One of my favorite movies of 2008 was Edward Zwick’s Defiance. I didn’t particularly like it because of its cinematic qualities—though the color, photography, and performances by the two leads (pictured) were excellent—but, rather, for the way it subverts in its retelling a story familiar to every child of the Lithuanian Diaspora: the fight of the Partizanai against their occupying army.
We grew up hearing about the bravery of the Partizanai, standing up against the [insert adjective here] occupation of Lithuania by the Soviet Union. They killed communist collaborators, stole from pro-communist farmers, protected crypto-nationalists. Etc. They even have a museum dedicated to them just off Gedimino Prospektas in the center of Vilnius. But instead of calling it the “Partisan Museum,” it is rather called the “Museum of Genocide Victims.”
“Oh,” the unsuspecting tourist might say to herself, “this will be similar to the new addition to the IX Fort Museum in Kaunas, which details the various forms of oppression and occupation suffered in Lithuania over the past 150 years.” Said visitor might even expect a huge exhibition on the Holocaust, seeing as the Holocaust destroyed utterly the vibrant, centuries-old Jewish community of Lithuania.
Said visitor would be in for quite a surprise. Not only is the Holocaust not mentioned in the Genocide Museum, but Jewish suffering during the war is reduced, if memory serves, to nothing more than a body count in parentheses, painted on a wall of reckoning on the way out. ((Darius sent me a link to Johnathan Steele’s description of his visit: “But as I moved from room to dismal room, I had a growing sense something was missing. Vilnius was once known as the Jerusalem of the North. What about the Jews? Did their fate not merit remembrance? In a corridor I eventually found a placard with a brief, though telling, mention. It gave estimates for the victims of Lithuania’s Soviet occupation and of the Nazi one as well. The number summarily shot, or who died in prison and during deportation in the Soviet period, reached 74,500. During three years of Nazi rule from June 1941, those killed amounted to 240,000, ‘including about 200,000 Jews’.”)) Yes, the museum asserts, there was a genocide in Lithuania in the twentieth century, but it was a genocide against people of a certain class or a certain ideology. ((It’s not for nothing that the museum often becomes called the “KGB Museum” in English. Somehow calling this space a “Genocide Museum” sounds completely wrong.)) And to fold these things together, the Lithuanian government even changed the definition of genocide to include, as Dovid Katz describes in today’s article for The Guardian, “wrongful deportation, imprisonment or attempts to rid society of a certain class.”
Lithuanian suffering under Soviet rule has been twisted into being called a “genocide,” and, next, the Partizanai are raised to be true heroes, giving up their lives to try to stop Soviet genocide.
Defiance, then, spins this around. “You want to see a genocide in the forests of Lithuania?” it asks. And it delivers. We see the ghetto of Navahrudak (Naugardukas), with Jews arguing about whether to flee or not. Fleeing might mean freedom, or at least a stay of execution. But by fleeing, they condemn those who stay to death. Death here is a technology of true genocide. Following Agamben’s terminology, the Jews are stripped down to bare life, and then left to be exterminated as vermin. ((Agamben, of course, in separating zoë from bios allows space for political exiles and refugees among those stripped to bare life, but it was the technology of the concentration camp, not the forced labor camp, that provided the apogee of the horror of biopolitics.))
“Do you want to see what combat against actual genocide looks like?” it then asks, providing us the three Bielski brothers. Unlike the fleeing city Jews, they are not intellectuals; they are simple shtetl farmers. In other words, they come from the same stock—the valstiečiai or peasantry—that provided the Lithuanians with their nationalists a century earlier. Next, one brother, Zus, even begins to collaborate (and I choose that verb carefully) with local Soviet partisans. These partisants are Soviets risking their own lives behind enemy lines to disrupt Nazi logistical chains and hamper their abilities to engage the actual army at the front. The movie runs into some trouble with the Soviets, desperate not to come out as seeming pro-Soviet, so it stages its own performances of Soviet (and, therefore, immanent Russian) anti-Semitism, which causes Zus to return to his estranged brother and help him lead his Jewish tribe to one more day of freedom.
