True Lithuania

Lithuania Minor (Southwest Lithuania)

Lithuania Minor used to be the Lithuania's most distinct region. Save for a few brief periods it had been ruled by German states until the 20th century. Its peasantry, however, spoke Lithuanian and, in a sense, this region was the heartland of Lithuanian culture. First Lithuanian books were printed in Lithuania Minor (1547) and knygnešiai (book carriers) of the 19th century smuggled Lithuanian literature from there to the Russian-occupied Lithuania where Lithuanian language was banned. Even the flag and anthem of Lithuania Minor predate those of Lithuania.

Over the centuries the Lithuanians of Lithuania Minor adopted some German cultural practices, among them the Lutheran faith, and called themselves "lietuvininkai". Some campaigned for unification with Lithuania-proper and were partly successful after World War 1 when Klaipėda Region, the northernmost tip of Lithuania Minor, went to newly-independent Lithuania amidst German protests (to this day, Klaipėda Region is the only part of Lithuania Minor inside the Republic of Lithuania). Klaipėda region was ~55% Lithuanian at the time - as in the rest of Lithuania Minor its cities were primarily German.

A monument to the unification of Lithuania in Klaipėda. Klaipėda Region (brown pole) was unified with the rest of Lithuania (gray pole) in 1923. The broken off concrete symbolizes that most of Lithuania Minor remain separated. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuania Minor and both its communities were shattered by World War 2 and the subsequent Soviet Genocide of Lithuania Minor (1944-1949). Soviet army atrocities left 300 000 civilians dead, including 130 000 Lithuanians (most of the remaining locals fled or were expelled). In a sense, this killed the region itself. Most of Lithuania Minor was then ceded to Soviet Russia as Kaliningrad Oblast, new Russian placenames coined for its towns and Russian settlers came from the east. Klaipėda Region remained more authentic as it is still Lithuanian and uses the original placenames. However most people there are also post-WW2 settlers and their descendants as lietuvininkai communities were destroyed or displaced.

However, the buildings still remind of the past. The downtowns here are built of bricks. The barns are brick, the churches are built of red brick as well. Some wooden frame buildings exist.

A small red-brick Lutheran church in Juodkrantė village, Neringa (Curonian spit), built in 1885. Today Catholic masses are celebrated here as well. Wooden frame buildings are visible on the left. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Klaipėda is the area's most interesting city. Albeit severely damaged in the World War 2 and afterward with most of its imposing churches torn down by the Soviets its downtown with a rectangular street plan and German-built homes is still nice.

Curonian Spit, a peninsula reachable only by a ferry or some 200 km detour via Russia, is a popular resort and the most popular tourist attraction of Lithuania Minor. Its beautiful dunes and forests that were planted to tame these moving sands are inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage.

Smaller towns of Lithuania Minor, such as Šilutė, are also of interest especially for their architectural difference from the similarly-sized towns in the rest of Lithuania.

The part of Lithuania Minor along Nemunas river delta is flooded every spring. Local people are well adapted to this. Many own boats whereas others rely on military amphibian transporters that help local people in these times. These are prime locations for angling and birdwatching. Rusnė island sometimes becomes inaccessible due to floods, but if it is accessible, it is worth a detour.

Šilutė-Rusnė road. Trees used to be planted alongside streets and roads by the German authorities to provide a shade for travelers of the horse-and-carriage era. Now a potential cause for car accidents they were partly destroyed by the modern powers-that-be and partly by time. However, many tree-lined roads still traverse the countryside of Lithuania Minor. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In the Kaliningrad Oblast, a smaller share of historical buildings remains and out of the surviving ones many are ruined. The area was completely ethnically cleansed and not only the entire German and Lithuanian population replaced by Russians after 1945, but also every placename and even many river names changed into communist-themed Russian ones.

Map of Lithuania Minor (without the areas annexed by Russia in 1945). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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