Some scholars believe that Lithuanians inhabited the Baltic area as early as 2500 BC; others believe they migrated to the Baltic area about the beginning of the 1st century AD. The first reference to them by name was in AD 1009 in a medieval Prussian manuscript, the Quedlinburg Chronicle.
The Medieval Jogailan Empire
With the rise of the medieval lords in adjacent Prussia and Russia, Lithuania was constantly subject to invasion and attempted conquest. As a result, a loose federation of Lithuanian tribes was formed in the early Middle Ages.
In the 13th century AD, when the Teutonic Knights, a German militaristic religious order, were establishing their power, the Lithuanians resisted; in about 1260 they defeated the order. About a century later a dynasty of grand dukes called the Jogailans established, through conquest, a Lithuanian empire reaching from the Baltic to the Black seas.
The Lithuanian Prince Gediminas occupied Belarus and western Ukraine; his son, Grand Duke Algirdas, added the territory between Ukraine and the Black Sea.
Jogaila, the son of Algirdas, succeeded his father in 1377. In 1386 he married Jadwiga, queen of Poland, and, after accepting Christianity, was crowned Wladyslaw II Jogaila, king of Poland. Jogaila’s cousin, Witold, revolted against him in 1390, and two years later Jogaila recognized him as vice regent. Witold made the grand duchy into a prestigious state, and in 1401 Jogaila created him a duke; together, the reconciled cousins decisively defeated the Teutonic Knights in 1410.
In 1447, under Casimir IV, the son of Jogaila, Lithuania and Poland were permanently allied. From 1501, with the accession of Casimir’s son, Alexander I, the countries had one ruler, and in 1569 they agreed to have a common legislature and an elective king. The political union was induced by the threat of Russian conquest, but provided little protection. As a result of the partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793, and 1795, Lithuania became a part of Russia, except for a small section awarded to Prussia. Lithuanians became a completely subject people, but they staged large-scale nationalist insurrections in 1812, 1831, 1863, and 1905.
During World War I (1914-1918) the German army occupied Lithuania, but at the end of the war nationalists established the country’s independence. In August 1922 the Lithuanian constituent assembly, in session since May 1920, approved a constitution that proclaimed the country a democratic republic. Conservative and liberal factions in the Seimas collided during the next two years. On December 17, 1926, the army and nationalists, led by the conservative statesman Antanas Smetona, engineered a coup d’état. All liberals and leftists were expelled from the Seimas, which then elected Smetona president, with Augustinas Voldemaras as premier.
Following the rise to power of Adolf Hitler in Germany, Lithuanian-German friction over the city of Memel (now Klaipeda) increased steadily. With the outbreak of World War II and the partition of Poland by Germany and the USSR, the Lithuanian and Soviet governments concluded a mutual-assistance treaty in October 1939. A new pro-Soviet government was installed in Lithuania the following June. Shortly thereafter the Communist Working People’s Bloc, the only political party allowed to function, campaigned for inclusion of Lithuania in the USSR. Political dissidents were rounded up, and the electorate voted, on July 14 and 15, 1940, in a single-slate parliamentary election. The new parliament unanimously approved a resolution requesting incorporation of Lithuania in the USSR. The Soviet government granted the request on August 3. The United States and other democratic powers, however, refused to recognize the legality of the Soviet annexation.
Large-scale anti-Soviet uprisings in Lithuania followed the German invasion of the USSR on June 22, 1941. Unable to contend with both the revolt and the German onslaught, the Soviet forces withdrew. The Germans systematically pillaged Lithuanian resources and, as a national resistance movement developed, killed more than 200,000 people.
In the summer of 1944 the Soviets reoccupied Lithuania, which was reestablished as a Soviet republic. The Soviet government deported about 350,000 Lithuanians to labor camps in Siberia as punishment for holding anti-communist beliefs or resisting Soviet rule. In 1949 the Communist regime closed most churches, deported many priests, and prosecuted people possessing religious images. Additional deportations and a great influx of Russians and Poles into Vilnius were noted in 1956. Subsequently, Lithuania settled into comparative calm, and most nations tacitly accepted its status as a Soviet republic, although the United States never recognized its incorporation into the USSR.