In quick succession, Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius initiated the renaming of Kazys Škirpa Alley and unilaterally removed the memorial plaque to Jonas Noreika – both men, in different ways, were accused of collaboration with the Nazi authorities and promoting anti-Semitism during the Second World War.
Both moves were followed by heated discussions and minor protests. To some, they represented historic justice, while others saw them as rewriting of history.
According to the Vilnius mayor, there are still memorials for Soviet figures that shouldn’t exist in the capital – renaming Kazys Škirpa Alley and removing Jonas Noreika plaque was not the final step in ridding the city of links to totalitarian regimes.
“It doesn’t mean they should be condemned,” said Nerija Putinaitė, associate professor at Vilnius University's Institute of International Relations and Political Science. “But we simply shouldn’t be building memorial plaques and memorials to them."
“They were tragic individuals. In many cases they acted heroically, but they aren’t the people you should be aspiring to be [...] For example, you can’t say anything [negative] against Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vangas,” the partisan leader of the Lithuanian post-war anti-Soviet resistance.
According to Putinaitė, even though memorial plaques for controversial individuals can be removed, it does not automatically effect changes in the society's perceptions.
“Society needs to understand why it’s being done,” and not merely observe symbols being removed, she said.
Speaking on LRT RADIO, Vytautas Keršanskas from the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats in Helsinki, said that “despite parts of the Lithuanian society being happy with the removal of the Jonas Noreikia plaque,” the biggest winners were “the unfriendly forces working against Lithuania”.
The decision to “take down the plaque in secret [...] was harmful in every way. It didn’t accomplish the initiators' promise of historic justice, nor showed consistent treatment of historical signs [...] and the society is even more riled up and fragmented,” said Keršanskas.
He called on Vilnius Council to “take leadership and invest into the final clearing up of ambiguities” instead of “waving around an electric saw”.
“Today we have a situation where [Jonas Noreika] Vėtra memorial plaque is removed,” but the one dedicated to the “writer Valerija Vaisiūnienė who betrayed Noreika-Vėtra and 41 other anti-Soviet resistance member to Cheka” is still up.
The decision to rename Škirpa Alley came too late, according to historian and associate professor at Vilnius University Nerijus Šepetys.
Read more: Despite protests, Vilnius renames street dedicated to Škirpa 'who promoted Holocaust'
“We named Lithuanian streets after figures without analysing what they did, and now we’re seeing the consequences,” he said.
Ill-considered memorials and their removals inflate the meaning of minor figures and stir emotions, Šepetys added.
“It seems as if there isn’t a bigger hero than Jonas Noreika. Accusations against him are outrageous. Emotions are boiling over his activities that aren’t that important, either the incriminating aspects, or in his feats.”
Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius has also claimed it was a mistake to remove the Jonas Noreika plaque in the early hours of Saturday, but blamed the municipal company charged with the task, Grinda, which “looked at it too simplistically”.
“Grinda's men were doing different jobs over the night, finished them earlier than expected, came down and removed the plaque,” said Šimašius. “They didn’t understand the emotional message that could have sent.”
Šimašius said he didn't see any other memorial signs linked to Nazism, but two more objects should be removed for their association with the Soviet Union.
“There is the memorial to [the poet and author Petras] Cvirka and the memorial plaque in Žvėrynas for the poet Valerija Valsiūnienė who personally cooperated with the KGB and has denounced more than one person,” said Šimašius.