Features The forest brothers – heroes & villains of the partisan war in Lithuania
A new geopolitical situation in Lithuania has led to a growing need to focus on the purely heroic nature of the partisan war. The ideal picture of the heroic partisan is now in the forefront, while the more problematic aspects of their actions are downplayed. Among the darker side is that at least 9,000 civilians were designated as collaborators and executed by the Forest Brothers.
Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 3:2016, pp 49-53
Published on balticworlds.com on oktober 25, 2016
Recent developments in the region with altered tensions between Russia and its neighbors have made it more difficult for Lithuania to come to terms with its Soviet history. The description of the Lithuanian partisans is a telling example of this situation.
In front of the Ministry of Defense in Vilnius there is a monument to Jonas Žemaitis, the country’s president in 1949—1954. But he was never president during his lifetime; he was a partisan warrior executed in Moscow in 1954. It was not until 2009 that the Lithuanian parliament declared him the fourth president of the nation.
The partisan war started in 1944 when the Soviet Union reoccupied Lithuania. Žemaitis joined the partisans from the beginning and rose through the ranks to become general and leader of the forces — called the Forest Brothers — in 1949. The fighting continued until 1953, but in the absence of support from the West, the battle could not be won. Even when he realized that the fight was over, he stated: “I still believe that the struggle I have led will bring its results.”
Eventually he was right: Lithuania regained its independence in 1991. And it is beyond doubt that the protesters in the freedom movement of 1988—1991 took some of their strength and determination from the Forest Brothers — even if the knowledge of what actually happened during those dramatic nine years of partisan fighting was meager. During the decades of Soviet occupation, tales were told in families and between friends, but it was forbidden to talk openly about the partisan struggle.
The numbers are still uncertain, but estimates suggest that around 50,000 people took up arms in the fight and that at least another 50,000 were active helpers. In proportion to the population — one in twenty Lithuanians were active in the struggle in one way or another — the partisan war in Lithuania was one of the most extensive and longest in modern European history. It is comparable with the partisan struggle in Western Ukraine, but much larger in scale than those in Latvia and Estonia, which involved fewer troops and did not last as long.
The scope of the partisan war in Lithuania was also impressive in terms of the range of action taken. During the initial years, actual fighting was at the forefront of the struggle, but as time passed, the “information war” became just as important. The Forest Brothers needed to tell their own population — as well as the outside world — their side of the story, while the Soviet authorities were describing the virtues of socialism and the collectivization of the country’s farmland. Wellhidden underground or in other hideouts, the partisans printed over 70 different publications — then risked their lives to have them disseminated to as many readers as possible. They wrote about the history of the nation, about culture, and about morals and social responsibilities. And they printed poetry, song and excerpts from the Bible.
But they eventually ended up on the losing side in this “information war”. When the last printing press was confiscated and the fighting was over, the Soviet authorities stepped up their propaganda campaign, describing all partisans as bandits and murderers. Research has shown that in 1959—1960 alone, this misinformation was circulated in 452 articles in the Lithuanian press, in 30 radio programs, in seven films, and in several books. So when a new protest movement for a free Lithuania arose in the 1980s, some 35 years after the Forest Brothers, the active protesters might well have been aware of the heroic aspects of the partisan war — but among ordinary Lithuanians, the Forest Brothers were looked upon with great suspicion.
The journalist Elena Tervidyte wrote some of the first articles about the Forest Brothers when it became possible to do so in 1989. In school she had not learned anything about them; they were briefly described as “nationalists that the system took care of”. Her father had told her a little about their struggle. And now, at last, she had the chance to hear the stories from surviving partisans themselves.
“They were extremely grateful that they would finally get to describe what had happened,” she told me during an interview. “And the interest from the public was huge; people stood in line outside our premises to get the newspaper. But the topic was still sensitive: Some of the former partisans did not dare to talk to me. Even well into the 1990s, some were still afraid to talk. Many died before they could tell their stories.”
At that time Elena Tervidyte already realized that reporting on the partisan war would be difficult, since the repeated claims by the Soviet authorities about the partisans committing crimes were not all blatant lies: some of them were indeed guilty of atrocious acts. She remembers a story about her cousin who had joined the partisans for six months in 1944. He was caught and sent to Siberia and in her family they whispered that he was guilty of abuses against civilians.
