The Republic of Lithuania (Lietuvos Respublika), is a country located in Northern Europe between latitudes 53° and 57° N, and mostly between longitudes 21° and 27° E (part of the Curonian Spit lies west of 21°). One of the three Baltic states, it is situated along the southeastern shore of the Baltic Sea, to the east of Sweden and Denmark. It is bordered by Latvia to the north, Belarus to the east and south, Poland to the south, and Kaliningrad Oblast (a Russian exclave) to the southwest. It has around 61.5 miles (99 kilometers) of sandy coastline, only about 24 miles (38 kilometers) of which face the open Baltic Sea, less than the other two Baltic Sea countries. and covers an area of 25,200 square miles (65,200 km²). Lithuania has an estimated population of 2.9 million people as of 2015, and its capital and largest city is Vilnius. Lithuanians are a Baltic people. The official language, Lithuanian, along with Latvian, is one of only two living languages in the Baltic branch of the Indo-European language family.
The history of Lithuania dates back to settlements founded many thousands of years ago. The first humans arrived on the territory of modern Lithuania in the tenth millennium BC after the glaciers receded at the end of the last glacial period. According to the historian Marija Gimbutas, these people came from two directions: the Jutland Peninsula and from present-day Poland. They brought two different cultures, as evidenced by the tools they used. They were traveling hunters and did not form stable settlements. In the eighth millennium BC, the climate became much warmer, and forests developed. The inhabitants of what is now Lithuania then traveled less and engaged in local hunting, gathering and fresh-water fishing. During the sixth–fifth millennium BC, various animals were domesticated and dwellings became more sophisticated in order to shelter larger families. Agriculture did not emerge until the third millennium BC due to a harsh climate and terrain and a lack of suitable tools to cultivate the land. Crafts and trade also started to form at this time. Speakers of North-Western Indo-European might have arrived with the Corded Ware culture around 3200/3100 BC.
The first Lithuanian people were a branch of an ancient group known as the Balts. The main tribal divisions of the Balts were the West Baltic Old Prussians and Yotvingians, and the East Baltic Lithuanians and Latvians. The Balts spoke forms of the Indo-European languages. Today, the only remaining Baltic nationalities are the Lithuanians and Latvians, but there were more Baltic groups or tribes in the past. Some of these merged into Lithuanians and Latvians (Samogitians, Selonians, Curonians, Semigallians), while others no longer existed after they were conquered and assimilated by the State of the Teutonic Order (Old Prussians, Yotvingians, Sambians, Skalvians, and Galindians).
The Baltic tribes did not maintain close cultural or political contacts with the Roman Empire, but they did maintain trade contacts (see Amber Road). Tacitus, in his study Germania, described the Aesti people, inhabitants of the south-eastern Baltic Sea shores who were probably Balts, around the year 97 AD. The Western Balts differentiated and became known to outside chroniclers first. Ptolemy in the second century AD knew of the Galindians and Yotvingians, and early medieval chroniclers mentioned Prussians, Curonians and Semigallians.
Lithuania, located along the lower and middle Neman River basin, comprised mainly the culturally different regions of Samogitia (known for its early medieval skeletal burials), and further east Aukštaitija, or Lithuania proper (known for its early medieval cremation burials). The area was remote and unattractive to outsiders, including traders, which accounts for its separate linguistic, cultural and religious identity and delayed integration into general European patterns and trends.
The Lithuanian language is considered to be very conservative for its close connection to Indo-European roots. It is believed to have differentiated from the Latvian language, the most closely related existing language, around the seventh century. Traditional Lithuanian pagan customs and mythology, with many archaic elements, were long preserved. Rulers’ bodies were cremated up until the conversion to Christianity: the descriptions of the cremation ceremonies of the grand dukes Algirdas and Kęstutis have survived.
The Lithuanian tribe is thought to have developed more recognizably toward the end of the first millennium. The first known reference to Lithuania as a nation (“Litua“) comes from the Annals of the Quedlinburg monastery, dated March 9, 1009. In 1009, the missionary Bruno of Querfurt arrived in Lithuania and baptized the Lithuanian ruler “King Nethimer.”
From the ninth to the eleventh centuries, coastal Balts were subjected to raids by the Vikings, and the kings of Denmark collected tribute at times. During the tenth–eleventh centuries, Lithuanian territories were among the lands paying tribute to Kievan Rus’, and Yaroslav the Wise was among the Ruthenian rulers who invaded Lithuania (from 1040). From the mid-twelfth century, it was the Lithuanians who were invading Ruthenian territories. In 1183, Polotsk and Pskov were ravaged, and even the distant and powerful Novgorod Republic was repeatedly threatened by the excursions from the emerging Lithuanian war machine toward the end of the twelfth century.
In the 1230s, the Lithuanian lands were united by Mindaugas, who was crowned as King of Lithuania on July 6, 1253. After his assassination in 1263, pagan Lithuania was a target of the Christian crusades of the Teutonic Knights and the Livonian Order. Despite the devastating century-long struggle with the Orders, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania expanded rapidly, overtaking former Slavic principalities of Kievan Rus’.
By the end of the fourteenth century, Lithuania was one of the largest countries in Europe and included present-day Belarus, Ukraine, and parts of Poland and Russia. The geopolitical situation between the west and the east determined the multicultural and multi-confessional character of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The ruling elite practiced religious tolerance and Chancery Slavonic language was used as an auxiliary language to the Latin for official documents.
In 1385, the Grand Duke Jogaila accepted Poland’s offer to become its king. Jogaila embarked on gradual Christianization of Lithuania and established a personal union between Poland and Lithuania. It implied that Lithuania, the fiercely independent land, was one of the last pagan areas of Europe to adopt Christianity.
After two civil wars, Vytautas the Great became the Grand Duke of Lithuania in 1392. During his reign, Lithuania reached the peak of its territorial expansion, centralization of the state began, and the Lithuanian nobility became increasingly prominent in state politics. In the great Battle of the Vorskla River in 1399, the combined forces of Tokhtamysh and Vytautas were defeated by the Mongols. Thanks to close cooperation, the armies of Lithuania and Poland achieved a great victory over the Teutonic Knights in 1410 at the Battle of Grunwald, one of the largest battles of medieval Europe.
