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A brief history of Lithuania

Historical events contributing to the formation of character of the Lithuanian people

It is believed that Lithuanian ancestors arrived at the eastern part of the Baltic coast at about 2,000 BC. However, not much is known about them, except that their land was a source of amber and that they were heathen. Tacitus in Germania, described inhabitants of the south-eastern Baltic Sea shores as Aesti people (presumably Balts around 97 AD). Among many versions, the most widespread opinion is that the name Lithuania is derived from the name of Lietauka, a small river that flows into the river Neris near the town of Kernavė.

Linguists believe the Lithuanian language became differentiated from Latvian around the 7th century. However, numerous tribes living in the Southeast region along the shores of the Baltic Sea, while speaking in a general Lithuanian dialect, did not necessarily call themselves Lithuanians and their land-Lithuania. They identified themselves as Zemaiciai, Kursiai, Jotvingiai, etc. Lithuania’s name (Lituae) first surfaced in the Quendlinburg annals in 1009, noting of beheading the missionary Bruno, Querfurtensis, Bonifacus by the pagan population.

Lithuania ascending as a Grand Duchy to the largest country in Europe in the XIII and XIV centuries

The first recorded Lithuanian state, known as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL), was created in the middle of the 13th century. Its first ruler, Mindaugas, adopted the Christian faith and became “king” by pope’s decree in 1253. However, Mindaugas was assassinated in 1263 and his people subsequently reverted to paganism.

In 1316 Lithuania was united again by Grand Duke Gediminas. During his reign Lithuania grew strong by expanding into Ruthenium and Ukrainian lands. He made Vilnius the country’s capital and encouraged artisans from other parts of Europe to settle in Lithuania.

His son, Algirdas, upon becoming the Grand Duke in 1345, proceeded to expand further eastward and southward into Ukraine and Polish lands. However, Lithuania began facing growing threats from the Teutonic order from the west and Livonian Knights from the north.

In 1377, Jogaila, Algirdas’ son, upon declaring himself the grand duke of GDL, captured and imprisoned his rival uncle Kestutis and his son Vytautas. Kestutis was murdered in the Kreve castle prison in 1382, while Vytautas escaped and sought help at the Teutonic order.

In 1385, grand duke Jogaila, married the Polish princess Jadwiga, and became the ruler of the combined Polish-Lithuania kingdom. Jogaila forced Lithuania’s pagan population to accept the Christian faith, followed by destruction of any places of worship and signs related to paganism. Inasmuch as Christianity came to Lithuania only in Polish and/or Old Russian languages, it had devastating impact on Lithuanians over the next five centuries.

Jogaila made peace with his cousin Duke Vytautas in 1392, granting him the title of ruler and Grand Duke of Lithuania (GDL), on condition that he would recognize Jogaila as his king, and the GDL title would revert to the king upon Vytautas death.

Vytautas, to keep leverage on Jogaila, made peace with the Teutonic Order by relinquishing Lithuania’s rights to the Zemaitija region (Samogitia) in 1398. Samogitians rebelled and evicted the Teutonic order from two castle-fortresses on their land. Both Jogaila and Vytautas supported the rebellion in secret. In a battle in 1410 at Tannenberg (also known as Gruenwald or Zalgiris) the combined Lithuanian and Polish forces defeated the Teutonic knights and ended their presence as a military power.

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Vytautas leading his warriors at the battle of Zalgiris

Under Grand Duke Vytautas, Lithuania extended its reign far into Ruthenia beyond the city of Smolensk and into Ukraine, including Kiev, and as far as the shores of the Black Sea. Lithuania, under Vytautas reign became the largest country in Europe. Vytautas died in 1430.

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Map of Grand Duchy of Lithuania under Vytautas Rule

Lithuania’s gradual decline after Vytautas the Great’s death in 1430

In 1447 Casimir Jagiellon, the son of Jogaila, Duke of GDL, was elected by the Polish nobility as the King of Poland. Since that time, the Poles began to usurp influence and predominance in public and political affairs of the GDL. Lithuania’s ruling nobility, mimicking their Polish counterparts, adopted Polish as their court and Catholic faith language. Servitude, in which the peasants lost all civil rights and became the property of nobility, became the law of the land.

