Vanished Kingdoms, by Norman Davies

The English/Welsh historian, Norman Davies, first became widely known with his God’s Playground, a history of Poland, and then shot to wide acclaim with Europe, in 1998, perhaps the first popular history book to consider Central and Eastern Europe as very important parts of the narrative of that place. Up until then, Europe was loosely thought of as the western part, at least by westerners.

What was ground-breaking in Davies was further enlarged upon by the late Tony Judt in Postwar in 2005, and more recently by the brilliant Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder in 2010. In other words, the idea of Europe became bigger through these books and the story of the east became important, or in the case of Snyder’s book, central to the story being told.

Norman Davies’s latest book, Vanished Kingdoms, is dedicated to “those whom historians tend to forget”, namely the peoples of kingdoms that have vanished from the earth. He says we should study them as well, for not to do so betrays a bias toward victors, while the stories of victors tell only one part of history.

Among the kingdoms he writes about, two stand out for me with my interest in Eastern Europe.

The first is a place he calls “Litva”, which at various times included Lithuania, Belorussia, Ukraine and even Poland. While the story of the rise and fall and reappearance of Lithuania has been told widely, Davies brings many new elements into the story. He writes vividly, for example, of the melancholy of the last Jagiellonian king, Zygmunt August (ruled 1548-72) who believed that after him would come the deluge (and it did, eventually). Davies writes interestingly about the scattering of the Metryka Litevska, the archive of the empire that was dispersed across Poland, Sweden, and Russia and made reconstruction of the history of that region so difficult.

The chapter on Prussia struck me as particularly fresh, because Davies, never one to accept western clichés, sets out to demolish the story of a militaristic, jackboot iron kingdom that got what it deserved. He points out that the Prussians were no more aggressive than the Russians in the first world war, and he goes into some detail about the annihilation of Prussia during and after WW2. Then, 2.2 million East Prussians were killed or deported, and more were forced out of West Prussia. Their melancholy fate, he says, was like that of Carthage – “They create a desert and call it peace.”

Timothy Snyder, in a review of this book in the Guardian, called it “romantic”. The story of vanished kingdoms does indeed smack of romantic melancholy, but sometimes that is just the right reaction to have.

Dramatic Biographies Part Four – Jonas Zemaitis

Partisan Leader Posthumously Named Lithuania’s Fourth President

Postage Stamp Commemorating Jonas Zemaitis

If the generation of Americans who fought in WW2 is considered the “The Greatest Generation” for its sense of sacrifice and courage, the same can be said out east, on the far side of Europe, where the suffering was far broader than it ever was in the west. In the west some died and others returned to the developing suburban dream, but in the east, some died, some kept on fighting, and the rest were hammered into dust for the mortar used to build the house of Communism.

One of Lithuania’s most famous members of this generation is Jonas Zemaitis, an anti-Soviet partisan fighter from 1944 to his execution in Moscow in ten years later. Zemaitis and many of his generation stayed behind when the Soviets returned for a new round of terror. Some were simply unlucky, a few may have been collaborators, but most were like Zemaitis – patriots who refused to leave their homes. Astonishingly, Moscow seemed on the verge of naming this underground opponent the new leader of Soviet Lithuania in 1953.

Son of a happy-go-lucky father in independent Lithuania, Jonas Zemaitis sought structure and stability by entering the Kaunas officers’ academy in 1926. He was a solid student who trained in the artillery, working his way up to the rank of captain and eventually being talented enough to be sent to France in the late thirties.

Zemaitis remained behind in Lithuania when the Soviets returned in 1944. The anti-Soviet partisan movement was glad to have him because many officers had been taken in the first wave of Soviet deportations and most of those who remained fled before the second Soviet occupation. The resistance needed men who knew military tactics, and they found their champion in Zemaitis.

Early partisan resistance was military in a traditional sense – the partisans took land and defended it. Zemaitis fought in pitched battles from fortified positions with dozens of partisans in the early stages of the fight in 1944 and 1945. But this was a losing proposition against vastly larger forces, and it became worse when the Soviets defeated Germany and could turn back to concentrate on pacifying their captured territories.

Zemaitis was lucky for a time, escaping in close calls again and again –  even his wife managed to escape from captivity by the NKVD.

But luck was not enough against superior forces. By1948, the country had tired of resistance and partisan numbers were down dramatically, from 30,000 at the beginning to perhaps 2,000. Increasingly, locals were betraying the partisans and occasionally feeding them sleeping mixtures or poisons. Notwithstanding these difficulties, the partisans united themselves under a single command with Zemaitis as their leader.

In 1950 they were still managing to produce an underground press and even received modest funding of a few hundred dollars from the Americans through Juozas Luksa, a partisan who had made it out to the west and returned.

The end of the game was clearly in sight when in 1951, Zemaitis suffered a stroke which partially paralyzed him. Allies were few and resources stretched thin. He could not shelter in a hospital or even a house, so he spent over a year in a bunker being served and nursed by women sympathetic to the partisan cause. But by then the whole movement had been compromised. Too many captured partisans gave in either to torture or pressure against their families or arguments about the inevitable socialist future, and these men infiltrated their former bands. Such was the case with Zemaitis, whose bunker location was revealed in 1953 by his right-hand man soon after his capture.

Zemaitis and the others were taken alive when the bunker was filled with sleeping gas.

So far, this is a story that is broadly the same as hundreds of others in that place and time. Where it changes is at the end.

In 1953, the murderous and paranoid Joseph Stalin died and his right-hand man, Lavrenty Beria, took over the Soviet Union. Today, Beria has a reputation as the most heartless of Stalin’s henchmen, and some believe he would have continued Stalin’s style of terror had he survived. Yet his actions at this juncture hint at the opposite. Beria was looking for accommodation with nationalist forces in both Lithuania and Ukraine. There are some hints that he even intended to put the partisan leaders in positions of power and discard the old Central Committee leaders who had ruled under Stalin’s regime in Lithuania and Ukraine.

After his capture in1953, Zemaitis was interrogated in Vilnius, but not tortured. This fact was a novelty under Beria’s new rules. Then Zemaitis was flown to Moscow where he met in person with Beria for an hour.

What did they say to one another? What was supposed to happen next? We’ll never know. Beria was arrested the next day and executed before the end of the year.

Whatever good this meant for the Soviet Union (Beria was known as a hard liner and his elimination eventually led to a thaw), it meant the opposite, a return to the old ways in Soviet Lithuania. Antanas Snieckus, the head of the Communist Party in Lithuania, was now secure in his place as he had been under Stalin. Zemaitis was returned to Lithuania by train and interrogated, again, without torture. Under interrogation, he sketched out the entire system of partisan resistance in Lithuania, which had crumbled by then.  At least one historian believes he did so to ensure a record of the resistance survived in KGB archives.

In is final statement, Zemaitis insisted that he believed his resistance to be lawful and the Lithuanian Soviet regime the product of an invading force. He said he regretted nothing. Sentenced to death, he was returned to Moscow where the verdict was carried out in 1954.

In 2009, the Lithuanian government declared that he represented the lawful extension of independent Lithuania, and posthumously declared him as the fourth president of the country.