German historian poses a question that holds many Lithuanians up to Shame

Dr. Christoph Dieckmann
DELFI / Karolina Pansevič

Dr. Dieckmann, a member of the International Commission for Nazi and Soviet Crimes being investigated in Lithuania, poses the moral question as to why Lithuanian society, in seeing and hearing of Jews being murdered all around them, did not protest?

In his opinion a lot of it had to do with the conduct of the Church in its forever important issue of what is was going to do with baptized Jewish property.

Dr. Diekmann explains that during the occupation only a small portion of the German army was in Lithuania and so the Germans had to rely on cooperation with the Lithuanians. He explains that Jews were murdered on the initiative of the Germans however the Lithuanians did it of their own accord. He also acknowledges that until the Nazi occupation there were no pogroms against the Jews in Lithuania.

– In 2012 your book on the Nazi occupation of Lithuania received the Yad Vashem book of the year award. Aren’t you surprised that the book as yet not been translated into Lithuanian?

It’s a long and academic book of 1 600 pages. Well-known historians in Lithuania and England have said that it needs to be translated because it’s one of the best history books written. It took me 16 years to gather material from 30 archives in 7 countries. The process itself of writing the book took 8 years. I took the stance that if I want to reconstruct the events of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe I must know German. In order for me to understand the victims I’d need to know Yiddish, Hebrew too would be useful. In order for me to be able to work with Lithuanian sources I learned Lithuanian. I am also able to read Russian which was also helpful when I was writing the book. I therefore collected material for the book in five languages. It would also have been useful to know Polish but unfortunately I don’t.

– In Lithuania, 70 years later, there is growing interest in this tragedy in an attempt to understand what actually happened and how it came about that approximately 200 thousand citizens of this country were murdered. Why only now do you think?

– That you have to ask yourselves. When first I came in 1995 I found some historians who wanted to understand what happened. One needs to understand barefacedly that self-criticism is not a sign weakness but a sign of strength. When a democratic society acknowledges its mistakes it grows.

One needs to change position and stop accusing others. Lithuania lost its great state that stretched to the Black sea and blames that loss on the Poles, Russians and Jews. Heriosation is tantamount to announcing oneself as the victim, it’s two sides of the same coin. Historic Soviet policy also supports the victim but with myths of the hero which are a far cry from the real history of humanity.

-Do you think that Lithuania is continuing this tradition?

-Yes. The current policy of history is a conflict between two camps. One camp is civil patriotism (“we killed our own citizens”) while the other is ethnic nationalism (“we killed them”). In the former territories of the Soviet Union, including Lithuania, the so-called third model of perception of Soviet history is still there in that the entire country is the victim or the hero or both at the same time.

An open mind is most important as is, without a doubt, looking critically at your past. Criticism does not mean condemnation, it means analyzing and separating the good from the bad.

-For some people in Lithuania it’s nevertheless difficult to acknowledge that thousands took part in the Holocaust and not just a small group of monsters. During the Holocaust how many Germans were in Lithuania and how many Lithuanians collaborated with them?

-Based on archival information, the entire administration of Lithuania was in the hands of about 900 Germans and 20 000 Lithuanians. The number of Lithuanians who took part directly in the Holocaust is approximately 6000. The number of others who were involved in the killing depends on the office they held and functions that they performed.

It’s difficult to prove the guilt of each person but I will say this – everybody knew that the Jews were being killed and so why didn’t anybody protest?

Lithuanians are very proud of the fact that in 1943, unlike in Latvia and Estonia, mobilization into an SS division failed. Lithuanians negotiated with the Germans on mobilization, demanding greater autonomy for Lithuania as well as other conditions. When the negotiations broke down, the Nazis “punished” the Lithuanians by sending several intellectuals to concentration camps. The several hundred German policemen who were in Lithuania were unable to mobilise the Lithuanians.
In May 1942 in Marijampolė and Vilkaviškis there were open protests against the Wehrmacht’s requisitioning of means of transport like horses and wagons. Women were screaming and men ran off into the forests – and that was documented. After several protests the Nazis didn’t deem it fit to do that again.

