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Historian: The Baltic collaborationists’ dreams of independence were naive

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For the last few weeks Baltic states have once again been swept by a wave of “historic initiatives”. In Latvia they once again “for themselves” counted the damage of “soviet occupation” and evaluated it to Russia’s yearly budget. In Lithuania the Association of Soviet Occupation Study was formed and the patriarch of Lithuanian politics Vytautas Landsbergis proposed to legally establish that those born in the Lithuanian SSR be referred to as “born in occupied Lithuania”. All these initiatives were undertaken after Vilnius resumed the work of “The Nazi and Soviet Regime Crimes Study Commission”. The whole process of ideological rehabilitation of Baltic collaborationists in these countries has been going hand in hand with the promotion of the “soviet occupation” topic for its third decade now. Boris KOVALEV, doctor of historic science, professor of the Yaroslav-the-Wise Novgorod State University and specialist in the Great Patriotic War and collaborationism in Russia (1941-1945) thinks that this is an intentional politization of the past. Because facts show that the chance of the Baltic states achieving independence after the victory of the Axis forces with which they collaborated was unrealistic.

- Boris Nikolayevich, first let’s set up the terms. How do you define “collaborationist”?

- In historical science there is no sole opinion on the term “collaborationism” as of today. In the dictionary for foreign words “collaborationism” is defined like this:

“Collaborationism” (from the French “collaboration”) – cooperation of European citizens with Nazis during World War II.

So the term initially presumed a certain geographic tie (Europe) and a certain chronologic tie (World War II). And even though in Soviet historical science the word “collaborationism” was used when referring to Western Europe, when talking about the USSR it was used only much later, from 1990s. Right now the term is interpreted a lot wider as cooperation but this cooperation carries negative connotations.

- When viewing collaborationism like that, can we say that it was present in the Baltic States after 1941? And if it was there, did it have any differences from the collaborationist regimes in other parts of USSR?

- Not too long ago there was a conference in Germany where one of my Ukrainian colleagues declared that there was no collaborationism in Ukraine at the time of WW2, because there was no “nezalezhny” (independent) Ukrainian state. This argument cast in awe not only the Russian researchers, but also the German ones.

Even so, if talking about Baltic States and North-Western Russia, whose history I specialize in, then collaborationism was undoubtedly present there.

At the moment I am in process of writing a book about the Spanish División Azul, which fought near Novgorod and then near Leningrad. In this book I present information not only about Russian territory but also neighboring republics. It’s known that in 1941, Goebbels declared the idea of a “crusade” of civilized nations of a united Europe against the cursed bolshevism. And on those Spanish maps, postcards, which I saw, in this united front of “civilized nations of Europe” Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are shown as independent countries, allies of the Third Reich.

And let’s look at the realities of the winter fighting in 1941-1942. The sources clearly say that the Spanish march forward and they are assisted by Latvian and Belgian troops – so naturally they are collaborationists. And this is in the front lines, behind the lines there was a lot more of them. And I would like to point out that this is the very beginning of the war. So if we’re talking about Baltic collaborationist military units, then they were in Russia, according to Spanish records, as early as the end of 1941.

- Were the military units in the Baltic that were against the Soviet regime but didn’t cooperate with the Nazis?

- Of course history can’t be black and white, it’s multi-faceted. But in reality of war more so for the start of the war it was practically impossible. We in the North-West have this term “wandering partisans”- people who went into the woods to try and hide from the war – they were ready to fight against everybody for their own lives.

But when talking about declarations at the start of the war, if someone said he would follow exclusively his own original political course, it usually ended bad.

Take for example the nationalists in Western Ukraine who in summer of 1941 formed their own independent state - they were crushed by the Axis forces.

Historian Alexandr Sedunov noted in one of his books a very curious episode. There were Estonian police units in Pskov. During Christmas of 1942 they were joined by Hjalmar Mäe – head of the Estonian Self-Administration. They got drunk and started discussing Great Estonia, which will include territories up to lake Ilmen. So the territory of the Estonian state was to grow 2-2,5 times at Russian territories’ expense.

The Germans didn’t take too nicely to these ideas and the Estonian units were partly reformed.

- It’s more convenient for modern Baltic politicians to position collaborationists as fighters against not only the Soviet regime but also the Nazis, who they supposedly served only formally. Using which sources can we restore the actual views of the collaborationists?

- That’s a very broad question, there are multiple sources including archives. But lately I’m actively trying to use “oral history”. So besides archives of say the Extraordinary State Commission on crimes in occupied countries, I visit villages and gather interviews of children of those who lived through the occupation.

