First known habitation of Lithuania dates back to the final ice age, 10 000 BC. The hunters gatherers were slowly replaced by farmers. The origin of Baltic tribes in the area is disputed but it probably dates to 2500 BC. These forefathers of Lithuanians were outside the main migration routes and thus are among the oldest European ethnicities to have settled in approximately current area.
These Baltic peoples traded amber with Romans and then fought Vikings. In the era only one small tribe from area around Vilnius was known as Lithuanians but it was this tribe that consolidated the majority of other Baltic tribes. This process accelerated under king Mindaugas who became a Christian and received a crown from the Pope in 1253. After his death the Grand Duchy of Lithuania fell back to pagan ways leading to a centuries-long conflict with Teutonic Knights.
The eventual adoption of Christianity by Grand Duke Jogaila (1387) did not stop the knights. Lithuanians forged a long-lasting alliance with Poland that eventually extinguished the Teutonic threat. Ruled by Grand Duke Vytautas Lithuania became the largest state in Europe, stretching from Baltic to the Black sea in the 15th century.
A new threat came from the east with Moscow rapidly gaining power and conquering lands. In response Lithuania and Poland formed a Commonwealth in 1569. Initially it was successful in dettering enemies. However the political union led to gradual polonization of the Lithuanian nobility as Lithuanians of the time regarded Polish culture to be superior.
By the 17th century Poland-Lithuania was weakened due to a unique yet hard-to-manage political system of "Noble democracy" where a concensus was a prerequisite for any important decision. The Commonwealth lost a series of wars that wiped out its great power position. In the late 18th century (1772-1795) the country was completely partitioned and annexed by Prussia, Austria and Russia with the main Lithuanian lands falling under the Russian rule.
The Russians banned Lithuanian language and suppressed Catholic religion. There were two unsuccessful revolts to restore Poland-Lithuania (1830 and 1863) but eventually the National Revival established a goal for Lithuania independent of both Russia and Poland. The restoration of statehood finally became possible after both the crumbling Russian Empire and the Germans surrendered in World War 1.
Limited industrial revolution and urbanization took place in late 19th century but the newly independent Lithuania was still an agricultural society. The short period of prosperous freedom was cut short again by the World War 2 (1940). Lithuania was occupied once by the Nazis and twice by the Soviets, both powers perpetrating genocides. The brutal Soviet occupation lasted for 45 years and only ended in 1990. In this era hundreds of thousands people, including the entire intellectual elite, were murdered, tortured or expelled to Siberia in cattle carriages. This has left deep economical, pscyhological and spiritual scars in the Lithuanian nation.
Guerilla campaigns of 1940s-1950s were crushed and any resistance persecuted but the massive Sąjūdis movement (established 1988) made it clear that not even the Soviet machine was able to suppress Lithuanian will for freedom. Lithuania became the first Soviet-controlled country to restore independence on 1990 March 13th and despite Soviet aggression in 1991 that left some 20 people dead the independence was not reversed. In fact it (amongst other reasons) led to the total collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991.
In the 1990s Lithuania swiftly readopted capitalist economy and saw a massive economic growth, with modern skyscreapers, malls, detached homes, cars and renovated downtowns reaching Vilnius, Klaipėda, Kaunas and other cities, in that order. But the Soviet years left the economy decades behind that of the West. Disillusioned by unfulfilled hopes of getting rich quick many Lithuanians emmigrated. This emmigration reached epic proportions after Lithuania joined the European Union in 2004: the country lost up to 20% of its people to the newly accessible labour markets of the West.
The word “Lithuania” was mentioned for the first time in the annals of Quedlinburg (year 1009) where a story describes how Saint Bruno was killed by the pagans “on the border of Lithuania and Russ”.
It was the paganism that made Lithuania known in Western Europe in this era as the Christian kings were keen to convert this area to Christianity. The “Baltic Crusades” started and Teutonic Order HQ was moved to Marienburg not far from the Baltic Sea.
In this era the small duchies of Lithuania consolidated into a larger country with its ruler Mindaugas adopting Catholicism and getting crowned in year 1253. The change in religious policy was short-lived however, and the next monarch Treniota went back to defense of paganism and seemingly eternal war against the Teutonic Order that transformed Western Lithuania into depopulated wastelands.
