• March 21, 2013
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To Whom Do Lithuanians Owe Klaipeda?

© Kurier Wilenski

Located in a Russian enclave between Lithuania and Poland, Kaliningrad looks nothing like the old hanseatic Korolevets [Königsberg] which once was a rich port at the Baltic Sea. Soviet architecture and earlier war damages almost completely erased the history of this place.

Situated northward from Korolevets, Klaipeda had always been in a shadow of the capital of the whole Duchy of Prussia owing fealty to the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland by 1657, which [the fealty] was to be directly incorporated into the Crown by virtue of the Treaty of Bromberg after the extinction of reigning Hohenzollern dynasty. Competition with Korolevets was not an alternative since Klaipeda was not able to compete with a huge seaport of capital importance for the province.

However, both cities were developing within the same political organism which at first was embodied by the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland fief and afterwards, independent from the Crown, sovereign State of Prussia which played the leading role in uniting Germany under the Hohenzollern dynasty and meanwhile got engaged in the partitions of Poland.

The defeat of Germany during the First World War became a worldwide opportunity to revise political relations in our part of Europe. The Republic of Poland revived after the partitions. New countries, such as the Republic of Lithuania, came into existence. The revival of Poland is mainly a result of the invasive countries defeat in the Great War, whereas the new Lithuania is the aftermath of the decisive (until a certain time) role of Germany in the Eastern Europe where the German empire won the war with Russia (loosing it in the West at the same time) and begun constructing the Mitteleuropa. Mitteleuropa, that is a geopolitical project on creating or inspiring the creation of pro-German countries on the ruins of the defeated Russian Empire—in spite of the ultimate implosion of kaiser Germany—produced an outcome in the form of, inter alia, creating young Republic of Lithuania, initially based almost completely on German military forces.

Polish political body found the name suggestive and therefore identified the young Lithuanian state with the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania which by virtue of the Constitution of 3 May 1971 became, even before the partitions, a part of the Commonwealth of Poland. After all, the new country formation in the western areas of GDL was acknowledged, though, depending on a political option in Poland, people had different ideas about the relations with the state proclaimed by the council of Lithuania under the aegis of Germany in March 1918.

Germany, as long as it was of any significance in this part of Europe (a cut-off date may be set at January 1919—the commencement of the Paris Peace Conference), may still pursue their own national interests in a sovereign way. The emergence of new countries in the area controlled by Germany within Mitteleuropa was a derivative of German interests realization. As for Lithuania, it was important in the way that the creation of this state might have occurred only in the territories conquered by Germany in the Russian Empire.

Klaipeda, as mentioned before, was a Prussian city—first, the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland fief, then partly sovereign Duchy of Prussia, later the Kingdom of Prussia, and finally a northern beachhead of the German Empire united under the leadership of Prussia. Throughout all these periods the city—called, in German, Memelburg (sometimes abbreviated to Memel)—had become culturally German and its citizens started to regard Berlin as the capital city and identify themselves with the German state, especially under the influence of unification ideology and German nationalism. When Germany achieved a decisive role in this part of Europe it did not even stipulate the separation of the area from the German state. It seemed that although Germany suffered an ultimate defeat in the whole war, it would maintain the pre-war borders in this area.

Relying on connection with former Grand Duchy of Lithuania through the name, young Republic of Lithuania  was not able to make territorial changes at the expense of Germany as it would obviously interfere with protector’s interests. Klaipeda, which had never been a part of GDL, was envisaged as an integral part of Germany.

“Having not seen any cardinal inconsistency in our and Lithuanian interests, we tried to get this thing for Lithuania which it was unable to get itself since being absent from the alignment. Separating Klaipeda from Prussia Lithuanians owe to our action during the war and the peace conference. We were endeavouring to separate also Tilsit, i.e. Neman’s left bank, which is inhabited by Lithuanian people; we manage to defend only the half of our plan in relation to this issue”—reported Dmowski on his diplomatic activities concerning Klaipeda State in his famous work “Polityka polska i odbudowanie państwa” (“Polish Politics and the Reconstruction of the State”).