And what’s surprising: in these interviews you clearly see the national factor. When talking about the Spaniards, they say they were hooligans, thieves, rogues, gypsies, etc., then Estonian and Latvian units get undoubtedly remembered as sadists, beasts and murderers. And I am talking about the realities of Russian villages and their interactions with collaborationists.

First, I thought this was some kind of phobia, like the non-acceptance of a neighbor of a different nationality (we did have Latvian and Estonian villages, many of which were practically erased before the war in 1937-1938 as a result of stalinist repressions). I asked about this and it didn’t turn out to be true: many residents of the North-West Russia were in 1943 moved to the Baltic, past the Panther line, and these evacuated say that they interacted with the local population in different ways, many even helped the evacuated, but soldiers from the Baltic are still remembered as the most evil of occupants.

And another story unpleasantly surprised me. During Soviet times there was the old song about friendship of nations, so some facts of history were kept silent. But even so we had a small death camp – the Zhestanaya Gorka village (a village in West Novogorod region – note RuBaltic.Ru), where a few thousand people were exterminated. Through the Holocaust Center we recently put up a memorial sign there. There we put up an Orthodox Church cross, a red star and a Jewish memorial stone. First these events were blamed only on the Germans, they were the ones put on trial in the so called “Novgorod Nurnberg” in 1947 (a process for German war crimes). But in the 1960s it was uncovered that among the executioners, the Germans were only the top and the main mass of them was from the Baltic. But when we started searching for these war criminals to convict them, almost all of them were already in the West.

- In modern history books of the Baltic States we can find such evaluations of the cooperation between the population and the Nazis. Historian ex-chairman of the Russo-Latvian Commission of Historians Inesis Feldmanis writes the following in his work “Latvia in World War II (1939-1941): A New Conceptual Point of View”:

“If only the German policy was a little more thought-through and responsive, especially concerning independence, less stubborn or less arrogant and repressive, then maybe the Baltic nations would widely support Germany”

So it turns out that Latvian historians admit that in Latvia they supported Hilter Germany, and “If only the German policy was a little more thought-through” that support would be widespread?

- I have talked, and still do, with Latvian historians and you know what shocks me? I assumed that during the events of year 1940 Latvia had at least some resistance – maybe not armed, but at least ideologically: in papers, talks. I asked Latvian historians, were there any journalists who were against such a convergence with the Soviet Union. It turned out that even on words it was interpreted as a thought-through policy of the states – a war is approaching, so let’s sit it out under the wing of our neighbor.

And when I look at journals or postcards from the Schöne Ostland (Wonderful Ostland) series, watch German war cinematic chronicles, I realize that Nazis, undoubtedly played with the Baltic population on the highest levels and saying that there could have been something more – is, roughly speaking, naive.

- How do you assess the possibility of independent state-formations (even if only formal) in the Baltic after the victory of the Third Reich? What would have happened if USSR and the Allies lost?

- Let’s not forget that we are talking about Nazi Germany, a country with a brilliant propaganda machine and of course, promises of independent states were given left and right. But concerning future prospects, saying that there would have been independent states is naïve, because if they were going to Germanize and were looking for German traces in the Russian North-West (for example in the Rodina journal article The Golden Tomb of Rurik in Volkhvosk Jungles I talk about how German archeologists were looking for traces of German culture tracing back to early Middle Ages), then what’s to say about the Baltic?

Naturally all of it would have been part of the Reich, but after the war, because at the start of the war the level of, shall we say, self-sufficiency was at their maximum and local politicians realized that in a situation of war, full independence was impossible.

- What were the consequences for the people (especially the politicians), who cooperated with the Fascists in Western Europe and the USSR after the end of World War II?

- In this sense I have the feeling that Stalin’s policy towards the Russian population was that of the stick, and to the Baltic population – the policy of the stick and carrot.

Looking through documents of the 1960s, the people who took part in the destruction of the Russian population: suddenly the investigator finds that the man was a forest brother. The investigator writes about it, but the upper commander uses the following resolution: yes, this man was a forest brother, but because he willingly left the forest (they were regularly offered to return to peaceful life and put down their weapons), then they can’t view his participation in that armed unit as a crime.

Sadly, our wonderful friends and allies, USA and Great Britain initially took a pretty sanctimonious policy towards the USSR: first they’re ready to meet up with Stalin in Tehran, Yalta, Potsdam, we’re viewed as allies. But as soon as the war ended, then their views on the Baltic question changed: they announced significant quotas on immigration on preferential terms for citizens of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia (and these quotas were so high, that in a few years almost all of the their populations could have moved to the West).

