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Lithuanian freedom fighter Juozas Lukša, center, and compatriots joined tens of thousands of their fellow Forest Brothers in resistance to postwar Soviet rule. (Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania)

‘The randomness of Stalinist atrocities made everyone feel like a potential victim, engendering anger and despair’

World War II is supposed to have ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, when German representatives signed the act of military surrender in Berlin. Isolated German units held out a little longer, and there remained sporadic instances of unrest elsewhere. Greece was in a state of turmoil—civil war would break out there in March 1946 and last until 1949. A new “cold war” loomed between the Soviet Union and the United States. Yet for the most part the guns seemed to have fallen silent.

But in at least one part of the continent the guns had not stopped firing. In a remote forest in southern Lithuania, on the afternoon of May 26, 1946, partisans of the Iron Wolf Regiment leapt to action as Soviet troops advanced cautiously through the woods. Hiding their valuables, including printing equipment they had used to produce subversive literature, the partisans abandoned their log bunkers and fled several hundred yards into the forest to await developments.

Shortly thereafter, a frightened rabbit heralded the impending arrival of the Soviets, and a scout reported the enemy had discovered the partisan camp. Suddenly, a young partisan named Juozas Lukša noticed a Red Army soldier standing just yards away, automatic rifle at the ready. Lifting his own rifle, Lukša put the soldier in his sights and fired. The Russian fell like a post, dropping his weapon as gunfire erupted throughout the forest. Keeping up their fire, the partisans slowly withdrew. The Soviets refused to be drawn deeper into the forest. Instead, they turned to plunder the partisan camp. The day of reckoning would have to wait.

Beginning in 1944, as Adolf Hitler’s shattered armies retreated from Russia to the heartland of Germany, an armed insurgency spread across Eastern Europe. It intensified after Germany surrendered and Joseph Stalin’s Iron Curtain came crashing down. Officially ignored at the time and still largely unknown today, the fight against Soviet domination left tens of thousands dead in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. Soviet atrocities, including mass executions and forced deportations, helped incite this desperate but surprisingly well-organized armed resistance. Hardy partisan bands in those countries held off the Red Army for years, until largely suppressed by a brutal counterinsurgency campaign. Nowhere was the fighting more widespread and violent than in tiny Lithuania where, incredibly, the last active partisan resistance was not eliminated until 1965.

Lithuania is the southernmost of the Baltic States, with Latvia and Estonia to the north. A great kingdom in the Middle Ages, Lithuania had decayed over time and finally disappeared from the European map in the 18th century, falling mostly under Russian dominion. Nationalist feelings revived in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and by the 1914 outbreak of World War I Lithuanians once again dreamed of independence.

The dream became a reality in 1918 as the Russian and German empires collapsed and Lithuania declared independence. A period of relative prosperity followed, but by the mid-1920s Poland had annexed Vilnius, which Lithuanians regarded as their historic capital, and Germany and Russia had become increasingly ominous neighbors. The sword of Damocles fell in September 1939, when the Germans and Soviets invaded Poland. Secret terms of the subsequent Nazi-Soviet pact split Eastern Europe and initially assigned Lithuania to German domination, but in September the pact’s signatories agreed to reassign most of the country to the Soviet Union in return for concessions to Germany elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Soviet occupation of the Baltic States began that autumn under the guise of “defense and mutual assistance” pacts that placed Red Army garrisons throughout the region. In June 1940, as Germany crushed France, the Soviets occupied and annexed all three Baltic States. Lithuania received Vilnius as Stalin’s “gift,” even as the country lost its independence.

Over the next several months Stalin planned for mass executions and deportations of politicians, intellectuals, community leaders and other “unreliables” from the former republics, but fortunately the Soviet machine moved slowly. The first of a series of planned deportations did not take place in Lithuania until June 14, 1941, when Red Army soldiers swooped down in the middle of the night to herd more than 30,000 civilians off to Siberia, most never to be seen again.

Eight days later Germany invaded the Soviet Union, including Lithuania and the other Baltic States. Infuriated by Stalin’s atrocities, many Lithuanians at first welcomed the German invaders as liberators. Thousands of insurgents, including some former Lithuanian army units, harassed retreating Soviet columns, inflicting thousands of casualties despite the Red Army’s savage reprisals. Not all the Lithuanian rebels were altruistic; some collaborated with the Germans in pogroms against the country’s population of approximately 210,000 Jews.

