The Evolution and Agency of Lithuanian Identity in the Great War and its Aftermath

By Peter Colwell

Blank political maps from a quiz on the Great War

Blank political maps from a quiz on the Great War

Above is a pair of maps that I would guess the majority of secondary school students have encountered in their studies of modern history: Europe, before and after the Great War. Patiently awaiting the penmanship of an aspiring scholar of the eastern Europe, the unlabeled Baltic states here deceive the viewer with their apparent completeness and serenity in the wake of the war. As I have learned in my studies of Lithuanian history, the political and military realities faced by Baltic peoples between 1914 and 1921 belied the solid contours suggested by the cartography above. When German soldiers laid down their arms in November 1918, a host of factions continued to squabble for power in the Baltic littoral, and while activists in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia declared independence from Germany and Russia, independence was far from certain. The occupation forces of the Ober Ost held fast throughout much of the region, and in the context of a crumbling German state, a turbulent civil war in Russia, and an ambitious resurrected Poland, Baltic leaders scrambled to secure their fledgling republics against internal and external threats.

The narrative which I have uncovered through a careful survey of the literature on modern Lithuania is one of a contingency of political ideas. Lithuanians entered the first World War with an upsurge of support for the Russian military, sending thousands of men to die in combat against the Germans, but between 1918 and 1921 the remaining Lithuanian soldiers fought an entirely different conflict – what natives of the region refer to as “The War for Independence” against the Red Army and the Poles. How did this transformation occur? The sources that I have examined and compiled below bespeak of a rapid (but by no means inevitable) about-face in Lithuanian attitudes toward their history, their nation, and their neighbors, in which the attempts of Lithuanians exiles to invite foreign assistance were both constitutive and influential. As Lithuanians fought against regional powers on the battlefield and in diplomatic circles to delimit and secure the borders of their nascent states, their efforts accelerated the formation of Lithuanian national identity.The sources below explore the evolution of that sentiment, and highlight the agency of refugee and expatriate groups – an oft forgotten source of nationalist literature in the struggle for Lithuanian independence.

Part I: The Evolution of Identity

For an introduction to the drivers of Lithuanian nationalism in the Great War and in its immediate aftermath, readers new to the Baltics would do well to look to Andrejs Plakans’s text, A Concise History of the Baltic States (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011). Plakans demonstrates through careful analysis of contemporary Lithuanian documents (a rarity in much of the scholarship) that after carving out a measure of economic self sufficiency from their German and Russian overlords, Lithuanian statesmen and intellectuals became embroiled in a debate to argue in earnest over the future of the Lithuanian provinces (at right, map of the Baltics in WWI on page 286). As late as 1915, many Lithuanians still professed a degree of loyalty to the Russians, while others invited the possibility of Polish union. Plakans explores in detail the difficulties faced by Lithuanian nationalists in these discussions by providing insights into population statistics from the period, while cautioning that national identity was an ambiguous concept for many Baltic peoples. While Polish speakers were as few as 400,000 out of 4.2 million in 1914, they appealed to the historic importance of the Polish language, rather than to their relevance in contemporary affairs (283). Yet ultimately, Lithuania’s invasion by multiple neighbors created a collective sense of threat that helped to spur national identity in a manner hostile to competing influences, including the Poles. Challenged by a recalcitrant German army, and embattled by an invading Red Army (featured below, in an image from the Virtual Exhibitions of the Lithuanian Special Archives) and a resurgent Polish force bent on reestablishing the Commonwealth at gunpoint, Lithuanian nationalists rallied much of the population to their cause in 1919 (Plakans 305-6). An outpouring of celebratory national poems, artwork, and news that consistently labeled Polish and Russian armies as “foreign” enemies, and described Lithuania as “our land” and “our nation” accompanied the end of the Great War and the beginning of the struggle for independence (307).

Red Army in Lithuania

Red Army in Lithuania

The development of national feeling within Lithuania and its surrounding eastern European countries did not occur in a vacuum – foreign powers were eager to lay claim to the littoral states, often nourishing organizations receptive to their influence and suffocating those which resisted. A thorough understanding of the political setting that gave birth to the Baltic states requires an overview of the primary international contenders, and for that, we turn to Walter Clemens.

