Ethnic relations in interwar Lithuania (1918-1939) | True Lithuania
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Ethnic relations in interwar Lithuania (1918-1939)

Lithuania became independent (1918) but Poland occupied Vilnius (1920). In the eyes of interwar Lithuanians, the Polish occupation of their capital was the main problem and injustice of interwar Europe. In hoping to regain Vilnius, they wanted to see Russians and Germans as allies - but as the time went on and totalitarianism entrenched in Russia and Germany, it became clear that these two nations have their own plans for Lithuania, and local Russian and German minorities also became suspicious.

Lithuanian-Polish relations (1918-1940) reached their nadir (the reminiscences of which are felt even today). After World War 1 (~1918) Polish leaders sought to restore the old Polish-dominated Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but Lithuanians no longer wanted that. In a series of Polish-Lithuanian conflicts, Poland seized Eastern Lithuania (Vilnius region) in 1920, leading to a two-decade-long international conflict (1920-1939). During it, the Vilnius region was ruled by Poland, but claimed by Lithuania as its "treacherously hijacked heartland". In the Polish view, the Vilnius area was predominantly Polish-speaking and therefore Polish. In the Lithuanian view, Vilnius had been its traditional capital and the area always had a Lithuanian-majority population, even if the bulk of it started to speak Polish natively over the recent centuries; moreover, Poland recognized Vilnius as part of Lithuania before annexing it. During this period ethnic Lithuanians were treated with suspicion in Poland (including in the Vilnius region) and ethnic Poles were treated with suspicion in Lithuania. These minorities were seen as "fifth columns" that likely worked to either attach the Vilnius region to Lithuania or to attach entire Lithuania to Poland. Negative views of the other ethnicity were common in newspapers, caricatures, and even poetry of the era. Polish-Lithuanian bilingualism became less common on both sides of the border.

Every Lithuanian interwar celebration would have included symbolic gestures against Polish occupation of Vilnius. Slogans 'Hey Lithuanian, don't forget Vilnius' and 'We won't calm down without Vilnius' are visible here.

Lithuanian-German relations (1918-1940) slowly went from friendship to animosity as more and more Germans adopted Nazism. In the 1920s Lithuanians and Germans understood each other well as both felt treated unfairly after World War 1, losing significant lands where their ethnicity was in the majority. However, as time went by and Hitler came to power, German "unofficial claims" were expanded to Klaipėda Region (Memelland), an area with 41% Germans and 58% Lithuanians that was detached from Germany after World War 1 and recognized as an "autonomous part of Lithuania" after 1923 successful Lithuanian-led Klaipėda Revolt. By the 1930s Klaipėda region's ethnic Germans grew increasingly anti-Lithuanian, many joining Nazi organizations and some conducting terrorist activities. They generally felt forced to live under a "more primitive" Lithuanian culture - a situation they sought to end by joining their region to strengthening Germany. In reality, however, Lithuanian culture never gained supremacy in the Klaipėda region, where the entire local elite was German and most of the elected politicians pro-German as well. Lithuanian government merely offered a "Lithuanian alternative" to German education and media. Even its ability to enforce laws in Klaipėda grew increasingly limited as local Germans had the entire German Reich behind them. For instance, while Lithuania has conducted the first-in-Europe crackdown on Nazi organizations in 1935 (after the local Nazis had murdered a political opponent), the pressure by the German Reich forced Lithuania to pardon death sentences. In 1939, after Hitler's ultimatum, Germany annexed Klaipėda; Hitler was cheerfully welcomed by the local Germans while many Lithuanians left the Klaipėda region afterward, some forcibly. To make the matters more complex, in addition to the "obvious Germans" and "obvious Lithuanians", there were many "shades of grey" in the Klaipėda Region: those Lithuanians whose families were Germanized enough during the centuries of German rule to already consider themselves separate from the rest of Lithuanians. During the 1925 census, these people would identify themselves simply as "Klaipėdians" (rather than either "Lithuanians" or "Germans"); often, they would side with Germans on the cultural issues, complicating the Lithuanian cause in Klaipėda region further.

