ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2016 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 62, No.3 - Fall 2016
Editor of this issue: Almantas Samalavičius

Book  Review

Alfonsas Eidintas, et al. The History of Lithuania. 2nd rev. ed. Vilnius: Eugrimas, 2015. 
[; printed edition announced for 2016].

Lithuania’s history is the history of the last pagan country in Europe, which was a great European power that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and then was erased from the maps of the world, only to return in a much truncated form after World War I. Then, at the hands of Hitler’s Nazis and Stalin’s Communists, Lithuania experienced all the horrors of World War II as part of what historian Timothy Snyder calls the “Bloodlands”. Now, having liberated itself from Soviet Russia, it is once again an independent nation. 

The second revised English language edition of The History of Lithuania is newly translated and edited by Lithuanian- American historians Skirma Kondratas and Raműnas Kondratas. The book’s authors, four Lithuanian historians, each covers a separate period in Lithuania’s history, from its emergence as a state in the thirteenth century, through its joining NATO and the European Union in 2004. 

Appropriately illustrated, the book is a good introductory volume to the history of this nation, whose geography put it in the path of its large, bellicose neighbors. A summary outline of Lithuania’s history precedes the main text. The chapters by Alfredas Bumblauskas, “The Grand Duchy of Lithuania” and “Union of the Polish and Lithuanian States,” start with the formation of the state. They cover its rise as a multiethnic and multicultural European power which stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, its transformation from the last pagan state in Europe, its subsequent union with Poland, and its total loss of sovereignty. This happened in 1797 under the third and final partition of the joint Lithuanian-Polish state by Russia, Prussia, and Austria.

Two events during this period are especially noteworthy. 

One is the difficult choice faced by Lithuania which forced it in 1569 to enter into the Union of Lublin with Poland, by which it lost much of its sovereignty. The nation had to choose between a total military defeat to Muscovy or an involuntary union with Poland. The different goals of Lithuania and Poland are clearly set out. Vividly portrayed, is the mournful scene at the Sejm in Lublin, Poland, where Lithu97 ania’s delegate Jan Chodkiewicz managed to retain but a small shadow of independence for Lithuania. 

The second noteworthy event in this section of the book is the Polish king Poniatowski’s decision in 1792, with support from seven of his twelve ministers, to capitulate to the Russian army, which led to the first partition of Lithuania- Poland.

It is not possible to ignore the parallel of 1792 to Lithuania’s 1940 capitulation to the Soviet Union. Though, contrary to king Poniatowski, in the latter case Lithuania’s president Smetona opposed capitulation, but he did not have support from his ministers. Also while in 1940, a military defeat by the Red Army was a certainty, in 1792, according to Bumblauskas, there had still been a possibility of military success against Moscow.

Antanas Kulakauskas, in his chapter “Lithuania under the Russian Empire (1795–1915),” presents all the major events of that period. These include Moscow’s oppression, Russification and colonization of the country, the 1831 and 1865 revolts against the Czar’s rule, the imposition of the Russian language with the prohibition against Lithuanian books and newspapers, the resultant 40 years of smuggling printed materials from abroad, and the late nineteenth century Lithuanian national awakening.

In the subsequent chapter, Alfonsas Eidintas covers the re-establishment of Lithuania’s independence in 1918, including the political and military initiatives that were part of it, as well as the entire interwar period. Eidintas stresses the clear distinction between Lithuania’s “nationalism” during the interwar period and the nationalism of its large neighbors: Germany, the Soviet Union, and Poland used their nationalism as a basis for expansionist policies, for occupying other nations’ territory. Lithuania’s nationalism was, by contrast, defensive, as a response to its expansionist neighbors. 

Eidintas sets forth the existing conditions that led to the 1926 putsch, which brought Antanas Smetonas’ autocratic presidency to power, as well as the reasoning behind the capitulation to the 1940 Soviet ultimatum. 

Mindaugas Tamođaitis, in his two chapters, adequately presents the 50 years of Soviet, German, and then again Soviet occupations, including the resistance to these occupations, and the eventual re-establishment of the nation’s independence. For a more in depth view of the brutality of the occupations, and their effect on the cultural, political, economic, and spiritual life of the nation, a highly readable source is The Tragic Pages of Lithuanian History 1940-1953, by Vladas Terleckas (Vilnius, 2014, available in English and in Lithuanian).

Tamođaitis makes the not widely accepted assertion, that the post-World War II partisan armed resistance to the Soviets, which lasted 10 years, “redeemed” Lithuania’s failure to fight against the Soviet invasion in 1940. Eidintas in his earlier section of the book, negates any assertion that there was anything that needed “redeeming”, since a small nation such as Lithuania could not afford to sacrifice its people in a fight they were sure to lose – opposition to the Red Army in 1940 would have been hopeless, would have cost many lives, and devastated the country.

Tamođaitis also gives the impression that during the German occupation, the Lithuanians sent its Lithuanian Territorial Defense Force (LTDF, or “Vietinë Rinktinë”) into battle against the Polish Home Army (“Armia Krajowa”). In fact, it was the Germans who sent the LTDF against the Poles, in violation of their agreement with the LTDF’s commander, General Povilas Plechavičius. When general Plechavičius, on May 9, 1944, learned of this, he ordered the LTDF to withdraw. For that, and other disagreements with the Germans, including the successful opposition which prevented the formation of a Lithuanian SS battalion, on May 15, 1944, the German SS arrested General Plechavičius and members of his staff, and sent them to the Salaspilis concentration camp in Latvia. Thus, general Plechavičius and the LT DF are incorrectly presented as fighting against the anti-fascist Armia Krajowa, when in fact Plechavičius and his troops unrelentingly acted in opposition to the fascist Germans. 

The final chapter, “The Singing Revolution” sets forth how Lithuanians used Mikhail Gorbachev’s “perestroika” to reestablish Lithuania’s independence. On March 11, 1990, Lithuania, the first of the Soviet republics to do so, declared that it was an independent nation, which, as Tamođaitis notes, contributed much to the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

Some of the events leading up to independence are presented in vivid detail – the 670 kilometer long “Baltic Way” when 2 million people joined hands in 1989 across the three Baltic nations – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – to demonstrate their desire for independence; the 1990 Soviet economic blockade of Lithuania; Soviet tanks and the massacre of unarmed civilians at the Vilnius TV tower; and anticipation of international recognition of Lithuania’s independence. 

The book contains two interesting observations about Gorbachev’s role in those final events. One was Gorbachev’s argument to the Lithuanians that of all the Soviet republics, Lithuania alone was able to squeeze the most out of the Soviet system, and therefore should be content to stay within it. The second, that the West, especially the US, delayed recognizing Lithuania’s independence because it had embraced Gorbachev as a reformer, and recognition of Lithuania’s independence would undermine his position.

The book is written and organized in a narrative manner that makes the subject accessible to a wide audience, especially for someone encountering Lithuania’s history for the first time. With a rather detailed table of contents, an index of 100 names at the end, and a list of suggested material for further reading, the book can also serve as a useful reference work.