|From ancient times
to World War I
The Baltic tribes established themselves on what is presently known as
Lithuanian territory during the 7th-2nd centuries BC. Many centuries
passed, however, before the name of Lithuania appeared in records for
the first time, in AD 1009, in the Annals of Quedlinburg.
During the period 1236-63, Duke Mindaugas
(Mindowe) united the Lithuanian ethnic lands and established the state
of Lithuania, which was able to offer resistance against the eastward
expansion of the Teutonic Knights. In 1253, Mindaugas embraced
Christianity for political reasons, and accepted the crown from the Pope
of Rome. Thus, he became the first and only king in Lithuanian history.
Grand Duke Gediminas (Gedimin), who ruled
the country from 1316 to 1341, started the long-term expansion of
Lithuania into the lands of the eastern Slavs. He founded the modern
capital city of Vilnius and started the Gediminaiciai dynasty, whose
representatives became members of many European monarchies.
A Gediminaitis, Jogaila (Jagiello), in
becoming the King of Poland in 1386, started the 400-year common history
of Lithuania and Poland, which was marked by several agreements and
unions. As a result of this union, Christianity finally came to
Grand Duke Vytautas (Witold), who ruled
from 1392 to 1430, brought the greatest military and political
prosperity to the country. During his reign, the push eastward by the
German Order was broken. In 1410 Vytautas, along with his cousin Jogaila
Jagiello, won the Battle of Grünwald (Tannenberg), against the might of
the Order. He also annexed many Belorussian, Russian and Ukrainian
territories to Lithuania and extended the state border all the way to
the shores of the Black Sea.
Internal discord began to weaken the
state during the 16th century. More resilient ties with Poland became
unavoidable, and in 1569, Lithuania signed the Union of Lublin with
Poland, further strengthening ties between the two nations. The
agreement created a Commonwealth Republic of two nations, which shared
one king (also holding the title of Grand Duke of Lithuania) and a joint
legislature, the Seimas. Nevertheless, Lithuania's state sovereignty was
preserved: the treasury, the currency, the laws and the army remained
independent. Regrettably, in historical sources, this impressive
Republic is most frequently alluded to by the single name of Poland. The
institution of an elected king in this Republic was the first in Europe.
In 1573 Henry Valois of Bourbon became the first such king.
A cultural leap forward occurred in the
16th century, resulting from the supremacy of self rule by the boyars,
land reform, consolidation of cities and the arrival on the scene of an
enlightened society. During that century, in 1529, 1566 and 1588, three
Statutes of Lithuania were written. These are documents of an unsual
legal nature, containing elements of state law. (The last Statute still
applied within the territory of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania as
late as the 19th century, long after the disappearance of the state from
the political map.)
From 1654 to 1667, Lithuania became
enmeshed in wars with Russia, whose might had been increasing. A
misfortune occurred in 1655, as for the first time in history Vilnius
was occupied by a foreign army, that of the Russian Czar. While
searching for a solution to extricate itself from a difficult
international situation and disagreements with Poland, Lithuania formed
an agreement with Sweden, the short-lived Treaty of Kedainiai, also in
1655. In spite of this, the state continued to diminish in strength.
During the second half of the 18th
century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania lost nearly all its sovereign
rights. Following its successful wars with Sweden, Russia, together with
Austria and Prussia engaged in the partition of the Republic of
Lithuania-Poland, in three instances, in 1772, 1793 and 1795. Following
the third partition, the major part of the former Grand Duchy of
Lithuania was handed over to Russia. The name of Lithuania had
disappeared from the political map of Europe for 123 years.
A greater blow
was dealt in the 19th century, though the beginning was deceptively
calm. In 1803, the university was accorded the name of Imperial
University and Vilnius itself continued to preserve the marks of its
past majesty: it was the third largest city (after Moscow and St
Petersburg) in the Russian Empire. However, a change of direction was
imminent: it came in 1812, with Napoleon's campaign against Russia. The
French were enthusiastically received in Lithuania as liberators, and
were supported and even honoured in high social circles. The hasty
withdrawal of the French which soon followed, was the prelude to
Following Napoleon's campaign, Czar
Nicholas I initiated a new policy: the authorities of the occupation
began to russify the country with increased speed, and to transform it
into a provincial hinterland. Along with the Poles, the Lithuanians
revolted against the occupiers on two occasions, in 1831 and 1863, but
the revolts brought painful defeats. The consequences were sad indeed:
Vilnius University and other institutions of higher education were
closed, the influence of the Catholic Church was curbed, all Catholic
monasteries were closed and the Russian Orthodox Religion was declared
the state religion. Lithuanians were not permitted to purchase land,
erect crosses and new churches. The centuries-old ties between Lithuania
and Central and Western Europe were torn up by the roots. The first
deportations of Lithuanian boyars and peasants to the depths of Siberia
From 1864, the Lithuanian language itself
and its Latin alphabet were banned and the so-called graZdanka,
Lithuanian with the Russian alphabet, was introduced. The cultural life
of the country went into a state of paralysis.
