LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 12, No.2 - Summer 1966
Editor of this issue: Thomas Remeikis
Copyright © 1966 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
THE LITHUANIAN REVOLT AGAINST THE SOVIETS IN 1941
University of Bonn
This is an article, "Lithuania During the War: Resistance Against the Soviet and the Nazi Occupants," published in V. Stanley Vardys, Lithuania under the Soviets: Portrait of a Nation, 1940-65 (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1965), pp. 61-84. Reprinted here by permission is the first part of the article.
The failure of the Lithuanian Government to oppose the invasion of the Red Army by armed force did not signify Lithuanians' acquiescence in the fact of foreign occupation. It took the Soviet occupant another decade to subdue the Lithuanians to the Communist regime. Indeed, the period of 1940-52, one of the bloodiest in Lithuania's history, was one of resistance, first, against the Soviets (1940-41), then against the Nazis who held the country occupied for three years (1941 -44), and then again against the re-established Soviet rule (1944-52). The purpose for the study is to describe Lithuanian reactions to the loss of independence and then to depict the development and activities of articulated Lithuanian resistance against the Soviets during the first occupation.
Crystalization of Resistance Against the Soviets, 1940-41
It should be stressed from the outset that the resistance against the Soviets (and later against the Nazis) was of an intensely nationalistic character. A century of national revival, culminating in the establishment of an independent state, produced among the Lithuanians strong commitments to national ideas and to the national state. The younger generation especially, sensitive to the medieval traditions of Lithuanian statehood, took modern Lithuania's independence as an axiomatic fact and therefore refused to reconcile itself to its loss. This dedication to the national Lithuanian ideals, combined with traditional dislike of the Russian rule and fears of persecution by Communist Russians soon crystallized into active opposition to the Kremlin's occupation.
Resistance groups quickly won approval and support from virtually all strata of the Lithuanian population. This support grew in direct proportion to the increasing political suppression, economic expropriation, and decline of the standards of living that swiftly followed the introduction of the Soviet regime. Furthermore, the increasing highhandedness and unrelenting terrorism of Moscow's rule, ultimately resulting in mass deportations of civilians, caused the Lithuanians to look for salvation abroad, first of all in Germany, its nearest and most powerful neighbor. Generally, the anti - Soviet opposition fed on hope that the Communist occupation would not last. Such hope was kindled not only by expectations of war between Germany and the Soviet Union but also by the news that number of Western countries had refused to recognize Lithuania's forcible incorporation into the Soviet Union. Encouragement was found in the declaration of the American Under Secretary of State, Sumner Welles, on July 23, 1940, which condemned the destruction of Baltic independence by the Soviet Union and assured that "the people of the United States are opposed to predatory activities no matter whether they are carried on by the use of force or by the threat of force." 1 Further comfort was derived from President Roosevelt's sanguine prediction to the Lithuanian - American Council, made three months later, on October 15, that Lithuanian independence was not lost. "Lithuania's independence," he said, "has only temporarily been put aside. Time will come and Lithuania will be free again. This will happen much sooner than you expect." 2
The resistance took diverse forms. The bulk of the population resorted to passive opposition, which consisted primarily of boycotting the numerous political activities the regime introduced and of verbal ridicule of the Communist system and the Russians. Within a year, a large body of anti -Soviet folklore developed.*
* This included anecdotes deriding the fashions of Soviet women, the table manners of Soviet officers, and Soviet reactions to the food and amenities of life they found in the capitalist country they immediately labeled "Little America." Words of ridicule were substituted for the texts of patriotic and romantic Soviet songs. Stalin and the Party were derided in sovietized versions of the Lord's Prayer, the Credo, etc.
At the same time, active resistance to the Soviets began among the country's youth. Patriotic loyalties of young Lithuanian army officers and soldiers were the first to be challenged, because after the Lithuanian Army's incorporation into the Red Army, the military was required to pledge loyalty to the Soviet Union. Many refused openly.3 Furthermore, elections to the "people's diet" brought out large numbers of anti - Soviet leaflets designed to counter the false Communist propaganda and to unmask Soviet objectives. These leaflets, sponsored by locally organized secret patriotic organizations such as the Force for Lithuania's Defense (Lietuvos Gynimo Rinktinė), the Front for the Restoration of Lithuania (Lietuvos Atstatymo Frontas), the Battle Band (Kovos Būrys),4 were extremely emotional. For example, a sheet signed in the name of the Force for Lithuania's Defense, dated July 8, 1940, said: "A true Lithuanian would die rather than vote for Lithuania's traitors. Do not go to the polling places, because there you'll be forced to betray your brethren, your freedom, and your religion." Underground publications spread more widely after students returned to schools in September, 1940. Senior high-school and university students formed secret societies. Mimeographed leaflets and even periodicals appeared in both Vilnius and Kaunas. Lithuanian educators also voiced their opposition to the regime. On August 14 -15, 1940, a congress of 8,000 teachers in the Kaunas sports palace staged an unexpected patriotic demonstration. The regime had called this congress to begin a "reorientation" program for teachers, but the delegates concluded the congress by singing Lithuania's banned national anthem.
