Lithuanians and Poles differences | True Lithuania
True Lithuania

Were Lithuanians Poles?

No. Poland and Lithuania had a joint country between the years 1569 and 1795 (known as Poland-Lithuania, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth or the Republic of Both Nations). However, Poland and Lithuania were separate entities within that state in the same fashion as Austria and Hungary were in Austria-Hungary or England and Scotland are in Great Britain. No part of modern-day Lithuania was part of the Poland entity; the boundaries of the Lithuanian entity went far beyond the boundaries of modern-day Lithuania.

However, in the whole Poland-Lithuania, Polish language became the lingua franca of the elite. Thus, as the centuries passed, the Lithuanian nobility and the people around capital Vilnius increasingly used Polish even when speaking among themselves. Peasants, on the other hand, remained Lithuanian-speaking and they formed the population majority. The situation seemed to be similar to that in Ireland, where the English language replaced Irish Gaelic (although in Ireland the linguistic shift eventually went much further).

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at its highest territorial extent (1616-1657) superimposed on modern European state boundaries. Poland and Lithuania entities are shown separately. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

That said, in Lithuania, there was much bilingualism and diglossia with many people, including the nobles, spoke both Polish and Lithuanian and switched the language depending on circumstances. Even names used to be translated into whatever language one used at the time: for example, a famous Lithuanian lawyer of the era would sign “Michał Römer” when writing in Polish and “Mykolas Römeris” when using Lithuanian. It is impossible to say which of the two names was the "real one" as it simply depended on the language of the document.

At one time, it was shameful to be a Lithuanian speaker (Lithuanian was a "peasant tongue"), so they accentuated their acquired Polish cultural traits. Then, since the 19th century, a certain group of educated Lithuanians sought to encourage using native Lithuanian for all sorts of situations, including literature, politics, and science. This National Revival gained traction and followers. In the end, even parts of Lithuanians who spoke Polish natively and were not taught Lithuanian by their parents would learn "the language of their forefathers". Some, however, remained opposed to this "Lithuanization".

Only in the 20th century did the Polish and Lithuanian nations finally separated completely and most of those who considered themselves both Poles and Lithuanians then adopted a single ethnicity with even siblings sometimes choosing different ethnicities. They were forced to do so as Poland and Lithuania came into war over Vilnius region and dual loyalties were no longer possible. What was a political choice finally turned into something more, and some people of Lithuanian ancestry chose to "become" Poles.

In conclusion, Lithuania and Vilnius had many people who spoke Polish, however, most of these people were indigenous and of Lithuanian origins. There was little actual Polish immigration into Lithuania before the 20th century.

Simplified map of the ethnic-linguistic situation of Lithuania ~1900. The areas marked as 'Slavic-speaking Lithuanians' were populated by people of Lithuanian origins but using Polish or Belarusian as their main language of communication. Such a map is too small to depict the mixed areas, numerous ethnolinguistic enclaves, diglossia and dual identities that prevailed alongside ethnolinguistic boundaries. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Why some foreigners believe that Lithuanians were Poles?

Outsiders often tend to oversimplify history. Instead of its full name (Poland-Lithuania or the Republic of Both Nations), outsiders often call the 1569-1795 joint Polish-Lithuanian state to have been just "Poland".

Furthermore, the link between Lithuanian ethnicity and Lithuanian language is so strong in the modern Lithuanian psyche that it is often impossible to think that there used to be many ethnic Lithuanians who spoke little or no Lithuanian. Such beliefs, however, themselves date to the National Revival era that popularized Lithuanian language knowledge as essential for a "real Lithuanian".

Furthermore, outsiders (and even many local researchers) have a difficult time understanding that the subtle-but-major difference that censae before the 1920s and 1940s asked for the "native language" while censae after that asked for "ethnicity". They often lump both censae leading to false claims that in 1933 under one percent of Vilnius inhabitants were ethnic Lithuanians, for example (in reality, less than 1% said Lithuanian was their native tongue; however, they were allowed to choose just a single tongue and Polish was still the prestige language in Vilnius of the era). Such interpretation is as illogical as claiming that everybody who had English as a native language in pre-independence Ireland was actually ethnically English rather than Irish.

It may be said that Irish and Lithuanian situations are diametrally opposite. In Lithuania, the National Revival was so successful in convincing people to speak Lithuanian that Lithuanian language was saved but that alienated a minority who didn't choose to speak Lithuanian despite all the National Revival effort; they ultimately ceased to consider themselves Lithuanians by the mid-20th century. In Ireland, on the other hand, all the descendents of Irish people are still considered Irish despite their language knowledge but this lack of promoting the language meant the Irish language was essentially lost and remains widely spoken only in some villages as the other people switched to the widely-spoken English.

Is the "Lithuanians were Poles" myth insulting to Lithuanians?

This claim is insulting to some Lithuanians, especially older ones who still have the collective memory of Polish-Lithuanian conflict over Vilnius region (1920-1940). However, as the Polish and Lithuanian relations are now much better and the historic conflict fades away, it is usually not seen as insulting as the claims that Lithuania was Russian or that Lithuanians are similar to Russians. The Polish-language-domination era that was once thought by Lithuanians to have been a real dark age for their nation is now also being rediscovered in a more neutral light. Still, that doesn't make the claims that Lithuanians were Polish any more real.

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  1. Thank you for this! My great grandfather immigrated from Lithuania to the US in the 1930s. My last name is Kazlaskia which I have always been told is Polish. I have no dislike for Poland, but I’ve always chosen to identify as Lithuanian. Your article has helped me to understand that it isn’t the language of the name but the cultural identity that distinguishes Lithuania from Poland. Thanks!

  2. Interesting read… my great grandfather was born in Vilna, modern day Vilnius, but he always identified as Polish and spoke the language as well. Actually, when he was asked his place of birth, he always said Wilno — which I understand is the Polish name for the city. I always thought Vilnius was part of Poland before WWII, so can you help me understand this claim?

    “No part of modern-day Lithuania was part of the Poland entity; the boundaries of the Lithuanian entity went far beyond the boundaries of modern-day Lithuania.”


    • This particular sentence is about the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that existed in 1569-1795. It consisted of two main parts, (Kingdom of) Poland and (Grand Duchy of) Lithuania.

      In that Commonwealth, no territory of modern-day Lithuania was a part of the Kingdom of Poland entity. On the other hand, some areas of modern-day Poland were parts of Grand Duchy of Lithuania (e.g. Sejny, Suwalki).

      You write about a later era, the conflict over Vilnius (see the History of Vilnius andEthnic relations in interwar Lithuania (1918-1939) articles for more information)

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