Central Europe Review The International OSI Policy Fellowships (IPF) program
Vol 2, No 27
10 July 2000
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Lithuanian coat of arms A Brief History of Lithuania
Mel Huang

The Baltic tribes that later became Latvians and Lithuanians have lived along the coast of the Baltic Sea for some two to three millennia. The Lithuanian tribes, as opposed to their Latvian kin, consolidated much earlier and thus provided the solidarity needed to fend off invaders from all sides. Their third ethnic kin, the Old Prussians, were subjugated and assimilated by Germanic invaders in the first half of the second millennium and kept only their name "Prussians."

Instead of falling to the fate of their kindred neighbours (subjugation for Latvians, disappearance as a nationality for Prussians), Lithuanians managed to form a united political entity that eventually led to a national state.

The early kingdom

In 1251, one of the regional princes, Mindaugas, united the country under his leadership when facing trouble from the east. Two years later, King Mindaugas was given his royal crown by the order of the Papacy after a symbolic baptism of his people. However, royal intrigues a decade later led to the death of Lithuania's only king.

The united kingdom split apart after the death of Mindaugas and chaos loomed until Grand Duke Traidenis restored some order in a united political structure. Not since Mindaugas has any of Lithuania's rulers been given a Papal crown, thus the retention of the "grand duke" title. No doubt the Pope realised that Lithuania had reverted to paganism since the unconvincing baptism of the nation under Mindaugas; the thunder god Perkūnas returned to the high pantheon of Lithuanian deities.

Troubles with the by then established German crusaders shaped Lithuanian history for some time after. Under the strong leadership of grand dukes Vytenis, Gediminas and Algirdas successively, Lithuania became a strong regional power, keeping the Germanic crusaders at bay and expanding Lithuanian territory into Slavonic lands. The grand dukes also tried to win Papal acknowledgement of their grand duchy, but the issue of strong paganism and the activities of the Germanic crusaders always played a role.

Growing stronger

Under Grand Duke Gediminas, Lithuania grew even stronger. He established the capital of the Grand Duchy at Vilnius and was, according to legends, guided by the howls of wolves. Under Gediminas, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania extended far into Slavonic lands, including the absorption of the provinces of Vitebsk and Polotsk. Under Grand Duke Algirdas, the borders shifted even further to most of modern-day Ukraine and up to the Black Sea. However, Algirdas never pushed beyond that point up further north, being repelled at Moscow by the principality.

The death of Algirdas and the succession of Kęstutis was a turning point for medieval Lithuania. Kęstutis, embroiled in problems on both the Slavonic side to the east and the Germanic side to the west, found himself dead just years after taking over. With the rise of Jogaila, brother of Kęstutis, and of Vytautas, son of Kęstutis, the fate of Lithuania was about to change forever.

Under the reign of Grand Duke Jogaila, just a few years after taking power, Jogaila concluded the so-called Union of Krewo / Krėva, the dynastic union between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland. As in many other dynastic unions (such as Scotland and England), the monarch of the weaker party took over, but saw his nation crumble under the influence of the stronger side.

Jogaila, in Polish Jagiełło, became the ruler of both entities after marrying Polish Queen Jadwiga and Lithuania was baptised. This, however, was not to the liking of Vytautas, who, with foreign support, won the right to be called Grand Duke Vytautas in 1392.

Germanic enemies

However, as the Teutonic Order did little to stop its activities in the region despite Lithuania's baptism, Jogaila and Vytautas joined forces against their Germanic enemies. Leading the charge, Vytautas secured Lithuania-Poland's greatest military victory against the Teutonic Order on 15 July 1410 at the fabled Battle of Grünwald.

Though the joint force did not take the stronghold at Marienburg, the order was emasculated for good and peace concluded a year later. In the years of the fight on the western side, Vytautas also expanded Lithuanian lands deep into Slavonic territory, eating up the entire Smolensk region. Vytautas also played a role in the rise of the Hussites in Bohemia, but this caused him to fall into massive disfavour with the Catholic Church.

Though there were plans to crown Vytautas as "king" - with Papal assent - of Lithuania, he died before that happened in 1430. Jogaila gave his brother, the hated Švitrigaila, the Lithuanian domain, which caused massive infighting and the rise of Zygmuntas as the new grand duke. However, deaths of both Zygmuntas and Jogaila in the following years merged the two crowns again under Kazimieras / Kazimierz / Casimir. In most respects, the two lived well side-by-side, but Lithuania became increasingly Polonised over the years.

Weak Lithuania, strong Moscow

In time, Lithuania grew weaker and Moscow grew stronger. The Livonian War broke out in 1558 and lasted for about 25 years. Moscow began grabbing land in Old Livonia on the Lithuanian border, prompting the latter to become involved.

The pressing need to defend the east was overwhelming and placed Lithuanian in a disadvantageous role vis-ą-vis Poland. A political agreement with the gentry created the Union of Lublin in 1569, which created a joint commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita) merging the two into one political unit in certain government aspects. From that, the Polish-led Rzeczpospolita was successful at keeping Ivan the Terrible at bay, securing its own territory and expanding all the way up the territory of Old Livonia.

