19 SEPTEMBER, 1915: Viva Vilnius!

Having rambled on at length about the Balkans and the First World War, it would be a shame to ignore the effects of the conflict on the Baltic States. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania form another of Europe’s traditional trade conduits and, like the Balkans, have suffered the predations of bigger, more powerful nations as a consequence. All three states were provinces of the Russian Empire in 1914, but a hundred years ago today the German advance in the northern sector of the Eastern Front took Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. The whole of modern Lithuania remained under German control for the rest of the War – and I’ll keep the focus there for now.

Part of the country had been under German occupation for some time. A strip near the frontier with East Prussia had been occupied in March 1915, and in April a German advance designed as a distraction from the main Eastern Front offensive further south had taken the whole of western Lithuania. The offensive that took Vilnius was also a secondary operation, a minor element of that summer’s German Triple Offensive.

Essentially a pursuit of the Russian ‘Great Retreat’ begun in late July, the northern wing of the German advance ran out of steam a few days later in the face of minor Russian counterattacks. When Germany officially halted offensive operations on 26 September, it controlled all of Lithuania and about half of Latvia, with the front line running south from the outskirts of Riga.  Despite occasional Russian attempts to push the line back beyond Vilnius, that’s pretty much where it remained until 1918.

Meanwhile, in Vilnius, German occupation breathed life into the long-suppressed cause of Lithuanian nationalism. While claims to independence by Lithuanian exiles eventually found focus with appeals to US President Wilson, nationalist politicians inside the country were encouraged by the German decision to create a Polish Republic (under a puppet government) in 1916.  Primarily concerned with milking Lithuania’s resources for the war effort, German authorities played it canny, making encouraging noises but postponing any decision about the nation’s future until after the War.  But the Germans changed their minds after the collapse of Russia in late 1917 and tried to set up a puppet state, triggering a decade of dangerous instability in the region.

A national assembly, the Taryba, was established under German auspices, and proclaimed a new Kingdom of Lithuania.  The crown was offered to a German princeling, Wilhelm of Urach, who became King Mindove II in July 1918.  Dependent on German support, the monarchy was overthrown in November, after which nationalist and Soviet regimes competed for control of the country during the upheavals of the Russian Civil War.

Lithuanian independence was formally achieved in 1920, but it took another three years to clear German elements from the west, and Polish forces (originally invited into the country to fight Red Army incursions) occupied parts of Vilnius until 1927. Thirteen turbulent years later, Lithuania would be annexed by the Soviet Union and, apart from three years under German control during the Second World War, it would remain a satellite of Moscow until the re-establishment of independence in 1990.

The point of this skim over the Baltic is two-pronged.  First, although the northern sector of the Eastern Front was always something of an afterthought for military planners, it is worth noticing that Lithuania and its neighbours were damaged and changed by the conflict.  Secondly, as modern Russia flexes its expansionist muscles and EU unity wobbles around multiple socioeconomic crises, I see no harm in a reminder of the vulnerability and volatility that always afflicts small states caught between competing empires.  So be nice to Lithuanians.  They’ve suffered.

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