Between Giants – Prit Buttar

The Battle for the Baltics in World War II

This book tries to fill a gap in the histories of World War II that tend to move directly with the troops from big battles at one place to the next battle and place.  Thus we visit Stalingrad when the Germans arrive and depart once the armies have moved on.  Here the author stays in one place from before the time the armies come until after they have left.  Even when the war is supposedly over, it isn’t all over.

The place is the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.  Three small countries that were carved out of the old Czarist Russia and Imperial Germany and when the two countries began to recover and rearm they both began to look at these countries again.

The first stage came when Poland was broken up between the USSR and Germany. Lithuania was awarded a slice of land that Poland had been occupying which sounded good.  However, it soon turned out that Germany had agreed to allow the occupation of all three states in exchange for a slice of land leading to the city of Memel, Lithuania’s only port.  Over the next months the Soviets strongarmed the three countries to “accept” an occupation.

With this came the arrest of thousands and the fleeing of ethnic Germans to Germany.  The Jewish groups tended to be more pro-Russian, knowing some of what the Germans had in store for them, which increased the anti-Semitic tensions above the normal levels.

The second stage was the German invasion of the USSR in 1941.  In a matter of a few weeks the war swept over the Baltics toward Leningrad.  The book describes the military actions but as you can imagine, this doesn’t take long.

The third stage was the German occupation and the Holocaust in the Baltics.  This isn’t easy reading, and the people of the Baltic states have a mixed record.  Some did try and help the Jews, but others did not and some were enthusiastic participants.

The fourth stage was the reconquest of most of the region, save the Courland Pocket, by the Russians.  There were units from the Baltic states in both armies, sometimes fighting each other.  This section is the best I’ve found on this campaign in any book – while not as hyper-detailed as Glantz’ works, is far better than the dismissive few paragraphs often given to this part of the war.

This fourth stage saw more flight of natives to escape the new occupation coming.

The final stage is the post war occupation.  Some kept fighting as the USSR reoccupled  the area, often for years.  The west was not able or willing to make this an issue and the USSR incorporated the Baltics until the breakup of the USSR in the 1990s.

I think the book is evenhanded in its approach to the subject – facts are laid out and you can judge them for yourself.  Nobody comes out with a white hat.  But knowing the facts is better than sweeping them under the rug.

Vanished Kingdoms – Litva

So where is Litva?  This chapter in Norman Davies‘ book on states that did not survive in European History was interesting just because it comes from a part of the continent that is not often written about – the Baltic and inland area.

In the ninth century AD the expansion of the Scandinavians was extending out in all directions.  To the north, south and west they were called the Vikings and no place on a coast or river was safe.  To the east, the Varangian spread into and through the Baltic and across current-day Russia down to the Black Sea and Constantinople.

Map of Lithuania Proper

Map of Lithuania Proper (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The critical part of these crossings were portaging places, where the trade routes (or invading routes) crossed from rivers leading to the Baltic to those that flowed to the Black Sea.  The Varangian built forts in these places which grew into states with time.  one built on the Niemen river was named Litva, after the Slavic tribe in the area.

In the next centuries these statelets fought and grew and split up.  Kiev became a major power.  Litva jointed with Polatsk to cover numerous routes.  In the 12th Century the Baltic coast area was attacked by the German Teutonic Knights, and the eastern states were conquered by the Mongols.  The states in-between linked up in defense under a King, forming the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Lithuanian state in the 13-15th centuries

Lithuanian state in the 13-15th centuries (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the Mongol threat waned, Lithuania expanded into the void, taking Kiev and the Ukraine and even reaching the Black Sea at Odessa.  They soon lost that strip of coastland to the Ottomans, but gained even more land by unification with Poland in the 1500s.   Lithuania owned a huge wedge of land, basically everything between Germany and the  modern cities of  St. Petersburg and Rostov.

But this was the beginning of the end.  Russia to the east, Austria to the South, and Prussia to the West began slicing up the large but weak state, which could do little in response.  In the late 1700s, the third and last “Partition of Poland” put and end to the Grand Duchy and the Kingdom of Poland.

"A map of the Kingdom of Poland and the G...

“A map of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania including Samogitia and Curland divided according to their dismemberments with the Kingdom of Prussia” from 1799. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Poland has been resurrected a few times since, the coastal region saw freedom in the 1920s, but it was not until the breakup of the USSR that the core region of Litva became independent again as Belarus.