Naive Lithuanian hopes for independence under German protection soon foundered, however, as signs emerged that Adolf Hitler intended to treat his Eastern conquests as occupied territories. Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler spoke of killing or deporting most Lithuanians as racially unreliable, but his first task was to exterminate the country’s Jews. Almost immediately after the German invasion SS troops, with the active cooperation of many civilians and some self-styled “partisan” units, began systematically murdering the large Jewish populations of Vilnius and Kaunas. By war’s end they had slaughtered all but a few thousand of Lithuania’s Jews.

To Himmler’s intense frustration, however, attempts to recruit into the Waffen-SS those Lithuanians deemed “racially pure” were dismal failures. While thousands of Latvians and Estonians eventually joined up, resistance groups in Lithuania boycotted recruiting efforts. Himmler in turn declared Lithuanians racially unfit for the privilege of serving in the SS, and German troops retaliated on their recalcitrant subjects by closing schools and deporting Lithuanian officials to concentration camps.

In February 1944, driven to desperation by the approach of the victorious Red Army, German officials resurrected elements of the old Lithuanian army as a sort of home guard. But as resistance to Nazi rule mounted in its ranks, the Germans attempted to draft guardsmen into the SS. Lithuanian officers and soldiers almost universally rejected Nazi service and fled to the woods. The Germans caught and executed some of them and sent many others to concentration camps. Those who remained in hiding served as a nucleus for resistance to the invading Soviets.

Soviet forces crossed the Lithuanian border in early July 1944 and had occupied most of the country by the end of the month. Lithuania’s dense pine forests teemed with refugees, German deserters and Lithuanian soldiers evading conscription into the SS. The Soviets struggled to establish control in the almost complete absence of any political infrastructure. As the Soviets approached, Juozas Lukša, at the time a 22-year-old architecture student at Kaunas University, went into hiding with his three brothers and joined one of the armed bands in the woods.

After Germany surrendered, Stalin resumed his long-planned mass deportations. From September 1945 to February 1946 the Soviets deported more than 100,000 Lithuanians to Siberian gulags, and many more would follow. The impact on a population of 2.5 million people already impoverished by war was catastrophic. The apparent randomness of Stalinist atrocities—mostly deportations but including looting, beatings, murder and rape—made everyone feel like a potential victim, engendering anger and despair that led directly to armed resistance. By the spring of 1945 about 30,000 Lithuanians were actively fighting Soviet rule. Only in western Ukraine did the population rise up against the Soviets on a larger scale. Many thousands of Latvians and Estonians also resisted.

The Lithuanian resistance included individuals of all social and economic backgrounds. Women fought alongside men. Many insurgents wore old Lithuanian army uniforms to emphasize their status as legal combatants, but their ranks included a few Red Army deserters and escaped German POWs. And though their number was comparatively small, they were not without hope. No one imagined they could defeat Stalin’s battle-tested war machine, but many predicted eventual Western political or military intervention.

At first, the insurgents were entirely decentralized, striking against the Red Army when and where they could. The Roman Catholic Church initially provided the only structure, organizing resistance cells around parishes, sometimes under the command of individual bishops and priests. By 1946, however, the resistance had been nominally coordinated under a national movement. It adopted various names and political platforms before settling in 1949 on Lietuvos Laisves Kovu Sajudis (Lithuanian Freedom Fighters), or LLKS, and calling for independence under a Western-style democratic government. To the Lithuanian people the partisans were known simply as Miško Broliai (“Forest Brothers”), a label that also applied to the many women in their ranks.

Partisan bands were nominally organized into nine districts in three military regions. Units ranged in size from a few individuals to several hundred, with contacts among units and districts maintained by specially trained liaisons, usually young women. Some insurgents lived full-time in forest bunkers. Others merged by day into civilian life, working in towns or on farms while gathering intelligence. At night they would retrieve their carefully hidden weapons and carry out attacks. Living conditions were primitive. Partisans depended on sympathetic civilians for basic supplies and used abandoned German or Lithuanian army equipment as well as weapons captured from the Soviets.