After the deaths of Jogaila and Vytautas, the Lithuanian nobility attempted to break the union between Poland and Lithuania, independently selecting Grand Dukes from the Jagiellon dynasty. But, at the end of the fifteenth century, Lithuania was forced to seek a closer alliance with Poland when the growing power of the Grand Duchy of Moscow threatened Lithuania’s Russian principalities and sparked the Muscovite–Lithuanian Wars and the Livonian War.
With the Union of Lublin of 1569, Poland and Lithuania formed a new state referred to as the Republic of Both Nations, but commonly known as Poland-Lithuania or the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Commonwealth, which officially consisted of the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, was ruled by Polish and Lithuanian nobility, together with nobility-elected kings. The Union was designed to have a common foreign policy, customs and currency. Separate Polish and Lithuanian armies were retained, but parallel ministerial and central offices were established according to a practice developed by the Crown. The Lithuanian Tribunal, a high court for the affairs of the nobility, was created in 1581.
The Union of Lublin and the integration of the two countries notwithstanding, Lithuania continued to exist as a grand duchy within the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth for over two centuries. It retained separate laws as well as an army and a treasury. At the time of Union of Lublin, King Sigismund II Augustus removed Ukraine and other territories from Lithuania and incorporated them directly into the Polish Crown. The grand duchy was left with today’s Belarus and parts of western Russia, in addition to the core ethnic Lithuanian lands. From 1573, the kings of Poland and the grand dukes of Lithuania were always the same person and were elected by the nobility, who were granted ever increasing privileges in a unique aristocratic political system known as the Golden Liberty. These privileges, especially the liberum veto, led to political anarchy and the eventual dissolution of the state.
The Commonwealth was greatly weakened by a series of wars, beginning with the Khmelnytsky Uprising in Ukraine in 1648. During the Northern Wars of 1655–61, the Lithuanian territory and economy were devastated by the Swedish army in an invasion known as the Deluge, and Vilnius was burned and looted by the Russian forces. Before it could fully recover, Lithuania was again ravaged during the Great Northern War of 1700–21.
Besides war, the Commonwealth suffered the Great Northern War plague outbreak and famine (the worst caused by the Great Frost of 1709). These calamities resulted in the loss of approximately 40% of the country’s inhabitants. Foreign powers, especially Russia, became dominant players in the domestic politics of the Commonwealth. Numerous factions among the nobility, controlled and manipulated by the powerful Magnates of Poland and Lithuania, themselves often in conflict, used their “Golden Liberty” to prevent reforms. Some Lithuanian clans, such as the Radziwiłłs, counted among the most powerful of Commonwealth nobles.
The Constitution of May 3, 1791, was a culmination of the belated reform process of the Commonwealth. It attempted to integrate Lithuania and Poland more closely, although the separation was preserved by the added Reciprocal Guarantee of Two Nations. Partitions of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1772, 1793 and 1795 terminated its existence and saw the Grand Duchy of Lithuania divided between the Russian Empire, which took over 90% of the Duchy’s territory, and the Kingdom of Prussia. The Third Partition of 1795 took place after the failure of the Kościuszko Uprising, the last war waged by Poles and Lithuanians to preserve their statehood. Lithuania ceased to exist as a distinct entity for more than a century.
Following the partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Russian Empire controlled the majority of Lithuania, including Vilnius, which was a part of the Vilna Governorate. In 1803, Tsar Alexander I revived and upgraded the old Jesuit academy as the imperial Vilnius University, the largest in the Russian Empire. The university and the regional educational system was directed on behalf of the tsar by Prince Adam Czartoryski. In the early years of the nineteenth century, there were signs that Lithuania might be allowed some separate recognition by the Empire, however this never happened.
In 1812, the Lithuanians eagerly welcomed Napoleon Bonaparte’s Grande Armée as liberators, with many joining the French invasion of Russia. After the French army’s defeat and withdrawal, Tsar Alexander I decided to keep the University of Vilnius open and the Polish-language poet Adam Mickiewicz, a resident of Vilnius in 1815-24, was able to receive his education there. The southwestern part of Lithuania that was taken over by Prussia in 1795, then incorporated into the Duchy of Warsaw (a French puppet state that existed between 1807 and 1815), became a part of the Russian-controlled Kingdom of Poland (“Congress Poland”) in 1815. The rest of Lithuania continued to be administered as a Russian province.
The Poles and Lithuanians revolted against Russian rule twice, in 1830-31 (the November Uprising) and 1863-64 (the January Uprising), but both attempts failed and resulted in increased repression by the Russian authorities. After the November Uprising, Tsar Nicholas I began an intensive program of Russification and the University of Vilnius was closed. Lithuania became part of a new administrative region called the Northwestern Krai. In spite of the repression, Polish language schooling and cultural life were largely able to continue in the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania until the failure of the January Uprising. The Statutes of Lithuania were annulled by the Russian Empire only in 1840, and serfdom was abolished as part of the general Emancipation reform of 1861 that applied to the entire Russian Empire. The Uniate Church, important in the Belarus part of the former Grand Duchy, was incorporated into the Orthodox Church in 1839.
Around the time of the January Uprising, there was a generation of Lithuanian leaders of the transitional period between a political movement bound with Poland and the modern nationalist Lithuanian movement based on language. Jakób Gieysztor, Konstanty Kalinowski and Antanas Mackevičius wanted to form alliances with the local peasants, who, empowered and given land, would presumably help defeat the Russian Empire, acting in their own self-interest. This created new dilemmas that had to do with languages used for such inter-class communication and later led to the concept of a nation as the “sum of speakers of a vernacular tongue.”
The failure of the January Uprising in 1864 made the connection with Poland seem outdated to many Lithuanians and at the same time led to the creation of a class of emancipated and often prosperous peasants who, unlike often Polonized urban residents, were effectively custodians of the Lithuanian language. Educational opportunities, now more widely available to young people of such common origins, were one of the crucial factors responsible for the Lithuanian national revival. As schools were being de-Polonized and Lithuanian university students sent to Saint Petersburg or Moscow rather than Warsaw, a cultural void resulted, and it was not being successfully filled by the attempted Russification policies.
