70th anniversary of reclaiming Vilnius

  • 2009-11-04
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

RESPECT: On Oct. 29, Defense Minister Rasa Jukneviciene paid tribute to the veterans who participated in the Lithuanian army's march on Vilnius 70 years ago.

VILNIUS - On Oct. 28, Lithuania celebrated the 70th anniversary of regaining its capital city Vilnius. Some of these celebrations were official, while some of the youth showed their joy in a quite spontaneous demonstration via the Old Town of Lithuania's ancient capital. The celebration was rather modest because soon after regaining its capital in 1939, Lithuania lost its independence in 1940.

On Feb. 16, 1918, Lithuania proclaimed the re-establishment of its independence in Vilnius, capital of the Lithuanian empire of the 14th 's 18th centuries. Since 1918, Vilnius has changed hands several times. It was occupied by the Bolshevik Russians and Poland. Since Aug., 1920, it was in Lithuania's hands. In early October of 1920, Jozef Pilsudski, the Lithuanian-origin Polish strongman was assigned by General Lucjan Zeligowski the task of capturing Vilnius, which then was predominantly a Polish-speaking city. Pilsudski, a Vilnius region-born nobleman who could speak Lithuanian, was a 19th century-style romantic dreaming about the recreation of the Polish-Lithuanian confederation.

According to the peace treaty of July 12, 1920 between Lithuania and Soviet Russia and the truce treaty of Oct. 7, 1920 between Lithuania and Poland, Vilnius stayed in Lithuania's hands. Since international law was on Lithuania's side, on Oct. 9, 1920, Poland staged a rebellion - Polish army units, named "Lithuanian-Belarusian" units, having supposedly refused to obey Warsaw, kicked the Lithuanian army out of Vilnius and established the independent state of Middle Lithuania. In 1922, Middle Lithuania's parliament decided that this bizarre state should join Poland. However, Vilnius remained the capital of Lithuania under the Lithuanian constitution. Lithuania and Poland had no diplomatic relations until 1938 because of the Vilnius issue.

On Aug. 23, 1939, Germany and the USSR signed the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop pact on the partitioning of Poland and the spheres of influence in Central Europe. According to the pact, Finland, Estonia and Latvia were given to the sphere of influence of the USSR, while Lithuania was supposed to become a satellite state of Germany. Earlier, in March, 1939, after a menacing ultimatum, Germany occupied Lithuania's Klaipeda region. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact untied Hitler's hands enabling him to attack Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. Germany encouraged Lithuania to join the attack and take Vilnius back but Lithuania proclaimed neutrality and gave refuge to thousands of Polish soldiers. On Sept. 18, the USSR attacked Poland, occupying, among other cities, also Vilnius.

On Sept. 28, 1939, Germany and the USSR signed a secret readjustment of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact which transferred Lithuania to the sphere of influence of the USSR. Under the agreement, the small piece of south-western Lithuania was left to Germany, but later Germany sold its share of this Lithuanian territory to the USSR for several million U.S. dollars.

On the immediate demand by the USSR, on Oct. 10, 1939, Lithuania concluded the Mutual Assistance Treaty with the Soviets. According to the treaty, Vilnius was given back to Lithuania but the latter was forced to allow Soviet military bases on its territory. On Oct. 27, 1939, the Lithuanian army marched into Vilnius. On Oct. 29, 1939, the Lithuanian army marching in Vilnius' center was met by some happy locals raining flowers on the soldiers. However, the joy was short - in June-July, 1940, the USSR occupied Lithuania.

Seventy years later, in the late evening of Oct. 28, some 200 young people singing patriotic songs and carrying Lithuanian tricolors and torches marched from the Ausros Gate to the Cathedral Square. One guy tried to sing anti-Polish songs but police quickly forced him to shut up. Everybody remembers a similar spontaneous demonstration of youngsters on March 11, 2008 (Lithuania re-established its independence on March 11, 1990 - the day is a national holiday) when folklore-based anti-Russian and anti-Jewish chants were shouted - then such demonstration caused protests of Lithuanian intellectuals, condemnation by the media and prosecution of young chanters by the police.

Not all Vilnius residents were happy with the 70th anniversary - candles and small Polish flags with black ribbons were brought to the Rasu Cemetery, where the heart of Pilsudski has been lying under a black granite slab since his death, in 1935.
On Oct. 29, Parliament Chairperson Irena Degutiene planted young oak trees near the monument of King Mindaugas to commemorate the regaining of Vilnius. "The date of regaining Vilnius was always a holiday in my family. Today my brother-in-law called me to give his congratulations. Back in 1939, he was a child living on Kalvariju street in Vilnius," Degutiene said.

On Oct. 29, Defense Minister Rasa Jukneviciene paid tribute to Lithuanian army veterans who participated in the march on Vilnius 70 years ago. The celebration ceremony was held in the old Vilnius Town Hall. "I hope that our good neighborhood, with Poland, Latvia and Belarus will be preserved," Jukneviciene said at the celebration ceremony emphasizing that EU and NATO membership has completely changed Lithuania's security situation.