A Submerged People Rises—Letts And Lithuanians

By Stoddard Dewey

[The Nation; October 21, 1915]

Paris, October 1.

"If you wish to hear from human lips some echo of what the language originally common to Indo-Europeans may have been, go and listen to Lithuanian peasants talking."

This is what Professor Meillet, of the Collège de France, says. It is also said these peasants understand simple phrases of Sanscrit propounded to them by other learned professors, because their own rude speech is still nearest to that ancient tongue. The idea of the man in the street that they speak some kind of Slav dialect because they hail from Russia is quite wrong. They and their language are arrested developments from before the time when Greeks and Romans set out on the ways of progress. And for the last thousand years and more they have lived under their present name in the bogland which has made outlandish reading through this war—in the basins of the Niemen and the Duna and where the Nareff and the Bug drain the marshes and down to Brest-Litovsky, which means Brest of the Lithuanians.

Here they have lived for ages, sometimes serfs and rarely masters, and of late "organized" for the few of them under Prussian governors and ruled for the immense majority of them by Russians. When no one hindered, which was rare, they have emigrated. They state that 500,000 of their race are in the United States; 300,000 are still in Eastern Prussia, which was their own "Borussia" of the old time, but name and land were long since taken from them; and in Russia and Poland there have been anywhere from 3,000,000, which is Prince Kropotkin's figure, to 7,000,000, which their own representatives now put forward.

These representatives have twice met in the last weeks. On the 3d and 4th of August, in a conference at Berne, Switzerland, they, too, demanded a place in the sun and their right to exist on dry and independent land. Here the representatives came from all the habitats of their race under whatever sun, to claim the right of their immemorial bogland.

In September's third week, the Letts, who are an offshoot of the Lithuanian race when the world was younger and still neighbors, held their own congress in Petrograd. They, too, decided not to abandon their homes for many and sad reasons of war. The whole story is worth telling in these days when all of us are learning new geographies with maps colored by emotions. A people that has kept its immemorial seat and language, its customs of blood and race unchanged through the ages when rights of men were not, demands, as a result of this war, that it shall henceforth be a nation also, with at least that independence which is called autonomy.

Let us begin with the Letts. They inhabit Courland and Livonia, where the German threat has been strongest. Like prehistoric human animals, their first impulse has been to flee before the invader. Some of them scurried away to the Volga, where the people rose up against them, mistaking them for the dreaded Germans, since these Letts speak no Russian. Those who got to the Ural and Siberia met the same ill-treatment—veritable "pogroms," a name which we wrongly are accustomed to limit to race riots against the Jews in Russia. The Lett congress at Petrograd pleads with these frightened brothers not to leave their peaceful homes and villages until their representatives can find for them safe refuges in inner Russia, with sure return when the invader shall have been beaten back. It seems not to have struck the Lett imagination that life under German rule might be possible.

Among all these Letto-Lithuanian peoples evil traditions survive of the Teutonic knights who first brought the terror of the German name. They got a footing at Königsberg, whence they subjugated the surrounding Borussi who were good Lithuanians. These were exterminated in short order or swamped in the tide of German immigration, until somehow, in our day, Prussia—which originally was Borussia—heads the German name and fame. It was under pressure of the Teutonic Knights that all these Lett-Lithuanians took shelter in their boglands where the Prussians, who long since stole their name and lands, have now found them out. This time they hope not to have to flee permanently.

Next the Lithuanians fell under the Poles and became an intermittent part of their rackety kingdom. It is Russia's promise of autonomy for Poland to-day which has stirred these Lithuanians to ask as much for themselves. True, they have no modern memories of independence, but it would be the irony of human things if the Poles should now oppose them. Such things have happened within my own memory.

As a boy in the United States, I was taught to declaim speeches of Kossuth and I wore a Kossuth hat. All of us were afire with Hungarian freedom. Thirty years later, a dark-bearded, sallow-skinned representative of the Balkans knocked at my door in Paris and asked my help in the American press—to disclose how Kossuth's Magyars had used their independence to smother the rights of their subject Rumanians of Transylvania. He proffered copious documents, evidently prepared by the still nascent Government of the independent Rumanians, and, coughing behind his hand, insinuated that I might be decorated with the Star of Rumania if I chose to write in defence of those unemancipated Rumanians. I put aside the temptation of the Star and accepted the heap of documents, in which I found authentic and interesting material for publication—but the Rumanians of Transylvania are still under Hungary, and the war is only now looking to uniting them with independent Rumania.

The Lithuanians are resolved not to let the nations free the Poles while subjugating to them their own millions of men so different in blood and speech and manners and religion—and even in the lands they occupy. And they wish their brother Letts to be freed from their Baltic masters.

Of course, freedom and autonomy do not mean, either for Poles or Lithuanians, the constitution of more warring states; but they do mean town meetings and federalism respecting nationalities. And what can make a nation more than common race and speech and habits of living together? These Lithuanians only ask self-government from below up, which is democracy, and Tocqueville's remedy for modern ills, and safety from neighboring and more powerful nations, which implies the Federalism that is President Eliot's remedy in the present. In what they ask in their Conference of Berne and in their Congress of Petrograd, I find nothing more than that autonomy which we know by the name of home rule-nothing equivalent to a beginning even of disruption of the Russian Empire. And, by the way, Czar Nicholas II, who is "Autocrat of all the Russias," also signs himself Grand Duke of Lithuania and Prince of Livonia and Courland and various other districts of the bogland in question.

Songs are still sung by Russian Slavs, acknowledging gratefully that Lithuanians protected them against the Tatars. Under the Lithuanians, these protected Slavs had liberal home rule, as Professor Lubavsky, of the University of Moscow, now admits.

In any event, here we have a typical example of the political problems which ought to be settled by this war. It has not been a melting-pot of nationalities like the peaceful existence of the United States. Rather, it is the breaking up and precipitating down of separate elements from a previous conglomerate. It is Russia—if she wills—that will have the least difficulty in settling all these vague autonomies.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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