10 August 2011, defendinghistory.com
Lithuania and Austria: Birds of a Feather
by Efraim Zuroff

Poor Lithuania. For the past two decades, the country has been trying without any success to bring to justice officers of the Soviet KGB’s elite Alpha Group, which murdered 13 Lithuanian citizens at a dramatic showdown at the Vilnius TV tower between local freedom activists and Soviet forces, which had been dispatched by Moscow to thwart the burgeoning local independence movement. The dramatic events of January 1991 in the Lithuanian capital have become a symbol of Lithuanian resistance to Soviet oppression, which many believe was a watershed event in the struggle for Baltic independence and the ultimate dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Of course, the view from Moscow was entirely different, hence the refusal by Russia to cooperate in the investigation of the crime, which effectively prevented any progress in the case. All of that changed dramatically this past July 14, when former KGB general Mikhail Golovatov, who commanded the Soviet special forces responsible for the murders, landed in Schwechat airport in Vienna, where he was arrested by the local authorities on the basis of a European arrest warrant issued in October 2010 by Lithuania, by now a member in good standing of the European Union. Imagine the shock and consternation in Vilnius, therefore, when within less than 24 hours after his arrest, Golovatov was shipped back to Moscow by the Austrians, safe again from the clutches of Lithuanian justice.

Under normal circumstances, none of this would have caught my attention, but the combination of the subject under contention and the two protagonist–countries with whom I have had extensive dealings on related issues over the past decade, motivated me to offer a very different perspective which I would like to share with the readers of Lietuvos Rytas.

Let me begin with the Austrians. Lithuania had every reason to expect that their arrest warrant would be honored and implemented by their fellow European Union member. Assuming that it had been prepared properly, there was no reason to suspect any reluctance or hesitation in Vienna to extradite a person wanted for murder in a crime of such historical significance for Lithuania. But as Vilnius learned the hard way, Vienna is a difficult place to achieve any measure of justice, least of all for crimes committed elsewhere many years previously. And as far as history is concerned, the Austrians have a long tradition of manipulating the past to suit their needs. How else to explain their claim for more than forty years that their country was “Hitler’s first victim,” when, in fact, it was the Nazis’ most zealous ally.

It will, therefore, probably come as no surprise to Lithuanians, that Austria has failed to successfully prosecute, let alone punish, a single Nazi war criminal in more than thirty years. If there were no Nazi war criminals still alive in the country or Austrians living elsewhere who could be held accountable for their Holocaust crimes, that might be understandable, but that is hardly the case. On the contrary, Austria is full of individuals who should have been convicted for their role in the persecution and murder of the so-called enemies of the Third Reich, but a sympathetic justice system did its utmost to limit the number of such cases which could be prosecuted by the Austrian judicial authorities.

One such example is the case of Majdanek guard Erna Wallisch, who began her career at the Ravensbrueck concentration camp and later was promoted to serve at the death camp near Lublin, Poland, where tens of thousands of Jews were murdered. I discovered her living in Vienna in May 2004, in the framework of our “Operation: Last Chance” project launched in Vilnius in July 2002, thanks to a tip from a concerned Austrian who was aware of her wartime activities. It turns out that Wallisch had admitted to Austrian investigators that she has taken Jews to be gassed and had guarded them lest they escape. So imagine my incredible surprise and utter frustration when I was informed by the Austrian Justice Minister Karin Gastinger that Wallisch could no longer be prosecuted in Austria, where her crimes were considered “passive complicity in genocide,” a category created by Austrian jurists to purposely limit that number of Holocaust perpetrators who could be held accountable for their crimes.

