Today, 16 February, the Republic of Lithuania —Lietuva, the country of my ancestors— officially commemorates its independence day.
Lietuvos Valstybės Atkūrimo DienaDuring World War I, Germany wrested control of Lithuania from Czarist Russia, which itself had occupied the Baltic nation for nearly two hundred years. On 16 February, 1918, as Germany was suffering setbacks in the war, the Council of Lithuania seized the opportunity and declared Lithuania to be free and independent.
That event is what the nation celebrates today, ninety-seven years later: "Lietuvos Valstybės Atkūrimo Diena" or "The Day of Restoration of the State of Lithuania."
This is an image of the front cover of Lietuvos aidas, a Lithuanian newspaper, announcing independence in 1918. (No originals of the actual document of independence exist. The Soviets are believed to have destroyed them after occupying Lithuania in 1940.)
The Council initially believed that a monarchy, a constitutional monarchy, would help to legitimize, and thus protect the nation's independence. On 4 June, 1918, it offered the Lithuanian throne to a German noble, Wilhelm, the 2nd Duke of Urach. On 11 July 1918, he accepted, taking the name Mindaugas II. But, a mere four months later in November, as Germany was about to lose the war, the Council revoked the invitation. The nation survived as a republic.
The coat of arms of Lithuania
Fifty years of Soviet AnnexationIn 1940, during the lead-up to World War II, the U.S.S.R. occupied and annexed Lithuania, an act never recognized by the United States. The last President of the country, Antanas Smetona, escaped, and would settle in Cleveland, Ohio, where he died in a suspicious house-fire a few years later.
Fifty years later, on 11 March, 1990, Lithuania became the first of the Soviet republics to declare its independence, reasserting its right of sovereignty. Like 16 February, this date is also celebrated as a national holiday: "Lietuvos Nepriklausomybės Atkūrimo Diena," or "The Day of Restoration of the Independence of Lithuania."
SUPREME COUNCIL OF THE REPUBLIC OF LITHUANIA
On the Re-establishment of the State of Lithuania
The Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania, expressing the will of the nation, decrees and solemnly proclaims that the execution of the sovereign powers of the State of Lithuania abolished by foreign forces in 1940, is re-established, and henceforth Lithuania is again an independent state.
The Act of Independence of February 16, 1918 of the Council of Lithuania and the Constituent Assembly decree of May 15, 1920 on the re-established democratic State of Lithuania never lost their legal effect and comprise the constitutional foundation of the State of Lithuania.
The territory of Lithuania is whole and indivisible, and the constitution of no other State is valid on it.
The State of Lithuania stresses its adherence to universally recognized principles of international law, recognizes the principle of inviolability of borders as formulated in the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe in Helsinki in 1975, and guarantees human, civil, and ethnic community rights.
The Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania, expressing sovereign power, by this Act begins to realize the complete sovereignty of the state.
But there is yet a third day on which Lithuanians celebrate their nation's independence, or, more precisely, statehood.
A Kingdom is born.When the German Duke Wilhelm accepted the invitation to become Lithuania's king in 1918, he took the name, Mindaugus II. That presupposes a first. And, there was indeed a King Mindaugus I (if actually named just King Mindaugus, with no numeral) ... seven hundred years earlier.
Mindaugas, born in 1203, was known by that one name only, like a latter-day pop star. By 1236, he had become recognized as the Grand Duke of Lithuania, uniting most of the lands controlled by Lithuanian noblemen into one territory. He further extended the domain into adjoining regions southeast of Lithuania proper.
But Mindaugus had a problem. He was a pagan, as were most Lithuanians. Thus, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, although not in thrall to any kingdom, was not recognized as a 'country' by otherwise Christian Europe.
In 1251, Mindaugus would be baptised as a Roman Catholic. Shortly thereafter, in 1253, he would be crowned as King of Lithuania. In fact, he would be its only crowned king. The modern assumption is that the exact date was 6 July, 1253. And, that date is now another official Lithuanian holiday, known as "Lietuvos Valstybės Diena," or "Lithuanian Statehood Day."
King Mindaugus, by Dail. J. Malinauskaite.
After Mindaugus' death in 1263, the nation would return to its designation as a Duchy. Why? It's complicated.
One reason was internecine warfare. Another was doubt over Mindaugus' conversion from paganism. My parents told us that, as late as the early 20th century, for their parents, one of the worst things a person could be called was rupūžė, a tree frog, a pagan curse. And this in overwhelmingly Catholic Lithuania.
By 1410, when a combined Polish and Lithuanian force decisively defeated the Teutonic Knights —who had been a dangerous antagonist for two hundred years— at the battle of Žalgiris (Grunwald), one of the largest battles of Medieval Europe, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania had expanded to subsume most of present-day Belarus, Latvia, and Ukraine, and parts of modern-day Estonia, Moldova, Poland, and even Russia. It was, for a time, the largest state in Europe.
In 1569, Lithuania and Poland would formally unite into a single state, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, with the Grand Duke of Lithuania becoming the King of Poland.
Again for various reasons, geography being one, squeezed between empires, the Commonwealth declined in power. Another was the liberum veto. In the Sejm, the legislature, one member could prevent legislation or even dissolve an entire session with a single dissent. A paralyzing ultimate democracy. The Commonwealth survived until 1795 when it was partitioned among Czarist Russia and other nations.
Which brings us back to where we began.
Lithuanian Independence DayToday, 16 February, in memory of those Jankus, Akalietis, Ambraziejus, and Cizauskas family members (and many other branches of the genealogical tree) who emigrated from Lithuania to the United States in the early 20th century, Yours For Good Fermentables wishes Happy Independence Day to the 2,970,000 citizens living today in a free and independent Lithuania.