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Lithuania - HISTORY

Lithuania - History


Early History

Lithuanians belong to the Baltic group of nations. Their ancestors moved to the Baltic region about 3000 B.C. from beyond the Volga region of central Russia. In Roman times, they traded amber with Rome and around A.D. 900-1000 split into different language groups, namely, Lithuanians, Prussians, Latvians, Semigallians, and others. The Prussians were conquered by the Teutonic Knights, and, ironically, the name "Prussia" was taken over by the conquerors, who destroyed or assimilated Prussia's original inhabitants. Other groups also died out or were assimilated by their neighbors. Only the Lithuanians and the Latvians survived the ravages of history.

Traditions of Lithuanian statehood date from the early Middle Ages. As a nation, Lithuania emerged about 1230 under the leadership of Duke Mindaugas. He united Lithuanian tribes to defend themselves against attacks by the Teutonic Knights, who had conquered the kindred tribes of Prussia and also parts of present-day Latvia. In 1251 Mindaugas accepted Latin Christianity, and in 1253 he became king. But his nobles disagreed with his policy of coexistence with the Teutonic Knights and with his search for access to western Europe. Mindaugas was killed, the monarchy was discontinued, and the country reverted to paganism. His successors looked for expansion toward the Slavic East. At that early stage of development, Lithuania had to face the historically recurring question dictated by its geopolitical position--whether to join western or eastern Europe.

At the end of the fourteenth century, Lithuania was already a large empire extending from the Baltic Sea to the shores of the Black Sea. Grand Duke Jogaila (r. 1377-81 and 1382-92) of the Gediminas Dynasty faced a problem similar to that faced by Mindaugas 150 years earlier: whether to look to the East or the West for political and cultural influences. Under pressure from the Teutonic Knights, Lithuania, a kingdom of Lithuanians and Slavs, pagans and Orthodox Christians, could no longer stand alone. Jogaila chose to open links to western Europe and to defeat the Teutonic Knights, who claimed that their mission was not to conquer the Lithuanians but to Christianize them. He was offered the crown of Poland, which he accepted in 1386. In return for the crown, Jogaila promised to Christianize Lithuania. He and his cousin Vytautas, who became Lithuania's grand duke, converted Lithuania to Christianity beginning in 1387. Lithuania was the last pagan country in Europe to become Christian. The cousins then defeated the Teutonic Knights in the Battle of Tannenberg in 1410, stopping Germanic expansion to the east.

Attempts by Vytautas to separate Lithuania from Poland (and to secure his own crown) failed because of the strength of the Polish nobility. Lithuania continued in a political union with Poland. In 1569 Lithuania and Poland united into a single state, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, whose capital was Kraków, and for the next 226 years Lithuania shared the fate of Poland. During this period, Lithuania's political elite was dominated by the Polish nobility and church, resulting in neglect of the Lithuanian language and introduction of Polish social and political institutions. It also opened the doors to Western models in education and culture.

In 1795 an alliance between the Germanic states--Prussia and Austria--and the Russian Empire ended Poland's independent existence. Lithuania became a Russian province. Two insurrections, initiated by the Poles in 1831 and again in 1863, failed to liberate the country. The Russian Empire eliminated Polish influence on Lithuanians and introduced Russian social and political institutions. Under tsarist rule, Lithuanian schools were forbidden, Lithuanian publications in the Latin script were outlawed, and the Roman Catholic Church was severely suppressed. However, the restrictive policies failed to extinguish indigenous cultural institutions and language.

A national awakening in the 1880s, led by the secular and clerical intelligentsia, produced demands for self-government. In 1905 Lithuania was the first of the Russian provinces to demand autonomy. Independence was not granted because the tsar firmly reestablished his rule after the Revolution of 1905. But the demand, articulated by the elected Grand Diet of Vilnius, was not abandoned. World War I led to the collapse of the two empires--the Russian and the German--making it possible for Lithuania to assert its statehood. Germany's attempt to persuade Lithuania to become a German protectorate was unsuccessful. On February 16, 1918, Lithuania declared its full independence, and the country still celebrates that day as its Independence Day.