The most energetic centers of active resistance were organized by the students of Kaunas and Vilnius universities, in close cooperation with junior staff members. However, resistance activities were not yet coordinated. Furthermore, the underground groups lacked experience in protecting themselves from agents provocateurs and informers. *
* A number of resistance members fell into the hands of security agents and the NKVD. Retreating in June, 1941, the Bolsheviks carried out extensive executions among those who survived in prisons at Petrašiūnai (near Kaunas), at Rainiai forest, near Telšiai (where the prisoners, among them several high-school students, were killed by unspeakable torture), Panevežys, Pravieniškės (Kaišiadorys), and other localities.
Therefore, on October 9 in Kaunas, at a secret meeting of the Kaunas and Vilnius resistance groups, the delegates not only discussed their aims, but also sought ways of introducing a degree of planning and more conspiratorial measures into the movement.
Unification of Resistance Groups.
However, the activities of most underground groups were centralized not through the initiative within the country but through the efforts of Colonel K. Škirpa, the former Lithuanian Minister and Military Attache in Germany, who had many contacs in German military and diplomatic circles. Aided and advised by Lithuanian politicians, officers, and intellectuals who had fled to Germany to escape Soviet arrest in Lithuania, Colonel Škirpa won approval from the Germans, and on November 17 established a nucleus for a united organization named the Lithuanian Activist Front (Lietuvių Aktyvistų Frontas, LAF).5 The Communists, fabricating the history of the resistance, claim that the LAF was merely a German "fifth column" in Lithuania.6 The fact is, however, that the organization was formed and operated for the sole purpose of restoring Lithuania's independence; its connection with the Germans was merely incidental, conditioned by the circumstances of the day.
From Berlin, Colonel Škirpa commanded the LAF with the assistance of an advisory council. The organizers worked out the basic rules for this underground resistance organization as well as a political program for the re-establishment of a free Lithuanian state. The group produced a series of articles and proclamations on the program, but these had little influence in Lithuania, because only a small part of this material could be smuggled into the country.7 Also, Colonel Škirpa was forced by the Germans to remain in Berlin after Lithuania was taken by the Germans. Thus, he was isolated from the events of the summer of 1940 and could have little influence on the course of politics in his homeland. Of much greater importance to the anti-Soviet underground than political advice and planning were the military suggestions and directions by the leadership of the LAF on how to prepare and execute a revolt against the Soviets. On March 24, 1941, all instructions of this type were summarized in a paper entitled "Directives for the Liberation of Lithuania." 8 These instructions were so secret that their memorized contents were entrusted only to the most reliable couriers.9
Preparation for the Insurrection Against the Soviets
The leadership of the LAF in Berlin based its instructions to the Lithuanian underground on the assumption that there would be a German-Soviet war and on the evaluation of German trustworthiness as an ally. Once the Germans cross the Lithuanian frontiers, the directives ordered, the Lithuanian underground was to stage an insurrection against the Soviets, and in any event, even if the Germans demurred, establish a provisional Lithuanian government. In this way, even if the Germans should refuse to grant Lithuania independence, they would be confronted with a fait accompli.10 Such caution (and optimism that such forcing of the German hand might succeed) was based on Škirpa's experiences with the German military, the Nazi Party, and the Foreign Ministry, who made nebulous and indefinite promises that aroused his suspicion, and prompted him, fortunately, to provide for an unexpected eventuality that nevertheless occured.
In preparation for the insurrection, the LAF organized in Lithuanian cities and towns a conspiratorial system of "threes" and "fives" (units of three and five persons) linked to one another and thus to a central leadership. Thus, a far - reaching, hierarchically organized chain of units was established that guaranteed maximum secrecy, the main characteristic of the LAF. A regular member of an underground unit knew only his own group. The rule that governed the dangerous underground activity was to know just what was necessary, and no more, to carry out the assigned task.11 Local units were given instructions how, in case of insurrection, to take over police stations, telephone communications, hospitals, and other important institutions. The network of these units was somewhat impaired by the mass deportations of June 14, 1941, but the organization was not substantially crippled. It was estimated that in 1941 this network numbered about 36,000 members.
