Lithuania. Why? by James Patrick
At present Lithuania is a tiny Baltic country wedged between Latvia and a small Russian enclave on the Baltic and Poland, with Belorussia on the southeast. There are 2.8 million Lithuanians plus another 200,000 Lithuanian-speakers outside the country, a population about the size of Dallas if the suburbs are included. The 1921 encyclopedia says, “Their language is said to be more closely related to the ancient Sanskrit than any other European tongue of dialect. They are at least partly Slavic and they bear close affinity to the Wends of Prussia, the Letts of Livonia, and the Cours of Courland.
The Christianization of Lithuania occurred late, in 1387, initiated by the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania Władysław II Jagiełło and his cousin Vytautas the Great. It signified the official adoption of Christianity by Lithuania, the last pagan country in Europe. This event ended one of the most violent processes of Christianization in European history. involving the Teutonic Knights of Lavonia.
Lithuania was a battlefield from the ninth to the eleventh centuries. In 1362 Grand Duke Geminidas achieved a victory over the Golden Horde (Mongols), making parts of Russia, including Ukraine, Lithuanian. In 1385 Grand Duke Joggalia was made king and began a program of Christianization. This period saw the creation of the one great Lithuanian epic. Attempts to separate Lithuania from Poland in the 14th century were unsuccessful. Along the way, 8 September 1514 at the Battle of Orsha, Lithuanians defeated the Muscovites decisively. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was created in 1569. In 1655 the Russians attacked and destroyed Vilnius. Then in 1772, 1795 and 1795 Poland was partitioned by German, Russia, and the Austro- Hungarian empire, leaving Lithuania under Russian influence. In the nineteenth century a Program of Russification was instituted, under which publication in Lithuanian was abolished. The 1921 Collier's Encyclopedia describes Lithuania as a province of the Russian empire. Russification was resisted by the Catholic Church in the person of Bishop Motiejus Valancius, and through underground publication and secret homeschooling the foundations of modern Lithuanian identity were laid. In 1918 the Council of Lithuania signed the Act of Independence. At that point Germany was the de facto government of Lithuania, Germany having occupied Lithuania in its push against Russia. After WWI Lithuanians fought three wars of independence: against the Bolsheviks, against Poland, and against the Bermontians, a west Russian volunteer army. Then in the twenties the budding democratic government gave way to an authoritarian revolution. In 1939 Lithuania was handed to the Germans, then to the Russians. Then when war came, Lithuania became a German satellite.
Now 10 of the 26 police battalions were to be involved in rounding up Jews. 110.000 of whom were destroyed.
After the defeat of Germany, Russia occupied Lithuania until the last Russian troops left in 1993, pushed out by an unarmed demonstration of 250,000 people. Lithuania is now a western liberal democracy, a member of the European Union, and of NATO, with a high standard of living. The Russians consider Lithuania a lost province, and NATO considers it, with Estonia and Latvia, threatened states, so that a small number of US troops from Fort Hood, Texas, posted northwest of Vilnius, are rotated in and out of the country.
All in all, when one looks at the history of Lithuania one wonders why it exists at all, for it is a great deal of trouble. There are poetry and poets in Lithuania, but none (I could find) that were especially remarkable. If there has been a great Lithuanian composer, a Lithuanian Sibelius, he or she is not easy to discover. It is not easy to find a national hero, although the Bishop, Valancius, is up for canonization. So it is all about a piece of land and a language, occupied by a stubborn people. In 2016 there were 500 publishing houses in the country, or one for every 6,000 Lithuanians. And the only reason the country exists is a kind of national stubbornness. When in the nineteenth century the Russians tried to stamp out the culture, Lithuanians home schooled. After WWII, again occupied by Russia, there was the hill of crosses. Since 1831 there has been the custom of planting a cross on a hill north of Vilnius in memory of loved ones lost in war. It was bulldozed by the Russians three times, most recently in 1975.
On one level the existence of Lithuania raises the question why should any small thing, Taiwan for example, exist in an age of easy and omnipresent centralization, and the answer is national stubbornness. It is evident that although Germans and Russians could occupy the terrain, they never, throughout long centuries of trying, occupied Lithuanian hearts. Always there was the language and a small piece of not especially inviting, but clearly much beloved, land.
Perhaps this cultural stubbornness has a place in contemporary American history because our culture is being invaded, now no longer subtly but obviously. Using race and equality as battering rams, what remains of the old American culture, as it existed tenuously in the 1950s, is under intense pressure from a kind of secular Puritanism that destroys the past as having been imperfect. The war against nature, already intense, is heating up; belief that there are differences between men and women is now a sign of wrongthink. The canon of acceptable literature is being revised to exclude works the implied moral dimensions of which do not support ‘woke’ culture. The very structure of the English language is increasingly seen as an authoritarian imposition. The fact that there was once a culture south of the Ohio and Potomac of which, despite its flaws, many good things could be said, is now being suppressed. The federal government in the name of equity now practices systematic racism, as in the recent give-away to minority farmers, a program to which white farmers need not apply. If you own a gun, if you question the results of the 2020 election; if you are known to oppose abortion, you are probably already on a government watch list
In the face of all this one can take the implied advice of the Lithuanians. Don’t give in; don’t be bullied by the power of the state. Don’t take up arms. Bear witness. As long as there is a land and a language the invaders have not won. Celebrate Robert E. Lee’s birthday on January 19th.
Text & Talk 27, delivered Mar 2021, to the Lewis Tolkien Society for the Renewal of the Common Tradition