217: Baltic Independence Pt. 3


During its fight for independence Lithuania would be trapped between its neighbors.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 217. This is our third and final episode on the Baltic countries after the war. In the previous two episodes we covered the events in Estonia and Latvia, and this week we will move further south to discuss Lithuania. Lithuania would be in the unenviable position of being hotly contested between the Poles and Russians both before and then during the Polish-Soviet War. This meant that the Lithuanians themselves had little agency for several of the post war years, due to the simple fact that they were unable to militarily match either of their neighbors. They would still be able to eventually carve out some territory that they could use to create an independent Lithuania, but this area did not contain some of the most important regions, including the city of Vilnius the historic capital of Lithuania. After we follow Lithuania’s story we will also touch on some of the peace negotiations that the three new nations would undertake with Soviet Russia. We will then close out by talking briefly about the events in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania during their first several years of existence.

Much like Latvia, Lithuania would spend most of the war under German occupation which would see the Germans control almost all aspects of Lithuanian life. The German leaders would try to suppress any Lithuanian nationalist movements, or at least those that were not compatible with a German favored Lithuania after the war. After the Russian Revolutions the Lithuanians would actually move closer to the Germans, partially due to German guarantees to recognize Lithuania as an independent nation after the war. This guarantee was formalized at the Vilnius Conference which would be held in December 1917. At this conference the Germans would meet with Lithuanian leaders to clarify exactly what the Germans wanted in return for their guarantee of recognition. The price was relatively steep, Lithuania would gain autonomy for all internal affairs, but it would be forced to enter into a permanent federation with Germany. All military and foreign affairs would be controlled by Berlin, and it was non-negotiable. After the signing of Brest-Litovsk the Germans would make good on their side of the agreement and they would announce that they recognized Lithuania as an independent state. While there were previous agreements with the Germans, agreements that resulted in independence, there were a few other strings attached. This included the creation of a new monarchy for the newly created Kingdom of Lithuania. This new Kingdom would not have a Lithuanian monarch but instead one from Germany, Wilhelm the Count of Wurttemburg. Wurttemburg, you know, the region of Germany that is literally the furthest away from Lithuania. This choice was made by one group of Lithuanian leaders to wanted to make sure they continued to keep Germany happy, however there would be another group that felt that bringing in a German monarch was simply too much. They felt that they had to make some different choices if they wanted Lithuania to have its own future. This feeling was emphasized due to the constant interference by the Germans in the Lithuanian attempts at formulating internal policy, which they were supposed to have full freedom to do, but which the Germans were constantly altering.This arrangement would continue from the point where Brest-Litovsk came into effect in March 1918 until the armistice in November.

The armistice would change everything. With the collapse of Germany a new, purely Lithuanian government was created under the leadership of Augustinas Voldemaras as Prime Minister and Antanas Smetona as President. The Lithuanians would begin to arm themselves using German weapons that had been left behind. They were scrabbling to arm a Lithuanian army due to concerns that the Russian Bolsheviks would soon move in and attempt to install a Bolshevik government. These fears were confirmed when a group of Lithuanian communists led by Vincas Mickevicius-Kapsukas arrived in Vilnius. Kapsukas was under orders from Josef Stalin, Commissar of Nationalities, to move into Lithuania to create a Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. Once this was complete the new government would officially request support from the Russian Red Army, which would then send troops to assist. On December 8th, the proclamation was made and the Provisional Lithuanian Revolutionary Government was created. Precisely to plan, the Red Army then moved in and took Vilnius, allowing Kapsukas to move into the capital.

The Lithuanian leaders were under no illusions about the plans of the Russians and so they spent all available resources in bolstering their military. During this period about half of the state budget was going to the military. They were still heavily reliant on German financial support to hold things together, mostly due to the difficulties that the Lithuanians had in communicating and working with the Western Allies. At this point in time Lithuania was landlocked, preventing easy communications via the sea like that enjoyed by Latvia and Estonia. With the Red Army moving in, Smetona and Voldemaras travelled to Germany to try and gain further financial support, the goal was to use this loan of about 100 million marks to try and hire some German troops. The arrangement probably would have been similar to what was happening in Latvia with the Freikorps, however the Lithuanians found it difficult to find enough German soldiers to make it work. While the Lithuanian leaders were in Germany trying to arrange for loans Russian units continued their advance. Before they had taken Vilnius they had been named the Western Army, and they would move into the capital on January 5th. Up to that point they had experienced nothing but completely success in Lithuania, and so they continued to push forward. On January 25th they arrived in Telsiai and then on February 7th they would continue towards Kaunas. Up to this point the Russian troops, who were not the most organized, had encountered nothing but totally disorganized Lithuanian resistance. However, on the way to Kaunas they ran into another set of Lithuanian defenses, and this time they were successfully repulsed for the first time during the campaign. This bolstered Lithuanian confidence and would be the furthest point that the Red Army would advance. They line would settle down with the Bolsheviks in control of over half of the country.

