Volume 26, No.1 - Spring 1980
Editor of this issue: Thomas Remeikis
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1980 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.


University of Wisconsin—Madison

The dispute between the Polish and the Lithuanian states that emerged from the ashes of Europe after World War I was an important feature of the diplomatic scene during the 1920's. Would-be peacemakers despaired about the problem. Poles and Lithuanians were not to be reconciled; they viewed the dispute differently and could scarcely even agree on what the issues were. The events expressing the dispute have been chronicled in extensive detail, but much less has been done to analyze the psychological outlook of the principals. Just how did they perceive themselves and their opponents? Were decisions made from knowledge or from ignorance and passion? To consider this question it is necessary to learn how they viewed the issues.

The personal files on the Lithuanian question of two leading Poles, Erazm Piltz and Leon Wasilewski, offer intriguing insights into the Polish-Lithuanian controversy. Piltz, a leader of the "Realist" Party, stood on the political right in Poland, while Wasilewski, one of Pilsudski's advisors, was a socialist. The papers of both are now held by the Manuscript Section of the Biblioteka Narodowa in Warsaw, and they reveal a great deal about the images these two leading Poles brought to the problem of dealing with the Lithuanians. At the same time they offer some perspectives on Polish-Lithuanian relations that have hitherto escaped the searching eyes of the historian.1

 In the first days of the existence of the two states, 1918-1919, Piltz seems to have been disinclined to take the Lithuanians seriously. He heavily marked up his copy of Henri Grappin's essay Pologne et Lithuanie (Paris, 1919), which argued that while the Germans had artificially stimulated Lithuanian nationalism, the Lithuanians as a people were doomed to extinction. Piltz arranged Grappin's points as a sequential argument: up to the beginning of the 20th century, one could not find "the least traces of a Lithuanian nationalism"; the movement to develop a literary Lithuanian language at the end of the 19th century came about only with German help; the Lithuanian people were in the process of disappearing; the ethnographic territory was constantly shrinking. Operating with such a view of the Lithuanian nationality, Piltz saw no reason to seek an accommodation with the Lithuanian state.2

Wasilewski, on the other hand, was more ready to deal seriously with the Lithuanians. Yet at the same time he took a certain paternalistic attitude and repeatedly awaited what he thought to be the inevitable move of the Lithuanians into the Polish orbit.3 In the late summer of 1919 Pilsudski sent him to Vilnius to supervise Polish activities and to observe the developments within Lithuania.4 Wasilewski's reports to Warsaw in the fall and winter, included in his papers, offer a fascinating running commentary.5

Writing on November 20, 1919, Wasilewski described the new government just formed in Kaunas under the leadership of Ernestas Galvanauskas as being basically weak. The English had not yet delivered on a promised loan; the English and the French representatives seemed to be urging the Lithuanians toward some sort of agreement with the Poles; and even the Latvians were exerting "an energetic polonophile pressure on the Lithuanians." The Lithuanians were winning no support among the Entente powers for their efforts to "tame" the Poles, and pro-Polish elements in Kaunas seemed to be coming back into the open after the abortive coup attempt of late summer. Warsaw could probably "count on the possibility of certain changes in their relationship to us."

Just as the Lithuanians were concerned about the maintenance of their schools in Vilnius, the Poles wanted to keep their schools in Kaunas open. Wasilewski saw this as a matter of boosting the local morale of the local Polish population there and also as a matter of Poland's national prestige. Therefore he requested and received permission to pay a subsidy of 30,000 German Marks to meet the deficit of the Polish gymnasium in Kaunas.

Wasilewski's activities also extended into religious matters. For this purpose he exploited Father Antanas Viskontas, who had long been known for his pro-Polish sympathies.6 Viskontas, who spoke of a desire for a unified Lithuania, including both Poles and Lithuanians on the territory of the historic Grand Duchy, willingly cooperated. Wasilewski monitored Viskontas's communications with the Papal Nuncio in Warsaw, Achilles Ratti. He welcomed Ratti's decision to visit Vilnius,7 and he sought to publicize religious problems in the territory administered by the Kaunas government.

Because of the controversy surrounding the work of Jurgis Matulaitis-Matulevičius as bishop of Vilnius, it is significant to note Wasilewski's praise of his work. "I must call attention to the position of the local bishop Matulewicz," Wasilewski wrote in November 1919, "who, although a Lithuanian, has been behaving very loyally toward Poland."

