The history of Lithuania begins with the formation of local principals in the 11th century according to our times. Lithuania became a state in the middle of the 13th century and everything in the 1300s became a major power in Europe under Grand Duke Gediminas.
The Lithuanians were among the last in Europe to become Christian. This happened only when the country entered into a personal union with Poland in 1386. This union became ever closer, and in 1569 it became a real union and a merger of the two countries. In the partition of Poland between Prussia, Austria and Russia in the late 18th century, most of Lithuania came under Russian rule.
After World War I, the Republic of Lithuania was established as a nation-state, but in 1940 the country was incorporated into the Soviet Union.
- Countryaah: Check to see the location of Lithuania on the world map. Also covers major mountains, rivers and lakes in Lithuania.
Lithuania regained its independence in September 1991.
On the coast of Lithuania there are archaeological evidence of trade relations with the Mediterranean in Roman times and with Scandinavia in the Viking Age. To see more information other than history, please visit Abbreviationfinder to learn more about climate, population, government, and economy for the country of Lithuania. Most of the Lithuanian tribes lived in the interior of the country and relatively isolated from important trade routes. The Lithuanians maintained their pre-Christian religion until the 13th century, longer than any other people in Europe.
Local principals in the 11th and 11th centuries preceded the first political gathering of Lithuanians in 1236 by Prince Mindaugas. By then German knights had already established themselves in Riga (1201) on crusades in the Baltic. They also threatened Lithuanians in the interior of the country, which contributed to the political gathering of the Lithuanian tribes. Mindaugas was baptized in 1251 and obtained the Pope’s approval to be crowned King of Lithuania. After a short time he switched to paganism again.
Several princes in the late 13th century consolidated and expanded the Lithuanian empire, but it was only with the great prince Gediminas (1316–1341) that Lithuania’s expansion eastward took dimensions. Although Gediminas did not transition to Christianity, he tried to reduce Lithuania’s cultural isolation and invited both merchants, craftsmen and monks to settle in Vilnius. According to tradition he is considered to have made Vilnius the capital, and by 1323 this city was the capital.
When Gediminas died, he left behind a large empire inhabited by both Lithuanians and Slavic people, including large parts of present-day Belarus. The Lithuanians were too few to undertake any colonization, and the Lithuanian warriors often married into local great man races and went over to Christianity (the Orthodox Church).
Union with Poland
After Gediminas’ death, the kingdom was divided between his seven sons, two of whom remained with the kingdom: Algirdas in Vilnius and Kęstutis in Trakai Castle. Algirdas expanded the kingdom to the east with, among others, Kiev (1362), and after his death in 1382 his son Jogaila continued the fight against Kęstutis and his son Vytautas. At the same time, the threat from outside became stronger. Although some Lithuanian great men in the East advocated an alliance with Moscow (and transition to Orthodox Christianity), Catholic Poland was preferred as a more effective partner.
When Jogaila was baptized in 1386 to be able to marry the Polish Queen Hedvig, a Polish-Lithuanian union was formed which was strong enough to withstand the German order, and which would last as a personal union until 1569, when it was turned into a real union. Jogaila was crowned King Władysław 2 of Poland. But he failed to make the two countries a single kingdom and in 1392 had to accept that his cousin Vytautas ruled Lithuania as Grand Duke. A joint Polish-Lithuanian army under their leadership struck in 1410 the German order in the Battle of Tannenberg (Grunwald). From then on, the power of the order was rapidly down, and the medieval German advance to the east stopped for good.
During Vytauta’s (Vitold) “the great”, Lithuania reached the peak of its power and extent and became one of the largest states in Europe. The Grand Principality then included both Belarus today, most of today’s Ukraine and parts of western Russia at Smolensk. In 1422, Samogitia in the northwest was captured back from the German Order, so that Lithuania extended from the Baltic to the Black Sea when Vytautas died in 1430.
