Why the war in Europe did not end in 1945
Aistė Bertulytė-Žikevičienė, Vilnius University (2009)
Armed anti-Soviet resistance in Lithuania and Western Ukraine
European countries tend to commemorate various anniversaries each year. These commemorations mark the symbolism and the role we attribute to the history in our today‘s lives. Usually these are the dates that we are proud of, but hardly anyone can be proud of the sad start of the World War II -- the 70-th anniversary of which we commemorate this year. On the contrary, all commemorative ceremonies of it are followed by discussions on who started it and who is to blame for this war. Although Germany has bravely accepted all the dark sides of its past and pleaded for forgiveness, the guilt is not the political and moral monopoly of Germany alone. The emergence of two major totalitarian regimes in the 20th century, their collaboration and rivalry that culminated in signing of Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, led to this disastrous war and the partition of Europe.
However, one nation will soon commemorate something that it could be really proud of. These are the Finns. Finland successfully resisted the attack of Soviet Union in 1939, just a few months after the invasion by Germans and Soviets to Poland. Although they say that Red Army was not in “good form”, the Soviet forces had four times as many soldiers, 30 times as many aircrafts and 218 times as many tanks, as Finns. Finns really can be proud of this victory, as I think we would be, if our country had resolved to fight. At least you can often hear Lithuanians putting Finland as an example when arguing on how the fate of our country after the World War II could have been different.
Lithuania was occupied by the USSR in the summer of 1940. Despite of the bluff, orchestrated by the Soviets, that Lithuania voluntarily entered the Union, the collapse of the Statehood and its inability to resist to the aggressor was perceived as something unexpected and shameful by the majority of Lithuania’s society. Therefore, during the German occupation and when the Soviets returned, thousands of Lithuanians chose the path of freedom fighters.
And our story was not unique. The partisan war started in all territories in Eastern and Central Europe occupied by the USSR: Lithuania, Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus and others. In 1945, when according to an official version the World War II ended, in a big part of Europe an armed struggle has been continuing in its highest intensity.
And this continuous struggle raises serious doubts about the version of “the end” of the 2nd World War as well. If the war was over, then who, why and for what purpose were fighting after “the only” evil was defeated and the “main” criminals of the war were punished at Nurnberg?
According to the studies by Lithuanian researchers, the anti-soviet resistance in Lithuania and Western Ukraine stands out in scale and intensity in the area occupied by the Soviets. Although the number of freedom fighters killed in Lithuania was three times lower than in Ukraine, the number of partisan attacks in both countries was very similar (1,333 and 1,603 respectively). What determined such an intense resistance to soviet regime in our countries?
The history of the two nations in the first part of the 20th century is different. In Ukraine, the armed struggle for independence had been going on since 1918 and against all countries which have ruled it; whereas Lithuania had its 20 years period as an independent state. But during the 2nd World War, both nations were caught between Nazi and Soviet regimes and their inhumane aggression in the occupied territories. Main structures of Ukrainian resistance movements developed and Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) was founded already during German occupation, and in Lithuanian freedom fighters finally united into the Union of Lithuanian Freedom Fighters in 1949. Although in neither of the two countries the resistance (first anti-german and then anti-soviet) was organized and stimulated by the state, the objectives that both nations had in their struggle could be expressed in the same words Finnish Commander-in-Chief Carl Gustaf Mannerheim’s said to his solders on the day Soviets attacked Finland: “This war is nothing other than the continuation and final act of our War of Independence. We are fighting for our homes, our faith, and our country.”
The struggle against totalitarian regimes in both Lithuania and Ukraine were based on their populations’ inherent national values. The romantic view would explain the extremely high commitment of Lithuanians and Ukrainians alluding to a common heritage of traditions of political nation, tolerance, democracy and freedom, stemming from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, where our nations lived together for many centuries. Whatever historical roots it may actually have, for most of the freedom fighters their choice to resist was formed by the education and culture they were raised with - a common European culture.
What does it mean to be European and to belong to European cultural tradition while maintaining sovereignty of own country, was the question our nations had to answer on many occasions since the Middle Ages. It was in 20th century, however, that we were asked these questions in a very brutal way.
