ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2017 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 63, No.1 - Spring 2017
Editor of this issue:Almantas Samalavičius

Book Review

Antanas Smetona and His Lithuania: From the National Liberation Movement to an Authoritarian Regime (1893–1940). By Alfonsas Eidintas. Translated and Edited by Alfred Erich Senn. Leiden: Brill Rodopi, 2015. xix + 486 pages. ISBN: 978-90-04-30203-7

Alfonsas Eidintas is a noted scholar-diplomat in Lithuania. He began his career as a historian, specifically focusing on interwar Lithuania, Lithuanian-Jewish relations, and World War II. He later went on to serve as Lithuania’s ambassador to the United States, Israel, Greece, Canada and other countries. Dr. Eidintas has always distinguished himself with substantive works based on painstaking research and the utilization of copious primary and secondary sources. The present volume is no exception. 

Antanas Smetona was born into modest means but was able to parlay the opportunity for education into nationalist and political activism. Smetona was the quintessential Lithuanian intellectual who blended his studies, interests, and work together to fight for Lithuanian consciousness and, later, sovereign political identity. As his predecessors in the national renaissance of the nineteenth century, he believed that a strong Lithuanian nation had to be based on a knowledge of her language, literature, history, and culture. These beliefs crystallized while a student (resulting in time in czarist prisons), were propagated in his campaigns for Lithuanian autonomy and independence, and reached fruition while president, e.g. during the 500th anniversary commemorations of Vytautas the Great, various ceremonies honoring soldiers and military invalids, and promotion of the Lithuanian language. “…When, as Lithuania’s president, he was preparing his writings to be published, Smetona worked nights to find time to edit them carefully. Not in the sense of detail, polishing old journalistic works, but correcting the language for which he felt great respect – every word, every expression.” (p. 26).

The reviewer found the use of thematic chapters instead of a straight chronological account very useful. There are chapters on particular issues, as well as individuals, such as Sofija Smetona, General Stasys Rađtikis, and Prime Ministers Augustinas Voldemaras and Juozas Tűbelis. These chapters enable the reader to see how Smetona’s relationships with certain individuals and constituencies changed over time, and how important his personal and professional partnerships were to him and the nation. While some earlier accounts of the president’s wife described her as more Polish nobility than Lithuanian patriot, Eidintas’s description does not appear to reach the same conclusion. The ever enigmatic Rađtikis remains so in this volume. His familial relationship with Smetona clashed with his own ego and later policy stances, especially his contention toward the end of the interwar years that Soviet domination of Lithuania would be preferable to that of the Germans. Tűbelis comes across as Lithuania’s unsung hero, the long serving prime minister who maintained a fiscally conservative policy, avoided credit, and helped maintain the nation’s economy among the strongest, albeit not the most sophisticated, in Europe. Thanks in great part to him, Lithuania avoided the extreme privations of the Great Depression suffered by others.

Voldemaras, his arrogant personality and Iron Wolf paramilitary organization, understandably occupy an important place in the book. The thematic arrangement of the work again helps better illuminate changing relationships and circumstances. Smetona’s work with Voldemaras is shown from the president’s grudging acceptance of the prime minister’s brilliance, the 1926 coup and its aftermath, opposition from his Iron Wolf paramilitary organization, Smetona’s weariness of Voldemeras’s personality traits, and finally concern over the creation of a separate power center – complete with a private army. “…While Smetona was quiet in his talks and articles, calmly explaining and convincing, presenting his thoughts calmly in stylistically elegant speech, Voldemaras in his speeches and writing abounded in belligerence and with intentions of demolishing opponents and any adversary.” (p. 151). 

Fascinating are the chapters dealing with the Catholic Church, the Catholic “Ateitis” organization, and individual priests. Smetona’s love-hate relationship with the Church and its representatives still defies explanation. He considered himself a devout and faithful Catholic, while also disliking the Vatican’s position relative to Poland and the Vilnius Archdiocese and what he felt was meddling by church groups possessing at least an informal relationship with the opposition Christian Democrats. “…The centers of the Christian Democratic Party, their strong press and the youth organizations were the force whose pressure [Smetona] felt for the entire period of his presidency.” (p. 258). Some opposition priest-activists were conveniently exiled to remote village parishes, while others found favor with the president. Others supported the regime and openly defied their bishops and, indeed, directives from the Vatican. The president’s Chancellor, Father Izidorius Tamođaitis, and Father Juozas Tumas-Vaiţgantas are just two examples of those who could be styled as semi-rogue priests who saw the regime in the service of both God and Nation. 

The major shortcoming of this volume is not the author’s fault. The translator’s product is occasionally awkward, such as writing “prezidium” instead of “presidium” (p. 73), “martial court” instead of “court martial” (p. 222), and occasionally leaving out the article, “the.” (e.g., pp. 146, 186).

Anyone who wishes to understand the genesis of Independent Lithuania, the interwar period and the multifaceted and still debated role of Antanas Smetona will find substantial references in this volume. There are no stunning revelations about foreign relations and Smetona’s often skillful maneuvering in international affairs, especially with the Germans during World War I and later during the Nazi period. Eidintas’s book, however, is one of the most important dealing with the man and his times: a humanist who also believed in order, an authoritarian who rejected fascism and kept Plato’s works on his bedside table to help maintain a “presidential regime, not totalitarian,” (p. 439), a shrewd political operative who truly believed that the Nationalist Association was to unite all people and parties, a fiscal conservative who approved of the expropriation of nobles’ land to distribute to their former tenants. So many years later, Eidintas presents a comprehensive view of Antanas Smetona, though in many ways he still remains an enigma.

Robert A. Vitas