Lithuania - Independence, 1918-40


During 1918-20 Lithuania successfully fought a war with newly independent Poland to defend its independence. At the end of 1920, however, Poland annexed Lithuania's capital city and province of Vilnius, which it held until World War II. Lithuania refused to have diplomatic relations with Poland until 1938 on the grounds that Poland illegally held the Vilnius region. After declaring independence, Lithuania also fought against the Bermondt-Avalov army, a German-sponsored group of military adventurers that sought to preserve German influence in the Baltic region, and against Russia. In November 1918, the Red Army invaded the country but ultimately was repulsed by the forces of the young Lithuanian government. On July 9, 1920, Soviet leader Vladimir I. Lenin signed a peace treaty with Lithuania, "forever" denouncing Russia's claims to the territory and recognizing the Lithuanian state.

In the early 1920s, Lithuania had a border dispute with Germany. The city and region of Klaipeda (Memel in German) had been under German rule for 700 years. Originally inhabited by Lithuanians, it was detached from Germany in 1919 by the Treaty of Versailles and placed under French administration. In 1923 Lithuanians organized an insurrection and took over the Klaipeda region.

These conflicts burdened Lithuania's international diplomacy. Domestically, however, they fed the development of national identity and cultural awareness, displacing German and Polish influence.

Lithuania's early disorganization caused a delay in its recognition by Western powers; the last to do so was the United States in 1922. Washington recognized Lithuania's independence only after it had become clear that Western intervention in Russia could not restore the Russian Empire and that the communists were firmly entrenched in Moscow.

Independent Lithuania, led by political leaders mostly in their thirties or early forties, became a democratic republic with a strong legislature, a weak executive, a multiparty system, and a proportional system of representation. Christian Democratic coalitions dominated the democratic period. However, almost a third of the country was illiterate, and farmers--87 percent of the population--were conservative and unfamiliar with democratic processes. In 1926 the Socialist-Populist coalition government was removed by a military coup. Antanas Smetona, a former acting president, was elected to the presidency by a rump parliament. Within three years, he established an authoritarian regime. Political parties were outlawed and the press censored, but Smetona did not completely suppress civil rights. Smetona established Tautininkai, a nationalist political party, which reappeared in the parliament in 1991 after Lithuania regained independence from the Soviet Union.

From 1920 to 1940, independent Lithuania made great strides in nation building and development. A progressive land reform program was introduced in 1922, a cooperative movement was organized, and a strong currency and conservative fiscal management were maintained. Schools and universities were established (there had been no institutions of higher education and very few secondary schools under Russian rule), and illiteracy was substantially reduced. Artists and writers of the period produced works that have become classics.


Lithuania - The Soviet Republic


On August 23, 1939, Joseph V. Stalin and Adolf Hitler concluded the notorious Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact (also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact). The agreement had a secret protocol that divided Poland, much of Central Europe, and the Baltic states between Germany and the Soviet Union. Lithuania, at first assigned to the German sphere of influence, in September was transferred to the Soviet Union. In October 1939, the Soviet Union forced on Lithuania a nonaggression pact that allowed Moscow to garrison 20,000 troops in the country. In return, the city of Vilnius, now occupied by Soviet troops, was granted to Lithuania. On June 15, 1940, Lithuania was overrun by the Red Army. At first a procommunist, so-called people's government was installed, and elections to a new parliament were organized. The elections were noncompetitive; a single approved list of candidates was presented to the voters. The parliament met on July 21, declared Soviet rule, and "joined" the Soviet Union as the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic on August 6, 1940. The United States and many other countries refused to recognize the Soviet occupation.

Soviet rule brought about radical political and economic changes and Stalinist terror, which culminated in deportations to Siberia of more than 30,000 people on the night of June 14-15, 1941. Germany interrupted the Stalinist terror by attacking the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. The next day, the Lithuanian Activist Front, an organization of anti-Soviet resistance groups, revolted against the Soviet occupiers. Partisans took over the largest cities--Kaunas and Vilnius--and declared restoration of Lithuanian independence. The Germans replaced the provisional government with a Lithuanian Vertrauensrat (Council of Trustees), which was headed by an ethnic Lithuanian, General Petras Kubiliunas, and was given some autonomy in local affairs.

