The Crimea scenario is similar to what Lithuania underwent in the late 1930s, when Nazi Germany tore off Klaipėda region (or Memelland as it was known at the time, territory around the predominantly German-speaking port town of Memel) without firing a bullet. Everyone knew that some riflemen from Memelland were openly contemptuous of the Lithuanian state and would openly reveal secret defence orders to everyone who cared to listen in beer halls.
“In 1939, the Lithuanian army installed machine-guns in the territory of Klaipėda barracks, but they soon found themselves surrounded by a crowd of civilians who even invaded the sealed territory and the soldiers had to push them back,” Jokubauskas relates.
He says that Memelland was quite enthusiastic about joining the Third Reich.
“After the Anschluss [of Memelland to Germany in March 1939], Klaipėda experienced inflation, food shortages and, eventually, mobilization to the Wehrmacht. Essentially, it was the same as what happened in Crimea this year. Just different players,” the historian says.
Was Lithuania better prepared for war than Finland?
Jokubauskas also says that, by February 1940, Lithuania’s political leadership had decided to resist possible Soviet invasion and retreat to Germany. The Lithuanian army had been preparing for war, too, conducting military exercise and analysing possible Soviet offensive scenarios.
According to him, reserve troops were 250,000-strong, including over 5,000 officers. The Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union at the time had 88,000 members, including men, women and children.
Some army units could be ready for action within 4 to 6 hours, something that had been tested during exercises. Training mobilizations were conducted between 1930 and 1937 and a partial mobilization was called after war broke out in September 1939.
“Over the five years after 1935, more had been done to equip the Lithuanian army than over the 15 preceding years. Therefore, in 1940, the army had decent standard armaments and sufficient ammunition. If we were to say that the Lithuanian army was not ready for war in 1940, then comparative analysis would reveal that Finland could certainly not fight the Soviet Union in 1939. But they did and they won,” Jokubauskas says.
Finland fought and defended itself against the Soviet army in the 1940 Winter War. Meanwhile Lithuania did not. The Soviet Union, having secretly agreed in August 1939 with Nazi Germany to divide up Eastern Europe, issued an ultimatum to Lithuania before midnight of 14 June 1940. The Soviets, using a formal pretext, demanded to allow an unspecified number of Soviet soldiers to enter the Lithuanian territory. The Lithuanian government, realizing it was the start of an occupation, faced the dilemma of either accepting the ultimatum or going to war with the USSR.
Prime minister’s ill-timed vacation
Lithuania capitulated to the USSR in June 1940 without even attempting to resist. Why did it happen? The historian says it had to do with indecisiveness on the part of the country’s political and military leaders.
“On 12 June 1940, 11 AM, the then Prime Minister Antanas Merkys, World War One veteran and retired lieutenant colonel, who had arrived in Kaunas from Moscow, left for his country estate for vacation. Previously, he had sent a wire from Moscow that the situation was very grave,” Jokubauskas relates.
Lithuania’s leadership, who knew the extent of the danger, refused to call full mobilization or alert the army, or to summon the State Defence Council. Meanwhile the Soviet Union wasted no time in presenting Lithuania with an ultimatum it could not possibly accept.
According to surviving witnesses to the last government meeting, the party that argued for rejecting the ultimatum and fighting the Soviets included President Antanas Smetona, national defence minister, Brigade General Kazys Musteikis, Education Minister Kazimieras Jonakas and Parliament Speaker Konstantinas Šakelis.
Communications Minister Jonas Masiliūnas and Justice Minister Antanas Tamošaitis were hesitant, but seemed to be leaning towards the idea of protesting and, if need be, forming a government in exile.
Prime Minister Merkys, his deputy Kazys Bizauskas and Agriculture Minister Juozas Audėnas wanted to accept the ultimatum and forgo resistance. Their party was also backed by two generals: army chief Vincas Vitkauskas and former chief Stasys Raštikis.
According to Jokubauskas, another general, Stasys Pundzevičius, remained silent during the meeting. When he was asked whether military resistance was possible, he replied that consequences would be tragic. Foreign Minister Juozas Urbšys was in Moscow at the time and pressured the government to accept the ultimatum.
