August 23 is known in Lithuania as Black Ribbon Day because it is the anniversary of the 1939 Molotov Ribbentrop Pact, the agreement that began Hitler‘s alliance with Stalin. In the pact, the two dictators divided up Eastern Europe and explicitly recognized „Lithuania‘s interests in the Vilnius Region.“
Certainly, Poland should view the August 23 as a Black Ribbon Day. The direct objective of the Pact was to enable Hitler and Stalin to extinguish Poland as a state and to oppress the Polish people. But the Pact in many respects was positive for Lithuania. It enabled Lithuania to achieve its long-sought goal of acquiring the Vilnius region. Also, because the Pact placed the country in the Soviet „sphere,“ Stalin allowed Lithuania to regain the Klaipeda region / Memelland, which it had returned to Germany in March 1939.
There is also a tendency of Lithuanians as looking at the Pact as subjecting them to Stalin‘s cruel regime, they tend to ignore the fact that Nazi Germany had far worse goals for Lithuanians. The Nazi ideologists considered Lithuanian blood to be permanently tainted from centuries of living with Slavic peoples and therefore would not have been permitted to live in the Lebensraum that Hitler was planning to create in eastern Europe. Because the Pact led to Lithuania becoming part of the Soviet Union, most Lithuanians remained on their land and were free to preserve their language, culture, and national identity. This is not to say that Stalin was not a cruel dictator; rather, as compared to Hitler, Lithuanians fared better as a result of the pact than they would have been had Germany defeated the Russians.
While Lithuania mourns the Hitler-Stalin pact that gave the country Vilnius, it is curiously silent about its own agreement earlier in 1939 to return Memelland / Klaipeda to Germany. Memelland was never part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. From as far back as 1422, it was part of Prussia. In 1923, Lithuania sent in paramilitary forces to seize the region. Nearly all of the residents, including ethnic Lithuanians, were Lutherans who strongly identified with Prussian and German history and culture. They did not want to be part of the Catholic Lithuanian state that had just emerged from the backward Russian empire. In March 1939, Hitler demanded that Lithuania immediately return the region and its people to Germany. Within 24 hours Lithuania‘s representatives Juozas Urbšys and Kazys Škirpa signed an agreement ceding Memelland back to Germany and the agreement was quickly ratified. Lithuania‘s president stated at the time:
“I Antanas Smetona, the President of the Republic of Lithuania, having looked at and familiarized myself with the spoken treaty, having relied on Article 112 of the Constitution of Lithuania, declare that I support it, ratify it and, on behalf of the Republic of Lithuania, pledge to adhere to it without breaking.
To confirm this, I sign this letter and attach the seal of the Republic.
Made on the first day of April in the year one thousand nine hundred and thirty-nine.”
The agreement was signed just six months before the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact. It is never mentioned by Lithuania, even though, to be consistent, the country could mourn this treaty over the loss of the Klaipeda region.
When Stalin annexed Lithuania in June 1940, Memelland was not part of Lithuania. Memelland remained firmly part of Nazi Germany until the Red Army pushed the Germans out in the second half of 1944. Keep in mind that since Lithuania had given Memelland back to Germany, Lithuania had no claim to it. So how was it that, at the end of World War II, Lithuania regained Memelland? This had nothing to do with the 1923 seizure, which was reversed in March 1939 by the the actions of Urbšys, Škirpa, and Smetona. For that, it could be said that Lithuanians should be grateful to the hated Stalin, who easily could have included Memelland in the Kaliningrad Oblast but chose to return it to Lithuania.
Another little-remembered treaty was “Treaty on the Transfer of Vilnius and Vilnius region and Mutual Assistance between Lithuania and the Soviet Union,“ which was entered into Lithuania and Stalin on October 10, 1939, a few weeks after Poland was extinguished.
In October 1939, Stalin annexed most of the eastern half of Poland by attaching it to his Byelorussian puppet state (today, Belarus) but under this treaty he transferred the Vilnius area to Lithuania. Urbšys signed on behalf of Lithuania, and Molotov signed on behalf of the USSR. President Smetona congratulated “all those who will read this letter” and ratified it on October 14.
Article I of the Treaty proclaimed:
To strengthen the friendship between Lithuania and the USSR, Vilnius and Vilnius Region shall be transferred by the Soviet Union to the Republic of Lithuania by the Soviet Union, turning them into the composition of the territory of the State of Lithuania and establishing the border between the Republic of Lithuania and the USSR according to the attached map, but the details of this border will be determined in the additional protocol.”
When the Second World War ended, Stalin could have annexed the Vilnius region to Belarus, just as he had annexed most of eastern Poland to Belarus. (Indeed, the March 1918 Belarusian declaration of independence noted that the Vilnius region was part of the core territory of Belarus. However, Stalin allowed Lithuania to keep the Vilnius region.
Present-day Lithuania uses the territories “by default”. Present-day Lithuania declares itself to be the heir of Smetonic Lithuania, the Provisional Government of pro-Nazi Lithuania and Partisan Lithuania. These treaties do not sit well with Lithuanian historians. It is much more convenient for them to talk about „annexation“ and „occupations“.
History is indeed complex, and presentation of the most simplistic aspects of history, with an unrelenting focus on only convenient „facts“, affords Lithuania their self granted demand for recognition of their suffering on Black Ribbon Day. Selected erasure of history, and rewriting of the remainder, also allows them to make such grandiose and absurd claims that they destroyed the Soviet Union.
Black Ribbon Day indeed commemorates terrible events in history. According to the European Union, it symbolizes the rejection of “extremism, intolerance and oppression”. Unfortunately, for Lithuania, they did not learn lessons from history.
In 2022, the Lithuanian Government posted this:
History does not matter to Lithuania. After Nazis chased Soviets out of Lithuania, Lithuanians perpetrated their Holocaust against their Jewish citizens. Per their own post, Lithuanians dug their own hole, and they are continuing to dig.
Kazys Skirpa, the man who proposed the „elimination of Jews“ from Lithuania and who signed the agreement with Ribbentrop is honored in Lithuania with the following awards:
Order of the Cross of Vytis (3rd degree, 1919)
Order of the Cross of Vytis (5th degree with swords, 1920)
Independence Medal (Lithuanian, 1928)
Order of Vytautas the Great (3rd degree, 1935)
Urbšys is honored in Lithuania with the following awards:
Order of Vytautas the Great (Lithuania), Officer’s Cross
Order of the Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas (Lithuania), Commander’s Grand Cross and Officer’s Cross
It is sad for Europe when a European day of tragedy is so manipulated for singular benefit.
With thanks to Evaldas Balciunas.