However, accession problems between the Rzeczpospolita and Sweden turned nasty over the status of Zygmunt III Vasa. Inheriting both thrones, his Catholicism proved to be unsuitable in Sweden, which removed him several years later, causing war to break out in 1600. With Sweden and Russia joining forces, Rzeczpospolita was at a severe disadvantage. By the end of the war, the Armistice of Altmark gave most of the lands of Old Livonia - all of Estonia and most of Latvia - to Sweden. Only the Latgale region of Latvia remained in the hands of the Commonwealth.

Several wars plagued the commonwealth in the next two centuries, even including a brief attempt by Sweden to merge with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the mid seventeenth century. The Great Northern War saw the commonwealth intriguing to regain northern lands lost to the Swedes, but ended up seeing Warsaw invaded. Throw in the War of Polish Succession and the Commonwealth was in bad shape by the mid 1700s.

European powers do their worst

The final of the elected kings of the Rzeczpospolita, Stanisław Poniatowski, could not stop the European powers from doing their worst. The partition of the Rzeczpospolita destroyed both the Polish Kingdom and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The first, in 1772, saw the Grand Duchy lose a large part of its Slavonic lands - mostly in today's Belarus - as well as the Latvian province of Latgale.

Increasing chaos in the remaining Commonwealth lands gave the three powers - Russia, Austria and Prussia (though Austria took no land in the second partition) - the impetus to carve out another partition in 1793. This partition took the rest of the Belarusian and Ukrainian lands from the Grand Duchy. The final partition of 1795 sealed the fate of both nations - the remaining Lithuanian lands ended up mostly in Russian hands.

Lithuanian lands under the tsars were divided into several gubernijas and were not subject to "experiments" like those to which occupied Estonians and Latvians were subjected by German barons. In the nineteenth century, there were several insurrections and corresponding crackdowns by authorities, and the uprising of 1830 and 1831 caused authorities to shut down Vilnius University for decades. Another uprising decades later saw also harsh repressive measures and led to the banning of the Latin alphabet.

Russian forces also bombed structures - such as fortresses, castles, walls and towers - to remove all traces of the Grand Duchy and its past campaigns against Moscow. The reactionary reign of Tsar Aleksandr III was also a problem for Lithuania, but fuel for future insurrections and helped form the national awakening movement. However, the paths were split in Lithuania, where there was significant debate about whether or not to take part in the Polish sphere of influence.

With the revolution of 1905 causing a massive stir, the outbreak of the First World War proved to be the catalyst in setting off the Lithuanian activists. Lithuania was one of the early ones to see action, being occupied by German troops by 1915. By 1917, Lithuanian leaders were talking about outright independence - and the German occupiers were ready to give them autonomy due to activities on the front.

The spark of revolution

On 18 February 1918, the ruling national council declared Lithuania's independence. After a brief flirtation with restoring a monarchy, the council decided for a republic after German influence in the region kept waning. However, Lithuania was now caught in crossfire between Russia and Poland. The Red Army invaded on Germany's exit and occupied most of the country, but the two nations later signed a peace treaty when the Polish threat loomed over both countries.

When the Red Army took over Vilnius from Polish troops, it handed the city over to Lithuanian control, although the provisional capital remained in Kaunas. That control was short-lasting as a "renegade" Polish unit, under General Lucjan Żeligowski, occupied the land and declared martial law - and the territory to be independent. Later, it was "annexed" to Poland despite Polish officials saying officially, at first, that it had nothing to do with the spontaneous action.

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That loss of Vilnius played a significant role in the development of regional and European problems in the long-run. The instability of the two countries - who refused to recognise each other for most of the interwar period - caused a zone of instability between Germany and Soviet Russia (later the USSR).

Antanas Smetona, the "grand old man" of Lithuanian democracy and head of the council that proclaimed independence, became the first president of the country, but stepped down after the proclamation of the new constitution in 1922 and was replaced by Aleksandras Stulginskis. However, the four years of parliamentary government did not play well in Lithuania - particularly in the eyes of the military and some of its leaders.

Military action

Lithuania "retaliated" against the loss of Vilnius by seizing the region of Klaipėda from French and international military control. The territory, giving Lithuania access to the Baltic sea, was annexed by Kaunas soon after.

Following the disruption in Poland by Marshal Józef Piłsudski, a similar action happened in Lithuania. Complaining of a bad Church concordat, socialism and the nation's "cozying up" to Moscow and cutting military funds, Colonel Povilas Plechavičius staged a coup. His choice of prime minister, Augustinas Voldemaras, dissolved the Seimas and forced President Kazys Grinius to resign, replacing him with Antanas Smetona.

Although Smetona replaced Voldemaras soon for his "ambitions," the firebrand ex-premier tried to stage a coup but failed. Smetona ruled the country as-is until the late 1930s. In that time, there was no mass-scale repression, although the creation of a national "movement" did lend to some accusations of fascist thinking. Smetona also praised Mussolini and his form of Fascism rather than Hitler and his racism.

