- March 19, 2013
75th anniversary of Polish-Lithuanian relationship normalisation
75 years ago, on 19th March 1938, the Lithuanian government accepted a Polish ultimatum concerning an unconditional establishment of a diplomatic relationship. The decision made in Kaunas ended a several hundred years of a continuous political conflict (a certain “cold war”), which was caused by the annexation of the Vilnius Region to Poland. The exchange of diplomatic notes was done that day in… Tallinn. Both governments announced the establishment of their representatives in Warsaw and Kaunas until 31st March 1938.
In the interwar period, Polish-Lithuanian relations were in a continuous political conflict. Both countries did not maintain diplomatic relationship and the closed border was a place of repeated incidents. Between Poland and Lithuania there was no personal or goods communication, the post and telephones were non-functional.
“Poland – wrote prof. Łossowski in his book, On this and the other side of the Nemen River, Polish-Lithuanian relations between 1883-1939 – wanted to break the Lithuanian opposition and force Lithuania to establish mutual relations. (…) Generally, it was characteristic of the small Lithuania to be the centre of attention in the politics of the Second Polish Republic. This resulted from several causes. The most crucial one was the conflict itself, the state of perpetual strain on the five hundred km border. Issues of both political and military nature were very important to Warsaw. Lithuania constituted a large obstacle, if not a dam, to the development of active Baltic politics, which was greatly considered by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Besides, when Polish relations with its two great neighbours: Germany and the Soviet Union, did not go as planned, Lithuania’s behaviour, regardless of its nature, gained importance.
The pivotal moment in the mutual relations came in 1938 and merged with the appearance of Wehrmacht in Austria. On 11th March that year, on the Polish-Lithuanian border, a soldier of the Border Protection Corps, Stanisław Serafin, was shot by Lithuanian guards. This type of occurrences had happened before many a time, and their victims were both Poles and Lithuanians. This time, however, Polish authorities decided to use the existing crisis to force Kaunas to normalise the relationship. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a harsh announcement in which it accused Lithuania of murdering the Polish soldier, adding that Kaunas was mainly responsible for abnormal relations between the two countries. In Poland, an anti-Lithuanian campaign began, which lasted several days.
In Lithuania the situation started to cause more and more anxiety. At night between 14th and 15th March 1938, a Polish member of Parliament in Tallinn received the Lithuanian Prime Minister, who proposed an immediate meeting of both sides in order to explain the circumstances of death of the Polish soldier and to undertake common actions which would prevent similar incidents in the future. At the same time, the Lithuanian authorities addressed an appeal to London, Paris and Moscow with a request for a diplomatic intervention in defence of independence.
On 17th March 1938, the Polish government addressed a 48-hour ultimatum to Lithuania concerning an immediate establishment of diplomatic relations without any prerequisites. The accreditation of the representatives in Kaunas and Warsaw was to take place on 31st March 1938. The Vilnius garrison and other troops stationing near the Lithuanian border were in the state of a military readiness. In Vilnius and other cities, manifestos and demonstrations were organised with anti-Lithuanian slogans.
One of them, held in Warsaw, was described by Col. Leon Mitkiewicz, a later military attaché in Kaunas: “The whole Aleje Ujazdowskie were crowded from the corner of Nowowiejska almost to the Belweder Palace. All banners and leaders of the demonstration were stood in front of the GIAF (General Inspector of the Armed Forces) building. The same loud calls were reiterated relentlessly: “We want Lithuania!”, “Lead us to Kaunas!”. At one point, in total darkness on a lighted balcony, Marshal Śmigły-Rydz appeared in a company of several officers, greeted solemnly with the national anthem and cheers: “Long live our Marshal Śmigły!”.
Prof. Łossowski emphasises that these manifests were mostly staged and that among most of the participants there was no hostility towards Lithuanians. The most serious demonstrations took place only in Vilnius, where in the buildings belonging to Lithuanian institutions windows and doors were broken. Anti-Lithuanian slogans also appeared on the city’s buildings.
A crucial influence on the reaction of Kaunus to the Polish ultimatum was exerted by Lithuanian fears of the Third Reich, triggered by the German army and navy, as well as the violation of Lithuanian airspace by German planes. The decision of accepting the Polish ultimatum was made on 19th March 1938 at an extraordinary meeting of the Lithuanian government, called by President Antanas Smetona. His position was supported by general Stasys Rastikis. On the same day, the Lithuanian Seimas passed a resolution approving the position of the government.
In a speech made before the Parliament, Stanišauskis said: In the face of the mortal threat to Lithuania and taking into consideration the existing disorganisation of international relations, the government immediately addressed the friendly governments of great empires, pointing to the peace-threatening danger and asking for assistance. (…) Unfortunately, these efforts did not delay the ultimatum. It was, nonetheless, handed in Lithuania. The advantage of power is on the Polish side, but power is not the law. In this situation the Lithuanian government decided to meet Polish demands, knowing well that the Lithuanian society, if need be, is ready to defend its motherhood with all might.
After establishing diplomatic relations with Lithuania, Poland wanted to erase the bad impression caused by the ultimatum, also among other countries, immediately. In an instruction handed to Col. L. Mitkiewicz, who was heading to Kaunas, the leader of the Second Division of the Polish Armed Forces, Col. Tadeusz Pełczyński wrote: “We really want to convince Lithuanians, higher commanders and members of the Lithuanian military staff that we do not intend to lie in wait for their state independence, nor to threat it. On the contrary, we fully respect Lithuanian independence and autonomy and we want to have the best possible relations with Lithuania. Only Polish support guarantees Lithuanian independence.”
“Even those Lithuanians (and they are the majority) who are positive about the need and usefulness of normalised relations with Poland and who even want Polish-Lithuanian solidarity, were in a low state on 19th March. (…) Submission and humiliation is always hard and it is wrong to think that these feelings are effective means of capturing the heart and trust of a nation. (…) Lithuanians do not forget easily and once their trust is betrayed, it is not regained easily,” wrote prof. Michał Römer, vice-chancellor of the Kaunas University, in a letter from 21st April 1938.
Tłumaczenie Aleksandra Christ w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by Aleksandra Christ within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.