In our most recent conversation, Vanagaite told me that she realized that Lithuania may not have been ready for reality after all. “This country is so weak and insecure and so poor and traumatized that the only thing they got is a few myths from the past. And I destroyed those myths because I thought that the society was mature enough to face the past not only through simplified myths but through the truth.”
She issued an apology for causing pain to her countrymen. Late last Friday, the prosecutor general announced that it was not going to prosecute her because it did not find evidence of malicious intent. For now, Vanagaite can go home. But the problems her book—and latest questioning—have raised remain unresolved.
One of the central premises of Vanagaite’s “Our People” is that what made it possible for neighbors to kill neighbors is that the country never considered its Jews “ours.” They were always “the other.” Today, the Jewish community in Eastern Europe is a negligible minority, but there are other “others.” The region’s post–independence ethnocentric historical narratives are meant to serve the “titular” nationalities (Hungarians in Hungary, Croatians in Croatia, Latvians in Latvia, Ukrainians in Ukraine). A lack of acceptance of the dark histories of the past leave troubling questions about what may happen to those who are viewed as “others” today.
What all of us who watch Eastern Europe can do is to begin helping the region have a healthier relationship with its past. What this region needs is embrace its diversity. Embracing the complexity of the past will help it accept complexity of the present and create a more sustainable foundation for the future. As for heroes, surely there must be others who can arguably make these nations proud.
Doing this is crucial for the health of the democracy of these countries, and it is also crucial for us. If the events of this past weekend are any indication, one day the American public may wake up to an Eastern Europe whose governments overwhelmingly draw inspiration and legitimacy from heroes with dark nationalist pasts, including Nazi collaboration. By the time that happens, it may very well be too late to change anything.
Izabella Tabarovsky is senior program associate and manager for regional engagement with the Kennan Institute. From 2012 to 2014, she worked for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she led the implementation of the Euro-Atlantic Security–Next Generation initiative.