Courage will be needed, as Lithuania sets out to look straight into the mirror of those years of genocidal horror, 1941–44, writes German Ambassador to Lithuania Matthias Sonn on the anniversary of Lithuania's June Uprising.
“Deep is the well of the past,” sighs the German author Thomas Mann – the first words of his magnum opus Joseph and his Brothers. He goes on to tell us a biblical story. Exodus, a tale of the people of Israel in foreign captivity.
Mann was writing this story 80 years ago. Overlooking the Pacific Ocean from his own (rather comfortable) exile in California, did he sometimes think back to his family’s beautiful, lost holiday home in Lithuania, on the Curonian Lagoon? I find it hard to imagine otherwise. This political refugee from the Nazi regime would not have chosen his subject – this subject – coincidentally. Of course he was thinking of what was going on in Europe.
By June 1941, Nazi Germany had already overrun much of the continent, like a biblical plague. The “Magician”, as Mann was often labelled in his lifetime, knew better than most what this would mean for European Jewry. He was not Jewish himself, but he had a Jewish wife. They had fled from Nazi Germany already in 1933. By 1942, when Joseph and his Brothers was published, the Shoah was already burning through human beings, communities and countries at full force.
Eighty years ago today, on June 22, 1941, the Nazi German plague overwhelmed Lithuania as well. That is a horrible truth that I, the ambassador of modern-day democratic Germany to modern-day democratic Lithuania, must confront. It is a painful processs. It is also one that Lithuania herself must go through. I hope that I can support and encourage her in that process. Courage will be needed, as Lithuania sets out to look straight into the mirror of those years of genocidal horror, 1941–44.
We Germans know how hard it is to hold the distant mirror steady. We also know that it is existentially necessary. It took us Germans forty years after World War 2 ended to establish a clear and straightforward understanding, for ourselves: that historical responsibility is always collective, and always timeless. Our nation’s very continuity, being collective and impersonal by nature, makes historical responsibility abide. Then, now, and in perpetuity.
It follows, inescapably, that wherever the mass murder of the European Jews was committed, and regardless of any degree of local complicity the Nazi murderers may have found, these unspeakable acts of barbarity remain the crimes of Nazi Germany. Genocide was a core intent of this war of aggression, driven by racist ideological delusion. There can be no shifting of blame. Germany’s historical responsibility for the Shoah abides. Again: then, now, and in perpetuity.
What, then, does that mean for Lithuania’s historical responsibility? Is the German experience relevant here? After all, there is a clear contrast. Germany had allowed the Nazis into power, to take over its institutions and destroy its democracy, and then almost all of Europe’s. Lithuania, on the contrary, had not chosen to become part of the "Bloodlands", as historian Timothy Snyder named them.
Far from it: that is actually another part of Germany’s responsibility – it was Nazi Germany that had delivered Lithuania under Soviet occupation with the Hitler–Stalin pact in 1939. Your old and proud nation’s ability to act as a sovereign state, with corresponding responsibilities, became suspended. Lithuania of course still existed as a nation; but it could no longer act to protect the lives and rights of all its citizens.
But that terrible history does not mean that Lithuania should not look squarely at what happened here during that time. And she has begun to do so – in fact, there are already multiple, diverging narratives amongst historians about the period. That might seem surprising, given that facts are exceptionally well researched and documented. We should perhaps remember that historians are subject to trauma like everyone else – and just like non-historians, not all of them have the intellectual honesty and moral strength to face the horrors of 1941–44.
History, with a capital “H”, is no more objective or scientific in Lithuania than anywhere else. It can’t be. But it can – and must – be based on facts, and it must be intellectually honest. “I speak as a historian” must not be used as in: “I have the academic qualification to deny the undeniable, distort what is straightforward, and leave out what is pertinent.”
If Lithuania in June 1941 was not the master of her own destiny, but rather the victim of overwhelming external forces, why should today’s Lithuania care about what happened? What does it matter to today’s Lithuania – modern, democratic Lithuania? Independent, free, European and transatlatic Lithuania?
If Lithuania in June 1941 couldn’t act as a sovereign state, then does historic responsibility become nothing more than a collection of individual responsibilities? Each Lithuanian of those days, responsible for the way they behaved to their Jewish Lithuanian neighbours, their fellow citizens, their compatriots? Each grandchild of today warily wondering about their grandfather’s role? Is it all a matter of individual interpretation of the indisputably awful facts?
Or is there something like a historic national continuity even where the nation’s polity, its state power, is temporarily impotent, or even entirely suppressed? Can a country that wishes to be understood as such cherry-pick its history? Or does it need to take responsibility for the whole – the past, the present, and the future?
I do not wish to say that historical responsibility needs a uniform, 'official' narrative – like the Soviet historical doctrine that you freed yourselves from only thirty years ago. But historical responsibility does need honesty and care – a long, searching look into that mirror.
I would suggest two important reasons why Lithuania needs to put itself through this painful process. First, it is an essential part of ensuring that nothing similar ever happens again. Intolerance, narrow-minded nationalism, curdling into cruelty and worse – it is always possible in humanity. We must be awake to any early signs of it.
For this reason, I was heartened to see how quickly my government reacted to the shameful recent incident among German troops stationed here in Lithuania. The entire platoon was immediately withdrawn, and those found guilty of anti-semitic behaviour, sexual harrassment or other crimes will be punished. They will not be allowed to undermine the reputation of the modern German Army. The honour of our uniform was so hard to rebuild after 1939–45.
Second, historical honesty is part of building a resilient modern state, a patriotic duty even. A country that hasn’t looked its historical responsibility in the face is a country vulnerable to disinformation. In this region, no country can afford to be weak in this way. A strong Lithuania is one that has demonstrated the courage and honesty to look at its full history.
Germany’s partnership with modern Lithuania is today illustrated by something I still find almost incredible to see: German troops here on the ground, working jointly with Lithuania’s and our NATO partners’ troops, and welcomed as such. In the same way, I hope that we can support Lithuania to be strong in another dimension: confronting your history, just as we support you in securing your future.
Matthias Sonn is the German ambassador to Lithuania