The Resurrection of Lithuania
[The Independent, March 23, 1918]
Another of the new nations that have, sprung into life from the disintegrating body of Russia is Lithuania. As in the case of Finland, Poland and Ukrainia, it was largely thru American influence and aid that Lithuania has found its freedom, but unfortunately Germany gets the credit of the act of liberation. There are some 750,000 Lithuanians in America, driven here by the frightful persecutions of the Autocrat of All the Russias. But tho they have here found liberty and prosperity they have not forgotten their motherland in chains. The Pennsylvania coal miner and the New England factory hand have contributed of their earnings to help those who were left behind and to print and smuggle over the Lithuanian literature which was prohibited in Russia. A Scranton physician, John Szlupas, was president of the convention of Lithuanian delegates which, meeting at Stockholm, declared the independence of Lithuania, on January 8, 1918. This is but repeating the action taken during the abortive Russian revolution of 1905, when a convention of 2000 Lithuanians declared for a Diet of their own "to be chosen without distinction of sex, race or creed." Let us hope that this time the declaration holds, altho one cannot hope much for a nation inaugurated under Teutonic auspices.
Lithuania has been one of the most unfortunate of the unfortunate class of buffer states. Being neither Teuton nor Slav, but lying between these eternal enemies, the Lithuanians have been harried in turn by the one and the other and ofttimes oppressed by both. All the power of court, church, market and school has been exercized in the germanization of those on one side the boundary and the russification of those on the other. Yet neither Kaiser nor Czar has been able to extinguish the language nor the consciousness of the common race. The Lithuanian language is the most ancient of living languages. It is nearer to the original Indo-European stock than any other European language. Words and even sentences spoken in ancient Sanskrit may be understood by a Lithuanian peasant. The philosopher Kant, who wrote a Lithuanian grammar and was himself of Lithuanian origin, declared that "Lithuania must be preserved,' for her tongue possesses the key which opens all enigmas not only of philology but also of history." A kindred language and people, Old Prussian or Bo-russian, were extinguished three hundred years, ago, altho the name and somewhat of the blood have passed down to those who now bear the name.
The American reader is apt to have got his knowledge of Lithuanian history from the fiery pages of Sienkiewiez, who was of Lithuanian descent altho his name has been polanized and he wrote from the Polish standpoint. "The Deluge," in which that irresistible hero, Kmita, banneret of Orsha, fights thru a thousand pages, for his lady-love, Olenka, is laid mostly in Lithuania. In "The Knights of the Cross" Sienkiewiez tells of the story of the defeat of the Teutons by the Lithuanians at the battle of Tannenberg in 1410.
But in 1914 a second battle was fought at Tannenberg, when fortune favored the other side and Hindenburg inflicted such a blow upon the Russians that they were never able to recover from it. This brought the German hordes into the heart of Lithuania and the story of their brutality, as it has been told to American ears by eye-witnesses, is more horrible than anything we have heard from Belgium.
The Prussian power which now dominates Central Europe and endangers the whole world had its origin in these Teutonic Knights of the Gross, who were commissioned by the Pope in 1234 to defend Christendom against 'the heathen Lithuanians. But the sort of Christianity carried over the border by the Teutonic knights bore little resemblance to the religion of him whose symbol they wore on their breasts, so we need not wonder that the Lithuanians were the last of European peoples to abandon paganism. Roger Bacon, in the thirteenth century, saw clearly that the Germans were preventing the spread of Christianity while pretending to promote it:
There is no doubt that all the heathen nations beyond Germany would long ago have "been converted but for the brutality of the German House, because the Pagan race has again and again been ready to receive the faith in peace thru preaching. But they of the German House will not allow it, because they want to subjugate them and reduce them to slavery, and by subtle persuasions they have for years deceived the Roman Church. This is notorious, otherwise I would not make the charge.
For 1386 years after the birth of Christ the perpetual fire burned on the altar before the wooden image of Perkunas, the Thunder God, in the midst of the sacred oak grove on the hill overlooking Vilna. But on that date the fire was quenched and the grove was cut down, for the Prince of Lithuania accepted the Catholic faith for himself and his people that he might marry the Princess Yadvida of Poland, and the pagan Prince Yagyello became the Christian King Vladislav II, of united Poland and Lithuania. The marriage of the rulers was not a fortunate one and the union of the realms was most unhappy. Never was a people, it seems, so disliked by all its neighbors as the Poles. The Lithuanians of the United States are divided into three groups: the Socialists, who are or have been inclined to look to Germany for help; the Clericals, who favor the Russian connection; and the Nationalists, who declare for complete independence. But All three agree on one point; that never again will they consent to union with Poland.
They do, however, hope for union with the Letts, lying to the north of Lithuania, and of kindred race altho of another language and religion. They also desire, tho under the circumstances they can hardly hope, the East Prussia, comprizing the Lithuanians under German rule, should be reunited with Lithuania. If so, the new republic would start out in life with a population of some seven million and with Riga and Königsberg as its ports on the Baltic.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald