First Independent Republic of Lithuania (1918-1940) | True Lithuania
True Lithuania

First Independent Republic of Lithuania (1918-1940)

The newly independent country faced as many as three major foreign enemies in the years between 1918 and 1921: the Bolsheviks, the pro-czar Bermontian army of former World War 1 POWs led by Pavel Bermont-Avalov and the Republic of Poland, also born at the final stages of the World War 1.

Lithuania withstood the foreign interventions, but the Polish attack in breach of the Suvalkai Treaty led to the annexation of eastern Lithuania (including the capital city Vilnius) to Poland. This was never recognized and Lithuania remained at a state of war with Poland, with the new government city Kaunas officially designated the “Temporary capital”. “We won’t calm down without Vilnius” became a popular slogan and organizations like the “Union for the Liberation of Vilnius” sprung up with the Lithuanian-Polish territorial dispute becoming one of the keystones of interwar Lithuania’s policy.

Interwar Lithuania strived to let the world know of its existence. Left is the art deco Ressurection church, built to be the largest church in the Baltics and an important landmark of rapidly expanding Kaunas. Right are Steponas Darius and Stasys Girėnas, the first Lithuanian pilots to cross the Atlantic (1933). They subsequently died in an air disaster, becoming instant martyrs.

The main western powers recognized Lithuania only in 1922 as they preferred a stronger Poland to counter the German and Soviet threats. But by 1922 it was already clear that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth will not be reborn as the Poles ceded many eastern lands to the Soviets in the Treaty of Riga.

Unlike the part of Lithuania that was in the Russian Empire, Lithuania Minor remained under German rule except for its northernmost part, the Klaipėda Region (German: Memelland), which was detached from Germany due to its Lithuanian majority. As the Lithuanian Republic was still unrecognized, Klaipėda Region remained under League of Nations rule. In 1923 Lithuania supported a revolt in Klaipėda Region and the new directory (government) of Erdmonas Simonaitis joined Lithuania (as a bilingual autonomous area) thereby giving the young country its only seaport. Together with it came a sizeable German minority which caused trouble in the 1930s when the Nazi ideas caught on among the Germans of Klaipėda Region.

1926 saw a military coup and the new president Antanas Smetona ruled until the end of independent Lithuania, with the period thus frequently known as the “Smetonic era”. Lithuania became one of the first authoritarian countries in Eastern Europe, but by the year 1936 only a few, such as Czechoslovakia, would still remain democratic.

President Antanas Smetona takes oath before a Catholic bishop.

Interwar Lithuania continued to be an agricultural society with only 20% of people living in cities, therefore it was less heavily hit by the Global Depression, remained a devout Catholic land with the church not disestablished and birth rates soaring (the population increased by 22% to over 3 million in years 1923-1939 despite a sizeable emigration primarily to the South America).

The foreign policy of Lithuania was friendly to the Germans and Soviets because of many other countries, like France or Estonia, supporting Poland in the conflict over Vilnius. However, the increasing imperialism of both Germany and the Soviet Union eroded their need for independent Lithuania. In 1939 German ultimatum led to the loss of the Klaipėda Region. A secret Molotov-Ribentropp pact protocol included Lithuania in the German zone of influence, but the Smetona’s refusal to invade Poland together with Germany led to the change in the protocol with Lithuania being “ceded” to the Soviet Union. In 1939 Soviet Union established army bases in Lithuania after an ultimatum (this ultimatum also returned 1/5th of the Vilnius region, recently occupied by the Soviets during their invasion of Poland), and another ultimatum in 1940 led to a full-scale occupation and annexation.

A moment of Lithuania-Hungary game during the 1939 European Basketball championship in Kaunas. Lithuanian team became European champions in 1937, catapulting basketball to the level of national sport and winning the right to host the 1939 event, where they successfully defended the title.

A map of interwar Lithuania with some new information for clarity. Klaipėda region and Vilnius region are marked.

See also:
Top 10 interwar sites in Lithuania
Ethnic relations in interwar Lithuania (1918-1939)

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

Click to learn more about Lithuania: History Leave a comment
Comments (0) Trackbacks (1)
  1. why u kill my king?

  2. Thank you for sharing this great article! Would you describe Lithuania as progressive and peaceful in the 1930s? I heard somewhere that the country was at that point investing in art and education. Ačiū!

    • If by “progressive” you mean did it progress economically and technologically – it indeed did, as it was rebuilding itself from WW1 and occupation. The progress was slowed down but not halted by the economic depression of 1929 as it was felt easier in Lithuania than in the USA. Lithuania used the opportunity to close much of the gap behind the west, ceasing mass emigration.

      If by “progressive” you mean the ideas associated today with Democratic Party in the USA, I would assume it was: for example, the 1926 Lithuanian presidential elections were unique in having two women and two men, and female participation in politics was huge by contemporary standards. It was also a tolerant society where many ethnicities and faiths coexisted: e.g. the Catholic majority was joined by huge Lutheran and Jewish minorities, while there were many smaller minorities as well, among them the oldest Muslim community in northern Europe, dating to the 14th century. That said, it was also a very religious country, with various civil duties performed by priests, rabbis, imams, etc. (for example, one had to register a birth or wedding at his church / synagogue / mosque, with the idea that somebody could have no religion being incomprehensible).

      Yes, the country was investing in art and education; it established its own university, as well as main theater, it was supporting its key artists who were seen as representatives of Lithuania in the world.

      Yes, the period between 1923 (Klaipėda Revolt) and 1940 was that of peace. Formally, the country was at a war-like situation with Poland over the Vilnius region but the war was essentially “suspended” during this period.

Leave a comment