On 15th January, Lithuania will mark one of the most unusual events in modern Baltic history – the anniversary of the organised revolt in 1923 which brought the city now known as Klaipėda under Lithuanian control, in addition to the surrounding region, now known as Lithuania Minor. After its annexation, Klaipėda became the second-largest city in the country after temporary capital Kaunas (Vilnius being still under Polish control), but the city’s links with Lithuania were arguably rather tenuous – at the annexation, a large majority of townspeople considered themselves to be ethnic German – although the surrounding region was majority-Lithuanian. However, even the Lithuanians of the Klaipėda Region had significant cultural differences to those to the east due to their distinct history – they were mostly Lutheran, for one thing, compared to the overwhelmingly Catholic rest of Lithuania.
Memel, as it had previously been known internationally, was founded by the Teutonic Knights in the 13th century and had long formed the border of the German Empire, whereas Lithuania had been under Russian domination for most of the prior two centuries. The region is even mentioned in the German national anthem (in a stanza that is no longer sung, there is a reference to the nation extending “the from the Meuse to the Memel”). But following Germany’s defeat in World War I, the city was placed under a League of Nations mandate, under – theoretically temporary – French administration. But Poland, Germany and Lithuania all had strong interests in the city – the Lithuanian one resting not only on its ethnic Lithuanian population, but also the fact that Memel was a key port on the Baltic Sea: up to this point, Lithuania had only had a very short coastline, centred around the city of Palanga, and no viable ports.
Having attempted to stir up dissatisfaction amongst the Lithuanian population of the region, in January 1923 troops entered Memel, dressed as civilians, where they staged a revolt, easily taking control from the French troops stationed there. The name “Klaipėda” was given official status in the city, and a month later, after initial protests, the League of Nations recognised Lithuanian control over the city. But Lithuania’s control over Klaipėda lasted for only just over fifteen years – in 1939, Hitler gave an ultimatum to the Lithuanian government demanding the return of Memel, and just a few days later Nazi troops marched in to take the city.
Deep Baltic’s Will Mawhood spoke to historian Vasilijus Safronovas, who has written widely on the complex history of Klaipėda, both the city and the surrounding region, about the revolt, its roots and how it is seen in Lithuania today.
Although the term is sometimes used, Klaipėda was not really “reclaimed” by Lithuania – it had been built by Germans and was never part of any previous Lithuanian state. So where did the idea develop that it was something that should be claimed? Was it simply a question of access to the sea, or more than that?
Well, we have to have in mind not only Klaipėda, but the wider region as well. The northernmost counties of East Prussia formed a border zone where Germans and Lithuanians lived alongside each other. This was the main reason why, like in many other border zones in East-Central Europe, different interests clashed there during and after the fall of empires in the last stages of the First World War. Lithuanian politicians, when defining the borders of the prospective Lithuania, were first of all guided by ethno-linguistic criteria. For them, Lithuania was where the Lithuanian language prevailed. Around 100,000 Lithuanian-speakers lived in East Prussia before the war. The only problem was they were different – Lutherans (not Catholics), who for a few centuries had been acculturated by the Prussian Church, education, and conscription systems. Most of the Prussian Lithuanians were conscious German citizens, although they understood their culture as being distinct and individual from German culture. Therefore the principle of national self-determination would hardly have worked there.
The port argument was put into operation only during the First World War, mainly because Lithuanian politicians were trying to convince the Germans to pass Klaipėda to the future state of Lithuania. Since, during the war, Germany was still planning that Lithuania would be its puppet state, it seems that, at least in summer of 1918, some representatives of the German leadership didn’t treat the transfer of Klaipėda to such a future state of Lithuania as something that was completely impossible. The situation, of course, changed after November 1918. When it was announced that Germany had lost the First World War, the Lithuanians began to present their territorial claims on East Prussia to Great Britain, France, and the United States. Thus, in the eyes of many Germans, they had started to use similar rhetoric of territorial claims as the Poles, although the interests of the Lithuanians and the Poles were far from being similar. In fact, it was the Poles who initiated the Klaipėda question at the Paris Peace Conference (the Lithuanians didn’t even have an officially recognized delegation there).
