- September 24, 2012
Iškauskas: the 1939 dilemma- between the hammer and the anvil
August and September 1939 were the decisive time not only for Lithuania but also for the whole area between the small Salla in Lapland, and Bessarabia, which then belonged to Romania. At the beginning, it was friends who decided about the fate of those areas, later- it was the deadly enemies: the Soviet Union and the German Reich. Therefore, the frequently asked question-which side could we take in that battle- is absolutely hypothetical.
To be honest, 23 August, when Germany and USSR signed the non-aggression treaty with its secret protocols, is a formal turning point only. Historians claim that as early as in 1938 in USSR there were maps printed with Lithuania named “Litowskaja SSR“.
On 28 August 1938 on a conference in Munich, Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy decided about the fate of a part of Czechoslovakia. After appropriating the Sudeten land and waiting half a year, Adolf Hitler appropriated the rest of the country, too. British and French leaders thought that Munich treaty will help them prevent the war. They were wrong.
Then Joseph Stalin took a look at the map of Europe with his predatory eyes. As the historian Bronius Nemickas wrote, on 21 August 1939 in Berlin a new trade treaty between Germany and USSR was signed. Moscow needed it, as it believed that Hitler was creating a web of associates and broadening his group of allies. It helped to persuade Stalin to invite the German Minister for Foreign Affairs, Joachim Ribbentrop, a few days later. On 23 August (or actually during the night between 23 and 24 August, at 1 am) with a plenipotentiary of the Soviet government, Wiaczesław Molotov (his real last name was Skriabin) he signed a non-aggression treaty, that was later called the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. In the secret protocols it was said that Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania would be moved to German sphere of interests.
In an additional protocol there is a sentence: “both sides acknowledge the Lithuanian matters in Vilnius.” In the opinion of A. Kasperavičius, a historian, returning Vilnius, that was appropriated 19 years earlier, was not Stalin’s nice gesture, but Hitler’s plan. It was Hitler who probably suggested Ribbentrop adding the Vilnius case to the pact. Otherwise, Soviet Belarus would receive the Vilnius region and many other lands of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
Soviets were not interested in returning Vilnius at all. Once more they gave way to Hitler, who, a week after signing the pact, invaded Poland. Shortly after, on 17 September, the Red Army invaded the whole east Poland, to the line of Vistula river. According to the secret protocols of the act, Lithuania and other Baltic countries, that were a flaw in so-called Soviet sphere of interests, still belonged to Germany, therefore Moscow was interested in “dealing with it” as fast as possible.
On 28 September there was another “exchange”: in Moscow a pact about borders and friendship between Germany and USSR was signed, along with secret protocols. In return for Polish lands from the line of Vistula river, the Nazis gave Lithuania back to the Soviets, keeping for themselves only the south-west part, where 184.000 people lived then.
On 19 September the Soviets were already in Vilnius, so all Moscow had to do was to finish the formalities. On 10 October, in accordance with a treaty about mutual help that was imposed on Lithuania by USSR, the city of Vilnius and the Vilnius region were returned to Lithuania and the first group of 20 thousand soldiers entered the country. This conspiracy between the Soviets and the Nazis has also a financial side: USSR, by establishing military bases in Lithuania, crossed the borders of the zone which, according to the II secret protocol, was supposed to belong to Germany.
Taking this part of the country, Molotov, in his note from 12 August 1940, offered to pay 3.86 million dollars in gold, which was half the price that USA paid to the Russian tsar for Alaska. As the historian Bronius Nemickas writes, the third protocol from 10 January 1941 stated, that USSR would pay two times more for the land- 7.5 million dollars in gold, which was 31.5 million Reichsmark- much more than it was paid for Alaska in 1867 (7.2 million dollars, but the exchange rate was completely different then.)
Historians keep arguing on why Hitler’s attitude to Lithuania changed so rapidly, in two weeks. No reliable documents or other proofs survived, that could have an influence on Moscow’s and Berlin’s decision about changing the attachments to the pact. Kasperavičius, the historian, claims that both sides cared most about the south part- Bessarabia, which at that time belonged to Romania. USSR from the very beginning did not acknowledge the fact that it belonged to Romania, but Romania was providing the enormous Soviet army with oil; in 1940 Bessarabia was incorporated into USSR and The Romanian Kingdom eventually became Germany’s puppet state. Thus, confrontation of the Nazis’ and the Soviets’ matters on the south had a more spectacular end and the fate of Baltic countries was not a problem for Moscow anymore.
Hitler knew that even though he returned Lithuania to Stalin and agreed to give Vilnius back to Lithuanians, after less than two years the whole region would be his. The plan was confirmed by the Nazis in a secret telegram number 497 to Ribbentrop which on 5 October 1939 was sent to Moscow, to the German emissary, count Friedrich Werner von der Schulenburg.
Lithuanian government’s actions in that time are a completely separate matter. The fact that after 28 September “Lithuania went to meet the red dawn”, as “Ūkininko patarėjas“ wrote, does not mirror the complicated political situation. Juozas Urbšys, the Minister for Foreign Affairs from the interwar period, with a hint of regret reminded himself after many years that the sympathy that Lithuanians had for Hitler was weakened by taking away Klaipeda in 1393 and Soviets gained the sympathy by giving Vilnius back.
Then, and also many years after the war, nobody knew about the felonious deal between Moscow and Berlin. Therefore, blaming the Lithuanian government for lack of response to calling Germans to marching to Vilnius and opposing the Red Army, and for (following Poland) creating a government in exile, is a sing of lack of understanding of the political situation.
A day before the beginning of the war Lithuania was consequently maintaining its neutral status, looking at Great Britain and France (although the countries declared war with Germany on 3 September) and believing in Germany’s defeat in the new war. The state was under significant influence of Soviet propaganda. Fighting moods were weakened by the attitude of Antanas Smetona a day before Soviet occupation: after Lithuania received an ultimatum from USSR, on 15 June 1940, on a session, he voted for rejecting the ultimatum and opposing the aggressor militarily. Other members of the government and the general commander of the army did not support him, so he gave everything up and left Lithuania.
Only half a year later came the ideas of fighting Soviets in an organised way and establishing a Provisional Government that was maintaining the fantasies about creating an independent state under Nazis’ wings; also, the Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF) was created. But the occupants proved to be worth each other. Documents from that time are presented in a recently published book by professor Vytautas Landsbergis, „Rezistencijos pradžia. 1941-ųjų Birželis: dokumentai apie šešių savaičių Laikinąją Lietuvos Vyriausybę“ („Beginning of resistance. June 1941: documents about six weeks of Provisional Government of Lithuania.)
Tłumaczenie Emilia Zawieracz w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by Emilia Zawieracz the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.