The Lithuanian communists would start to make changes to these occupied territories. Many of these changes would cause the Soviet government to lose much of their support among the people. In the countryside they would break up the estates of the large landowners, but unlike in other areas during the revolutionary period the land was not given over to the peasants. Instead the land would be turned into collective farms. From the peasant perspective they felt that this would result in them exchanging one landowner for another. Other policies which on the surface seemed to bolster the support for the Soviet government would instead do the opposite. For example there were multiple languages declared as the official language of the government. This seems like a good move since it would allow the government to appear to be more in line with a wider group of people, however Russian still ended up being pretty much the de facto language of the government which alienated many Lithuanians. Then the Pskov Division of the Red Army was renamed to be the Lithuanian division, which from a PR perspective was a good call. However, the division was not provided with enough supplies and therefore the troops resorted to forced requisitions in the countryside, which turned many against the new regime. Since this will be the last time we discuss these types of attempted societal changes by these short lived Soviet Socialist Republics I do want to discuss them overall just a bit. In every case, in Finland, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, and Lithuania the Communist government simply overplayed their hands. They chose to implement policies that, while in line with their ideological beliefs, were not supported by the people that they were trying to govern. In the charged and highly contested countries that they existed any policies that turned most of the population against a government was a very dangerous move to make, and for each and ever Soviet government it would prove to be too dangerous and it would provide valuable popular support boosts to the nationalist governments that they would use to retake control.

When we discussed Latvia in the last episode an important event was the intervention of an outside state, in that case it had been Estonia. In this case it would be Poland that would move in and completely alter the balance of power in Lithuania. Polish involvement would bring Lithuania into the brewing Polish-Soviet war. While this would eventually be very problematic for the Lithuanians, at the start it looked like it was the only way that the Lithuanian Bolsheviks could be pushed out of power. The Polish military would advance with one purpose, the capture of Vilnius. For those keeping track, this attack towards Vilnius, or Wilno, was one of the topics in Episode 208. Polish cavalry would attack the city, making a rapid strike and leaving their infantry behind. They then sent captured trains to retrieve the infantry, who arrived a few days later. After only a few days of fighting the Poles would be in control of Vilnius and Pilsudski would arrive for a victory parade. Pilsudski would make the Polish occupation seem almost desirable, releasing a proclamation that contained the following “I wish to create an opportunity for settling your nationality problems and religious affairs in a manner that you yourselves will determine, without any force or pressure from Poland. For this reason, although military action and bloodshed continue in the area, I am introducing a civil administration, not a military one, to which in due course I shall call local people.” While this proclamation made it seem like the Poles were completely benevolent, in fact Pilsudski and many other Polish leaders wanted to return to the glory days of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, with an emphasis on Poland. They hoped to bring about half of Lithuanian territory into Poland, including and perhaps most importantly the city of Vilnius. For the first few days of Polish occupation there was a general calm even between Polish and Lithuanian military units. However, this quickly broke down, with Polish units resuming their advance and the Lithuanians resisting.

One of the real sticking points between the Poles and Lithuanians was that the Polish leaders refused to recognize that an independent Lithuania existed. With this as a starting point it was very difficult for the two sides to come to an agreement. Pilsudski believed that the Lithuanian government was merely a German puppet. He also hoped to be able to convince the Lithuanian leaders that the best path forward was to form a union with Poland. He would meet with several Lithuanian statesmen in Vilnius in July 1919, representatives of the Lithuanian government that currently resided in Kaunas. They made it clear that the current Lithuanian leaders would not even consider any form of union. With that avenue seeming to be no longer possible, Pilsudski went to plan b, which was to let the areas of Lithuania, especially Vilnius, decide their own fate in a plebiscite. This seemed logical, but the Lithuanians would never agree to it. Here was the problem, many areas that were historically part of Lithuania had seen a large influx of immigrants from surrounding countries during the previous centuries. The most important of the areas that these immigrants moved into was Vilnius itself and by 1917 the population of the city was at least half Polish, with most of the second half being made up of Jewish citizens. The Lithuanians were actually a very small minority within the city, although they held a vast majority in the surrounding countryside. The Polish leaders would use the population of Poles within the city to advance their claim to the city and its surroundings. Vilnius was not just a historically Lithuanian city, it was the historical Lithuanian capital, and the Lithuanian leaders would never just allow it to leave. It became clear to Pilsudski that the gap between the Polish and Lithuanian leaders was just too wide and so he would decide to support the replacement of the Lithuanian leaders via a Polish sponsored coup. There would be two coup attempts, both of which would be discovered and prevented by Lithuanian authorities. The first attempt would be discovered when messages were intercepted that tried to delay the coup from August 28th to a later date. Unfortunately the Lithuanians did not learn the identities of the planners from this communication, and therefore just arrested a whole bunch of completely unaffiliated Poles in Kaunas. When the second attempt was made in September the list of participants was also recovered, resulting in a much more effective series of arrests of the major players. This would be the end of Polish efforts to replace the independent Lithuanian leaders, and in the future they would take a different approach to bring Vilnius under Polish control.