Demise of the Lithuania-Polish Commonwealth and its disappearance at the end of the XVIII century

Not being able to fight off the rising power of Turks in the south and Moscovia (Russia) in the east, the GDL began to lose power and control of its peripheral lands. In the treaty of Lublin in 1569, Poland forced the weakening GDL to submit to the rule of the Polish king thereby greatly diminishing the powers of Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

The treaty allowed the two states to keep their own armies, prohibited making treaties with foreign countries without the other’s consent, and to retain their own laws. The countries adopted a common currency and a joint nobility based parliament (Sejm-seimas) meeting in Warsaw and being ruled by a common king, seated in Cracow. This set in motion the domination of Polish culture and language in all facets of life in the GDL.

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Lithuanians are forced to submit to Poland at the Lblin Union

One of the most important GDL documents in the XVI century was the issuance of Lithuanian Statutes in 1522, with revisions in 1566 and 1588. It eliminated numerous tribal laws, updated applicable old and current laws, and codified the rights of nobility and of their peasants in a single document. .

In the 16th century, protestant reformation reached and made huge inroads in Lithuania. The authorities in Lithuanian East Prussia decreed that their protestant faith must be taught and explained in the language of the people, which was Lithuanian. As a result, the very first book in Lithuanian language was published in Karaliaucius (Koenigsberg) in the form of Catechism by Rev. Martynas Mažvydas in 1547. While Protestantism in Lithuania was sent into retreat by Catholic counter-reformation in the late part of the 16th century, the people’s expression of faith and printed publications in the Lithuanian language flourished only in East Prussia.

The Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth was initially somewhat successful against bellicose Moscovian Russia. In 1611–1612 war, the Commonwealth troops even occupied Moscow. However, in 1651, Moscovian Russians successfully invaded and devastated all of the GDL. The cities of Kaunas and Vilnius were burnt to the ground. Nearly 40% of the population perished in this assault. Thousands of captives were driven-off into servitude to the far eastern parts of Russia.

By clever Russian infiltration and bribery, the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania declined in the 17th and 18th century and effectively became a Russian satellite. In 1773 Prussia, Austria and Russia agreed between themselves to absorb large segments of peripheral territory of the Commonwealth. A second partition, shrinking the Commonwealth to a miniature entity, took place in 1793. In the third partition in 1795, the Commonwealth ceased to exist.

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Third and Final Partition of the Commonwealth in 1795

Lithuanians in futile rebellions in the 19th century

Russia controlled the GDL and their portion of Poland by the tip of bayonets of their soldiers. In 1830, the Poles rebelled against the Russians. It spread to Lithuania in 1832. By 1833, the Russians crushed the uprising followed by massacres and deportation of thousands. The Statutes of Lithuania were replaced in 1840 by Russia’s judicial system. The territory of GDL was now called the Northwestern Territory.

The Poles and Lithuanians rebelled unsuccessfully again in 1863–4. The aftermath, were mass executions by public hanging, followed by deportation to Siberia of more than 25 thousand Lithuanians. Catholic religion in Lithuanian language was outlawed, but not in Polish. Inasmuch as most Lithuanians were Catholics, they strongly resisted forced Czar’s attempts to convert them to the Russian orthodox faith. The coercion was very convenient to finalize the polonization of Lithuania’s religious life. Polish speaking priests explained to the people that God understood prayers only in Polish, but not in Lithuanian. Lithuanian books in Latin script were banned and teaching in schools was allowed only in the Russian language. All public service, police and educational institution employees had to be Russian nationals and of orthodox faith. Russian was the only official language allowed, and enforced by whips yielding Kazakh battalions.

