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History of the Lithuanian State

Lithuania long retained its own pagan religion and remained isolated from major trade routes. Therefore, it was only mentioned in historical sources relatively late (Quedlinburg Annals, 1009 AD). It was divided into local duchies during the 11th to 12th centuries. However, in the mid 13th century, the influential Duke Mindaugas united most of the Lithuanian territories as well as parts of other Baltic countries. This consolidation was hastened by pressure from German orders from the north and west, and Slavs and Mongol-Tatars from the east. The new strengthened government not only resisted these invasions, but also undertook expansion to the east and south.

By the late 14th and early 15th centuries, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL) stretched from the Baltic to the Black seas; it was one of the largest European states of that time. The GDL played an important role in European history. The western expansion of the Tatars was halted by Lithuanian forces, and thus Europe was spared invasions from the east. The GDL also defeated the Order of the Cross, putting an end to 200 years of fierce warfare between the two powers, and to the Order's expansion into eastern Europe. However, the signing of two unification treaties with Poland (Kreva, 1385 and Lublin, 1569) resulted in the demise of the GDL.

Gradually, the Lithuanian state began losing its independence; the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth weakened and was divided up amongst its powerful neighbors. Lithuania was incorporated into the Russian empire in 1795. Being proud and independent people, Lithuanians staged several revolts (1831, 1863). However, these attempts were unsuccessful and many of their participants were killed, exiled to Siberia, or emigrated to the west. Because of their refusal to obey, Lithuanians were forbidden to use their written language or publish books or newspapers in it. The first armed revolts were then followed by cultural resistance which took the form of sobriety movements, distribution of illegal publications and national rebirth.

Lithuania was occupied by its neighbors for such a long period of time that it lacked its own noble class; the gentry had gradually assimilated into Polish and later even into Russian culture. By the 20th century, purely Lithuanian traditions were only alive in farmers' cottages. However, during this time, a new intellectual class began forming which would play a critical role in the rebirth of the Lithuanian Republic in 1918.

During only two decades of independence, Lithuanians rebuilt much and prospered. However, the Soviet invasion of 1940 put an end to this activity and the German occupation from 1941-44 further decimated the land. The second Soviet occupation lasted from 1944 to 1990. Lithuanian patriots did not cooperate with either of the aggressors; they fought fiercely against both Hitler's troops and the Soviets. Resistance against the second Soviet occupation was especially persistent from 1944-54.

During the war and following it, Lithuania lost almost a third of its inhabitants. Many were exiled to Siberia, while others escaped to the West. No Lithuanian family was left untouched by these tragedies. However, freedom remained a secret hope of Lithuanians and on March 11, 1990 Lithuania once again regained its status as an independent republic.



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Next: WORD, MUSIC AND DANCE Previous: Baltic Religion

"LITHUANIAN ROOTS", Edited by Rytis Ambrazevicius


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Copyright ©, 1996 Lithuanian Folk Culture Centre.