Russian nationalists regarded the territories of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania as an East Slavic realm that ought to be (and was being) “reunited” with Russia. In the following decades however, a Lithuanian national movement emerged, composed of activists of different social backgrounds and persuasions, often primarily Polish-speaking, but united by their willingness to promote the Lithuanian culture and language as a strategy for building a modern nation. The restoration of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania was no longer the objective of this movement, and the territorial ambitions of its leaders were limited to the lands they considered historically Lithuanian.
n 1864, the Lithuanian language and the Latin alphabet were banned in junior schools. The prohibition on printing in the Lithuanian language reflected the Russian nationalist policy of “restoration” of the supposedly Russian beginnings of Lithuania. The tsarist authorities implemented a number of Russification policies, including a Lithuanian press ban and the closing of cultural and educational institutions. Those were resisted by Lithuanians, led by Bishop Motiejus Valančius, among others. Lithuanians resisted by arranging printing abroad and smuggling of the books in from neighboring East Prussia.
Lithuanian was not considered a prestigious language. There were even expectations that the language would become extinct, as more and more territories in the east were slavicized, and more people used Polish or Russian in daily life. The only place where Lithuanian was considered more prestigious and worthy of books and studying was in East Prussia, sometimes referred to by Lithuanian nationalists as “Lithuania Minor.” At the time, northeastern East Prussia was home to numerous ethnic Lithuanians, but even there Germanization pressure threatened their cultural identity.
The language revival spread into more affluent strata, beginning with the release of the Lithuanian newspapers Aušra and Varpas, then with the writing of poems and books in Lithuanian many of which glorified the historic Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
Large numbers of Lithuanians emigrated to the United States in 1867–1868 after a famine in Lithuania. Between 1868 and 1914, approximately 635,000 people, almost 20 percent of the population, left Lithuania. Lithuanian cities and towns were growing under the Russian rule, but the country remained underdeveloped by the European standards and job opportunities were limited; many Lithuanians left also for the industrial centers of the Russian Empire, such as Riga and Saint Petersburg. Many of Lithuania’s cities were dominated by non-Lithuanian-speaking Jews and Poles.
During the 1905 Russian Revolution, a large congress of Lithuanian representatives in Vilnius known as the Great Seimas of Vilnius demanded provincial autonomy for Lithuania (by which they meant the northwestern portion of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania) on December 5 of that year. The tsarist regime made a number of concessions as the result of the 1905 uprising. The Baltic states once again were permitted to use their native languages in schooling and public discourse, and Catholic churches were built in Lithuania. Latin characters replaced the Cyrillic alphabet that had been forced upon Lithuanians for four decades. Not even Russian liberals were prepared to concede autonomy similar to that that had already existed in Estonia and Latvia, albeit under Baltic German hegemony. Many Baltic Germans looked toward aligning the Baltics (Lithuania and Courland in particular) with Germany.
After the outbreak of hostilities in World War I, Germany occupied Lithuania and Courland in 1915. Vilnius fell to the Germans on September 19, 1915. An alliance with Germany in opposition to both tsarist Russia and Lithuanian nationalism became for the Baltic Germans a real possibility. Lithuania was incorporated into Ober Ost under a German government of occupation. As open annexation could result in a public-relations backlash, the Germans planned to form a network of formally independent states that would in fact be dependent on Germany.
The German occupation government permitted a Vilnius Conference to convene between September 18 and September 22, 1917, with the demand that Lithuanians declare loyalty to Germany and agree to an annexation. The intent of the conferees was to begin the process of establishing a Lithuanian state based on ethnic identity and language that would be independent of the Russian Empire, Poland, and the German Empire. The mechanism for this process was to be decided by a constituent assembly, but the German government would not permit elections. Furthermore, the publication of the conference’s resolution calling for the creation of a Lithuanian state and elections for a constituent assembly was not allowed.
The Conference nonetheless elected a 20-member Council of Lithuania (Taryba) and empowered it to act as the executive authority of the Lithuanian people. The Council, led by Jonas Basanavičius, declared Lithuanian independence as a German protectorate on December 11, 1917, and then adopted the outright Act of Independence of Lithuania on February 16, 1918. It proclaimed Lithuania as an independent republic, organized according to democratic principles. The Germans, weakened by the losses on the Western Front, but still present in the country, did not support such a declaration and hindered attempts to establish actual independence. To prevent being incorporated into the German Empire, Lithuanians elected Monaco-born King Mindaugas II as the titular monarch of the Kingdom of Lithuania in July 1918. Mindaugas II never assumed the throne, however.
In the meantime, an attempt to revive the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as a socialist multi-national federal republic was also taking place under the German occupation. In March 1918, Anton Lutskevich and his Belarusian National Council proclaimed a Belarusian People’s Republic that was to stretch from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and include Vilnius. Lutskevich and the Council fled the Red Army approaching from Russia and left Minsk before it was taken over by the Bolsheviks in December 1918. Upon their arrival in Vilnius, they proposed a Belarusian-Lithuanian federation, which however generated no interest on the part of the Lithuanian leaders, who were in advanced stages of promoting national plans of their own. The Lithuanians were interested only in a state “within ethnographic frontiers,” as they perceived it.
In spite of its success in knocking Russia out of World War I by the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk early in 1918, Germany lost the war and signed the Armistice of Compiègne on November 11, 1918. Lithuanians quickly formed their first government, adopted a provisional constitution, and started organizing basic administrative structures. The prime minister of the new government was Augustinas Voldemaras. As the German army was withdrawing from the Eastern Front of World War I, it was followed by Soviet forces whose intention was to spread the global proletarian revolution. They created a number of puppet states, including the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic on December 16, 1918. By the end of December, the Red Army reached Lithuanian borders and started the Lithuanian–Soviet War.
On January 1, 1919, the German occupying army withdrew from Vilnius and turned the city over to local Polish self-defense forces. The Lithuanian government evacuated Vilnius and moved west to Kaunas, which became the temporary capital of Lithuania. Vilnius was captured by the Soviet Red Army on January 5, 1919. As the Lithuanian army was in its infant stages, the Soviet forces moved largely unopposed and by mid-January 1919 controlled about ⅔ of the Lithuanian territory. Vilnius was now the capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Republic, and soon of the combined Lithuanian–Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic.
