This post will start a series of posts, focusing on the history of states with a communist or soviet past. The goal is to give a brief summary of the history and at the same time to focus on important aspects that have shaped the identity of the state and the society nowadays. The words for this brief summary should not exceed 1500 words.
Unlike the other two Baltic countries Lithuania has a feudal history that is tied to the medieval western Europe. Especially the close neighbour ship with Poland was used by Lithuanian nobles to learn the feudal system and use the administrative power and the feudal society.
Mystery of Origin
But the origin of the Lithuanians is just like the origin of other Baltic ethnicities in the dark. Language and DNS provide only the information that they belong to the Indo-Germanic root and that they early divided from Slavic and Germanic branch, as they have moved into the Baltic region, after the main part of the Germanic tribes have settled in Germanic regions and after the Slavic tribes have found their way to Europe.
What is known is, that the Baltic tribes consisted of a several tribes from which only Lithuanians, Latvians, Latgalians and some other small tribes have survived like Curonians, Curonian kings, while other were extinct like Livonians and Prussians. The Roman Writer Tacitus mentioned though the name Aesti, which became Eesti (nowadays Estonians).
The difference to the north
The whole Baltic region was divided in several tribes, who were mainly fighting either Viking raiders or just themselves. But due to the enhancing pressure of German, Danish and other crusaders, who invaded the Baltic region, the nobility in Lithuania was united under the leadership of Mindaugas. Mindaugas founded the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and established the origin for the largest medieval empire in Europe. To find help from Poland and to avoid the military knight orders, he baptised himself together with his family. What was seen often as a betrayal of Lithuanian traditions, as the population, just like most of the nobility remained pagan. Even the cathedral he has built in Vilnius was changed after his death to a pagan temple. While the northern region stood no chance against the advanced warfare of the western knights. But not just the technology was the reason that the northern Baltic region was captured fast, but also the possibility that the Crusaders were able to recruit several local leaders and tribes as local auxiliary units. So together with the republic of Novgorod and some smaller Slavic principalities, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the only strong enemy of the Crusaders.
The fight for existence
The Grand Duke Gediminas was not just able to resist all christianizing attempts, but also was able to link the Grand Duchy to other European Nations. Still following the pageant way of life, the pure existence of the Grand Duchy was an insult to the Knights (and a threat, as Baltic tribes tend to rise up under Lithuanian leadership).
The Crusaders waged war against Lithuania and the Grand Duchy reacted. Under the leader Vytautas the Great, the Order of the Livonian Brothers of the Swords was defeated in a devastating battle at Schaulen. The remaining Livonian Brothers of the Swords who survived the battle were integrated into the Teutonic Order. This battle is still widely seen as one of the most important battles in the Lithuanian history as it saved the existence and independence of the princedom of Lithuania. Therefore this battle is one of the fundamental stones of the Lithuanian identity. It’s not a coincidence that the main cities of many Lithuanian cities are called “Vytautas street” or “Gediminas street”.
Hugging the brother from the west
While Lithuania was expanding into the south into the region of nowadays Belarus and Ukraine, the kingdom of Poland was also a rising star. Due to successful marriage diplomacy it didn’t come to the clash, but to the union of Poland-Lithuania (Rzeczpospolita).
The Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania became the largest and strongest feudal power in Europe until the 18th century when the tsaristic Russia was expanding to the south. The widely peace, the high literacy rate, the non-discrimination of Jews, Ruthenians, Russians, Ukrainians, Germans and other ethnic minority was more progressive than the most feudal countries in western Europe. The star of Lithuania was sinking as other powers started to engage in the Baltic Sea and in the east of Europe, like Sweden and the tsaristic Russia. Eventually the Union was defeated and split several times until Lithuania became just a part of the Russian Empire.
Lithuania under foreign rule
Lithuanians had to live under the tsaristic rule. At this time, Lithuanian was spoken only in rural areas, as the elite was speaking either in Polish or in Russian. Only after the abolition of the serfdom in Russia, the Lithuanian language became part of the Lithuanian identity. The national movement relied heavily on authors and poets like Jonas Basanavičius, Vincas Kudirka and others, who romanticized the Grand Duchy. Although Lithuanian books were forbidden by Russia, Nationalists brought Lithuanian books to the Russian empire, and were able to preserve the language and strengthen the Lithuanian identity. The national revival was nevertheless oppressed by a russification. This stayed till the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk between the German Empire and the freshly established Soviet Union. Again, unlike in the northern Baltic region the independence was not followed by an independence war, but with hard negotiations with the new established Poland. The good relationship of medieval times was destroyed in these times. Polish nationalists dreamt of the restoration of the old Kingdom, which inherited Belarus, West-Ukraine, Lithuania. And so Vilnius and Klaipeda became Polish. This loss of land that was seen as Lithuanian and the following sabotage and “terrorist” attacks by nationalists from both sides destroyed the relationship entirely.
Lithuania in the 20th century
Apart from the territorial disputes the interwar period is today glorified just like the times of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
While some parts of the society linked the identity to the Grand Duchy, other parts tried to destroy all links to the medieval Lithuania. Democracy, economy and cultural life were on the peak. The democracy in Lithuania was stable and popular till the depression of the 30’s destroyed the economy. The call for a strong leader grew and a Coup d’état happened. Till 1939 Lithuania was governed by a fascist dictator. Although there were signs of the upcoming war the invading Russian and German forces caught the Lithuanian government and army by surprise. The Baltic States were declared, due to the Molotov-Ribbentrop-Treaty, as part of the Soviet Union. Shortly after the occupation was successful the KGB and the Red Army started the deportation, the imprisonment and the killing of Lithuanian bourgeoisie, intellectuals and political active persons. No surprise is the Molotov-Ribbentrop-Treaty seen as a national tragedy and as a trauma. This trauma was strengthened as not only the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania, but the Third Reich attacked in 1941 and occupied Lithuanian territory. The deportation, imprisonments and killings started again. Additionally, to all political opponents, jews, disabled and homosexuals were hunted down. Disastrous was the recruitment of Lithuanians men into the German army, as already the Soviet Union has recruited a huge amount of Lithuanian men. Lithuanian men were now fighting on both sides against each other, believing that their own side would grant freedom and independence after the war. After the defeat of German forces in Lithuania, the Soviet Union occupied once more Lithuania and the third deportation wave started.
Against the hope of Lithuanians the state stayed occupied by the Soviet Union, but became the Soviet Republic of Lithuania. The next decades were dominated by a russification policy and the oppression of Lithuanian culture and language. Just when the Lithuanian language was about to die, the Soviet Union was crumbling. The Baltic way, a huge singing human chain from Vilnius over Riga till Tallinn showed the leaders of the Soviet Union how strong the will of independence was. The reaction was that soviet tanks marched into the capital of Vilnius. Barricades were erected and in the upcoming street fights 14 Lithuanian protesters were killed and over 700 injured.
Eventually the Soviet Union realized that it won´t be able to stop Lithuanians, Latvians and other nations to become independent. As soon as Lithuania gained its independence it searched in fear of Russia the membership in the European Union and in the NATO, which it managed in 2004. Since then Lithuania has been a success story, not only being able to establish economical boosts, but also finding a way how to deal with Russians and the Russian language. Lithuania has the largest Baltic state with the largest population and the most powerful history has the strongest self-confidence among the Baltic States. Especially the fear of a Russian invasion is driving the policy nowadays in Lithuania, because the fear of a new Molotov-Ribbentrop-Treaty is still alive.