“Mixed Marriages” and Ethnic Identity in Lithuania

Mid-20th century encyclopedia illustration of Lithuanian traditional costume
Lithuanian folk costume – illustration by Vitautas Palaimas

I thought the tautological slogan “Lithuania for Lithuanians,” beaming with solid platitude and platitudinous solidity, had been put under the sod for good. However, while I was browsing the Internet, a fairly well-done minimalistic poster caught my attention. It carried two slogans in black and white: “Lithuanian women for Lithuanian men,” and “Lithuanian men for Lithuanian women.”

Beneath these slogans in smaller text the legend read: “NATIONIA – the movement for the survival of nations.” On the official website of the “movement,” this legend is accompanied by an English caption explaining that Nationia is a movement of peaceful nationalism. Going to the main page, I found a construction that interested me because of its first three elements: “Nation diversity → Human diversity → Abilities diversity → Mankind progress, essence” [sic]. The suggestive interplay of these ideas enticed me to spend more time investigating this nationalist movement.

Nationia‘s “philosophy” features some random rallying cries for nations and patriots to act to forestall national disappearance. In parallel, they propose that “diversity” is a prerequisite to discussion and progress. A group of people with diverse abilities can solve problems more quickly. So far everything looks nice, right? But then comes a new proposition stating that human diversity is determined by internal and external factors.

The “external” ones include social, cultural, and political elements, while “internal” ones are of an anthropological, mental-psychological, and physical nature. The internal factors are illustrated by three samples of dominant features, including hair, eyes, physical, and character features. A parallel is drawn between these samples and nations. [Ed. note: For any reader unfamiliar with European politics, this is none-too-subtle code for 20th-century race ideologies, which still fuel various European far-right wing political parties.] I set aside the reading at this point, as footnotes from the tracts of Nazi eugenics started running through my mind.

To preserve “diversity” as described above, Nationia suggests the collaboration of nations without mixture, i.e. avoiding the formation of “mixed marriages.” They base this prescription on the premise that a child born in a “mixed” marriage, i.e., one of spouses from different national backgrounds, would be unable to choose either of four potential identities.

The proponents of this idea claim that such a person might be the citizen of one country, but his “national” identity is not based on language, choice, or opinion. According to Nationia, nationality is “a fusion of human behaviour, physical features, temperament, and outlook, inner and uncontrolled, natural reactions to the surrounding world and which are characteristic to a particular group of people who evolved alongside.”

Why am I so concerned with such a marginalized, outdated race ideology? The reason is that it offers a perfect illustration of what I call failed nationalism. The real, ugly face of this nationalism, concealed under archetypal symbols and historical tracts, may be familiar to American readers as it is portrayed in the emblematic movie “American History X.”

For adherents of failed nationalism, the fetish of a blond blue-eyed girl dressed in the national costume, something that has turned into a barely attainable ideal, is the only thing that protects our Lithuanian identity. Yet Lithuania is in the heart of Europe. Thousands of years of European turmoil saw many peoples, cultures, and nations meet and mingle in what is now the Lithuanian territory. It is no wonder that my mother is brown-eyed with dark-hair, I am green-eyed with brown-hair, and one of my cousins is the ideal blue-eyed blonde — although for more than four generations the names in our family have been entirely Lithuanian.

Now, we can hardly be surprised to see a representative of another race on the streets of Vilnius. From early childhood, we were accustomed to seeing a variety of facial shapes, the absence of which was utterly shocking to me when I traveled in Hungary. Yet, despite Lithuanians’ easily observable diversity, people interested in phenotypology usually assign most Lithuanians to the “Baltic” (blue-eyed, blond) phenotype.

The question of what makes us a nation, given the variety in our physical appearance and character features, can be answered with the simple description by the theoretician of nationalism, Anthony D. Smith, whose basic theory remains unchanged despite being rewritten a thousand times: The nation defines and perceives itself as a community, with common myths, common collective memory, values, and traditions, which resides in a territory to which it feels specific historic attachment, creates its own public culture, and shares common laws and duties.

This definition is valid in most cases, and Lithuania is definitely not the most extreme case. Hence, it is easier to describe a Lithuanian by answering several relatively basic questions, rather than by a person’s appearance or behavior.

There is another issue that the self-appointed guardians of Lithuanian identity confront. Who is a more legitimate Lithuanian: a Vietnamese child adopted and raised by a family of Lithuanians, or a blonde, blue-eyed offspring of a Lithuanian couple who learned his/her first words from a South African couple? Because of their physical appearance, both children are aware of their external differences, but the essential attributes of a community (and, as stated, a nation is a community), such as the language, morale, and aesthetic perceptions, will be assimilated from the environment in which the child grows up.

Despite painstaking efforts, these children will hardly be able to identify themselves as part of their nation of origin. It is likely that a biological Lithuanian may be fond of her country of birth, or that a Vietnamese person shall nurture affection for the people and culture of Vietnam. Yet these affections are themselves culturally mediated and developed, like the respect of a second-generation Greek-American for his grandparents’ culture. The phrase from the movie Gattaca sums it up: “Blood has no nationality.”

In conclusion, there is no doubt that the concept of a “pure nation” is permeating our streets and courtyards through the subcultures of skinheads and mobs of the 1970s, reaping their share of Hitler’s gleanings. One way or another, we are all the products of a mixture of different genes; but genes, as depicted in the movie Gattaca, are not a factor that determines the rest of our lives. Much more depends on external factors, proper education and, in particular, our own wills. We should protect our traditions and national culture instead of forbidding an ash-haired girl to start a family with a Brazilian who is resolved to stay in Lithuania in pursuit of love.

Nations cannot be conserved as they resemble continuously evolving unicellular organisms: they mutate, change, vanish, and separate into two similar but different particles. Looking through the time prism, this interplay of influences is fascinating. Let us not embrace an artificial history, for fate tends to play tricks on us. Furthermore, the “diversity” Nationia claims to value will never bloom if it is root-bound by the constraints of failed nationalism. The result would be too many people thinking only within the restrictive limits of the same national pattern.

National identity is important; let us not forget the great Lithuanian interwar philosophers, including Maceina, Girnius, and Šalkauskis, who never sought to sacrifice an individual’s freedoms for the prosperity of a nation or the unity of the state.

Finally, and quite patriotically, I am certain that the Lithuanian nation is prudent enough to sift through the multitude of nationalistic concepts and choose the most rational and morally-correct way.

 

Mr. Skarolskis is a young Lithuanian columnist. A previous version of this article appeared in the iconic though now defunct Atgimimas, as well as the Lithuania Tribune.