable by ~1943-1944, Lithuanians were already planning their next struggle against the Soviet Union.

Bilingual 1942 Nazi German posters in Šiauliai declare: 'The liberated Lithuania continues the struggle against the Bolshevism' and 'We are thankful to Adolf Hitler, our liberator'. Both the Nazi German and Lithuanian flags are waving, even though the former outnumbers the later (however, during the Soviet occupation the Lithuanian flag has been outlawed altogether). Such German propaganda was typical to the era: it sought to remind the far greater horrors of Bolshevism (recently suffered by the Lithuanians) in order to present the German nation as liberators or helpers in a mutual fight.

German-Jewish relations (1940-1945). Nazi Germany sought to Germanize much of Eastern Europe. Among the local non-German ethnicities, Jews were considered to be among the worst. Thus, Germans started persecuting of Lithuanian Jews right after the 1941 occupation. The situation gradually worsened. Soon enough Jewish civilians would be also murdered in their hundreds in many towns, including children. Eventually, the remaining Jews were forced to live in designated ghettos. Later even these Jews were massacred locally or in German concentration camps elsewhere. The Jews who were able to hide or run away did so, often never to return. Some fought back in the forests amongst Soviet partisans. Some others prolonged their own lives by collaborating with Nazi Germany and helping them to murder other Jews or hide the previous murders. This Nazi German genocide (Holocaust or Shoah) became the most tragic event Lithuanian Jewry ever faced and the main reason why its numbers decreased by up to 88% between census years of 1923 and 1959.

Entrance to the Jewish ghetto of Vilnius, established by the German occupational regime. Jews who lived in the ghettos were generally not allowed to leave on themselves.

German-Gypsy relations (1940-1945). Germans have regarded Gypsies to be "less evolved human beings" due to their poorness and due to most of them not doing any organized work or education. As such, a decision was made to "Treat Gypsies like Jews", effectively condemning them. As Gypsies always lived a nomadic life, it is unclear how many of Lithuania's Gypsies were murdered by Nazi Germany, the estimates ranging from 100 to 1000.

Lithuanian-Jewish relations (1940-1945). The collaboration of some Jews with the Soviet regime (1940-1941) created some anti-Jewish sentiment among Lithuanians. Nazi Germany, seeking to enlist locals to their cause, exploited these sentiments by a massive propaganda campaign which both positioned Nazi Germany as the main/only fighter against the evil of communism and then equaled all Jews to communists. As this happened soon after a major Soviet crime against humanity when 2% of entire Lithuania's population were killed or expelled in a single week, some Lithuanians answered the calls for cooperation/revenge by collaborating with Nazi Germany (the collaborators would also be rewarded in status by the Germans, or at least be able to avoid persecutions). Despite the Nazi German propaganda, however, most Lithuanians understood that the whole Jewish community should not be blamed for the actions of the Jewish-Soviet collaborators. Therefore, it became popular to save Jews (using such means as hiding them at home). By the number of Israel-recognized "righteous-among-nations" people per capita (i.e. non-Jews who saved Jews), Lithuania ranks second in the world only to the Netherlands (and the first in Central/Eastern Europe).

A 'righteous-amog-nations' certificate issued by Yed Vashem museum in Jerusalem proves that Kazys Grinius, an interwar president of Lithuania, participated in saving Lithuania's Jews from the Holocaust

Lithuanian-Polish relations (1940-1945) . While Lithuanians and Poles both were victims of the same totalitarian regimes, the interwar animosity between them did not subside. The main question was, should Lithuania and Poland both be liberated after World War 2, which country would then have Vilnius region? Thus Lithuanian and Polish freedom fighters operated separately in the Vilnius region, effectively making the WW2 in Vilnius a complex fight of four parties, each of them an enemy of every other party: Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Lithuanian partisans, and the Polish Armia Krajowa (with shifting short-term unofficial alliances). Lithuanians and Poles would blame each other for some war crimes and civilian murders. These war crimes, however, were not of the same scale as Soviet and Nazi German genocides.

Local Lithuanians greets the Lithuanian army as it has gained the control of Vilnius in the November of 1939 (to be followed by Polish protests next day). Less than a year later, however, Vilnius and entire Lithuania were occupied by the Soviet Union. This was the general trend that the Polish-Lithuanian conflict was overshadowed by World War 2, with both nations effectively reduced to pawns in that global conflict.

