- July 25, 2012
Before Żeligowski – “everyone demanded Vilnius”
In propaganda and general public awareness of the Lithuanians, the events related with arrival of the troops of General Żeligowski became a symbol of the wickedness of the Poles, of Polish imperialism and seeking to colonize Lithuania. Meanwhile, a severe dispute over the boundaries and the national belonging of Vilnius existed since the beginning of the Lithuanian and Polish statehood in 1918. The events of October 1920 were only another act of the same drama.
The reborn Lithuanian state was revived thanks to the protection of Germany. On March 23, 1918, Emperor Wilhelm II claimed the independence of Lithuania, previously occupied by the German army. On May 25, 1918, the German newspaper “Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung” reported that ‘In Kaunas in mid-May 1989, Mr Voldemaras together with President Smetona and Fr. Staugaitis make sincere gratitude to the Supreme Commander of Ober-Ost for liberation and for the generous gift of 300.000 marks’.
In the case of Smetona, it was about the leadership of Taryba. In November and December 1918, the German authorities gave Lithuania two loans for the total sum of 110 million marks. Despite losing the war, the German army still occupied Kaunas region and Samogitia, providing the functioning of the Lithuanian authorities. The dependence of the government of Kaunas on the Germans was so large that the Lithuanian authorities, wanting to create their own army, had to obtain official permission of the German Army Command on the East. Such permission was granted on November 23, 1918.
Despite the complete dependence on foreign power, the government of Taryba dreamed about the greatness of the Lithuanian state. On January 20, 1919, the Lithuanian Ministry for Belarusian Affairs issued a statement that districts: Augustow, Bialystok, Bialowieza, Bielsko, Grodno, Slonim, Sokolka, Vokovysk and Lida are “areas of the Lithuanian state”. Several months later, on November 20, 1919, the rules of elections to the Lithuanian legislative Seimas were announced, repeating aspirations to acquire the possession of these territories. According to these rules, the 1st Electoral Circuit of Marijampolės included, among others, Sejny and Suwalki; the 4th Circuit of Vilnius included Vilnius and its surrounding areas, the 8th Circuit of Lida included Lida, Oszmian, Volkovysk; the 10th Circuit of Grodno included Grodno, Sokolka and Augostow.
The Lithuanians’ biggest problem was that the German troops left Vilnius in early 1919, which allowed the seizure of the city by the Soviets and then, on April 21, 1919, by the Polish Army. From that day until July 14, 1920, Vilnius was in the hands of the Poles. In real terms, although not legal-treaty, the Vilnius County belonged to the Polish state. It was ruled by the Board of Civil Authority of the Eastern Territories, subordinate to the Supreme Commander of the Polish Army. The Polish authorities constituted legal acts in force in the Vilnius region. The most important of these was the decree of the Chief of State issued on August 29, 1919, about the foundation of Stefan Batory University, which inaugurated its opening on October 11, 1919. The ceremony was attended by 81-year-old Ladislas Mickiewicz, the son of the most outstanding student of Vilnius Alma Mater.
After signing the Treaty of Versailles, the German army left Kaunas in July 1919. In a new context, on July 26 the Allied Supreme Council determined the dividing line between Lithuania and Poland, as delimited by Marshal Foch. It ran along the railway line Grodno-Vilnius-Daugavpils, leaving Vilnius, Trakai, Landwarów and New Vileyka on the Polish side. The Lithuanians didn’t agree with this situation. They broke the railway, road, post and telegraph communications between Kaunas and Vilnius. Vilnius was, however, inhabited by a small number of Lithuanian citizens. This national situation was illustrated by data on education in this city in May 1919. There were 58 Polish schools at all levels with 5.878 students. Jewish schools were somewhat less numerous, for a total of 29, but as much as 5.947 students learned there. The Lithuanians had 7 schools in Vilnius, attended by 775 students. The Belarusians had one school with 151 pupils. In Vilnius functioned also three German elementary schools where 126 children were taught. Moreover, there were some Russian schools, but there is no specific data on them.
In early August 1919 elections to the City Council were held in Vilnius. About 49 thousand people voted. Poles, starting from two separate electoral lists, received a total of 24 seats. Jews introduced 14 people to the City Council. The elections were also attended by Belarusians, but for their list voted only 426 people and therefore they did not receive a single seat. Meanwhile, the German occupation of Kaunas in Lithuania changed only its form. At the request of the Entente, the German army began to leave the occupied eastern territories in late July 1919; however, some units, instead of returning to Germany, changed only their locations. The division of General Diebisch left Augustow and instead of retreating to East Prussia went to Samogitia. “Freikorps” under the command of General Rüdiger von der Goltz started to operate in Latvia and Lithuania; it was formally supported by the Russian “Volunteer Army”, founded by former tsarist military band conductor, Paul Bermondt-Awałow, where 80 percent of the personnel formed the Germans from the Baltic countries. These units were the tool of German militarists, who dreamed of the creation of the East “Hinterland” – the agricultural resource base of the Reich.
When the Lithuanian commander, Szawel, turned to the General Staff of the “Volunteer Army” residing in Kurszany to ask for explanation of the meaning of the stay of this army in Lithuania, he received the following answer: ‘I ought to ask who you are and what are you doing here, and by what law you ask me questions!’ It should be noted that the army of Bermondt-Awałow was formally subordinated to the army of General Yudenich, and therefore it promoted the White Guard’s idea of preserving the “one, indivisible Russia” including the Lithuanian lands. It was emphasized later, when in October 1919 Bermondt’s troops took Saul and hanged out the appeal to local people espousing that: ‘In the future Russia will doubtlessly give this country a broad self-determination and autonomy’. There was no talk about the independence of Lithuania. Lithuanians and Belarusians stood up for Vilnius, so were the “white” Russians. According to the contemporary words of Pilsudski, “everyone demanded Vilnius”.