From April 1919, the Lithuanian–Soviet War dragged on parallel with the Polish–Soviet War. Polish troops captured Vilnius from the Soviets on April 21, 1919. Poland had territorial claims over Lithuania, especially the Vilnius Region, and these tensions spilled over into the Polish–Lithuanian War. Józef Piłsudski of Poland,[b] seeking a Polish-Lithuanian federation, but unable to find common ground with Lithuanian politicians, in August 1919 made an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the Lithuanian government in Kaunas.
In mid-May 1919, the Lithuanian army commanded by General Silvestras Žukauskas began an offensive against the Soviets in northeastern Lithuania. By the end of August 1919, the Soviets were pushed out of Lithuanian territory. The Lithuanian army was then deployed against the paramilitary West Russian Volunteer Army, who invaded northern Lithuania. They were armed by Germany and supported German and Russian soldiers who sought to retain German control over the former Ober Ost. West Russian Volunteers were defeated and pushed out by the end of 1919. Thus the first phase of the Lithuanian Wars of Independence was over and Lithuanians could direct attention to internal affairs.
The Constituent Assembly of Lithuania was elected in April 1920 and first met the following May. In June it adopted the third provisional constitution and on July 12, 1920, signed the Soviet–Lithuanian Peace Treaty. In the treaty the Soviet Union recognized fully independent Lithuania and its claims to the disputed Vilnius Region; Lithuania secretly allowed the Soviet forces passage through its territory as they moved against Poland.
On July 14, 1920, the advancing Soviet army captured Vilnius for a second time from Polish forces. The city was handed back to Lithuanians on August 26, 1920, following the defeat of the Soviet offensive. The victorious Polish army returned and the Soviet–Lithuanian Treaty increased hostilities between Poland and Lithuania. To prevent further fighting, the Suwałki Agreement was signed with Poland on October 7, 1920; it left Vilnius on the Lithuanian side of the armistice line. It never went into effect, however, because Polish General Lucjan Żeligowski, acting on Józef Piłsudski’s orders, staged the Żeligowski’s Mutiny, a military action presented as a mutiny. He invaded Lithuania on October 8, 1920, captured Vilnius the following day, and established a short-lived Republic of Central Lithuania in eastern Lithuania on October 12, 1920. The “Republic” was a part of Piłsudski’s federalist scheme, which never materialized due to opposition from both Polish and Lithuanian nationalists.
For 19 years, Kaunas was the temporary capital of Lithuania while the Vilnius region remained under Polish administration. The League of Nations attempted to mediate the dispute, and Paul Hymans proposed plans for a Polish–Lithuanian union, but negotiations broke down as neither side could agree to a compromise. Central Lithuania held a general election in 1922 that was boycotted by the Jews, Lithuanians and Belarusians, then was annexed into Poland on March 24, 1922. The Conference of Ambassadors awarded Vilnius to Poland in March 1923. Lithuania did not accept this decision and broke all relations with Poland. The two countries were officially at war over Vilnius, the historical capital of Lithuania, inhabited at that time largely by Polish-speaking and Jewish populations between 1920 and 1938. The dispute continued to dominate Lithuanian domestic politics and foreign policy and doomed the relations with Poland for the entire interwar period.
For administrative purposes, the de facto territory of the country was divided into 23 counties. A further 11 counties (including Vilnius) were allocated for the territory occupied by Poland.
The Constituent Assembly, which adjourned in October 1920 due to threats from Poland, gathered again and initiated many reforms needed in the new state. Lithuania obtained international recognition and membership in the League of Nations, passed a law for land reform, introduced a national currency (the litas), and adopted a final constitution in August 1922. Lithuania became a democratic state, with Seimas (parliament) elected by men and women for a three-year term. The Seimas elected the president. The First Seimas of Lithuania was elected in October 1922, but could not form a government as the votes split equally 38–38, and it was forced to dissolve. Its only lasting achievement was the Klaipėda Revolt from January 10 to January 15, 1923. The revolt involved Lithuania Minor, a region traditionally sought by Lithuanian nationalists that remained under German rule after World War I, except for the Klaipėda Region with its large Lithuanian minority.
Lithuania took advantage of the Ruhr Crisis in western Europe and captured the Klaipėda Region, a territory detached from East Prussia by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and placed under a French administration sponsored by the League of Nations. The region was incorporated as an autonomous district of Lithuania in May 1924. For Lithuania, it provided the country’s only access to the Baltic Sea, and it was an important industrial center, but the region’s numerous German inhabitants resisted Lithuanian rule during the 1930s. The Klaipėda Revolt was the last armed conflict in Lithuania before World War II.
The Second Seimas of Lithuania, elected in May 1923, was the only Seimas in independent Lithuania that served its full term. The Seimas continued the land reform, introduced social support systems, and started repaying foreign debt. The first Lithuanian national census took place in 1923.
The Third Seimas of Lithuania was elected in May 1926. For the first time, the bloc led by the Lithuanian Christian Democratic Party lost their majority and went into opposition. It was sharply criticized for signing the Soviet–Lithuanian Non-Aggression Pact even though it affirmed Soviet recognition of Lithuanian claims to Poland-held Vilnius, and was accused of “Bolshevizing” Lithuania. As a result of growing tensions, the government was deposed during the 1926 Lithuanian coup d’état in December. The coup, organized by the military, was supported by the Lithuanian Nationalists Union (tautininkai) and Lithuanian Christian Democrats. They installed Antanas Smetona as the president and Augustinas Voldemaras as the prime minister. Smetona suppressed the opposition and remained as an authoritarian leader until June 1940.
The Seimas thought that the coup was just a temporary measure and that new elections would be called to return Lithuania to democracy. Instead, the legislative body was dissolved in May 1927. Later that year, members of the Social Democrats and other leftist parties tried to organize an uprising against Smetona, but were quickly subdued. Voldemaras grew increasingly independent of Smetona and was forced to resign in 1929. Three times in 1930 and once in 1934, he unsuccessfully attempted to return to power. In May 1928, Smetona announced the fifth provisional constitution without consulting the Seimas. The constitution continued to claim that Lithuania was a democratic state while the powers of the president were vastly increased. Smetona’s party, the Lithuanian Nationalist Union, steadily grew in size and importance. He adopted the title “tautos vadas” (leader of the nation) and slowly started building a cult of personality. Many prominent political figures married into Smetona’s family.
