Lithuania Independence, 1918-40
Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies
During 1918-20 Lithuania successfully fought a war with newly independent Poland to defend its independence. At the end of 1920, however, Poland annexed Lithuania's capital city and province of Vilnius, which it held until World War II. Lithuania refused to have diplomatic relations with Poland until 1938 on the grounds that Poland illegally held the Vilnius region. After declaring independence, Lithuania also fought against the Bermondt-Avalov army, a German-sponsored group of military adventurers that sought to preserve German influence in the Baltic region, and against Russia. In November 1918, the Red Army invaded the country but ultimately was repulsed by the forces of the young Lithuanian government. On July 9, 1920, Soviet leader Vladimir I. Lenin signed a peace treaty with Lithuania, "forever" denouncing Russia's claims to the territory and recognizing the Lithuanian state.
In the early 1920s, Lithuania had a border dispute with Germany. The city and region of Klaipeda (Memel in German) had been under German rule for 700 years. Originally inhabited by Lithuanians, it was detached from Germany in 1919 by the Treaty of Versailles and placed under French administration. In 1923 Lithuanians organized an insurrection and took over the Klaipeda region.
These conflicts burdened Lithuania's international diplomacy. Domestically, however, they fed the development of national identity and cultural awareness, displacing German and Polish influence.
Lithuania's early disorganization caused a delay in its recognition by Western powers; the last to do so was the United States in 1922. Washington recognized Lithuania's independence only after it had become clear that Western intervention in Russia could not restore the Russian Empire and that the communists were firmly entrenched in Moscow.
Independent Lithuania, led by political leaders mostly in their thirties or early forties, became a democratic republic with a strong legislature, a weak executive, a multiparty system, and a proportional system of representation. Christian Democratic coalitions dominated the democratic period. However, almost a third of the country was illiterate, and farmers--87 percent of the population--were conservative and unfamiliar with democratic processes. In 1926 the Socialist-Populist coalition government was removed by a military coup. Antanas Smetona, a former acting president, was elected to the presidency by a rump parliament. Within three years, he established an authoritarian regime. Political parties were outlawed and the press censored, but Smetona did not completely suppress civil rights. Smetona established Tautininkai, a nationalist political party, which reappeared in the parliament in 1991 after Lithuania regained independence from the Soviet Union.
From 1920 to 1940, independent Lithuania made great strides in nation building and development. A progressive land reform program was introduced in 1922, a cooperative movement was organized, and a strong currency and conservative fiscal management were maintained. Schools and universities were established (there had been no institutions of higher education and very few secondary schools under Russian rule), and illiteracy was substantially reduced. Artists and writers of the period produced works that have become classics.
The Soviet Republic
On August 23, 1939, Joseph V. Stalin and Adolf Hitler concluded the notorious Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact (also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact). The agreement had a secret protocol that divided Poland, much of Central Europe, and the Baltic states between Germany and the Soviet Union. Lithuania, at first assigned to the German sphere of influence, in September was transferred to the Soviet Union. In October 1939, the Soviet Union forced on Lithuania a nonaggression pact that allowed Moscow to garrison 20,000 troops in the country. In return, the city of Vilnius, now occupied by Soviet troops, was granted to Lithuania. On June 15, 1940, Lithuania was overrun by the Red Army. At first a procommunist, so-called people's government was installed, and elections to a new parliament were organized. The elections were noncompetitive; a single approved list of candidates was presented to the voters. The parliament met on July 21, declared Soviet rule, and "joined" the Soviet Union as the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic on August 6, 1940. The United States and many other countries refused to recognize the Soviet occupation.
Soviet rule brought about radical political and economic changes and Stalinist terror, which culminated in deportations to Siberia of more than 30,000 people on the night of June 14-15, 1941. Germany interrupted the Stalinist terror by attacking the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. The next day, the Lithuanian Activist Front, an organization of anti-Soviet resistance groups, revolted against the Soviet occupiers. Partisans took over the largest cities--Kaunas and Vilnius--and declared restoration of Lithuanian independence. The Germans replaced the provisional government with a Lithuanian Vertrauensrat (Council of Trustees), which was headed by an ethnic Lithuanian, General Petras Kubiliunas, and was given some autonomy in local affairs.