The Lithuanian leadership went underground. An anti-Nazi resistance movement developed, publishing underground newspapers, organizing economic boycotts, and gathering arms. The resistance hoped that after victory the Western allies would insist on the restoration of Lithuanian statehood.

A Soviet-sponsored underground also existed in Lithuania beginning in 1942. It staged military raids against German transportation, administrative, and economic enterprises. The Soviet forces were aided by the remnants of the Communist Party of Lithuania, now barely surviving in the underground.

The nationalist Lithuanian resistance was supported by many Lithuanian political parties and resistance groups, including the Social Democrats and a coalition known as the Supreme Committee for the Liberation of Lithuania, which continued its activities many years after Lithuania was retaken by the Red Army. In 1943 this resistance frustrated German efforts at organizing a Lithuanian Schutz-Staffel (SS) legion. The Nazis responded by arresting Lithuanian nationalists and by closing universities. Moreover, occupation authorities succeeded, in the period 1941-44, in recruiting or capturing tens of thousands of people to work in Germany or to serve in the German military. Many perished in prisons or concentration camps. The main victims, however, were members of Lithuania's Jewish community. About 185,000 Jews, or 85 percent of the community's population, were massacred by Nazi squads, which were helped by Lithuanian collaborators in a number of localities.

Soviet armies recaptured Lithuania in the summer of 1944, although Klaipeda did not fall until January 1945. Antanas Snieckus, the Communist Party of Lithuania leader, returned from Moscow with the other officials who had fled before the advancing German armies. Lithuania's full Sovietization, however, was obstructed from 1944 to 1952 by an armed partisan resistance movement, which cost an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 partisan casualties.

Soviet rule in Lithuania displayed well-known features of communist rule. The party had a monopoly on power, and the management of the economy was centralized. The regime collectivized agriculture from 1947 to 1951. Secret police terrorized the society and attempted to transfer Lithuanian nation-alist loyalties to the communists. Deportations to Siberia were resumed. Religion was brutally suppressed. One Roman Catholic bishop was shot, one perished in prison, two died shortly after release, and two were banished for more than thirty years, leaving only one in office. Almost one-third of the clergy was deported, although survivors were allowed to return after Stalin's death in 1953. Eventually, the training of new priests was essentially stopped.

Institutions of power--the party, the secret police, and the government--at first were mainly in Russian hands. In the postwar period, ethnic Lithuanians constituted only 18.4 percent of the republic's communist party members. Beginning in the 1950s, college graduates and those who wanted to make careers in economic, cultural, or political life realized that the Soviet system was not transitory, so they joined the communist party. The party swelled to a membership of 205,000 by 1989, but most of these members were opportunists, very different from the few revolutionary fanatics who had administered Lithuania in the immediate postwar period. Still others joined the party in the expectation that they would be of better use to the preservation of Lithuanian traditions, language, and culture in the ranks of the ruling group. There developed a stratum of communists who wanted to promote not only Moscow's but also Lithuania's advantage.

Underground resistance never disappeared, although the armed underground was destroyed. As a movement, resistance was first sparked by efforts to defend the Roman Catholic Church. After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which led to increased repression in the Soviet Union, the dissident movement spread. In the 1970s, Lithuania had numerous underground publications. The most significant and regularly published among them was The Chronicle of the Catholic Church of Lithuania . It was never uncovered by the Soviet secret police, the Committee for State Security (Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti--KGB), and was published for twenty years. In 1972 a young student, Romas Kalanta, immolated himself in protest against Soviet rule. Army units had to be sent in to quell a street rebellion by students that followed the self-immolation. The Committee for the Defense of Religious Rights and the Helsinki Watch Committee were established in the underground. Dissident work brought arrests and imprisonment. At the same time, the Lithuanian intelligentsia, especially writers and artists, demanded greater freedom of creative expression and protection of the Lithuanian language, traditions, and cultural values from the pressure to Russify that intensified during the administration of Leonid I. Brezhnev (1964-82).


