Independence, 1918-40

Lithuania Table of Contents

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.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress