True Lithuania


Lithuania's German minority is somewhat forgotten today but there was the time when it was among the most important ones, playing a key role in the development of the Lithuania's cities and trade.

A part of Lithuanian territory - the so-called Klaipėda region - has been ruled by Germany for centuries (13th-20th centuries). While culturally that area was part of Lithuania Minor , the Lithuanian majority there was already fragile by the 20th century with the Klaipėda (German: Memel) city itself being predominantly German.

While German knights attacked Lithuania, they never conquered it. Instead, the first German inhabitants came to Lithuanian cities while the nation was still Pagan (14th century) peacefully as traders and craftsmen. The Lithuanian dukes saw them as beneficial to the economy as they brought in advanced western ideas and contacts with them. Lithuanian city laws were then modeled on German city laws. In their societal position, Lithuania's Germans were thus comparable to Jews.

A different story happened in a part of Lithuania known as Lithuania Minor. It was conquered by German knights and was ruled by German countries from 13th to the 20th century. There, Germans were not a somewhat closeted minority they were in the rest of Lithuania. There, German culture and language was the elite culture. Ethnic Lithuanians would also adopt it over generations, leaving the Lithuanian majority fragile by the 19th-20th century. Klaipėda city itself in fact had a German majority at that time.

German national romantic style is common in the early 20th century buildings of the Lithuania Minor, where Germans made a significant minority until World War 2. These iconic red bricks were also a popular building material for barns and farmsteads in the region. The building in this picture was constructed in 1909 in Šilutė (German: Heydekrug) and now houses a vocational school. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In the interwar period, the Germans made up 4,1% of Lithuania‘s population (41,9% in the Klaipėda region and 1,4% elsewhere, mostly in cities and Sudovia). Sadly this community was all but destroyed by the advancing Soviet armies in the World War 2. Most were either killed, expelled, or evacuated never to return. A few, however, remained while some others chose to come back after Lithuania became independent once again. Currently, Germans are the 7th largest ethnic community of Lithuania, made up of 3 200 people.

However, according to the 2001 census, only 804 (27%) of Lithuania's Germans spoke German natively. The majority (1587, or 54%) spoke Lithuanian, while a significant minority (18%) named Russian as their native language. Additionally, unlike in the interwar period when the German minority was predominantly Lutheran today only 39% of them are Lutherans, another 39% are Roman Catholics and 13% are irreligious. These linguistic and religious shifts were influenced by the Soviet policy which unofficially equaled all Germans to Nazis and discriminated them. Therefore many Germans who managed to remain in Lithuania feared speaking German or to do other things attributed to their German ethnicity while the Soviet occupation continued, and especially so in the 1940s-1950s.

Because of all this, the German community remains rather unknown in Lithuania: most locals would believe that a German must be a foreigner or a recent immigrant.

Surviving German inscriptions in Klaipėda Region. Once purposefully painted over by the Soviets, now they are sometimes uncovered to build a relation with the area's history. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

A part of Lithuania's Germans is the so-called "wolf children". Orphaned due to World War 2 and the Soviet genocide they were wandering through Lithuania of the late 1940s and many were secretly brought up by Lithuanian peasants.

See also: Top 10 German sites in Lithuania

Click to learn more about Lithuania: Ethnicities 12 Comments
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  1. Additional DNA research across Lithuania would be a valuable contribution to understanding the origins of Lithuania’s population. Older DNA based research from Finnish universities revealed that populations of all three Baltic States are closely related to each other – and have relationship with the Finnish population.
    Given the long history of Germans in the Klaipeda region, it would be no surprise that there is genetic evidence of German populations within the “ethnic” Lithuanian speaking population of this region. Some family names from the region are also indication of assimilation into the ethnic Lithuanian population.

    • Actually, vice-versa is far more likely. As German was the “prestige language” of the area in the 17th-20th centuries, many Lithuanians gradually adopted it and some stopped seeing themselves as Lithuanians or began considering themselves Germans over generations, also Germanizing the surnames. In such way the predominantly Lithuanian-speaking Lithuania Minor (eastern East Prussia) became predominantly German-speaking during the 18th-20th centuries (except for Klaipėda region and some towns/villages).

      Of course, there were some German-Lithuanian interethnic marriages, but the offspring of such marriages would have almost invariably considered himself/herself a German rather than a Lithuanian, the result being that the Lithuanian genes entered the German ethnic group rather than that the German genes entered the Lithuanian ethnic group.

      What I am speaking was the pre-1945 situation. Due to the Soviet occupation, all the people of Lithuania Minor, regardless of origins or language is spoken, were either murdered, expelled, or forced to flee. Whoever live in the area now are nearly all descendants of rather recent (post-1945) migrants (from elsewhere in Lithuania or from Soviet Union). They have no direct genetic relation to anyone who lived in the area before 1945. See the article on Lithuania Minor: .

      Generally, almost no Germans assimilated into the Lithuanian ethnic group, except for the “wolf children” WW2 orphans who were brought up by Lithuanian adoptive parents.

  2. Analyzed using Ancestry . I had 0% German DNA. And 44% EasteMy father was born in Memel in 1929. His family were German and lived in the German community. Later after the second world war here in the USA, he went to college and became a professor of religion. We visited our German grandparents in northern Germany. Our names are German I have lived three times in Germany.

    I just had my DNA analyzed through According to them, I have no “Central European” or in my case German genes. Rather I have 44% Europe East or in my case Lithuanian. I have searched records and found corroborating documents to my Memel family heritage. I just don’t understand how it is possible I have absolutely no German genes.

