Restoration of Lithuania’s Independence

March 11

The great thing about being a tiny nation sandwiched between Russia and Germany is that you get to celebrate so many Independence Days! Lucky Lithuanians. Here it’s only March and the country celebrates its third independence-related holiday of the year!

Lithuania’s main Independence Day is February 16, which celebrates the day in 1918 that the Council of Lithuania declared itself finally independent of both Russia and Germany during the chaos of World War I and the Russian Revolution. (See Lithuanian Independence Day.)

But the briefly independent nation was consumed by the Soviet giant at the outbreak of World War II.

Over fifty years later on March 11, 1990, the Lithuanian government declared that the Lithuanian State that was “abolished by foreign forces in 1940, is re-established, and henceforth Lithuania is again an independent state.

The aptly named “Act of March 11” is what the country celebrates today.

The act of rebellion didn’t sit so well with Soviet leaders. As nationalism in Lithuania rose, Soviet tanks entered the capital of Vilnius in January 1991, killing 14 people and injuring hundreds. Lithuanians remember January 13 as Freedom Defenders Day.

Lithuanian Independence Day

February 16

“The Council of Lithuania in its session of February 16, 1918 decided unanimously to address the governments of Russia, Germany, and other states with the following declaration:

“The Council of Lithuania, as the sole representative of the Lithuanian nation, based on the recognized right to national self-determination, and on the Vilnius Conference’s resolution of September 18-23, 1917, proclaims the restoration of the independent state of Lithuania, founded on democratic principles, with Vilnius as its capital, and declares the termination of all state ties which formerly bound this State to other nations.

“The Council of Lithuania also declares that the foundation of the Lithuanian State and its relations with other countries will be finally determined by the Constituent Assembly, to be convoked as soon as possible, elected democratically by all its inhabitants.”

These short paragraphs are what the nation of Lithuania celebrates today, February 16, as its independence day. A declaration that declared an end to over a century of Russian occupation.

Lithuania was first united in the thirteenth century by the enigmatic Mindaugas. (No, he was not a Harry Potter character, that’s Mundungus.) Mindaugas was the first and last King of Lithuania. He converted to Christianity to attain the support of the Pope and the Livonian Order, but reverted back to Paganism after. He and his wife Morta were crowned King and Queen in 1253. When she died ten years later Mindaugas made the fatal mistake of taking Morta’s sister as his wife. She was already married to a former ally of Mindaugas, Daumantas. Mindaugas was used to annexing numerous lands, but Daumantas did not take the annexation of his wife so readily, and helped Mindaugas’s nephew assassinate the King along with two of the king’s sons. Never again was there crowned a king of Lithuania.

By the end of the 1300s Lithuania was the largest state in Europe. Its land included parts of what is now Belarus, Ukraine, Poland and Russia.

Lithuania on steroids

One gift the Lithuanians bestowed upon Eastern Europe during the 16th century was the codification of its laws in the Three Statutes of Lithuania. The Sobornoye Ulozheniye, the first complete code of Russian law, was based in part on the Lithuanian codes.

A political bond with Poland endured in various manifestations through the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries until the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was eaten up piece by piece by the superpowers growing around it: Prussia, Austria, and mainly Russia.

Catherine II of Russia’s attitude was: “Polotsk and Lithuania have been taken and retaken about twenty times, and treaty was ever concluded without one side or the other claiming part or all of it, depending on circumstances.

Lithuania remained under Russian control for over a century. During World War I the Lithuanian government exploited the weakness of the Russian Empire and the animosity between Russia and Germany. A Council of Lithuania passed a series of Acts starting in late 1917 and early 1918 which repudiated Russian rule. Germany, which occupied parts of Western Russia, was happy to see pieces of the Russian Empire break away, thinking they would pick up the crumbs. However, when Germany began losing the war in 1918 their position to negotiate declined. And with the Act of Independence of February 16, 1918, Lithuania achieved independence from both Russia and Germany.

The 20 Signatories of the Act of Independence

The celebration was short lived. During World War II Lithuania was overrun by Soviet tanks on their way to Poland, followed by German tanks on their way to Russia, and again by the Soviets on their way to Berlin.

January 13, 1991, the Soviet Union, fearful of increasing nationalist sentiment in Lithuania invaded the city of Vilnius and attacked the TV tower and other buildings. Images of the attack spread throughout the world, and were influential in the eventual fall of the Soviet Union eight months later.
The short Act of Independence of 1918, with its emphasis on democratic principles, was cited by Lithuanians as the inspiration for and the basis of the rebirth of their sovereign state.

Blogs of note:
EU Newcomer Lithuania celebrates 90 years of Independence

Freedom Defenders Day – 13.1.1991 – Lithuania

January 13

“One of the most important battles in Europe’s modern history was fought and won in Vilnius 16 years ago.”

Carl Bildt, Swedish Foreign Affairs Minister, January 2007

In the late 1980’s a “Singing Revolution” swept through the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

Thousands of citizens coalesced night after night in each of the republics to sing national songs that had been banned under the Soviet regime. (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, as well as half of Poland, had been annexed by the Soviet Union in accordance with a secret corollary of the Nazi-Soviet Pact between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin a week before the outbreak of WWII.)

On the Pact’s 50th anniversary 2 million people participated in a human chain across the Baltic States to protest the occupation.