The presence of Lithuanian people was the double-edged reason for separating this region from Germany. Majority of Prussian Lithuanians did not identify themselves with Lithuanians from, so called, Grand Lithuania. They were Lutherans unlike the latter who were Catholics. Lithuanian historian, dr Silva Pocytė, in the article “Mažosios ir Didžiosios Lietuvos integracijos problema XIX a. – XX a. pradžioje” claims that “Grand Lithuanians” were called in Prussia simply “Samogitians” (Žemaičiai).

In addition Aleksander Brückner, Slavicist and historian, in 1914 wrote: “Prussian Lithuania, much smaller, varied in every aspect form «Grand» (Lithuania), i.e. writing (blackletter or Schwabacher vs. Latin), country, religion, social relations, and this difference, despite the common language, still exists and nothing will smooth it. To a Prussian Lithuanian there was no other Lithuania but his own.” Suffice to add that Prussian Lithuanians in Lithuanian are called “lietuvininkai” as opposed to “lietuviai” from “Grand” Lithuania.  According to the aforementioned Brückner, Prussian Lithuanian “calls his brother from Lithuania (…) nothing but Lenkas or Gudas”—that is, Pole or Belarusian.

Although Prussian Lithuanians could preserve the language and customs distinct from German ones, within mental sphere they completely identified themselves with German state.

In 1879 there was even composed a song titled “Lietuvninkai mes esam gimę” (“We were born Lithuanians”), the second stanza of which was dedicated to a German Emperor, Wilhelm I. Therefore—as stated by doc. dr Nijolė Strakauskaitė from Klaipeda University in a scientific article “Mažosios Lietuvos elito identiteto problema: kultūrinis diskursas”—“Prussian Lithuanians had not been a nation but an ethnic group that meets criteria typical of ethnicity.”

– Polish arguments largely contributed to create a friendly atmosphere for Lithuanians, as British and French politicians, who did not have sufficient knowledge on Klaipeda, eagerly relied on the competence of Polish negotiators. There have been preserved stenographic records of Ignacy Paderewski and Lloyd George conversations during which the latter asked basic questions about the location of Klaipeda, its inhabitants and the economic situation. The fact that that Dmowski’s and Paderewski’s statements were pro-Lithuanian created favourable conditions, especially among French who intended to weaken not only German, but also English presence on the Baltic Sea—wrote Miłosz J. Zieliński in an article for historical magazine “Mówią Wieki” [Centuries Speaks] titled “Kukułcze jajo wersalskiej Europy: Kłajpeda w latach 1918-1923” [“Foundling” of Versailles Europe: Klaipeda in 1918-1923”] when characterizing the course of negotiations during the Treaty of Versailles concerning Klaipeda.  It was the only effective diplomatic offensive to separate Klaipeda State from Germany. Prior announcement of the Act of Tilsit in Novebner 1918, that is a proclamation uniting so-called Lithuania Minor with Grand Lithuania, was not supported by Prussian Lithuanians, of course, and the Act itself was of no significance but symbolic. Territorial demands of Lithuanian government, that did not even have its representative at the Treaty of Versailles, were all the more insignificant.

Initially, as a starting point for negotiations concerning Polish boundaries, Dmowski proposed so-called Dmowski’s Line that also included the whole territory which was later incorporated into the boundaries of the Republic of Lithuania; however, the maximization of demands shall be considered a tactical trick.   Realistic assessment of the situation shows that Dmowski, as a proponent of the nation state, anti-federationist, aimed at including only those boarders where Polish people constituted considerable proportion of the population. In relation to Lithuania, his proposals evolved from proposals of autonomy within the Republic of Poland to treat the Republic of Lithuania subjectively and seek close relations with Poland.

“Present time puts forward the issue of Klaipeda. At the conference I was the only person who acted without any collaboration, attempting to make Klaipeda Lithuanian. I was doing this in the belief that I am working for us, that there will come a time when the relations with Lithuania will normalize. In this way Lithuanians, without any effort on their part (they were absent from the conference), were given such a present”—explained (Dmowski) the reasons for his action on 9 October 1935 during the conversation with Janusz Rabski.

