Lithuania’s name has been known in the world for over a thousand years, since it was first recorded in the Annals of Quedlinburg in 1009. A thousand years is a long history for a state, and during that time Lithuania – as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – was for a lengthy period among the great countries of the world. Although it faded from the maps of the world during later years of hardship, a century ago Lithuania chose the path of modern statehood and now, as the restored Second Republic, it continues confidently on that path. This country’s free spirit, solid character and democratic ideals are hard to break. We have always created and today continue to create our own freedom, without which our modern state is inconceivable.
Open, determined, responsible and creative – that is our Lithuania today. A modern Northern European state.
The first humans appeared in the territory of Lithuania approximately 14,000–12,000 BCE. As the climate warmed, the eastern Baltic region began to draw increasing numbers of deer herds, and these were followed by small groups of hunters. In around 3000–2500 BCE the Balts – Indo-Europeans from Central Europe – happened upon the territory that is now Lithuania. They began to raise animals and work the fertile fields. Between the 5th and 8th centuries tribal unions began to emerge in the territory’s western regions: Prussians, Yotvingians, Curonians, Semigallians, Lithuanians and Latgalians. By the 9th century Lithuanians were the most numerous grouping among the ethnic Balts; their numbers were matched only by the Prussians. In the 10th century the pagan Balts came to the attention of Europe’s Catholic missions. Lithuania was mentioned for the first time in the records of the missionary St Bruno of Querfurt.
During the Middle Ages Lithuania grew into a great state – the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Following the crowning of its King Mingaudas on July 6, 1253, a unified Lithuania was recorded on the maps of the world. A papal bull accorded the state of Lithuania the highest status of kingdom. This meant that Western Europe recognized Lithuania and welcomed it into its political family. Having officially adopted Christianity in 1387, Lithuania chose the Western model of statehood: schools were founded, literacy spread, and Lithuanian students travelled to study in Europe’s universities.
From the Baltic to the Black Sea
An important victory for Lithuania was its success in the Battle of Žalgiris (Grunwald) in 1410. Together with the Polish army, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania’s forces invaded the territory of the Teutonic Order, near the Vistula River, and confronted the German army. A battle near the villages of Tennenberg and Grunwald brought the Lithuanians and Poles victory, and Lithuania reached the pinnacle of its powers – the territory of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, from Poland to Smolensk. Lithuania became an important political force in Eastern and Central Europe, and its ruler Vytautas the Great earned a name as a great and wise politician. Historians of different epochs have compared him to Alexander of Macedonia or Julius Caesar, and saw the roots of his successful expansion in his tolerance for other religions and cultures.
Europe’s first written constitution
The Statutes of Lithuania, which formed the legal basis for order within the old state, bear witness to the fact that Lithuania has been an important part of Europe since the 16th century. The year 1791 saw the adoption of the May 3rd Constitution of the Two Nations, which brought important social reforms, established juridical procedures, and defined the principles of a civil society. The May 3rd Constitution was the first written constitution adopted in Europe, earlier even than that of France and second worldwide. (The US Constitution was adopted in 1787.)
The oldest university in Eastern Europe
On one of the walls of the old observatory at Vilnius University one can read the following inscription: Hinc itur ad astra – “The stars rise from here.” Founded in 1579, Vilnius University laid the groundwork for all of Lithuania’s schools of higher education and served as a centre of the country’s cultural life. It was also an institution of higher learning that had an enormous impact on European academic life as a whole. The university was especially famous for its theology, philology, rhetoric and poetry scholars. Vilnius University’s Martynas Smigleckis wrote a logic textbook that was well known throughout Europe and was even used by students at the Sorbonne and Oxford; Motiejus Kazimieras Sarabievijus’s poetry was read in European universities alongside that of Horace; and the mathematics professor Tadas Žebrauskas designed and established an observatory that was one of the first in Europe and fourth worldwide. Vilnius University is one of the oldest universities in Central Europe.
Book smuggling – a 19th century phenomenon
“Book smuggling” is an imperfect translation for knygnešystė – a word that exists only in Lithuanian and refers to the unique practice and cultural movement that existed under Russian tsarist rule in the country (1795–1918). It helped to preserve the Lithuanian language and lay the foundations for the restoration of Lithuanian independence in 1918. After the suppression of the 1863–64 Uprising, Russian imperial rule introduced a new ban on printing, importing and distributing Lithuanian publications using the Latin alphabet. The ban lasted for forty years, and during that entire period Lithuanian publications were printed abroad, mostly in what was then Prussia, as well as in Lithuania Minor and the United States. Printed books, newspapers and magazines were then smuggled through the border and into Lithuania. This was very dangerous work, as book smugglers had to get past three lines of guards, and any who were caught were severely punished. Book smuggling became an integral part of the Lithuanian national movement and was a unique phenomenon in 19th century Lithuanian history.
