Lithuania’s State Security Department, in its annual public reports, has identified many methods used by Russia to spread its influence. Between the two world wars, however, when Lithuania was a young republic that had risen from the ruins of the Russian Empire, Moscow’s main weapon was the distrust that Lithuania felt for Poland which had occupied its historic capital city, Vilnius. The Polish-Lithuanian enmity was what prevented a union between the Baltic states and Poland and made Western Europe see Lithuania as a puppet of the Soviet Union.
There was one diplomat, however, who saw through Berlin’s and Moscow’s plans to maintain discord between Lithuania and Poland. However, there was quite little he could do about it.
Stasys Lozoraitis became Lithuania’s minister of foreign affairs in June 1934. In September, Lithuania signed a treaty in Geneva on establishing the Baltic Entente. In 1935, Lozoraitis presented a memorandum to Antanas Smetona, the then authoritarian president of Lithuania, saying that it was absolutely necessary to improve relations with Poland. According to this “new course”, Lithuania’s independence should be put above the Vilnius question. Nazi-run Berlin was sending some threatening signals and Lithuania was facing to lose its predominantly German-speaking port city of Klaipėda.
Unfortunately, Lozoraitis failed to bring Kaunas (the then capital of Lithuania) and Warsaw closer. On 26 January 1934, Poland had signed a non-aggression treaty with Nazi Germany; on 25 July 1932, it had signed (and renewed two years later) a similar pact with the Soviet Union; Warsaw felt it did not need Lithuania’s friendship which came with numerous demands. Meanwhile Moscow exploited the Baltic Entente, which it helped to forge in the first place, for its own ends.
Baltic Entente designed by Soviets
Historian Algimantas Kasparavičius of the Lithuanian History Institute says that it was Moscow that encouraged the formation of the Baltic Entente in 1934.
Paradoxically, when the Soviet Union presented Lithuania with an ultimatum in 1940, which effectively meant occupation, one of the accusations against Kaunas was that it had forged a military entente with Latvia and Estonia against Moscow.
“Our historiography credits Lozoraitis with achieving the Baltic Entente with our northern neighbours, Latvia and Estonia. It was a political-diplomatic union of sorts. In fact, this union is the reason why Lozoraitis is so adored by our historians. But the point of the matter is that the Baltic Entente, from the opening of talks to the signing of the treaty, was very much in sync with Moscow’s political design,” Kasparavičius says.
According to the historian, the Soviets were master rumour-mongers who convinced Estonia and Latvia to form an entente with Lithuania; initially neither country was very eager to let this union sour their ties with Poland.
What made Tallinn and Riga change their minds? Kasparavičius thinks the crucial factor was a rumour, which originated with the Soviets, that Warsaw was conducting secret negotiations with the USSR over the Baltic independence.
Coordinated action of German and Soviet diplomats
Kasparavičius says that there had been attempts to form the Baltic Entente back in 1919-1925, albeit unsuccessfully. One of the biggest ambitions had been to form the Great Baltic Entente, which would have included Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. “Only a union of these five countries was seen as something of political and military relevance to outweigh the USSR and Germany,” the historian says.
Germans and Soviets did everything to prevent the project, however. One of their methods was supporting Lithuania which would not enter a union with Poland because of territorial disputes – it had occupied its historic capital city Vilnius in October 1920.
Historian Zenonas Butkus has written about close cooperation between German and Soviet diplomats on issues in the Baltic states. More than simple diplomatic contacts, this was a well-coordinated policy.
“The point of this policy was to prevent the Baltic states, as well as any other countries lying between Germany and the USSR, from entering into a union, to keep them apart and isolated from one another, to prevent them from conducting a coordinated foreign policy. In other words, to make sure that no military-political bloc emerged in Central-Eastern Europe that would in the future interfere with Germany’s expansion to the east and the Soviet expansion to the west.
“In their plans, the Baltic states were to become a bridge between them [Germany and the USSR] rather than a barrier influenced by England or France. Both the USSR and Germany wanted to keep the Baltic states stagnant, unprepared to defend themselves and take care of their security, as if stuck in a freezer from where they could take and divide them up at whim,” Butkus wrote in his essay “German-Soviet diplomatic cooperation in the Baltic states, 1920-1940”.
Appointment after failed coup
Kasparavičius says that after Lozoraitis became Lithuania’s foreign minister, the three Baltic states started negotiations on the Baltic Entente without Poland and Finland. Poland at the time already had a non-aggression pact with Germany, while Finland had little interest in such a union because in its identity quest it had turned its gaze towards Scandinavia: it was interested in closer ties with Norway, Sweden and Denmark.
