From The Lithuania News Today History Archive: Maintaining the integrity of the nation state has been a long and continuing process
The three Baltic States, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, declared their wish to be independent almost at the same time in 1918, when at the end of the First World War supranational European empires started to crumble. Their roads to sovereignty were very different. Because of an unfavorable historical situation and the specific geographical location (on the great route from West to East), the Lithuanians faced the greatest difficulties. However, on 16 February 1918, Lithuania was the first to declare independence. Estonia did so on 24 February the same year, and Latvia on 18 November.
Founding the state
Historians still disagree over when the Lithuanian state appeared. Many argue that it happened during the reign of Grand Duke Mindaugas (1236–1263), who later received a king’s crown from the Pope. Others claim that it must have happened much earlier, in the ninth century, or at least in the 12th century when the Lithuanians’ military power increased at the end of the century. They began military incursions into remote Russian lands, into Poland and Livonia, and successfully fought the powerful German Teutonic and Livonian orders. As there are no known facts about earlier attempts to establish a state, 6 July, the day Mindaugas was crowned in 1253, is celebrated as the Day of Statehood.
Meanwhile, the Latvians and Estonians failed to unite and establish states before the attacks by the German orders; therefore, one tribe after another came under the orders’ rule. In 1227, the Estonian lands were completely conquered, while a tribe in Latvia, the Semigallians, resisted until 1290.
According to Estonian historians, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which stood on the road from Germany, was an obstacle to the colonisation of Estonia and Latvia. Although the enslaved tribes revolted many times, attempting to overthrow their various conquerors, and even coming to the aid of the Lithuanians who were fighting hard against the orders, neither the Latvians nor the Estonians managed to get rid of the conquerors, and they were enslaved for almost seven centuries.
The fate of Mindaugas, the only Lithuanian king, was also tragic. His rivals assassinated him in 1263. But the state he had founded remained, and, having survived a difficult period of bloody disturbances, grew stronger. The growth of its power and authority was clearly seen during the reign of Grand Duke Gediminas (1316–1341), who started the Gediminian dynasty. He is also considered the founder of the capital, Vilnius, and invited craftsmen and merchants from Europe to live here, promising them good business conditions.
The Grand Duchy of Lithuania reached the climax of its power in the times of Grand Duke Vytautas (1392–1430). At the time its lands extended as far as the Black Sea and the outskirts of Moscow in the East. The joint Lithuanian and Polish army, led by Vytautas and the Polish king Jogaila, defeated the Teutonic Order at Grünwald in 1410. The victory brought to an end the threat to the state from the West, stopping the so-called Drang nach Osten, the German march to the East.
Unfortunately, the successors of Vytautas the Great were not so brave and cunning, and the country’s situation became difficult. Being a barrier to aggressive powers from the East and the West, Lithuania enhanced peace and stability in Eastern Europe, but suffered great losses and damage. Between 1700 and 1721, during the Northern War, foreign armies sacked and destroyed towns and villages, there was famine and an outbreak of plague (the country lost about 40 per cent of its inhabitants).
Internal strife and anarchy damaged the combined state of Lithuania and Poland (the Republic of Two Nations) which was established by the 1569 Union of Lublin. It became increasingly weaker, while neighbouring Russia, Prussia and Austria grew stronger. In 1795, they completed the division of lands between themselves, and Lithuania was to find itself under the power of the Russian tsar for over a century.
Attempts to break free from tsarist Russia
Neither the Lithuanians nor the Poles reconciled themselves to the situation, and attempts were made to overthrow the rule of the foreign power. In 1831 and 1863, powerful revolts shook the Russian Empire, but were brutally put down, killing the participants. Their supporters’ families were deported to regions by the River Volga and to Siberia by the thousands.
The Russian authorities increased oppression after every aborted attempt at freedom. In 1832, Vilnius University, which had been established in 1579, was closed down. After the 1863 revolt, hundreds of colonists were brought to live on farmsteads whose owners had been exiled, and intensive Russification began. Printing in the Latin alphabet was banned, the Catholic Church was persecuted, and all organised activities (even temperance societies) were suppressed.
Notwithstanding the reprisals, the resistance continued, only in different forms. The armed struggle was replaced by cultural resistance. It was manifested by fostering and safeguarding the national culture, and soon it turned out to be far more effective than unequal armed resistance.
From 1863, however, these processes were hampered by one more problem, the difference in interests pursued by the Lithuanians and the Poles. The latter wanted to reestablish the old Lithuanian-Polish state, and they were backed by most Lithuanian nobles, who called themselves gente lituanus, natione polonus. Another part of society, including the leaders of the revolt Kostas Kalinauskas and the priest Antanas Mackevičius, were for Lithuania’s sovereignty.
They understood that the time of supranational imperial powers was over, and therefore the reestablished Republic of Two Nations would be a Polish state, while the Lithuanians in it would sooner or later lose their national identity, language and traditions. The process, which had started shortly after the Union of Lublin in the 16th century, was already going on. The nobility, the gentry and landowners looked to Poland. Up to the 1863 revolt, all public servants in Lithuania had used the Polish language (until they were replaced by Russians). The country lost the larger part of its cultured people, who lost touch with the peasants who had retained the national identity. Moreover, some of the nobles opposed the idea of Lithuania’s sovereignty. Educated people who came from the countryside had to take their place and become leaders. As a matter of fact, Lithuania had to fight on two fronts: Russification and Polonisation.
