A powerful state in its own right at its peak in the 14th to 16th centuries, Lithuania subsequently disappeared from the map in the 18th century, only to reappear briefly between the wars, and ultimately regain Independence (from the Soviets) in 1991. Kaunas’ Military Museum of Vytautas the Great and Vilnius’ National Museum of Lithuania cover the whole span of Lithuania’s history.
Human habitation in the wedge of land that makes up present-day Lithuania goes back to at least 9000 BC. Trade in amber started during the Neolithic period (6000 to 4500 years ago), providing the Balts – the ancestors of modern Lithuanians – with a readymade source of wealth when they arrived on the scene from the southeast some time around 2000 BC.
Two millennia on, it was this fossilised pine resin and the far-flung routes across the globe its trade had forged – all brilliantly explained in Palanga’s Amber Museum – that prompted a mention of the amber-gathering aesti on the shores of the Baltic Sea in Germania, a Roman book about the Germanic tribes written in AD 98. It wasn’t until AD 1009 that Litae (Latin for Lithuania) first appears in written sources (the Kvedlinburgh Chronicle) as the place where an archbishop called Brunonus was struck on the head by pagans.
By the 12th century Lithuania’s peoples had split into two tribal groups: the Samogitians (lowlanders) in the west and the Aukštaitija (highlanders) in the east and southeast. Around this time, some sources say, a wooden castle was built on the top of Gediminas Hill in Vilnius.
In the mid-13th century Aukštaitija leader Mindaugas unified Lithuanian tribes to create the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, of which he was crowned king in 1253 at Kernavė. Mindaugas accepted Catholicism in a bid to defuse the threat from the Teutonic Order – Germanic crusaders who conquered various Prussian territories, including Memel (present-day Klaipėda). Unfortunately, neither conversion nor unity lasted very long: Mindaugas was assassinated in 1263 by nobles keen to keep Lithuania pagan and reject Christianity.
Under Grand Duke Gediminas (1316–41), Lithuania’s borders extended south and east into modern-day Belarus and Ukraine, and even included Kiev for a time. After Gediminas’ death, two of his sons shared the realm: in Vilnius, Algirdas pushed the southern borders of Lithuania past Kyiv, while Kęstutis – who plumped for a pretty lake island in Trakai as a site for his castle – fought off the Teutonic Order.
Algirdas’ son Jogaila took control of the country in 1382, but the rising Teutonic threat forced him to make a watershed decision in the history of Europe. In 1386 he wed Jadwiga, crown princess of Poland, to become Władysław II Jagiełło of Poland and forge a Lithuanian-Polish alliance that would last 400 years. The Aukštaitija were baptised in 1387 and the Samogitians in 1413, making Lithuania the last European country to accept Christianity.
Jogaila spent most of his time in Kraków, but trouble was brewing at home. In 1390 his cousin Vytautas revolted, forcing Jogaila’s hand. In 1392 he named Vytautas Grand Duke of Lithuania on condition that he and Jogaila share a common policy. The decisive defeat of the Teutonic Order by their combined armies at Grünwald (in modern-day Poland) in 1410 ushered in a golden period of prosperity, particularly for the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, which saw its legendary Old Town born.
Vytautas (‘the Great’) extended Lithuanian control further south and east. By 1430, when he died, Lithuania stretched beyond Kursk in the east and almost to the Black Sea in the south, creating one of Europe’s largest empires. Nowhere was its grandeur and clout better reflected than in 16th-century Vilnius, which, with a population of 25,000-odd, was one of eastern Europe’s biggest cities. Fine late-Gothic and Renaissance buildings sprang up, and Lithuanians such as Žygimantas I and II occupied the Polish-Lithuanian throne inside the sumptuous Royal Palace.
In 1579 Polish Jesuits founded Vilnius University and made the city a bastion of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Under Jesuit influence, Baroque architecture also arrived.
Polonisation & Partitions
Lithuania gradually sank into a junior role in its partnership with Poland, climaxing with the formal union of the two states (instead of just their crowns) at the Union of Lublin in 1569, during the Livonian War with Muscovy.
