Lithuania History


The earliest evidence of inhabitants in present-day Lithuania dates back to 10,000 BC. Between 3,000-2,000 BC, the cord-ware culture people spread over a vast region of Eastern Europe, between the Baltic Sea and the Vistula River in the west and the Moscow-Kursk line in the east. Merging with the indigenous population, they gave rise to the Balts, a distinct Indo-European ethnic group whose descendants are the present-day Lithuanian and Latvian nations and the now extinct Prussians.

The first written mention of Lithuania occurs in 1009 AD, although many centuries earlier the Roman historian Tacitus referred to the Lithuanians as excellent farmers. Spurred by the expansion into the Baltic lands of the Germanic monastic military orders (the Order of the Knights of the Sword and the Teutonic Order) Duke Mindaugas united the lands inhabited by the Lithuanians, the Samogitians, Yotvingians and Couranians into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL) in the 1230s and 40s. In 1251 Mindaugas adopted Catholicism and was crowned King of Lithuania on July 6, 1253; a decade later, civil war erupted upon his assassination until a ruler named Vitenis defeated the Teutonic Knights and restored order.

From 1316-41 Vitenis' brother and successor, Grand Duke Gediminas, expanded the empire as far as Kiev against the Tartars and Russians. He twice attempted to adopt Christianity in order to end the GDL's political and cultural isolation from Western Europe. To that purpose, he invited knights, merchants and artisans to settle in Lithuania and wrote letters to Pope John XXII and European cities maintaining that the Teutonic Order's purpose was to conquer lands rather than spread Christianity. Gediminas' dynasty ruled the GDL until 1572. In the 1300s through the early 1400s, the Lithuanian state expanded eastward. During the rule of Grand Duke Algirdas (1345-77), Lithuania almost doubled in size and achieved major victories over the Teutonic and Livonian Orders at the Battles of Saule (1236) and Durbe (1260). However, backed by the Pope and the Catholic West European countries, the Orders continued their aggression which greatly intensified in the 2nd half of the 14th century. During the period Algirdas' brother, Kestutis (Grand Duke in 1381-82) distinguished himself as the leader of the struggle against the Teutonic Order. The ongoing struggle precipitated the 1385 Kreva Union signed by the Grand Duke of Lithuania Jogaila (ruled in 1377-81 and 1382-92) and the Queen of Poland Jadwyga. Jogaila (Jagiello) married Jadwyga in 1386 and became the King of Poland. One of the conditions of the union was Lithuania's conversion to Christianity (1387) which intensified Lithuania's economic and cultural development, orienting it towards the West. The conversion invalidated the claims by the Teutonic Order and temporarily halted its wars against Lithuania.

Lithuania's independence under the union with Poland was restored by Grand Duke Vytautas. During his rule (1392-1430) the GDL turned into one of the largest states in Europe, encompassing present-day Belarus, most of Ukraine and the Smolensk region of western Russia. Led by Jogaila and Vytautas, the united Polish-Lithuanian army defeated the Teutonic Order in the Battle of Tannenberg (Gruenwald or Zalgiras) in 1410, terminating the medieval Germanic drive eastward.

The 16th century witnessed a number of wars against the growing Russian state over the Slavic lands ruled by the GDL. Coupled with the need for an ally in those wars, the wish of the middle and petty gentry to obtain more rights already granted to the Polish feudal lords drew Lithuania closer to Poland. The Union of Lublin in 1569 united Poland and Lithuania into a commonwealth in which the highest power belonged to the Sejm of the nobility and its elected King who was also the Grand Duke of Lithuania. Mid-16th century land reform strengthened serfdom and yet promoted the development of agriculture owing to the introduction of a regular three-field rotation system.

The 16th century saw a more rapid development of agriculture, growth of towns, spread of ideas of humanism and the Reformation, book printing, the emergence of Vilnius University in 1579 and the Lithuanian Codes of Law (the Statutes of Lithuania) which stimulated the development of culture both in Lithuania and in neighboring countries.

The rising domination of the big magnates, the 16-18th century wars against Russia and Sweden over Livonia, Ukraine and Byelorussia weakened the Polish-Lithuanian Republic. The end of the 18th century witnessed three divisions of the Commonwealth by Russia, Prussia and Austria; in 1795 most of Lithuania became part of the Russian Empire. Attempts to restore independence in the uprisings of 1794, 1830-31 and 1863 were suppressed and followed by a tightened police regime, increasing Russification, the closure of Vilnius University in 1832 and the 1864 ban on the printing of Lithuanian books in traditional Roman characters.

Because of his proclamation of liberation and self-rule, many Lithuanians gratefully volunteered for the French Army when Napoleon occupied Kaunas in 1812 during the fateful invasion of Russia. After the war, Russia imposed extra taxes on Catholic landowners and enserfed an increasing number of peasants. A market economy slowly developed with the abolition of serfdom in 1861. Lithuanian farmers grew stronger, contributing to an increase in the number of intellectuals of peasant origin which led to the growth of a Lithuanian national movement. In German-ruled Lithuania Minor (Königsberg or Kaliningrad), Lithuanian publications were printed in large numbers and then smuggled into Russian-ruled Lithuania. The most outstanding leaders of the national liberation movement were J. Basanavicius and V. Kudirka. The ban on the Lithuanian press finally was lifted in 1904.