In the opening chapter of his text, Baltic Independence and Russian Empire (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), Clemens delves into the political infighting that predominated in the Baltics at the end of the Great War, and examines how Wilsonian and Leninist concepts of self-determination were applied, or not applied, in the littoral. Published as the Soviet Union teetered precariously on the edge of collapse in late 1991, Clemens’ history provides an eyebrow-raising perspective on the role of the international community in the Baltic region. While Clemens centers his narrative on the Cold War, the text provides some insights into the causes and consequences of Allied reticence in the face of the Baltic independence movements of 1917-1921, providing a brief sketch of the broader geostrategic concerns that played into the American, German, and Russian approach to the three nascent republics. The shifting alliances and competing territorial claims of international actors, Clemens asserts, were often influential in the creation of a unified public feeling within Lithuania and its neighbors. Clemens attributes the development of a national consciousness in each of the Baltic states partially to “class hatred toward foreign oppressors,” singling out the Russification campaign of the late 1800s as instrumental in the formation of a besieged collective psychology (23). When Russian authorities outlawed the publication of Lithuanian-language literature, a sizeable black market grew in East Prussia, where exiles wrote impassioned works that helped fuel the formation of a strong Social Democratic Movement and nationalist aspirations within Lithuania (24). These sentiments were further deepened by the Soviet invasions that followed closely on the heels of World War I.


A clipping from of Auszra (Dawn), the first Lithuanian language newspaper, produced in East Prussia, which championed Lithuanian culture, language, and history as distinct from Polish and Russian elements.

For a more nuanced view of the development and internationalization of the Lithuanian campaign for independence, look to Thomas Lane’s “Lithuania Stepping Westward,” in The Baltic States ed. David J. Smith (London: Routledge, 2002). Lane’s narrative aims primarily to flesh out the history, politics, and economic trajectory of Lithuania as part of a broad regional primer for novice audiences, but even a veteran of Baltic scholarship can learn much from his section on the first Lithuanian Republic. Lane’s primary contention is that Lithuanian independence sprang from a perfect storm of political events. To a significant degree, the ashes of the German and Russian Empires nourished the phoenix of Lithuanian nationalism, and the publicity and economic aid provided by Lithuanian émigrés in America and western Europe played a key role in securing international support (albeit belated) for the cause. Clemens argues that the vision of Lithuania as a “historic nation” which could justly reclaim or restore its independence was central to the success of Lithuanian nationalism within the fragile new Baltic republic and amongst its patrons abroad (xviii). This concept – repeated all too frequently in nationalist literature from 1917-1921, achieved currency with a substantial majority of Lithuanian peasants that faced the threat of domination by Poles and Russians, and (more gradually) with a critical mass of policymakers within the United States and the League of Nations.

And yet, despite the nationalists’ shrill lament of Lithuania’s “stolen inheritance” of self government, when the first independent Lithuanian government took shape in late 1918 it made no effort to lay claim to the boundaries of the expansive medieval Kingdom of Lithuania (which extended deep into White Russia and Ukraine), instead preferring a smaller, more defensible Lithuania contoured by ethnography. The Tsarist provinces of Suwalki, Grodno, and the Memel district of East Prussia were integral parts of this vision, but the southeastern province of Vilna was to be the political center of the resurgent Lithuanian nation. The Poles had other plans, however, and disputes between the Polish and Lithuanian claimants to Vilna raged for over three years, until the League of Nations endorsed the Polish bid in early 1923. How exactly did this massive transformation occur, between a Lithuanian leadership that in 1914 had no ambitions greater than autonomy under Tsarist rule, and in 1921 would accept no compromise with Poland over territorial disputes? More importantly, who is responsible for affecting this change?

Part II: Agency in Unexpected Places

In The Making of Modern Lithuania (New York: Routledge, 2009), Tomas Balkelis offers one compelling answer to this question by studying the intellectual history of Lithuania from 1880 to 1918.  His final chapter centers on the impact of the Great War and the displacement of thousands of Lithuanians on the dissemination of patriotic ideas, drawing from a wide variety of primary source materials penned by political activists. Examining diaries, memoirs, letters, newspapers, and academic articles, Balkelis concludes that Lithuanian refugee communities in Russia incubated the nationalist movement: “the completion of independence became possible only when hundreds of thousands of refugees took to their hearts the cause of a sovereign state” (105). Yet, whereas exiles in Russia were largely responsible for popularizing the idea of Lithuanian statehood amongst their co-ethnics in the Baltics, Balkelis contends that expatriates in western Europe and the United States pioneered the independence movement in the early days of the war. The first recorded instance of a resolution for the complete independence of Lithuania came during a conference of the Lithuanian Information Bureau – sponsored by American Lithuanians – in Bern in March 1916 (106). Indeed, Lithuanian diaspora groups in America were among the most lavish benefactors and prolific literary advocates of Lithuanian nationalism throughout the First World War. While a full exploration of the development of Lithuanian nationalism within the United States is beyond the scope of Balkelis’s text, the émigrés produced a substantial paper trail with which to trace the evolution of this sentiment.

