Lithuania, here we come ...

I have recently booked myself a ticket to Lithuania in early August, to give me a little break from Chavagnes. I have always been a fan of Scandinavia and the Baltic, and Lithuania is the one country (other than Iceland) that has so far escaped me ...

From a Catholic point of view, I am interested in discovering a Nordic/Baltic culture that is still in touch with its medieval roots. However, it seems that there are some unpleasant surprises in store. I had been aware of the Lithuanians' terrible suffering under communism, and in particular of the suffering of the Lithuanian Church. And yet I had no idea of how the functioned under Nazism. My first little researches seem to suggest to me that the attitude that Lithuanians demonstrated to the Germans in 1941 was essentially enthusiastic. They felt that the Nazis were coming to liberate them from Russian communist domination: they were liberators who would restore the relatively new idea of a Lithuanian state (like all the Baltic states, the notion of a nation state to accompany the ethnic group and its language was an early twentieth century one.)

What is more troubling is that many Lithuanians would seem, from 1941 to 1942, to have considered it worth carrying out their own enthusiastic purges of Jews, just to impress the Germans. But it all back-fired, and although apparently the Nazis were impressed at Lithuanian anti-semitic zeal (the documentary evidence makes rather sickening reading), this was not enough for them to give independence to them. It seems that at this point the Lithuanian nationalist intellegetsia, and the peasantry, began to realise that Nazism posed a much greater threat to Christian tradition and Lithuanian honour than had Bolshevism or 'international Jewry'.

From late 1942, then, the Lithuanians started to help the few remaining beleaguered Jews, while compromised religious and nationalist leaders worked on their alibis, seeing how the Nazi approach was going ultimately to be radically discredited. The Israeli authorities have, it is important to note, recognised 723 'just gentiles' who risked their lives to help Jews during this period.

In 1940 it is estimated that there were about 280,000 Jews in Lithuania. From June to December 1941 they were almost completely wiped out. The Jewish population today is around 4,000.

The wikipedia article on the subject ( reveals that there have been, from 1995 onwards, some public apologies from Lithuanian politicans, but that the issue remains something of a hot potato.

In this context, it is surprising to see that Lithuanian nationalism has survived undinted. The knocks it took from Communism (and there were severe and bloody) seem sufficient to have ensured there would not be the kind of embarassment one found in post-War Germany about national identity.

I am to visit Kaunas, whose Technological university boasts a few interesting student fraternities that aspire to keep intact the 1930s nationalist ideals (having learnt a few lessons from the War, one hopes):

One of these, "Plienas" (Steel) was first founded in 1931 and, "despite the disruptions of history, still continues to preserve the interwar University "Plienas" corporation traditions of manhood."

The aim of the corporation is to develop a noble sense of public spirit. The activities of "Plienas" members are based on the principles of moral, concord and tolerance. "Plienas" slogan is – "Lithuanianism, brotherhood, endurance and work!" ...

"In order to become strong as steel, the members of Plienas do a lot of exercising, says the blurb, including (a schoolboy favourite, this one) "arm bending", which one presumes means arm wrestling.

Another fraternity, this one open also to ladies, promotes 'faith and perfection' and also fosters the same kind of nineteenth century student flummery, including special peaked caps, sashes, shoulder stripes and flags.

It is a long way away from the total lack of any kind of idealism which is now the default culture of British universities. The only real display of any kind of youthful idealism one witnessed regularly when I was at Edinburgh in the early nineties was three or four angst-ridden young men in red jeans who used to sell Living Marxism on the library steps and who sometimes heckled student union meetings to make their obscure and unpopular points.

So Lithuania, viewed from Chavagnes, seems like a different world entirely, and no doubt a very interesting place to visit, before it becomes just the same as everywhere else.

I have emailed the Archbishop and also a lady in the university who is in charge of the second of the two fraternities I mentioned; I hope that they might give me some local contacts so that I can get beyond the tourism and encounter the real Lithuania.

Watch out for a couple of posts from Kaunas soon. Apparently there is Wifi everywhere ...


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