“The Soviet envoy in Kaunas, Mikhail Karsky, had gone to see Prime Minister Juozas Tubelis and President Smetona about this matter even before Lozoraitis came in. He had raised the idea of such a union in meetings with previous Foreign Minister Dovas Zaunius. Tūbelis and Smetona appear to have given some promises to Karsky, intimating that such a Baltic Entente without Poland might have been in Lithuania’s interests. Finland was not even discussed, it had no interest in the project whatsoever,” the historian says.
According to him, the official Russian line was that a political-diplomatic union among the Baltic states would lend some weight to them internationally and help resist growing political domination of Germany and Poland in the region. Lithuanians essentially found this convincing: Poland looked like the biggest threat to many, while Germany posed threat in to the German-speaking Klaipėda region.
“But there comes a stick in the wheels. That was Lozoraitis’ predecessor, previous Foreign Minister Zaunius. He starts suspecting what it’s all about. For fifteen years, Moscow had opposed any union, using blackmail and diplomatic means to prevent it, but now it suddenly started lobbying for the union. So he is suspicious. Before Zaunius resigned as foreign minister, he had been offered to come to Moscow to discuss the issue in greater detail, but he said he would only go to Moscow if he were joined by other Baltic ministers. There was no point in going there one by one, he thought,” Kasparavičius recounts.
The Soviet envoy, Karsky, started complaining to President Smetona and PM Tūbelis, saying that Zaunius was impossible to work with, that he was stubborn and a provocateur. The Soviet envoy dropped hints that the minister should be pressured or perhaps even dismissed.
Even circumstances played into the Soviet hands. In June 1934, supporters of former Prime Minister Augustinas Voldemaras organized a failed coup against President Smetona, led by General Petras Kubiliūnas. The latter was a good friend of Zaunius’. Worse than that, Zaunius was himself a disciple of Voldemaras and had remained friends with him. “The coup does a disservice to him: as a friend of the putsch organizers, he is forced to step down,” Kasparavičius says.
Lithuania was to be Soviet agent in Baltic Entente
The newly appointed Foreign Minister, Lozoraitis, chose Moscow as his first official visit destination. There, Maxim Litvinov, the Soviet Foreign Affairs People’s Commissioner, assured the new minister that, given the circumstances, the Baltic Entente would be in the interest of Lithuania and the entire region.
Moreover, Litvinov extracted a promise from Lozoraitis that once Lithuania entered into the Baltic Entente, it would prioritize the “gentlemen’s agreement” between Lithuania and the USSR which had been signed as a secret addendum to the September 1926 non-aggression treaty.
According to the “gentlemen’s agreement”, Lithuania was to inform the Soviet leadership about every aspect of its relations with the Baltic states, Poland, Germany or Western Europe.
“This essentially meant that Lithuania was to act as the Soviet agent in the Baltic Entente. Russians were in control of Lithuania and Lithuania was in control the Baltic Entente – everything neat enough,” Kasparavičius summarizes the situation.
There were some other nuances in forging the Baltic Entente. The union of the three small countries was hailed by virtually all Western states, since they already regarded Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia as a geopolitical unit. The union was seen as a step towards greater cooperation and maybe even confederation.
The Russians were simultaneously conducting talks with France over a mutual assistance pact that was much more important to the Soviet Union than the Baltic Entente. The treaty with France was intended as a cordon around the budding influence of Nazi Germany. Paris had for a long time refused to recognize the Soviet Union and looked at it with suspicion. The Baltic Entente, according to Kasparavičius, gave the French an illusion that Moscow had given up geopolitical ambitions in the north-east of the Baltic Sea.
However, it was difficult for Russians to convince Latvia and Estonia to enter into a union that would exclude Poland. Both countries had a border with the USSR and saw it as the main threat to their existence. Whereas Lithuania was most mistrustful of Poland which, for Latvia and Estonia, seemed indispensable for their security.
“So how do you go about convincing Latvians and Estonians that they need a union with Lithuania, even if Poland disapproves and does not want it? Poland resisted it. But a solution was found,” Kasparavičius says.
Rumours started spreading among diplomats in late 1933 that Poland was offering Moscow a deal on guaranteeing the Baltic independence.
“Just think of it – Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians hear about some talks behind their backs between Moscow and Warsaw that want, without their knowledge, protect their independence. These rumours started circulating right after the Polish-German non-aggression treaty. It was like a bolt from the blue for entire Europe, since no one had known Adolf Hitler and Józef Piłsudski were negotiating such a treaty: the talks were brief and secret.
