ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2012 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 58, No.4 - Winter 2012
Editor of this issue: Viktorija Skrupskelytė

Twists in Lithuanian-Polish Relations after the Reestablishment of Independence: A Historian’s Reflections


BRONIUS MAKAUSKAS has worked at the Polish Academy of Sciences, the University of Warsaw, and Vytautas Magnus University. He specializes in the history of the Baltic States, relations between Lithuania and Poland, and problems of national minorities. He served on the Polish Republic’s Joint Commission of the Government and National and Ethnic Minorities and has authored several scholarly publications related to Lithuanian history.

What have we learned from the past, observing the contested heritage of the former Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth, the conflict engendered by Lithuania’s cultural emancipation, and the conflict over Lithuania’s capital? We seek to answer these questions by looking at the causes of what are in effect misunderstandings and at attempts to break out of what has become a vicious circle. These misunderstandings are rooted in history and have a strong emotional and political coloration. But some members of the Lithuanian and Polish elites have embraced a non-conflictual conception of Lithuanian-Polish relations on the model of the Paris-based Polish journals Kultura and Zeszyty Historyczne. A significant role was also played by the Polish Pope, John Paul II, who promoted a culture of understanding. Since old stereotypes are again being dragged out into the open to burden relations between the two states, the need is greater than ever for new outstanding moral voices to be heard, and for mutual studies of the common past.

More than two decades have passed since Lithuania and Poland peacefully regained their independence. What can be said about their mutual relations now? What have we learned from past conflicts over Lithuanian cultural and national emancipation, as well as the conflict (rare in history!) over Lithuania’s capital Vilnius? We will attempt to answer these questions by focusing on the causes of these conflicts or, perhaps more accurately put, these misunderstandings. 

As always, it’s easiest to ascribe misunderstandings to a history that in a special way encoded the self-consciousness of both nations. But the development of relations between two nations, no matter how complex, is a real and ongoing process, dependent on the cultural and, thereby, political potential present in both nations. 

During the lengthy period of Soviet occupation, mutual relations between Lithuanians and Poles were suspended, and the conflict over the Vilnius Territory, which had been more intense prior to and during World War II, was put on ice for a long time. In 1990, the collapsing Soviet Union once again used the principle of divide and rule, or more accurately, divide and influence, to stir up animosities in nations that were freeing themselves either from Soviet domination (Poland) or outright occupation (Lithuania). The Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, aka the Stalin-Hitler pact, became an instrument of Russian foreign policy in its efforts to blackmail the Baltic States, especially Lithuania. The heralds of independence – Solidarność in Poland and Sąjūdis in Lithuania – foresaw the possibility that the Lithuanian- Polish conflict might be resurrected; therefore they tried, through official and unofficial contacts, to prepare the ground for constructive relations. Moscow, on the other hand, promoted a project of territorial division, or “autonomization” in Lithuanian districts inhabited by Poles and Belarusians; it also hoped to inspire similar ambitions among the roughly ten thousand local Lithuanians who had long lived in present-day Poland near its current border with Lithuania. Moscow’s plans were frustrated by parliaments and governments influenced by Solidarność and Sąjūdis. Nevertheless, there arose among right-wing political forces in Poland some who wanted to amass political capital in the name of “defending Polish interests.” The Marshal of the Polish Senate, Andrzej Stelmachowski, supported the Polish “autonomists” in Lithuania, who acted under direct instructions from Moscow. One of their leaders received asylum in Poland, thereby evading the judgment of Lithuanian jurisprudence.

These aspects deserve to be mentioned because in Poland the attitude toward the Lithuanian struggle for independence was by no means unambiguous and was always accompanied by glances toward Moscow: how would it react? Still, all in all, it has to be said that, even though Poland was in no hurry to recognize Lithuanian independence, it did provide help to Lithuania as the latter went forward on its path of liberation. By the same token, Poland tried maximally to safeguard its own interests in the Vilnius Territory, a matter that raised strong emotions on both the Polish and the Lithuanian side. Finally, it was possible to contain Moscow’s designs to provoke ethnic conflict in the Vilnius region, not only through the efforts of democratically inclined forces in Poland, especially the supporters of the policy advocated by Jerzy Giedroyc (Jurgis Giedraitis) with respect to Poland’s eastern borders, but also thanks to the restrained behavior of Lithuanian authorities and communities. A major part in this process of rapprochement was played by Pope John Paul II. A major contribution to the maintenance of peace was also provided by international democratic factors that helped contain a direct military attack by Moscow’s forces on Vilnius and other Baltic locations with the intent to crush the process of reestablishing independence. 

It is also worth emphasizing that the brightest representatives of this region’s political émigrés attempted to defuse the antagonisms that had burdened Central European nations in the interwar period and to constructively model better relations. Problems of national conciliation in post-Soviet circumstances were discussed in the intellectual circles of the Lithuanian, Estonian, Latvian, Polish, Belarus, and Ukrainian emigration. Much influence in this area was wielded by the Paris-based Polish journals Kultura and Zeszyty Historyczne, produced by a group led by Giedroyc, who comes from a family rooted in the multiethnic territory of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Gathering together intellectuals of Central Eastern European ancestry, Giedroyc fostered the development of a political democratic elite that valued the traditions of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and was mindful of the dangers of resuscitating the ethnic and territorial conflicts of the prewar period.

