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Lithuania’s Iron Wolves:
Feud over Memel

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
January 2021

The Teutonic Knights founded Memel in 1252 as a Christian German outpost amid their pagan Lithuanian enemies. At first a wooden fort, Memel Castle was soon replaced with a stone castle that underwent frequent upgrades and reconstruction until the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763. It fell into disrepair afterwards and the last of its structures was demolished in 1874.

The town that grew up around the fortress remained, for the next 700 years a German-dominated city amidst a countryside mostly inhabited by Lithuanians. That pattern became common across Eastern Europe, with cities and their surrounding countryside speaking different languages and following different cultures and religions. And from that pattern grew a host of ethnic conflicts, with the urban culture usually taking the levers of political and economic power but the rural culture having a decided edge in numbers. The rival cultures had no reason to assimilate, and so while individuals might cross from one to the other (usually from the subordinate, rural culture to the dominant, urban one) the division endured for centuries.

Memel occupied an unusual position; in 1422 the Treaty of Melno ended the Gollub War (I did not make up these names and events), signed on the one part by the Teutonic Knights and the other by an alliance of Poland and Lithuania. It resolved a series of disputes that had climaxed with the Knights’ catastrophic defeat at Grunwald in 1410, setting the border between the Knights’ holdings in Prussia and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania along a line north of the Neman River, rather than the Neman itself as the Lithuanians had desired. Fighting resumed afterwards and continued until 1466, when the Knights accepted Polish suzerainty. The Knights’ Grandmaster became Duke of Prussia in 1525 and converted to Lutheranism, but the border set by the treaty remained in place for just over 500 years, Europe’s longest-standing border when it finally gave way.


A model of Memel Castle in its early days.

The territory on the Prussian side of the border became known as Prussian Lithuania, inhabited by a mix of German speakers and Lithuanians assimilated to German culture, the so-called Prussian Lithuanians. The Lithuanian language remained in use, and by the late 19th Century Lithuanian newspapers published in East Prussia were smuggled over the border into Russian-ruled Lithuania, where the language was suppressed. Most Prussian Lithuanians became Protestant, with Protestant Lithuanians migrating to Lithuania Minor from the Russian Empire. The economy depended heavily on forest products cut inland and exported through the port of Memel, chiefly to Britain.

The end of the First World War, and the resulting Treaty of Versailles, brought enormous change to Lithuania Minor, now partitioned between East Prussia and the new, League of Nations-administered territory known as Memelland or the Memel Territory. A small French garrison arrived, but the territory’s future remained undecided. A growing movement supported by Germans, Lithuanians and Prussian Lithuanians supported an independent Free State, while the newly independent Lithuania sought to annex both Memelland and the remainder of Lithuania Minor south of the river Neman and the Poles pressed for all of East Prussia and Lithuania, including Memelland, to be absorbed by Poland.

The wrangling continued until January 1923. French troops moved to occupy the Ruhr industrial district in Germany, distracting the local French garrison. The Lithuanians sent 1,090 insurgents over the border, who posed as pro-Lithuanian rebels against the French administration. After a brief firefight in which two French soldiers, a German policeman and a dozen insurgents were killed, the Lithuanians seized control.

The French wished to send in reinforcements, re-take Memel and its hinterland and possibly occupy Lithuania while they were at it, but their British and Italian allies would not support military action. Needing Allied support for the action in the Ruhr, the French backed down when Lithuania offered a number of face-saving concessions. Meanwhile, the League of Nations unofficially punished Lithuania for the aggression, unexpectedly awarding the disputed city of Vilnius, Lithuania’s ancient capital, to Poland.

Under the agreement, Memelland would be under Lithuanian sovereignty but retain signification autonomy: its own citizenship, court system, parliament, tax and customs systems and two official languages. German-oriented parties dominated the parliament during its 16 years of existence; the Lithuanian central government refused to allow a plebiscite over the territory’s status, as the vote easily would have gone to reunion with Germany.

Germany’s Weimar Republic never challenged the arrangement; even the weak-kneed League of Nations would never have tolerated German aggression and the Germans hoped to rejoin the world political system. Memel’s special status would have it easier to re-integrate with the rest of Germany, when the time came, and in 1928 Germany signed a border treaty with Lithuania guaranteeing the border along the Neman River.

Once Adolf Hitler took over, the time seemed to be approaching. The Lithuanians had poured investment capital into Memel, known as Klaipèda in Lithuania, building docks and modern port facilities and greatly boosting their own agricultural exports. The Nazis began agitating for Memelland’s return, deploying propaganda and instituting a crippling agricultural boycott of Lithuania.

At roughly 930 square miles (2,400 square kilometers), the territory represented only about five percent of Lithuania’s territory, but held a full third of its industry including half of its timber and paper production and 45 percent of its textiles - the textile sector had boomed once Hitler banned the manufacture of brassieres and women’s underwear in Germany. About 80 percent of Lithuania’s exports passed through the new docks of Klaipèda.


Memellanders welcome their new overlord.

By early 1939 the crisis had reached its climax. The Nazi Party held 26 of 29 seats in the regional parliament, and intended to vote for reunification with Germany when the legislature convened on 25 March. On the 20th, five days after German troops marched into the remainder of Czechoslovakia, German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop met with his Lithuanian counterpart, Juozas Urbsys, and issued a verbal ultimatum demanding the territory’s return to Germany. Finding no support from Britain, France or the Soviet Union, the Lithuanians gave in. In the early hours of 23 March, Urbsys signed away the Memel territory, and that morning Adolf Hitler alighted from the armored cruiser Deutschland to be welcomed by the citizens of Memel.

Lithuania’s decision not to fight caused her government to fall, with dictator Antanas Smetona appointing members of officially non-existent parties to his cabinet in an effort to broaden his base of support. But after years of massive spending on army modernization - 25 percent of Lithuania’s budget went to the armed forces - the failure to resist brought widespread dissatisfaction and a run on Lithuanian banks. Lithuania’s economy became even more dependent on Germany, now that exports had to pass through a German-owned port.

For Germany, Memel would be the last piece of territory acquired peacefully. The next time Hitler wanted something he would have to fight for it.

In our Panzer Grenadier: Lithuania’s Iron Wolves, the first chapter pits the Lithuanian Army against German invaders in March 1939 as Lithuania chooses to fight for Memel/Klaipèda. The Lithuanians are outnumbered and outgunned, but this is not yet the mighty Wehrmacht of 1940 and 1941.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold believes himself an iron wolf.