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History of Lithuania

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Early History

The first Lithuanians, or Liths, were a branch of an ancient group known as the Balts, whose members also included the original Prussian and Latvian people. Unlike the Prussians and Latvians, the Lithuanians have successfully built a nation that has endured for most of the past few centuries. The first known reference to Lithuania as a nation (Litua) comes from the annals of the monastery of Quedlinburg dated February 14, 1009.

In the early 13th century, a pair of German religious orders, the Teutonic Knights and the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, conquered much what is now Estonia and Latvia, in addition to parts of Lithuania. In response, a number of small Baltic tribal groups united under the rule of Mindaugas (or Mindowe), and soundly defeated the Livonians at Siauliai[?] in 1236. In 1250 Mindaugas signed an agreement with the Teutonic Order and in 1251 was baptized in their presence by the bishop of Kulm (Culmer Land.) On July 6, 1253, Mindaugas was crowned as King of Lithuania. However, Mindaugas was later murdered by his nephew, subsequently resulting in great unrest and a relapse into paganism.

In 1316, Gediminas, with the aid of colonists from Germany, began the restoration of the land. Many cities were founded with the German system of laws (Magdeburg Rights). The largest of these cities was Vilnius, which later became the capital city. The brothers Vytenis[?] and Gediminas united the components into one Lithuania.

Gediminas extended Lithuania to the east by challenging the Tatars, who controlled Russia. The Lithuaninas through alliances and conquest gained control of Rus[?] territory. This area included most of modern Belorus and the Ukraine. These gains created a massive Lithuanian empire that stretched from the Baltic to to the Black Sea.

When Gediminas was slain, his son Algirdas[?] or Olgerd suppressed the monasteries. Algirdas's son Jogaila (Jagiello) again made overtures to the Teutonic Order and concluded a secret treaty with them. His uncle Kestutis took him prisoner and a civil war ensued. Kestutis was eventually captured, imprisoned and put to death. However, Kestutis's son Vytautas escaped.

Lithuania attempted to remain separate, but the nation was gradually taken over by Poland. Jadwiga of Poland was strongly urged by the Poles to marry Jogaila or Jagiello, who had become grand duke of Lithuania in 1377. For the good of Christianity, Jadwiga consented and married Jagaila three days after he was baptized. On February 2, 1386, Wladislaw Jagaila[?] was elected King of Poland by Polish Parliament (Sejm). Lithuania and Poland now shared the same rulers, although Lithuania remained a separate country and continued to be ruled by grand dukes. (Often the grand duke of Lithuania was also the king of Poland, etc.)

With the 1569 Lublin Union[?] of the two countries, strong Polonization[?] of Lithuanian institutions began. All levels of the nobility and gentry were dominated by the Polish upper classes and the Polish church. In 1569 Poland and Lithuania formed a new state: the Republic of Both Nations (commonly known as Kingdom of Poland).

Despite this integration, for nearly two centuries Lithuania continued to exist as the Lithuanian Province in the Kingdom of Poland, retaining separate laws as well as an army and a Treasury. This changed only with the three partitions of Poland[?], (1772, 1793 and 1795), which saw Lithuania divided between Russia and Prussia. Subsequent to the partitions, Lithuania ceased to exist as a distinct entity for more than a century.

Following the third partition, the Russian Empire controlled the majority of Lithuania. This included Vilnius, which with 25,000 inhabitants was now one of the largest cities in the Empire. In the early years of the 19th century, there were signs that Lithuania might be allowed some separate recognition by the Empire. These hopes were soon to be dashed, particularly subsequent to 1812, when Lithuanians eagerly welcomed Napoleon's invading French army as liberators.

After the French army's speedy withdrawal, Tsar Nicholas I began an intensive program of Russification[?]. The south-western part of Lithuania included in Prussia in 1795 and in the short-lived Grand Duchy of Warsaw[?] in 1807 became a part of the Russian-controlled kingdom of Poland in 1815, while the rest continued to be administered as a Russian province. The Lithuanians and Poles revolted twice, in 1831 and 1863, failing in both attempts. In 1864, the Lithuanian language and alphabet were banned.

