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Title:  An Assessment of the Forest Brothers’ Response to Invasion of the Baltics

Date Originally Written:  November 22, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  January 13, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes that in today’s security environment many lessons can be learned from how the Baltic nations historically defended themselves against a militarily superior foe.

Summary:  According to the Rand Corporation, Russia could invade the Baltic nations and reach the capitols of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania within 60 hours[1].  The Baltic nations are not strangers to defending themselves against invasion.  History shows that Baltic-based resistance groups, though their actions may be complicated or undesired, can penalize a militarily superior foe.

Text:  Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the election of Vladimir Putin as President of Russia in 1999, the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia have felt uneasy concerning their larger and more powerful Russian neighbor. The Baltic States have a long history of resisting Russian aggression, but as with most histories, the relationship between the Baltic States and Russia is complex and sometimes the line between hero and villain is indistinct.

During the Russian Revolution of 1905, small groups of Baltic peasants and teachers sought refuge from Tsarist forces and hid in the forests. These groups become known as The Forest Brothers[2]. After the chaos of World War I and the 1918 Bolshevik revolution, the Baltic States were able to break away from Russia. In 1940 that independence would come to a halt, with the Soviets seizing control of the Baltic States. As in 1905, small groups fled into the forests and attempted to resist the Soviets and the German Nazis. Some of The Forest Brother groups were hopeful that they could depend on the 1941 Atlantic Charter signatories, the United Kingdom and the United States, to come to their aid. The lack of action of the Atlantic Charter nations, among other factors, would eventually doom the resistance group efforts to failure[3].

In 1941, the first resistance group in Lithuania called the Lithuanian Activist Front, was formed to fight the Soviets[4]. A year later, The Supreme Committee for Liberation of Lithuania was set up to resist Nazi occupation. Curiously, partisan resistance did not start in earnest until 1944, even though the resistance would last until 1953 and the last Lithuanian partisan, Benediktas Mikulis, would be arrested in 1971[5]. While the exact numbers of those that took up arms against the Soviets are unknown, it’s estimated that between 30,000 – 50,000 did and another 50,000 people were active helpers; which means 1-20 Lithuanians were active in the struggle for independence[6]. The pinnacle of partisan efforts in 1945 clearly represents a culminating point that forced the Lithuanian resistance movement to shift their operations drastically. Ultimately, based on the totality of evidence, this 1945 culminating point split the resistance into two stages: 1) 1944-1945 – conventional war operations, a period of traditional offensive warfare by an organized partisan movement; and 2) 1946-1953 – irregular warfare operations, a period of unremitting decline by a significantly diminished resistance, relegated to a more defensive posture and small scale offensive operations.

Two men, Povilas Plechavičius[7][8] and Adolfas Ramanauskas[9][10] (“Vanagas”)would emerge as during World War II as symbols of Lithuanian independence. Plechavičius had been involved in the 1918 war of independence and the 1926 Lithuanian coup d’état that overthrew Lithuanian President Kazys Grinius. Ramanauskas was an American of Lithuanian dissent who became a platoon commander to the chairman of the Union of Lithuanian Freedom Fighters.

By 1944, the tide had started to turn against Germany. Nazi occupation forces had begun conscripting members of the German minority in Estonia and Latvia into the Waffen-SS. In keeping with blurring the line between hero and villain, Povilas Plechavičius cooperated with SS Obergruppenführer, and police general Friedrich Jackeln and Chief-of-Staff of the Northern Front Field Marshal Walther Model[11]. However, Plechavičius refused Jackeln’s demand for a Lithuanian SS division[12] and formed a local group called the Lithuanian Territorial Defense Force instead[13][14].

One of the most famous of the Lithuanian anti-Soviet partisans was Adolfas Ramanauskas[15]. Ramanauskas was born 1918 in Connecticut, United States of America, but in 1921 he and his family moved to Lithuania. While in Lithuania he would eventually study at the Kanus War School, join the reserve forces, rise to the rank of second lieutenant, and participate in the anti-Soviet uprising in 1941.

Ramanauskas organized a sizable resistance group called the Lithuanian Freedom Fighters Union (LLKS) and directly engaged the Soviet Ministry of Interior’s forces, the NKVD. The group’s most daring assault was an effort to free prisoners located in Merkinė and destroy Soviet records. The attack was only partly successful, ending in the destruction of the records[16]. Merkinė was also the site of the extinction of 854 Jews by fellow Lithuanians. Their bodies were deposited in a mass grave near the Jewish cemetery[17].