The Lithuanian National Council of America (LNCA) had the loudest voice among Lithuanian nationalist advocacy organizations in the United States, regularly bombarding the White House and the Senate with a wealth of ethnographic and historical evidence in support of their homeland’s claims to independence. For an English speaking audience, the council’s publications offer some the best (and only) windows onto the nationalist movement as it developed over the course of the Great War. The rhetorical strategies adopted by the LNCA and like-minded interest groups serve as fascinating case studies in the definition of national identity, as Lithuanians felt compelled to describe their country in ethnically exclusive and historical terms to combat competing claims by neighboring powers. The LNCA was most productive in 1918, when the fate of eastern European nations fell under the auspices of the Paris Peace Conference, seeming to present an ideal forum for Lithuania and its neighbors to make a case for self determination. All of the LNCA’s publications were designed to be accessible to readers unfamiliar with the Baltics, and indeed relied on a certain amount of ignorance toward territorial disputes as a means of inflating the legality of their assertions.

One of the best-articulated calls for Lithuanian independence comes from J.J. Bieslkis’s Lithuania; Facts Supporting Her Claim for Reestablishment as an Independent Nation (Washington, D. C.: The Lithuanian National Council, 1918). The text begins with a frank appeal to the American representatives at the Paris Peace Conference, summarizing its intention in simple terms: “to enlighten the American mind – which we needs must think will be the controlling force at the peace table” (3). Bieslkis delivers a variety of arguments in defense of Lithuania’s admission to the “family of nations,” borrowing heavily from the political scientist Robert Michel’s seminal work on political parties, from President Woodrow Wilson’s statements on self determination, and from various scholars of international law as a means of abnegating the historic union with Poland. Bieslkis’s foremost assertion is that disputes between empires and “oppressed nations” instigated the First World War and many conflicts before it, and would continue to cause “friction” in the Baltics until the ethnolinguistic silhouettes of nationality coincided with the physical boundaries of statehood (5). If the reader accepts this premise, they can find little at issue with the author’s conclusion: that as the “aborigine race” of Vilna, Covna, Suvalki, Grodno, and segments of Courland and east Prussia, the Lithuanians earned a right to govern this region without fear of foreign intervention (46).

Important to note throughout Bieslkis’s text and others like it is the insidious use of the prefix “re” in connection to Lithuania’s claims to nationhood and self-governance. Lithuanians depicted their military and diplomatic struggle for independence as an effort to “recover” from Russian and German domination, to “renew” their interrupted history of self-governance, and to bear witness to a “renaissance” of Lithuanian language and culture. Confronted at negotiating tables in Vilnius and Versailles by adversaries who couched their claims to the littoral in historic terms (the Soviets, with a long stewardship of the region, and the Poles, with a shared Commonwealth), Lithuanian delegations responded by delving deep into history and ethnography for evidence of a well-established, immutable nation.

If the Bieslkis piece stimulated the reader’s interest in the conceptual framework of Lithuanian nationalism, they might also enjoy the following text by Norris Zilius:  Lithuania’s Case for Independence (Washington, D.C.: B.F Johnson Publishers, 1918). Also a product of the industrious LNCA, Zilius’s book affords a lengthier and more detailed analysis of Lithuanian history and its relation to the country’s status in 1918. In a vehement rebuttal of the “Slav and Teuton imperialists” then beginning to gnaw at the eastern edges of ethnographic Lithuania, Zilius provides several anecdotes of how “misguided” Lithuanians redeemed themselves: “having learned gradually from Lithuanian publications of their past and who they are, the folk regained national consciousness, again became Lithuanians heart and soul, and supported the nation’s cause to the fullest extent” (26).

