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).

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. At one time, it was shameful to be a Lithuanian speaker (Lithuanian was a "peasant tongue"), so they accentuated their acquired Polish cultural traits. Since the 19th century, it became somewhat fashionable to speak Lithuanian. 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 adopting a single ethnicity with even siblings sometimes choosing different ethnicities.

So, 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.

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.

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, 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.

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.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

Click to learn more about Lithuania: FAQ Leave a comment
Comments (0) Trackbacks (0)

No comments yet.


Leave a comment

No trackbacks yet.