Lithuania and Germany: a relationship that is better than ever before

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When attempting to interpret a country’s foreign policy, especially its policies concerning neighbouring or regional powers, it becomes necessary to examine early relations between both countries, and trace how they have developed over time. Such an approach is no different when examining the modern relations between Germany and Lithuania, whose shared history has been a complex one, defined by both times of strong relations and at others, by violence and military clashes.

Relations between these countries can be traced back approximately 800 years. As one of the final remaining pagan countries within Europe during the High Medieval Period, Lithuania invited attention from Germanic Teutonic Knights, who wished to conquer and Christianise the Lithuanian people. However, Lithuania was able to effectively resist their attempts for several years, and through such efforts, was able to consolidate into a united nation. In 1253, the ruler of Lithuania, Mindaugas, was crowned as the first King of Lithuania, and in what may be seen as compromise towards the Teutonic Knights, converted to Christianity. Roughly a century later, in 1385, the Treaty of Krewo was signed between the current Grand Duke of Lithuania, Władysław II Jagiełło, and the future Queen-to-be Jadwiga of Poland. This established what would become the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, whose early hallmark achievement was the final repulsion of the Teutonic Knights in 1410, when united Polish and Lithuanian forces saw victory at the Battle of Tannenberg (Grunwald).

As a result, a great state spanning as far as the Crimea was established. However, centuries spent fighting against the Russian, Austrian, and Prussian Empires, and exacerbated by internal strife, resulted in the dissolution of the Commonwealth with its third partition in 1795. As a result, Poland and Lithuania lost their sovereignty for over 120 years, and most of Lithuania’s territory was incorporated into Russia. The Lithuanian people opposed this by staging a number of uprisings, but they were ruthlessly quenched by the Russians with heavy bloodshed. When Russian rule turned to cultural subversion, such as through the banning of the Lithuanian written language, Lithuanians began to develop stronger relations with Germanic sympathizers, particularly those of neighbouring East Prussia, via several underground movements. In one instance, Lithuanian publications were secretly published in Königsberg, a place inhabited, inter alia, by Lithuanians who did their utmost to preserve the Lithuanian culture.

On 16 February 1918, in the concluding months of World War I, and with scarce opposition from the German occupational authorities, Lithuania announced its independence, the centenary of which we celebrated this year.

Lithuania was initially bent on becoming a parliamentary monarchy and so was in search of an eligible duke meeting several specific requirements; the most important being that they be Catholic, and devoid of close connection to both Prussia and Saxony. Wilhelm of Urach, Duke of Urach and representative of the Württemberg dynasty, was seen as a suitable candidate and was announced to become the next King of Lithuania, Mindaugas II. His coronation, however, never took place as, in context of the withdrawal of the old dynasties from Europe, Lithuania opted to adopt a republican form of government.

Memel – present-day Klaipėda – was inhabited by a mixed population of Germans and Lithuanians, which served to become a bone of contention between Germany and Lithuania. This territory was administered by France per the Treaty of Versailles of 1919. The German Empire, weakened in both economically and politically by these terms, grew in animosity towards France, one of the Treaty’s primary authors. Therefore, Germany had nothing against Lithuanians entering the Klaipeda region and pushing out the French, who, incidentally, did not present any strong opposition to these actions. As years passed, however, tensions between Germany and Lithuania grew in that Germany remained convinced that Memel was, and would remain, a German city.

Tensions culminated with the Lithuanian arrest of numerous pro-Nazi Party Germans within the Kaunas and Klaipėda regions. Many of those arrested were originally sentenced to capital punishment, but due to political and economic pressure from Germany, these sentences were reduced to first life sentences, and then amnesty in 1937. However, such actions on Lithuania’s behalf failed to ease the building tension between the two countries. On 20 March 1939, Germany issued an ultimatum demanding that the Klaipėda region be returned to Germany. Lithuania capitulated, and the resultant treaty authorizing this was signed on 23 March 1939. Standing on a balcony of a theatre in Klaipėda-turned-Memel, Hitler made a solemn speech to a crowd of elated Germans, to the sheer shock of Lithuanians.

When German forces entered Lithuania in early 1941, they were seen as a liberation force, following the atrocities suffered at the hands of the Soviet Union, which had annexed Lithuania in 1940. However, they soon turned out to be an occupying power, made distinct by their drive to exterminate the local Jewish population. Three years later, in 1944, the German occupation was again replaced by the Soviet Union. Recalling the persecution which had befallen them only a few years earlier, hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians fled the country, primarily to Western Germany – despite its already overcrowding of Germans, exiles and other refugees. After several months or years spent in Germany, these Lithuanians would leave to settle in America, Canada, Australia and Brazil.

The small village of Hüttenfeld helps to illustrate this point. Located near Lampertheim in Hessen Land, it became a hub for the expat Lithuanian community in Germany. It served as a place for meetings and gatherings of Lithuanians from all across the globe, with the Lithuanian gymnasium located there playing an important role in fostering the Lithuanian language and culture. In fact, despite several transformations, the gymnasium survives to this day and is visited by many Lithuanians who share in its legacy, adding testament to the positive Lithuanian-German relations which had developed there.

