Some scholars believe that Lithuanians inhabited the Baltic area as early as 2500 BC; others believe they migrated to the Baltic area about the beginning of the 1st century AD. The first reference to them by name was in AD 1009 in a medieval Prussian manuscript, the Quedlinburg Chronicle.
The Medieval Jogailan Empire
With the rise of the medieval lords in adjacent Prussia and Russia, Lithuania was constantly subject to invasion and attempted conquest. As a result, a loose federation of Lithuanian tribes was formed in the early Middle Ages.
In the 13th century AD, when the Teutonic Knights, a German militaristic religious order, were establishing their power, the Lithuanians resisted; in about 1260 they defeated the order. About a century later a dynasty of grand dukes called the Jogailans established, through conquest, a Lithuanian empire reaching from the Baltic to the Black seas.
The Lithuanian Prince Gediminas occupied Belarus and western Ukraine; his son, Grand Duke Algirdas, added the territory between Ukraine and the Black Sea.
Jogaila, the son of Algirdas, succeeded his father in 1377. In 1386 he married Jadwiga, queen of Poland, and, after accepting Christianity, was crowned Wladyslaw II Jogaila, king of Poland. Jogaila’s cousin, Witold, revolted against him in 1390, and two years later Jogaila recognized him as vice regent. Witold made the grand duchy into a prestigious state, and in 1401 Jogaila created him a duke; together, the reconciled cousins decisively defeated the Teutonic Knights in 1410.
In 1447, under Casimir IV, the son of Jogaila, Lithuania and Poland were permanently allied. From 1501, with the accession of Casimir’s son, Alexander I, the countries had one ruler, and in 1569 they agreed to have a common legislature and an elective king. The political union was induced by the threat of Russian conquest, but provided little protection. As a result of the partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793, and 1795, Lithuania became a part of Russia, except for a small section awarded to Prussia. Lithuanians became a completely subject people, but they staged large-scale nationalist insurrections in 1812, 1831, 1863, and 1905.
During World War I (1914-1918) the German army occupied Lithuania, but at the end of the war nationalists established the country’s independence. In August 1922 the Lithuanian constituent assembly, in session since May 1920, approved a constitution that proclaimed the country a democratic republic. Conservative and liberal factions in the Seimas collided during the next two years. On December 17, 1926, the army and nationalists, led by the conservative statesman Antanas Smetona, engineered a coup d’état. All liberals and leftists were expelled from the Seimas, which then elected Smetona president, with Augustinas Voldemaras as premier.
Following the rise to power of Adolf Hitler in Germany, Lithuanian-German friction over the city of Memel (now Klaipeda) increased steadily. With the outbreak of World War II and the partition of Poland by Germany and the USSR, the Lithuanian and Soviet governments concluded a mutual-assistance treaty in October 1939. A new pro-Soviet government was installed in Lithuania the following June. Shortly thereafter the Communist Working People’s Bloc, the only political party allowed to function, campaigned for inclusion of Lithuania in the USSR. Political dissidents were rounded up, and the electorate voted, on July 14 and 15, 1940, in a single-slate parliamentary election. The new parliament unanimously approved a resolution requesting incorporation of Lithuania in the USSR. The Soviet government granted the request on August 3. The United States and other democratic powers, however, refused to recognize the legality of the Soviet annexation.
Large-scale anti-Soviet uprisings in Lithuania followed the German invasion of the USSR on June 22, 1941. Unable to contend with both the revolt and the German onslaught, the Soviet forces withdrew. The Germans systematically pillaged Lithuanian resources and, as a national resistance movement developed, killed more than 200,000 people.
In the summer of 1944 the Soviets reoccupied Lithuania, which was reestablished as a Soviet republic. The Soviet government deported about 350,000 Lithuanians to labor camps in Siberia as punishment for holding anti-communist beliefs or resisting Soviet rule. In 1949 the Communist regime closed most churches, deported many priests, and prosecuted people possessing religious images. Additional deportations and a great influx of Russians and Poles into Vilnius were noted in 1956. Subsequently, Lithuania settled into comparative calm, and most nations tacitly accepted its status as a Soviet republic, although the United States never recognized its incorporation into the USSR.
In the late 1980s, rapid political changes in Eastern Europe and the USSR sparked a resurgence of Lithuanian nationalism. Independence was declared in March 1990, but the USSR used economic, political, and military pressure to keep Lithuania within the union. After Soviet Communism collapsed in August 1991, however, the central government granted independence to Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia on September 6, and all three Baltic republics were admitted to the United Nations later that month. As in several other former Soviet republics, such as Azerbaijan and Georgia, former Communists in Lithuania staged a political comeback in the post-USSR period. Although the anti-Soviet, pro-independence Sajudis coalition (the Lithuanian Movement for Reconstruction) won the country’s first open parliamentary elections in February 1990 and successfully led the struggle for Lithuanian independence, the coalition could not maintain political leadership. Their popularity dropped as a result of political infighting in the coalition, a severe economic crisis caused by the disruption of trade ties with the former Soviet republics, and a worsening of international relations with neighboring countries. As a result, the Democratic Labor party (DLP; the former Communist party of Lithuania) won a majority of seats in the Seimas in February 1992, and in November 1992 Algirdas Brazauskas, the DLP leader, was elected president with 60 percent of the vote. Popular support for the new government soon declined, however, as the DLP leadership also failed to quickly solve the country’s economic problems. In 1993 Lithuania became the first of the three Baltic states to be free of a Russian military presence. The last unit of Russian troops left the country on August 31 of that year. In February 1994, Lithuania joined the Partnership for Peace program, which was set up by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a first step for countries wishing to join the alliance. In December Lithuanian troops participated in NATO exercises in Poland, the first time former Soviet republics performed joint military operations with NATO countries. In January 1995 the Seimas passed a law that made Lithuanian the official language, prompting criticism from speakers of Polish and Russian.
Lithuania and Belarus signed a mutual friendship treaty in February and in the same month Lithuania concluded a free-trade agreement with Ukraine.
In May Lithuania became an associate member of the European Union.
In local elections held in March, the DLP made a poor showing, as center-of-right opposition parties gained seats on city and district councils.
In June Brazauskas accused the opposition of replacing appointed local government officials without due process.
December 1995 Lithuania was rocked by a major banking scandal when two of its largest commercial banks, Innovation Bank and Litimpeks Bank, shut down by the government after the discovery of widespread embezzlement.
Parliament ousted the prime minister, Adolfas Slezevicius, in February 1996 when it was revealed he had withdrawn his personal savings from Innovation Bank two days before it was closed.
President Brazauskas appointed Mindaugas Stankevicius, as acting prime minister until elections could be held in June.
After a runoff general election in November 1996, the center-left DLP was replaced by a conservative coalition comprising the Homeland Union and the Lithuanian Christian Democratic Party. Gediminas Vagnorius, the chairperson of the Homeland Union, was named prime minister. President Brazauskas decided not to seek reelection in January 1998, and Valdas Adamkus, a Lithuanian American ecologist, won the presidency by a narrow margin. Although nominally affiliated with the Lithuanian Center Union Party, Adamkus campaigned as an independent intent on leading Lithuania to economic success along Western lines.