A new overview of the territory between Russia and Germany has just appeared, called The Lands Between, (Conflict in the East European Borderlands, 1870 – 1992), by Alexander V. Prusin.
This history covers some of the same territory as Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands with a few differences. For one, Prusin’s book is almost three times more expensive than Snyder’s costing a hefty sixty plus dollars in Canada.
Also, the historical range is longer, taking us back to the time before WW1 when the area was dominated by three powers – Czarist, German, and Hapsburg, and continuing to 1992.
As well, Prusin is considerably less sympathetic to the inhabitants of these lands, depicting them as inhabited by squabbling ethnic and religious rivals. Pressed by either Germans or Soviets, these rivalries became exacerbated and murderous, with the Jews the major but far from only victims.
Curiously, the least troublesome era in Prusin’s history seems to be the time before WW1, when religious and ethnic rivalries were controlled by the old empires. By implication, he seems to be saying these are areas guilty of irredentism when not suppressed by outside powers, yet the outside powers were trying to mold the area to their own image (in the case of the Czarist lands, by imposing the Cyrillic alphabet and orthodox Christianity).
The part of the history which interests me most is this text’s take on 1944-1954, the era of the anti-Soviet underground resistance. Prusin characterizes this period as one of civil war between collaborators with the Soviet regime and those who opposed them. As happened all too often in this part of the world, brutality upon brutality led to escalating violence until one side won, in this case, the Soviets.
Here’s a bit more detail on that – as the local partisans fought against the Reds, they forbade locals to take up positions of responsibility in the new Soviet administration. When collaborators did so anyway, the partisans attacked them. These attacks led to counterattacks by the relatives of deceased collaborators, backed by the Soviet army and secret police. In Lithuania, these Soviet forces numbered 12,000 security personnel and 40,000 – 60,000 troops.
This claim is slightly problematic because it begins with the attack by the partisans rather than the attack on the whole country by the Soviets. Notwithstanding that, let’s continue.
In the last six months of 19444 alone, once Lithuania was free of German troops, the Soviets arrested more than 22,000 individuals and carried out over 8,000 anti guerilla actions. The following year they captured 58,000 people.
In this dirty war, some of the Soviets disguised themselves as partisans and went out to commit atrocities. Partisans who were killed were stripped to their underwear and dumped in public places. Soviet propaganda also denounced the partisans as criminals and wartime German collaborators.
In 1953, the Lithuanian underground still managed to kill 84 Soviet functionaries, but by then the area was saturated with police and informants and the partisan war was essentially over,
Prusin points out that the vast majority of functionaries killed by the partisans were Lithuanians themselves, about 21,000 of a total of 25,000 killed, including, 1,000 children. Thus the partisans were trying to prevent collaboration, but failed, and their victims included many innocents.
The whole question of collaboration is thorny in this part of the world. Simply to exist, one likely had to collaborate either with the Germans or the Soviets. There was no other option in this unhappy slice of geography.
Prusin’s view of the partisan war in Lithuania as a civil war is interesting, but it does concern me that it lets the Soviets off the hook. If the Lithuanians were simply fighting one another, I might agree, the the internecine fighting occurred precisely because the Soviets were there. without them, this particular slaughter would not have happened.
I’ll give an overview the rest of Prusin’s history book in my next post when I’ll discuss the broader context for the postwar partisan resistance.