The introduction of the Catholic faith in the 1300s brought Lithuania culturally closer to western Europe. Although Poland and Lithuania were formally equal in the Union, Poland became the stronger party within. The Lithuanian nobility gradually became culturally polarized. It was evident in both the 1400s and the 1500s, and at the end of the 1600s there were almost no differences. Polish language took over (Latin at court), while peasants continued to speak Lithuanian, Belarusian or Ukrainian. From the beginning of the 16th century, most peasants were tied to the earth through life traits, with gradually heavier obligations.
The Union between Poland and Lithuania did not have the same content all the time, but the Union was strengthened by external threats. Gradually, Moscow took over the role that the German Order had played as Lithuania’s most dangerous challenger. From about 1500, the easternmost parts of the Lithuanian Empire were conquered, bit by bit, by the Grand Duchy of Moscow, which expanded both to the west and the east and became the tsarist kingdom of Russia.
When Lithuania came to war with Russia during the Livelian wars (1558-1583), the country became more dependent on Polish aid, and the nobility in Lithuania accepted the conversion of the personnel union to the real union in Lublin on July 1, 1569 (often called the Lublin Union). Lithuania should still be a separate state with its own laws and institutions, but besides a common king it should also be a common parliament. Despite some of its own institutions, Lithuania was politically regarded as part of Poland from the Lublin Union entered into the division of Poland-Lithuania between the surrounding states in the late 18th century.
Lithuania under Russia
When Poland-Lithuania was divided, Lithuania largely fell to Russia. In the first two divisions (in 1772 and 1793) Lithuania lost only areas where the majority of the population was Slavic. The last partition in 1795 also affected the part of the country inhabited by ethnic Lithuanians. Here too, most went to Russia, but Uznemune, the area southwest of Nemunas, became Prussian. In 1807, the Prussian portions of Lithuania were incorporated into the great principality of Warsaw established by Napoleon, and from 1815 in the Russian-controlled Kingdom of Poland (” Congress-Poland “).
Rebellion against Russian rule
In November 1830, a rebellion against the Russian government started in Poland, and this spread to Lithuania in the spring. The rebellion was beaten by Russian forces and led to tougher rule. The picture depicts the Russian soldiers fighting the uprising.
From the end of the 18th century until the First World War, Lithuania was under Russian rule. Estonia and Latvia had come under Russia earlier in the 18th century. While Estonia and Latvia were relatively peaceful during this time, there were several major uprisings in former Poland-Lithuania. And although the local authorities in many places in Lithuania were Polish, Lithuanians participated in the Polish uprisings. The Polish uprising that began in Warsaw in November 1830 spread to Lithuania in March 1831. The rebels took control of most of Lithuania, but were subsequently defeated by Russian forces.
After the uprising, the political regime became tougher and the Russification stronger. The University of Vilnius was closed in 1832, and in 1840 its own Lithuanian law from the 16th century was abolished. Russians should have exclusive rights to administrative positions, and Russian should be the administrative language. The names Lithuania and Belarus were no longer used; instead it should be called “Northwest Territory.” The Orthodox Church was favored, and many schools were closed down.
The Polish uprising that began in January 1863 was also supported by Lithuanians, both intellectuals and peasants. In Lithuania, the fighting broke out in April. After harsh Russian countermeasures, the uprising collapsed in early 1864. Again, it set in motion a wave of Russification, primarily aimed at everything Polish. The Polish language was now removed from all parts of the administration, including the education system. Books and journals in Lithuanian could no longer be printed with the Latin alphabet – only the Cyrillic alphabet was allowed. The goal was full integration into Russia.
Political and economic development
In 1861 the quality of life was abolished in Russia. The reform also applied to Lithuania. Unlike Russia, where farmers’ property rights were to be exercised collectively through the village municipality (mir), the farmers in Lithuania gained individual property rights based on the property traditions there.