Weapons and symbolics confiscated from a German Nazi cell in Klaipėda after the 1935 Lithuanian crackdown on the local nazis

Lithuanian-Russian relations (1918-1940) initially seemed largely irrelevant. After defeating Russian reconquest attempts in 1918-1920, the Lithuanian government, pre-occupied with Poles, did not see the local Russians as a major threat. Moreover, most Russians departed after the Russian rule ended in Lithuania ~1915. Many of the remaining Russians (~2,5% of the total population) were Old Believers living in far-away villages. Urban Russians were too few to hope to stop the inevitable changes (e.g. the ascension of the majority Lithuanian language to the dominant status, conversion of many Russian Orthodox churches back to Catholic use). In the political sphere, the newly-Soviet Russia was initially too pre-occupied with Civil War and war against Poland to put any pressure on Lithuania, so it just played along. It even courted Lithuania to some extent, also attracting the support of some prominent Lithuanians who saw Russians as possible allies against Poles. With the rise of Stalin, the Russian government abandoned the "global communist revolution" approach and instead took a nationalist line whereby Poland and Lithuania were seen simply as "temporarily lost" Russian lands. Lithuanians grew increasingly wary of the Russian regime but couldn't do much about it. In 1939, a Soviet ultimatum forced Lithuania to allow Soviet military bases in, and these bases were then used to depose the free Lithuanian government.

Lithuanian-Jewish relations (1918-1940) were generally positive as independent Lithuania ended their state-sponsored discrimination (such as the limitations on their settlement and organizations). Jewish communities were given significant autonomy and a reserved seat at the government for their affairs. Jews generally recognized the new free Lithuanian government. However, even though more and more Lithuanians moved to cities and towns (some of which had effectively been a Jewish domain in the Russian Imperial era), there was still little contact between Lithuanians and Jews as they usually had different jobs and different faiths (therefore different holidays, pastimes, and almost no interethnic marriages). It seemed as if two different nations lived under the same urban sky. The share of Jews was declining due to popular emigration to South Africa and Palestine and lower birth rates. While more Lithuanians became businessmen, Jews still remained greatly overrepresented in that sphere. Suggestions for affirmative action to redress the Lithuanian underrepresentation in business were largely turned down by the "philosemitic" government of Antanas Smetona (1926-1940). In the 1930s, the popularity of communism and pro-Soviet thoughts among local Jews began to cause concern to Lithuanians.

Jewish bank in Kaunas. Established in 1920 (building constructed in 1925) it was one of many Jewish public and private institutions that sprung up in the interwar Lithuania.

German-Jewish relations (1918-1940). While elsewhere in Europe Germans grew increasingly negative towards Jews by the 1930s, in Lithuania this was still little visible until ~1937. That's because the cities with the most Germans (in the Klaipėda region) had very few Jews, and vice-versa. Moreover, the primary cause of Klaipėda's German Nazis was to "leave Lithuania and join Germany". On the other hand, having learned about the discrimination of their kin in Germany, Lithuania's Jews became tough on the local Germans. Many ethnic Germans were fired from Lithuania's Jewish businesses after 1934 (due to Jews being overrepresented among the business owners, a relatively big percentage of non-Klaipėda region Lithuania's Germans worked at Jewish businesses). After the pressure and clandestine actions of Nazi Germany made Lithuania slowly lose its grip over the Klaipėda region and its revert to Germany began to seem imminent, the local Nazis started to aim at the small Jewish population of Klaipėda city, with the German-dominated city council enacting discriminatory policies. By the time Nazi Germany occupied the Klaipėda region in 1939, all the local Jews fled the area to the rest of Lithuania or emigrated.

Lithuanian-Westerner* relations (1918-1940). After their World War 1 victory, the Western superpowers (France, United Kingdom, USA) dominated in the world. As such, Lithuanians worked hard to achieve their recognition and support. It was difficult, however, as Western powers generally sought to retain the post-WW1 "status quo" (which included Vilnius as a part of Poland). Such Western support for Poland has swayed 1920s Lithuanian opinions in favor of Germans and Soviets who sought to change that status quo. On a more personal scale, a few educated Westerners actually came to live in Lithuania, establishing businesses here or helping to develop its army. A lot more such "immigrants" were actually Lithuanian emigrants returning from the USA and investing their money in the homeland. Uneducated peasant Lithuanians, on the other hand, continued to flow to America in the 1920s but this trend has all but ceased in the 1930s as the Lithuanian economy improved and Western powers were hit by the global crisis. Older diaspora communities would help fund Lithuania which many still saw as their true homeland, while Lithuania itself funded the new-and-still-poor diaspora communities in Latin America (e.g. establishing Lithuanian schools there), seeing diaspora in the "safe far-away countries" to be essential for the survival of Lithuanians in the case of another foreign occupation.

The popularity of basketball in Lithuania is a result of the Lithuanian-Westerner relations of the interwar period. Basketball was 'brought in' from the USA by Lithuanian-Americans, who helped Lithuania to score its European champions title and bring the championship to Lithuania (in this image).

*Westerners (as used in this article) are people of the Western world, except for Germans. The group includes British, French, Spanish, Italian, American, Scandinavian, Dutch, and other Western ethnicities.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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