The interwar period – laying the foundations of a modern state
On February 16, 1918, twenty brave and determined representatives of the nation signed Lithuania’s Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed the restoration of an independent Lithuanian state – democratic and free from all ties that had previously connected it with other states. Vilnius was declared the country’s capital city.
After two years of battles to establish independence, the Lithuanian state succeeded in preserving its freedom and established a democratic parliamentary system. The founding Seimas (Parliament) adopted a temporary constitution that guaranteed the most important concepts underpinning the new juridical state.
A key symbol of the state’s rise was a 1933 transatlantic flight by Lithuanian pilots Steponas Darius and Stasys Girėnas, who were among the first to cross the Atlantic by airplane. After successfully taking off from New York and tackling the Atlantic, Darius and Girėnas planned to land in Kaunas, but tragically crashed in Germany, a few hours short of achieving their goal. The pilots dedicated their flight to later generations and the future of aviation, and the international press recognized it as the bravest and most risky in transatlantic flying history.
The modern Lithuanian state was built by young politicians, businesspeople, architects and artists. Their legacy and the cultural values they promoted helped Lithuania survive the Soviet occupation and became the foundation for ideas of restoring Lithuania’s independence later in the century.
Soviet occupation and annexation
Much of what was so lovingly built in the new independent state collapsed on June 15, 1940, when the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania. And a very dark period began on June 14, 1941, when the occupying powers began a campaign of mass deportations of Lithuanian residents to the depths of Russia – confiscating homes, separating families and transporting people in cattle cars to a land of eternal frost. Soon afterward Lithuania was occupied by Nazi Germany, whose forces, with the involvement of several thousand local collaborators, exterminated virtually all of Lithuania’s Jews. At the same time, many Lithuanians risked their lives in saving their Jewish neighbours; the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem has awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations to 893 Lithuanians.
Toward the end of the Second World War the USSR once again occupied Lithuania, and renewed and intensified deportations to Siberia and other forms of persecution of any dissenting elements. By 1953, approximately 300,000 of Lithuania’s residents had been killed or deported: 20,200 partisan fighters and their supporters were killed; 120,000 Lithuanians were deported to Siberia and the Far North (approximately 28,000 perished); 140,000 Lithuanians were imprisoned in the Soviet Union’s gulag labour camps (at least 20,000 died). Finally, tens of thousands of Lithuanians, many of them leading cultural, academic and political figures, fled to exile in the West in order to escape persecution.
But none of these forms of persecution could stifle Lithuanians’ thirst for freedom. Anti-Soviet partisans went into the forests to defend independent Lithuania; their decades-long war of resistance is one of the most dramatic and tragic chapter’s in the country’s history.
Our Singing Revolution
Once the Lithuanian reform movement Sąjūdis was established in June 1988, Lithuanians’ hopes for freedom – and faith that it was possible – could no longer be suppressed. The independence movement captivated the entire country, and the sound of Lithuanians’ intense longing for freedom reached the world. On August 23, 1989 – the 50th anniversary of the Ribentrop-Molotov Pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, which had crushed the independence of all three Baltic nations – Lithuanians joined hands with Latvians and Estonians, forming a human chain that stretched between Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn. The 650-kilometer-long “Baltic Way” was a peaceful, singing demonstration that symbolically separated the Baltic states from the Soviet Union.
Following Sąjūdis’s victory in democratic elections half a year later, a new group of freely elected parliamentary deputies gathered in the Lithuanian SSR’s Supreme Council building on March 11, 1990 and passed an act restoring Lithuania’s status as an independent state. This daring challenge to the Kremlin’s authority is seen as the event that triggered the collapse of the Soviet Union and it drew the world’s attention to Lithuania. Then, on January 13, 1991, Moscow tried to suppress Lithuania’s independence with tanks and bullets. But the Singing Revolution could not be silenced. Lithuanians met their enemies with peaceful concerts in city squares, with prayer, and with an unquenchable faith that truth would prevail. The world recognized Lithuania’s independence and this brave country once again made its mark on history and entered its third period as an independent state.
The new Lithuania that is now celebrated every March 13th is a modern, creative Northern European country – an active and responsible member of NATO and the European Union.