The Polish factor may be regarded as the third impetus that encouraged Lithuanians to take Klaipėda by force in January 1923. After the region was separated from Germany according to the Treaty of Versailles in early 1920, the French representative came there [as the Chief Commissioner of Memel/Klaipėda]. The Poles then tried to strengthen their economic influence in Klaipėda, while in autumn 1922, the decision was actually made in Paris to proclaim the Klaipėda Region a free state following the example of Danzig. The Lithuanian government realised that this would further strengthen the Polish position in the region and that eventually this could challenge the very independence of Lithuania. So the Klaipėda operation of January 1923 was actually an attempt to forestall events.
Could Memel have genuinely functioned as a “free city” along the lines of Danzig (Gdańsk)? Could this have been successful?
Danzig was a free city (Freistadt) but Klaipėda was to become a free state (Freistaat). To a large extent it would depend on what would happen with Lithuania – whether, surrounded by Poland, it would remain an independent entity.
In fact, it was a small group of Klaipėda industrialists who were most interested in the project of the Free State. They had certain influence on the political level and could turn that status to their advantage. Klaipėda was a wood processing port. Before the Great War, sources of raw materials for the local industry were concentrated in the area of modern-day Poland and in parts of Belarus which at that time belonged to Poland. So the industrialists were interested, first, in making economic ties with Poland closer, and second, in internationalising the Memel (Nemunas) River.
However, even if Klaipėda had become a free state, both the Germans and the Lithuanians could have done their best to complicate the implementation of the scenario which at that time was imagined by the local industrialists. Let me remind you that in April 1922, when the Trade Agreement between the Klaipėda Region and Poland was concluded through the mediation of the Polish Consul in Klaipėda, both the German and the Lithuanian government announced they would boycott the Klaipėda Region economically. The Klaipėda Region did not have any border with Poland, whereas it did with Germany and Lithuania. This concrete pressure from its two immediate neighbours would definitely have turned the Region into a province economically isolated from its hinterland.
The Lithuanians were offered Klaipėda in return for giving up their claim to Vilnius, but rejected the proposition. Does this indicate that the city was always a secondary priority for them?
Actually, the Lithuanians never abandoned their claims to Vilnius during the interwar period. The new Constitution of 1928 even had a special statement: “the capital of Lithuania – Vilnius.” During the entire interwar period, the Lithuanians saw the old residence of the Grand Dukes [the city of Vilnius was made the residence of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, in the 14th century] as a part of Lithuania illegally seized by Poland. Although Vilnius was de facto part of Poland between 1920 and 1939 [and officially known as Wilno], every schoolchild in the interwar Lithuania was taught from maps where the state was portrayed with Vilnius, i.e. with the border set in the 1920 Peace Treaty between Lithuania and Soviet Russia. Besides, the Union for the Liberation of Vilnius was initiated — a massive movement that had branches all over the country.
Of course, in 1920-1923, the Klaipėda and Vilnius questions were interconnected at the diplomatic level. The League of Nations had been making every effort to resolve the Polish-Lithuanian conflict over Vilnius, and in this context, the Klaipėda card was indeed played. The Allies assumed that if the Lithuanians accepted this or that proposal, Klaipėda could be recognised as a part of Lithuania. Finally, in March 1923, a month after the Declaration of February 17, when the Allies had to transfer Klaipėda to Lithuania, they also recognized Poland’s eastern border, set in the 1921 Riga Treaty with the Soviets. This meant that they informally recognised Vilnius as being part of Poland.
Footage of the 1923 Klaipėda Revolt (in Lithuanian)
Some might be surprised to hear that Germany covertly supported the annexation. Why was this?
For the same reason that Lithuania sought to forestall the events. At that time, both Germany and Lithuania were far from treating Polish aspirations positively. For Germans, the entrenchment of Polish influence in Klaipėda would have meant that East Prussia was surrounded by Poland. In a sense, that was indeed what the architects of the Versailles system were trying to effect, and Germany sought to avoid it in every way. So during 1922, it sent all sorts of unofficial signals to Lithuanians that it would not object if the Lithuanians took Klaipėda. Later, the Germans even gave some arms to the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union – a public organisation, which took part in the Klaipėda operation, together with the Lithuanian Army and several hundreds of volunteers.
How was the annexation of Klaipėda portrayed in the Lithuanian media? What about internationally? Was there much interest?