I’m disinclined to go into greater detail about the movie and its seeming “stick to your own kind and all will be well” moral, but it stands as an artifact of what the Lithuanian ultranationalist right would have you believe is what happened to Lithuanians at the hands of the Soviets. ((Defiance also has out-of-its-mind fascinating linguistic politics. The local farmers are considered Belarusian, and the main language other than English spoken in the movie is Russian. Yet when one of the farmers who hesitatingly helps the Bielskis is found out and murdered, the sign hanging from his neck, “amant żydów,” is in (bad?) Polish. None of this really fits the historical facts, either. So was everything russified for Liev Schreiber, who speaks Russian?)) It fits, of course, that many of the extras were Lithuanians, and that the movie was filmed in Lithuania. It tells, the rightists might suggest, a Lithuanian story. And though there are parallels—ones I willingly drew in the capsule above—they end at a certain point. At that point, Stalin’s deportation to Siberia of the Lithuanian intellectual class and other enemies of the state reaches its limit as a horrific crime for which many thousands suffered. Yet past that terminus, the Nazi train wagons of death continue on into deep Poland, if you will permit the metaphor, passing the line of “deportation of enemies,” and moving toward “extermination of presumed subhumans.” Or, more succinctly, “genocide.”
Several times on this site I’ve returned to an old post, “The Hammer and Sickle is NOT the Swastika,” and I feel prompted by Katz’s article to return to it again. In that article, I laid out Žižek’s largely unassailable position on the matter, complete with his warning of what might happen if the two, rendered as “red” and “brown” by Katz, are considered in equivalence. But Žižek’s warning has been unheard by an increasing number of politicians in the EU, willing to go along with ultranationalist feelings in the Baltic states to insert, here and there, tiny phrases building up a precedent for equivalence.
Yes, both were horrific regimes. Yes, both committed similar crimes. But that does not lead to equivalence (any more than, pace Jonah Goldberg, Hitler’s vegetarianism means that contemporary vegetarians are crypto-fascists).
But the fight for equivalence, as Katz points out, allows the Lithuanian government to continue acting solely as victims, and not as criminals. “Wir waren nicht die Täter! Wir waren die Opfer!” they claim, sounding like a half-blind-to-history Austrian. And as long as retribution has not allowed them to finally shed their opferine capes of self-pity, they will have no interest in taking on their taterine hairshirts of responsibility.
It is a twisted joke straight out of Russian literature that turns Yitzhak Arad, a partisan, freedom-fighter, and anti-fascist, into a potential war criminal under the eyes of the forever suffering poor little Lithuanian nation, while her own war criminals, who filled the hills outside the IX Fort in Kaunas or the woods of Paneriai with corpses, remain uncharged.
Almost, and this is with a heavy dose of trying to see the best in people, I can see a part of the Lithuanian reluctance as born out of their own reaction to having their own history treated as an exclusively fascist one. It’s notable that the main memorials to the Holocaust in Lithuania were constructed during the Soviet era. ((This also explains the anger over the memorial in Talinn. Russians see it as a memorial to anti-fascism. Estonians see it as a memorial to their oppression at the hands of the Soviets, who considered their partisans crypto-fascists.)) In part this underscores reluctance since then on behalf of the government to add to the total, but I can also imagine the Soviet use (or overuse) of Lithuanian complicity in the Holocaust to keep Lithuanian national pride at bay. In this reading, being pro-Jewish or pro-Holocaust-reckoning is always read as pro-Soviet.
But that doesn’t change what happened. And paranoia about the potential of pro-Soviets will continue to stunt political development in Lithuania. Bad enough that the political life there is corrupt and full of upward failure. But the spectre of the USSR limits a lot of potential social good, lest efforts toward it seem, much like in the US, “communist.”
Katz uses his space in The Guardian to try to shame the English political establishment into stopping their alliances with the likes of Vytautas Landsbergis or others who pursue (cynically or not) a red-brown equivalence. But I’ll encourage the likely readers of this site, diaspora Lithuanians, to do the same. There is a space for reckoning with the horrors of the Soviet era, but its space does not include these bizarre efforts toward equivalency which, instead, justify racism and anti-Semitism under the guise of anti-Sovietism.
Here, perhaps, Žižek’s conclusion is worth repeating:
The ‘pure’ liberal attitude towards Leftist and Rightist ‘totalitarianism’ – that they are both bad, based on the intolerance of political and other differences, the rejection of democratic and humanist values etc – is a priori false. It is necessary to take sides and proclaim Fascism fundamentally ‘worse’ than Communism. The alternative, the notion that it is even possible to compare rationally the two totalitarianisms, tends to produce the conclusion – explicit or implicit – that Fascism was the lesser evil, an understandable reaction to the Communist threat.
It is a historical fact that Nazism arrived on the scene after Communism. Even the Stalinist version of Communism predates the Reichstagsbrand. In equating brown and red, brown becomes a response, hell, almost a necessary, unavoidable response to red. From there, the mess gets more horrific. The Holocaust becomes a necessary, immanent part of the War against Communism. Is that, actually, what the likes of Landsbergis and other tools of the ultranationalist right in Lithuania wish to proclaim?