Literature in the Face of War: ‘Not Our’, ‘Our’, and ‘Everyone’s’ War

  • Eugenijus Žmuida
Keywords: independence, Great War, literature of war, cultural memory


Through literary analysis, comparative and memory studies, the article focuses on the works of Lithuanian fiction on the theme of the Great War (1914–1918), which became a prerequisite for the establishment of the Lithuanian nation­state. The aim of the article was to show different attitudes towards the war, convey the develop­ ment of collective consciousness, and present a summary assessment of the war as a spiritual shock and a global event of memory. The works selected for analysis be­ long to the contemporaries of the Great War: the classics of Lithuanian literature who stand out for their artistic maturity in the context of their war­themed works. In the first months of the war, Vaižgantas, one of the leaders of the national revival, published the allegorical story ‘Karo slibinas’ (The Dragon of War) in a periodical. The story conveys the horror and the scale of the war that had engulfed humani­ ty. The war dragon is a mythical animal that resurrects time after time and begins hunting people down without any measure or mercy. People are hypnotised by its power; they voluntarily send their children, brothers, and husbands to the jaws of the dragon.

Soon after, Antanas Vienuolis’s short stories ‘Didysis karas’ (The Great War), ‘Mirtinai sužeistas’ (Mortally Wounded), and ‘Karžygis’ (A Hero) also appeared in a periodical. In ‘The Great War’, the war appears vile and not ‘great’ at all, destroying peasants’ usual environment and cynically killing those who failed to realise where they were running or why they were at war. In the second short story, the central character suffers a psychological shock because he cannot reconcile his romantic im­ agination of high German culture with the brutal behaviour of the Germans he has to experience when he is suspected of espionage. Disturbed consciousness disrupts the life of the gifted young man. The way the writer conveys the tragedy of the ‘little’ man resonates with the image created in the literature of the Great War.

A different panoramic and epic picture of the world opens in Maironis’s poem Mūsų vargai (Our Troubles) completed in 1919. The national poet of Lithuania cre­ ates a verse novel about the war in which he highlights its most important events and identifies those that are directly related to Lithuania. In Maironis’s poem, all the suffering, calamities, deaths, expulsion of the peasants to the depths of Russia, and the misery of the prisoners in war camps acquire the meaning of noble suffer­ ing that leads to the final salvation: in the final scene, the main characters celebrate their wedding, and Lithuania becomes an independent state. Thus, the war that was ‘not ours’ turns into ‘our war’ in Maironis’s work. The independence of Lithuania was Maironis’s lifelong dream which he believed in and which he conveyed in his entire work. This poem and especially its final scene in the Vatican, where the Pope blesses the marriage of the main protagonists as well as the young state of Lithuania is a symbolical expression of the spiritual triumph of the poet.

Still another type of a relationship with war opens up in Vydūnas’s drama Pasaulio gaisras (The World on Fire). This is an analysis of the phenomenon of war on micro and macro levels and a reflection on it in a dramatic form: here, the life­affirming procreative female civilization conflicts with the life­denying, male, killing civiliza­ tion. In this work, Vydūnas’s main idea and his concept of the human in history are most clearly articulated.

The cruel and alien war in the works of Vaižgantas and Vienuolis undergoes a change in Maironis’s drama, where it is somewhat ‘domesticated’, transformed into ‘our’ war, endured yet meaningful. In Vydūnas’s drama, war is a litmus test revealing human­ ity’s greatest moral flaws but also expressing the noblest feelings at the same time. Until now, Lithuanian literature of the Great War has not been approached as a single phenomenon of memory: this study fills this gap at least partially. Observing Russia’s war against Ukraine, it must be noted that war and literature have been insepara­ ble since the time of Homer, and the nations bordering on Russia in the west have to constantly defend their independence with arms. It seems that humanity is still dealing with the problems of war and peace that were the same a hundred years ago. Much has been achieved in terms of security and stability but not everything: the ideal coexistence of nations on the planet remains a collective desire and ideal.