The economic development in the 19th century was relatively slow. The technical modernization of agriculture was modest and the yield low. Beyond a small food industry, there was little industrialization. Urbanization was also slow. As the population at the same time grew, there was high unemployment, and gradually immigration increased, not least to the United States.
Already in the decades before the 1863 uprising, some Lithuanians had shown interest in Lithuanian folklore, language and history, and the Russification after the 1863 uprising sharpened awareness of Lithuanian.
The revolutionary wave in Russia in 1905 also characterized Lithuania’s low industrialization, but less than in Estonia and Latvia. In January and October there were strikes in Vilnius and other cities, and in the countryside there were some actions against Russian priests and teachers. In December, a national congress with two thousand participants from various organizations demanded autonomy for Lithuania.
During World War I, Lithuania was occupied by Germany in 1915, which pushed the Russian forces out of the country. The Germans integrated the Lithuanian economy into their own war economy. They envisaged a direct annexation of Lithuania or a Lithuanian satellite state, and there were also plans for German colonization.
Among the Lithuanians, the idea of full independence began to gain support, including by a national council created by the Lithuanians in Petrograd just after the Russian revolution in March 1917. In September, Germany allowed a larger Lithuanian conference in Vilnius. This advocated for an independent Lithuanian state and elected a council as a kind of provisional government. Antonas Smetona became chairman. On February 16, 1918, the Council declared Lithuania an independent state.
Following the signing of the peace agreement between Germany and Soviet Russia in Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918, Germany intensified its resistance to accepting genuine Lithuanian independence, and the Lithuanian Council had to accept close ties to Germany in return for German recognition.
On November 11, 1918, the day the First World War ended, Augustina Voldemaras joined Lithuania’s first Prime Minister. Smetona continued as president of the national council. Initially, independence was threatened by several teams, and the German withdrawal made it easier for such forces to make their mark. Poles in Lithuania organized themselves militarily in Vilnius. However, the biggest threat came from Soviet Russia in collaboration with Bolsheviks in Lithuania. The Red Army was opposed to Lithuanian independence, and on December 8, 1918, Vincas Mickevičius-Kapsukas was appointed leader of a Lithuanian “labor and peasant government”. It took its seat in the capital Vilnius when the city was occupied by the Red Army on January 5, 1919. During the summer, Lithuanian and German forces stopped the Soviet advance.
When the Red Army was forced out of both Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, peace negotiations were opened in Moscow in May 1920. In the Peace Agreement with Lithuania of July 12, 1920, Soviet Russia recognized Lithuania’s independence “forever,” and Vilnius was explicitly accepted as Lithuanian. Nevertheless, Vilnius did not become the capital of independent Lithuania. Although the city was historically linked to ancient Lithuania as its capital, the ethnic Lithuanians were clearly minority. There were far more Poles and Jews there, and the city was also characterized by longstanding Russian rule. Vilnius came under Bolshevik rule in January 1919, but the city was later conquered by the Poles. During the Polish-Soviet War in 1920, the city was recaptured by the Soviet forces in July, and when the Soviet army withdrew in August, Lithuania took over the city as stipulated in the peace treaty with Soviet Russia.Vilnius declared as the capital of Lithuania.
Poland caused the League of Nations to raise the Vilnius case, and a military commission from the League of Nations was to monitor the area until a solution was found. A Polish-Lithuanian ceasefire entered into Suvalkai on October 7, 1920, Vilnius was currently under Lithuanian control. But two days later, Polish forces took surprising control of the city with the secret consent of the Polish head of state, Marshal Józef Piłsudski, regardless of the League of Nations. Poland annexed Vilnius and the surrounding country formally in 1922, and the Allied victors after the First World War approved in 1923 that Vilnius remained under Poland. Lithuania refused to accept this, and there was a tense situation between Poland and Lithuania throughout the interwar period. The border was closed, and no diplomatic relations were established between the two states until Lithuania yielded to a Polish ultimatum in 1938. After the defeat of Vilnius (Polish: Wilno), Kaunas was elected as the temporary capital of Lithuania. Formally, Vilnius was still considered the capital.