While ruled by pagan Lithuanians the Grand Duchy successfully expanded eastwards and annexed many Orthodox lands in modern-day Belarus and Ukraine, therefore becoming the last pagan great power in Europe (and, in fact, the final pagan state).
In 1385 the monarch Jogaila converted his country to Catholicism and adopted Polish crown in addition to the Lithuanian one by signing the Union of Krėva. Grand Duchy of Lithuania still remained independent and reached its greatest extent under the rule of Vytautas the Great when it was the largest country in Europe stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. By this time Orthodox Slavs outnumbered Catholic Lithuanians, but the latter remained in power.
It was a spectacular victory by Vytautas and Jogaila at Žalgiris (Grunewald) in 1410 against the Teutonic knights that finally defeated the Order as it had previously refused to drop territorial claims against Lithuania even after its conversion. Since that moment it was the rapidly expanding Russia (Muscovy) that posed the greatest threat to Lithuania capturing various cities of the Grand Duchy in a series of wars. Russian monarchs claimed that all of the Lithuania's Slavic lands should belong to Russia.
The Union of Lublin (1569) transformed the Lithuanian-Polish relations from those of two sovereign states sometimes sharing a single monarch to a single confederation of Poland-Lithuania. Lithuanians needed this union to secure their eastern boundaries from the strengthening Russians whereas a small, but more modern Polish kingdom sought for new lands (Lithuania agreed to transfer the entire Ukraine to Poland).
The Union bought time for both countries. Immediately after the Union Poles and Lithuanians conquered Livonia. German-ruled duchies of Courland and Prussia (newly protestant state in place of the former Teutonic Order) became Polish-Lithuanian fiefs.
However, the pressure from other Eastern and Northern powers mounted and the turning point was the Deluge when Poland-Lithuania was invaded and partitioned by Russians and Swedes (1655 – 1660). Vilnius was desecrated and burned down by Russian Cossacks and a campaign of murders and rapes followed. This was the first sack of Vilnius since the Teutonic incursions.
Poland-Lithuania managed to liberate itself but after this blow never did it become a great power again. It continued to get weaker and weaker internally. After the extinction of Jagiellonian dynasty (1572) the monarchy became elective and every new monarch ceded more and more rights to the nobility. This way Poland-Lithuania acquired a unique political system of “Noble democracy” where most of rights rested in around 10% of males known as the nobility (who participated in various parliaments or Seimas) with the rest of the people having no power. Even the king had to follow the wishes of his noble “subjects”.
By the late 17th century the nobility enjoyed the right of “liberum veto” where any noble could stop any political decision he doesn’t agree with. The country was effectively paralyzed because concensus could never be reached with so many people enjoying the liberum veto right.
The state was further weakened by internal conflicts between different noble families, such as Radvila and Sapiega ones. These conflicts sometimes grew into civil wars for the delight of neighboring powers (e.g. in year 1700).
Culturally Lithuania survived the reformation as a Catholic country (but minorities were respected). 46% of Grand Duchy's people were ethnic Lithuanians and 40% Belarusians but the nobility grew increasingly Polonized, adopting Polish language which they regarded to be noble (whereas Lithuanian and Eastern Slavic languages were thought to be sufficient for peasants alone). Only in Samogitia the situation was remarkably different with many nobles never ceasing to speak Lithuanian natively.
With most Lithuanian speakers of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth illiterate the center of ethnic Lithuanian culture moved to Lithuania Minor region in Prussia (east of Koenigsberg). In this area where Lithuanians formed a majority of population the Reformation was successful and the Lutheran faith became dominant. Lutherans promoted printing of religious books in local languages, including Lithuanian. Therefore the first Lithuanian books (e.g. “Katekizmas” by Martynas Mažvydas) were printed in Koenigsberg rather than Vilnius.
In the meantime the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth became weaker and weaker both internally and externally. In 1772 the three nearby great powers (Austria-Hungary, Prussia and Russia) conspired to partition the country. Final attempts to change the situation, such as the adoption of a new Constitution (second in the world after the US one) abolishing the liberum veto, or the uprising by Tadeusz Kosciuszko, were too litte and too late. After three partitions the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was erradicated from the map. The ethnic Lithuanian lands were captured by Russia and Prussia in the third partition of 1795.
What initially started as a mere change of the ruler from a Polish-Lithuanian king to a Russian czar eventually led to a major russification drive.
