In 1009 a German and Polish
Bruno, died on the Lithuanian border. A note to this effect in
the Quedlinburg Annals is the first written record of the land's
name. In the 11th and 12th centuries. Lithuanian warriors are
recorded as raiding western Rus for booty. Lithuania's historic
position at the intersection of Baltic. Russian and Polish life
is already visible.
When western European expansion in the form of Danish and North German merchants protected by military monks, especially the Teutonic Order, reached the southern Baltic at the end of the 12th century, a Lithuanian polity headed by Mindaugas and his immediate predecessors was able to seek control of the Dvina and Nemunas trade routes and resist the conquerors of what became Livonia. Mindaugas and his kin conquered Black Rus with its established trading towns and Orthodox population. The ruler accepted baptism from the Master of Livonia in 1251, Two years later Mindaugas was crowned king by a papal legate.
After the king was murdered in 1263, civil war ensued and Catholicism waned. Even so, Mindaugas's policy of rapprochement with Livonia and expansion into Rus was continued by his successors, most notably Grand Duke Gediminas (1316-1341/2], who exploited divisions in Catholic Livonian society by supporting the archbishops of Riga against the Teutonic Order. In 1323 Gediminas made peace with Livonia (later ratified by (he Pope) and invited Hansa merchants, soldiers and craftsmen to settle in his lands. After he rejected baptism in 1324, pagan Lithuania straddled between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Despite continued war with the Teutonic Order (1283-1422) Lithuanian rulers such as Gediminas, Algirdas (1345-1377] and Vytautas (1392-1430) maintained contacts with Livonia and in the 15th century complemented the northern trade routes with a connection across Žemaitija to Prussia. Algirdas even claimed in the 1350s that most of the Baltic region should belong to Lithuania.
In 1386 Grand Duke [Jogaila married Queen Jadwiga and ascended the throne of Poland, promising in return the baptism of pagan Lithuanians in the Roman rite, a process begun in 1387 and "officially" completed with the conversion of Žemaitija in 1413. Christian practices were adopted quickly during the 15th century but had to blend with old local customs to be accepted. During the reign of Vytautas. the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, with its polyethnic, multireligious community, spread from the Baltic to the Black Sea coast.
The new religion, in concert with political power concentrated in the hands of nobility, led to many changes in Lithuanian society. The war with Livonia and Prussia continued until after the victory at Žalgiris-Grunwald (1410) and the Treaty of Torun (1422), Subsequently, the old military frontier became a thriving economic zone containing Kaunas. Polotsk, Smolensk and Vilnius on the one side, and Riga. Konigsberg and Gdansk on the other.
In the 16th century the Lithuanian economy, like that of Poland, Livonia and Prussia, was based on large-scale manor farming and the export of grain and forest products to western Europe. Over the course of centuries, foreign noblemen and merchants came to settle in the country from Livonia. Russia and central and western Europe. The Grand Duchy had a thriving Jewish community from the 14th century onwards. Lithuanian Jews identified themselves strongly with the country, and Vilnius was a northern Jerusalem. In 1623 a Lithuanian Jewish parliament (Waad) was set up independent of Polish Jewry. The Karaims of Trakai. who observe the Tcirab but have no rabbis, worked and competed with thoir Jewish neighbours. Tatars also thrived in the Grand Duchy as warriors and farmers. The largest ethnic group was Ruthenian and Orthodox (later Uniate. a Lithuanian Catholic denomination). All these groups were permitted to keep their own traditions, but they ran the risk of becoming aliens among their fellow subjects. In the 17th and 18th centuries, when Lithuania-Poland was ravaged by the effects of war (with Russia and Sweden] and plague, small towns, often situated on noble estates and populated by Lithuanian. German. Jewish and Latvian craftsmen, were remarkably resilient.
Catholic boyars increased their influence in administration and politics under Jogaila and Vytautas. By the mid-15th century, the Council of Lords was active in administering and, later, deciding policy. Proto-parliaments. or sejms. where noblemen considered important issues began at that time, and these developed into joint assemblies with the Polish nobility. The nobles created an ancestral migration myth to explain their right to political power alongside the grand duke and stress a Baltic identity to distinguish Lithuanians from Poles and to justify Lithuanian ambitions in the Baltic. The Baltic mission of St. Bruno became a subject for baroque frescoes.
Christianity brought schools attached to parish churches and the cathedral in Vilnius. In order to compete with the spread of Reformation ideas, a Jesuit college was founded in Vilnius in 1579 with teachers and students from across Europe. Counter Reformation tracts for Riga were published in Vilnius, and the first book in Lithuanian was Martynas Mažvydas Lutheran catechism issued in Konigsberg in 1547.
After the collapse of the Teutonic Order as a regional power (in Prussia, when it became a secular Polish vassal state in 1525, and in Livonia in 1561), the Lithuanians sought to safeguard their commercial and diplomatic interests from Russian and Swedish competition by taking over Livonia. In 1561 Livonia was annexed to the Grand Duchy and later ceded to Poland. The last Jagiellonian monarch, Sigismund Augustus, gave Livonia its charter of basic rights.