Discovering basketball and the 1930s

Lithuania also grew to a certain extent during this period. Though not as heavily developed as Latvia and Estonia due to circumstances under the Russian Empire, it did become a good regional agricultural producer. Lithuania also discovered basketball and became world champions in the late 1930s.

However, world instability caused more problems for the country as the 1930s slowly drew to an end. Relations with Poland deteriorated further, leading to a Polish ultimatum: open diplomatic relations (in other words, recognise that Vilnius / Wilno was a part of Poland) or face war.

Lithuania agreed and diplomatic relations finally opened between the two states. However, Hitler had by then begun his land-grabbing. Under a threat of force, Hitler took his last Anschluß before the start of the Second World War by annexing the Memelland (Klaipėda). With Berlin and Moscow signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, giving Lithuania to the Germans (later amended to give Lithuania to the Soviets), Lithuania's fate was sealed.

Soviet occupation

During the subsequent Soviet occupation, starting in 1940, thousands were killed and deported. The occupation forces staged a bogus election, after which the puppet regime "asked" Moscow for membership in the USSR - thus the illegal incorporation. The United States and other western governments announced then that they would not recognise the move.

By the time Hitler and Stalin faced off in combat, the peoples of the Soviet-occupied lands - Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, etc - were faced with the question of survival. Thus, when the German army came through, it was viewed more as liberation from Soviet forces rather than a German occupation. Brutal Nazi crackdowns in the ensuing three years of German occupation ended those hopes.

The Nazis even forcibly mobilised Lithuanians into combat units under the SS, though many joined voluntarily as well. Sad situations developed as brothers fought brothers in bloody battles as Soviet and Nazi conscripts.

However, the SS also had their Lithuanian accomplices in the Final Solution. Counting Vilnius, the number of Jews killed in Lithuania during the Holocaust was astonishingly high, and more than 90 per cent of the population of the one-time "Jerusalem of the North" perished. Local accomplices helped with the repression and executions of Jews on Lithuanian soil - especially at the Paneriai concentration camp.


The Soviets retook Lithuania and the Baltics in 1944 and bombed parts of the countries into the Stone Age. The USSR re-established control in Lithuania, though armed resistance fighters - forest brothers - fought bravely for years to come. Despite involvement by Britain's SIS and others, there was little assistance from the West except for a policy of "non-recognition," and the lack of a Western response to the Hungarian 1956 uprising all but ended the movement.

Sovietisation went far during the half-century occupation. Tens of thousands of Lithuanians fled to the West, were shot outright, and were deported to inhospitable parts of the Soviet Union. Moscow pursued early "ethnic cleansing" policies by massively deporting Lithuanians and replacing them with workers from other parts of the USSR - victims themselves, in many ways. Farms collapsed due to collectivisation, businesses were nationalised, Russian replaced Lithuanian as the official language of communication and everything associated with Lithuania was all but oppressed by censors.

Unlocking the Iron Curtain

Glasnost became Lithuania's key to unlocking the Iron Curtain. A movement founded to support glasnost, later shortened to just Sąjudis, became the most influential in the country. Protests began throughout Lithuania, and even the Lithuanian Communist Party - led in 1988 by Algirdas Brazauskas - began to support and even intermingle with Sąjudis and its leader, Vytautas Landsbergis.

Brazauskas later made a dramatic break with the Soviet moth party, one of many irritants in relations
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between Vilnius and Moscow.

The first free-and-fair Supreme Council elections gave Sąjudis a commanding victory and, on 11 March 1990, it declared the nation's restored independence. An economic blockade began and Lithuania faced tough measures from Moscow. Eventually things turned violent, as Soviet forces attacked protestors in Vilnius, killing 13 people. Another set of border guards were slain by the Soviet OMON while on duty near the Medininkai checkpoint with Belarus.

However, the coup in Moscow was the final catalyst for Lithuania to reassert its restored independence. Recognition came soon from all over Europe, though the Bush-led United States dragged its feet yet again.

The transition

Though independence returned, economic hardship from the economic transition and liberalisation - including hikes in energy prices - caused voters, in 1992, to support the Lithuanian Democratic Party (LDDP), the renamed Communists.

A presidential election the following year brought Brazauskas to power. Though heavily criticised, many needed reforms were passed under the ex-Communists' watch. The second parliamentary election following the restoration of independence in 1996 brought the old Sąjudis team - now the Conservatives - back to power. Chicago pensioner Valdas Adamkus, a former high-ranking official of the US Environmental Protection Agency, became president in early 1998.

Though the situation remains difficult in Lithuania - compounded by the Russian economic crisis - the economy is starting to recover and Lithuania is a top candidate for NATO membership in the next round of enlargement. The parliamentary elections of October 2000 will play a pivotal role in shaping Lithuania's future.

Mel Huang, 10 July 2000

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