Lithuania’s Iron Wolves:
Feud over Vilnius
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
In 1322, while hunting near the confluence of the Vilnia and Neris rivers, Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas had a dream. An iron-clad wolf stood on a hilltop, howling with the force of a thousand wolves. On that hilltop, a pagan priest told him, he must build a castle and a city that would become the capital of Lithuania, and a world-renowned center of commerce and learning.
While the legend says that Gediminas obediently built his castle and city, naming it Vilnius after the Vilnia River, it appears that Mindaugas, the first Grand Duke of Lithuania, had built a castle on the site decades earlier. Whoever founded the city, Gediminas made it the Grand Duchy’s capital and wrote to cities across Germany inviting merchants and craftsmen, including Jews, to join him there.
For the next several centuries the city prospered, remaining the capital of Lithuania within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and becoming home to one of the realm’s first universities. But the partitions of Poland brought Vilnius under Russian rule, as the empire’s third-largest city. The Russians closed the university, pulled down the city walls and generally turned Vilnius from a cultural beacon into a backwater. After the 1863 uprising they banned both the Polish and Lithuanian languages, crushing the local publishing industry and stifling the city’s culture.
Lithuanian knights smite the Mongols at the Battle of Blue Waters, 1362.
The Germans occupied Vilnius for most of the Great War. By 1918, the city remained a symbol of Lithuania’s gilded past; a plurality (40 percent) of the inhabitants spoke Yiddish as their first language, with smaller groups naming Polish, German and Russian. Less than six percent spoke Lithuanian as their first language. In Vilnius, as in other cities of Eastern Europe, the city and the surrounding countryside spoke different languages and pursued different cultures. Vilnius was a Jewish-Polish island in a sea of Lithuanians.
In February 1918, the Council of Lithuania, a group of 20 men chosen by a German-appointed conference of Lithuanian notables, issued a declaration of independence from Vilnius, naming the city as capital of the new state. Germany recognized Lithuanian independence in March, but did not allow the Lithuanians to form a government and so the new state existed only in the minds of a few nationalist dreamers until the German Empire collapsed in November 1918.
The new Lithuanian government did nothing to defend Vilnius, and withdrew along with the German occupiers, leaving the city under the control of a militia hastily organized from the Polish population. These Poles formally enrolled in the new Polish Army a month later, and fought to defend Vilnius against the approaching Red Army. The Poles and the Red Army traded control of Vilnius several times during the Polish-Soviet War that followed, but the Lithuanians snatched Vilnius before the Poles could occupy it during their final, victorious offensive in 1920.
Polish “mutineers” relax in Vilnius, October 1920.
The Lithuanians staked their claim to Vilnius on their own peace treaty with the Soviets, which granted Vilnius and the surrounding region to them. The Poles rejected that reasoning, arguing that the Soviets had relinquished all claim to the area in the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers, and therefore Vilnius was not theirs to give.
But the Lithuanians had possession of the city, and the Poles set out to change that. In August 1920 fighting flared over the Suwalki region south-west of Vilnius, settled by a League of Nations-imposed cease-fire that took effect on 7 October. That agreement placed Vilnius on the Lithuanian side of the new border and was to take effect on the 10th. But on the 8th Polish military strongman Josef Pilsudski sent one of his generals, Lucjan Zeligowski, and his 14,000-strong 1st Lithuanian-Belarussian Infantry Division (a unit of the Polish Army) across the disputed boundary to seize Vilnius. The division, Zeligowski proclaimed, had mutinied against the Poles and now acted on its own account. With the help of the city’s Polish militia Zeligowski’s men secured Vilnius and drove out Lithuanian Army units. Not content with just taking Vilnius, Zeligowski marched on toward Kaunas, Lithuania’s temporary capital. When Lithuanian resistance stiffened, more Polish units “mutinied” and reinforced Zeligowski, but he could not finish off the Lithuanians.
Instead, he proclaimed a Republic of Central Lithuania and served as military dictator until an elected parliament took over. The League again intervened and negotiations continued for the next year and a half, mostly centered on creation of a federated Lithuanian state with a Lithuanian-speaking region in the west and a multi-lingual one in the east centered on Vilnius. The Poles would only agree if this federation in turn joined in a federation with Poland, a solution the Lithuanians rejected.
Polish artillery parade through Vilnius, March 1922.
Central Lithuania elected a Polish-speaking parliament in January 1922, as the Lithuanians, Jews and Belarusians for the most part boycotted the vote. The parliament in turn voted to join Poland, and the Polish Sejm accepted the request in March 1922. Vilnius became Wilno, capital of Wilno Voivodeship, or Province, made up of the former Central Lithuania. When the Lithuanians seized Memel in January 1923, the League of Nations unofficially punished them by recognizing the Polish annexation of Central Lithuania.
Lithuania never recognized Polish possession of Vilnius, declaring it the occupied capital of Lithuania. Kaunas, where the Lithuanian government actually sat, was always referred to as the temporary capital. Lithuania refused to open diplomatic relations with Poland until Vilnius was returned, something the far more powerful Polish state would never consider. No railroad or telegraph lines crossed the Polish-Lithuanian frontier, and mail service from Poland to Lithuania was only allowed by way of a third country.
In March 1938, a Lithuanian border guard shot and killed one of his Polish counterparts, igniting a crisis. With the world was distracted by the German annexation of Austria, the Polish government presented an ultimatum to the Lithuanians. They had 48 hours to open diplomatic relations and accept Polish possession of Vilnius/Wilno. The Poles moved four infantry divisions and their lone tank battalion to the border; the Lithuanians moved up two of their three divisions in response (the third could not be removed from Memel for fear of a German incursion).
Not only Britain and France, but even Lithuania’s allies in the Baltic Entente, Latvia and Estonia, urged the Lithuanians to accept the Polish conditions. Gen. Stasys Rastikas, commander of the Lithuanian Army, told President Antanas Smetona that victory against the Poles was “impossible.” Smetona signaled acceptance through French channels, but the Lithuanians weaseled on the actual wording and left out a formal acceptance of Polish sovereignty over Vilnius. By June railroad and mail service had been restored, visits of senior leaders had been exchanged, and trade had opened.
Acceptance of the ultimatum had not seemed to hurt Lithuania. But exactly two weeks after Smetona yielded, Adolf Hitler named the return of Memel to Germany as his top diplomatic priority alongside acquisition of the Sudetenland.
In our Panzer Grenadier: Lithuania’s Iron Wolves, the second chapter pits the Lithuanian Army against Polish invaders in March 1938, while the Lithuanians invade Poland in September 1939 to seize Vilnius.
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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 a great many 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.