Lithuania’s Century

In 1918, many observers, including many Lithuanians, thought that freedom fell upon her unprepared because too few were educated. But in 1989-1991, Lithuanians led the way towards the collapse of the Soviet Union and had the courage, unarmed, to stare down Soviet tanks. Leaders, who insisted on non-violence so as to offer the Soviets no excuse, were among the factors which kept the collapse from turning into a blood-bath. Browsing the headlines of the New York Times should convince scoffers.

Independence saved Lithuania from two decades of Lenin and Stalin, the deadliest, most destructive years of Soviet Communism. Likely, she would not have suffered as much as the Ukraine: smaller and with less fertile soil, she did not offer a granary to be looted at will. But like the Ukrainians, Lithuanians had resisted Communism and were mostly kulaks in Soviet jargon, that is, members of a class marked for destruction on ideological grounds. And Stalin could well have been tempted to move towards a final solution of Russia’s long-standing border problems—Lithuania at the time shared a border with Germany. The mass deportations of June 1941, some 20,000 victims, were only the first steps of a larger project, which estimates suggest would have claimed more than 500,000, had it not been interrupted by the war. The occupation of 1944-1991 was marked by serious crimes, but by then the Soviets had other concerns. In retrospect, independence was by far the better alternative than Bolshevism.

Small nations cannot ward off predators. This is one of the standard criticisms of small states: they are tempting prey. However, joining the Soviet Union would not have saved Lithuania from war and German occupation, with its own losses. And, as things turned out, had Lithuania sought shelter in union with Poland, the third alternative backed by long history, she would have been no more secure. Independent, she escaped the 1939 partition of Poland, avoiding nine months of Communist or Nazi rule. On the plus side, united with Poland, after the war, she would have been part of a Soviet satellite, a less stifling condition than outright occupation.

In union with Poland she would have been defenseless against assimilative pressures, both natural and resulting from policy, since many in prewar Poland wanted a homogeneous nation-state, to be created by the dissemination of Polish language and culture. In the nineteenth century Lithuania survived pressures towards Polonization. It would have been more difficult to survive them in the twentieth. Among major achievement of independence was land reform, the distribution of estate lands into the hands of the landless and small holders, according to many observers, the primary reason why Lithuania survived. Many of those who after 1944 became partisans were beneficiaries of land reform. Since landed gentry were more dominant in Poland, any redistribution would have been more modest.

Independent Lithuania had to establish a system of education. Under the czars there was only one secondary school offering a class in Lithuanian. After 1905, some primary schools began to teach a few subjects in Lithuanian. But most schools were Russian: the majority of the few who attended school, attended first grade in a language they did not understand. In spite of this, while the standard was low, the literacy rate in Lithuania was around 50%, somewhat higher than in Russia, thanks to small underground schools which the government persecuted. These schools were at times no more than a wandering beggar, carrying news and gossip, pausing for several days to teach in exchange for food and shelter.

The problems which the independent country faced are shown by the following statistics. In the 1922-1923 school year, only 109 elementary school teachers had 15 or more years of experience, while 1310—one to three years. Of the 2200 teachers, somewhat more than half of them women, only some 300 had begun their careers in czarist times. Many were not secondary school graduates, especially the women because fewer girls than boys attended school. Thus, there were many summer programs for teachers. Adult education was widespread: government offices closed early so that employees could attend classes. 390 towns and cities offered evening classes for adults. Another suggestive fact: 1298 schools leased their facilities, while only 429 owned them. The schools were small, averaging under 70 students. Compulsory education was introduced in 1930. In 1940 there were some 2700 schools, 7000 teachers, and around 341,000 pupils, counting both public and private schools.

By 1940 there were 89 secondary schools, with 24 operated by national minorities, with partial support of the government, conducted in the language of the minority. Most of the minority schools were Jewish and in Hebrew. When compared with the United States, Lithuania was more supportive of minority aspirations. There had been no university in Lithuania since the czar closed the University in Vilnius in 1832. First steps towards establishing one in Kaunas were taken in January 1919. By 1940, it had a student population of about 4000. There were also specialized institutions of higher education.

There was little by way of health care. On January 1, 1924 there were 442 doctors registered. By 1939 there were 915 doctors, serving a population of over 2,000,000. In 1939, 56 men and 16 women completed medical school. At that rate, the number of doctors would have doubled in about 15 years. The problem was compounded by Jewish insistence, on religious grounds, of having a separate health care system. In 1924 there was one Jewish doctor for about 900 Jews, and one Lithuanian for about 7800 Lithuanians, at a time when a ratio of one to 1000, while rarely achieved, was considered optimum. Lithuanians had some access to the Jewish system but, among other things, encountered language problems since in the early years many educated Jews knew little Lithuanian, preferring Russian.

These differences are reflected in mortality tables: in 1925 average life expectancy at birth for Lithuanians was about 32 years, for Jews—about 50, the best of all groups. (Russians fared worst.) Infant mortality for Lithuanians was over 16%, perhaps closer to 20%, since in remote areas it was more convenient not to register births and deaths. For Jews it was 4-5%. Over the years, the Jewish rate remained stable, while the Lithuanian approached 10%, a milestone by the standards of the day. Only part of this difference can be explained by cultural factors: Jewish mothers nursed longer, while Lithuanian infant mortality peaked during the summer from disorders of the digestive tract—there was little refrigeration and most milk was not pasteurized. Also, there were fewer Jewish unmarried mothers, while infant mortality was higher in cases of illegitimacy. For whatever reason, in the early years, 48% of Lithuanian children died before their tenth birthday, 18% of Jewish.

In 1900 some visitors to Kaunas noted that they were as if in the Middle East, with shop signs in Hebrew. Obviously, in modern times, urbanization is a necessary condition of survival. Forty years later, Kaunas was an European city. There was some friction, smearing of shop windows, controversy over relocating Jewish owned slaughterhouses away from the ruins of the castle, store closing hours. A detailed study of the latter question would make good reading, with rabbis not budging and municipal authorities searching for compromises. A few municipalities gave up: whatever. Some Lithuanian liberals criticized Jews for clericalism. There was some anti-Semitism, but it never developed into an ideology. Bad relations with Poland, and Germany, helped: anti-Semitism could be depicted as the Polish, or German, vice. One attempt to establish an anti-Semitic periodical was blocked by censors. Typically, major newspapers depicted Jews as separate but loyal, who on independence day in synagogues sing the national anthem in Hebrew. Revisionist Zionists were praised for rejecting Communism.

There is no space to describe economic progress, nor other cultural developments, the building of museums, theaters, libraries. By 1939 there was a substantial literature, four Lithuanian dailies and dozens of local weeklies. Some periodicals published illustrations in color, evidence of modernization in the printing trades. But enough has been said to show that upon gaining independence Lithuanians tackled the many social, cultural, economic problems, created by wars and more than a century of imperial rule.

And after a hundred years, membership in NATO and the European Union, while not without its own problems, offers hope of a second and more tranquil century.


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