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Russia’s Kazakh soldiers driving Lithuanian prisoners of uprising into Siberian exile

Rebirth of national consciousness

In contrast, Lithuanians in German controlled East Prussia were encouraged in their daily lives to speak and pray in their own native language. Extensive social, cultural and literary organizations developed, including the operation of 400 schools and a Lithuanian language faculty at the University of Koenigsberg. From it and from the pulpits of the Lithuanian Lutheran churches, literary master pieces in and research studies of the Lithuanian language began to emerge. The Lithuanian language was recognized as one of the oldest and most important in the development of languages spoken in the northern part of Europe. The proximity of Lithuanians in East Prussia was the fuse that triggered the revival of Lithuanian consciousness in Lithuania proper.

Russia’s iron rule created a nationwide hate of the oppressors. At the same time, rising nationalism in Western Europe caused a growing consciousness and interest by the people in Lithuania about its past, its culture, and the dream of being free of the Russian yoke. Lithuanian mothers began to teach their children to read and write secretly at home at the spinning wheel.

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Secret homeschooling at the spinning wheel

Prayer books, printed in Lithuanian, began to flow through underground channels from East Prussia. A small group of intellectuals launched in 1883, the first Lithuanian periodical Aušra (“The Dawn”), printed in East Prussia in the traditional Latin script. It was meant to awaken the consciousness and pride in Lithuanianess. Lithuanian-minded activists began to emerge in western Europe, in the United States and even in Russia. They began to raise the idea of independence from Russia.

Lithuania’s fight for and reestablishment of independence in 1918

Czar Nicholas II, frightened by the rising wave of resurrections in Europe and threats of revolution in Russia, repealed in 1904 the ban on Lithuanian language publications in the Latin script, and issued on October 1905 a manifesto in which he vowed to recognize fundamental democratic freedoms of his constituents and allow to organize elections to the State Duma (Parliament). As a result, over 2,000 Lithuanian activists legally convened in Vilnius in December 1905, demanding autonomy for Lithuania.

During WWI the Germans expelled the Russians and occupied Lithuania in 1915. In 1917 they allowed to form an assembly of Lithuanian activists called “Taryba” (Council). On February 16, 1918, the Taryba declared Lithuania’s independence with the country’s capital Vilnius.

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Council of cosigners of Lithuania’s Declaration of Independence

The Poles, violating prior agreements, occupied Vilnius and about a third of Lithuania in 1920, before being stopped by a ragged army of Lithuanian volunteer fighters. Occupation of Vilnius created a great deal of tension with Poland in the next 20 years. In 1923, Lithuanian volunteers recovered the Klaipeda region by forcefully evicting the French military administration. Also in 1922, the U.S. recognized Lithuania’s independence.

In the 1926 army coup, Antanas Smetona, after ousting the communist and socialist leaning government, became Lithuania’s president. He retained that position until fleeing the country from an occupying Soviet Russia’s army in June1940. While Lithuania under Smetona made considerable progress in economics and rebuild the nation to a strong nationalistic consciousness, it also became a mild dictatorship. In March 1939, Germany forced Lithuania to relinquish the Klaipeda region. Upon fall of Poland in 1939, Russia returned a part of the Vilnius region to Lithuania, with a provision of stationing Russian military garrisons on Lithuania’s territory.

Occupation by Russia in 1940, restoring Independence in 1990, and joining NATO and the European Union

Russia, using bellicose threat occupied Lithuania in June 1940, and incorporated it in a rigged election into the Soviet Union as one of the Soviet republics in August 1940. Reign of terror followed by mass arrests, executions, and deportations to Siberia of tens of thousands of Lithuania’s citizens suspected of disloyalty to communism.

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Russian troops crossing Lithuania’s border in June 1940

Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, and in less than a week had captured all of Lithuania. Their occupation lasted 3 years. During their rule, self government was not allowed, farm production confiscated, many young people were force-shipped to work in Germany, and most local Jews were killed and/or sent to concentration camps.

