Part I

Independent Period

With the first World War, Lithuania regained her independence. However, this was done with difficulty, for Russia was anxious to reabsorb her. Also, various factions in the emerging Polish State wanted to reestablish the Lithuanian-Polish State of the Middle Ages, and toward this end seized Vilnius and broke off diplomatic relations. Further political turmoil occurred when the Lithuanians occupied Klaipeda (Memel), which they feared would be given over to the Germans and therefore deprive them of their only port on the Baltic Sea. Thus, Lithuania entered into a period of independence (as did most of the newly formed states of eastern and central Europe) with a good deal of political apprehension.

Despite this, Lithuania was to make significant gains in the areas of education, economics, trade, and in general establish a solid agricultural foundation similar to Denmark’s. As a first step the new government implemented major land reforms. By 1939 substantial progress had been made with the creation of 45,000 new farms for some 200,000 people, involving a total of 893,392 acres. Additional land was given for other needs, bringing the total redistribution to 1,774,099 acres. (See Table 1)[1]


The Land Involved for Redistribution Between 1919 and 1939

I. Land distributed for permanent ownership
1. To private schools, organizations, asylums, etc. 2,291
2. To parish churches 3,981
3. For cemeteries 1,003
4. To employees and laborers for homes 8,110
5. To new settlers 893,392
6. Added to small farms 222,951
Total 1,131,728
II. Land distributed for temporary use
1. To public schools and other governmental institutions 86,070
2. To municipalities and their institutions (hospitals, asylums, public parks, etc.) 6,158
3. To private persons and organizations 26,539
4. For community pastures 72,170
Total 190,937
III. For miscellaneous uses 451,434
Grand Total of Land Affected by Land Reform Act 1,774,099

Another factor of significance in the development of Lithuania’s economy was the system of credit, consumer, and agricultural cooperatives that started in 1871. After World War I it became the basic building block of the Lithuanian economy. Table 2 indicates the importance of the cooperative system during the independent period.[2]

The Declaration of Independence, issued on February 16, 1918, called for a democratic form of government and for a Constituent Assembly to enact the state’s fundamental laws. The result was the foundation of legislative, executive, and judiciary divisions of government. Although in the beginning the executive was totally under the power of the legislative branch, on December 17, 1926, a coup d’état created an authoritarian form of government under Antanas Smetona. The rule of Smetona, from 1928 to 1938, has been variously characterized, but perhaps the most adequate description would be that of, “the government of enlightened statesmanship [rather] than the government of one-man rule.”[3] Although there was censorship, the press was allowed to exist, and in general the new regime did not administer severe reprisals.

In retrospect, it is likely that a democratic government could not have survived, considering the circumstances. In the first place, of all of the new states formed after World War II, only two, Finland and Czechoslovakia, retained a democratic government, primarily because both, unlike other states, had had experience in parliamentary government. There was also the unstable worldwide economic situation, in the end resulting in a depression, which would indeed cause a great deal of difficulty for any developing democracy.


Cooperative Societies of Lithuania 1937-39

Type of Cooperative  Number of  Societies Registered
1937 1938 1939
1. Credit 408 398 401
2. Stores and Consumers’ Cooperatives 248 251 275
3. Manufacturing 226 228 224
4. Insurance 1 2 2
5. Nonclassified 375 409 430
Total 1,258 1,288 1,332

For Lithuania there existed also an uncomfortable situation with two of her immediate neighbors. First, Poland’s takeover and occupation of Vilnius led to a severing of relations between the two countries and a mutually hostile attitude throughout the independent period. Second, the Russians, who wanted to push their borders outward under Marxism-Leninism, were a continual threat to the newly independent states to their west. An additional problem in the area of foreign relations was the dispute between Lithuania and Germany over Klaipeda (Memel). Seized by Lithuania after the country lost Vilnius, this area became increasingly important with the rise of Hitler.

Nevertheless, the fears of outside domination, which had led to the establishment of the Smetona regime in Lithuania, proved justified when, on September 28, 1939, an agreement between the Soviet Union and Germany was reached, dividing eastern Europe between the two and giving Lithuania to the Soviets. By June 15, 1940, the country was occupied by some 300,000 Soviet troops.[4] This, the first Soviet occupation, was met with some intense resistance and witnessed the deportation of some 35,000 inhabitants to slave-labor camps, just part of an estimated 700,000 who the Russians planned to remove from Lithuania.[5]

On June 23, 1941, as the Germans were attacking the Soviet Union, the Lithuanians revolted and overthrew the Russians. But the German occupation proved little better than the Russian, and attrocities continued. This time, however, the Jewish-Lithuanians received the brunt and, with the later reoccupation of Lithuania by the Russians, an all consuming plan of Russinization was initiated continuing to the present time.

Lithuania Today
Lithuania Today

  1. Anicetas Simutis, The Economic Reconstruction of Lithuania After 1918 (New York, 1942), pp. 28, 29.
  2. Ibid., pp. 32-35.
  3. U.S. House of Representatives. Third Interim Report of the Select Committee on Communist Aggression, 83rd Cong., 2nd Sess., 1954, pp. 128, 129.
  4. V. Stanley Vardys, Lithuania Under the Soviets (New York, 1965), p. 52.
  5. Ibid., p. 68.


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