“At the time of our renewed independence the description of the Forest Brothers was a bit naive and one-eyed. I contributed to it myself, but I am prepared to defend it today because we needed to withstand the current picture that they were all bandits and fascists. Over time it has become possible to provide a more nuanced picture; today I would write my articles differently.”
More than 25 years have passed since Elena Tervidyte wrote her deliberately biased stories and a lot has indeed happened in that time: articles, books, and documentaries have been published including some highlighting the darker sides of the partisans’ struggle to liberate Lithuania. Such aspects have always been sensitive topics, but discussion of them was accepted more and more — until around eight years ago.
The Russian-Georgian war in 2008 was the first clear indication that Russia could become a threat to its neighbors once again. At about the same time, the “information war” orchestrated from Moscow increased, followed a few years later by the annexation of Crimea and the intrusion into eastern Ukraine in 2014.
A new geopolitical situation in Lithuania has led to a growing need to focus on the purely heroic nature of the partisan war, for at least two reasons: first, when people connected to the regime in Moscow are talking about how easy it would be to invade the Baltic countries, it’s important to manifest unity around the heroic fighters who stood up for Lithuania after the last Russian invasion. And second, with the information war in high gear, any discussion of the criminal acts committed by the Forest Brothers will be used by Moscow in some way in their renewed campaign to distort the description of post-war Lithuanian history.
The Swedish filmmaker Jonas Öhman, who has lived many years in Lithuania, has followed this topic since the 1990s. And he sees the trend: “The Russian aggression has definitely had an impact. The ideal picture of the heroic partisan is now in the forefront, while the more problematic aspects of their actions are downplayed.” Öhman is the director of the acclaimed film “The Invisible Front” from 2014, probably the most thorough documentary on the Forest Brothers up to now. The title refers to the fact that the war was largely unknown in the rest of the Soviet Union as well as in the outside world.
The focus of the film is on the heroic struggle, but the filmmakers included an important interview with an elderly Lithuanian whose father was murdered by the partisans. The father had been the chairman of the Soviet Land Distribution Committee in his region. According to the son he was proud of his work, redistributing land from the rich to the landless. One night a group of partisans knocked on the door, interrogated his father while beating him — and eventually shot him. “At that moment”, the son says, looking into the camera with darkening eyes, “I decided that I would join the Soviet Security forces. And I would avenge my parents.”
In the next scene, another elderly Lithuanian from the same village is interviewed. His father was also murdered, but by the Soviet Security forces for having helped the partisans. Together with his siblings and his mother, the son found his father hanging from a tree with his head down in an anthill, his face no longer recognizable.
Although this example of Soviet cruelty follows immediately after the example of the partisans executing a civilian countryman, some critics objected to the decision of the film makers to include the previous example. They saw it as a way of defaming the whole partisan movement.
Mindaugas Pocius, an historian at the Lithuanian Institute of History, has done extensive research on the criminal acts committed by the partisans. In his dissertation, with the telling title “Far Side of the Moon”, he concludes that at least 9,000 civilians were designated as collaborators and executed by the Forest Brothers. “We will never know the exact number of civilians killed, but the archives and the diaries of the partisans, give us a lot of information. In the courts martial organized by the partisans the evidence against the defendants tried as KGB informers was sometimes strong, sometimes weak. It is beyond doubt that totally innocent people were also killed,” says Mindaugas Pocius when we meet for an interview. “People who worked openly in the Soviet structures, such as heads of collective farms or leading administrators, were also considered enemies of a free Lithuania. Many of them were killed as well.”
But what shocked him the most was the killing of children. “Some partisans used what must be described as terrorist measures when they killed the families of the defendants. I know for sure that at least 300 children were murdered that way.”
In the English introduction to his book, he writes that “the number of civilians killed by resistance fighters is unduly high and shows a certain anomaly, i.e. such frequent application of death sentences cannot be justified by self-defense or military necessity; much blood was spilled without any reason and sense.” During the interview, Mindaugas Pocius is eager to underline that he is a patriot, that he is proud of the sacrifice that the Forest Brothers made for their country. “I don’t differ from other Lithuanians in the view that the vast majority of the Forest Brothers were true heroes and models for future generations. But one should be able to say that and, at the same time, also highlight that some of them committed crimes. It is painful when I am accused of spreading Russian propaganda. People say that I support the old Soviet narrative of the partisans. That is definitely not true.”
