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Lithuania - History

Lithuanians belong to the Baltic group of nations. Their ancestors moved to the Baltic region about 3000 B.C. from beyond the Volga region of central Russia. In Roman times, they traded amber with Rome and around A.D. 900-1000 split into different language groups, namely, Lithuanians, Prussians, Latvians, Semigallians, and others. The Prussians were conquered by the Teutonic Knights, and, ironically, the name "Prussia" was taken over by the conquerors, who destroyed or assimilated Prussia's original inhabitants. Other groups also died out or were assimilated by their neighbors. Only the Lithuanians and the Latvians survived the ravages of history.

Traditions of Lithuanian statehood date from the early Middle Ages. As a nation, Lithuania emerged about 1230 under the leadership of Duke Mindaugas. He united Lithuanian tribes to defend themselves against attacks by the Teutonic Knights, who had conquered the kindred tribes of Prussia and also parts of present-day Latvia. In 1251 Mindaugas accepted Latin Christianity, and in 1253 he became king. But his nobles disagreed with his policy of coexistence with the Teutonic Knights and with his search for access to western Europe. Mindaugas was killed, the monarchy was discontinued, and the country reverted to paganism. His successors looked for expansion toward the Slavic East. At that early stage of development, Lithuania had to face the historically recurring question dictated by its geopolitical position--whether to join western or eastern Europe.

At the end of the fourteenth century, Lithuania was already a large empire extending from the Baltic Sea to the shores of the Black Sea. Grand Duke Jogaila (r. 1377-81 and 1382-92) of the Gediminas Dynasty faced a problem similar to that faced by Mindaugas 150 years earlier: whether to look to the East or the West for political and cultural influences. Under pressure from the Teutonic Knights, Lithuania, a kingdom of Lithuanians and Slavs, pagans and Orthodox Christians, could no longer stand alone. Jogaila chose to open links to western Europe and to defeat the Teutonic Knights, who claimed that their mission was not to conquer the Lithuanians but to Christianize them. He was offered the crown of Poland, which he accepted in 1386. In return for the crown, Jogaila promised to Christianize Lithuania. He and his cousin Vytautas, who became Lithuania's grand duke, converted Lithuania to Christianity beginning in 1387. Lithuania was the last pagan country in Europe to become Christian. The cousins then defeated the Teutonic Knights in the Battle of Tannenberg in 1410, stopping Germanic expansion to the east.

Attempts by Vytautas to separate Lithuania from Poland (and to secure his own crown) failed because of the strength of the Polish nobility. Lithuania continued in a political union with Poland. In 1569 Lithuania and Poland united into a single state, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, whose capital was Krak體, and for the next 226 years Lithuania shared the fate of Poland. During this period, Lithuania's political elite was dominated by the Polish nobility and church, resulting in neglect of the Lithuanian language and introduction of Polish social and political institutions. It also opened the doors to Western models in education and culture.

In 1795 an alliance between the Germanic states -- Prussia and Austria -- and the Russian Empire ended Poland's independent existence. Lithuania became a Russian province. Two insurrections, initiated by the Poles in 1831 and again in 1863, failed to liberate the country. The Russian Empire eliminated Polish influence on Lithuanians and introduced Russian social and political institutions. Under tsarist rule, Lithuanian schools were forbidden, Lithuanian publications in the Latin script were outlawed, and the Roman Catholic Church was severely suppressed. However, the restrictive policies failed to extinguish indigenous cultural institutions and language.

A national awakening in the 1880s, led by the secular and clerical intelligentsia, produced demands for self-government. In 1905 Lithuania was the first of the Russian provinces to demand autonomy. Independence was not granted because the tsar firmly reestablished his rule after the Revolution of 1905. But the demand, articulated by the elected Grand Diet of Vilnius, was not abandoned. World War I led to the collapse of the two empires--the Russian and the German--making it possible for Lithuania to assert its statehood. Germany's attempt to persuade Lithuania to become a German protectorate was unsuccessful. On February 16, 1918, Lithuania declared its full independence, and the country still celebrates that day as its Independence Day. The Seimas (Parliament) of Lithuania adopted a constitution on August 1, 1922 and declared Lithuania a parliamentary republic.

The interwar period of independence gave birth to the development of Lithuanian press, literature, music, arts, and theater as well as a comprehensive system of education with Lithuanian as the language of instruction. However, territorial disputes with Poland (over the Vilnius region and the Suvalkai region) and with Germany (over the Klaipeda region) preoccupied the foreign policy of the new state. During the interwar period, the constitutional capital was Vilnius, although the city itself was annexed by Poland from 1920 to 1939. During this period the Lithuanian Government was relocated to Kaunas, which officially held the status of temporary capital.

The German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact of 1939 first pulled Lithuania into the German sphere of influence and then brought it under Soviet domination. Soviet pressure and a complicated international situation forced Lithuania to sign an agreement with the U.S.S.R. on October 10, 1939. By means of this agreement, Lithuania was given back the city of Vilnius and the part of the Vilnius region seized by the Red Army during the Soviet-Polish war; in return, some 20,000 Soviet soldiers were deployed in Lithuania. On August 3, 1940, Lithuania was proclaimed a Soviet Socialist Republic. Totalitarian rule was established, Sovietization of the economy and culture began, and Lithuanian state employees and public figures were arrested and exiled to Russia. During the mass deportation campaign of June 14-18, 1941, about 12,600 people were deported to Siberia without investigation or trial, 3,600 people were imprisoned, and more than 1,000 were killed.

Between 1940 and 1954, under the Nazi and then Soviet occupations, Lithuania lost over 780,000 residents. In World War II, German occupiers sent Lithuanians to forced labor camps in Germany. Almost 200,000, or 91%, of Lithuanian Jews were killed, one of the worst death rates of the Holocaust. After the retreat of the Wehrmacht in 1944, Lithuania was re-occupied by the Soviet Union, and an estimated 120,000 to 300,000 Lithuanians were either killed or deported to Siberia and other remote parts of the Soviet Union. Conversely, Soviet authorities encouraged the immigration to Lithuania of other Soviet workers, especially Russians, as a way of integrating Lithuania into the U.S.S.R.

With the advent of perestroika and glasnost, Gorbachev's programs of social and political reforms in the late 1980s, communist rule eroded. Lithuania, led by Sajudis, an anti-communist and anti-Soviet independence movement, proclaimed its renewed independence on March 11, 1990--the first Soviet republic to do so. The Lithuanian Supreme Soviet formed a new Cabinet of Ministers and adopted the Provisional Fundamental Law of the State with a number of by-laws. In response, on the night of January 13, 1991, the Red Army attacked the Vilnius TV Tower, killing 14 civilians and injuring 700. Soviet forces, however, were unsuccessful in suppressing Lithuania's secession.

On February 4, 1991, Iceland became the first country to recognize Lithuanian independence. Sweden was the first to open an embassy in the country. The United States never recognized the Soviet claim to Lithuania and views the present Lithuanian Government as the legal continuation of the interwar republic. In July 2007, Lithuania celebrated the 85th anniversary of continuous diplomatic relations with the United States. Lithuania joined the United Nations on September 17, 1991.

Despite Lithuania's achievement of complete independence, sizable numbers of Russian forces remained on its territory. Withdrawal of those forces was one of Lithuania's top foreign policy priorities. On August 31, 1993, Lithuania and Russia signed an agreement whereby the last Red Army troops left the country.




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