Lithuania carried out the Klaipėda operation at a very strategically favorable moment – the French, pushing Germany to pay reparations, invaded the Ruhr area just a few days before the Klaipėda operation started. The European media found this event compelling, all eyes were on it, and the Lithuanian coup d’état in Klaipėda was overshadowed.
In the Lithuanian press, on the contrary, everything what was going on in Klaipėda was given a very high priority. Since late 1922 the Lithuanian press had been developing a story that dissatisfaction of the local Lithuanians was brewing in the Klaipėda Region. The real events were public meetings organised in the Klaipėda Region by the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union and financed by some American-Lithuanians. During these meetings, predominantly ‘real’ economic problems were discussed. Some local Lithuanians participated in these meetings in a public role but they were never speakers who would oppose current political situation. The descriptions in Lithuanian press were quite exaggerated. So it was not totally fictional but heavily disconnected from what was actually happening in the Klaipėda Region.
For several months after the revolt, the end of the Klaipėda operation and the annexation of the region to Lithuania were portrayed as a success story in the national media. True, the euphoria was quite quickly banished to the peripheries by reality – the diverse and numerous problems of the integration of the Region.
Did the Lithuanians of Lithuania Minor generally feel much of a connection with the Lithuanian state prior to the annexation?
They did, but only a very small, basically marginal circle of Prussian Lithuanians. There was no Lithuanian state before the war, and in Germany, only a region with such a name existed [“Litauen” in German] where Prussian Lithuanians made up a large part of the population, but never dominated politically. Being a German (i.e. a German citizen and loyal subordinate of the Hohenzollerns) and Lithuanian (in cultural and linguistic terms) at the same time was compatible for the majority of them. Most Lithuanians who lived in Prussia never thought that someday they would become part of an independent Lithuania, especially Catholic Lithuania. The contacts between Lithuanian intellectuals living on either side of the Russo-German border were quite restricted before the war. Their knowledge about each other was limited to clichés, stereotypes, and preconceived rejections of otherness. After the war, this situation did not change substantially. While the numbers of those who sympathised with Lithuania increased after 1923, the majority of local Lithuanians were quite indifferent about the prospect of unification with the Lithuanian state.
I’ve read that Prussian Lithuanians considered themselves more advanced than those in the rest of the country. How much basis was there for that?
The difference between the Klaipėda Region and Lithuania was visible with the naked eye: in Lithuania, even in its temporary capital Kaunas, wooden buildings prevailed, while in the Klaipėda Region even sheds were built in brick. The region had good roads, almost entirely planted with trees. Local farmers used mechanical equipment for land cultivation and dairy processing. Post-Russian Lithuania was very different at the time. During the Great War, many residents of the future Klaipėda Region had a chance to see all those differences with their own eyes, while local men fought in the German army and later remained deployed in the Ober Ost controlled area [the German-controlled section on the eastern front, covering areas of modern-day Lithuania, Latvia and Belarus].
However, it should be said that these cultural differences were heavily exaggerated by propaganda. Not only the French Chief Commissioner in the Klaipėda Region took his guests to the border between the Klaipėda Region and Lithuanian, and claimed that they were now standing on the boundary between Europe and Asia. The Lithuanians of the Klaipėda Region in this respect were influenced by chauvinistic and racist ideas of German cultural superiority. After all, in 1915, the Germans justified their march to the east with nothing less than a slogan of liberating the peoples conquered by the Russian Empire, and spreading their Kultur to the barbaric East. Of course, from time to time, the Lithuanians of the Klaipėda Region heard all these stories…
Germans did not have the dominant role in Lithuania that they had in the other two Baltic countries. What were the predominant attitudes towards German culture and people in Lithuania at that time?
According to the census of 1923, 29,000 Germans lived in Lithuania (at that time still without the Klaipėda Region), which accounted for 1.4 percent of the total population. Of these, 17,000 resided in villages. Compared with Latvia and Estonia, the Germans in Lithuania were a relatively uninfluential group of the population. Still, Germany has been a key foreign policy partner of Lithuania until 1933. In addition, it was one of the few countries which, for its own reasons, supported the Lithuanian claims to Vilnius. Thus, at the level of foreign policy, Germany was seen as an ally and a friendly neighbour, although these attitudes changed over time due to the German constant interference in the Klaipėda affairs.