Early 20th Century

Despite Russian attempts to integrate Lithuania, by the end of the 19th century Lithuania had developed a growing nationalist movement. During the Russia-wide revolutionary upsurge of 1905 a congress (Seimas) of Lithuanian representatives (December) demanded provincial autonomy. During World War I Lithuania's occupation by Germany (1915) and the subsequent collapse of the Russian imperial government led to the proclamation of an independent kingdom (February 16, 1918) under German control, and full independence as a republic upon Germany's surrender (November 1918).

The independence of both Lithuania and Poland produced a prolonged border dispute involving Vilnius (in Polish, Wilno), which Lithuania claimed as its historic capital but which Polish irregular forces occupied in October 1920. Lithuania refused to accept Poland's annexation of the Vilnius district (March 1922), despite the fact that a large contingent of the population considered themselves Poles, and maintained a formal state of war until December 1927 and suspending relations with Poland until a Polish ultimatum (March 1938) forced their resumption.

Vilnius was not the only city whose possesion was in dispute. Klaipeda (at the time called Memelburg) had been invaded by the Teutonic Knights 700 years earlier, but since 1446 was a part of Poland-Lithuania Commonwealth; much of the population were bilingual Lithuanian/German speakers and considered themselves members of the Prussian state. The Memelland district, including the city of Klaipeda, was made a separate territory under French occupation in 1920 as part of the Treaty of Versailles. Lithuania took advantage of the Ruhr crisis[?] and seized the territory in January 1923, leading to its incorporation as an autonomous district of Lithuania in May 1924. Twice between 1924 and 1938, matial law was imposed to put down anti-Lithuanian movements in the German community. At the same time, the National Socialist Party, which was ideologically similar to the German Nazi Party, gained a larger voice in the city's politics. In the 1938 election, the National Socialists won the majority of seats and negotiated a settlement to hand over Klaipeda to Germany. A majority of the town's Jewish population, seeing this change in the cards, had already fled the area.

Following a succession of conservative governments, Lithuania's first elected government of the left (June 1926) was overthrown in a military coup in December 1926. Antanas Smetona[?] became president with dictatorial powers, with Augustinas Voldemaras of the far-right "Iron Wolf" movement as prime minister. After Voldemaras's fall in September 1929, Smetona continued to direct Lithuania's political affairs until 1940.

World War II

In August 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed a secret agreement (the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact), assigning spheres of influence in the Baltic area. Lithuania was initially assigned to the German sphere of influence, but when Lithuania refused to ally with Germany in the attack on Poland, it was transferred to the Soviets in another secret pact later that year. Shortly thereafter, the city of Vilnius was returned to Lithuania, and the Soviets established a military presence within the country.

In 1940, Lithuania was forced to proclaim itself a republic of the Soviet and join the USSR. In June of 1941, the USSR deported approximately 35,000 Lithuanians to Siberia and other parts of Russia. A great deal of the public's frustration and anger became directed against the Jewish population, who preferred Russian occupation to Nazi rule. This resentment soon led to an increasing number of anti-Semitic acts.

On June 22, 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Shortly thereafter, the German army took control of Lithuania. For a period of time, Lithuania was allowed limited self-governance. This was a bloody time for Lithuania; local tensions, no longer held back by the Red Army, exploded and led to the wholesale slaughter of many Jews and individuals seens as Russian collaborators. The Germans soon dissolved the local government, and began a rigorous program of deportation and extermination, mainly of Jewish citizens. Approximately 200,000 Jews were murdered, most of them shot or buried alive in mass-graves throughout the countryside, as wholesale death camps such as Auschwitz were not yet in operation.

