From 1944-53, Lithuanian partisans risked their lives to oppose repressive Soviet occupation.
From the end of World War II through the early years of the Cold War, thousands of Lithuania’s sons and a few of its daughters disappeared into their homeland’s wooded countryside to use it as a hiding place and as a base from which to oppose the repressive Soviet occupation of their small nation. Yet the story of these “Forest Brothers” remains one of the little-known episodes from that period of history.
After losing independence to Josef Stalin’s USSR in 1940, Lithuania was brutally “Sovietized,” and then the week before the June 22, 1941, German invasion of the Soviet Union, 30,425 Lithuanian men, women and children were deported in 871 boxcars to Gulag prison camps or to remote Central Asia. Most never returned. An estimated 75,000 “political undesirables” simply disappeared, were executed, tortured to death or imprisoned. No matter who won the coming gargantuan World War II Eastern Front struggle between Soviet Communists and German Nazis, Lithuania would be deprived of its independence.
As the tide of war turned against Germany and the USSR rallied and pushed back the Nazi invaders, the surging Red Army in Operation Bagration swept into Lithuania, first taking Vilnius and then Kaunas in July 1944. Having had a taste of Stalin’s “Worker’s Paradise” in 1940- 41, Lithuanians knew what to expect. Many officers and men of the Lithuanian army felt guilty that they had not offered more resistance during the first Soviet occupation and swore to fight to the death if necessary. In response, tens of thousands of armed citizens from all walks of life joined these soldiers. Thousands took to the woods to oppose the Soviet occupation and destruction of their country, while as many as 100,000 chose uncertainty and retreated with the German army in its flight to the West.
The Lithuanians who became Forest Brothers were partisans – members of a large, organized and disciplined force that had the characteristics of a regular army yet waged guerrilla warfare. In 1946 the partisans adopted the Lithuanian army uniform, conducted training sessions and created an officer cadet school. Reasons for joining the resistance included national pride, self-preservation, religious freedom, and to avoid Soviet conscription. A small faction called “Iron Wolf” was fascist, but the Soviets hunted down and killed the group’s leadership in early 1946. With new recruits, Iron Wolf soon resembled other partisan groups. Sealed behind the descending Iron Curtain at the end of World War II, the Forest Brothers, poorly armed and vastly outnumbered, stubbornly held out until 1953.
In the first phase of the resistance, members told themselves that they had only to hang on for a while because the Americans would soon be coming. A war between the Allies and the Soviets was considered inevitable, and the United States would win since it possessed the atomic bomb. Others assumed that a peace conference modeled on the 1919 Versailles Treaty would occur and that America and Great Britain would uphold the Atlantic Charter with its commitment to self-determination. The United States and the newly formed United Nations would insure Lithuanian independence.
With this mindset, partisan units with as many as 200 men (one partisan named Žalgiris led 800 men) attacked Soviet NKVD secret police formations and Red Army units and camps, engaging in conventional warfare based on light infantry tactics. The ensuing firefights were intense and sometimes lasted several hours. This strategy, however, was a disaster since the men the partisans attacked were experienced combat veterans and far better armed.
When cornered, Forest Brother partisans often fought to the death. In January 1945, 25 of them were trapped in a house set on fire by NKVD troops. An account of this incident states: “Five guerrillas broke out and crawled across the field toward the machine-gun crew shooting at the house in the hope of helping their comrades to escape. They were shot one by one but continued to advance until the last one died 40 meters from the machine gun. Only one man surrendered. The rest resisted until the house collapsed and buried them.”
Although the partisans killed many Russians and communist collaborators, their losses in 1944-45 were so horrific (as high as 10,000 killed, 140,000 imprisoned and 118,000 deported) that their number was greatly reduced. That period was the high point of their success; each year thereafter, they were further annihilated by ruthless Soviet search-and-destroy missions. The news from abroad was worse, as partisans and their supporters finally realized that there would be no peace conference and that the United States and Great Britain had acquiesced to Stalin’s occupation of Eastern Europe. World War II had ended on the ancient principle of uti possidetis (possession by conquest) – a Soviet fait accompli faced by the West, but the price for victory over Hitler. Lithuanians were utterly alone.
The Lithuanians’ motivation for continued resistance against overwhelming force was fueled by patriotism, but of greater importance was Soviet-forced collectivization. The majority of the Forest Brothers were rural people who had their land confiscated, their families deported, and their religion denied. Preventing Soviet settlers from occupying the farms of the deported was a priority. Stalin once said that “imposing communism on Poland was like putting a saddle on a cow.” His insight applied to Catholic Lithuania, as well.
Forced through attrition in 1946-47 to switch to guerrilla tactics, the remaining large partisan formations broke up into smaller, more mobile units operating out of well-concealed bunkers and caves in the remote, heavily wooded area of eastern and northern Lithuania. The transition was difficult, as the partisans had no experience with irregular warfare and were forced to learn at the cost of additional losses. They lacked a strategy other than the long-term goal of Lithuanian independence, and it took until 1948 to build a national organizational structure. Their hit-and-run tactics now focused on attacking communication sites, capturing weapons, disrupting collectivization through assassination, capturing communist cadre and their local allies, and rescuing comrades being held prisoner.
