A Brief History of Lithuania

By Tim Lambert

Early Lithuania

The ancestors of modern Lithuanians were a people called the Balts who arrived in the area about 2,000 BC. In c.1240 AD a man named Mindaugas united the Lithuanian tribes. In 1251 he converted to Christianity. However, Mindaugas was assassinated in 1263 and his people reverted to paganism.

In 1316 Lithuania was united again by a man named Gediminas. He chose the title of grand duke rather than a king and under his rule, Lithuania grew strong. He made Vilnius the capital and he encouraged settlers from other parts of Europe.

Lithuania expanded eastwards into what is now Belarus and Ukraine. However, they faced a growing threat from the Teutonic knights. They were an order of German knights who crusaded against pagans in the Baltic.

In 1377 Jogaila became Grand Duke of Lithuania. In 1381 he was forced to flee Vilnius by his uncle, Kestutis, who declared himself Grand Duke. However, in 1382 Jogaila seized power in Vilnius while Kestutis was away. He captured both Kestutis and his son Vytautus.

Then in 1386 Grand Duke Jogaila married Jadwiga of Poland. The Polish Sejm (parliament) elected him king of Poland. Jogaila accepted Christianity and most of his people converted. Afterward, Jogaila was based in Poland. He was too far away from Lithuania to rule so in 1392 he made peace with Vytautus, his former enemy. Vytautus (1350-1430) was made Grand Duke of Lithuania, on condition that he lent his support to Jogaila.

Meanwhile, one province of Lithuania, Samogitia, was still mostly pagan. In 1398 the Teutonic knights captured the province. However, in 1409 the Samogitians rebelled. Both Jogaila and Vytautus supported the rebellion and they met the Teutonic knights in battle. In 1410 the Poles and Lithuanians routed the Teutonic Knights at the battle of Tannenberg (also called Grunwald or Zalgiris). That ended the threat from the Teutonic knights forever.

Under Vytautas, known as the Great, Lithuania was at its peak. During his reign, Lithuania extended its territory to the east. Vytautas the Great died in 1430.

In 1447 Casimir Jagiellon, Grand Duke of Lithuania became King of Poland. So the two states then had one ruler. In 1569 the Treaty of Lublin bound Poland and Lithuania together more tightly. A Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth was formed. The two states kept their own armies but they agreed not to make treaties with foreign countries without the other’s consent. Both also kept their own laws but a common currency was introduced. A joint parliament called the Sejm began meeting in Warsaw and from 1573 Poland and Lithuania had a joint ruler elected by all the nobles.

Gradually Poland came to dominate Lithuania. Polish became the language of upper-class Lithuanians.

Meanwhile, during the 16th century, the Reformation reached Lithuania. Protestantism made some headway in Lithuania but in the later 16th century it was sent into retreat by the Catholic Counter-reformation.

Also in the 16th century, Russia became an increasing threat to Lithuania. In 1512 the Russians took the Lithuanian city of Smolensk.

The Polish-Lithuanian union was called the Rzeczpospolita. In the early 17th century it fought another war with the Russians and in 1611-1612 a Polish-Lithuanian force occupied Moscow. However, in 1654, the Russians captured the eastern part of the Rzeczpospolita including Vilnius.

In the 18th century, Poland and Lithuania declined and effectively became a Russian satellite. In 1773 Prussia, Austria, and Russia agreed to help themselves to some Polish-Lithuanian territory. Russia took a slice of Lithuania. A second partition took place in 1793 and Russia took still more territory. In 1795 a third partition took place. Poland and Lithuania ceased to exist as independent nations and Lithuania came under Russian rule.

Modern Lithuania

In 1830 the Poles rebelled against Russian rule. In 1832 the rebellion spread to Lithuania. However, the Russians soon crushed the uprising. In 1863 the Poles and Lithuanians rose again but again they were crushed.

In the late 19th century the Russians introduced repressive measures such as restrictions on Catholicism. Furthermore, only the Russian language could be used for teaching in secondary schools and books had to be published using the Cyrillic alphabet even if they were written in the Lithuanian language. Books and newspapers in Polish (the language of the upper class) were banned.

Many Lithuanians escaped Russian repression by immigrating to North America. However, despite the Russian measures, there was a growing interest in Lithuanian culture and history. At that time nationalism was a growing force in Europe and there was nothing the Russians could do to prevent it.

In 1915 the Germans occupied Lithuania. In 1917 they allowed the Lithuanians to form an assembly called the Taryba. On 16 February 1918, the Taryba declared Lithuania independent. In 1920 the Russians recognized Lithuania as an independent country. However, on 10 October 1920, the Poles occupied Vilnius. The Poles hung on to the city, which caused a great deal of tension with Lithuania.

In 1926 an army coup took place in Lithuania. Afterward, Antanas Smetona ruled as a virtual dictator.

In 1940 the Russian army occupied Lithuania. In August 1940 Lithuania was absorbed into the Soviet Union. Afterward, thousands of Lithuanians were executed or deported.

Germany invaded Russia in June 1941 and shortly afterward they captured Lithuania. The Nazis ruled Lithuania for 3 years and during that time they virtually exterminated Lithuanian Jews.

However, in July 1944 the Russians recaptured Vilnius. By the end of 1944, they had recaptured all of Lithuania. Once again they imposed a Communist regime on Lithuania.

Between 1945 and 1952 farms in Lithuania were collectivized. At the same time, thousands of Lithuanians were executed or deported. The Russians also developed industry in Lithuania – but at a cost of great environmental damage.

Finally, in the late 1980s, the Communist tyranny in Lithuania began to crumble. In 1988 a popular front called Sajudis (the Movement) was formed. In 1989 Lithuania was granted some economic autonomy and in December 1989 the Lithuanian Communist Party became independent of the Communist Party of the USSR.

In March 1990 Sajudis won elections to the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet. That body then declared that Lithuania was an independent nation. However, the Russians had other ideas and they imposed an economic blockade. In January 1991 Russian soldiers shot and killed 14 unarmed demonstrators outside a TV tower in Vilnius.

However, on 19 August 1991 hard-line Communists in Moscow attempted a coup. The coup was defeated and on 6 September 1991, the Russians recognized Lithuania as an independent country. In September 1991 Lithuania was admitted to the UN.

The 1990s were a painful period of adjustment as Communism was dismantled and Lithuania returned to a market economy. However, Lithuania is now a prosperous country. The last Russian soldiers left Lithuania in 1993. n Vilnius, Lithuania

In 2004 Lithuania joined NATO and the EU. Lithuania suffered badly in the recession of 2009 and unemployment rose to a very high level. However, Lithuania soon recovered. Today the economy of Lithuania is growing steadily.

Meanwhile, in 2009 Vilnius was the European Capital of Culture. Also in 2009, Dalia Grybauskaite was elected the first woman president of Lithuania. Then in 2015, Lithuania adopted the euro. In 2024 the population of Lithuania was 2.8 million.

Vilnius at night

Last revised 2024