True, ordinary people might have had a very different perspective as on the everyday level the attitudes towards Germans were heavily influenced by the First World War experiences. When, in 1915, the German army occupied the territory of what would become Lithuania, the Ober Ost administration treated it like a colony – people observed massive deforestation, and the requisitions of cattle and even their last domestic animals. In this agrarian country, the German soldiers’ looting, destruction of property and finally the recruitment of the population for forced labour left a negative impression and were etched in the memories of ordinary Lithuanians. Basically, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that the very perception of Lithuanians of what the occupation is was based on the 1915-1919 experiences.
Were most of the Germans reconciled to their place in Lithuania over the next couple of decades?
After the Klaipėda Region became a part of Lithuania, two different categories of Germans appeared in the country: former German citizens – the residents of the Klaipėda Region and the Germans of the rest of Lithuania. They were also treated in a similar way later, when the Nazis started to qualify them as Reichsdeutsche and Volksdeutsche.
With regards to the first category, there was very little evidence of reconciliation. Maybe things would swing in the other direction, but after the Klaipėda Region was joined to Lithuania, Germany tied down the main political leaders of the region through unofficially provided financial support. The money from Germany came before every new elections to the legislative bodies of the autonomous region while, frequently, it was the German Consulate General in Klaipėda and not the Landtag of the region that actually made central decisions. Thus, in 1924-1939, anti-integration moods were encouraged and artificially supported in the autonomous region, becoming an essential component in the ideologies of the main political parties. That is why any reconciliation with the current situation was out of consideration. Some radical politicians of the Klaipėda Region bluntly called Lithuania an invader and a state which had no future. And it is important to say that this radical rhetoric towards Lithuania was acceptable not only to the Germans of the Klaipėda Region, but also to part of the local Lithuanians. Thus, every effort was made to deepen the conflict. Even after 1944-1945, when most of the old residents of the Klaipėda Region were evacuated from the approaching Red Army deep into Germany, the attitudes of many of them towards what was happening in the Klaipėda Region during the interwar period continued to be based on pre-war ideological clichés.
Memel had a pretty prominent role in Germany’s conception in itself – it was mentioned in the German national anthem, etc. Are traces of the German heritage still detectable in Klaipėda?
The word “Memel” in Hoffmann von Fallersleben’s verse means the river, not the town , which later became the “lyrics” of the German national anthem. When creating the lyrics, he tried to describe the area where the German language was distributed – between the Maas (Meuse) and Memel (Nemunas/Neman) rivers.
No doubt, if we see the heritage through nationalist glasses, we will find a lot of “German” heritage throughout the Klaipėda Region. Still, the concept itself implies that heritage becomes heritage not because it was settled by someone on the future generations but because it was appropriated, made “their own” by these generations . When we think about architecture, the peculiarities of the regional culture or the Lutheran component in Lithuanian culture in general, I think it goes without saying that for many Lithuanians the Germans played an important role in creating all this. There are plenty of such signs in the Klaipėda Region, as well as in other areas of Lithuania. However, at least formally, this heritage is not attributed to the Germans but is recognized in Lithuania as Lithuanian, belonging to all citizens of the country. And I think this is an important step forward.
Besides, certain meanings coded in the Lithuanian national culture actually prevent many Lithuanians from seeing this heritage as “alien”. In Lithuanian culture, Klaipėda is seen as a part of the wider region, which is called Lithuania Minor here. According to concepts that derive from the nineteenth century, the region is considered to be the “cradle” of Lithuanian culture, providing it with all its major features: the first book in the Lithuanian language, the first newspaper in Lithuanian, the first work of fiction in Lithuanian, the first grammar book, etc. In this regard, the meanings of Klaipėda in Lithuanian national culture are based on the associations that have been developed since the nineteenth century, associations that are lacking, for example, in the case of Russia and Kaliningrad. Therefore I think there are enough prerequisites for perception of heritage as a multiple phenomenon in Klaipėda.
What about the cultural differences between Lithuania Minor and the rest of the country – Lutheranism, etc? Are these still perceptible, or has the region assimilated into the rest of Lithuania?
