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“If the Russian czars, beginning with Ivan the Terrible, were trying to reach the Baltic Sea they were not doing it for their own personal ambition, but because it was required for the development of the Russian state and nation. It would be unpardonable if the Soviet Union did not seize an opportunity which may never recur.”
Free and independent since the end of World War I in 1918, by 1939 the Baltic countries were facing serious threats from extreme ideologies both east and west. In March of that year, Hitler seized Klaipėda and the region around it, known to the Germans as Memel, from Lithuania in the Nazis’ last bloodless conquest. The fanatical leader marked the occasion by giving a speech from the city’s theatre balcony.
A deal between the Nazis and Soviets, signed on 23 August 1939 and known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, mapped out the coming carve-up of Eastern Europe, initially consigning a helpless Lithuania to the German sphere of influence. A month later a secret protocol transferred it to the Soviet sphere.
In September, Molotov insisted to each of the Baltic nations that they enter a military alliance with the Soviet Union and allow Soviet forces onto their territories – or face the consequences. Neither Britain nor Germany would help them, he said. Realising that any kind of military defence against the mighty Red Army would be foolhardy and every attempt at pleading neutrality was useless, the Baltic governments authorised Soviet land and air bases on their soil.
Desperate to preserve their independence, the Baltics signed a deal with Germany where the Nazis could take 70% of all their exports. But in May 1940, the Soviets falsely accused Lithuania of arresting soldiers from their bases and forcing them to reveal military secrets, giving them reason to pressure Lithuania further. In Kaunas, the country’s interwar capital, President Antanas Smetona instructed all diplomatic missions to take charge of the nation’s affairs under the leadership of Stasys Lozoraitis, envoy to Italy, should the worst happen. Indeed it did.
On 14 June, Molotov gave Lithuania an ultimatum – form a new government to my liking, arrest the interior minister and accept large Soviet garrisons throughout the country. Seeing no way out, and no feasible way to resist militarily, Smetona and his cabinet agreed. The next day, Molotov dictated that the special Soviet representative in Lithuania be put in charge of forming a new government. Smetona saw this as the last straw and he and other public officials immediately fled the country. He eventually ended up in the US, dying in a fire at his house in Cleveland in January 1944.
On 16 June 1940, the Red Army moved into Lithuania – and, by the 18th, into Latvia and Estonia too. ‘People’s Governments’ were formed using local Bolshevik agitators who took their orders direct from Moscow. In rigged elections staged in mid-July, communist candidates won 99.2% of the vote – as non-communist candidates were declared invalid. Within a few days the nationalisation of all property, industry and natural resources got underway. Foreign embassies were closed. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were proclaimed Soviet socialist republics.
With occupation into the USSR formalised, borders were redrawn, and while the Latvian and Estonian republics lost land in the east, Lithuania regained Vilnius and the surrounding region, which had been occupied by Poland in 1919. On streets across the country, red flags, huge posters of Stalin and communist propaganda slogans appeared everywhere. Squads of NKVD Soviet secret police were set up within the Interior Ministry, their duties being to use a network of spies and informers to detect ‘enemies of the people’ and read personal mail. In the first 158 days of 1941, more than 250,000 letters were inspected, of which 17,250 were confiscated for having anti-Soviet characteristics.
Lists of ‘class enemies’ were drawn up and purges wiped out any hint of dissent in the army, police, courts, schools, the Church, the press and places of culture. Waves of arrests took place in July and November 1940, mostly between 1am and 4am, with almost 15,000 political prisoners detained. Monasteries were used in addition to prisons and conditions were inhuman. Gruesome physical torture was commonly practiced by the NKVD. Corpses quickly filled mass graves on prison grounds.
At 4am on 14 June 1941 a series of massive deportations to camps in Russia began. Given barely 30 minutes to gather a few belongings, families – Lithuanians, Jews, Poles and other nationalities – were forced into trucks and taken to train stations. There, heartrending cries filled the air as husbands were separated from wives, children from their parents, all of them herded into filthy cattle cars.
Officials had estimated that 700,000 Lithuanians, almost a quarter of the population, may need deporting. Only the sudden invasion of Nazi Germany stopped the operation. As it was, 38,340 Lithuanians were deported, with most of the freight cars being sent to Altay, Novosibirsk and other hostile places. Most did not survive the slave labour and extreme temperatures of the first winter. Separately, around a thousand army officers from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were murdered in a Katyn-style massacre near a camp in Norilsk in June 1941.
Political prisoners met a different fate, many dying in their places of incarceration in Lithuania or killed in nearby forests. Infamous massacres took place as the NKVD panicked during the chaos of the opening days of the Nazi-Soviet war. At Pravieniškės Prison, Kaunas, 500 prisoners and administrative personnel were machine-gunned on 26 June. Around 50 survived by being wounded and covered by corpses.
The most ghastly massacre occurred in Rainiai Forest near Telšiai, also on 26 June. Before fleeing Lithuania, NKVD henchmen took 76 mainly college students and boy scouts from Telšiai Prison to the forest. Examined by a medical commission the next day, their bodies showed terrible and sadistic deformities too graphic to be described here. A diesel motor has been used to lessen the noise and screams for farmers living nearby.
This was how the terrifying first Soviet occupation ended as the Nazis launched Operation Barbarossa, bulldozing their way towards Moscow, and a fresh round of barbaric and cowardly atrocities began.
- Howard Jarvis
List of potential ‘enemies of the people’
1. All former members of non-communist parties and members of economic and cultural organisations;
2. All former officials of the state, army and judiciary;
3. All participants in the struggle for Lithuania’s independence against the Soviets in 1918-19;
4. All members of student organisations and members of the National Guard;
5. All former noblemen, landlords, merchants, bankers, businesspeople, shopkeepers, owners of hotels and restaurants;
6. All persons expelled from the Communist Party and Komsomol for anti-Party activities;
7. All refugees and emigrants, as well as relatives of political refugees;
8. Priests and active members of religious organisations;
9. Former Red Cross officials and Polish refugees;
10. Representatives of foreign firms, employees and former employees of foreign legations, firms and companies;
11. People in contact with foreign countries, including philatelists and Esperantists.
(Summary of list prepared by Lithuanian SSR People’s Commissar of Internal Affairs, Aleksandras Guzevičius, November 1940; list estimated to cover 23% of the population)
Georg Von Rauch, ‘The Baltic States: Years of Independence 1917-1940’, Hurst & Co., London, 1974
Joseph Pajaujis-Javis, ‘Soviet Genocide in Lithuania’, PhD, Manyland Books, New York, 1980
Vincas Krėvė-Mickevičius, ‘The Bolshevik Invasion and the People's Government’, Lietuvių archyvas, Vol III