Lithuania began to recover only towards
the end of the 19th century, the period known as the "spring of
nations." A struggle for national culture and reinstitution of
writing spread over the greater part of the country. A unique movement,
the "book-bearers" (knygnesiai) came about through
self-education and a concern for survival. Lithuanian books in the Latin
alphabet were printed in Lithuania Minor, Prussia, under German
jurisdiction, and illegally transported across the border into Lithuania
Major. The book-bearer movement fostered "home-school"
movement and the emergence of self-taught teachers. In the course of
several decades, the degree of literacy and national awareness was
greatly increased throughout the entire country. In 1883, Dr. Jonas
Basanavicius organised the publication of the first Lithuanian
periodical, Ausra ("The Dawn"), which was also disseminated
illegally. The authority of educated people grew rapidly. An increasing
number of students who had graduated from universities in Russia, Poland
or the West, joined the national rebirth movement.
In 1904, Lithuanian representatives
managed to win by legal means the lifting of the ban on Lithuanian
publications and educational institutions.
At the start of the 20th century, the
national movement became so strong that in 1905 the Grand Assembly of
Vilnius (Didysis Vilniaus Seimas), which had formulated the demands of
Lithuania's autonomy, was able to assemble. Lithuanian representatives
were also elected to the newly-formed Russian Parliament, the Duma,
where they defended their rights with ever-increasing boldness.
At the start of World War I, Lithuania
was soon occupied by Germany. With the end of the war in sight,
Lithuanian representatives from all parts of the country, seizing a
favorable political moment, assembled in Vilnius in September 1917, and
held a conference. The elected 20-member Council of Lithuania proclaimed
the restitution of the independent state of Lithuania on the 16th of
February, 1918, even though the German Army and authorities were still
in control of the entire country.
Between two world
On the 23rd of March, 1918, the German Kaiser announced his
recognition of the independence of Lithuania. However, until Germany
capitulated in November that same year, Lithuania's international
status remained undefined. On the 12th of December, 1918, Sweden was
the first state to accord Lithuania de facto recognition.
Russia and the major countries of the
world recognised Lithuania's independence during 1920-22.
Lithuania was admitted to the League of
Nations in 1921.
The wars of defence of independence
against the Bolsheviks, Poles and the remnants of the German and the
Czarist armies continued until 1923. In the course of these wars,
Lithuania lost its capital, Vilnius, which was occupied by Poland in
1920. Kaunas became the provisional capital and continued in that
capacity for 20 years.
Those years were not only a difficult
time, but a period of hope as well. The Seimas, which had implemented
the greatest reforms, functioned during 1920-22: it introduced the
national currency (litas), passed laws that were favourable to the
national economy and financial system, and organised radical land
The lands of the major estates were
reduced somewhat and peasant farms began to recover. The country
prospered rapidly along with the rest of Europe.
In 1923, Lithuania recovered its
historic Baltic seaport, Klaipeda, thus gaining a gateway to the
However, the first eight years of
independence failed to consolidate the democratic system of
administration by the Seimas and the division of government. In
December 1926 the army leadership, Nationalist Party and Christian
Democratic staged a revolt, resulting in a loss of democracy.
Government by the Seimas and its elected president was replaced by
unlimited presidential rule. The political dictatorship of the
Nationalist Party and the authoritarian rule of President Antanas
Smetona lasted until the end of independent statehood.
The threads of independence had already
begun to break by March 1939, when fascist Germany annexed Klaipeda
and the surrounding region.
The twenty-two years of inter-war
Lithuanian independence constitute the first golden age in Lithuanian
culture. During that period, national life regained the
characteristics of national civilisation. The state of Lithuania and
Lithuanian culture broke through into the international arena and took
part in major international events, the most impressive among them
being the International Exposition in Paris in 1937.