The border between Lithuania and the Klaipėda Region disappeared from the administrative division maps of the country in 1947. When you cross the former border today, you won’t see any traffic signs or other clear indications of where the former Region starts or ends. Unlike in Poland, where it was decided to restore the former East Prussian borderline during the 1999 voivodeship reform, Lithuania still lacks the resolution to take a parallel step. True, the arguments for such a step today would be based on historical differences only. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the Klaipėda Region was repopulated. Most of the pre-war residents who were not evacuated in the final stages of the war left for Germany after the war, when, based on the 1958 agreement between the Federal Republic of Germany and the USSR, they were granted the option to left the Soviet Union under the pretext of family reunification. Those who remained usually created mixed families and the only sign of their otherness today may indeed be a different confession.
Thus, the Evangelical Lutheran Church is almost the only institution which still maintains the otherness of the former Klaipėda Region. According to the 2011 census data, 18,400 of the three million Lithuanians claimed they were Lutherans. About 6,000 of these live in the counties and municipalities whose territories were previously part of the Klaipėda Region. Besides, 24 of 56 parishes of the Lithuanian Evangelical Lutheran Church operate in the former territory of the Klaipėda Region.
However, belonging to the Lutheran confession can hardly be regarded as a serious obstacle to integration in the contemporary world.
Now Klaipėda is also distinct in having a high Russian population, unlike all other major Lithuanian cities bar Vilnius. Does this have anything to do with its different history?
The Russian-speakers settled in Klaipėda after the Second World War. Among them, there were demobilised soldiers who decided not to return to their homelands somewhere in the depths of the USSR, but to remain in the Soviet “west”; workers for the Port of Klaipėda and those factories that were managed directly from Moscow – usually they were recruited throughout the USSR; and finally the so-called Old Believers or Old Ritualists – Russians who had been living in Lithuania for two to three centuries and came to Klaipėda from different parts of the country after the war. During the decades following the war, a common experience of life in the Soviet system levelled out some differences between them. It’s hard to say whether these differences are still significant today. This is still an under-researched subject. One thing is clear – the proportion of Russians has sharply declined in Klaipėda over several decades: in 1953, they still accounted for 41.2 percent of Klaipėda population, whereas in 2011, only 19.6 percent remained.
Could the Lithuanian annexation of the Klaipėda Region be viewed as an early form of hybrid war? It’s oddly reminiscent of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, etc. in that the Lithuanian soldiers who carried it out had no identifying marks.
I’m not a specialist in hybrid war, but I am sure that we cannot use contemporary categories to explain the actions of people who lived in the past and thought in completely different categories. Of course, in both cases, some tactical similarities are clear enough. However, I have already mentioned that the Lithuanian politicians who initiated the 1923 military operation, believed they were addressing the fundamental question of whether Lithuania would remain an independent state or would exist as some kind of Polish dependency. So in a sense, it was an issue of the consolidation of modern Lithuanian identity. I hesitate to think that Crimea had the same importance to Russia.
Besides this, please keep in mind that after the successful coup d’état in the Klaipėda Region in January 1923, already in February Lithuania began to negotiate with the Entente Powers. These negotiations led to the cancellation of all the legal consequences arising from Klaipėda military operation. Formally, the region became part of Lithuania not because of the January military operation but because the Entente States transferred sovereignty rights over the area that they received from Germany under the Treaty of Versailles to Lithuania on February 17, 1923. Thus, the effects of Lithuanian interference in the geopolitical system was smothered and the consequences of this interference were made to benefit the system rather than to harm it. In the case of Crimea, the situation, as we understand, is completely different: Russia took the trophy and is now waiting for someone to recognise the war booty.
In fact, I see completely different parallels between the Klaipėda Region of the interwar years and contemporary Ukraine – for two years now, Russia has been behaving in eastern Ukraine much as Germany did in the Klaipėda Region during the interwar period. One document from 1935 reveals that Hitler considered the Klaipėda Region an “open wound”, the “healing” of which should be prevented in order to pursue some wider geopolitical objectives in the region.
Vasilijus Safronovas is principal investigator at the Institute of Baltic Region History and Archaeology, at Klaipėda University. He has published widely on issues of memory, identity, and cultural contact. His study Kampf um Identität: Die ideologische Auseinandersetzung in Memel/Klaipeda im 20. Jahrhundert (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2015) was awarded the Immanuel-Kant-Forschungspreis from the German Federal Government. His most recent study is: The Creation of National Spaces in a Pluricultural Region: The Case of Prussian Lithuania (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2016).
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