Two major centers of command — one in Vilnius, the other in Kaunas — were formed to carry out the revolt and establish a provisional government, even against the German will. "These functioned on a parallel basis so that if one was liquidated, the other could continue alone. Liaison between the leadership in Berlin and the two centers in the country was maintained through trusted couriers, thus assuring that all the activities would be adequately coordinated." 12
The LAF did not immediately unify all existing resistance units. Before LAF instructions reached Lithuania, various groups and regional organizations had arisen in the late summer of 1940 and later, e. g., Lithuania's Defense League in the Tauragė district, the Iron Wolf in Šakiai, the Lithuanian Freedom Army in the Šiauliai district. The last-named, organized in a military manner and led by army officers, was very active during the Nazi occupation and even more so early in the second Soviet occupation, especially with its famed partisan units Vanagai (Falcons). On December 26, 1940, representatives of liberal-nationalist youth, especially of students, founded the Union of Lithuanian Freedom Fighters, which joined the LAF in April, 1941, and played an active part in the revolt of June 23.
During this time, Lithuania was completely sealed off from the outside world and found itself in a tightly shut propaganda "pot." It was therefore imperative that the resistance movement maintained contacts abroad, especially to learn when to expect a Soviet-German war, which seemed to promise the only opportunity for getting rid of Communist oppression. The first courier from Berlin did not reach Kaunas and Vilnius before the mid-die of December, 1940. He brought with him the pamphlet From Bolshevik Slavery to a New Lithuania, Published in Berlin on December 5. He also brought news of the coming war, instructions, and other information. *
* Several weeks later, while returning, he was betrayed at the border. After suffering torture in the Kaunas prison, he was moved to Minsk prison and there executed soon after the start of the war. See Antanas Pocius, "Kaip. Pranas Gužaitis ir pogrindis," Į laisvę (Chicago), No. 8 (1955), pp. 34-36; also Adolfas Darnusis, "Pasiruošta ir Įvykdyta," Į laisvę (Chicago), No. 3 (1954), pp. 4-5.
If the revolt were to succeed it was necessary that the date of the war be known at least approximately, but the long-awaited day was continually being postponed. News arrived from Berlin that German military operations would begin during the first ten days of May. However, intensive preparations for the revolt had to be stopped ,13 since the Reich spent several important weeks settling accounts with Yugoslavia, which had just then broken away from the Axis. Such delays not only affected the morale of the resistance but were also costly in casualties. Arrests took place even among the Vilnius staff. Yet, when the day came at last, the revolt took its successful course.
The Revolt of June 23, 1941
Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 22, 1941. As expected, the news of the war, even in the zones of military action, was greeted by Lithuanians with unconcealed joy. The nation, furthermore, was electrified by the Kaunas radio broadcast a day later — June 23 — proclaiming the revolt against the Soviets, the restoration of Lithuanian independence, and the formation of a Provisional Government. All this took place while uniformed Russian soldiers were still walking the streets of Kaunas and Red Army units were still close to the radio towers. The station was captured by a special detail of insurrectionists. On the same day, the insurrectionist forces took over police stations and several arsenals in Kaunas (very many automatic rifles were found in the exhibition pavilion), saved the city's automatic telephone exchange from demolition by the Soviets, and freed political prisoners. In two days, the rebels won complete control of the city, so that on June 25, the army of General (later Field Marshal) Friedrich Wilhelm von Kuchel entered Kaunas in parade order. For this "capture" of the city, the Fuhrer awarded General von Kuchel the order of Knight of the Iron Cross. The award citation scrupulously refrained from mentioning Lithuanian help. The German high command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht) similarly claimed that the Kaunas radio station was captured by a German lieutenant named Flohret. But in fact the station had already been in the hands of Lithuanian rebels for a day and a half when Flohret, accompanied by two privates, came to the station and announced its seizure.
From Kaunas the revolt swiftly spread into the country. Many cities and villages were cleaned of Bolshevik troops days before the Germans occupied them. It is estimated that about 100,000 partisans took part in the insurrection, a number about three times the size of the membership of underground organizations under the leadership of the LAF. This massive participation indicated, of course, that the revolt had national, spontaneous support. Local leaders could and did display initiative and acted independently of the central leadership of Kaunas, which could not enforce uniform discipline or control the actions of local units.
