ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2008 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 54, No 2 - Summer 2008
Editor of this issue: M. G. Salvėnas

Book Review

Lithuanian-Soviet Relations at the Beginning of World War II

Alfred Erich Senn. Lithuania, 1940; Revolution from Above. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi 2007, 300 pages.

Professor Alfred Erich Senn’s latest book on Lithuanian history deals with one of the most important and challenging periods in the country’s modern history. The author starts with a discussion of the Treaty of Nonaggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, August 23, 1939, popularly known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which significantly influenced the events of 1940. The pact’s purpose was to assure, at least for a while, nonbelligerent relations between the parties and to divide Eastern Europe into spheres of influence. 

Initially, in one of the secret protocols of the pact, Latvia and Estonia were assigned to the Soviet sphere, Lithuania to the German. Moscow, however, subsequently requested that Lithuania be included in its area of domination. Although the Germans eventually agreed to this change, for a while there was a dispute about who should own a small part of southeastern Lithuania. The disagreement was settled for a price: Moscow agreed to pay Germany approximately seven and a half million dollars for this tiny piece of land. 

Before the war, the Lithuanian government declared neutrality and was determined to maintain it. This policy was tested when, on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and made overtures to Lithuania to join Berlin against the Poles in order to recover Vilnius, the historic capital of this Baltic country dating back to the fourteenth century. In 1920, the city was annexed by Poland, when a “volunteer” army, inspired and supported by Warsaw, invaded Vilnius and the surrounding area. As a result, Kaunas, the second largest city, became Lithuania’s temporary capital. During the interwar period, the return of Vilnius dominated the foreign policy of the Kaunas government. However, despite tremendous emotional desire to regain the historic capital, German proposals concerning joint action were not accepted. 

In keeping with the terms of the pact’s secret protocols, on September 16, 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Poland. After occupying eastern Poland, in which Vilnius was located, the Kremlin used the city to entice Lithuania to sign a mutual assistance treaty with provisions for the historic capital’s return as well as the establishment of Soviet military bases. Kaunas was reluctant to accept the treaty on such terms, but Moscow persisted and, eventually, Lithuanians yielded to the inevitable, hoping to preserve a semblance of independence. The document was signed in the Kremlin on October 10, less than two months after the conclusion of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. 

Senn vividly details the Soviet pressure on Kaunas during this period. The USSR’s main contention was that Germany had aggressive intentions toward Lithuania and only close cooperation with the Soviet Union would protect this Baltic state from a Nazi onslaught. It is fascinating to read about Soviet dealings with small countries that had little or no support from the outside. The author lists several factors that made the Lithuanians’ position extremely difficult. First, at least initially, they were completely in the dark about the pact’s secret protocols that assigned the Baltic States to the Soviet sphere. Second, Kaunas’s attempts to find support from some major powers were futile. Britain and France had their hands full fighting the war; Germany, now the Soviet Union’s ally, left this Baltic state to its own fate. Third, during this time the internal situation in Lithuania began to deteriorate. The authoritarian regime of President Antanas Smetona was blamed for failures in foreign policy, such as Warsaw’s imposition of diplomatic relations (Lithuania broke them over the Vilnius seizure) and the forcible takeover by Germany of the country’s only port, Klaipėda. The anti-Smetona political forces demanded, if not immediate establishment of democracy, then at least a coalition cabinet that could more effectively speak for the nation. 

Soviet leaders, principally Molotov, who did most of the negotiating, and his boss Stalin, who had the final word, repeatedly insisted that Lithuania’s survival depended on a mutual assistance treaty with the Soviet Union. Several sweeteners were included or promised in order to make it more palatable to the Lithuanians: the number of Soviet troops to be stationed was reduced from 50,000 to 20,000; the Kremlin promised not to intervene in the host country’s internal affairs; and Vilnius with its immediate environs was to be returned to Lithuania. 

In Lithuania, there was relatively little rejoicing over regaining the historic capital. Much of the unease was caused by the stationing of Soviet troops inside the country. An often repeated ditty circulated around the country: “Vilnius mūsų, o mes rusų”, (Vilnius is ours, but we are Russia’s). In the growing crisis, President Smetona was unable to unify or to reassure the nation. Other than newly formed coalition cabinets, there were no other reforms. Opposition party ministers had little power to influence the policy of the government. Segments of society felt that changes at the top ought to take place, but criticism of the regime was muted, most likely because the public or, for that matter, Smetona’s administration itself, did not fully understand the effect on Lithuania of the rapidly changing situation in Eastern Europe. 