Before even the first coup attempt was launched the Poles would launch their attacks that would take the Polish army into Ukraine and Belarus. This would then be answered by a Russian counterattack. This was the Russian offensive that would take them all the way to Warsaw, which meant they had to first move through Lithuanian territory. Russian cavalry would arrive in Vilnius on July 14th and the Russians, in contrast to the Poles, would give the city over to the Lithuanian leaders before continuing to the west towards their final objective. This arrangement, with the Lithuanians in control of the city did not last very long since the Russians were soon retreating back through Lithuania with the Polish army in hot pursuit. The Polish leaders refused to recognize any agreements between the Lithuanians and Russians, which in some ways reset the situation in Lithuania back to the point before the Russian attack. On October 8th a Polish unit, under the command of Lucjan Zeligowski march into Vilnius with the goal of taking the city and then installing a Polish-backed Lithuanian government and a new Republic of Central Lithuania. There was little doubt that the attack would be successful, with the small number of inexperienced Lithuanian militia being no match for the experienced Polish forces, and the city would be in Polish hands by October 9th. The new government was created, and then two years later it would unite with Poland. It would be a part of Poland until World War 2, these actions by the Polish leaders did allow for a larger Poland, including Vilnius, but it also poisoned relations with the Lithuanians and made many other nations skeptical of working with the Poles during the interwar years.

Near the end of 1919 discussions began among the leaders of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as they tried to determine what to do about Russia. There was a conference in Riga on August 26th where they met with representatives from the Entente. As this point the Entente tried to encourage all three countries to hold off on any negotiations with the Russians under after Yudenich launched his attack. With the failure of his attack the Baltic leaders would meet several more times to discuss the best path forward. Eventually they would all agree that their best choice was to make a collective peace with Russia, but the first several attempts at this collective peace quickly ended in failure. One of the important reasons that these negotiations would end after a few days is because the Russians were really trying to work with each country individually, this resulted in the Estonians specifically feeling like they were being isolated which was seen as not desirable. There was some initial concern among the Estonians that if they allowed this isolation to occur, even if it resulted in peace, it would only set them up for future Russian domination. However, as the year continued the Estonians continued to be at least open to discussions. After some more violent flareups in December, real negotiations would start up between the Estonians and Russians. This set of negotiations would be the final ones, and they would result in the Treaty of Tartu which would be signed on February 2nd after a month long ceasefire. The treaty was important for the Estonians, since it cemented their position as an independent nation due to its inclusion of a clause that required the Russians to renounce all claims to Estonian territory. It was also important for Soviet Russia because it would be the first treaty signed with a foreign government, an important first step on its path to being recognized by the global community as a whole. With Estonian signing a treaty in February 1920 it was only a matter of time before Latvia and Lithuania followed suit. For Latvia a key component of the peace treaty, which was signed on August 1st, was that the Latvians break off their alliance with Poland. The leaders in Lithuania, after all of the problems they had with the Poles, were even more willing to find an agreeable solution with Russia. The main reason for this was that, even though Vilnius was not part of the Lithuania that was signing the treaty, the Russians fully supported the Kaunas’ governments claims to the city. Eventually, the treaty signed with Lithuania would explicitly state that Vilnius should be part of Lithuania.

The peace settlements with Russia meant that all three Baltic states could finally move past the period of violent revolution and civil war and into a period of peace. All three countries would start off their life as democratic republics and all three would enact some type of land reforms that would see the landed aristocracy lose much of its power. In all three countries the Baltic Germans would bear the brunt of these reforms with a class of small property owning farmers taking their place. These land reforms were important for many reasons, they counteracted many Communist elements within the countries, who used land reform as a key tenant in their plans to gain support. It also reduced the ability of foreign governments to influence events, since the landed upper class had been a key vector for this influence. Finally, the land reform, due to its creation of the land owning class gave these groups more political power, with their political leanings being strongly n favor of those that had enacted the changes that turned them from landless peasants into landed farmers. The countries would also all be on friendly terms with each other, due to the belief that through these friendly relations, and good relations with the western powers, they would be better situation to resist any future Russian aggression. There were some small territorial disagreements between the states, but many of these were handled in a peaceful manner. There was even some discussions about joining the countries together into some form of federation, with these movements being particularly strong in Latvia and Estonia. The groups that advocated for this arrangement used fears of future wars with Russia to justify such unions. The countries would be stronger together, or so they claimed. While this might have made some level of sense, it was impossible for the three countries to completely throw aside their differences to allow for such a drastic change. Instead they would just begining the post-revolutionary years as countries that worked quite closely together but were their own distinct entities. All three countries would find the transition to a stable democratic government to be very challenging. Each would begin a slow slide to a more authoritarian form of rule after years of instability in the 1920s. Lithuania would be the first to make this change in 1926, but then Estonia and Latvia would follow in the 1930s. During the 14 years as democratic republics Estonia and Latvia would have 17 and 16 governments, respectively, that is more than one per year, a recipe for instability. The independence of the three countries would prove to be short lived, and after 1941 they would once again face German invasions followed by Communist take overs that would not fully end until the fall of the Soviet Union.