    • I don’t think it is very strange. Many of the Germans in the Lithuania Minor area, including Klaipėda region, were actually Germanized Lithuanians. Back in the 16th-17th century, almost entire northern East Prussia had a Lithuanian majority, save for the cities of Klaipėda (Memel), Koenigsberg (Kaliningrad) and some other minor areas. Then, gradually, most of the East Prussia became predominantly German-speaking until 1939, save for a few areas such as Klaipėda Region and others. Before the Soviet genocide of the 1940s, there was no genocide in the area, nor there were mass expulsions, ethnic cleansing or such done by Germany against the Lithuanians. Whatever cultural change happened, it happened slowly and mostly peacefully (albeit with some anti-Lithuanian cultural discrimination) as more and more Lithuanians adopted more and more German cultural practices, including language. This means, except for relatively few German immigrants to the area, most of the areas “Germans” in the 20th century were actually Germanized Lithuanians, especially so in the northeast East Prussia and Klaipėda region, and especially so in rural areas (or among the populations who recently moved into the cities from their hinterland).

      Still, in the early 20th century, many locals, even German-speaking, remembered being of Lithuanian origins, and were unsure about their ethnicity. In the 1925 census, for example, the answers to the ethnicity question included not only Lithuanians and Germans, but about a quarter of population answered “Klaipėdians” as their ethnicity; those were generally Lithuanians who were Germanized enough to consider themselves a separate ethnicity from other Lithuanians, but not enough to consider themselves Germans.

      However, then came the Soviet Genocide of Lithuania Minor (1945-1947). All the locals were either murdered, expelled or forced to flee. Whoever survived, mostly moved to Germany (e.g. Northern Germany). There, they lived among other Germans with non-Lithuanian origins. At that time, the fate of the Lithuania Minor Lithuanians or Germanized-Lithuanians as a separate sub-ethnic group was sealed, as the memory of them being of Lithuanian origins slowly faded and Lithuanian culture had no use in the new context whatsoever.

      • Thank you for your clarification. It is what a friend in Eastern European studies and I discussed. I have been trying to understand how the Teutonic Knights integrated into Lithuania. I see you separate Klaipeda/Memel from the rest of Lithuania as having relatively few German immigrants.

        I have a wealth of stories I heard from my Grandmother as well as a written “memoirs” from my Grandfather. My father was very taciturn about his childhood experiences except once and a while, lots of fear and fleeing. Stories about the flower shop my great grandfather bought for my grandmother and her mother to help out financially when he knew he was dying.

        It is a lesson in how civilizations evolved to find one’s German heritage is really a story of New Germans, converts so to speak. I will continue to read about Lithuania with more personal insight. I may be interested in your archival services and would like to learn more about them.

        Thank you.

        • Teutonic Knights were few in numbers. In the Medieval era, migration in these areas was much more limited than it is today. Monks, traders, knights, etc. may have migrated from city to city, from castle to castle and monastery to monastery, but the cities, castles, monasteries altogether held just a small percentage of the total population at the time. The majority (90%+) in any country consisted of peasants and they did not migrate (and, until 19th-20th centuries, they did not intermarry much with the city dwellers). So, the arrival of German knights meant just the construction of German castles and towns of typically not more than some 10 000 people, but the area’s majority did not change anyhow. However, the towns, castles and their inhabitants became “the elite” and the “the leaders”, allowing them both to impose their culture and to be in a position where their lifestyles would eventually be imitated by some peasants as prestigious, such imitation increasing over generations. By the 19th century, as the massive urbanization began, peasants began moving into the cities: for some, this meant an even more rapid assimilation into the foreign (e.g. German) “city culture”, however, for others, this meant an increased confidence in their own (e.g. Lithuanian) culture, no longer seen as just the “peasant culture” it used to be for centuries, leading to sweeping national revivals (one happened in Lithuania Minor as well, mostly calling for unification with Lithuania-proper, and this inspired the Klaipėda revolt that ended up in the Klaipėda region joining Lithuania).

          Ethnically Lithuanian territories had two different histories. So-called “Lithuania-proper” was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, until 1795), then Russian Empire (1795-1915). This Lithuania-proper included all the modern-day Lithuania, except for the Klaipėda region. It had mainly Polish and, to a lesser extent, Russian cultural influences. That is, there, Polish culture was the elite culture that was imitated (until the 19th-century national revival made Lithuanian culture equally prestigious).

          On the other hand, Lithuania Minor was part of the Teutonic Knights state, then Prussia, then Germany (until World War 1). After World War 1, Lithuania Minor was partitioned into a League of Nations (later Lithuanian-ruled) Klaipėda region, and the remainder which was left to be part of Germany as it was considered mostly Germanized by the Entente. Lithuania Minor (both Klaipėda region and the rest) had mainly German cultural influences (being similar in those to Latvia and Estonia). However, all that is now just history, as Lithuania Minor was literally wiped out by the Soviets in 1945-1947, with the old population murdered/expelled/forced-to-flee and the areas repopulated by Russians (Kaliningrad Oblast and, to a lesser extent, Klaipėda city) and Lithuanians from Lithuania-proper (Klaipėda region).

          You may read more here:
          19th century Lithuania – (check the map at the bottom)
          Lithuania Minor –
          History of Klaipėda –

          We will send you information on the archive services by e-mail.

  3. Augustinas,
    Love reading your Lithuanian history lessons…You make it so interesting..My Lithuanian ancestors would be proud.

  4. I am on and checked my wife’s family tree. She is Russian on her father’s side and German on her mother’s side, but her mother’s family came from Litauen, which is German for Lithuania. Her mother’s family spoke German, but my wife did not know that they came from Lithuania

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