NATO Forest Brothers film Nazis
A still from the NATO film honoring the Baltic Nazi collaborators the Forest Brothers (Credit: YouTube screenshot)

Flashy NATO film honors Baltic Nazi collaborators who murdered Jews in Holocaust

Top historians slam NATO for lionizing the Forest Brothers, Baltic former Waffen SS fighters who voluntarily collaborated with the Nazis, as anti-communist heroes.

By Ben Norton / AlterNet

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has come under fire for portraying Baltic Nazi collaborators as anti-communist heroes in a flashy new film.

“Forest Brothers: Fight for the Baltics,” a short film NATO published on YouTube and its social media accounts on July 11, depicts anti-Soviet partisans as freedom fighters. The documentary features dramatic battle scene recreations accompanied by Hollywood blockbuster music, in which a Nazi-linked group known as the Forest Brothers ambushes and kills Soviet officers.

The film includes interviews with former partisan fighters and their supporters, and even highlights modern-day Lithuanian Special Forces, depicting them as heroes on the frontlines against Russia.

“The legacy of a struggle by a small force against overwhelming odds lives on today in the Special Forces units of all three countries,” the narrator declares. A Lithuanian Special Forces officer adds, “All our history derives from the Forest Brothers.”

The eight-minute movie does not once mention that many of the members of the Forest Brothers previously fought on behalf of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. The anti-communist partisans were largely former members of the Waffen-SS.

AlterNet spoke with leading historians and anti-Nazi investigators who condemned the NATO film for rewriting history.

“By going beyond turning a blind eye to the worship of pro-Hitler forces in Eastern Europe,” said historian Dovid Katz, NATO “is crossing the line right into offering its moral legitimization of Nazi forces such as the Latvian Waffen SS.”

In order to join the SS in Latvia, recruits swore an oath of loyalty to the German Fuhrer.

Katz is one of the foremost experts on the history of Jews in the Baltic states. He told AlterNet the NATO homage to the Forest Brothers is “very deeply troubling,” and called it “a hapless accommodation to East European ultranationalism and Holocaust obfuscation and revisionism.”

Many of the members of the Forest Brothers “were fascists, including some recycled killers from the 1941 genocide phase of the Latvian Holocaust,” Katz explained. The group “served to delay the Soviet advance (in alliance with the United States, Great Britain and the Allies) that would liberate the death camps further west.”

“That not all Waffen SS members were ‘personal killers’—the country’s Jews had already been mostly butchered when these units were formed—is quite irrelevant,” Katz added. “If and when they discovered a Jew in hiding, they did not help him or her.”

AlterNet contacted NATO’s press office with a request for comment, asking why the video did not mention the Forest Brothers’ Nazi links. An individual who asked to be described simply as a NATO official wrote briefly in reply, “The video is open and transparent about the history of the Forest Brothers. The script notes that ‘former soldiers who had fought on both sides of the war, now feared for their lives.’”

Rewriting the Holocaust to demonize the Soviets

Dovid Katz has written extensively on the whitewashing of Nazi collaborators in the Holocaust, particularly in the Baltic states — Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — which are members of NATO and the European Union. Katz is a regular contributor to the journal Defending History, a scholarly watchdog project whose mission is to “defend the history of the Holocaust from the onslaught of the New Far Right’s East European campaign (by states, their proxies, and other elites) to downgrade and obfuscate the Holocaust.”

On Lithuania’s Independence Day in March, Defending History reported that far-right nationalists held a march featuring neo-Nazi music and the Forest Brothers song “Let the Bolsheviks Know.” The participants marched to the presidential palace, where they held a ceremony attacking Lithuania’s oldest Holocaust survivor, Fania Yocheles Brantsovsky, 95. Defending History noted Brantsovsky has been “subjected to defamation by the state’s campaign of Holocaust revisionism.”

Efraim Zuroff, a well-known anti-Nazi activist and historian, also condemned the Forest Brothers film in an email to AlterNet. “The problem with the screening by NATO of the film on the Forest Brothers is that it presents these men as genuine heroes with a blameless past, when in reality many of them had murdered Jews during the Holocaust,” he said.

The Forest Brothers’ complicity in the Holocaust “was in fact one of the reasons that some of them joined the anti-Soviet resistance—to avoid prosecution by the Soviets for their collaboration with the Nazis,” Zuroff added. “They also committed crimes against innocent civilians in certain cases.”

Among the civilians murdered by the Forest Brothers, Katz pointed out, were Lithuanian organizers of collective farms overseen by the Soviets in Lithuania. In fact, a prominent director of a development agency in Vilnius, Lithuania was fired by the mayor this July, after he sparked a scandal for posting a Facebook comment asking whether or not it was moral for the Forest Brothers to kill these civilians.

The historian Samuel D. Gruber has also noted that large sums of money have been spent on preserving sites in Lithuania associated with the Forest Brothers, “many of whom were ex-fascist collaborators and ‘Jew-shooters’ who fled into the forests in 1944 to escape the Soviet advance,” he wrote.

NATO’s film on the Forest Brothers is not the first time the Nazi-linked, anti-communist group has been whitewashed. The New York Times did the same in its review of the documentary “The Invisible Front,” which premiered in 2014 at a historic theater in New York. Yet NATO’s movie is the most high-profile example yet.

‘Double genocide’ myth

Dovid Katz stressed in his interview with AlterNet that NATO’s adulation of the Forest Brothers “is in service to the ‘double genocide’ movement, of which the West still knows so little.”

Double genocide refers to a form of historical revisionism that depicts the crimes of Nazi Germany and the crimes of the Soviet Union as equal. The talking point, popular among not just neo-fascists, but many conservatives and liberals alike in the West, whitewashes the genocidal crimes against humanity carried out by the Nazis while grossly exaggerating the excesses of the communists.

“Hitler’s Axis and the Western Allies were not equal, and shame on NATO for coming on board far-right ultranationalist attempts, rooted in extremism, racism and antisemitism, that seek to rewrite history,” Katz said.

The Soviet Union lost more people in World War II than any other country; more than 26 million Soviets, including nearly 9 million soldiers, died in the bloodiest war in history. The USSR did the vast majority of the fighting against the Nazi regime. Historians note that three-quarters of Nazi casualties in WWII were caused by the Red Army. Even the Washington Post acknowledged in 2015: “the Soviet Union saved the world from Hitler.”

Today, however, far-right governments in Eastern Europe are actively rewriting this history.

Latvia is one of several countries that have passed “red-blown laws,” Katz noted. He said these are “shameful” policies that threaten jail time for those who speak out against the false equivalency that depicts Nazi and Soviet crimes as “equal.”

“Within current East European politics, and indeed the wider East-West geopolitical scene, attempts to speak up are rapidly knocked down by bogus charges that those who have such concerns must be Putinist agents, adding loss of freedom of expression and democracy for these very East European peoples NATO is supposed to be defending,” Katz added.

For its part, Russia was enraged by the homage to the Forest Brothers. The Permanent Mission of Russia to NATO immediately criticized the film, writing, “Another shameful attempt to rewrite history and glorify inglorious former SS-fighters and nationalists to serve political narrative of the day.” It added, “NATO offers another practical guide to breed intolerance and war-mongering at its best.”

Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, condemned the movie as a “perversion of history,” noting the Forest Brothers were “fascist remnants” who were backed by Western intelligence agencies in their guerilla war against the Soviet Union.