From a Jewish perspective therefore if the Lithuanians had not collaborated with the Nazis there would have been far more opportunities to escape and hide. The Germans in actual fact didn’t bank on the fact that the Red Army would end up fleeing and so pursued them deep into the east. A few weeks after the occupation a very small portion of the German army remained in Lithuania. German politicians begged for more forces to be sent however Berlin didn’t do so and therefore German policy in Lithuania had to uphold smooth cooperation with local structures. The effective German-Lithuanian coalition became a death trap for Lithuania’s Jews. This was the case in all of Europe, not only in Lithuania. The moral question arises – why were there no protests in Lithuania?

-People were of course scared – they had already experienced the Society occupation, deportations to Siberia, and then the Nazis came…

-I have already given two examples of where people in 1942 and 1943 protested and nothing bad happened to them.

The Church however did nothing. In October 1941 a Bishops’ Conference was convened yet they debated only one problem – what were they to do with baptized Jewish property? Just this matter. Yes, there were individual priests who protested and there were churches that spoke out against killing.

-Lithuania is a Catholic country so maybe people’s apathy can be explained by the indifference of the church?

-That had a small part to play. Priests held mass in battalions that shot Jews – “fight the devil”. Indeed, in Lithuanian culture the Jew is synonymous with the devil – this is a powerful stereotype just like that of the Bolshevik Jew.

-Let’s get back to the beginning of the Nazi occupation. Did you find any proof that the Lithuanians had attached the Jews and organised pogroms before the occupation?

-It was only when the Nazis arrived that large-scale pogroms and killing of Jews started. Up until then there were a lot of other crimes in Lithuania – robbery, rape, humiliation, individual killings. But there were no pogroms. The Germans barely found Lithuanians who agreed to organise the first pogroms in Kaunas.

-Let’s talk about the collaborators – in Lithuania that’s what we call those who worked with the Germans to kill the Jews. How many Lithuanians collaborated with the Germans?

-I don’t use the term collaborate. What we today, after the Second World War, understand as a collaborator is a traitor, a person who betrayed his country and worked hand in glove with the occupier.

Almost all of those who have been declared collaborators were patriots, ethnic nationalists. What they did was done in the name of their country. That’s the key: the Lithuanian ethnic nationalists believed that it would be good for Lithuania if there were no longer any Jews. We will be able to create a strong, ethnic state without the Jews, Russians and Poles. That was the idea. That is radical ethnic nationalism when in the case of a crisis you are ready to kill.

The Lithuanians hoped that the Germans would let them create an independent state and there was a time when that actually happened. In 1918 Lithuania gained its independence under a German “umbrella”. The radical Lithuanian elite, the Voldemarists, young men who were mostly from the air force believed that the future belonged to a fascist, ethnic and national state. Fascism like Bolshevism at that time were popular doctrines. Having experienced the occupation of 1940, the Lithuanians did not want Bolshevism and so they chose fascism.

-Who on the whole worked with the Nazis?

-They were present in all strata of the military and civil administration structures. On paper the Lithuanian administration had no powers but in reality this was not the case.

In Lithuania, the Germans governed 2 cities and 4 districts, i.e. 6 “Gebietskomisariaten”. On a lower level however in all of the 25 districts, everything was governed by the district heads and it was to them that the local police structures were subservient. In fact, the German administration could also directly instruct the police, bypassing the district.

-Could the indifference of the society be attributed to pursuit of profit?

Why is it that in Lithuania killings took place in so many places? Shooting always had the risk of destabilizing the situation. If you kill Jews several hundred meters from a village or town and heard it you’d see protests and stop shooting. Yet they continued the killings even in the towns themselves due to the fact nobody reacted. People said nothing.