German-Russian relations (1940-1945). At the beginning of World War 2, the German and Russian governments cooperated in partitioning Eastern Europe (Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact). According to the final version of this partition, the Klaipėda region was taken by Germany (1939) whereas the rest of Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union (1940). Lithuanians were recognized by Germany as a "Soviet nation" and many ethnic Lithuanians were deported from the now-German Klaipėda region. On the other hand, Germans from the rest of Lithuania were moved to Germany. Ethnic Germans and Russians then had little contact, but actually, both nations sought to expand further at the expense of the other. The war began in 1941: Germans sought to expand their "living sphere" by Germanizing Slavic (including Russian) Eastern Europe, while the Soviets sought to expand their totalitarian communism. Soviets were successful. Their soldiers, having received much hateful anti-German propaganda throughout the years, would kill and rape German civilians on a massive scale, removing Germans from entire provinces. Few Germans remained in Soviet-occupied Lithuania and those who did were especially discriminated: they had to hide their ethnicity, language, and religion long after World War 2 in order to save themselves.

A column of German and Lithuanian refugees who attempted to flee the Klaipėda region was overran by Soviet tanks. Such wanton killings (as well as torture and rapes) of the despised Germans at the hands of conquering Russians were extremely common in the mid-to-late 1940s Europe, resulting in deaths of some 2 million German civilians and expulsion of some 16 million. In Lithuania, the local German community, which consisted of 4% of the population prior to World War 2, basically ceased to exist.

German-Polish relations (1940-1945). Throughout the German rule, Poles generally saw Germans as an imperialist enemy power that has partitioned their country together with the Soviet Union in 1939. However, many Poles regarded the prospect of Soviet occupation as an even worse one. Additionally, the Poles sought to ensure that, after World War 2 ends, the Vilnius region would be reintegrated into Poland rather than into Lithuania. All these goals meant that while Polish guerilla Armia Krajowa (ruled by the government-in-exile and staffed by local Poles) fought against Germans, it has also cooperated with them to some extent in their fights against both Soviet and Lithuanian partisans, that way seeking to ensure the "best possible" outcome for Poles after World War 2 ends.

Russian-Polish relations (1940-1945). Most Poles generally saw Soviet Union (Russia) as an imperialist power that has partitioned Poland together with Germany. As the Polish-inhabited areas of Lithuania fell under Soviet rule, the local Poles suffered the Soviet persecution first hand, many deported to Siberia or killed (25000 people of Vilnius in 1939, for example). Such experiences made Poles especially wary of Russians and even after Lithuania was occupied by Nazi Germany in 1941, the Polish and Russian (Soviet) partisans would not join forces; they even fought each other. Very few Poles fought alongside Russians, forming pro-communist Gwardia/Armia Ludowa (the influence of this organization was later exaggerated by communist historians during the Cold War). However, unable to outgun the Russians, the Polish Armia Krajowa sometimes cooperated with the Russians in Lithuania during the later stages of the World War 2, incorrectly believing that this would ensure Poles a better situation after the war ends in the then-inevitable Soviet victory (with Vilnius-within-Poland being a major goal).

Polish (Armia Krajowa) and Russian soldiers patrol in Vilnius streets together after the mainly Polish efforts routed the Nazi German troops away. However, the bliss was short-lived, as the next day Russians have arrested their Polish 'allies' and then either murdered them, expelled them to forced labor or made them switch their allegiances to Soviet army

Polish-Jewish relations (1940-1945). Like Lithuanians, many Poles were dismayed by the Jewish collaboration with the Soviet Union which has occupied the once-Polish-controlled Vilnius region. Such collaboration, which was also popular among some other minorities (e.g. Belarusians), further entrenched the opinion that only the citizens of titular ethnicity could be trusted.

Minority people (i.e. non-Polish and non-Lithuanian) eagerly accept propaganda disseminated by the Soviet soldiers in the Soviet-occupied Vilnius region. Such an image, and even more so the images of minorities collaborating in killing the locals, lingered well beyond World War 2, supporting the idea among Poles and Lithuanians that the minorities such as Jews, Russians, and Belarusians are necessarily 'fifth columns' even if they would be citizens.

*Westerners (as used in this article) are people of the Western world, except for Germans. The group includes British, French, Spanish, Italian, American, Scandinavian, Dutch, and other Western ethnicities.
**Russophones (as used in this article) are ethnicities of the former Soviet Union (mainly Soviet settlers and their children), excluding Russians. Many of them speak Russian natively, most others speak better Russian than Lithuanian (hence the term). The two largest Russophone ethnicities are Belarusians and Ukrainians, smaller groups include people from Caucasus, Central Asia, Volga region, and Moldova.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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