From 1944 to 1946 the Forest Brothers concentrated their raids on Soviet interior ministry troops and secret police, which were primarily responsible for carrying out deportations and other atrocities against civilians. Partisans blew up installations and even launched open assaults on Soviet garrisons. One of the most storied engagements took place in May 1945 when several hundred Soviet NKVD soldiers assaulted a detachment of some 80 Forest Brothers in the Kalniskes forest in southern Lithuania. The battle lasted several hours as partisans resisted repeated Soviet assaults, killing dozens of soldiers before withdrawing into the forest. Insurgent bands sometimes occupied whole townships and ran up the Lithuanian flag over municipal buildings.

Such large-scale operations resulted in heavy casualties, with more than 14,000 insurgents killed by 1946. Partisan leaders then changed their tactics, operating in smaller numbers and avoiding open battle. They intimidated or killed Soviet officials and suspected collaborators, booby-trapped anti-Soviet posters, interfered with attempts at collectivization and land redistribution, and attacked polling stations for rigged Soviet elections. Partisans also gathered information on deportation operations and helped civilians to escape.

Soviet countermeasures were heavy-handed. In 1944 Red Army commanders seriously considered a proposal to deport the entire Lithuanian population to Siberia. Communist leader Mikhail Suslov, who had overseen wholesale wartime deportations of Muslims from the Caucasus, once quipped, “We need Lithuania—even without the Lithuanians,” and considered equally drastic measures in the Baltic. Soviet leaders rejected Suslov’s suggestion; but Sergei Kruglov, the Soviet commissar of internal affairs, decried any “sentimental approach” to repression and ordered the execution of civilians suspected of supporting the resistance and the burning of their farms and villages. Soviet soldiers carried out these orders and also committed atrocities on their own volition. Occasionally Soviet officials would attempt to curry favor with civilians by disciplining their more vicious subordinates; others turned a blind eye in order to evade official responsibility.

By 1947 the Soviets had to admit their measures were as ineffectual as they were cruel. If anything, they only made the partisans stronger by increasing their civilian support. In many regions of the country the Soviets ruled the day, while insurgents controlled the night. Fearful of these developments and aware of partisan attempts to reach out to the West, Soviet leaders decided to change their tactics. Major A.M. Sokolov of the Soviet MVD (formerly NKVD), or secret police, who successfully suppressed revolts in western Ukraine, was brought to Lithuania as a counterinsurgency specialist.

The biggest problem in Lithuania, Sokolov decided, was the lack of reliable intelligence. Russian agents who attempted to infiltrate the partisan bands were quickly captured and killed by the wary Lithuanians. To counter this Sokolov turned to captured former Lithuanian insurgents who were amenable to being bribed, retrained and sent to rejoin active partisan groups. Their knowledge of partisan jargon and ability to pass tests of loyalty made them more useful. In some cases, Sokolov even organized fake partisan bands that engaged in staged battles with Soviet troops. The “survivors”—actually Soviet agents—fled afterward to genuine partisan bands, which welcomed them as battle-tested reinforcements. Such maskirovka, or deception operations, spread paranoia and provoked counterproductive partisan reprisals against suspected collaborators.

These agents, who received training in surveillance, interrogation and torture from a special Soviet secret police school, were known as spetsgruppy (“special forces”) by the Soviets and stribai (“destroyers”) by the Lithuanians. They were frighteningly effective. Recently opened Soviet archives reveal that by 1949 spetsgruppy had infiltrated partisan units to their very highest levels. Soviet agents identified insurgent leaders and their civilian supporters, and even penetrated Lithuanian émigré organizations in the West.

The successes of Sokolov’s countermeasures did not slow Soviet aggression against civilians. Mass deportations ramped up after 1947, and by 1952 the Soviets had sent up to a quarter of a million Lithuanians to Siberia. Targeting regions that had shown sympathy to partisans, these measures severely undermined civilian supply and support. The Soviets also employed such terror tactics as the mutilation and public display of partisan corpses, sometimes forcing civilians and even schoolchildren to file past them.

Military operations continued as well. After 1947 Soviet mass-assault tactics gave way to careful, slow-developing operations aimed at isolating, encircling and eliminating insurgent bands. In 1948 70,000 Soviet secret police participated in antipartisan operations in Lithuania, along with eight regular Red Army divisions and even air units. By that time the average lifespan of a Forest Brother was about two years.