Administratively Lithuania was divided into the area directly acquired by Russia in 1795 and the area acquired from Prussia after the Napoleonic wars (in 1815). The latter was part of the nominally autonomous Kingdom of Poland and lived under the Napoleonic Code whereas the earlier was a directly ruled by the Russian Empire.
In 1831 and 1863 the local nobility led revolts against the Russian rule attempting to restore the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Both were crushed despite some initial successes and their leaders were dispossessed. Some of the Lithuanian countryside and cities were settled by Russians.
In the year 1832, the Vilnius University was closed. By the year 1865 printed Lithuanian language was banned. A policy of “Restoration of the Russian beginnings” was initiated as the Russian propaganda claimed that before polonization the Lithuanian lands were in fact Russian.
The Roman Catholic Church was persecuted, with some church buildings torn down and some others handed over to the Russian Orthodox church. New Russian Orthodox churches sprung in the New Towns of the largest cities. The Uniates, regarded as schismatic Orthodoxes, were disbanded altogether. Mikhail Muravyov, nicknamed “The hangman”, was made the governor-general of ethnically Lithuanian governorates.
The persecutions failed to defeat Lithuanians. Knygnešiai (literally “bookcarriers”) smuggled the banned Lithuanian books from the Lithuania Minor (a historical fact declared to be completely unique by UNESCO). Illegal Lithuanian-language schools were set up in villages. Catholic priest Motiejus Valančius led the Abstinence Movement aimed at resisting the Russian policy of weakening the masses through making them addicted to alcohol.
It was during the late 19th century when the popular idea of liberation among ethnic Lithuanians switched from restoration of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to an establishment of smaller independent state on the Lithuanian ethnic lands, leaving the rest of the former Grand Duchy to the Belarusian, Ukrainian and Polish ethnic states. These events (all together known as the Lithuanian National Revival) tamed the long-term assimilation-induced decline of the Lithuanian-inhabitted area and their share therein.
Economically Russia was backwards compared to the Western Europe and while there was some infrastructure development, such as the Saint Petersburg-Warsaw railroad of 1861 that went through Vilnius, this was far from the western standards. Moreover, the official class division of the society was rigorously supported by the state and only in year 1861 the farmers ceased to be regarded as a property of the local nobles.
Unlike Latvia (where Riga was among the 5 largest cities of the Russian Empire) Lithuania was expected by the Russians to remain an agricultural hinterland. The industrialization and urbanization that defined 19th century elsewhere in Europe was therefore limited but the towns and cities were still growing much faster than ever before.
Lithuanians seeking industrial jobs migrated elsewhere: some to the major cities of the Russian Empire such as Riga or Saint Petersburg, others to the USA. In 1900 there were more ethnic Lithuanians in Riga and Chicago than in any city inside Lithuania where many cities were dominated by Jews and Polish-speaking people.
In Lithuania Minor the cities were German while some Lithuanian towns and villages gradually germanized over the century. In spite of this Lithuania Minor, technologically advanced and devoid of discriminatory Russian policies, remained a fortress of Lithuanian National Revival.
The Russian Empire started to crumble in 1904 when it lost the war to Japan and had to give in to some demands of its minorities. Lithuanian language was permitted once again and the Lithuanian countryside sprung up with new Roman Catholic church spires.
In 1915 the Germans captured Lithuania-proper during the First World War. In 1917 Russia surrendered to Germany (after the war hardships led to a revolution in Russia) and renounced any claims to the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea, while the subsequent German losses in the Western Front led to a possibility to declare independence of Lithuania on February 16th, 1918.
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 an annexation of the 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.
The main western powers recognized Lithuania only in 1922 as they prefered a stronger Poland to counter the German and Soviet threats. But by the 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 the 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 catched 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 the Eastern Europe, but by the year 1936 only a few, such as Czechoslovakia, would still remain democratic.
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 many other countries, like France or Estonia, supported 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 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 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.
The cruelties of first Soviet occupation, of a scale not seen in Lithuania since the Russian Empire rule, led to a widespread despise of the regime in less than a year. For example in four days between June 14 and June 18 of 1941 alone some 40 000 people from educated families were exiled to Siberia and Soviet labour camps (almost half of them 16 year old or younger, 556 infants under 1 year, families typically separated), most never to return alive. Others were arrested with many later tortured and massacred in places like Rainiai and Cherven.