When the Nazi Party came into power in Germany, German–Lithuanian relations worsened considerably as the Nazis did not want to accept the loss of the Klaipėda Region (Memelland in German). The Nazis sponsored anti-Lithuanian organizations in the region. In 1934, Lithuania put the activists on trial and sentenced about 100 people, including their leaders Ernst Neumann and Theodor von Sass, to prison terms. That prompted Germany, one of the main trade partners of Lithuania, to declare an embargo of Lithuanian products. In response, Lithuania shifted its exports to Great Britain. That measure did not go far enough to satisfy many groups, and peasants in Suvalkija organized strikes, which were violently suppressed. Smetona’s prestige was damaged, and in September 1936, he agreed to call the first elections for the Seimas since the coup of 1926. Before the elections, all political parties were eliminated except for the National Union. Thus, 42 of the 49 members of the Fourth Seimas of Lithuania were from the National Union. This assembly functioned as an advisory board to the president, and in February 1938, it adopted a new constitution that granted the president even greater powers.
As tensions were rising in Europe following the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany (the Anschluss), Poland presented the 1938 Polish ultimatum to Lithuania in March of that year. Poland demanded the re-establishment of the normal diplomatic relations that were broken after the Żeligowski Mutiny in 1920 and threatened military actions in case of refusal. Lithuania, having a weaker military and unable to enlist international support for its cause, accepted the ultimatum. In the event of Polish military action, Adolf Hitler ordered a German military takeover of southwest Lithuania up to the Dubysa River, and his armed forces were being fully mobilized until the news of the Lithuanian acceptance. Relations between Poland and Lithuania became somewhat normalized after the acceptance of the ultimatum, and the parties concluded treaties regarding railway transport, postal exchange, and other means of communication.
Lithuania offered diplomatic support to Germany and the Soviet Union in opposition to powers such as France and Estonia that backed Poland in the conflict over Vilnius, but both Germany and the Soviet Union saw fit to encroach on Lithuania’s territory and independence anyway. Following the Nazi electoral success in Klaipėda in December 1938, Germany decided to take action to secure control of the entire region.
On March 20, 1939, just a few days after the German occupation of Czechoslovakia of March 15, Lithuania received the 1939 German ultimatum to Lithuania from foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. It demanded the immediate cession of the Klaipėda Region to Germany. The Lithuanian government accepted the ultimatum to avoid an armed intervention. The Klaipėda Region was directly incorporated into the East Prussian province of the German Reich. This triggered a political crisis in Lithuania and forced Smetona to form a new government that included members of the opposition for the first time since 1926. The loss of Klaipėda was a major blow to the Lithuanian economy and the country shifted into the sphere of German influence. When Germany and the Soviet Union concluded the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact in August 1939 and divided Eastern Europe into spheres of influence, Lithuania was assigned to Germany at first, but that changed after Smetona’s refusal to participate in the German invasion of Poland.
The interwar period of independence gave birth to the development of Lithuanian press, literature, music, arts, and theater as well as a comprehensive system of education with Lithuanian as the language of instruction. The network of primary and secondary schools was expanded and institutions of higher learning were established in Kaunas. Lithuanian society remained heavily agricultural with only 20% of the people living in cities. The influence of the Catholic Church was strong and birth rates high: the population increased by 22% to over three million during 1923–39, despite emigration to South America and elsewhere. In almost all cities and towns, traditionally dominated by Jews, Poles, Russians and Germans, ethnic Lithuanians became the majority. Lithuanians, for example, constituted 59% of the residents of Kaunas in 1923, as opposed to 7% in 1897. The right-wing dictatorship of 1926–40 had strangely stabilizing social effects, as it prevented the worst of antisemitic excesses as well as the rise of leftist and rightist political extremism.
Secret protocols of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, adjusted by the German-Soviet Frontier Treaty, divided Eastern Europe into Soviet and Nazi spheres of influence. The three Baltic states fell to the Soviet sphere. During the subsequent invasion of Poland, the Red Army captured Vilnius, regarded by Lithuanians as their capital. According to the Soviet–Lithuanian Mutual Assistance Pact of October 10, 1939, Soviet Union transferred Vilnius and surrounding territory to Lithuania in exchange for the stationing of 20,000 Soviet troops within the country. It was a virtual sacrifice of independence, as reflected in a known slogan “Vilnius – mūsų, Lietuva – rusų” (Vilnius is ours, but Lithuania is Russia’s). Similar Mutual Assistance Pacts were signed with Latvia and Estonia. When Finland refused to sign its pact, Winter War broke out.
In spring 1940, once the Winter War in Finland was over, the Soviets heightened their diplomatic pressure on Lithuania and issued the 1940 Soviet ultimatum to Lithuania on June 14. The ultimatum demanded the formation of a new pro-Soviet government and admission of an unspecified number of Russian troops. With Soviet troops already stationed within the country, Lithuania could not resist and accepted the ultimatum. President Antanas Smetona fled Lithuania as 150,000 Soviet troops crossed the Lithuanian border. Soviet representative Vladimir Dekanozov formed the new pro-Soviet puppet government, known as the People’s Government, headed by Justas Paleckis, and organized show elections for the so-called People’s Seimas. During its first session on July 21, the People’s Seimas unanimously voted to convert Lithuania into the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic and petitioned to join the Soviet Union. The application was approved by the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union on August 3, 1940, which completed the formalization of the annexation.
Immediately following the occupation, Soviet authorities began rapid Sovietization of Lithuania. All land was nationalized. To gain support for the new regime among the poorer peasants, large farms were distributed to small landowners. However, in preparation for eventual collectivization, agricultural taxes were dramatically increased in an attempt to bankrupt all farmers. Nationalization of banks, larger enterprises, and real estate resulted in disruptions in production that caused massive shortages of goods. The Lithuanian litas was artificially undervalued and withdrawn by spring 1941. Standards of living plummeted. All religious, cultural, and political organizations were banned, leaving only the Communist Party of Lithuania and its youth branch. An estimated 12,000 “enemies of the people” were arrested. During the June deportation campaign of 1941, some 12,600 people (mostly former military officers, policemen, political figures, intelligentsia and their families) were deported to Gulags in Siberia under the policy of elimination of national elites. Many deportees perished due to inhumane conditions; 3,600 were imprisoned and over 1,000 were killed.