The disappointment over the loss of Vilnius led Lithuania in February 1923 to annex the port city of Klaipeda (German: Memel), although Memel had belonged to Prussia and was not part of the old Lithuanian state. The urban population was essentially German, while in the district there were most Lithuanians. The Lithuanian annex was approved by an agreement in Paris in May 1924. Under Hitler, Germany claimed Memel, and in March 1939 Lithuania bowed to an ultimatum and allowed Germany to take over the area.
Political and economic development
Lithuania had suffered widespread acts of war and major destruction in its territory during both the First World War and the subsequent Polish-Soviet War. The interwar period was characterized by reconstruction and economic growth. Lithuania was the least industrialized and the poorest of the three Baltic states. Political life was regulated by a new constitution of 1922. Lithuania was to be a parliamentary democracy. The National Assembly, Seimas, was given a strong position in relation to the government, and the president gained little power. The first years of independence were marked by frequent changes in government.
By a concordate meeting between Poland and the Vatican in 1925, the Polish government in Vilnius was recognized. The year after the right-wing radical and nationalist officers conducted a coup d’état in Lithuania. Antonas Smetona became new president and Augustina Voldemara’s new prime minister; both belonged to the National Party. In 1927, parliament was dissolved and a new constitution introduced with strong power to the president. While the traditional parties were subjected to strong restrictions, one got fascist organization, the “Iron Wolf” (Gelezinis Vilkas), free play. Voldemaras was its leader. Although Smetona had similar sympathies for a while, an open power struggle broke out between the two. Smetona drew the longest straw and continued to dominate Lithuanian politics throughout the interwar period.
In the early 1930s, the effects of the world economic crisis, with falling agricultural prices and unemployment, hit Lithuanian society. Social distress increased, especially in the countryside, and dissatisfaction with the political administration increased. At the same time, the National Party’s role as a state party became clearer. The guiding principle was introduced, and the party’s militia groups were expanded according to German and Italian examples. Officers in the army began to fear competition from the new “party army”.
In February 1934, a pressure regime introduced a law to “protect the state and the nation” with harsh penalties for those who opposed it. One of the reactions to that was the coup attempt by a group of officers and Iron Wolf members that year. The goal was to replace Smetona with Voldemaras. The coup was beaten and Voldemaras sentenced to a lengthy prison sentence. But the turmoil in the country continued, including several peasant revolts. The political parties, except the National Party, were now completely banned and their funds seized.
In the regime’s strongly nationalist propaganda, Lithuania’s glorious medieval past received much attention. Lithuania was given the most authoritarian rule by the Baltic states. It was not a totalitarian regime, but still used brutal methods against political opponents, whether they belonged to direct fascist directions or to the democratic opposition. There was frequent use of exception mode and press censorship. A new constitution of February 1938 announced a gradual liberalization of the regime. Most political prisons ceased, but opposition parties were still banned.
Lithuania gained its independence while Russia and Germany were weakened by the defeat and revolution. With both of these superpowers back with new strength in the late 1930s, the existence of all the Baltic states was in jeopardy.
In a secret addition to the German-Soviet non-assault pact of 23 August 1939, Lithuania was placed in the German sphere of interest. Lithuania rejected a German attempt to form an alliance as part of the attack on Poland, even though Lithuania was lured back by Vilnius. In a new secret protocol to the German-Soviet agreement on September 28, 1939, most of Lithuania was transferred to the Soviet sphere of interest against Germany being given Polish territories which the Soviet Union had conquered.
After Poland was defeated, in October 1939, Lithuania – like Estonia and Latvia – was severely pressured by the Soviet Union to enter into a military alliance and accept Soviet bases on its territory. In return, Vilnius, which the Soviet Union had conquered from Poland, was to be transferred to Lithuania. It concerned the city itself and about 1/3 of the area around that Soviet Russia had approved as Lithuanian in the peace agreement of 1920, but that Poland had captured shortly after. About 20,000 Soviet soldiers were deployed in Lithuania. After the agreements were put under pressure, Foreign Minister Molotov declared that the Soviet Union would still respect the sovereignty of the Baltic States.