When the German Reich declared war on the Soviet Union the Lithuanians staged a June Revolt and managed to liberate most of the country. However, the German armies came in and while Germany did not immediately abolished the provisional government (possibly hoping for similar anti-Soviet revolts elsewhere) they rendered it powerless. By August all forms of self-rule were extinguished; by November all Lithuanian political parties banned.
The new Nazi German occupation brought a relief from the Soviet persecutions but it had its own target: the Jews. As many as 88% of this minority was destroyed in the upcoming 3 years. After a brief life in forced ghettos they were killed in places like Paneriai near Vilnius or the concentration camps in Germany and German-occupied Poland.
By 1944 the Germans were losing the war and the Soviets occupied Lithuania yet again. Two Soviet occupations led to a far greater loss of life than the Nazi German occupation, leading to a popular opinion that World War 2 ended for Lithuania only in 1990. Lithuania lost ~8% of its pre-WW2 inhabittants due to Nazi actions and ~32% due to Soviet actions (until year 1953), some 40% in total (1,15 million out of 3 million). 1/3 to 1/2 of this number were killed. Well over 90% of victims were civilians.
From the Soviet occupation in 1944 to the death of Stalin in 1953 Eastern Europe was a Stalin’s playfield with human rights practically non-existent. Lithuanian nation was not expelled in its entirety, unlike Chechens or Crimean Tatars for example, but as many as half a million Lithuanians were, many dying or losing heath in the cold GULAGs of Siberia, others died in prisons. Additionally, many of Lithuania’s Poles (200 000) were expelled to Poland by Stalin (in trains marked with slogans “We are returning home” despite of the fact that the Polish-speaking minority existed in Lithuania for centuries). Lithuanians of Klaipėda region were expelled to Germany together with the Germans of Lithuania (170 000 people). At the same time Lithuanian cities like Vilnius and Klaipėda were heavily settled by ethnic Russians with Lithuania’s Russian population share increasing more than threefold in a decade (from 2,5% to 8,5%). All these persecutions led to a major guerilla war in Lithuanian forests (the military resistance was crushed by large Soviet armies by mid 1950s with some 25 000 partisans killed). Under Stalin Lithuania lost 27% of its pre-WW2 population.
Furthermore most of Lithuania Minor was annexed to Russia as Kaliningrad Oblast. After a brutal genocide (300 000 locals murdered, among them 130 000 Lithuanians) the region's population was replaced by Soviet settlers and new Russian placenames were coined for its towns and features. This effectively ended the history of Lithuania Minor.
Nikita Khrushchev’s destalinization (1953-1964) changed some policies (those people exiled to Siberia who were not yet dead gained limited freedom and the settling of Lithuania by ethnic Russians slowed down) but most things left unchanged. The agriculture remained collectivized and its outputs greatly diminished (especially when taking into regard the improved technologies), the property remained nationalized, the ownership of Lithuanian symbols and any criticism of communism or the Soviet occupation were still punished by long terms of imprisonment (in jails or psychiatric hospitals) and the Lithuanians living in other parts of Soviet Union as well as those living in the multi-ethnic Vilnius region were russified.
Soviet Lithuania was isolated from the non-Soviet world with travel restrictions both for foreigners to enter anywhere except for several designated tourist places, and for the locals to travel abroad. The religion and the religious were persecuted and many Roman Catholic churches as well as all the monasteries were closed down with the number of open Catholic churches in Vilnius becoming the same as that of Russian Orthodox churches despite there being ten Catholics for every single Orthodox.
The Soviet economy was plagued by the popular belief that “Everything belongs to everybody, and therefore everything belongs to nobody” and stumbled well behind the Western European one. People were widely stealing from their workplaces and this was regarded as a normal practice by the society, therefore condoned by the peers and even many CEOs. Few people (if any) were rich in terms of money but the community was far from egalitarian because it was who you knew that mattered the most: the people who had important friends also had access to many things that were inaccessible to most others, e.g. better cars, larger apartments, modern TV sets or ability to eat fruits like oranges without having to wait several hours in a queue (these things were inaccessible to many partly because they used to be taken by those who had important “relationships”).
Still however, the Lithuanian economy remained one of the most robust ones inside the Soviet Union – in Central Asia, Russia or the Caucassus the situation was even worse. The economical hardships as well as the inability to maintain a large army and secret service network (that was necessary to subdue any resistance in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in the Eastern Europe) led to Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of Perestroika and Glastnost (1985), or the move towards capitalism and democracy.