We do however know the horrific stories of how afterwards people went off in search of gold and other property. Most of the Jews in Lithuania lived in shtetls, Jews lived mostly in the centre of town in beautiful houses. What happened when the Jews were gone? Who moved into their houses because they didn’t stay empty? Some of them were taken over by the German administration, some by the Lithuanian administration and the rest were divided among ethnic Lithuanians. All of Lithuanian society profited from this, many and not only the killers. The best was snapped up by the German and the second best by the Lithuanian administration and whatever remained was sold to the public at auctions organised by the local powers that be. Constant conflicts between Germans and Lithuanians were documented as to who would get the property of murdered Jews. Who got the most?

If you take the property of people who have been murdered, even if you are not an anti-Semite, you become one by doing so. Somewhere in the sub-conscious appropriation of Jewish property becomes justifiable. The Jews after all weren’t “like us” and what’s more they “deserved” it.

-But what protests did you see when the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania and when the deportations of Lithuanians began

-During the occupation the Red Army had 150 thousand troops in Lithuania whereas the German army that occupied Lithuania for a few weeks only left behind individual units only. That’s where the difference is.

-Who were the killers?

-Everything happened at the initiative of the Germans. With the Germans supervising the Lithuanians did the work and were therefore not the brains behind it all.

We are guilty in that without the Germans there wouldn’t have been a Holocaust, but you, the Lithuanians cooperated. Furthermore, history would have been very different. That however is the way it was in all of Europe. Lithuania was no exception. That’s how it happened in Ukraine, Belarus; the Romanians shot all of their Jews themselves…

-Did people choose not to kill? In Lithuania there’s the impression behind each Lithuanian that killed a Jew there was a German standing there with a gun.

-All members of the battalions were volunteers. From August 1941 they were requested to serve at least six months and officers, one year. It was a bi-lateral agreement. The situation changed in January 1942 when the Germans issued an order that allowed for withdrawal from the battalions under special circumstances only. But by that time most of the Jews of Lithuania had been killed.
In truth, not many people left. For example in July 1941, 117 policemen left the battalion that operated in Kaunas. They were not punished for it.

Do you know of any member of a battalion that was killed by the Germans for refusing to kill? Lithuanians were most often punished not for refusing to kill Jews but for theft, corruption and the like.

-To what extent was public apathy determined by the fact that Lithuanians were poor peasants and who associated the Jews, who were tradesmen and artisans, with gold and money and so were not liked?

-You mustn’t be guided by national stereotypes. Were the Jews rich? No, only a small number of them. Most Lithuanian Jews were not rich. The Lithuanians were mostly peasants who borrowed money from the Jews or got food on loan. When there’s no Jew there’s no debt.

-What can we do today? Speak about moral Lithuanian responsibility? This is not a liked topic in Lithuania.

-We must be bold and look at our history and have the courage to acknowledge the mistakes of the past – that is a sign of strength and not of weakness.

-Ruta Vanagaitė’s book “Ours” which was written together with Efraim Zoruf made quite a noise and the writer was accused of treason and distorting the facts. We were however were forced to remember the tragedy of our fellow citizens. What are your thoughts on this?

-That was a bold civil and patriotic deed. Ms. Vanagaitė and her book were not the first however it was the first that created such a response. To this day this book causes an explosion and that what’s remarkable.

About Mindaugas Jackevicius 29 Articles
Būti žurnalistu norėjau nuo 6 klasės. 2008 m. baigiau žurnalistikos studijas Vilniaus universitete, DELFI dirbu nuo 2007 m. Rašau politikos, žmogaus teisių, emigracijos, švietimo, žiniasklaidos temomis. 2014 m. pasiryžau nuotykiui ir pusmečiui emigravau į Australiją. Lietuvišką žiemą iškeitęs į Sidnėjaus paplūdimius, studijavau koledže ir paragavau padavėjo duonos. Būdamas Australijoje supratau, ką iš tikro reiškia būti emigrantu, ir tokią patirtį rekomenduoju kiekvienam.
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