Plakans, 286

Plakans, 286

Here, the perceptive reader finds both an appeal to the prevailing logic of self-determination, and an inward-looking justification for publishing nationalist literature. The author hopes that Lithuanians who remained indifferent toward the national agenda or who had taken the side of Bolshevik, German, or Polish forces could be reminded of their unique cultural traditions, and thus “not permanently weaned from their allegiance to the mother country” (27). Romantic sentiments aside, much of Zilius’s text and similar publications are driven by linguistic surveys demonstrating the ascendancy of the Lithuanian tongue in select provinces, and by economic and population data intended to juxtapose the country’s resource potential with its mismanagement under foreign rule. To the right, one such chart compares ethnographic Lithuania’s population per square mile (Zilius, 44) to that of other European powers, assuming that high population density is a precondition for independence.

1919 was a precarious period in Lithuanian history, and a proving ground for Lithuanian nationalists in the trenches and abroad. Over the course of six months, the Lithuanian capital at Vilnius fell to the Red Army, to a Polish invasion, and to a Soviet counterattack, forcing the provisional government to take refuge in Kovno. Lithuanians turned to the international community for assistance, and laced their petitions with rhetoric that emphatically rejected Polish and Russian hegemony, effectively ending any chance of political reconciliation between the neighboring states. By the end of 1919, Lithuanians were more committed to the concept of an independent nation state than they had been since medieval times.

For a closer look at the language and symbolism that helped to describe and shape this reality for Lithuanians and their intended western audiences, expatriates in the U.S again provide the handiest guides. Pay special attention to The Case of the New Republics of Esthonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Ukraine (Washington D.C.: League of Esthonians (sic), Letts, Lithuanians, and Ukrainians of America, September 1919), a textual record of the resolutions adopted by the of Estonians, Letts, Lithuanians, and Ukrainians of America at their first meeting at the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York in September, 1919. The Lithuanian representatives stipulated adamantly that the White House use its influence in the Supreme Council at Versailles to repel the “imperialist” and “guileful” Poles from southern Lithuania, and forcibly remove the “plundering” German occupation forces from the country (11). For more of this aggressive rhetoric, look to “Lithuania Against Poland: An Appeal for Justice” (Washington D.C.: Lithuanian National Council Executive Committee, 1919). This last document, explicitly aimed at President Wilson and the U.S Senate, accused the Polish occupation forces of “useless, wasteful, and wicked shedding of blood and destruction of property” in “indisputably Lithuanian lands,” and called upon the U.S and its allies to act in Lithuania’s defense. It furthermore lambasted the Paris Peace Council for delineating ever-receding lines of control to the invading Poles, asserting that the Lithuanian people had little recourse but to violent retaliation. Whereas in 1914 many Lithuanians entertained ideas of autonomy within Russia or union with Poland, within five years attitudes had changed completely. As the essays above demonstrate, the end of the Great War and the ensuing battles in the littoral gave Lithuanians a new stake in a nationalist cause implacably hostile to neighboring rule.

The best illustration of the remarkable change in national attitudes in Lithuania over the course of the war comes to us in the form of an eyewitness account by an emigrant, who returned to the country after thirty-six years of absence. Peter Saurusaitis’s Thirty Days in Lithuania (Illinois: Call Printing Company, 1920) offers a unique and valuable perspective on the formation of national identity within Lithuania during the period of study, because it makes firsthand observations explicitly comparing nationalist sentiments before and after the war. Expecting to encounter a people humbled by wartime depredations, Saurusaitis was “amazed to see the Patriotic spirit of the Lithuanians,” particularly among the young men who comprised the national army. In one especially potent conversation, the author asked a group of soldiers “if they really thought they could defend their country,” to which one responded “we will not submit to any yoke; we know that our fathers and their fathers suffered for many centuries, and we in turn shall defend our liberty to the last drop of blood” (11-12).  The author remarks on numerous occasions that he was astonished to witness the seismic transformations in the prevailing Lithuanian view of its history and of its neighbors. “Stupefied” that “the Poles are the most dangerous foes of the Lithuanians” Saurusaitisdeparted from the Baltics with an unanticipated sense of pride in his countrymen’s efforts to resist them (12).

In closing, I would like to thank the readers for their interest in eastern European history in general, and the Lithuanian nationalist cause in particular. I hope that this blog has illuminated the agency of the Lithuanian nation within the context of the Great War, and of the key players – widely dispersed and often obscured by a cursory overlook of World War I – who helped to imagine and make real the prospect of an independent Lithuanian state.