Under the so-called Rzeczpospolita (Commonwealth), Lithuania played second fiddle to Poland. Its gentry adopted Polish culture and language, its peasants became serfs and Warsaw usurped Vilnius as political and social hub.
A century on it was Russia’s turn to play tough. In 1654 Russia invaded the Rzeczpospolita and temporarily snatched significant territory from it. By 1772 the Rzeczpospolita was so weakened that the states of Russia, Austria and Prussia simply carved it up in the Partitions of Poland (1772, 1793 and 1795). Most of Lithuania went to Russia, while a small chunk in the southwest was annexed by Prussia, but passed into Russian hands after the Napoleonic wars.
Russification & Nationalism
While neighbouring Estonia and Latvia were governed as separate provinces, Russian rule took a different stance with rebellious Lithuania.
Vilnius had quickly become a refuge for Polish and Lithuanian gentry dispossessed by the region’s new Russian rulers and a focus of the Polish national revival, in which Vilnius-bred poet Adam Mickiewicz was a leading inspiration. When Lithuanians joined a failed Polish rebellion against Russian rule in 1830, Tsarist authorities clamped down extra hard. They shut Vilnius University, closed Catholic churches and monasteries and imposed Russian Orthodoxy. Russian law was introduced in 1840 and the Russian language was used for teaching. A year after a second rebellion in 1863, books could only be published in Lithuanian if they used the Cyrillic alphabet, while publications in Polish (spoken by the Lithuanian gentry) were banned altogether.
National revival gained some momentum in the 19th and early 20th centuries. While most Lithuanians continued to live in rural areas and villages, the rapid industrialisation of Vilnius and other towns gave nationalist drives more clout. Vilnius became an important Jewish centre during this period, with Jews making up around 75,000 of its 160,000-strong population in the early 20th century to earn it the nickname ‘Jerusalem of the North’.
Ideas of Baltic national autonomy and independence had been voiced during the 1905 Russian revolution, but it was not until 1918 that the restoration of the Independent State of Lithuania was declared. During WWI Lithuania was occupied by Germany and it was still under German occupation on 16 February 1918 when a Lithuanian national council, the Taryba, declared independence in Vilnius in the House of Signatories. In November Germany signed an armistice with the Western Allies, and the same day a Lithuanian republican government was set up.
With the re-emergence of an independent Poland eager to see Lithuania reunited with it or to cede the Vilnius area, which had a heavily Polish and/or Polonised population, things turned nasty. On 31 December 1918 the Lithuanian government fled to Kaunas, and days later the Red Army installed a communist government in Vilnius. Over the next two years the Poles and Bolsheviks played a game of tug-of-war with the city, until the Poles annexed Vilnius once and for all on 10 October 1920. Thus from 1920 until 1939 Vilnius and its surrounds formed a corner of Poland, while the rest of Lithuania was ruled from Kaunas under the authoritarian rule (1926–40) of Lithuania’s first president, Antanas Smetona (1874–1944).
In 1923 Lithuania annexed Memel (present-day Klaipėda), much to the displeasure of its former ruler, a much-weakened Germany.
WWII & Soviet Rule
With the signing of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact in 1939 and the German invasion of Poland in September of that year, Lithuania fell into Soviet hands. The USSR insisted on signing a ‘mutual-assistance pact’ with Lithuania in October and returned Vilnius to the Lithuanian motherland as part of the inducement. But this was little consolation for the terror Lithuania experienced as a USSR republic – Soviet purges saw thousands upon thousands of people killed or deported.
Following Hitler’s invasion of the USSR and the German occupation of the region in 1941, nearly all of Lithuania’s Jewish population – more than 90% of the country’s 200,000 Jews – was killed; most Vilnius Jews died in its ghetto or in the nearby Paneriai Forest. Ethnic Lithuanians suffered proportionately much less, but thousands were killed, and between 1944 and 1945 some 80,000 fled West to avoid the Red Army’s reconquest of the Baltic countries.