During WW I, the German army occupied Lithuania in 1915, and the occupation administration allowed a Lithuanian Conference to convene in Vilnius in September 1917. The Conference adopted a resolution demanding the restoration of an independent Lithuanianstate and elected the Lithuanian Council, a standing body chaired by Antanas Smetona. On February 16, 1918, the Council declared Lithuania's independence. 1919-20 witnessed Lithuania's War for Independence against three factions: the Red Army, which in 1919 controlled territory ruled by a Bolshevist government headed by V. Kapsukas; the Polish army; and the Bermondt army, composed of Russian and German troops under the command of the Germans. Lithuania failed to regain the Polish-occupied Vilnius region.

In the Moscow Treaty of July 12, 1920, Russia recognized Lithuanian independence and renounced all previous claims to it. The Seimas (parliament) of Lithuania adopted a constitution on August 1, 1922, declaring Lithuania a parliamentary republic, and in 1923 Lithuania annexed the Klaipeda region, the northern part of Lithuania Minor. By then, most countries had recognized Lithuanian independence. After a military coup on December 17, 1926, Nationalist party leader Antanas Smetona became President and gradually introduced an authoritarian regime.

Lithuania's borders posed its major foreign policy problem. Poland's occupation (1920) and annexation (1922) of the Vilnius region strained bilateral relations, and in March 1939 Germany forced Lithuania to surrender the Klaipeda region (the Nürnberg trials declared the treaty null and void). Radical land reform in 1922 considerably reduced the number of estates, promoted the growth of small and middle farms and boosted agricultural production and exports, especially livestock. In particular, light industry and agriculture successfully adjusted to the new market situation and developed new structures.

The interwar period gave birth to a comprehensive system of education with Lithuanian as the language of instruction and the development of the press, literature, music, arts and theater. On August 23, 1939, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact pulled Lithuania first into German influence until the Soviet-German agreement of September 28, 1939 brought Lithuania under Soviet domination. Soviet pressure and a complicated international situation forced Lithuania to sign an agreement with the USSR on October 10, 1939, by which Lithuania was given back the city of Vilnius and the part of Vilnius region seized by the Red Army during the Soviet-Polish war; in return, some 20,000 Soviet soldiers were deployed in Lithuania.

On June 14, 1940 the Soviet Government issued an ultimatum to Lithuania, demanding the formation of a new Lithuanian government and permission to station additional Red Army troops. Lithuania succumbed to the Soviet demand, and 100,000 Soviet troops moved into the country the next day. Arriving in Kaunas, the Soviet government's special envoy began implementing the plan for Lithuania's incorporation into the U.S.S.R. On June 17 the alleged People's Government, headed by J. Paleckis, was formed; rump parliamentary elections one month later were held, whereupon Lithuania was proclaimed a Soviet Socialist Republic on August 3.

Totalitarian rule was established, Sovietization of the economy and culture began, and Lithuanian state employees and public figures were arrested and exiled to Russia. During the mass deportation campaign of June 14-18, 1941 about 7,439 families (12,600 people) were deported to Siberia without investigation or trial; 3,600 people were imprisoned and over 1,000 massacred.

Lithuanian revolt against the U.S.S.R. soon followed the outbreak of the war against Germany in 1941. Via Radio Kaunas on June 23, the rebels declared the restoration of Lithuania's independence and actively operated a Provisional Government, without German recognition, from June 24 to August 5. Lithuania became part of the German occupational administrative unit of Ostland. People were repressed and taken to forced labor camps in Germany. The Nazis and local collaborators deprived Lithuanian Jews of their civil rights and massacred about 200,000 of them. Together with Soviet partisans, supporters of independence put up a resistance movement to deflect Nazi recruitment of Lithuanians to the German army.

Forcing the Germans out of Lithuania by 1944, the Red Army reestablished control, and Sovietization continued with the arrival of Communist party leaders to create a local party administration. 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 over 120,000 people were deported from Lithuania during this period, while Lithuanian sources estimate the number of political prisoners and deportees at 300,000. In response to these events, an estimated several ten thousand resistance fighters participated in unsuccessful guerilla warfare against the Soviet regime from 1944-53. As a measure for integration and industrial development, Soviet authorities encouraged immigration of other Soviet workers, especially Russians.

Until mid-1988, all political, economical and cultural life was controlled by the Lithuanian Communist Party (LCP). First Secretary Antanas Snieckus ruled the LCP from 1940-74. The LCP, in turn, was responsible to the Communist party of the U.S.S.R. In 1947 Lithuanians comprised only 18% of total party membership in 1947 and continued to represent a minority until 1958; by 1986, they made up 70% of the party's 197,000-strong body. During the Khrushchev thaw in the 1950s, the leadership of the LCP acquired limited independence in decision-making.

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 nation-wide popularity. On Sajudis' demand, 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, 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. The U.S.S.R. demanded to revoke 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, 91% 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 now have been completed in full, despite unresolved issues such as Lithuania's compensation claims.
source: State Department Background Notes 1998

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