At first, the Soviets were true to their promise not to interfere in Lithuania’s internal affairs. However, their attitude began to change in May of the following year. Kaunas (the government still resided there) was accused of various provocations against Soviet soldiers stationed in Lithuania. The accusations included murders, kidnappings, beatings, and other major transgressions. When Kaunas proposed a joint Soviet-Lithuanian commission to investigate the alleged crimes against Red Army personnel, Moscow did not cooperate. Acting alone, Lithuanians could not find any seriously improper activity on the part of their officials, but that did not seem to matter to the Kremlin. 

Gradually, it became clear that the Soviet accusations were a prelude to some kind of action against the Baltic state. On June 4, 1940, the Kremlin requested that Prime Minister Antanas Merkys come to Moscow to discuss Soviet-Lithuanian relations. The head of the Lithuanian cabinet met with the Kremlin officials several times, each successive meeting punctuated by Molotov’s increasing complaints about the mistreatment of Red Army soldiers, the hostility of the press and the anti-Soviet actions of the Minister of Internal Affairs, Kazys Skučas, and the Director of the State Security Department, Augustinas Povilaitis. Soviet negotiators subjected Merkys to threats, verbal abuse and other types of nondiplomatic behavior. The culmination of this process took place during the night of June 14-15, when Moscow issued an ultimatum demanding that (1) the Minister of the Interior and the Director of the State Security Department be prosecuted, (2) a new government more friendly to the Soviet Union be formed immediately, and (3) a large number of Red Army units be allowed to enter Lithuania. The Lithuanian government was given until 10 o’clock the next morning to respond to the Kremlin’s demands. The cabinet met in the middle of the night to consider them. The principal item on the agenda was whether to offer armed resistance, especially since Molotov told Foreign Minister Juozas Urbšys, who stayed in Moscow after Merkys departed, that the Red Army would cross the border regardless of the response. The majority of the cabinet was against military resistance and in effect accepted the ultimatum. President Smetona left the country, and the formation of the new government was assumed by Moscow’s proconsul, Dekanozov, who arrived in Kaunas on the afternoon the Soviet troops poured into Lithuania. 

After the occupation, sovietization began immediately under the direction of the Kremlin’s representatives. Senn lists several stages of the process. The formation of a pro-Soviet cabinet, led by left-wing intellectuals and former government officials opposed to Smetona’s regime; the replacement of this cabinet by another one in which Communists predominated. The latter organized a Soviet-style election: only one party was allowed to participate; there were only as many government-approved candidates as there were parliamentary seats to be filled; the exclusive use of the media and other outlets of opinion to support a sham party, the Workers’ Association of Lithuania, created strictly for election purposes, that is, to mask the Communist Party’s growing domination of the country’s politics. The votes were counted by reliable officials of the new regime, and the final result was hardly surprising: over 90 percent participated and cast votes for the lone list of candidates. Despite the elaborate controls, however, there were numerous glitches in the election process that revealed many voters rebelled against what they correctly perceived as an election whose outcome was predetermined. 

The newly elected People’s Seimas (Parliament) quickly adopted a resolution asking for admission to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. A delegation was appointed for the purpose, and it immediately departed for Moscow. The Supreme Soviet obliged, and on August 3, 1940, Lithuania became a member of the Union. It took barely a month and a half after the Red Army’s invasion for Lithuania to disappear officially as an independent state. 

Thus ends the summary of the major events discussed in the book. Senn points out that the events have been subjected to varying interpretations by historians whose countries directly or indirectly participated in them. He repeatedly refers to the Soviet and Russian historians’ views, in most respects quite similar, and those of their Lithuanian counterparts expressed in mainstream studies written after the reestablishment of independence or in the diaspora. And finally, there are the interpretations of the author himself that are generally close to the Lithuanian historians’, but with a number of differences. 

