History of Lithuania

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Lithuanians belong to the Baltic group of nations. Their ancestors moved to the Baltic region about 3000 B.C. from beyond the Volga region of central Russia. In Roman times, they traded amber with Rome and around A.D. 900-1000 split into different language groups, namely, Lithuanians, Prussians, Latvians, Semigallians, and others. The Prussians were conquered by the Teutonic Knights, and, ironically, the name "Prussia" was taken over by the conquerors, who destroyed or assimilated Prussia's original inhabitants. Other groups also died out or were assimilated by their neighbors. Only the Lithuanians and the Latvians survived the ravages of history.

Traditions of Lithuanian statehood date from the early Middle Ages. As a nation, Lithuania emerged about 1230 under the leadership of Duke Mindaugas. He united Lithuanian tribes to defend themselves against attacks by the Teutonic Knights, who had conquered the kindred tribes of Prussia and also parts of present-day Latvia. In 1251 Mindaugas accepted Latin Christianity, and in 1253 he became king. But his nobles disagreed with his policy of coexistence with the Teutonic Knights and with his search for access to western Europe. Mindaugas was killed, the monarchy was discontinued, and the country reverted to paganism. His successors looked for expansion toward the Slavic East. At that early stage of development, Lithuania had to face the historically recurring question dictated by its geopolitical position--whether to join western or eastern Europe.

At the end of the fourteenth century, Lithuania was already a large empire extending from the Baltic Sea to the shores of the Black Sea. Grand Duke Jogaila (r. 1377-81 and 1382-92) of the Gediminas Dynasty faced a problem similar to that faced by Mindaugas 150 years earlier: whether to look to the East or the West for political and cultural influences. Under pressure from the Teutonic Knights, Lithuania, a kingdom of Lithuanians and Slavs, pagans and Orthodox Christians, could no longer stand alone. Jogaila chose to open links to western Europe and to defeat the Teutonic Knights, who claimed that their mission was not to conquer the Lithuanians but to Christianize them. He was offered the crown of Poland, which he accepted in 1386. In return for the crown, Jogaila promised to Christianize Lithuania. He and his cousin Vytautas, who became Lithuania's grand duke, converted Lithuania to Christianity beginning in 1387. Lithuania was the last pagan country in Europe to become Christian. The cousins then defeated the Teutonic Knights in the Battle of Tannenberg in 1410, stopping Germanic expansion to the east.

Attempts by Vytautas to separate Lithuania from Poland (and to secure his own crown) failed because of the strength of the Polish nobility. Lithuania continued in a political union with Poland. In 1569 Lithuania and Poland united into a single state, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, whose capital was Kraków, and for the next 226 years Lithuania shared the fate of Poland. During this period, Lithuania's political elite was dominated by the Polish nobility and church, resulting in neglect of the Lithuanian language and introduction of Polish social and political institutions. It also opened the doors to Western models in education and culture.

In 1795 an alliance between the Germanic states--Prussia and Austria--and the Russian Empire ended Poland's independent existence. Lithuania became a Russian province. Two insurrections, initiated by the Poles in 1831 and again in 1863, failed to liberate the country. The Russian Empire eliminated Polish influence on Lithuanians and introduced Russian social and political institutions. Under tsarist rule, Lithuanian schools were forbidden, Lithuanian publications in the Latin script were outlawed, and the Roman Catholic Church was severely suppressed. However, the restrictive policies failed to extinguish indigenous cultural institutions and language.

A national awakening in the 1880s, led by the secular and clerical intelligentsia, produced demands for self-government. In 1905 Lithuania was the first of the Russian provinces to demand autonomy. Independence was not granted because the tsar firmly reestablished his rule after the Revolution of 1905. But the demand, articulated by the elected Grand Diet of Vilnius, was not abandoned. World War I led to the collapse of the two empires--the Russian and the German--making it possible for Lithuania to assert its statehood. Germany's attempt to persuade Lithuania to become a German protectorate was unsuccessful. On February 16, 1918, Lithuania declared its full independence, and the country still celebrates that day as its Independence Day.

SOURCE: Country Studies/Area Handbook by the US Library of Congress

Mother Earth Travel > Country Index > Lithuania > Map Economy History