Like many of his compatriots, Juozas Lukša held out hope for support from the West—if the Americans and British did not actively intervene, he hoped, they would at least send intelligence agents and supplies. Having spent two years as a partisan inside Lithuania, he escaped to Sweden just before Christmas 1947 and immediately made contact with Western intelligence. He bided his time in Paris while attempting to organize Western support and penning his memoir. Western intelligence agencies did not entirely ignore the Lithuanian uprising: In 1950 the CIA trained Lukša in espionage at a special camp near the West German town of Kaufbüren. A C-47 parachuted him, along with a team of Lithuanians and supplies, back into Lithuania on the night of October 3–4, 1950. The Soviets learned of his arrival and immediately launched massive manhunts in search of the tall, athletic, curly-haired and blue-eyed Lithuanian.

The CIA and Britain’s MI6 thus did provide training and modest supplies, and they did help Lithuanian partisans cross the border in both directions. No substantial assistance was forthcoming, however, and Soviet success in penetrating Western intelligence organizations often made CIA and MI6 support worse than useless. British double agent Harold “Kim” Philby is thought to have betrayed some partisan leaders and Western agents sent to Lithuania—in any event, such operations were doomed from the start.

By the early 1950s the Forest Brothers had grown desperate. Feeling abandoned by the West, and with Soviet intelligence anticipating their every move, they increasingly concentrated their activities against fellow Lithuanians suspected of collaborating with the enemy. “Lithuanian partisan,” read one bulletin, “punish mercilessly those who have sold out their country, their nation for a crumb of gold, a spoon of good food.” Inevitably, many innocent victims fell to such reprisals, further alienating a population weary of war.

Stalin’s death in 1953 put an end to the mass deportations; and while the forced collectivization that began in 1949 infuriated landholders and caused severe hardships for peasants, it also drove a wedge between the haves and have-nots. Soviet propaganda eagerly portrayed the Forest Brothers as agents of privilege and Western imperialism. Perhaps most important, by the mid-1950s average Lithuanians felt they had no choice but to come to terms with Soviet occupation and get on with their lives.

Approximately 5,000 partisans remained under arms in 1950; two years later the Forest Brothers were no more than 700 strong. The last known guerrilla leader was captured, tortured and hanged in 1956, though scattered diehards held out as late as 1965, churning out and surreptitiously distributing underground newspapers. In the course of the fighting the Soviets had killed some 20,000 partisans, while admitting to the loss of about 13,000 of their own troops. Some 13,000 suspected Lithuanian collaborators had perished, and the Soviets had deported nearly 250,000 Lithuanians to Siberia; many of the latter died in exile. A Lithuanian collaborator lured Juozas Lukša into a deadly Soviet ambush on Sept. 4, 1951, nearly a year after his insertion into the country. His grave has never been found.

The occupation of Lithuania persisted almost until the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. During those years the legend of the Forest Brothers became the subject of Lithuanian folklore, celebrated in poetry and songs. The legend contributed to nationalist feelings that inspired the 1987–90 independence movement. The current Lithuanian government has even recognized the partisans as the legal political authority in the country during the Soviet occupation.

The memory of the Lithuanian uprising persisted in the Russian imagination as well, even after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the 1979–89 war in Afghanistan and the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the 1994–96 war in Chechnya some Russian soldiers told fanciful stories of deadly accurate Baltic female snipers, known as “white tights,” aiding the Chechen insurgents. More plausibly, military planners and intelligence agents from Russia, the United States and other countries have drawn lessons from the success with which Soviet agents subverted a powerful insurgency that grew despite continuing Stalinist brutality.

Bronius Krivickas, a Forest Brother killed in 1952, expected future historians to ponder how tiny Lithuania “did not fall but managed to struggle hard and long.” In the end, he decided, his nation had fought to defend “dignity and everything that is dear to all free and honest people. In this way, it was an honorable and valuable member of humankind and the family of nations. In this way, it contributed to the common fight for the ideals of freedom and humanity.”

For further reading Ed Lengel recommends Juozas Lukša’s Forest Brothers, Lionginas Baliukevicius’ The Diary of a Partisan and George Reklaitis’ Cold War Lithuania.