On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. The German forces moved rapidly and encountered only sporadic Soviet resistance. Vilnius was captured on June 24, 1941, and Germany controlled all of Lithuania within a week. The retreating Soviet forces murdered between 1,000 and 1,500 people, mostly ethnic Lithuanians. The Lithuanians generally greeted the Germans as liberators from the oppressive Soviet regime and hoped that Germany would restore some autonomy to their country. The Lithuanian Activist Front organized an anti-Soviet revolt known as the June Uprising in Lithuania, declared independence, and formed a Provisional Government of Lithuania with Juozas Ambrazevičius as prime minister. The Provisional Government was not forcibly dissolved; stripped by the Germans of any actual power, it resigned on August 5, 1941. Germany established the civil administration known as the Reichskommissariat Ostland.
Initially, there was substantial cooperation and collaboration between the German forces and some Lithuanians. Lithuanians joined the Tautinio Darbo Apsaugos Batalionas (TDA) and Schutzmannschaft police battalions in hopes that these police units would be later transformed into the regular army of independent Lithuania. Instead, these units were employed by the Germans as auxiliaries in perpetrating the Holocaust. Lithuanians soon became disillusioned with harsh German policies of collecting large war provisions, gathering people for forced labor in Germany, conscripting men into the German army, and the lack of true autonomy. These feelings only naturally led to the creation of a resistance movement. The most notable resistance organization, the Supreme Committee for the Liberation of Lithuania, was formed in 1943. Due to passive resistance, a Waffen-SS division was not established in Lithuania. As a compromise, the Lithuanian general Povilas Plechavičius formed the short-lived Lithuanian Territorial Defense Force (LTDF). Lithuanians did not organize armed resistance, still considering Soviet Union their primary enemy. Armed resistance was conducted by pro-Soviet partisans (mainly Russians, Belarusians and Jews) and Polish Armia Krajowa (AK) in eastern Lithuania.
Before the Holocaust, Lithuania was home to a disputed number of Jews: 210,000 according to one estimate, 250,000 according to another. About 90% or more of the Lithuanian Jews were murdered, one of the highest rates in Europe. The Holocaust in Lithuania can be divided into three stages: mass executions (June–December 1941), a ghetto period (1942 – March 1943), and a final liquidation (April 1943 – July 1944). Unlike in other Nazi-occupied countries where the Holocaust was introduced gradually, Einsatzgruppe A started executions in Lithuania on the first days of the German occupation. The executions were carried out by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators in three main areas: Kaunas (marked by the Ninth Fort), in Vilnius (marked by the Ponary massacre), and in the countryside (sponsored by the Rollkommando Hamann). An estimated 80% of Lithuanian Jews were killed before 1942. The surviving 43,000 Jews were concentrated in the Vilnius Ghetto, Kaunas Ghetto, Šiauliai Ghetto, and Švenčionys Ghetto and forced to work for the benefit of German military industry. In 1943, the ghettos were either liquidated or turned into concentration camps. Only about 2,000–3,000 Lithuanian Jews were liberated from these camps. More survived by withdrawing into the interior of Russia before the war broke out or by escaping the ghettos and joining the Jewish partisans.
In the summer of 1944, the Soviet Red Army reached eastern Lithuania. By July 1944, the area around Vilnius came under control of the Polish Resistance fighters of the Armia Krajowa, who also attempted a takeover of the German-held city during the ill-fated Operation Ostra Brama. The Red Army captured Vilnius with Polish help on July 13. The Soviet Union re-occupied Lithuania and Joseph Stalin re-established the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1944 with its capital in Vilnius. The Soviets secured the passive agreement of the United States and Great Britain (see Yalta Conference and Potsdam Agreement) to this annexation. By January 1945, the Soviet forces captured Klaipėda on the Baltic coast. The heaviest physical losses in Lithuania during World War II were suffered in 1944–45, when the Red Army pushed out the Nazi invaders. It is estimated that Lithuania lost 780,000 people between 1940 and 1954 under the Nazi and Soviet occupations.
The Soviet deportations from Lithuania between 1941 and 1952 resulted in the exile of tens of thousands of families to forced settlements in the Soviet Union, especially in Siberia and other remote parts of the country. Between 1944 and 1953, nearly 120,000 people (5% of the population) were deported, and thousands more became political prisoners. Many leading intellectual figures and most Catholic priests were among the deported; many returned to Lithuania after 1953. Approximately 20,000 Lithuanian partisans participated in unsuccessful warfare against the Soviet regime in the 1940s and early 1950s. Most were killed or deported to Siberian gulags. During the years following the German surrender at the end of World War II in 1945, between 40 and 60 thousand civilians and combatants perished in the context of the anti-Soviet insurgency. Considerably more ethnic Lithuanians died after World War II than during it.
Soviet authorities encouraged the immigration of non-Lithuanian workers, especially Russians, as a way of integrating Lithuania into the Soviet Union and encouraging industrial development, but in Lithuania this process did not assume the massive scale experienced by other European Soviet republics.
To a great extent, Lithuanization rather than Russification took place in postwar Vilnius and elements of a national revival characterize the period of Lithuania’s existence as a Soviet republic. Lithuania’s boundaries and political integrity were determined by Joseph Stalin’s decision to grant Vilnius to the Lithuanian SSR again in 1944. Subsequently, most Poles were resettled from Vilnius (but only a minority from the countryside and other parts of the Lithuanian SSR) by the implementation of Soviet and Lithuanian communist policies that mandated their partial replacement by Russian immigrants. Vilnius was then increasingly settled by Lithuanians and assimilated by Lithuanian culture, which fulfilled, albeit under the oppressive and limiting conditions of the Soviet rule, the long-held dream of Lithuanian nationalists. The economy of Lithuania did well in comparison with other regions of the Soviet Union.