On August 23, 1919, after the German troops left the city taken now by the Lithuanians, in Sejny a local Polish uprising broke out. The Lithuanians attacked the local Poles and arrested many of them in northern Suwalki. In this situation, pro-Polish circles in Kaunas, supported by the local, covert Polish Military Organization, planned to carry out a coup. However, the plot was discovered and starting on August 29 the government of Sleževičius arrested many people, not only member of the PMO, but the Poles in general.
The Vilnius newspaper “Our Country” reported in its article “The persecution of Poles in Lithuania” of 11 September 1919 that: “Lithuanian priests in the northern Suwalki region and surrounding areas are calling for the slaughter of the Poles. The most active in this respect are, among others, Fr. Jozaitis and Fr. Jozefaitis. On the 26th of this month a meeting took place in Calvary, where the latter gave a furious anti-Polish speech (…). Showing the picture of Our Lady of Czestochowa has been banned in Kaunas lately.”
It’s worth adding that in December 1919 the wearing of peaked hats was banned in Kaunas after a few days before they were introduced for students of the local Polish grammar school.
In those days, more than 500 Poles were arrested; among others, Alojzy Brzozowski – the president of Kaunas, Michał Junowicz – a member of the presidium of the City of Kaunas, Czeslaw Stefanowicz – the editor of the “Land of Kaunas”, Zatorski and Perkowski -municipal councilors, Ossowski – the owner of the Polish bookstore, Szemberg – the theater director of the “Lute” (“Lutnia”) Association, Lucjan Matusewicz and Witold Matusewicz – teachers in local high school, Paszke – a teacher of Polish school.
Vilnius press reported that some prisoners were beaten and tortured by the chief of the counterintelligence, Liudas Gira known as “the executor”, in private a poet and a Soviet collaborator. The shocking events took place in Wiłkomierz; in an armed clash near the Wojtkuszki property Lithuanian soldiers encircled the Polish division of 12 people. Eight of them were killed, four were wounded. The corpses of the killed Polish soldiers were carried for show through the streets of the town in the horse chariot. The assistant of the chief of police put his walking stick into the wound of the dead soldier, saying: ‘Maybe one of these cursed Poles is still alive’. The man driving the car was screaming toward the terrified women: ‘Come on, ladies, let’s select a husband for you!’
At the end, the mutilated corpses were buried in an unmarked hole in the cemetery. In October 1919 the political situation in the Baltic countries started to change dangerously. The Bermondt’s army, which was to assist Yudenich approaching to Petrograd, wantonly attacked Riga. For five weeks they shelled the capital of Latvia. In order to create a broader base for their operations, Bermondt’s soldiers took Saul, Rosie and Szadow. The true Bermondt’s intentions were revealed at the beginning of December by General von der Goltz, who stated in an interview for the Russian newspaper outgoing in Copenhagen, “Wozrożdienje”, that the purpose of the White Guard Russian government, supported by Bermondt, is to create a federation of Great Russia, including, among others, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Otherwise, if Baltic provinces were independent, they would become English colonies soon.
Hopeless government of Kaunas was forced to compromise. On November 11, 1919, an agreement was concluded between Lithuania and the representatives of Germany, acting on behalf of Bermondt’s forces. A demarcation line and the neutral zone were determined. In view of these cases, the Polish government took a position favorable to Lithuania. On October 13, 1919, the Secretary of Foreign Ministry State Wladyslaw Skrzynski issued a statement that “at this moment Poland will not take a hostile attitude towards Lithuania and will not support the intrigue of Prussian militarism even indirectly.” Skrzynski added that “the Lithuanians can calmly concentrate their troops against the German-Russian forces.” This declaration ended with a naïve, as it turned out, statement that “the time will come when (…) the Lithuanians will be able to assess the Polish position that avoids anything that might cause bloodshed between Poles and Lithuanians.”
As a result, the Lithuanian troops in the two-day battle of Radziwiliszki, fought on November 21-22, 1919, defeated the forces of Bermondt and subsequently liberated territories occupied by them. However, nothing could change the attitude of the Lithuanian authorities towards the Poles. At the beginning of December 1919 all Lithuanian political parties carried out a vigorous campaign against the resumption of the railway, postal and telegraph communication planned by Galvanauskas’s government.
The elections to the Lithuanian Parliaments were close, scheduled for April 14-15, 1920, and the anti-Polish agitation intensified. Lithuanian newspapers regretted that a large part of Lithuania is occupied by the Poles and the inhabitants of these lands will not be able to participate in the elections, threatening that “Polish dissidents oriented to Warsaw will not receive a single seat in the Parliament.”
On February 6, 1920, the government of Kaunas in a note passed to the Allied Supreme Council, in addition to the request of Klaipeda, demanded the return of Vilnius and all Lithuanian areas occupied by the Poles. Earlier, during Taryba meeting on January 23, 1920, Minister Voldemaras stated that the condition of establishing relations with Poland is to establish the boundary along the railway line Lida-Polotsk-Vileyka.
On May 15, 1920, an inauguration of the Seimas of Kaunas took place. Eventually, the Poles received three seats. Polish-Lithuanian relations still remained strained.
Tłumaczenie Ewelina Zarembska w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by Ewelina Zarembska within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.