At a time when Russia’s mercenary army is on its doorstep in Belarus, and it will necessarily depend upon the armed forces of Poland to resist a Putin-inspired invasion, Lithuania’s historic hostility to non-Lithuanians has resurfaced in the form of suppressing the public display of Polish-language signs in rural areas of Lithuania with Polish-speaking majorities. This was a recurring theme in the exclusionary nature of Lithuanian nationalism, and despite assertions that the country has learned its lessons from the 20th Century, the character trait endures.
The basis of the Lithuanian state was an exclusive nationalism, with ethnic Lithuanians constituting a separate — and superior – position relative to other Christian ethnicities – and purged of its largest non-Christian minority (the Jews).
A great dilemma for nationalists has always existed for Vilnius, which was one of the capitals of the tolerant, multi-cultural Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Prior to the 20th Century, the town and its sprawling hinterland never had a majority ethnic-Lithuanian population. In 1897, about two-thirds of the region’s population spoke either Yiddish or a Slavic language.
During the inter-war period, the Vilnius region was part of Poland. A few weeks after Stalin and Hitler destroyed Poland, Stalin agreed to give the Vilnius region to Lithuania. The Lithuanian nationalists immediately went to work to marginalize the Polish- and Yiddish-speaking inhabitants. Yet, it conditionally sought to retain the goodwill of Slavic speaking Christians whose roots in the region dated back to the 19th Century. Such Slavic speakers were deemed to be ethnic Lithuanians whose ancestors had inadvertently been “Polonized.” They could join the ethnically pure Lithuanian race through the nationalists’ version of conversion therapy. All others were to be marginalized, forever stateless in Lithuania and subject to a variety of restrictions on employment and residence.
In the second half of 1941, in conjunction with the arrival of Nazi German forces, the ethnic Lithuanians embarked upon a well known phase of eliminating non-Lithuanians by methodically rounding up, torturing, raping, starving, and then murdering the region’s Jewish inhabitants. Lithuanian nationalists to this day still lionize the Lithuanians who joyfully eliminated the Jewish minority. During the war, the indigenous Belarusian and Polish populations were not the subject of mass murder but were the targets of discrimination.
In 1944, the pro-Nazi Lithuanian leadership joined the Nazis in fleeing the country, only to be replaced by a new cohort of Lithuanian nationalists, the pro-Soviet version.
With Stalin’s endorsement, the new Lithuanian regime expelled or forced tens of thousands of Polish-speakers to Soviet-controlled Poland, and resumed the efforts begun in 1939 to colonize the Vilnius region with Lithuanian-speakers drawn from the traditional Lithuanian areas to the west and north of the capital. It was the Soviet-era Lithuanian nationalists who destroyed the Great Vilna Synagogue and many Jewish cemeteries, and they were the ones who invented the Jew-free, open-air Rumšiškes museum, which portrays 19th Century provincial Lithuanian communities as having no synagogues or market squares filled with Jewish artisans and peddlers.
In contrast to the nationalists’ successful work in eliminating all native Lithuanian Jews, the campaign to Lithuanianize the racially acceptable Christians in the hinterland of the Vilnius region has not been as effective. There remain pockets in the region in which 80% of the population speaks Polish as their native tongue.
For western consumption, Lithuania wants Europe and its NATO allies to believe that 21st Century Lithuania is a modern society, comparable to liberal Western democracies. It even operates a state-supported “Museum of Tolerance”, suggesting that Lithuanians today no longer hold the ethnic-supremacist views that rationalized the country’s 20th Century forms of ethnic cleansing.
Nevertheless, the Lithuanian state only tolerates one language – Lithuanian – and the state-language authority recently lashed out harshly against Polish-speaking communities that had the temerity to post signage in both Lithuanian (the official language) and Polish. In a breathtaking display of ignorance and contempt for their country’s history, the government agency absurdly compared the use of Polish by native Polish-speakers as analogous to the Russian invaders in the Donbas who tear down Ukrainian-language signs.
Lithuania has not learned anything about its hateful past, and its pretense to be like Western countries is shown to be hollow. To make matters worse, however, Lithuania’s display of its on-going intolerance of its Polish-speaking citizens may well undermine its own national interests.
Putin has made clear that he wants Lithuania and its warm-water Baltic port to be integrated into the new Russian empire he is steadily forming. He has already taken a portion of the Republic of Georgia, the Crimean Peninsula, and parts of eastern Ukraine, and has closed off the Sea of Azov. The risk to Lithuania has now increased with the presence in nearby Belarus of Putin’s Wagner mercenaries, and tactical nuclear weapons. Lithuania is not prepared for an invasion: It has no meaningful air force, no tanks, and no armored vehicles. If there was a sudden invasion, Lithuania would urgently need Polish help.
Poland is Lithuania’s NATO ally and has a strong, well-equipped army. But given Lithuania’s enduring and manifest hostility toward non-Lithuanians (in this instance ethnic Poles), will the Polish leadership be more or less inclined to rush their forces into harm’s way to defend the territory of Lithuania? They may well decide to allow Lithuania to be overrun, and defend Poland at the Suwalki Gap.