The national developments in Lithuania followed tacit compromise agreements worked out by the Soviet communists, Lithuanian communists and the Lithuanian intelligentsia. Vilnius University was reopened after the war, operating in the Lithuanian language and with a largely Lithuanian student body. It became a center for Baltic studies. General schools in the Lithuanian SSR provided more instruction in Lithuanian than at any previous time in the country’s history. The literary Lithuanian language was standardized and refined further as a language of scholarship and Lithuanian literature. The price the Lithuanian intelligentsia ended up paying for the national privileges was their much increased Communist Party membership after Stalin’s death.
Between the death of Stalin in 1953 and the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s, Lithuania functioned as a Soviet society, with all its repressions and peculiarities. Agriculture remained collectivized, property nationalized, and criticism of the Soviet system was severely punished. The country remained largely isolated from the non-Soviet world because of travel restrictions, the persecution of the Catholic Church continued and the nominally egalitarian society was extensively corrupted by the practice of connections and privileges for those who served the system.
Until mid-1988, all political, economic, and cultural life was controlled by the Communist Party of Lithuania (CPL). Lithuanians as well as people in the other two Baltic republics distrusted the Soviet regime even more than people in other regions of the Soviet state, and they gave their own specific and active support to Mikhail Gorbachev’s program of social and political reforms known as perestroika and glasnost. Under the leadership of intellectuals, the Reform Movement of Lithuania Sąjūdis was formed in mid-1988, and it declared a program of democratic and national rights, winning nationwide popularity.
Inspired by Sąjūdis, the Supreme Soviet of the Lithuanian SSR passed constitutional amendments on the supremacy of Lithuanian laws over Soviet legislation, annulled the 1940 decisions on proclaiming Lithuania a part of the Soviet Union, legalized a multi-party system, and adopted a number of other important decisions, including the return of the national state symbols — the flag of Lithuania and the national anthem.
A large number of CPL members also supported the ideas of Sąjūdis, and with Sąjūdis support, Algirdas Brazauskas was elected First Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPL in 1988. On August 23, 1989, 50 years after the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians joined hands in a human chain that stretched 600 kilometres from Tallinn to Vilnius in order to draw the world’s attention to the fate of the Baltic nations. The human chain was called the Baltic Way. In December 1989, the Brazauskas-led CPL declared its independence from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and became a separate social democratic party, renaming itself the Democratic Labour Party of Lithuania in 1990.
In early 1990, candidates backed by Sąjūdis won the Lithuanian parliamentary elections. On March 11, 1990, the Supreme Soviet of the Lithuanian SSR proclaimed the Act of the Re-Establishment of the State of Lithuania. The Baltic republics were in the forefront of the struggle for independence, and Lithuania was the first of the Soviet republics to declare independence. Vytautas Landsbergis, a leader of the Sąjūdis national movement, became the head of state and Kazimira Prunskienė led the Cabinet of Ministers. Provisional fundamental laws of the state were passed.
On March 15, the Soviet Union demanded revocation of the independence and began employing political and economic sanctions against Lithuania. The Soviet military was used to seize a few public buildings, but violence was largely contained until January 1991. During the January Events in Lithuania, the Soviet authorities attempted to overthrow the elected government by sponsoring the so-called National Salvation Committee. The Soviets forcibly took over the Vilnius TV Tower, killing 14 unarmed civilians and injuring 140. During this assault, the only means of contact to the outside world available was an amateur radio station set up in the Lithuanian Parliament building by Tadas Vyšniauskas whose call sign was LY2BAW. The initial cries for help were received by an American amateur radio operators with the call sign N9RD in Indiana and WB9Z in Illinois, USA. N9RD, WB9Z and other radio operators from around the world were able to relay situational updates to relevant authorities until official United States Department of State personnel were able to go on-air. Moscow failed to act further to crush the Lithuanian independence movement, and the Lithuanian government continued to function.
During the national referendum on February 9, 1991, more than 90% of those who took part in the voting (76% of all eligible voters) voted in favor of an independent, democratic Lithuania. During the 1991 Soviet coup d’état attempt in August, Soviet military troops took over several communications and other government facilities in Vilnius and other cities, but returned to their barracks when the coup failed. The Lithuanian government banned the Communist Party and ordered confiscation of its property. Following the failed coup, Lithuania received widespread international recognition and was admitted to the United Nations on September 17, 1991.
As in many countries of the former Soviet Union, the popularity of the independence movement (Sąjūdis in the case of Lithuania) diminished due to worsening economic situation (rising unemployment, inflation, etc.). The Communist Party of Lithuania renamed itself as the Democratic Labour Party of Lithuania (LDDP) and gained a majority of seats against Sąjūdis in the Lithuanian parliamentary elections of 1992. LDDP continued building the independent democratic state and transitioning from a centrally planned economy to a free market economy. In the Lithuanian parliamentary elections of 1996, the voters swung back to the rightist Homeland Union, led by the former Sąjūdis leader Vytautas Landsbergis.
As part of the economic transition to capitalism, Lithuania organized a privatization campaign to sell government-owned residential real estate and commercial enterprises. The government issued investment vouchers to be used in privatization instead of actual currency. People cooperated in groups to collect larger amounts of vouchers for the public auctions and the privatization campaign. Lithuania, unlike Russia, did not create a small group of very wealthy and powerful people. The privatization started with small organizations, and large enterprises (such as telecommunication companies or airlines) were sold several years later for hard currency in a bid to attract foreign investors. Lithuania’s monetary system was to be based on the Lithuanian litas, the currency used during the interwar period. Due to high inflation and other delays, a temporary currency, the Lithuanian talonas, was introduced (it was commonly referred to as the Vagnorėlis or Vagnorkė after Prime Minister Gediminas Vagnorius). Eventually the litas was issued in June 1993, and the decision was made to set it up with a fixed exchange rate to the United States dollar in 1994 and to the Euro in 2002.
Despite Lithuania’s achievement of complete independence, sizable numbers of Russian forces remained in its territory. Withdrawal of those forces was one of Lithuania’s top foreign policy priorities. Russian troop withdrawal was completed by August 31, 1993. The first military of the reborn country were the Lithuanian National Defence Volunteer Forces, who first took an oath at the Supreme Council of Lithuania soon after the declaration of independence. The Lithuanian military built itself to the common standard with the Lithuanian Air Force, Lithuanian Naval Force and Lithuanian Land Force. Interwar paramilitary organizations such as the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union, Young Riflemen, and the Lithuanian Scouts were re-established. On April 27, 1993, a partnership with the Pennsylvania National Guard was established as part of the State Partnership Program.