Although the Austrians were subsequently forced to reopen the case when Polish researchers found new evidence of “more active” involvement, Wallisch died before she could even be indicted, let alone prosecuted, and punished. Her case, however, was only the tip of a huge iceberg of Austrians who deserved to be brought to justice for WW II crimes but were never brought to trial. Less than two months ago, the Croatian Ustasha police chief of Požega, Milivoi Asner died at the age of 98 in an old age home in Klagenfurt after the Austrian authorities refused an extradition request by Croatia, backed by sympathetic physicians who insisted that he was medically unfit to stand trial, even though his numerous media interviews clearly indicated that this was not the case. So, in effect, Austria was the best possible Western European destination for the likes of Golovatov, and the results clearly bear this out.

As far as Lithuania is concerned, I find it extremely difficult not to view the wave of righteous indignation which swept the country with no small degree of cynicism. Of course, the European arrest warrant for Golovatov was justified and he should have been extradited, but can independent Lithuania claim to have pursued justice zealously when dealing with its own numerous Nazi war criminals? Judging from the reaction to the current Austrian debacle of Lithuanian officials from the President down, one could assume that the country had an impeccable record when it came to prosecuting war criminals and crimes against humanity. Of course in practice, nothing could be further from the truth. Rather than courageously confronting the shameful widespread collaboration of so many Lithuanians in Holocaust crimes and their significant role in the mass murder not only of Lithuanian Jews, but also of Jews in Belarus and Poland, as well as of foreign Jews deported to Lithuania to be murdered there, the Lithuanian government and judicial system did its utmost to ignore the issue or minimize its impact.

In fact, if the Lithuanian authorities had exhibited only one-tenth of their zeal to prosecute the Soviet criminals of January 1991 in bringing local Nazi war criminals to justice, Lithuania’s record, one of the worst in Europe, could have been outstanding. If we add the incomparable numerical scope of the crimes of many of these Nazi collaborators in comparison to the crimes committed by Golovatov and his cronies, the lack of comparable initiative in bringing the former to justice, becomes even more scandalous.

Like the Austrians, however, they too manipulated history by downplaying the crimes of Lithuanian Nazi collaborators and attempting to claim that Communist crimes were equally terrible, a tendency only strengthened by the judicial system’s utter failure to punish a single local Holocaust perpetrator. Even worse, Lithuania made a mockery of the judicial process by passing unique laws which enabled the investigation, indictment and prosecution of medically unfit genocide suspects. Not Heaven forbid to ensure that such criminals would be punished, but simply to

enable ultimately meaningless trials, at which the defendants did not have to even appear and did not face any threat of punishment. In fact, these proceedings were organized primarily to relieve foreign pressure to bring these perpetrators to justice. Instead of utilizing an admittedly-difficult and very painful process of prosecuting its own Nazi criminals and thereby helping Lithuania’s younger generations honestly cope with an extremely difficult chapter of their history, the country’s leaders squandered a historic opportunity not only to achieve justice but also to attain genuine closure and true reconciliation. By failing to punish Lileikis, Gimzauskas and even Dailidė, not to mention other suspects who could and should have been put on trial, independent Lithuania miserably failed in what was one of its most important tests as a new democracy. And this failure has only been compounded by the bogus campaign to “investigate” Jewish anti-Nazi partisans and the recent intensification of the campaign to promote the 2008 Prague Declaration and its canard of historical equivalency between Communism and Nazism.

Does all this sound familiar? Unfortunately, it does. It is more or less what the Austrians did for decades after World War II. The lie of Austrian victimhood only finally stopped in the early nineties, but the patterns of dealing with Holocaust issues are difficult to change. And the same lack of legal innovation, flexibility and judicial will that enabled numerous Nazi war criminals to escape justice in Austria no doubt helped Golovatov escape extradition to stand trial in Vilnius.

Perhaps the time has come for Lithuanians to drop their righteous indignation and take a long hard overdue look in the mirror. They are likely to be shocked by the image they see. If, however, the Golovatov debacle can finally inspire the longoverdue reevaluation of the attitude toward Lithuanian perpetrators of Holocaust crimes and the ongoing government-sponsored and financed minimization of their crimes, all the pain and frustration of the past month will have been a true blessing in disguise, which will ultimately profoundly benefit Lithuania.