Has it become even more difficult to conduct your kind of research, given the intensifying Russian propaganda war?
“Yes, it has become harder. Moscow takes every chance to highlight critical statements about Lithuania during the Soviet period, exaggerating the facts and adding false propaganda. This was not the case ten years ago.”
Mindaugas Pocius’ s book came out 2009. The 500 copies immediately sold out. But no new editions were printed; the subject was too sensitive. And worst of all: critics of his findings convinced the prosecutor general to launch an investigation against Počius for slander of the partisans. “The prosecutor general sent his own expert into the archives, and he concluded that I had been right. Despite this support from a fellow academic, I have never been invited anywhere to give lectures about my research. But I know of scholars at universities who do use my findings in their teaching.”
Pocius concludes that it is increasingly difficult to question the prevailing romantic narrative. “A majority of Lithuanians in leading positions require such a heroic description; they believe that it is important for the country to unify around a common proud history. As a historian I cannot adhere to such a description. My task is to describe all the nuances. I want to dig into aspects that are overlooked in superficial research.”
I ask him to show me around the Museum of Terror and Genocide in Vilnius, the main Lithuanian museum depicting the partisan struggle. How accurate are the descriptions there?
“Not very accurate,” is his short answer after we passed through the main exhibition halls. “The partisans are only described as heroes and victims, nothing else. The museum does not show the complexity of the issue. There is no information about the courts martial that the partisans set up. Even if more research needs to be done to uncover more of what really happened at these trials, I think the audience should be informed of their existence.
“It’s very controversial to say this, but the one-sided description of the partisans’ fight is similar to the way in which today’s Russia describes the Soviet Union’s heroic struggle against Nazism. In both cases, there are deficiencies in the description of reality. It makes me irritated and even more motivated to highlight the darker sides of the Lithuanian partisans as well.”
There is another aspect of the partisan war, which is as sensitive as the killings of civilians: Before the war began, during the German occupation of Lithuania from 1941 to 1944, some of the future Forest Brothers took part in the Holocaust. The exact number is not known; it may have been somewhere between 2 and 5 percent of them. Some of these future partisans had administrative duties in the German murder apparatus; others actually joined the firing squads.
Mindaugas Pocius points to a worn black-and-white photo of the partisan Juozas Krikštaponis sitting on a rock in the forest with his rifle at his side. “It has been proven that he was part of a Lithuanian police battalion which killed thousands of Jews in Belarus. But nothing of this is mentioned in the text below. His portrait should be taken away from here.”
The responsibility for the museum lies with the Genocide and Resistance Research Center of Lithuania, where Teresė Birutė Burauskaitė is the director. I met her for an interview and asked about Krikštaponis. She responded: “Is his picture really there? That is a surprise, thanks for telling me. He was a partisan for only three months before he was killed. Given what he did in Belarus, he should not be portrayed in the museum. We should not describe him as a hero; he is a murderer. We have known that for several years.
So why is it still there then?
“We are planning a big renovation of the museum and there are many things that should be updated or changed. But we have not had the resources to do it yet.” (When I return to the museum a couple of weeks later, the photo of Krikštaponis is no longer there).
Burauskaitė herself has been active in bringing to light the partisans that took active part in the Holocaust. Recently she convinced the President to revoke a hero’s medal that the partisan Pranas Končius-Adomas was awarded posthumously back in 2000. Since then it has become known that he was guilty of killing Lithuanian Jews.
“An award had been granted to a person who does not deserve it,” she says. “It is important to give publicity to these cases. It strengthens our credibility when we underline that the vast majority of the partisans had nothing to do with the Holocaust, contrary to what the Russian propaganda says.”
Burauskaitė agrees with Mindaugas Pocius that the prevailing romantic narrative of the partisans is out of date. “It has been like the movements of a pendulum. In Soviet times the pendulum swung all the way in one direction, depicting the partisans exclusively as criminals, and then it swung in the opposite direction, describing them all as flawless heroes. I had hoped that we by now would be able to find the truth somewhere between those two extremes.”