In Lithuania this led to the establishment of Sąjūdis (The Movement) led by musician Vytautas Landsbergis. It took an increasingly pro-independence stance and its protests were attended by hundreds of thousands. The pro-independence underground always existed in Lithuania in the form of Lithuanian Freedom League or the Roman Catholic secret newspaper describing the brutality of the Soviet regime. But only by the 1988 the majority of Lithuanians dared to tell their thoughts publically.
In 1990 the Sąjūdis won the first free elections in Lithuania and the independence was restored on March 11th, 1990. The Soviets subsequently attempted to restore their control by force and the attack of January 13th, 1991 led to the deaths of 14 armless civilians (together with tens of thousands others they protected key buildings such as the Vilnius TV tower and the Supreme Council from the Russians). On July 31 of 1991 seven customs officers were killed by Russian forces on the newly established Lithuanian-Belarusian border. These attempts consolidated the western support for the Lithuanian independence and the de jure recognitions started to pour in by the early 1991 (many countries, like the United States of America, never recognized the occupation of Lithuania and thus did not have to recognize independence). By the end of 1991 the Soviet Union completely collapsed and turned into 15 independent countries. The Russians withdrew their final soldiers from Lithuania by 1993 (the first completed withdrawal in entire Eastern Europe).
The long awaited independence brought many personal freedoms which people eagerly sought. This was the era of massive new churches, telenovellas and anime on prime-time TV, hip-hop, mass import of non-Soviet cars and first travels to the West. Criminal news (hidden from public in Soviet Union) were now the first pages of newspaper a regular reader would skim. It was easier for new ideas to gain acceptance than ever before or since.
Large parts of land yet again became private after being returned to former (pre-1940) owners and their descendants where possible. Every person who lived in Lithuania by the time it restored independence (1990) was allowed to get the Lithuanian citizenship (regardless of ethnicity or language skills) and so Lithuania avoided the problem of stateless people that plagued Latvia and Estonia.
Freedom euphoria was however joined by hardship of economical transition. The factories that were built for the Soviets were horribly outdated and were unable to compete in the free market both due to low technology and the management not understanding things like marketing. The ineffective system of collective agriculture was quickly disbanded. Only a small part of these Soviet-established businesses survived.
In the meantime the people started new businesses in places like Gariūnai marketplace with some of these early traders now being millionaires or billionaires, like Nerijus Numavičius of VP Grupė, owning Maxima shops.
Early years of Lithuanian businesses (1990 – 1995) had a frontier feeling as organized criminals used to racket businessmen. Some businessmen who refused to pay were murdered, together with other people who stood in the “mafia’s” way (a journalist Vitas Lingys, several prosecutors). Only by 1995 the police was strong enough to defeat the villains; the Vilnius crime boss Boris Dekanidze was sentenced to death while the Kaunas “Godfather” Henrikas Daktaras served a term in prison.
By 1997 the lawless businesses gave way to modern developments, while certain key state institutions, like the telecommunications sector or the passenger sea lines, were privatized by foreign consortiums. What started with the first skyscreapers of Vilnius in 2000 quickly expanded to other main cities. By the year 2003 Lithuania was effectively a modern western society.
In year 2004 Lithuania joined the European Union and NATO, both memberships having been a major foreign policy goal since independence. European Union membership required to adapt Lithuanian laws ushering the end of 1990-2004 libertarian Lithuania. Enterpreneurship decreased, bureucracy replaced idealism while political correctness engulfed freedom of speech.
Foreign policy goals in the east were less successful with Russia (also Israel and Belarus) refusing to try the Soviet war criminals now residing in these countries. After the rise of Vladimir Putin Russia refused to recognize the Soviet occupation of Lithuania altogether claiming that Soviet Union had “liberated Lithuania”.
Post-independence economic growth have been sweeping but the Soviet occupation left Lithuania decades behind the West leading to lower salaries. Some Lithuanians refused to wait and opted to leave their homeland instead (primarilly to the United Kingdom and Ireland). This emigration gained epic proportions after Lithuania’s admission into the European Union made it legal to settle anywhere in Western Europe. The population of Lithuania went down from 3,5 million to 3 million people in a decade between censae of years 2001 and 2011. Currently the population of Lithuania is even smaller than that before the World War 2. Such emigration levels are unheard of anywhere outside of the countries struck by wars and disasters.