Staging Soviet (Hi)Story in Lithuania

Museum Representations of the Second World War in Lithuania

by Ekaterina Makhotina

While I was undertaking research in Lithuanian archives and museums many local people took pity on me when they heard about my topic. ‘Why the Second World War?’ was the question they typically asked me. On many occasions I was told that the topic was of no relevance to Lithuania: “It wasn’t our war and we don’t see it as our history”. When I wondered about the total absence of World War II in the War Museum in Kaunas, one of the museum’s historians told me that “there was no war in Lithuania”. When I then asked him about the Lithuanian Division of the Soviet Army, the same historian advised me to visit the Jewish Museum in Vilnius “because the 16th Lithuanian Rifle Division comprised only Jews”. Another historian, a member of staff at the National Museum, insisted that the politics of history during the Soviet period – like the whole cultural sphere – was in Jewish hands and it therefore made no sense to have a museum dedicated to the war because it was strictly speaking not part of Lithuanian history.
The history of the years from 1941 to 1945 in Lithuania is not one of victorious battles. It is first and foremost the story of the annihilation of the Jewish population. In Lithuania about 220,000 Jews were killed, most of them in the first three months of the Nazi occupation; many Lithuanians participated in the killings. And it was in Lithuania that Soviet POWs suffered a tragic fate. Many died in Lithuanian prisoner camps and those who managed to escape received no help from the Lithuanians as they were denounced as ‘red terrorists’.
At the moment, there are only a few museums dealing with the events of World War II. Like all Soviet museums, almost all of them were closed after Lithuania regained its independence in 1990.
To reveal certain tendencies of the state-supported politics of history in contemporary Lithuania – and the main “memory players” – I would like to describe three different museums.

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