On February 16, 1918, Lithuania declared its re-emergence as a sovereign state in the aftermath of the collapse of the Tsarist Empire. I joined my Lithuanian-born wife and other members of Sydney’s Lithuanian community, part of a world-wide diaspora, in both celebration and recollection. As I listened to the singing of traditional folk songs, the recitation of poetry and watched dancers in traditional costume, I reflected on a troubled history.
In 1940, together with its Baltic neighbours, Latvia and Estonia, Lithuania’s independence was snuffed out by the new totalitarian empire of Stalin, the Red Czar. Over the following twelve months, a reign of terror, mass arrests, torture and murder of Lithuanian notables and deportations to the Soviet gulags, replicated in the other Baltic states, was inflicted on the unfortunate people.
When Germany drove out the Soviet forces in June, 1941, many Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians saw the rival Nazi totalitarian devil as a liberator and sought to make common cause with it. The local collaborators in the Holocaust were morally damnable, but we should not forget that the Baltic peoples, caught between two rival totalitarian devils, were presented with no desirable choices. The morally upright among them had the choice of exile, invisibility or death. Unlike the occupied countries of Western Europe, there was no prospect of liberation by the democratic Anglosphere. Instead, in pursuit of the defeat of Nazi totalitarianism, American and British aid helped the Soviet Union reoccupy the Baltic States. VE Day in 1945 meant nothing more than the resumption of mass arrests and deportations to the Soviet gulags. Amidst the celebrations of the defeat of Nazi Germany, the fate of the Baltic States scarcely registered in the Western democracies. They were indeed, to adapt Neville Chamberlain’s notorious quote, “far away states, of which we know nothing.”
While the Holocaust has been rightly commemorated since the Second World War, the victims of the deportations from the Baltic States have hardly registered on the public consciousness in the English speaking world. Indeed, the victims of Communism occupy a far smaller space in historical memory than the victims of Nazi totalitarianism, even though the number of victims is far greater.
This has nothing to do with so-called relativisation of the holocaust. At a purely descriptive level, the industrial-scale, systematic murder of six million Jews by the Einsatzgruppen and in special-purpose extermination camps has no parallel in Communist regimes. Although the Ukrainian Holodomor, Stalin’s terror famine in the Ukraine, was not methodologically equivalent to the Holocaust, it is significant that the Soviet Union enjoyed a considerable level of legitimacy and support from a small army of intellectual supporters and fellow travellers. Whereas only disreputable cranks denied the Nazi Holocaust, the denial or minimisation of the Holodomor, enjoyed some respectability.
Indeed, émigrés from the Baltic States and other Eastern European countries dominated by Soviet-imposed Communist regimes were often regarded as fanatics by large sections of Left-liberal opinion in both the universities and the media — opinion that equated anti-communism with so-called McCarthyism and embraced anti-anti-communism. The Whitlam government’s de jure recognition of the annexation of the Baltic States by the Soviet Union reflected this mindset. By contrast, it would be hard to imagine any respectable embrace of anti-anti fascism.
I meet people who have no idea where Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are located, let alone the history of their enforced incorporation in the Soviet Union. ‘Out of sight and out of mind’ sums up the plight of Baltic victims of Communism. Until I got to know members of the Lithuanian diaspora, I was scarcely aware of the Baltic States even though I was a student of history. The half century of totalitarian occupation of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia is too often overlooked in historical narratives, yet the sad history of these small countries in the twentieth century sharply illuminate the essence of the totalitarian nightmare.
Today, I am keenly aware that March 11, 2014, marks 24 years since Lithuania declared its independence from the crumbling Soviet Union. This is the longest period of independence in over 200 years. Lithuania is now a true democracy with maturing civil institutions. That is worth a celebration.
Christopher Carr is a frequent contributor to Quadrant Online