The fates of the Latvians and Estonians took a different turn. After being conquered by the Danes, Swedes and Poles, they also ended up as part of Imperial Russia (Estonia in 1710, Latvia a little later). Three provinces, which were established on their territories, had wide autonomy and exceptional freedoms, but only German landed barons, who lived there and on whose estates local peasants worked as serfs, enjoyed them.
Although Germans made up an insignificant part of the population, they controlled the police, the courts, the Church, the schools, the towns and the economy. As Protestantism was the prevailing religion, education, culture and folk art enjoyed more attention. German landowners published and distributed the first books in Latvian, and started collecting Estonian folk songs. Priests refused to conduct marriage rites if the young couple could neither read nor write. German rule saved the local inhabitants from Russification, while attempts at Germanisation, which started after the 1905 revolution, were belated, and failed.
At the request of the German barons, the tsar abolished serfdom between 1817 and 1819 (almost half a century earlier than in Lithuania). Besides, as neither the Latvians nor the Estonians revolted against tsarist rule (only against the barons) and became Old Believers by the thousands, the tsar considered them loyal and reliable citizens of the empire, and allowed them to set up numerous economic and cultural organisations. There were also no restrictions imposed on book and newspaper publishing, and choirs were formed.
Song festivals were significant events for promoting culture, which also mobilised the neighbouring nations. The first Estonian song festival was held in Tartu in 1869, bringing together 40 choirs with almost 800 singers. At the 1911 festival in Tallinn, 800 choirs and 12,000 singers took part. The first song festival in Latvia took place in Riga in 1873, while in Lithuania it was not held until 1924 (after independence was established).
Despite the difficulties of fighting Russification and Polonisation, the Lithuanian national movement was growing. In 1883, Aušra, the first periodical magazine in Lithuanian, was started in East Prussia and was smuggled into the country. The publishers and contributors Jonas Basanavičius, Jonas Šliūpas and others, called themselves lovers of Lithuania, and urged their compatriots to respect the mother tongue and take an interest in the country’s history, thus fostering the national identity and pride in the homeland. Between 1889 and 1905, the illegally published and distributed Varpas carried on the work. Published by Vincas Kudirka and his associates, it declared not only national but also democratic ideas. In 1898, it published Kudirka’s Tautiška giesmė (National Anthem), in which the idea of a nation state is clearly declared: “May our love for our native land keep on burning in our hearts, For the sake of the land we shall stand together.” It is still the national anthem of Lithuania.
The call for freedom was even stronger during the 1905 revolution. The Great Vilnius Seimas first brought together representatives from most of the country, and they declared their strong will to be independent. Vilnius became the centre for the national revival.
Time for self-determination
The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 hampered the movement, since in 1915 Lithuania was occupied by the German army. The military authorities conducted requisitions, and restricted all the rights of the population (neither Latvia nor Estonia experienced this). Although some leaders fled to Russia, the rest stayed in Vilnius and continued working. They were encouraged by the idea of national self-determination, declared by the countries of the alliance. The process strengthened in 1917, when the occupying authorities relaxed the police regime, with Germany’s situation worsening at the front.
From 18 to 22 September, a conference of the representatives of the people was held in Vilnius. Several political declarations were adopted. The most important of them said: “In order for Lithuania to develop freely, an independent state, based on democratic principles, has to be created.” To this end, the Council of Lithuania was elected, which performed the functions of a parliament.
The German authorities, however, expected something else from the Council. All they wanted was to establish an obedient puppet regime made up of local inhabitants, so that they could stay in the event of defeat. As the German authorities in the occupied country were still strong, they exerted enormous pressure on the Council. It could be disbanded for disobedience at any time, so most members tended to make compromises with the occupying power, and worked, according to Antanas Smetona, the chairman of the Council and the future president of Lithuania, on the principle “better half, than nothing”.
Thus the act of 11 December 1917, which declared the independent Lithuanian state, appeared, asking at the same time for Germany’s protection. It soon turned out that the manoeuvring and procrastinating Germans were in no hurry to grant Lithuania even modest rights. Therefore, a small group of the Council’s members worked out a new, historic, version of the Act of Independence. After long debates, it was passed at its headquarters in Vilnius on 16 February 1918. It declared that “it reestablished an independent state based on democratic principles with Vilnius as its capital city, severing all links with other nations that this state had had in the past.”
The German authorities reacted without delay. The issue of the daily newspaper Lietuvos aidas, which printed the document, was confiscated, and the displeased Berlin sent a message: “With its decree of 16 February 1918, the Lithuanian Council has upset the foundation for Lithuania’s recognition as an independent state.” German power, however, was already diminishing.
However, on that day in 1918, Lithuania did not become independent. It had to struggle hard for the right through diplomacy and on battlefields for several years to come. But the ideas that were declared with great determination in Vilnius on 16 February spread across the country, and were supported by the people, which made it possible to put them into action. Shortly afterwards, the Estonians and Latvians also established independent states.
February 16 became a symbol of freedom. From 1919 to 1940, it was celebrated in independent Lithuania and in Vilnius, which was occupied by Poland, and in Lithuanian communities abroad. It was secretly marked during the 50 years of the Soviet occupation, although it entailed imprisonment and even death. It is still celebrated nowadays, after independence was reestablished on 11 March 1990.