In July 1944, the Soviet army fought its way back into Lithuania and completed its occupation by the end of the year. More than 100 thousand Lithuanians fled west to escape the returning Communist terror. Remaining farmers were forced to give up their land and join the state mandated collective farms (kolkhozes). Mass arrests, imprisonments, executions, and deportations of hundreds of thousands of undesirable people, followed.

Underground Lithuanian defenders (partisans), at the peak about 30,000 strong, fought the occupying armed forces for more than 10 years to prevent unhindered subjugation of the Lithuanian people and influx of Russian settlers. Only after Stalin’s death in 1953, the reign of terror eased somewhat. Slow reconstruction of industry, transportation infrastructure, and educational system resumed, but all in the glory of building a communist enslaved society.

Finally, in late 1980s, the Communist system began to crumble. In 1988, a popular front of activists, called Sąjūdis (Reform Movement), came into being. In late spring of 1989, Lithuania was granted by Moscow some economic autonomy, but that did not satisfy the people’s thirst for real freedom. In December of 1989, the Lithuanian Communist Party (CP) declared its independence from the CP of the USSR.

In February of 1990, Sąjūdis won popular elections to the Lithuanian Supreme Council, which in turn declared Lithuania’s independence on March 11, 1990. Moscow tried to stop these events by issuing ultimatums to the Lithuanian government. Moscow also launched its propaganda machine. To intimidate the Lithuanian people it started endless military “maneuvers” by frequently traversing the streets of Vilnius with heavy army vehicles. An economic blockade, imposed soon after the declaration of independence and lifted several months later, was aimed to persuade the people that they could not survive on their own. Upon considerable increase of food prices in early January 1991 , a small, but aggressive pro-soviet group attempted in a stormy “protest demonstration ” to force entry into the parliament building. However, their belligerence was repelled by volunteer citizen guards spraying them with high velocity water through fire hoses.

Finally, in the night of January 13, 1991, a special operations detachment of the KGB accompanied by the Soviet army, using tanks and armored vehicles, launched a bloody assault against the unarmed defenders of the Lithuanian Radio and Television Buildings and the TV transmission tower facility. Even artillery was used to intimidate the people. As a result of the onslaught, 14 Lithuanians sustained fatal injuries and over 700 were wounded. A self-proclaimed “committee for national salvation”, using airwaves of occupied TV and Radio facilities, announced of having taken power to restore “peace and order in the republic”. However, in fact, the “committee” had no power at all; the Parliament and the Government of Lithuania, defended by masses of its unarmed citizens, remained in place and retained control over the country. Moreover, the pro-soviet TV broadcast was seen only in small area of the country. Almost immediately, the free Lithuanian Radio started broadcasting from its facility near Kaunas. Soon thereafter, upon equipment installed in the Parliament building, the Lithuanian TV telecating was resmed. Its programs were retransmitted by relay stations and seen all over Lithuania.

Iceland was the first country to extend Lithuania de-facto and de-jure diplomatic recognition on February 11, 1991. In August of 1991, during the vacation of USSR’s president M. Gorbachev, his closest “comrades” isolated him and attempted a coup-d’état in order to impose martial law and thus prevent imminent collapse of the USSR. The coup failed. On September 6. 1991, the USSR recognized Lithuania as an independent country, and withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Vilnius began.

International recognition of independence and integration into European Union

In September 1991, Lithuania was admitted to the UN, followed by recognition of its independence by the U.S and the rest of the world’s countries. The last Russian soldiers left Lithuania in 1993. Lithuania structured itself as a parliamentary democracy. However, its economy needed to be restructured to function as a market based economy. Severe austerity measures had to be instituted. They were followed by extreme economic hardships. As a result thousands of Lithuanians began emigrating to the west.