Similarly, Germany never recognised the annexation and occupation of the 13th Soviet Republic (Lithuania). Incidentally, Konrad Adenauer – the first Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) – played an important role in this respect. Upon resumption of diplomatic relations in 1955 between Germany and the Soviet Union, negotiations quickly broke down. This was due to several outstanding issues between the two countries. Two of the most prominent surrounded the Soviet Union’s return of 10.000 German prisoners of war – whom the Soviets had declared as war criminals – and the Soviet Union’s need for Germany to recognize several of the USSR’s annexations – particularly in the case of the three Baltic states. While such acknowledgment from Germany may be seen as merely symbolic, it meant much more to Lithuanians, especially following the Soviet Union’s extermination of Lithuanian resistance fighters in 1953. The refusal to recognize these ‘Soviet Republics’ was emphasized by Lithuanian diaspora communities across the world, who, like their country-men back in Lithuania, had failed to see any of the support promised them by the West.

Thirty-five years later, relations between Germany and Lithuania were strengthened by Germany’s strong will to support the Lithuanian freedom movement. The Klaipėda Region ceased to be a subject of debate; other, more minor disputes were deemphasized. Above all, existed the desire to bring the fifty years of Lithuania’s oppression to an end. The daring act of the Lithuanian Communists separating themselves from the Central Communist Party, the visit of Gorbachev to Vilnius, and the blockade of the Baltic States did not go unnoticed in the West.

On 11 March 1990, the Act of Independence of Lithuania was initiated by Vytautas Landsbergis, the leader of Sąjūdis (the Lithuanian Reform Movement), who, incidentally, was also the first person to sign the document. Germany did have its own reservations upon learning that a former communist leader, Algirdas Brazauskas, was elected as President of Lithuania after the country became independent. At that time, however, around 500.000 Soviet troops, along with their families and colleagues, were deployed in the former German Democratic Republic. In 1991, two Members of the German Social Democratic Party made a brief stop in Vilnius on their way from Moscow back to Germany. They met with Chairman Landsbergis with complaints that Lithuanians were allegedly terrorising the Russian citizens of Lithuania. What a mockery; after the events of 13 January 1991, which had resulted in numerous deaths and hundreds of people injured, in addition to the barricaded parliament and tanks on the premises of the radio and television tower. Therefore, even after the bloodshed in Lithuania the stance of the Federal Government of Helmut Kohl and Hans-Dietrich Genscher vis-à-vis Lithuania remained restrained. At this point, the reunification of Germany had already taken place, but Soviet troops were not yet withdrawn from the country.

In early March of 1991, I, barely elected to the Bundestag, rushed to Vilnius. I was the first member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to visit Lithuania. Hosted as if I was on a state visit and accommodated at the hotel reserved for guests of the Government, I had meetings with each of the leaders of the Sąjūdis movement, including with Vytautas Landsbergis in person. He also met with Brazauskas and other leaders of the Communist Party, Algirdas Saudargas, representing the Social Democrats, Romualdas Ozolas, the leader of the Liberals, as well as others.

During his visit, I was accompanied by Antanas Račas, a signatory to the 11 March Act of Independence of Lithuania. Račas convinced me to take the lead within the Bundestag in promoting relations between Germany and Lithuania. As Lithuania was still a Soviet Republic at the time, the Bundestag was not in a position to establish a Parliamentary Friendship Group for relations with the Baltic States. A Parliamentary Circle of Friends of the Baltic States was established instead, and 110 parliamentarians from a wide spectrum of political parties joined it within weeks. The Circle was headed by me, with Reinhold Hiller (SPD) and Cornelia von Teichmann (FDP) as my deputies.

The German government was still against any formal and informal relations with Lithuania. For instance, the invitation extended by Rita Süssman, President of the Bundestag, to Vytautas Landsbergis for visiting Germany, had to be cancelled owing to pressure from the German Ministry for Foreign Affairs. In my capacity as an ordinary Member of the Bundestag, I nevertheless subsequently invited Landsbergis to Germany after securing agreement that the costs would be borne by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

These contacts resulted in the exchange of almost 1000 trainees. The families of the victims and injured from the events of 1991 were supported in part by German donations. Over DEM (German Deutschmarks) 600.000 was paid in support to the survivors of the Holocaust, even before the German government launched, in 1998, the payment of monthly aid to Lithuania.

Such monthly aid from Germany was partly concerning certain minority German populations living in Lithuania. After 1945, subsequent to the transfer of East Prussia and Königsberg to the Soviet Union, famine broke out in these regions. This led to the deaths of more than 100.000 out of the 200.000 German inhabitants of these regions. Children and young people aged from 10 to 15 fled to Lithuania for survival and managed to stay alive, unless caught on the way and transported to the Soviet occupation zone in Germany. Several hundred such children remained living in Lithuania. They were obliged to keep silent about their German nationality and were unable to disclose their identity until much later, when the political context changed. The Bundestag’s Parliamentary Friendship Group for relations with Lithuania offered them support and continues to provide financial aid to them. At this time, only 48 of these people are still alive, having reached a venerable age. For this German minority originating from Eastern Prussia, and referred to as the Wolfskinder (wolf’s children), the war ended some 40 or more years later than it did for the rest of the world.