What caused this dramatic rejection of Soviet rule by the Lithuanians? As previously mentioned, resistance against the Soviets was nurtured by nationalist ideals, by hopes of outside help and, finally, by the oppressive policies of the Soviet regime. These deserve a more detailed description. In the brief span of a few months, the Communists had nationalized all business enterprises, thus expropriating, displacing, and impoverishing a sizable and important social group. Most peasants lost at least some of their farm acreage, because the regime allowed an individual family only 75 acres of land; furthermore, the farmers were burdened by discriminatory requisitions of agricultural products that led to their financial ruin. Factory workers suffered from the steeply increased cost of living and disappearance of goods from the stores. The clergy and the traditionally religious population were subjected to religious persecution. Furthermore, thousands of suspected oponents of the regime were crowded into Lithuanian and Russian prisons. Finally, in a mass operation, the Soviets deported over 35,000 civilians, including women and children. As was found out later, this deportation was the first in the planned deportation of an estimated 700,000 *
* This estimate is based cn the size of social groups the Soviets marked for deportation.
of the country's population to slave-labor camps. This first deportation occurred just a week before the outbreak of the German - Soviet war, on June 14 - 15, a fact that convinced many Lithuanians that a modus vivendi with the Soviet regime was impossible — and irrevocably excited anti-Soviet feelings. Against this background, it is easy to understand the population's support of the insurrection and the enthusiasm with which it greeted the war, the German troops, and the creation of the Provisional Lithuanian Government. Whatever happened now could not be worse than what had occurred under the Soviets. Furthermore, fresh memory of Soviet cruelties disposed the people and its leaders to attempt to find a way for a peaceful coexistence with the Germans.
The new declaration of independence, proclaimed by the insurrectionists on June 23, 1941, of course cost casualties. Two thousand partisans fell in battle; in other words the casualties during the revolt were greater than those suffered during the 1919-20 wars of Lithuanian independence. About two hundred insurrectionists fell in Kaunas alone. The Provisional Government, however, was flooded with emotional messages of congratulations and support from the provinces. Many of these messages were signed by shop and factory workers who were no less appalled and frightened by the soviet regime than was the rest of the nation.
The Six Weeks of Provisional Government
Lithuania's joy over the successful insurrection was premature. During the first days of German control, it became clear that neither the restoration of Lithuanian sovereignty nor the establishment of a Provisional Government was welcome to the Nazis; Lithuanian independence was to them undesirable, the Provisional Government a bone in the throat that they would not swallow. Shortly before the German attack, Colonel Škirpa had been warned not to establish any government without German consent, and he was strongly reprimanded after such a government was created. On June 25, General Pohl, the Wehrmacht field commander in Kaunas, frankly told the representatives of the Provisional Government that he was not authorized to enter any discussions with any Lithuanian government. However, General Pohl, an Austrian, tolerated Lithuanian authorities where these did not interfere with German institutions and policies. He also kept out of the machinations that the SD (Sicherheitsdienst) and the Gestapo continuously planned for the removal of the "stuck bone."
To accomplish this purpose, the Germans at first refrained from using any force. News of the insurrection and the Provisional Government had created a sensation in Scandinavia and had reached the United States, and its liquidation by force would have been embarrassing and inconvenient. The Government, furthermore, was immensely popular in Lithuania; also, it included several national figures whose suppression would have bad psychological effect on the Lithuanian population. The Nazis therefore decided to remove the unwelcome Government quietly, by boycotting and obstructing its activities and by pressuring it either to liquidate itself or to enlist into the service of the civil administration (Zivilverwaltung) that was soon to take over the administration of Lithuania. The Germans therefore deprived the Government of its means of transportation and communication and denied it the use of radio facilities and the press for the publication of its decrees. Furthermore, they ordered the disbanding of insurgent formations that the Provisional Government hoped to use as a nucleus for a restored Lithuanian Army; Lithuanian leaders optimistically calculated to gain recognition of Lithuania's independence from the obviously reluctant Germans in exchange for Lithuanian military contribution to the war effort against the Soviets.