In addition to achievements in art and
science, basketball has provided some cause for national pride: in
1937 and 1939, the Lithuanian Men's Team became the European
Champions. In 1933, Stasys Darius and Steponas Girenas achieved world
fame by setting out on a direct flight from New York to Kaunas. They
perished in East Prussia, near the Lithuanian border.
World War II
As a result of World War II, Lithuania suffered immense deprivations,
with gigantic losses and damage. The nation found itself on the brink of
On 23rd August, 1939, just prior to its
attack upon Poland, Germany signed a secret agreement with the Soviet
Union, on the division of the spheres of influence, the document known
as the secret Hitler-Stalin Pact (Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact). Initially,
Lithuania was relegated to the German sphere of influence; however, on
Lithuania's refusal to attack Poland as a German ally, it was
transferred to the Soviet sphere of influence, in a second secret pact
signed in Moscow on the 27th of September that same year.
On the 10th of October 1939, Vilnius was
returned to Lithuania and Soviet military bases were established within
On the 15th of June 1940 (the day when
the German Wehrmacht entered Paris), the Soviet Union occupied
Lithuania. Soon afterwards, Latvia and Estonia were also occupied.
On the 14th of June 1941, the Soviets
carried out the first mass deportation of the Lithuanian people to
Russia and Siberia, with approximately 35,000 deported within several
On 22nd June 1941, Germany attacked the
Soviet Union and several days later, the Wehrmacht occupied the whole of
Until the Germans had fully consolidated
their position, Lithuanian politicians and representatives of the
intelligentsia organized an independent government for the country.
However, the new occupation force's administration did not allow the
existence of a Lithuanian government. A massive destruction of the Jews
was launched, claiming 200,000 lives. Thousands were taken to Germany.
In the summer of
1944, the Red Army crossed the Lithuanian border once again, and
occupied Vilnius, occupying Klaipeda in January 1945. Once again, the
entire country fell under Soviet power. In accordance with the Yalta and
Potsdam Agreements between the Soviet Union, the United States of
America and Great Britain, Lithuania began to be treated as a part of
the Soviet Union. Thousands of Lithuanians, who had fought as soldiers
of the armies of the anti-Hitlerite coalition, could not return to a
Decades of Soviet
Prior to the return of the Soviets, tens of thousands of Lithuanian
citizens fled to the West, including a very large segment of the
intelligentsia, university lecturers and professors, writers and
artists, business people and well-to-do farmers. It appeared as if the
country were losing its best people.
Upon their return, the Soviets undertook
even stricter repressive measures than those before the war. In the
course of 10 years, approximately 130,000 of the population were
deported to Siberia and other distant areas of the Soviet Union: the
majority of them perished due to the unbearable transport and living
A partisan war ensued, lasting 9 years
and claiming tens of thousands of lives.
It has been calculated that Lithuania
lost approximately 30% of its population during the period 1940-53.
As early as the first post-war years, a
mass immigration of Russians and other Soviet nationalities was begun,
bringing unavoidable sovietisation and russification of public life.
Once again, as in the 19th century, the Lithuanian language faced the
danger of extinction.
The Soviet decades brought about a basic
change within the country's economy and infrastructure: land was
nationalised and turned over to the collective farms, rural life was
threatened and a new movement of the population towards the cities, with
unrestrained industrialisation of the country, ensued. All this took
place without reference to Lithuania's internal needs and opportunities.
The country's economy was developed solely through the methods of the
occupying regime. Construction was implemented of giant complexes
manufacturing fuel-injecting equipment, machine tools, chemicals, oil,
mineral fertilisers and processing metal, none of which reflected
Lithuania's needs. This entire infrastructure functioned on the basis of
imported raw materials and energy resources. It employed tens of
thousands of workers who immigrated into Lithuania.
During the 1980's, one of the largest
nuclear power stations in Europe was constructed near Ignalina in
In the spring of 1985, perestroika, initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev,
began in the Soviet Union. On the 3rd of June, 1988, taking advantage of
the weakening of the totalitarian state, some representatives of the
intelligentsia founded Sajudis, a democratic reform movement, in
Vilnius. The summer of that year was spent under the Sajudis flag, as
the entire country was joining Sajudis support groups and holding
peaceful meetings. The symbols of the independent country of the
inter-war period were introduced publicly. The Constituent Congress of
the organisation, held on 22nd-23rd October, defined the guidelines on
the basis of which it was decided to move towards the restoration of an
independent state. In March 1989 the representatives of the Sajudis won
election to the Congress of People's Deputies, the Soviet Union's
highest legislative body, and were able to fight for Lithuanian
interests at the Kremlin in Moscow.