One of the controversies surrounding Ramanauskas is the event of July 19, 1941. Along with German forces, the LLKS partisans held partial control of the Lithuanian town of Druskininkai and participated in the roundup of communists and Jews, and the disarming of Poles. Those detained were then transported to the Treblinka death camp[18].

At the end of World War II, The Forest Brothers would continue to defy Soviet occupation and hope that the United States and Great Britain would support their resistance[19]. Plechavičius ordered his men to disband and organize resistance groups to fight Soviet occupation. Plechavičius would eventually be arrested by the Soviets and deported to Latvia. In 1949, Plechavičius moved to the United States and would die in 1973[20].

Ramanauskas would continue to resist Soviet occupation, but due to a series of defeats and lack of outside support, he would eventually suspend armed resistance in favor of passive resistance and publish newspapers in Russian and Lithuanian. He would continue to evade Soviet authorities until his arrest in 1956. Ramanauskas would be tortured by the Soviet Committee for State Security, the KGB, and was eventually executed in 1957[21].

The occupation of Lithuania by the Third Reich and the Soviet Union was brutal. Between extermination campaigns by the Wehrmacht and Einsatzgruppen, mass deportations (notably operations Vesna, Priboli, and Osen), and “Sovietization” campaign, it’s estimated that between 60-70,000 Lithuanians were forced into exile[22]. Between 1940 and 1944, 460,000 civilians and military personnel were killed (out of a population of 2,442,000). Also, in 1953 nearly 120,000 people, (about 5% of the population) would be deported. Lastly, the Germans exterminated between 143,000-195,000 Litvaks (Lithuanian Jews).

The lessons that can be learned from Lithuania are many, and range from: history is messy, the distinction between hero and villain isn’t always clear, commitments like Atlantic Charter are not always honored, and changing tactics as circumstances change is necessary, especially against superior forces.


[1] Kyle, J. (2019, January 16), “Contextualizing Russia and the Baltic States,” Retrieved December 15, 2013, from

[2] Woods, Alan. “Bolshevism: The Road to Revolution Archived 2012-12-10,” Wellred Publications, London, 1999.

[3] Leskys, Major Vylius M. United States Army. “‘Forest Brothers,’ 1945: The culmination of the Lithuanian Partisan movement” Submitted in partial fulfillment of requirements for the degree of Master of Military Studies. United States Marine Corps Command and Staff College, Marine Corps University, 2009.

[4] Piotrowski,Tadeusz, “Poland’s Holocaust”, McFarland & Company, 1997

[5] Buttar, Prit, “Between Giants: The Battle for the Baltics in World War II” Osprey Publishing, 2015.

[6] Ruin, Pahl, “The forest brothers – heroes & villains of the partisan war in Lithuania” Baltic Worlds, 2016.

[7] Povilas Plechavičius,

[8] Roszkowski,Wojciech and Kofman, Jan, “Biographical Dictionary of Central and Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century” Routledge, 2008.

[9] Adolfas Ramanauskas,

[10] “Ceremony of Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas state funeral,” Ministry of National Defence Republic of Lithuania, 

[11] Povilas Plechavičius,

[12] Villani, Gerry and Georg, Jennifer, “Soldiers of Germania – The European volunteers of the Waffen SS”. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016.

[13] “Karys Nr. 2 (2018) 2014 m.” (PDF). Karys: 46–52. 2014,, Retrieved 2 October 2019.

[14] Eidintas, Alfonsas et al., “The History of Lithuania. 2nd rev. ed”. Vilnius: Eugrimas, 2015.

[15] Adolfas Ramanauskas,

[16] Adolfas Ramanauskas,

[17] Balčiūnas, Evaldas, “Footprints of Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas in the Mass Murder of the Jews of Druskininkai”, 2014.

[18] Balčiūnas, Evaldas, “Footprints of Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas in the Mass Murder of the Jews of Druskininkai”, 2014.

[19] Leskys, Major Vylius M. United States Army. “‘Forest Brothers,’ 1945: The culmination of the Lithuanian Partisan movement” Submitted in partial fulfillment of requirements for the degree of Master of Military Studies. United States Marine Corps Command and Staff College, Marine Corps University, 2009.

[20] Povilas Plechavičius,

[21] Adolfas Ramanauskas,

[22] “The Genocidal Temptation: Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Rwanda, and Beyond,” edited by Robert S. Frey, 2004,