For the Soviets, Lithuania was a quagmire. To deal with this the Soviets first undertook land reforms, offered amnesty, and other insurgencies, the communist leadership in Moscow developed a counterinsurgency strategy (learned during the 1918-23 Russian Civil War) that was to be implemented in all Soviet republics. On the strategic level, and promised not to deport families of those who gave themselves up. Intensive political propaganda campaigns spun a picture of a brighter communist future for all. The Soviets adamantly denied that there was any armed organized opposition to their imposed rule, describing violent incidents as only the work of criminal elements.
The tactics of the strategy’s implementation – the use of overwhelming force, steady deportations, infiltration and spying – were left to units of the NKVD and GLUBB (Head Directorate for Struggle Against Banditry) and to locally recruited militias called Istrebiteli (destroyers). Nicknamed “Srubs,” these local reprisal squads were extremely brutal, often administering ghastly torture to captured Forest Brothers. With no safe sanctuaries and no outside source of supply, the partisans were relentlessly hunted and killed.
Life for the Forest Brothers became much more difficult. Their freedom of action was greatly restricted and small groups of them spent many hours holed up in their bunkers. Contact with other partisans was intermittent, and they sometimes were short of food. But in some areas, conditions were better for brief periods of time. Lionginas Baliukevicius, who kept a diary that was eventually found in the records of the KGB (the re-named NKVD), wrote July 12, 1948: “For dinner we go to the house of another farmer. We walk everywhere in the daytime: people are nice here. If the Russians are seen anywhere, people come in throngs to tell us. Rye [code name] has lived here for two months without a hideout.”
By August 22, however, Baliukevicius’ mood had changed: “Slowly evening draws near. It’s gloomy and boring. I didn’t even feel how quickly spring and summer passed. Soon fall will be here, and after that winter. Spring, summer … tempora fugaces [time flies]. Today my heart feels so empty. Melancholy and apathy take hold of me again. I long so much for a life: peaceful and full, but here … here there can’t be any apathy or any dreams, just battle.”
Baliukevicius, who was attached to the southeastern partisan group Dzukija, was in charge of information and publishing. He listened daily to foreign news broadcasts, which he translated into Lithuanian and published in The Bell of Freedom, an underground newspaper with a circulation of 1,800 copies a week that remained operational from 1946 through April 1953. Betrayed by an infiltrator, Baliukevicius and three other partisans were pinned in their bunker by Soviet security forces June 24, 1950. Their situation was hopeless, so to avoid capture – and the possibility of breaking under the stress of torture – all four shot themselves.
Year by year, Soviet counterinsurgency tactics reduced the number of partisans. Between 1946 and 1948, the number dropped from 4,500 to around 2,500. Iron Wolf succumbed in 1952, and by 1953 only a few partisan units were left in the forests. The partisans’ newspapers and newsletters were a special target of the NKVD, and their editors and publishers were routinely trapped. Like Baliukevicius and his assistants, they chose to kill themselves rather than be captured (one newspaper held out until 1957). A favored method was to hold a hand grenade with both hands in front of one’s face and pull the pin. This technique destroyed facial features and fingerprints, preventing identification and thus offering some protection to the partisan’s family.
At a meeting of the partisans’ leadership in 1952, it was agreed that active military action would be suspended in favor of passive resistance. The Forest Brothers’ long, bloody war against Soviet rule was nearing an end. A few die-hard partisans, however, continued the struggle. Remarkably, Adolfus Ramanauskas, an American-born guerrilla, held out until 1957, at which time he was captured and hanged. Three other holdouts were hunted down in 1959.
Given the extremely difficult circumstances, this determined fight for Lithuanian independence against a vastly superior force over a number of years seems incredible. The question of why the partisans felt compelled to do it is best answered by a memorable diary entry penned November 10, 1948, by Baliukevicius, one of the most dedicated Forest Brothers: “I feel that I love my country more and more. If someone today offered me freedom in America, I wouldn’t go. It’s better to be killed here, fighting honorably, than wait with my hands clasped for something to drop from somewhere. In the end our blood won’t be shed in vain. We have the right to look anyone straight in the eyes, because we didn’t abandon our homeland. And who will defeat us if we are not afraid to die, if we have defeated even death.”
Roughly 40,000 Lithuanians followed in Baliukevicius’ footsteps and gave their lives to a cause in which they deeply believed.
On March 11, 1990, over a year before the final collapse of the Soviet Union, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare its independence from the USSR. In 2004 it became a full member of NATO and the European Union.
Dr. Hal Elliott Wert is a professor of history at the Kansas City Art Institute. He has written a number of scholarly articles on food relief in World War II and has had many of his book reviews published in the “Journal of Military History” and “Military Review.”
Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Armchair General.