In 2004 Lithuania joined NATO and the European Union. A very serious worldwide recession in 2009, brought extreme hardships to the recovering Lithuania, requiring again the imposition of very tough economic and fiscal austerity measures. Lithuania’s economy recovered within the next two years and is continuing as of 2017, on a steady path of growth as one of the best in the entire EU. In 2015, Lithuania adopted the Euro as its monetary unit and became member of the Eurozone.

Part I — Lithuanian Emmigration, Settling and Life in the United States prior to end of 1919

Lithuanian immigrants up to 1860-s (4,5)

The first known Lithuanian to come to the North America’s shores in 1659 was dr. Alexander Carolus Curtius (Aleksandras Karolis Kuršius). He is mentioned in the New York city records as “Nobilis Lithuanus Carolus Curtius”. He was a nobleman and a scholar in Latin language, hired in 1659 by Governor Peter Stuyvesant to establish a Latin school in Nieuw Amsterdam (current New York City). He was headmaster of the school for two years. A memorial plaque in his honor may be found on One Broad St./Exchange Plaza, Manhattan, New York.

In July 944, the Russian army fought its way back into Lithuania and after a series of ferocious battles with the German army, completed the country’s reoccupation by the end of the year. More than 100 thousand Lithuanians fled west to escape the returning Soviet terror. Remaining farmers were forced to give up their land and join collective farms (Kolkhozes). Mass arrests, imprisonments, executions and deportations to Siberia, numbering in hundreds of thousands, followed. An underground Lithuanian defense force, about 30,000 strong, fought the Russians for more than 10 years to prevent unhindered subjugation of the Lithuanian people and influx of Russian settlers. Only after Stalin’s death, the reign of terror eased somewhat. Slow reconstruction of industry, transportation infrastructure, and educational system resumed, but all for the glory of building a communist enslaved society.

Finally in late 1980s, the Communist system of the USSR began to crumble. In 1988 a popular front of activists, called Sajudis (the Movement), came into being. In late spring of 1989, Lithuania was granted by Moscow some economic autonomy, but that did not satisfy the people’s thirst for real freedom. In December 1989, the Lithuanian Communist Party (CP) declared its independence from the CP of the USSR.

In February 1990, Sajudis won elections to the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet, and on March 11, 1990, after shedding all to the USSR, declared Lithuania as free and independent country. Moscow tried to stop these events by imposing an economic blockade in order to intimidate the Lithuanian people that they could not survive on their own.

The blockade, lasting nearly a whole year, failed to break the will of the people. Taking a different tack, the Moscow supporting Lithuanian communist faction attempted in January 1991, to incite confrontational violence against tens of thousands of people gathered to defend the Sajudis based government entrenched in the Parliament building. Under pretext of restoring order, the Russian army intervened on January 13,1991, by opening live fire and killing 14 and wounding over 700 unarmed defenders, During this assault the Russian army succeeded occupying the Lithuania’s press, Radio and TV communication facilities. In spite of violence and killings, the bare handed defenders stood their ground and successfully protected the parliament building. The assaulting tank force retreated without toppling the Sajudis government.

International recognition of independence and integration into European Union

Iceland was the first country to extend Lithuania defacto and dejure diplomatic recognition on February 11, 1991, followed by nearly 50 other countries within the next four months.

On August 1991, Moscow supporting hardliners instigated one more coup to dislodge the Sajudis based government, but failed. Upon failure, the USSR recognized Lithuania as an independent nation on September 6, 1991.

In September 1991, Lithuania was admitted to the UN, followed by recognition of its independence by the U.S. and the rest of the world’s countries by the year’s end. The last Russian soldiers departed from Lithuania in 1993.

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Lithunians celebrating restoration of Independence in Vilnius in 1990

In 2004 Lithuania joined NATO and the European Union. A very serious worldwide recession in 2009, brought extreme hardships to the recovering Lithuania, requiring again the imposition of very tough economic and fiscal austerity measures. Lithuania’s economy recovered within the next two years and is now continuing on a steady path of growth as one of the best in the entire EU. In 2015, Lithuania adopted the Euro as its monetary unit and became member of the Eurozone.

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