ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2015 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 61, No.2 - Summer 2015
Editor of this issue: Almantas Samalavičius

Book Review

1918-1953: Centuries in Lithuanian History
Vladas Terleckas. The Tragic Pages of Lithuanian History: 1940-1953.
Vilnius: Petro ofsetas, 2014. 148 pages. ISBN: 9786094085925

Terleckas dedicates this publication to English-speaking foreign visitors to Lithuania. In the preface, he asks the reader, why one would choose the period of 1918 to 1953 out of the thousand years of Lithuania's history? He answers that the history of every country is measured not in years, but in the intensity of movement:

In this respect, the years from 1918 to 1953 amount to centuries in Lithuanian history: it was during this period that the country shook off the yoke of Russian Tsars and German Kaisers; independence awakened the creative force of the nation, and it achieved great progress in various sectors; from 1938 to 1940, Lithuania was issued three ultimatums by neighboring states; in 1940 and 1941, it suffered two occupations and the shock and trauma of mass killings and repression. (7)

The plight of Lithuania from 1940 to 1953 is key to comprehending the character of its people and their psyche. Terleckas relies on research, the stories of his parents and their generation, and his own teenage experience of those years. His book includes about a hundred historical photographs and maps, a list of abbreviations, and a bibliography.

In the foreword, historian Francoise Thom notes that two occupying forces plundered Lithuania and carried out mass exterminations: Germany nearly wiped out the Jewish population, and the soviet Union sought to eradicate the elite. The two powers worked hard to find local accomplices in their crimes. Terleckas explains, "It is the irony of history that it was in the very countries and regions that were annexed in the aftermath of the second World War, and repeatedly steamrolled by stalin, that we saw the emergence and organization of the liberation movement that brought about the downfall of the USSR." (10)

The first part of the book summarizes life in Lithuania after the independence of 1918. It covers the achievements and challenges of state building. The main part of the book focuses on the soviet (1940-1) and Nazi (1941-4) occupations, as well as the stalinist regime of 1944-53. Terleckas examines repression, sovietization, and the armed and unarmed resistance of the Lithuanians.

From 1918 to 1940, Lithuanians encounter real hardships, but with a glimmer of hope for the future. A successful land reform is instituted. Agricultural production and the economy grow better than expected. The country has a stable currency. Education and culture make remarkable progress. Ethnic minorities have their own primary schools, teaching children in their mother tongue. These schools are supported by the state.

Terleckas provides interesting facts and figures for the "dark ages" that follow. The 1939 secret Molotov-Ribben-trop Pact between the USSR and Germany leads to the Soviet occupation of 1940. Life changes from one of hope to tragedy. The Nazi occupation replaces the Soviet one. Lithuania reasserts its independence in 1941, followed by six weeks of hope; but, the Nazis declare Lithuanians racially unfit and make plans to deport 80 percent of the population. Nazis attempt to oppress and demoralize the population, which includes the mass extermination of Jews. Regrettably, some Lithuanians contribute to this massacre of innocents. At the same time, 7,022 people save 3,000 Jews from death, according to data from the the Vilna Gaon National Jewish Museum. Around 45,000 Lithuanians became Nazi victims.

The fourth chapter describes 1944-53 as Lithuania on the brink of extinction. A second Soviet occupation follows World War II. Just before the occupation, some 64,000 refugees flee west to escape the returning Soviets. The USSR's victory against Nazi Germany does not bring any freedom to the Baltic nations. It simply replaces one oppressor with another. The first months of occupation prove the worst fears of the people were well-founded:

The Soviets unleashed the most brutal force. They had made advance preparation for the repressions against civilians. (...) Many of the NKVD officers considered Lithuania as enemy territory and were not hiding their hostility towards the local population; to them almost every local man was a "bandit." (80-81)

The book presents details on the forced collectivization of farms, unbearable taxation, and the deportation of farmers who refused to join collectives. For many years, many collective farmers eat an unvaried diet that consists mainly of potatoes and milk. Things get so bad that people coin a saying, "the living envy the dead."

The section on the anti-Soviet Partisan War of 1944-54 is very informative and touching, with excellent documentation. It is a "must read" for anyone who cannot read the entire book. This history of blood, sweat, and tears lasts about ten years. Armed resistance gives way to an unarmed one. The new opposition is institutional and organized, as well as spontaneous and unorganized.

The last chapter, "Repression," includes imprisonment and deportation of the civilian population. Cold demographic facts and figures tell only part of the story. The population suffers years of cultural repression and religious persecution. Philosopher and publicist Eglė Marcinkevičiūtė-Wittig notes that Lithuanian historians used to dismiss the suffering Lithuanians experienced and underestimated the resistance: "But the main expression for the Soviet reactionary sentiment was the attempt to depict some repressive and occupant structures in positive light, even giving them a cozy romantic tint" (book cover back flap). These brutal efforts only galvanized the country to resist and pursue freedom, regardless of how long it would take.

A "Chronology of Major Events" concludes the book; it should be included in the popular tourist publication Vilnius in Your Pocket.

Terleckas (b. 1939-) taught banking and monetary systems at Vilnius University in 1967-2000. He served as a member of the Supreme Council and was a signatory of the March 11, 1990 Act of Restoration of Lithuanian Independence. From 1989 to 1992, he helped transform the Soviet banking and monetary systems into ones based on a market economy. His book provides a clear and deep understanding of this past.

Romualdas Kriaučiūnas