“The treaty was signed on 26 January 1934 and declared peace between the two countries. This was at the time when everyone started realizing what they were dealing with in Nazism and Fascism. In everyone’s minds, Poland became almost an ally of Germany. And all that in secret negotiations!
“Under such circumstances, it takes two-three weeks for rumours to spread about that same Piłsudski conducting talks in the east with Moscow about protecting the sovereignty of the Baltic states. Latvians and Estonians got uneasy, Latvians especially were disappointed with Poland, even alarmed. Thus a wedge was placed between Latvia and Estonia on the one hand and Poland on the other,” Kasparavičius says.
Failure with Poland
Soon after the establishment of the Baltic Entente, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Lozoraitis presented the president with a memorandum on Lithuanian-Polish relations. Kaunas desperately needed a compromise with Warsaw, because Germany was showing every intent of biting off Klaipėda, perhaps even annihilating the country altogether. President Smetona authorized the minister to take initiative.
Historian Kasparavičius is somewhat critical of the memorandum which stated in its preamble that there would be no war in Europe in the coming decades. Meanwhile other historians and political scientists give Lozoraitis credit for seeing the importance of Poland in Lithuania’s security architecture and for attempts to break free of the Berlin-Moscow axis and look for closer relations with Western countries and the League of Nations.
“The biggest geopolitical mistake of the First Republic [1918-1940] was an attempt to use Soviet Russia and Germany as geopolitical factors to outweigh Poland or help in the dispute over Vilnius. Paradoxically, we chose as ‘arbiters’ in the Vilnius issue not Brits or international institutions (however weak they were), but the powers that were most interested in not allowing a cordon of stable and friendly states to emerge in Central Europe. We thus became geopolitical hostages, we were spoken of as a ‘Soviet-German child’.
“This is a geopolitical lesson we must learn today. We must look for ways how to build a strong geopolitical tower in the European Union castle with other Baltic and Central European states. This would ease our dependence on geopolitical games of certain big powers,” says analyst Laurynas Kasčiūnas of the Eastern Europe Studies Centre.
Historian and diplomat Vytautas Žalys says that Lozoraitis construed of Lithuania’s geopolitical situation thus: “We have Klaipėda, but are in danger of losing it; we do not have Vilnius nor is there any hope to get it back any time soon. We must therefore do everything we can to protect Klaipėda as long as it does not compromise our legal position on the Vilnius question.”
Kasparavičius notes that Lozoraitis’ memorandum contained two key theses: first, Lithuania must improve its relations with Poland; second, Lithuania would restore diplomatic relations with Warsaw, if it returned the towns of Sejny and Druskininkai and small territories around them.
“But there is no mention of Vilnius, according to Lozoraitis. For him, it would have been great if Lithuanian-speakers of Vilnius could have gotten some cultural autonomy within Poland,” Kasparavičius says.
“The minister tries to realize this vision. He meets with Poland’s Foreign Minister Józef Beck in Geneva, during a session of the League of Nations, and lays out his offers, but Colonel Beck is firm and unrelenting: no concessions, no Sejny, no Druskininkai – the Lithuanian minister, he says, is delusional. Lithuania must either restore diplomatic relations under the situation as it is or things remain as they are,” Kasparavičius summarizes the situation.
Lozoraitis tried to involve the British and the French in the negotiations, but unsuccessfully. The British recommendation was to restore diplomatic relations with Poland immediately, without making any additional demands, while the French had a mutual assistance treaty with the Soviet Union and had little interest in the Lithuanian-Poland situation. Their suggestion was to wait and see.
The issue was finally settled with the 1938 ultimatum that Warsaw presented to Lithuania. The Kaunas government, after some deliberation, decided to accept the demand and restore relations with Poland without any conditions.
“Why did Lithuania need Sejny and Druskininkai? I think that, as long as the negotiations were secret, everything was all right, but once the plan had to be presented to the public, it would have been really difficult to explain why Lithuania was restoring normal diplomatic relations, economic ties, transport links, cultural exchange with Poland without getting anything in return. There had to be a show of Polish concessions. It turned out, however, that the Polish elite was not ready even for a token compromise like Sejny and Druskininkai,” Kasparavičius explains.
On 3 September, the Lithuanian Seimas hosted a conference on Lithuania’s foreign policy dedicated to the memory of Stasys Lozoraitis.