Although many Lithuanians had welcomed the German invasion as liberation from Soviet oppression, they soon realized that the Germans viewed the natives as second-class citizens. The Nazis and local collaborators deprived Lithuanian Jews of their civil rights and massacred about 200,000 of them. The importation of thousands of German farmers to work natives' lands, along with the dismissal of the Lithuanian government, soon produced a vigorous resistance movement. Together with Soviet partisans, supporters of independence put up a resistance movement to deflect Nazi recruitment of Lithuanians to the German army. Partisans moved through the woods and countryside, attacking German positions and supply lines.

In summer of 1944, the Red Army reached eastern Lithuania, occupying Vilnius. By January 1945, the Russians captured Klaipeda,on the Baltic coast[?]. The USSR subsequently reclaimed Lithuania as a Soviet republic, with the agreement of the United States and Britain (see Yalta[?] and Potsdam Agreements.)

Post World War II

The mass deportation campaigns of 1941-52 exiled 29,923 families to Siberia and other remote parts of the Soviet Union. Official statistics state that more than 120,000 people were deported from Lithuania during this period, while some sources estimate the number of political prisoners and deportees at 300,000. In response to these events, an estimated several tens of thousands of resistance fighters participated in unsuccessful guerilla warfare against the Soviet regime from 1944-53. Soviet authorities encouraged immigration of other Soviet workers, especially Russians, as a way of integrating Lithuania into the Soviet Union and to encourage industrial development.

Post Soviet Era

Until mid-1988, all political, economic, and cultural life was controlled by the Lithuanian Communist Party[?] (LCP). The political and economic crisis that began in the U.S.S.R. in the mid-1980s also affected Lithuania, and Lithuanians as well as other Balts offered active support to Gorbachev's program of social and political reforms. Under the leadership of intellectuals, the Lithuanian reform movement "Sajudis" was formed in mid-1988 and declared a program of democratic and national rights, winning nationwide popularity. Inspired by Sajudis, the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet passed constitutional amendments on the supremacy of Lithuanian laws over Soviet legislation, annulled the 1940 decisions on proclaiming Lithuania a part of the U.S.S.R., legalized a multi-party system, and adopted a number of other important decisions. A large number of LCP members also supported the ideas of Sajudis, and with Sajudis support, Algirdas Brazauskas was elected First Secretary of the Central Committee of the LCP in 1988. In December 1989, the Brazauskas-led LCP split from the CPSU and became an independent party, renaming itself in 1990 the Lithuanian Democratic Labor Party[?].

In 1990, Sajudis-backed candidates won the elections to the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet. On March 11, 1990, its chairman Vytautas Landsbergis proclaimed the restoration of Lithuanian independence, becoming the first of the Soviet republics to declare its independence. Lithuania formed a new Cabinet of Ministers headed by Kazimiera Prunskiene, and adopted the Provisional Fundamental Law of the state and a number of by-laws. On March 15 the U.S.S.R. demanded revocation of the act and began employing political and economic sanctions against Lithuania as well as demonstrating military force. On January 10, 1991, U.S.S.R. authorities seized the central publishing house and other premises in Vilnius and unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the elected government by sponsoring a local "National Salvation Committee[?]." Three days later the Soviets forcibly took over the TV tower, killing 14 civilians and injuring 700. During the national plebiscite on February 9 more than 90% of those who took part in the voting (76% of all eligible voters) voted in favor of an independent, democratic Lithuania. Led by the tenacious Landsbergis, Lithuania's leadership continued to seek Western diplomatic recognition of its independence. Soviet military-security forces continued forced conscription, occasional seizure of buildings, attacking customs posts, and sometimes killing customs and police officials.

During the August 19 coup against Gorbachev, 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.

Despite Lithuania's achievement of complete independence, sizable numbers of Russian forces remained on its territory. Withdrawal of those forces was one of Lithuania's top foreign policy priorities. Lithuania and Russia signed an agreement on September 8, 1992, calling for Russian troop withdrawals by August 31, 1993, which took place on time. Lithuania subsequently has restructured its economy for eventual integration into Western European institutions.

In October 2002, Lithuania was invited to join the European Union and one month later, to join NATO.

See also : Lithuania



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