The Lithuanian leadership went underground. An anti-Nazi resistance movement developed, publishing underground newspapers, organizing economic boycotts, and gathering arms. The resistance hoped that after victory the Western allies would insist on the restoration of Lithuanian statehood.
A Soviet-sponsored underground also existed in Lithuania beginning in 1942. It staged military raids against German transportation, administrative, and economic enterprises. The Soviet forces were aided by the remnants of the Communist Party of Lithuania, now barely surviving in the underground.
The nationalist Lithuanian resistance was supported by many Lithuanian political parties and resistance groups, including the Social Democrats and a coalition known as the Supreme Committee for the Liberation of Lithuania, which continued its activities many years after Lithuania was retaken by the Red Army. In 1943 this resistance frustrated German efforts at organizing a Lithuanian Schutz-Staffel (SS) legion. The Nazis responded by arresting Lithuanian nationalists and by closing universities. Moreover, occupation authorities succeeded, in the period 1941-44, in recruiting or capturing tens of thousands of people to work in Germany or to serve in the German military. Many perished in prisons or concentration camps. The main victims, however, were members of Lithuania's Jewish community. About 185,000 Jews, or 85 percent of the community's population, were massacred by Nazi squads, which were helped by Lithuanian collaborators in a number of localities.
Soviet armies recaptured Lithuania in the summer of 1944, although Klaipeda did not fall until January 1945. Antanas Snieckus, the Communist Party of Lithuania leader, returned from Moscow with the other officials who had fled before the advancing German armies. Lithuania's full Sovietization, however, was obstructed from 1944 to 1952 by an armed partisan resistance movement, which cost an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 partisan casualties.
Soviet rule in Lithuania displayed well-known features of communist rule. The party had a monopoly on power, and the management of the economy was centralized. The regime collectivized agriculture from 1947 to 1951. Secret police terrorized the society and attempted to transfer Lithuanian nation-alist loyalties to the communists. Deportations to Siberia were resumed. Religion was brutally suppressed. One Roman Catholic bishop was shot, one perished in prison, two died shortly after release, and two were banished for more than thirty years, leaving only one in office. Almost one-third of the clergy was deported, although survivors were allowed to return after Stalin's death in 1953. Eventually, the training of new priests was essentially stopped.
Institutions of power--the party, the secret police, and the government--at first were mainly in Russian hands. In the postwar period, ethnic Lithuanians constituted only 18.4 percent of the republic's communist party members. Beginning in the 1950s, college graduates and those who wanted to make careers in economic, cultural, or political life realized that the Soviet system was not transitory, so they joined the communist party. The party swelled to a membership of 205,000 by 1989, but most of these members were opportunists, very different from the few revolutionary fanatics who had administered Lithuania in the immediate postwar period. Still others joined the party in the expectation that they would be of better use to the preservation of Lithuanian traditions, language, and culture in the ranks of the ruling group. There developed a stratum of communists who wanted to promote not only Moscow's but also Lithuania's advantage.
Underground resistance never disappeared, although the armed underground was destroyed. As a movement, resistance was first sparked by efforts to defend the Roman Catholic Church. After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which led to increased repression in the Soviet Union, the dissident movement spread. In the 1970s, Lithuania had numerous underground publications. The most significant and regularly published among them was The Chronicle of the Catholic Church of Lithuania . It was never uncovered by the Soviet secret police, the Committee for State Security (Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti--KGB), and was published for twenty years. In 1972 a young student, Romas Kalanta, immolated himself in protest against Soviet rule. Army units had to be sent in to quell a street rebellion by students that followed the self-immolation. The Committee for the Defense of Religious Rights and the Helsinki Watch Committee were established in the underground. Dissident work brought arrests and imprisonment. At the same time, the Lithuanian intelligentsia, especially writers and artists, demanded greater freedom of creative expression and protection of the Lithuanian language, traditions, and cultural values from the pressure to Russify that intensified during the administration of Leonid I. Brezhnev (1964-82).
Data as of January 1995
NOTE: The information regarding Lithuania on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Lithuania Independence, 1918-40 information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Lithuania Independence, 1918-40 should be addressed to the Library of Congress.