As one of the most cherished belongings for the Europeans of those days was their land and individual property rights, so was this the case for Lithuanians and Ukrainians. Totalitarian regimes brutally attacked “our homes, our faith, and our country“, that’s why our resistance arose spontaneously and embraced different levels of the population. Our partisans were not just good soldiers, not afraid of sacrifying their lives for the homeland. Most of them were ordinary people who in other circumstances would have probably been farmers, doctors or teachers.
Totalitarian regimes ignored our quest for independent and sovereign state. The study of the organizational structures of resistance movements in Ukraine and Lithuania reveals that one of the main objectives for them was to keep the idea of their statehood alive. Instead of spontaneous fighting the resistant fighters in Lithuania and Ukraine were strictly organized and used the term of an “Army” in the names of their movements. They strived to maintain the regular structure, ranks and uniforms of the regular armed forces of the state. They had their statutes, they issued laws and declarations. In all the circumstances they strived to act as the legitimate military and political power representing their nations’ sovereign rights.
The documents issued by our resistance movements, such us the Resolutions of the Extraordinary Assembly of the OUN in 1943, the principal documents of the Supreme Ukrainian Liberation Council of 1944, or the declaration of 1949 issued by the Joint Staff of the Union of Lithuanian Freedom Fighters, clearly express the pledge to rebuild a free and democratic country. Their unequivocal condemnation of fascist and communist ideologies also reveals that the resistant movements of both nations assumed the mandate which was common to all European liberal democracies: to defend European values and liberal rights of the people against the totalitarian aggressor. Freedom fighters expected that sooner or later the Western democracies will declare a war on the Soviet Union, but their worldview proved to be too idealistic. They also aspired for the joint anti-soviet resistance of all occupied Eastern European countries, a good example of which is an attempt of a group of Ukrainian rebels, in August 1950, to reach Lithuania.
Freedom fighters in each of our countries mostly fought alone. But the World War II, for those who understood it as a struggle for their homes and their country, as a fight for the ideal of freedom and European values, for these nations that remained occupied by the totalitarian aggressor, this war continued almost one decade after 1945. But without any external support, however, the resistance was doomed to failure.
A considerable part of Europe does not know yet the full story about what happened across Central and Eastern Europe after the Yalta and Potsdam took place. The Soviets worked a lot on this. It was crucial for the aggressor not only to break down the resistance, but to erase the memory of the mere existence of it, by spreading propaganda, by information blockade - but mainly by killing, burning alive or deporting the entire families of concerned farmers and partisans. In these unequal fights, more than 20,000 Lithuanian freedom fighters have perished. The Soviet regime imprisoned or deported to Siberia more than 300,000 residents of Lithuania. The numbers in Ukraine are three times as high.
Nowadays, the possibility to reach the primary sources, the authentic documents of partisans and the Soviet repressive structures (the KGB and its forerunners the NKVD and the MGB) opens new opportunities for deeper and more objective analysis of partisan war in Central and Eastern Europe. New academic analysis by Lithuanian researches point out that according to the standards of international law, anti-soviet resistance period in Lithuanian has many features of an inter-state war with the Soviet Union. And looking at the objectives the freedom fighters pursued, we can actually conclude that they had won this war and we can be proud no less then the Finns are. The living memory of freedom fighters during the dark years of Soviet occupation united us and gave us hope that a day would come when Independence of our countries would be restored. The armed resistance movements in the Baltic Countries and Western Ukraine in 1944–1953 became major determinants for the future historic events, for the 1990 and 1991. Lithuania and Ukraine have re-established their statehoods and the communism had lost.
Historians are not the ones that can lay the foundations for a more sustainable future. The only thing we can offer is to remember and honour our past. There is something very important what we can learn from the partisans of Lithuania and Ukraine. Our common history and experience show us that the answers to today's challenges do not lie in our States alone. We must put human dignity and devotion at the heart of our endeavours, as our freedom fighters did for their homeland.
Presentation at the international conference "World War II and the (Re)Creation of Historical Memory in Contemporary Ukraine"; September 23-26, 2009; Kyiv, Ukraine