As the head of the main research center on the subject, could you not have done more to make the pendulum swing back closer to the middle? In the books and pamphlets that you produce, very little or nothing is said about the darker sides of the Forest Brothers. Why?
Birutė Burauskaitė sighs before answering: “We try, but we meet resistance from influential conservative forces. There are several organisations active in protecting the memory of the partisans and they contact us immediately when we highlight less favorable aspects. I often get letters from these people. And they have powerful friends among politicians and high officials. These people try to influence what the historians publish. With an election coming up this fall, it’s even harder to push the issue of a more balanced picture of our modern history.”
She explains that the issue is very emotional for many people. In some cases the wounds are still open. “There are people alive who have witnessed atrocities on both sides; as children they saw their parents being killed either by Soviet forces or by partisans. Even some partisans are still alive. When we publish information about the war, we have to be correct beyond doubt about every little fact. We have had several examples of people telling us that their relatives were innocent victims, murdered by the partisans. But when we looked into these cases, we have found that the victims actually were Soviet activists.”
Mindaugas Pocius writes that terrorist acts were committed by partisans and more than 300 children were killed. Do you support his research?
“Yes, I do. What he has done is very important. Since his research came out, new information on the killing of families have surfaced, supporting his thesis. We get to know more and more about this period with every year that passes. But time works against us; eyewitnesses are dying.
“We recently found new documents in the woods describing the trials that the partisans organized. The documents were in bad condition but we managed to restore them. Among other things, they show that partisans evidently carried out trials against other partisans who had committed crimes against civilians. So this issue was sensitive among the partisans too.”
Maybe the time isn’t ripe yet to give a full and balanced picture of this historical period?
“Yes, that is probably true. You have to remember that investigations into what really happened during these years didn’t start until some 10—15 years ago. First we had to figure out what kind of support the state could offer to people who were victims of the Soviet period, including victims of partisan crimes.”
Among the general public, knowledge about this period varies. Many of the younger generation are fairly ignorant and uninterested, concludes the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania. The older generation on the other hand was fed for decades with the Soviet description of the partisans as criminals. Despite the fact that the opposite message has been spread for over 25 years, old beliefs persist, says a friend who has been talking about it with his elderly father: “Intellectually, my father realizes that the Soviet description is false and he can talk of the partisans as heroes. But deep down his suspicions linger on: Maybe most of them were bandits after all? he asks himself. So possibly we still need some time of depicting the Forest Brothers in a rosy and romantic way, to balance the picture.” ≈
The Forest Brothers of Lithuania 1944-1953
○ The Soviet forces, both security forces of the NKVD and the Red Army, killed between 20,000 and 30,000 partisans between 1944 and 1953. Half of them were killed during the first two years. Mutilated bodies were displayed openly on squares and in schoolyards so as to intimidate others to prevent them joining or helping the Forest Brothers.
○ Many partisans who knew that they would be caught committed suicide. But before doing so they mutilated themselves so that the Soviet forces would not recognize them and hurt their families.
○ By 1945, 30,000 people had joined the military struggle and the partisans controlled the majority of villages in Lithuania. Soviet officials were afraid to go into many parts of the country without military protection. When the fighting was most intense, there were 70,000 Soviet troops on Lithuanian soil. Besides using military means, the Soviet authorities also carried out mass arrests and deported thousands of families suspected of supporting the partisan movement.
○ As more farmers were sent to Siberia, it became more difficult for the partisans to find people who could give them food and shelter. Since the remaining farms were collectivized and controlled by Soviet authorities, the partisans were forced to engage in theft and robbery to survive — which led to the killings of countrymen working on collective farms.
○ Farmers made up the bulk of the Forest brothers. The military officers who joined became leaders of larger units, while the smaller units were led by peasants, teachers, or even high school students who had not even had time to do military service. Partisan women made major contributions as nurses and disseminators of information. Some of them also took up arms.
○ The partisan war had an element of civil war. More than 17,000 Lithuanians joined the Soviet side in the fighting, killing at least 20 percent of the partisans. Some were forced to join the Soviet forces, others believed in the communist cause and joined voluntarily. Many were uneducated people, paid by the Soviets with money and alcohol, who often committed the most brutal acts. These people were recruited into auxiliary Soviet battalions and were called destroyers (stribai).