By August 1991, events had succeeded each other at a maddening pace. Seven border guards were brutally killed in Vilnius. I made a brief speech on behalf of the German Bundestag in front of the 50.000 mourners. A coup d’etat was attempted in Moscow. In Vilnius, fears had abounded that the notorious Special Purpose Police Unit (OMON) force might attack Lithuania again. But things turned out quite differently in the end. On 28 August, clearly following a number of dramatic conversations, as well as in view of a wave of disclosures, Chancellor Kohl and Vice-Chancellor Genscher finally agreed to restore diplomatic relations with the Baltic States. A number of days before, premises were hired out in Bonn to house the Information Office of the Baltic States in Germany, which, for a number of months, served as residence for the ambassadors of the three Baltic States. At first, I was the only private source of funding for two ambassadors, officially hiring them as his own employees, registering them with all the relevant services in Germany, including the Sickness Insurance Fund, and paying them their salaries (all the expenses were reimbursed at a later date).

Initially, German-Baltic relations developed without any red tape: personal contacts and friendships were made, and every effort was offered to help the Baltic States. Both material and conceptual support was provided at all levels, including support to parties of the same political family and even provision of armoured limousines to the President and the Prime Minister. But soon enough, red tape developed on both sides and strangled relations. Negotiations on contracts became exceedingly lengthy and crucial decision-making was delayed.

Consider this as a telling example: it would have been a piece of cake for the Federal Republic of Germany to introduce a visa-free regime for the three Baltic States within the first months, or at least within the first year after the latter states regained independence. However, interest from the German side was lacking. At the time, the money collected from visa fees was the only source of income for the German embassies. The Parliamentary Circle of Friends of the Baltic States (the then counterpart of the current Parliamentary Friendship Group) fought hard against the totally unjustified reservations raised by the German Ministry of the Interior, but a workable solution would prove to take a rather long time to implement.

Another ambition of the Baltic States, apart from the visa-free regime, was to join the European Union, and especially NATO. In fact, the will to attain this aim persisted regardless of changes within the government. The 1992 elections in Lithuania flouted all expectations as Brazauskas, of the newly-established Social Democratic Party (LDDP), won a decided victory over Sąjūdis leader Landsbergis, and his Conservative Party. Four years later, though, Landsbergis won the elections jointly with Gediminas Vagnorius, Algirdas Saudargas and the conservative Homeland Union and Christian Democrats. The governments went on to alternate every four years. However, all of them firmly stuck to a singular commitment, that of protecting Lithuania from Russia. With this purpose in mind, NATO membership was staunchly pursued.

In Germany, me and my colleagues clashed with the inflexible Minister of Defence, Volker Rühe. Concurrently, Reinhold Hiller worked hard to promote the Lithuanian cause in his respective party, which was strongly opposed to offering NATO membership to countries of the former Soviet Union.

When NATO membership was finally achieved, all three Baltic States were overwhelmed with joy and gratitude. Lithuania, in particular, felt safer than ever before, with military transport running smoothly from Moscow through Belarus and Vilnius to Kaliningrad (Königsberg) and back. Germany might find it hard to acknowledge, but it is a fact that, following the recognition of Lithuania’s independence, the issue of military transit through its territory never raised any problems. By contrast, the fear of the Russian bear attacking again was entirely justified, as was later evidenced by the events in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.

Today, relations between Germany and Lithuania are better than ever before. Investment and trade between both nations is booming. The regular exchange of visits of high-ranking delegations and presidents is both smooth and regular. Both Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Chancellor Angela Merkel have visited Lithuania. Tourism also plays an important role, and the mutual exchange of tourists has exceeded the hundreds of thousands.

When I completed my parliamentary service in the Bundestag, I became an Honorary Consul of the Republic of Lithuania in the federal land of Baden-Württemberg. As I regularly visit Lithuania, it is impossible not to notice the remarkable transformation the country has undergone within the past 25 years. A very practical example: it is now difficult to find any parking spaces in the car parks of even the smallest of Lithuanian villages.

Lithuanians are particularly happy to host NATO units within their country, recently welcoming the first German-led NATO battalion onto their soil. What a change over the past 800 years.

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Freiherr von Stetten is a German lawyer and politician, former Member of the German Bundestag (1990-2002). He founded the German-Baltic Parliamentary Association in 1991 and served as its chair to 2002. He also has been the Lithuanian Consul in Baden-Württemberg since 2004

The article was published in the most recent edition of Lithuanian Foreign Policy Review, an annual magazine by Eastern Europe studies center in Vilnius, Lithuania. Access to the full publication –

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