Immediate resistance to the reoccupation of Lithuania by the USSR, in the form of the partisan movement ‘Forest Brothers’, began in 1944. Discover their story in museums across the country, including the Museum of Deportation & Resistance in Kaunas.
Between 1944 and 1952 under Soviet rule, a further 250,000 Lithuanians were killed, arrested or deported, as patriotic spirit and thought were savagely suppressed. Nowhere is this dark period explained more powerfully than at the Museum of Genocide Victims in the old KGB headquarters in Vilnius.
A yearning for independence had simmered during the glasnost years of the mid-1980s, but it was with the storming success of Lithuania’s popular front, Sajūdis, in the March 1989 elections for the USSR Congress of People’s Deputies (Sajūdis won 36 of the 42 directly elected Lithuanian seats) that Lithuania surged ahead in the Baltic push for independence. The pan-Baltic human chain, which was formed to mark the 50th anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact a few months later, confirmed public opinion and, in December that year, the Lithuanian Communist Party left the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Vast pro-independence crowds met then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev when he visited Vilnius in January 1990. Sajūdis won a majority in the elections to Lithuania’s supreme Soviet in February, and on 11 March the assembly declared Lithuania an independent republic. In response, Moscow carried out weeks of troop manoeuvres around Vilnius and clamped an economic blockade on Lithuania, cutting off fuel supplies.
Soviet hardliners gained the ascendancy in Moscow in the winter of 1990–91, and in January 1991 Soviet troops and paramilitary police stormed and occupied Vilnius’ TV tower and Parliament, killing 14 people. Some of the barricades put up around the Parliament remain. On 6 September 1991 the USSR recognised the independence of Lithuania.
Lithuanians have a sense of irony: they led the Baltic push for independence then, at their first democratic parliamentary elections in 1992, raised eyebrows by voting in the ex-communist Lithuanian Democratic Labour Party (LDDP). Presidential elections followed in 1993, the year the last Soviet soldier left the country, with former Communist Party first secretary Algirdas Brazauskas winning 60% of the vote.
It was a painful time for the country. Corruption scandals dogged Brazauskas’ term in office and inflation ran wild, peaking around 1000%. Thousands of jobs were lost and the country’s banking system collapsed in 1995–96.
But change was under way that would eventually fuel economic growth. The litas replaced the talonas (coupon), the transitional currency used during the phasing out of the Soviet rouble in Lithuania, and a stock exchange opened.
Presidential elections in 1998 ushered in wild card Valdas Adamkus (b 1926), a Lithuanian émigré and US citizen who had come to the US after WWII when his parents fled the Soviet advance.
Adamkus appointed a member of the ruling Conservative Party, 43-year-old Rolandas Paksas, prime minister in 1999. The popular Vilnius mayor and champion stunt pilot won instant approval as ‘the people’s choice’ – so much so that he challenged Adamkus for the presidency in 2003 and won.
Large-scale privatisation took place in 1997–98, but a deep recession struck following the 1998 economic crisis in Russia. Nevertheless, Lithuania managed to claw its way back and by 2001 its economy was being praised by the International Monetary Fund as one of the world’s fastest growing.
Lithuania joined the World Trade Organization in 2000, and in 2002 – in a bid to make exports competitive and show a determination to join Europe – pegged its currency to the euro instead of the US dollar. It joined the Eurozone in 2015.
True to his Lithuanian heritage, Adamkus battled hard in the political ring and regained the presidency in 2004 following the impeachment of Paksas for granting Lithuanian citizenship to a shady Russian businessman who was a major financial supporter. Adamkus finished his five-year term in office in 2009 and was replaced by Dalia Grybauskaitė, who became the country’s first female head of state, and was re-elected in 2014.
In 2004 Lithuania joined the EU and NATO and has been a staunch supporter of both ever since. In November 2004 it became the first EU member to ratify the EU constitution. The former USSR military base outside Šiauliai is now home to NATO F-16 fighter jets that protect the air space of all three Baltic countries.