Going back to the story of Zhestanaya Gorka, the investigators found a few people who took part in the extermination in America, West Germany, Australia, but none of these war criminals were extradited to be sentenced. In the West and using the excuse that their countries were taken over by the Soviet Union in 1940, these people managed to legalize themselves outside of the Soviet influence.

Aside from that, collaborationists in Europe were brought to justice wherever they may be, and the better the Germans felt in which country, the harsher was the punishment for the collaborationists after the war. Let’s remember that leaders if French and Norwegian collaborationists were executed by firing squad. So all of Europe mercilessly punished those who collaborated with the Germans, sometimes trying to prove themselves bigger Catholics than the Roman Pope.

And when talking about what happened later, then in Cold War sensibilities it began to lose meaning, because talks of the coming war entered the minds of Europeans and Americans. And the notion of friend and foe changed.

- The Soviet period of the Baltic countries, as we know, is now assessed as “occupation”. And all the state offices, all of the nomenclature, all party members. Komsomol members, etc. are considered collaborationists of the Soviet regime in those territories?

- I have an answer in the form of a question: if we accept that assumption, then all of the documents of the Soviet period are illegal. Have you heard of at least one example where in the Baltic states, a candidate or doctor of sciences, a specialist with higher education, Landsbergis himself actually, denounced his Soviet diplomas calling them occupational documents?

- Soviet diplomas, as far as I’ve heard, were not denounced and information on Soviet scientific titles is always listed in biographies: for example, thanks to a dissertation which openly admits the economic successes of the Soviets in Lithuania, president Grybauskaite has a European title of Doctor of Social studies. But say the title of honorably donor given in Soviet times is not longer recognized…

- You know, this is a it funny. Turns out it’s like the satiric said: read here, don’t read here and the herring was wrapped into that.

It turns out that what’s convenient – we’ll admit, what’s not convenient – we will denounce.

The term “collaborationism” assumes that some cooperate with the occupants, while the others just survive. If we look at how many in the Baltic cooperated with “occupational” forces, then were there many of those who refused to serve in the “occupational” army, or those refusals to work in “occupational” state offices, party?

It turns out that the absolute majority accepted this system with more or less enthusiasm and adapted to it.

- Last week in Lithuania they formed the Association of soviet occupation study. On the constituent assembly the patriarch of Lithuanian conservatives Vytautas Landsbergis declared that: “Problems start with names and the dictionary in use, it reflects the conceptual questions of political history (…) There is a lot of remarks from foreigners on where people were born, who were born in say 1950. In the West they say – born in the USSR (…) Let’s agree and implement legally if we must that someone born in 1950 was born in occupied Lithuania. Not in USSR or LSSR, but in occupied Lithuania. If we legally reinforce the status of resistance as the only legal power in Lithuania which existed and fought the occupants (…) then we must not forget these principles. And we are lost somewhere halfway with our own difficulties or with lack of following through.”

How do you assess such initiatives? Maybe Lithuania needs to not forget the principles and try all collaborationists as it was done in Europe concerning Nazi collaborationists?

- You know, the ex-communist Algirdas Brazauskas was president of Lithuania. The same can be said of prime-minister of Estonia Andrus Ansip and many other high office politicians of the Baltic States. The is very overt selectiveness.

- Lithuania is the presiding country in the European Union and as it was recently found out how “old” EU members react to this rhetoric. The Vice chair of the European Parliament Miguel Angel Martínez Martínez suspected the euro-parliamentarians from the Baltic States who were trying to equalize Nazism and Communism in primitive opportunism. It is the Baltic States that are the biggest source of mistrust in the EU. And the European Union was built largely on the mutual trust of key European countries. What consequences of such drastic politization of history do you see? Where will this lead the Baltic States?

- It’s always easy to blame all of your problems on a neighbor. The interwar period of Lithuania’s, Latvia’s Estonia’s development was twenty years. Their afterwar period of development is a bit over forty years. They could have blamed the Soviet Union back in the 1980s and people would have listened, but 25 years have passed!

Back then they talked of occupation, blamed the Soviet regime, etc., thinking they could build heaven on Earth (In Russia we has similar talks, but the Baltic probably had more of that), but 25 years have passed and there is still not Heaven on Earth and all the Baltic States have their own problems. And with all these problems politicians try to use the old played-out instruments: “It’s not our fault, not the society that we built, it’s all because so many years ago we were so poor and unfortunate.” The actual problems remain without attention.

Translated by: Pavel Shamshiev

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