Throughout its history, Lithuania has fallen victim to its more powerful neighbors, namely the Soviet Union and Germany. On 23 August 1939, the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact contained secret clauses that divided Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of control. The Soviets controlled Lithuania only for a short time during the initial stages of World War II. After German forces invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Lithuania remained under German control until 1944. During this time, a puppet German regime ruled the state, and most of the Lithuanian Jewish population perished in the Holocaust.
In the summer of 1944 the Red Army forced the Germans to withdraw from Lithuania, and Soviet authorities again took control and subjected the country to strong rule in order to end any remaining resistance to their authority. This tactic did not work out as the Soviets had planned, since a well-organized armed resistance nonetheless emerged. The ensuing guerrilla war claimed approximately 50,000 lives on each side. In response, Soviet authorities deported some 10 percent of the Lithuanian population to Siberia. Resistance to Soviet rule ended in 1952.
The remainder of the 1950s through the 1960s was a period of relative political and social calm in Lithuania. During this time, the Soviet Union carried out forced agricultural collectivization and heavy industrialization. It also established its own political institutions in Lithuania, based on command-style socialism, and co-opted Lithuanian culture. This period was followed by a growing nationalist movement that began in the 1970s, which expressed clear opposition to the Soviet system.
The social and political climate began to change under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s. His policies of glasnost and perestroika had a tremendous impact on the Soviet Union and other states under its control. Soviet political oppression lessened dramatically, and prodemocracy movements emerged in Lithuania and other Baltic and East European countries. Soon enough, Gorbachev's reforms had set the stage for a centrifugal explosion of the Soviet system, a development far beyond his original intentions.
In Lithuania, the first mass prodemocracy demonstration, organized by the Sajūdis Lithuanian Reorganization Movement, took place on 24 June 1988 at Gediminas Square in Vilnius. The group demanded wholesale political and economic reforms. A second major demonstration occurred on 9 July and involved more than 100,000 protesters. On 23 August, a third mass demonstration occurred in Vilnius during which more than 200,000 people gathered to mark the forty-ninth anniversary of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. The Lithuanian Supreme Council, an official parliamentary commission of Lithuanian legislature, declared that the pact was an international crime and that the Soviet annexation of Lithuania was therefore illegal. In late 1988 the Congress of the Soviet Union confirmed the decree of the Lithuanian Supreme Council by acknowledging that the pact had indeed been illegal.
On 23 August 1989, nearly 2 million people from Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia formed a living chain to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet pact. The chain stretched some 400 miles from Vilnius, through Riga, and ended in Tallinn. That same year, the Sajūdis movement formally demanded independence for Lithuania. In the 1990 parliamentary elections, the Sajudis movement won 101 of 141 seats. This impressive electoral mandate led to the reestablishment of the independent Republic of Lithuania on 11 March 1990.
The Soviets, who refused to acknowledge that they had lost control over their Baltic client states, responded with an economic blockade on Lithuania that lasted eighteen months. The Soviets also murdered numerous government employees, seized government buildings, and resorted to other terror tactics. On the evening of 12 January 1991, they killed thirteen unarmed civilians who were protecting Lithuania's radio and television transmission tower and the parliament building. That night came to be known as Bloody Sunday. Faced with overwhelming Lithuanian opposition, the Soviets officially recognized Lithuania's independence on 6 September 1991.
Today, Lithuania is a member of the United Nations (UN), the European Council (EC), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Union (EU), and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Ironically perhaps, Russia became Lithuania's largest trading partner.
Arthur M. Holst
Smith, David J., Artis Pabriks, Aldis Purs, and Thomas Lane. The Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. London: Routledge, 2002.; Snyder, Timothy. The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569–1999. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.