At that time, Estonia was
the furthest advanced along the path of legal emancipation: already in
November 1988 it had adopted a declaration of sovereignty. Urged by the
Sajudis, the Lithuanian communist legislature also issued a declaration,
in May 1989, stating that the laws of Lithuania superseded those of the
Soviet Union. An assembly of the People's Fronts of Latvia and Estonia
and Sajudis of Lithuania took place during the same month, in Tallinn,
which projected a common strategy and tactics for self-liberation from
the Soviet occupation.
On 23rd August 1989, the
50th Anniversary of the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact (Ribbentrop-Molotov
Pact), approximately 2 million people from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia
stood on the Vilnius-Tallinn road, holding hands. The unprecedented
living chain measured nearly 600 km in length. This action for freedom
became known as The Baltic Way
People holding hands along the "Baltic Way," summer 1989.
Photo by A. Varanka.
During 1989, the political
situation in Lithuania started increasingly to resemble the life of an
independent country: one after the other, the public and even the
communist organisations were declaring their separation from Moscow.
Upon his arrival in Vilnius in January 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev could no
longer restrain the Lithuanian communists, who had separated from Moscow
and were demanding total state independence. In February 1990, Sajudis
representatives won election to the legislature of Lithuania, the
Supreme Council, and on the 11th of March the Act of the Restoration of
Independence was proclaimed. Vytautas Landsbergis was elected Chairman
of the Supreme Council. The difficult transition period leading up to
independence de facto and de jure commenced.
In January 1991, the Soviet
Army seized the Lithuanian Television, radio and other vital state
institutions, which at that time were subordinate only to the laws of
Lithuania. Unarmed, peaceful people offered resistance against the army,
and 14 people perished in the effort. A referendum was held on the 9th
of February, following the tragic January events, in which an absolute
majority of the population of Lithuania came out for the restoration of
an independent state.
On the 11th of
February, Iceland's Althing recognized Lithuania's independence de
jure. After the unsuccessful August putsch in Moscow, Russia
recognized the independence de jure of Lithuania on 6th September.
Many other states followed suit immediately afterwards.
On the 17th of September 1991,
Lithuania became a full member of the United Nations.
On the 31st of August 1992, the last
Russian soldier left the territory of Lithuania.
Trakai Castle, Lithuania's capital during the Middle Ages.
Photo by S. Platukis.
Bust of Grand Duke Vytautas (St. Michael's Church, Vilnius).
Photo by K. Driskius.
Battle of Zalgiris (Grünwald), 1410. Reproduction of a painting by J.
Motejka, 19th century.
Vilnius in the 16th century. (from the Atlas "Civitates Orbis
Terrarum," by G. Brown, published in Cologne 1572-1617).
Vilnius in the 19th century, Pilies St.
Photo by K. Driskius.
Dr. Jonas Basanavicius, 19th century; Patriarch of a nation reborn.
Photo by K. Driskius.
Council of Lithuania, 16th of February, 1918, following the
Declaration of the Restoration of State Independence.
Photo by K. Driskius.
Kaunas, Lithuania provisional capital 1920-40 (picture by Vladas
Photo by K. Driskius.
S. Darius and S. Girenas, who crossed the Atlantic in 1933 and
perished near the Lithuanian border. (Picture taken from the 10 lt
Photo by K. Driskius.
World War II. Soldiers of German Wehrmacht enter South Lithuania in
World War II. Germans in a Lithuanian city, by the Independence Monument
Collective farm of Soviet era.
Graves of Lithuanians deported from their homeland to Siberia
Sajudis Meeting, summer 1988.
People of Lithuania demanding the withdrawal of the Soviet army, summer
1990. Photo by H. Gaicevskis.
V. Landsbergis, Chairman of the Supreme Council of Lithuania, 1990- 92.
Photo by K. Driskius.
Unarmed people near the Supreme Council Building, night of 13th January,
1991. Photo by K. Driskius.
Memorial to those who perished for Lithuania's freedom, Vilnius,
Antakalnis Cemetery. Photo by K. Driskius.