Lithuania - The Move Toward Independence, 1987-91


The situation did not change until Mikhail S. Gorbachev came to power in 1985. Even then, Lithuania's communist party leadership hesitated to embrace Gorbachev's program of limited economic reforms under his policy of perestroika (see Glossary). The death of Petras Griskevicius, first secretary of the Communist Party of Lithuania, in 1987 did little to improve the atmosphere for reform. The new first secretary, Ringaudas Songaila, was a conservative functionary. But encouraged by new winds from Moscow, Baltic dissidents began in 1987 to hold public demonstrations in Riga, Tallinn, and Vilnius. In 1988, against the wishes of Songaila's regime, Lithuanian, engaged in widespread celebration of the February 16 Independence Day. Lithuanian intellectuals were pushed into taking more forceful action as well. Meeting at the Academy of Sciences on June 3, 1988, communist and noncommunist intellectuals formed "an initiative group" to organize a movement to support Gorbachev's program of glasnost (see Glossary), democratization, and perestroika . A council composed equally of communist party members and nonparty members was chosen to organize the Lithuanian Reconstruction Movement, which became known subsequently simply as Sajudis (Movement). The Communist Party of Lithuania leadership did not like this independent action but, knowing Gorbachev's limited acceptance of "informal" societies, did not interfere with the effort.

The movement supported Gorbachev's policies, but at the same time it promoted Lithuanian national issues such as restoration of the Lithuanian language as the "official" language. Its demands included revelations of the truth about the Stalinist years, protection of the environment, cessation of construction on a third nuclear reactor at the Ignalina nuclear power plant, and disclosure of secret protocols of the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. Sajudis used mass meetings to advance its goals. At first, party leaders shunned these meetings, but by mid-1988 their participation became a political necessity. Thus, a Sajudis rally on June 24, 1988, was attended by Algirdas Brazauskas, then party secretary for industrial affairs.

In October 1988, Brazauskas was appointed first secretary of the party to replace Songaila, and Sajudis held its founding conference in Vilnius. It subsequently elected as its chairman Vytautas Landsbergis, a professor of musicology who was not a member of the communist party. In the elections to Moscow's newly authorized Congress of People's Deputies (see Glossary) in March-May 1989, Sajudis was victorious. From the communist party, the voters elected only Brazauskas and Vladimiras Beriozovas, his associate, whom Sajudis did not oppose. From that time, Brazauskas cooperated fully with Sajudis. Lithuanian sovereignty--as distinguished from Lithuanian independence, which had been declared on February 16, 1918--was proclaimed in May 1989, and Lithuania's incorporation into the Soviet Union was declared illegal. In August a human chain from Tallinn to Vilnius commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. In December Brazauskas forced the Communist Party of Lithuania to secede from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and to give up its monopoly on power.

But even the separation of the Communist Party of Lithuania from Moscow did not save it in the electoral contest for the Supreme Soviet of the republic in March 1990. In the election, the Communist Party of Lithuania won only twenty-three of the 141 seats. On March 11, the newly elected parliament voted unanimously for independence. Brazauskas lost the election for chairman of the presidium of the Supreme Soviet to Landsbergis.

Moscow did not accept the legality of the independence vote, however; in April 1990, it imposed an economic blockade that lasted for three months, until the Lithuanian legislature, now known as the Supreme Council, agreed to a six-month moratorium on its independence declaration. Later, Moscow obstructed Lithuanian efforts to gain Western recognition, and on January 13, 1991, attempted to use force to remove the Lithuanian government in Vilnius and to reestablish Soviet rule. Although this attempted coup ended in a massacre of civilians--thirteen died, and hundreds were wounded--by the Soviet army, Lithuania's determination did not change. Finally, the failure of the August 1991 coup in Moscow permitted Lithuania to regain self-determination and prompted the international community to recognize it as an independent state. The United States extended recognition on September 2, and the Soviet Union did so on September 6. Lithuania was admitted to the United Nations on September 16, 1991.


CITATION: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress. The Country Studies Series. Published 1988-1999.

Please note: This text comes from the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The Country Studies Series presents a description and analysis of the historical setting and the social, economic, political, and national security systems and institutions of countries throughout the world.

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