Lithuania developed its own legal codices to replace customary law. issuing three separate Statutes in 1529.1566 and 1588. that arc landmarks in Lithuanian legislation; they combined local and Roman legal practices, reflecting the state's Baltic, Catholic and Orthodox heritage. The Union of Lublin (1569) changed the basis of the Lithuano-Polish state, creating the Republic of the Two Nations that had one sovereign, elected by the nobles of Poland and Lithuania jointly, and one seim. After the Jagiellonian Dynasty died out in the male line in 1572, political life became dominated by magnates. The equality of both lands in a unified state |to be called the Polish Republic), proclaimed by the Constitution of 3 May 1791. was welcomed by them in Lithuania as a guarantee of civil freedoms when they were threatened by Russian invasion. However, it came too late to have any effect on political divisions within the country. In 1795 the Russian bear swallowed its last share of Lithuania-Poland.
At the end of the 18th century, the three partitions of Lithuania-Poland brought Lithuania under the tsar's yoke, and its fate came to be connected directly with that of Latvia and Estonia, which known as Livonia, had previously been conquered by Russia.
Existence within the same state and a common desire for liberation from the foreign yoke did not create Baltic unity. The larger part of the 19th century was marked by allegiance to earlier political identities. Lithuanians stood shoulder to shoulder with Poles to defend and restore the ideas of the old republic, fighting in the 1794 Kosciuszko Rebellion and the uprisings of 1830-1831 and 1863. Only towards the end of the century did the Lithuanians, like the Latvians and Estonians, form a national movement to create a modern nation state. In Lithuanian's case, this meant a political, cultural and ideological break with Poland.
At the end of the Great War, many European nations wore given the chance to set up nation states. Historical precedent was held relevant to this creation process, and the old Lithuanian ideas of a shared Baltic culture became important. On 16 February 1918. when Lithuania declared its independence, it sought common ground with odier Baltic states, and there were even various plans for a Baltic Alliance of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Owing to the different historical experiences of the three countries, such plans remained only on paper. The Entente created by the Baltic States in 1934 was inactive and only slightly improved links among the three countries. Between the world wars, each country went through many similar but quite separate stages of development. Democracy survived the shortest time in Lithuania. After Antanas Smetona came to power in the coup of 1926, an authoritarian regime was introduced that lasted until the Lithuanian Republic was destroyed in 1940. Lithuania experienced considerable foreign policy difficulties. The major priorities were the restoration of the Vilnius region to Lithuania after its seizure by Poland in 1920 and retention of political control of me Klaipėda (Memel) region, which came under Lithuanian rule in 1923.
Nevertheless, the Lithuanian Republic of 1918-1940 achieved the aims it set for itself. In a short time, firm foundations were kid for the modem Lithuanian nation: modern culture was developed, a modern economic base was built and a multicultural society established. Twenty years of independence created a Lithuanian identity that helped sustain the nation under subsequent years of hardship later. In 1940, on the basis of secret protocols in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact [1939), the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania, and a new series of foreign occupations began in Lithuania's 20th-century history. Soviet occupants were replaced by Nazi Germans between 1941 and 1944, hut the return of the Red Army in 1944 brought with it the long-lasting second Soviet occupation,
World War II and the subsequent Stalinist repression changed the ethnic composition of Lithuanian society. During the War, the Nazis and certain Lithuanian collaborators destroyed Lithuania's unique Litvak Jewish community. Soviet officials deported some 130,000 Lithuanian citizens to Siberia. Many thousands died in armed opposition to the Soviet aggressor. Lithuanian opposition movements were more active than those in the other two Baltic countries, and this, together with less developed industrial infrastructure, meant that Lithuania would be russified to a lesser extant than Latvia or Estonia. Under Soviet occupation, 90% of the Lithuanian population was of native origin. This factor was important in 1990, when Lithuania declared its independence from the USSR.
On 11 March 1990 Lithuania became the first Baltic republic to declare its independence and thus the leader of the struggle for freedom from the Soviet Union. This example was later followed by Latvia and Estonia. After Lithuania was integrated into the Soviet Union in 1945, the bases of economic, cultural and ideological life changed here as in Latvia and Estonia. The new situation under Soviet occupation bred a sense of common cause among the peoples of the Baltic States which was clearly visible in the years of political change in Eastern Europe in the 1980s and early 1990s. In 1989 the "Baltic Way", with its human chain of interlocked hands from Vilnius to Tallinn, was the clearest example of Baltic unity forged during the hard years of Soviet occupation.
The restoration of independence to the Baltic States (1990-1991) created new conditions under which all three states chose to increase co-operation and integration (common market); although their strategic goals were the same [membership in the European Union and NATO), each had its own idea of how to achieve them. In its new independence, consistently supported by the United States, Lithuania's main strategic partner is Poland. The normalisation of relations between Lithuania and its former "enemy" is one of the greatest achievements of democratic Lithuania's government and society; by finding a way to soothe their shared pain, Lithuania and Poland are an example to other nations in Central Europe. A new relationship has been established between Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania as a result not only of life by the Baltic Sea and shared strategic aims but also primarily by economic factors. Large regional initiatives, such as the Via Baltica project, are forming a new commonalty of destiny and interests in which they are joined by other peoples dwelling around the Baltic Sea. In friendship with other Baltic States (in the broad sense), Lithuania has an excellent chance to use its historical heritage in Central Europe as an intermediary between Poland and Russia and to exploit new opportunities in the Baltic world.
Alvydas Nikžentaitis, Dr. Habii
Associate Professor, Director of the Institute of Lithuanian History
Stephen Christopher Rowell, Ph. D.
Institute of Lithuanian History
A. Volano str. 2/7, LT-01516, Vilnius
Phone +370 52 19 11 90,
Fax +370 52 61 20 77,
©2013 Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Lithuania