The Germans, however, rejected such a trade. At the same time, the Gestapo isolated the leader of the insurrection and the formally pronounced Prime Minister of the Provisional Government, Colonel Škirpa. While Kaunas impatiently awaited the Colonel's return, the Germans would not permit him to leave Berlin. Škirpa was interned in his apartment. He complained to Field Marshal von Brauchitsch, commander of the German Army, thereby greatly intensifying the Gestapo's enmity toward himself.14 Until then, he had optimistically trusted his German acquaintances in the various Berlin offices, as they had trusted him. Yet his optimism appeared unwarranted. General S. Raštikis, the former commander of the Lithuanian Army, who in the spring of 1941 was in a position to observe Škirpa's relations with the Germans, has noted with insight that Škirpa, who had "so completely assumed the role of Lithuania's liberator and leader of the Lithuanian nation and state, thought out every detail, conscientiously and carefully prepared for his future activity, when the time came, was abandoned, kept away from his mission and even isolated by the very same German friends (who ostensibly had trusted him)." 15
However, neither the denial of the necessary facilities nor the isolation of Colonel Škirpa destroyed the Provisional Government. The cabinet functioned without its formal head. Professor Juozas Ambrazevičius, a prominent literary historian, provisionally assumed the Prime Ministership, in the hope that Škirpa eventually would be allowed to return to Kaunas. Ambrazevičius bore his difficult burden patiently, and considering the conditions of the period, successfully, to the end. The cabinet met daily. Deprived of public means for communication with the provinces, it used the same couriers that had been employed by the underground during the Soviet occupation and published its decrees and programs in some provincial newspapers not immediately subject to German military censorship.
Noting that boycott and obstruction failed to produce results, the Germans now resorted to pressure. Dr. Greffe, a representative from the SP and SD headquarters (Hauptamt der Sicherheitspolizei und des Sicherheitsdienstes), took pains to convince the government that it should suspend its operation. Greffe's successor from the Foreign Bureau of the National Socialist Labor Party, Dr. P. Kleist, used threats. According to the underground newspaper Į Laisvę, he pressured Lithuanian negotiators by "banging the table with his fist and variously threatening (their safety)."16 Kleist also demanded that the government disband or transform itself into an advisory group for the Zivilverwaltung. But such negotiations with acting Prime Minister Ambrazevičius and Defense Minister Raštikis, whom the Germans brought to Kaunas in the hope that he would let himself to be used for their purposes, yielded no results.
The Germans, however, would not give in. Still hesitant to apply direct force the Gestapo now attempted to liquidate the government with Lithuanian help. A small group of extremist supporters of the former Lithuanian politician Augustinas Voldemaras had collaborated with the Gestapo's lure of seizing the reins of government from Ambrazevičius' cabinet. This group had long believed that it held a monopoly on the wisdom of advantageous collaboration with the Germans, and with their help a Putsch was attempted on the night of July 23 - 24 to overthrow the Provisional Government. Unfortunatelly for the Germans, the venture failed.
Thus, when Hitler established Ostland for the administration of the Baltic states and Belorussia, and when, on July 28, the newly appointed Reichskomissar fur Ostland, Heinrich Lohse, announced the establishment of a civil German administration in Lithuania, the Provisional Government was still there. Still hesitant to liquidate it by arresting its members, the Germans once more attempted to persuade them to serve under German leadership. The General Commissar for Lithuania, Adrian von Renteln, in the only official meeting with the Provisional Government in corpore, proposed that the government turn itself into a council of trustees to the Zivilverwaltung. However, the government, with the exception of three members, refused this request. Nevertheless, it became clear to the stubborn Lithuanian leaders that there was no hope of achieving any modus vivendi with the Germans and that it would be useless to continue the Provisional Government's existence. Therefore, after lodging a written protest against the instituted German policies with von Renteln, the government on August 5 declared itself involuntarily suspended. Then the government members placed a wreath on the tomb of the unknown soldier and dispersed.
The Germans, thus, finally succeeded in choking off the Provisional Government. It is important to note, however, that the group survived for six weeks under the heel of the strongest war machine in Europe.
A complete evaluation of the revolt and the work of the Provisional Government will be possible only much later, from a greater perspective of time, after the series of occupations will have ended. At present, suffice it to say that the government was not able to influence the German occupation policies, though it tried, nor could it restrain the activities of the Gestapo, though it repeatedly protested to the German authorities against the mass executions of Lithuanian Jews.17 However, having only limited freedom of action, the government, boycotted and obstructed, had to confine itself to areas that were of no immediate concern to the Germans. Its most fruitful achievements, therefore, are found in the field of education. The government's greatest accomplishment was its very tenacity in surviving for six weeks under heavy German pressure and in voicing Lithuanian determination to seek independent statehood, free not only from the domination of the Soviets but also from the dictates of the Nazis.