 “Roman Dmowski, a representative of Poland, not only maintained that Poland should be guaranteed wide access to the sea in Pomerania, but also hoped that it would be possible to pass Klaipeda Region or the lower course of Neman to Lithuania and then incorporate Lithuania into Poland”—said dr Česlovas Laurinavičius form Lithuanian Institute of History during the interview for Eglė Samoškaitė, emphasizing Dmowski’s role. “While Western Countries had doubts about the incorporation of Lithuania into Poland, proposals to separate the Neman estuary from Germany raised no doubts”—adds Lithuanian historian during the same interview.

At one time, Dmowski’s demand for incorporation of ethnic Lithuania (Lietuva) into Poland on the principles of autonomy was some alternative for the rule of formed by Germans Taryba; finally, however, neither Piłsudski followers who had seen in young republic a cell of future federation, nor national democrats, with Dmowski at the forefront, had never decided to take this step in spite of a few opportune possibilities.

Eventually, political regime of Taryba, that soon after allowed the Red Army to cross their territory during the Polish-Soviet War (breaking, ipso facto, the declared neutrality) receiving Vilnius from Bolsheviks and subsequently depriving Kowieńszczyzna of Polish nature during the interwar, gained thanks to Poles—and to Dmowski personally—access to the port in Klaipeda.

Klaipeda temporarily Lithuanian

Klaipeda Region was excluded from Germany and established, pursuant to article 99 of the Treaty of Versailles, a free city. Poland was to be given duty-free zone in the port and free rafting of timber along Neman through Lithuanian territory. Only so-called Klaipeda uprising, that is armed attachment of Klaipeda by Lithuanian troops, led to the incorporation of this region to the Republic of Lithuania. At the time Lithuanians took all the rights in port away from Poles; they also removed the Consulate of the RP. Lithuanians were supported by, still concerned with favourable course of events in this area, Germans, who watched the possibility for the restitution of this territory in the lost of power over Klaipeda by the Allies due to Lithuania.

Ultimately, they would already achieve their goal during the rule of Hitler by issuing their toughest ultimatum concerning the return of Klaipeda. After accepting these demands by the Lithuanian government, converted to hitlerism inhabitants of former Klaipeda, and Memlo once again, welcomed Führer of the Third Reich who gave a speech from the balcony of the town theatre directed towards enthusiastic crowd.

Later history of Klaipeda is firmly connected with the one of Soviet Lithuania. Territorial settlements after the Second World War terminated the existence of, having unpleasant connotations among Poles, Prussia (formal self-dissolution took place) which was divided between communist People’s Republic of Poland and the Soviet Union. Klaipeda itself was separated from the Korolevets district (later: Kaliningrad Oblast) and attached to the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic, after which independent Republic of Lithuania inherited its boundaries.


Today, seeing fluttering over Klaipeda tricoloured flags of Lithuania, alternative scenarios are worth considering.   What the city would be like if once Roman Dmowski did not start to push an idea of separating this city from Germany? Would not the city share the fate of former Korolevets and today a Russian city Kaliningrad that today does not resemble at all the city which at one time lied exactly in the same place? Would it be a Lithuanian and not Russian city? Would not its name be changed into the one commemorating some Soviet felon as it happened with renamed in the honour of Michail Kalinin Korolevets?

After the Second World War the city for sure would not remain old German Memelburg. Moreover, most of Germans (and Prissian Lithuanians along with them) ran away west from the Red Army; the rest was expelled after the war.  It would not be also incorporated into Poland despite the fact that local ruling Hohenzollern dynasty became extinct already in 1918 and then according to the former agreements the whole East Prussia, including Klaipeda, should have been transferred to Poland.

However, it was impossible after the Second World War when free Poland languished in dungeons of NKVD and UB or was still fighting in the woods with their weapons against the communist rule. After 1945 there were only two real possibilities—incorporating the area into Russian SFSR or Lithuanian SSR. Ultimately, in view of the former affiliation of Klaipeda to Lithuania, it was once again—under Soviet ruling, however, but still Klaipeda. Thus, it is worth to remember that these were Poles, and more specifically Roman Dmowski and Ignacy Paderewski, who are the founding fathers of Lithuanian today Klaipeda.

Marcin Skalski
Photographs: the author and archives

Source: http://kurierwilenski.lt/2013/03/21/komu-litwini-zawdzieczaja-klajpede/

Tłumaczenie Hanna Hołub w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by Hanna Hołub within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu. 

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