Why was a free state not established in the west of Lithuania, by the Baltic Sea?

Lithuanian insurgents in the Klaipėda region in 1923. Photo: Wikimedia

Kaunas’ territorial demands were supported by Roman Dmowski. And when the Lithuanians repeated the Żeligowski operation in the Klaipėda region, the Polish gunboat “Commander Piłsudski” moored at its shores.

The geographical extent of the Lithuanian language (and thus of the Lithuanians) was a hotly contested issue for ethnographers, politicians and people for whom the national cause was close to their hearts at the turn of the 20th century. How far does the Lithuanian tongue extend to the south-west, to Marijampole, Puńsk and Augustów? How far to the east? And finally, how much of this language has been preserved at the mouth of the Nemunas? And in what, so to speak, concentration – what percentage of the population speaks Lithuanian?

This issue was particularly troublesome in the case of lands that had never been part of the Grand Duchy in historical times. And this was the case with the lands around Klaipėda (called Memel by the Germans): in the Middle Ages these lands belonged to the state of the Teutonic Order (finally confirmed by the Peace of Mielno in 1422), with time they became part of Ducal Prussia, and after the Partitions of Poland – part of the Prussian partition.

It is true that this area was called Lithuania Minor, and people were comforted by the fact that the outbreaks of the Lithuanian language reached as far south as Gołdap – but the censuses of the inhabitants left no doubt: in the areas north of the Nemunas (in its lower course the Nemunas was then unnavigable, but it was connected with Klaipėda by a navigable canal), Lithuanians were slightly less numerous than Germans – 49 per cent against 50 per cent of the population. But that’s in the countryside; Klaipėda itself was 90 per cent German-speaking.

The Lithuanian subjects of the Hohenzollerns sympathised with their compatriots living under the Tsar’s rule, supported education and the printing of books in Lithuanian, which had been banned there until 1905, and supported their smuggling. However, they were not eager to engage in any serious activities or to stage an insurrection, all the more so because they differed from the Lithuanians on the banks of the Neris in a trivial respect: they were Lutherans, something unthinkable in Catholic Lithuania.

Anything can happen

However, the situation changed when the empires collapsed. Anything can happen in Central Europe – at least that is what the “Prussian” Lithuanians thought, who as early as 16 November 1918 established the National Council of Lithuanians in Prussia (they had their own elite – the Council was headed by Vilius Gaigalaitis, a member of the Landtag, i.e. the Seimas in Berlin) and as soon as possible adopted a resolution to unite Lithuania Minor with Grand Duchy of Lithuania (i.e. Kaunas and Vilnius). Why not!

You can’t change the world with resolutions – unless the world happens to be falling apart, which the great (and smaller) powers use to look after their interests and expand their spheres of influence. All in all, this is probably the most interesting thing about the “Klaipėda issue” – how many and how different interests clashed in 1918-23 on this sandy, rather inhospitable coastline. Lithuanians crossing swords with the French? Before that, the last time this may have happened was when some misguided knight from the Loire joined the ranks of the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the eve of the Battle of Grunwald. What’s more: Poles supporting the Lithuanians in the 1920s? The Germans, who secretly SUPPORTED Lithuania taking Klaipėda/Memel from them?

All of this can be explained – especially if one takes into account the fierceness of France, keen to take revenge on the Germans after the First World War, the Versailles and post-Versailles rivalry between France and England, Warsaw’s efforts to justify its own actions and – traditionally – Soviet cunning.

It began with the Allies’ willingness to trim German lands where they could. The resolution of the “Prussian Lithuanians” and the efforts of the Lithuanian delegation at Versailles were supported – here it would be appropriate to put an exclamation mark or two in brackets, as one does in moments of unexpected turn of events – by the Polish delegation to the Versailles conference headed by Roman Dmowski.

Dmowski, a Lithuanophile?

A sudden gust of lithuanomania among the National Democrats? A momentary conversion to federalism and Piłsudski’s “republicanism”? Not so much a conversion, perhaps, as a hope for a Polish state with Lithuania within its borders. Or at least – concessions for Poland in Klaipėda harbour and the possibility of floating goods down the Niemen. The neat formula “Klaipėda, part of Lithuania; Lithuania, part of Poland” did not necessarily please the Lithuanians – but it pleased Paderewski very much!

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Wojciech Stanisławski Translated by Translated by jz