This approach is especially useful to those who might not be familiar with the events considered in the book. It also reminds us that the study of recent history is a discipline prone to the influences of nationalism. However, the existence of such influences does not mean that every historical study dealing with contemporary issues is inevitably “biased.” The book under review shows that it is possible to treat events that still evoke emotions without a nationalistic ax to grind. Although the author has written other studies on Lithuania and has cooperated closely with Lithuanian scholars, he is not writing from any nation’s point of view. In this sense, Senn is a “neutral” observer who is interested solely in historical truth. Some will say that there are no such historians, and they are probably right, but I think the author comes close to the ideal. 

To illustrate these points let us take a look at how he deals with one of the major events discussed in the book. The Soviet and Russian (though there are some significant exceptions among the latter) historians regard Moscow’s impositon of the mutual assistance treaty and the subsequent invasion of Lithuania as justifiable because of Germany’s threat. Many Lithuanian historians, though it is risky to regard them as a monolithic group, treat these events as an unprovoked aggression by a major power with imperialistic objectives. Senn essentially agrees with them but points out that there were certain factors, such as Smetona’s authoritarian regime, which facilitated the realization of the Soviet Union’s designs. In fairness, it should be pointed out that other historians have also critically assessed the impact of domestic politics on the process of annexation, but the author attributes more significance to this topic than, to my knowledge, did Lithuanian historians. 

The author’s main thesis is that the sovietization of Lithuania was caused not by a grassroots movement, but by intervention from outside. The imposition of military bases, the invasion, the arrival of Moscow’s proconsul, the rigged elections did not reflect the will of the Lithuanian people. Soviet and many Russian historians have claimed that military occupation was justifiable to protect this small Baltic country and argued that sovietization expressed the wishes of an overwhelming majority of the people. The author convincingly shows how specious these interpretations are. In a detailed and balanced discussion of events during 1939-1940, he debunks point by point arguments that revolution/sovietization was the result of a mass popular movement. 

I have only one disagreement with the author and it is not one of substance, but of emphasis. It involves Vilnius, which was a major factor in the events discussed in the book. Senn points out that over many centuries the city had been claimed and ruled by different states, invaded numerous times, and in the process had acquired a distinctly multinational and multicultural character. All of this is true. But he makes the point that Lithuanian claims to the city are not any more legitimate, and given its former demographic makeup, possibly less so than those of other nations, especially the Poles. 

The author only briefly discusses the history of Vilnius, pointing out that this subject is beyond the scope of his book. Nevertheless, it is important to find out why the return of the historic capital evoked such strong emotions among Lithuanians during the interwar period, emotions that Germany and the Soviet Union exploited to intimidate this Baltic state. 

The Lithuanian claims depend principally on the following facts. Vilnius was established as the capital of Lithuania in the fourteenth century by the Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas. After the union with Poland in 1569, it remained the capital of Lithuania, although Cracow and subsequently Warsaw became the official capitals of the United Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. During the Tsarist period, 84 the Governor-General in Vilnius oversaw most Lithuanian and some Russian lands. Immediately following the First World War, the city was taken over briefly by the Bolsheviks, Lithuanians and Poles in their turn, eventually becoming a part of Poland until the beginning of the Second World War. 

It is true, as Senn reminds us, that in 1918 Lithuanian speakers constituted only a minority in Vilnius. This fact is not surprising, knowing that the city in large measure was populated by residents whose ancestors over the decades shifted culturally from Lithuanian to Polish. The same situation to a large extent also existed in Kaunas, where Lithuanian speakers likewise represented only a minority of the population at the end of the First World War. In a few years, however, the city had acquired a distinctly Lithuanian character. I think that by and large the same would have happened in Vilnius if it remained the capital of the newly founded Lithuanian state. In both Kaunas’s and Vilnius’s environs, as well as the country as a whole, the majority of the rural people consisted of Lithuanians who did not adopt the Polish culture. In the case of Kaunas, their migration to the temporary capital “Lithuanized” the city; in Vilnius under Polish rule, the same change was not possible. 

The book is an important contribution to the study of Moscow’s policy and practice toward small neighboring states during the Stalin era. It is the only comprehensive and balanced account and analysis in the English language of the relations between Lithuania and the Soviet Union at the beginning of the Second World War. Lithuania, 1940, will be enjoyed by the general reader and be useful to the professional historian as well. 

Julius Šmulkštys