Giedroyc’s conception of coexistence without conflicts over borders and patrimony was what basically tempered Lithuanian-Polish relations once independence had been reestablished. Much uncertainty nevertheless remained, shown by the long negotiations between Lithuania and Poland over the Treaty on Friendly Relations and Good Neighborly Cooperation: these negotiations took almost four years and at times seemed to reach a dead end. Lithuanians, having lost Vilnius in 1920 due to a stronger neighbor’s military campaign, felt insecure now, too; they sought a treaty to ensure their state’s territorial integrity and to integrate the Polish minority into that state’s life. The Poles pretended not to understand Lithuania’s fears, sought a nonstandard status for the Polish minority in Lithuania, and refused any discussions about their takeover of Vilnius in 1920. Such an attitude aroused Lithuanian concerns that the Polish minority factor was being granted undue priority over other factors important for mature interstate relations. Only when Vilnius made concessions in response to attitudes prevailing in European Community and NATO states did Lithuania and Poland reach a consensus in 1994 and sign a treaty on bilateral relations. But the lacunae and ambiguities that remained in it cloud mutual relations until the present day. 

Why did two long-time partners responsible for creating an entity unique in Europe, a Commonwealth of Two Nations (in fact, a multinational one), not only fail the test of European modernization, but also, upon the fall of this construction at the end of the eighteenth century, so acrimoniously part ways at the beginning of the twentieth? This is a question the answer to which has long been and still is being sought. It has something to do with the cultural heritage of their centuries-long existence together, the contrasting evaluations the nations involved have put on the past, and the disparate interests of the Lithuanian and Polish nations together, with the possibilities of realizing them. 

The main problem with Lithuanian-Polish coexistence has been programmed into their cultural heritage, which each side evaluates differently or does not want to analyze critically at all. The political elite of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, having adopted the Polish language, opened the gates for Polonization. Neither then nor later did anyone create levers for maintaining or promoting the Lithuanian language. As a result, the process of Lithuanian culture went forward through, and by means of, the Polish language, in which masterpieces of high culture were created in Lithuania. Suffice it to recall Adam Mickiewicz, Władysław Syrokomla, Józef Ignacy Kraszewski, and Stanisław Moniuszko, without whom Polish culture would be inconceivable. Unfortunately for the Lithuanians, the romantic visions and images of Lithuania harbored by Mickiewicz and Kraszewski not only encouraged the Lithuanian patriotic movement that led to so-called “Lithuanian separatism,” but also helped to solidify the Polish image of Lithuania as a Polish area that can in no way be separated from, nor exist independently of, Poland.

Understanding Lithuania and Lithuanians creates problems for Lithuanian and Polish historians as well as students of culture. When the Poles laid claim to Vilnius, annexed it on narrowly nationalist-cultural grounds, and Polonized the common cultural heritage, a dialogue between both nations became practically impossible and has been resuscitated thanks only to the great efforts of well-meaning individual politicians and cultural activists. This dialogue is quite fragile, though, it being no easy task to contain a much larger nation’s egoism. Nor is it simple to rationalize the threats felt by the smaller nation. But to make the entire issue of Lithuanian and Polish relations hostage to a strange way of understanding Polish interests in Lithuania (a way fostered in some Warsaw circles) is not a sound basis for future relations.

Still, what is heartening is the fact that, in the past, Lithuanian- Polish relations had, in effect, acquired major significance and had an impact on geopolitical interactions in Europe. It was then that Lithuania and Poland had many successes: they not only jointly warded off external aggressions, but also enriched high European culture, especially in the legal and literary fields. Today, for well-understood reasons, Lithuania can no longer offer such a strategic partnership and historical bulwark to Poland. Let us be glad as well that, in times of sharp misunderstandings, there arose on both sides individuals who thought and acted rationally and who impeded the spread of discord even at the risk of loss of popularity and of censure. One such personality was the Blessed Jurgis Matulaitis, who became bishop of Vilnius during a time of great multinational troubles but maintained his characteristic dignity and did his best to soften the conflicts. His efforts were not welcomed by Poland’s political leaders at that time and he was forced to give up his duties as bishop of Vilnius. But his life’s motto “Overcome evil with good” was recognized by John Paul II, who acknowledged the bishop’s nobility and worked to contribute to settling the juridical status of the Vilnius Archdiocese and thus protected the local Lithuanian and Polish faithful from further politicization of this issue. 

Looking at things from the Lithuanian point of view, one can see how much Lithuanian energy and demographic, territorial, and other kinds of resources were channeled to the Republic of Two Nations for the benefit of its state policy and its Polish-language culture. Present-day Poland, having absorbed this heritage and aspiring to be one of the great European nations, is not yet fully capable of properly evaluating this inheritance from historical Lithuania. Looking at the situation from the Polish point of view, it seems that Poland feels indebted only to “its own” Lithuanians who helped create Polish history, but it is unable morally to appreciate the aspirations of those Lithuanians who, at the end of the nineteenth century, undertook a philological, language-based reconstruction of the Lithuanian nation. Thus Poland, looking at what it takes to be a part of the Grand Duchy bedeviled by “linguistic complexes,” feels comfortable and is unburdened by any historical debts or commitments to the present.

In short, contemporary Poland does not acknowledge or consciously appreciate the historical continuity of present-day Lithuania, and in its own historical consciousness, it has difficulties dealing with the fact of Lithuania’s national revival. To be sure, there are a variety of attitudes in Poland itself, and the latter observation applies only to that part of Poland’s “establishment” that is inclined to continue prewar political traditions. It might be noted that prewar motivations and attitudes (unresolved complexes, if you will) are alive in Lithuania as well. Becoming acquainted with one’s own past and rationalizing it was impeded in Lithuania by the foreign occupations. Independence having been regained, these processes intensify.

Translated by Mykolas Drunga