Seeking closer ties with the West, Lithuania applied for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) membership in 1994. The country had to go through a difficult transition from planned to free market economy in order to satisfy the requirements for European Union (EU) membership. In May 2001, Lithuania became the 141st member of the World Trade Organization. In October 2002, Lithuania was invited to join the European Union and one month later to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; it became a member of both in 2004.
As a result of the broader global financial crisis, the Lithuanian economy in 2009 experienced its worst recession since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. After a boom in growth sparked by Lithuania’s 2004 accession to the European Union, the Gross domestic product contracted by 15% in 2009. Especially since Lithuania’s admission into the European Union, large numbers of Lithuanians (up to 20% of the population) have moved abroad in search of better economic opportunities to create a significant demographic problem for the small country.
The postal history of Lithuania started around the tenth or twelfth century or even earlier, with a pre-Christian messaging system known as krivūlė. The first mail service was introduced in 1562, connecting Vilnius with Kraków, and Venice.
Lithuania, as part of the Russian empire, used Russian stamps. During the German occupation in WWI, these were superseded by the issues for the Oberbefehlshaber Ost — German stamps overprinted Postgebiet Ob Ost.
The Republic of Lithuania issued its first stamps in December 1918. The first issues were of a very basic, provisional design. The first stamps of a professional design appeared in February 1919 showing the coat of arms of the republic. Local issues appeared in Grodno, Raseiniai and Telšiai — Grodno at the time being in Lithuanian hands, later to become Polish. A total of 768 stamps of different designs were issued by the Republic of Lithuania between 1918 and May 1940, with more than 2,000 variations due to errors, misprints or perforations. The first airmail stamps were issued in 1921. There were also several local and occupation issues — Raseiniai local issue (1919), Telšiai Postmaster’s provisional issue (1920), Grodno issue (1919), several 1941 post-Soviet reprints on Soviet stamps (Vilnius, Raseiniai and other local offices), Central Lithuania issues (Litwa Środkowa), Klaipėda issues (Memel) and others.
The Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic issued one set of stamps in August 1940, after annexation by the Soviet Union — Lithuanian stamps overprinted LTSR – 1940 VII 21. After the 1940 occupation by the Soviet Union, Lithuanian postage stamps were replaced by Soviet stamps.
After the proclamation of independence, Lithuania issued its first stamps in October 1990. These, and subsequent issues until August 1991, were not brought into circulation until September 1991, when the Soviet Union recognized Lithuanian independence. Soviet stamps remained valid until the end of December 1991. Independent Lithuania issues stamps mainly with themes of national interest.
Scott #848 was issued on October 3, 2007, as a horizontal pair of stamps with a central label depicting birds of the Cepkeliai Nature Reserve in Lithuania and the Katra Sanctuary in Belarus. Scott #848a depicts Gallinago media while Scott #848b portrays Crex crex. The 2.90 litas stamps are perforated 14.
The Cepkeliai Nature Reserve was established in 1975 with the aim of preserving one of the oldest and most unusual forest bogs in Lithuania, the forested continental dunes, the lakes, the natural hydrological regime of the bog and the rare plant and animal life. Cepkeliai is a unique area of bogs that has been virtually uninfluenced by human activity. Raised bogs covered with moss and dwarf pines cover most of the area. More than 20 lakes lie to the east. In the south the bog gradually turns into a mash, in which sedge, reeds and willow thickets prevail. Most of the forests in the reserve are dry pinewoods rich in lichen, and cowberries grow on the dunes surrounding the bogs. The strict reserve has an enormous variety of habitats, and species of rare plants and animals abound. It provides nesting grounds for the wood grouse, the symbol of the reserve. It also has the largest crane nesting sites in Lithuania.
The Cepkeliai wetland complex is the largest in Lithuania and one of the largest in the Baltic region. The vast Cepkeliai raised bog complex, located in the central part of the wetland complex, stretches on sandy fluvio-glacial lowland. This plain was formed by glacial meltwater flows that filled depressions with sandy and silty sediments. The bog formation processes started 17,000 years ago.
The corn crake, corncrake or landrail (Crex crex) is a bird in the rail family. It breeds in Europe and Asia as far east as western China, and migrates to Africa for the northern hemisphere’s winter. It is a medium-sized crake with buff- or grey-streaked brownish-black upperparts, chestnut markings on the wings, and blue-grey underparts with rust-coloured and white bars on the flanks and undertail. The strong bill is flesh-toned, the iris is pale brown, and the legs and feet are pale grey. Juveniles are similar in plumage to adults, and downy chicks are black, as with all rails. There are no subspecies, although individuals from the east of the breeding range tend to be slightly paler than their western counterparts. The male’s call is a loud krek krek, from which the scientific name is derived. The corn crake is larger than its closest relative, the African crake, which shares its wintering range; that species is also darker-plumaged, and has a plainer face.
The corn crake’s breeding habitat is grassland, particularly hayfields, and it uses similar environments on the wintering grounds. This secretive species builds a nest of grass leaves in a hollow in the ground and lays 6–14 cream-colored eggs which are covered with rufous blotches. These hatch in 19–20 days, and the black precocial chicks fledge after about five weeks. This crake is in steep decline across much of its former breeding range because modern farming practices often destroy nests before breeding is completed. The corn crake is omnivorous but mainly feeds on invertebrates, the occasional small frog or mammal, and plant material including grass seed and cereal grain. Natural threats include introduced and feral mammals, large birds, various parasites and diseases.
Although numbers have declined steeply in western Europe, this bird is classed as least concern on the IUCN Red List because of its huge range and large, apparently stable, populations in Russia and Kazakhstan. Numbers in western China are more significant than previously thought, and conservation measures have facilitated an increased population in some countries which had suffered the greatest losses. Despite its elusive nature, the loud call has ensured the corn crake has been noted in literature, and garnered a range of local and dialect names.