In the summer of 1940, Soviet pressure against the Baltic increased. On June 15, Lithuania received an ultimatum from Moscow regarding an extended and unlimited military occupation and the immediate formation of a Soviet-friendly government. Estonia and Latvia received the corresponding ultimatum the following day. Already on June 15, the new Soviet march in Lithuania began.
President Smetona wanted to reject the Soviet demands, but was voted down by the government, which saw resistance as futile. Smetona fled abroad. Prime Minister Antanas Merkys then appointed a leftist journalist Justas Paleckis to the new prime minister and acting president after a Soviet order. Soon after, he became president, while Vincas Krėvė-Mickevičius became prime minister. The new government by decree passed a new electoral law and arranged “elections” in July, where “the working people’s block” officially received 99.2 percent of the vote. The new National Assembly unanimously requested that Lithuania be admitted to the Soviet Union, and at a meeting in the Upper Soviet Union on August 3, 1940, Lithuania was incorporated as a new Soviet republic. The Sovietization of business and cultural life began immediately, and a large number of key people in political life and the general public were arrested and deported.
During the Soviet occupation, many armed guerrilla groups emerged, and in Germany a front for Lithuanian independence had been organized. When the German attack on the Soviet Union interrupted the Soviet occupation of Lithuania on June 22, 1941, an open revolt erupted, and a provisional government seized power in Kaunas for Lithuanian independence.
The new government refused to act as the administrative body for the Germans and was deposed when the German occupation regime was established in July. Together with the other two Baltic states and the western part of Belarus, Lithuania became part of the administrative unit Ostland. The opposition to the German government was great. Attempts to mobilize for German labor service were largely unsuccessful, and unlike in many other occupied countries, no Lithuanian branch of the Waffen-SS was able. Universities and colleges were closed, and many Lithuanians (among them leading cultural figures) were sent to German concentration camps.
A number of resistance organizations emerged, and in 1943 these and representatives of the various political parties came together to form a central liberation council. It is estimated that over 200,000 Lithuanians lost their lives during the German occupation; most of these were Jews. Jews constituted about 8 percent of the population of Lithuania before the war, and significantly more in Kaunas and Vilnius. About 90 percent of the Jewish population was exterminated.
Towards the end of the war, the Soviet Union regained military control over Lithuania. Vilnius was conquered in the summer of 1944 and Klaipeda in January 1945. Political repression and Russification resumed, and there were a series of deportation waves in the years 1945-1953. The largest deportations were in 1948 and 1949, in connection with the collectivization of agriculture. The total figure is uncertain; estimates range from 120,000 to 300,000 deportees. The armed resistance to the Soviet regime took the form of guerrilla groups in the forests (the “forest brothers”) and had a wide scope. Only in 1953 did the armed resistance erupt completely.
Economic and political development
During the Soviet era, Lithuania’s economy became an integral part of the Soviet planning economy. This meant strong urbanization and industrial growth, including in the chemical and electrical engineering industries – although Lithuania continued to lag behind Estonia and Latvia in these areas. Cultural life was not only subjected to a general political alignment of communist color, but also for a gradual Russification. Nevertheless, the fact that the Baltic states gained their own sovereign republics constituted a certain brake on the Russification by retaining Lithuanian language and its own institutions in many contexts. Although there was some immigration from Lithuania to Russia during the Soviet period, it was far less than in Estonia and Latvia, and the proportion of Lithuanians in the population was about the same in 1989 as in 1939 – about 80 percent.
Lithuania’s history as a Soviet Republic coincides in many respects with the history of the Soviet Union. From the beginning of the 1970s there were further tightening of cultural life, and from 1978 the Russification was intensified in school. During these years, a dissident movement centered on the Catholic Church.