The Lithuanian Communist Party seceded from the Soviet Communist Party, and in its first free election Sajudis, the newly formed pro-independence party, won a majority. The Lithuanian Legislature declared its independence from the Soviet Union in March of 1990.

The leaders of the Soviet Union were not too keen on this. Soviet troops entered Vilnius on January 11th and seized control of strategic posts such as the Defense Department, railway office, and Press House.

Youtube: Soviet troops vs. unarmed Lithuanian civilians, January 13, 1991

By January 12th the news had spread through the country and throngs of Lithuanians gathered at the capital to protect other locations such as the Vilnius TV tower. In the wee hours of January 13th, Soviet tanks attacked the TV tower, plowing through crowds of unarmed people. Fourteen civilians were killed.

At 2:30 in the morning:

“a small TV studio from Kaunas came on air unexpectedly. A technician of the family program that usually broadcast from Kaunas once a week, was on the air, calling for anyone who could help to broadcast to the world in as many different languages as possible about the Soviet army and tanks killing unarmed people in Lithuania. Within an hour, the studio was filled with several university professors broadcasting in several languages. The small studio in Kaunas received a threatening phone call from the Soviet army division of Kaunas. By 4 in the morning this studio received the news that Swedish news station finally saw the broadcast and will be broadcasting the news to the world.”

At the 15th anniversary of the January 13th revolution, Arturas Paulauskas, Speaker of the Lithuanian Seimas said:

“In January 1991 there was no country in the world the people of which did not help us. Every uttered word defending our freedom at that time was an invaluable contribution into our victory, especially the words by the Russian people…Just the way they won here, in Vilnius, in January 1991. And here in Lithuania, and there in Riga, Tallinn, later in Kiev, other countries. Most importantly they won in Moscow: The country that attacked and enslaved no longer exists…

“FREE is stronger than FREER and stronger than the FREEST M. Gorbachev offered us to be FREER, but all we wanted was simply to be FREE.”

Paulauska’s final thoughts explained why the Lithuanian people must remember this relatively new holiday. Yet his speech echoed the sentiments of leaders throughout history as to why we celebrate holidays:

“It is a real joy to see young people…who were not yet born in January 1991…gathered at the fire and signing patriotic songs. However all this does not yet mean that this young generation knows what to do with freedom defended in 1991.

“Our generation still has to hand down to them Lithuania with alive spirit of freedom and true values. From hands to hands, from minds to minds, from hearts to hearts…Let us never forget this responsibility. In the name of those who were killed 15 years ago. And in the name of those still to come.”

Full text here.

Also see Lithuanian Independence Day – February 16

Black Ribbon Day – the Baltic Way

The West read the headlines in shock…

The two most bitter enemies in Europe, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, had signed a non-aggression pact.

What did it mean? The end of peace and the beginning of the most devastating war in history.

In spite of concern over Nazi Germany’s buildup of military power, the Britain and France had been wary of signing any alliance treaty with the Soviet Union, whom they considered merely the lesser of two evils (and the further of the two, geographically).

Russia had no choice but to oppose Germany, or so the Britain and France believed. Hatred of communism was a founding principle of Hitler’s Nazi movement, and the feeling in Russia toward Nazism was mutual.

Evidently though, pragmatism outweighed principle.

Hitler used the West’s alienation of the Soviet Union to his advantage. On August 23, 1939 Hitler and Stalin signed the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. It stated, simply, that the two countries would not attack each other.  In other words, it cleared the path for Hitler to attack Poland, knowing Russia wouldn’t attack from the East, should Britain and France attack from the West.

With the two-front war threat out of the way, German tanks rolled into Poland, claiming to do so in retaliation for outbreaks of violence on the German-Polish border.

Weeks later the world got a hint of the other part of the Non-Aggression Pact. It was actually a co-aggression pact. Hitler would attack Poland from the West; Stalin would attack from the East. The USSR would get Estonia and Latvia, Germany would get Lithuania, and the two would “split” Poland down the middle.

Germany’s blitzkrieg against Poland was so swift that Stalin was forced to attack Poland sooner than he’d expected. The Poles, who had managed to hold off Germany for two weeks, fought on for another month as their country was hopelessly devoured from both ends by two of the strongest military powers in the world.

The Pact was meant to last 10 years. Hitler broke it in less than two, invading the Soviet Union in 1941.

Though Germany was defeated in 1945, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia remained in Soviet possession. The West was not anxious to spill more blood in central Europe after 6 years of war. Poland was recognized as an independent country in 1952 but remained under Soviet control. However, the Baltic States would wait until the 1990s to regain independence.

In 1986, protesters gathered in 21 cities across the world on the anniversary of the infamous pact, to protest specifically the secret provision signed by Hitler and Stalin that still determined the map of the Baltic. A provision that the Soviet Union still officially denied existed. Three years later, on the 50th anniversary of the pact, two million Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians joined hands to form the “Baltic Way”. A human chain that stretched 600 kilometers across the three republics.

The Baltic Way – 1989

Four months later the Soviet Union officially acknowledged the existence of the secret provision of “the Devil’s Pact”.

The nationalistic fervor that spread from to Baltic to other Soviet republics hastened the breakup of the mighty empire that once swallowed them.

Today August 23 is recognized as “Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism”.