“It seems that the position of the three generals was the decisive factor, whereas Defence Minister, General Musteikis did not have enough resolve to take over the command of the army and resist occupation. Were these men thus protecting Lithuania and themselves from annihilation? If so, they failed. Everyone of them ended their lives tragically. On that June night, the President’s Palace in Kaunas was a stage for a fierce power struggle that was cunningly won by Joseph Stalin and Viacheslav Molotov,” Jokubauskas concludes.
Of the 12 men who attended the meeting and made the crucial decision, only one continued in public service, only under another regime. Six were executed or exiled. Foreign Minister Urbšys, who was in Moscow on that night, was also exiled to Siberia. Five others fled to the West.
“There is little doubt that Lithuania was in a precarious military position in 1940. Military resistance held sombre promise. The crucial factor, however, was that the army received no information from the leadership about threats and military structures were neutralized with political decisions,” according to the historian.
Historian Jokubauskas says that contemporary defence plans included civilian self-defence squads formed of ordinary citizens. Members of the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union had been specifically trained for partisan warfare without specific instructions.
According to the so-called beehive tactic, the entire territory of Lithuania was divided into small areas of several dozen square kilometres, each one controlled by a squad of partisan riflemen. Upon orders from the central command, each squad would have had to destroy all infrastructure in their territory and do everything to stop the enemy’s advance. The disassembly and resistance efforts were to be organized according to the domino principle, depending on the invasion directions, speed and the Lithuanian army’s own retreat plans and operations.
“Overall, defence plans could be summarized thus: the regular army would handle wide-front defence and, if failing, retreat. Their efforts were to be backed by partisans fighting behind. If driven into the corner, the army and the government would have been interned in a neighbouring country, while Lithuania would have waged a partisan war, indefinitely. This would have prevented the enemy from achieving a conclusive victory and legitimizing occupation and annexation for long enough to reconstruct Lithuania’s sovereignty. Then the government-in-exile would have returned to the country along with, presumably, what had remained of the army,” Jokubauskas says, adding that the plan was never put into practice.
Lithuania lost many hybrid wars
The historian says that “hybrid warfare” seems to be the word of the day in Lithuania, but many forget that the phenomenon is hardly new and Lithuania has lost several such hybrid wars in the past.
“In march 1939, Lithuania lost Memelland without firing a single shot. What’s important to note here is that in the territory, dominated by population under foreign influence, the concept of civil or paramilitary resistance did not work. The Lithuanian military leadership was well aware that some riflemen from Memelland were contemptuous of the Lithuanian state and had joined the Riflemen’s Union just for convenience – because it was a requirement for public servants or to get military training,” according to Jokubauskas.
He adds that Memelland was eager to join the Third Reich, therefore local postmen and even riflemen themselves would willingly report secret commands not just to Berlin, but to everyone who cared to listen in beer halls of Pagėgiai or Šilutė.
Jokubauskas compares the annexation of Memelland by Germany to the case of Crimea.
The historian says that composition of local populations was, in both cases, a crucial factor in defensibility of the territories. According to him, the risk of unrest is higher in regions where groups influenced by foreign forces make up at least one third of the population.
The cases of Crimea and Odessa in Ukraine are apt examples, he says. In Crimea, Russian-speakers make up about 60 percent of the population, while Ukrainian-speakers, 24 percent. In Odessa, the shares are 29 and 62, respectively.
“In the first [Crimea’s] case, Russia could easily tear off the peninsula by exploiting mass [pro-Russian] rallies, while the Ukrainian-speaking part of the society was completely marginalized. In the second [Odessa] case, attempts to incite pro-Russian provocations ended tragically for their authors. Between the wars, Memelland, which was an autonomous land within Lithuania, just like Crimea, was taken over by Germany without powder. In lieu of little green men, there were brown men,” Jokubauskas says.
“Finally, in June 1940, the enemy did not even need to go to phase eight of the hybrid war in order to score victory. In the interwar, many members of the Lithuanian elite were welcomed at the Soviet embassy, some politicians would receive generous financial inducements from the Soviets, the Communist party was operating underground. Meanwhile reporting on the Soviet Union in the Lithuanian press would range from positive to neutral, there were even speculations that ‘the nation would be better off under the Russians than under the Germans’,” historian Jokubauskas summarizes.