The enhancement of the Soviet system began when Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet party leader in 1985. In Liatu, it helped to strengthen the desire for democracy and autonomy, eventually independence.
The Chernobyl accident in 1986 made a deep impression in Lithuania as well. In the 1980s, an environmental movement emerged, at first relatively unpolitical, then more politically. In Lithuania, the dedication was particularly the plans for a new reactor at the Ignalina nuclear power plant, which was built in 1974 according to the same principles as Chernobyl, and for expansions of the chemical industry in the country. The Lithuanian government had said no to development in three cities, all heavily polluted by the chemical industry, but in June 1988 it was decided in Moscow that the expansion would take place. It seemed mobilizing for the demands of self-government.
In May/June 1988, the organization of the national front began “The Lithuanian Renewal Movement”, often called simply Sąjūdis. The initiators were intellectuals, and many were members of the Communist Party, which aroused the skepticism of some dissidents. At the founding congress in October 1988, music professor Vytautas Landsbergis was elected chairman. Earlier in the autumn there had been major demonstrations in Vilnius, and in November, the Supreme Council of Lithuania/the Soviet Union decided that Lithuanian should be the official language of the Republic. By August, the national flag and the national anthem from the interwar period had received official approval. Russian education was reduced and Lithuanian history was reintroduced as a school subject. The development of the Lithuanian Communist Party in a more national direction was greatly reinforced by the fact that the People’s Front Sąjūdis began to become a factor of power, and in October 1988 the reform-friendly Algirdas Brazauskas took over as First Secretary in the party.
During the elections to the Soviet People’s Congress (an innovation under Gorbachev) in March 1989, Sąjūdis’ strength was revealed. Almost all the Lithuanian delegates came from Sąjūdis. In May, Lithuania’s highest council (before: Supreme Soviet) adopted a declaration of Lithuanian sovereignty. Among other things, Lithuanian laws should take precedence over Soviet ones.
On August 23, 1989 – the 50th anniversary of the German-Soviet pact – hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians joined the human chain from Vilnius across Riga to Tallinn. In December 1989, the Lithuanian Communist Party disassociated itself from the Soviet Union and adopted a social democratic reform program. A decision was made in February 1990 that the party had an independent Lithuanian state as its target. The party name was changed in December 1990 to the Lithuanian Democratic Labor Party (LDDP).
In February 1990, it was the election of the Supreme Council (National Assembly of Lithuania), in which Sąjūdis gained a pure majority, and on March 11, the Council declared full independence for Lithuania, that is, secession from the Soviet Union. The country’s name was changed to the Republic of Lithuania and a temporary constitution was adopted. National Front leader Vytautas Landsbergis was elected president and Kazimiera Prunskiene became prime minister.
Moscow put pressure on Lithuania to reverse its decision on independence. At first the pressure was political. In April, an economic blockade hit hard, not least when it came to oil supplies. It made its impact – in June, Lithuania suspended the Declaration of Independence. The blockade was lifted and negotiations started. But they never became real. Instead, the pressure was reinforced through military means. In January 1991, additional Soviet forces were deployed. The press center was taken on January 11 and the television house on January 13. Fourteen people were shot or driven by tanks. Many hundreds were injured. The Soviet campaign only helped to increase the desire for independence, and in a referendum on February 9, 90 percent voted for independence.
The final phase of the independence struggle was made easier by the failed coup d’état against Gorbachev in the Soviet Union on August 19, 1991. During the coup, Soviet forces took control of a number of strategic points in Vilnius and other cities. But when the coup failed, they returned to their barracks. During the coup, Estonia and Latvia also declared their independence, and in the following weeks the three Baltic states were recognized diplomatically by a large number of states. The United States recognized them on September 2 and the Soviet Union on September 6. Iceland was the first country to recognize Lithuania; it all happened on February 12th. Lithuania joined the UN on 17 September.