In the last of his reports to be found in this particular file, dated January 8, 1920, Wasilewski delightedly reported the dismay of the Lithuanians at the fall of Daugavpils to a joint Polish-Latvian offensive.8 This action cut off Lithuanian forces from contact with the Bolsheviks and posed a certain threat to Kaunas in the form of the cooperation between Riga and Warsaw. "Even greater consternation," he reported, "reigns among the Kaunas Jews, who had been smuggling across the front."

In the summer and fall of 1920, Polish-Lithuanian relations passed through a series of dramatic crises. The Lithuanians declared their neutrality in the Polish-Russian war, but Warsaw interpreted the Lithuanians' actions as constituting a pro-Soviet intervention. Therefore, in October, General Lucjan Zeligowski, on secret orders from Pilsudski, seized Vilnius from the Lithuanians in a move only thinly disguised as a "revolt."9 The Lithuanians could never reconcile themselves to this maneuver, and the Poles could not forgive them for their actions during the war.

On January 20, 1921, Juljusz Lukasiewicz reported on the Lithuanian question in the name of the Eastern Section of the Polish Foreign Ministry.10 Arguing that the Poles constituted 10% of the population of "Kaunas Lithuania," he declared that the government there had had an "anti-Polish physiognomy" from its very beginning. The main task of the ruling organ had to be the 'depolonization' of the land. Lukasiewicz called the elections of 1920 to a Constituent Assembly "a mockery" of the Polish population, who had been gerrymandered so as to be deprived of their proper representation. The Poles, he insisted, should have received fifteen seats instead of just three in the assembly. "Kowno," he warned, "has become a center of Bolshevik activity. Akselrod's mission numbers about 100 persons.11 He is in constant contact with Germans coming from Germany. The French mission in Kowno has fully precise information that under Lithuanian eyes meetings are being held, common military plans are being worked out, maps are drawn, etc."

In the spring of 1921 a Belgian, Paul Hymans, attempted to bring about an agreement between the two states on the basis of an arrangement "approaching federation."12 It has been suggested that his plan originated with the Polish government, but even such a figure as Vaclovas Sidzikauskas doubted this.13 Documents in Piltz's file indicate that this was indeed so.

On February 18, 1921, Alexander Babianski, a well known supporter of Polish-Lithuanian federation,14 produced a proposal for a "Great Lithuania." Noting that Polish opinion viewed Lithuania as having first depended on Germany and now on Russia, he argued that the Lithuanians had in fact been realistic in their path toward independence. Now that same realism should direct them toward a "union of free peoples" under the leadership of Poland. He offered a plan for that union, based on Polish recognition of Lithuanian independence, Lithuanian recognition of autonomy for Vilnius with its own legislature and government, and common foreign policy, military, finances, and communications.

The Polish government would seem to have communicated a similar plan to Hymans in a memorandum dated April 18,1921, to be found in the same file as Babianski's memorandum. Marked "Strictly Secret," the memorandum offered a far-reaching plan for Polish-Lithuanian federation based on three principles: full sovereignty of both states, "a natural and desirable bond between the two states," and guarantees of national rights within the Lithuanian state. The memorandum called this proposal the "maximum" to which the Polish government could agree, and it suggested "since these are of a nature to provoke some criticism among certain political parties, these suggestions should not be considered as emanating from the Polish government, and the Council of the League of Nations should take the initiative."

In the end, the Polish government had to reject Hymans's efforts, as did the Lithuanians. Opposition within both countries was simply too strong.

The last document I would like to mention is the protocol of a meeting of specialists in the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs on May 30, 1924. This is just the time that rumors were spreading through Europe that the Lithuanian Riflemen's Union, Šaulių Sąjunga, was planning an attack on Vilnius. In the last days of May Galvanauskas's coalition government in Kaunas came apart at the seams, and the Christian Democrats chose to organize a cabinet by themselves.15

Wladyslaw Wielhorski served as rapporteur for the Foreign Ministry's discussion of the Lithuanian question.16 He argued that the Lithuanian clergy, military, and bureaucracy all constituted new national institutions that were working at building anti-Polish attitudes in the country. The Germans, who he declared had helped the Lithuanians to take Klaipeda,17 were trying to convert the government in Kaunas into a client. To a question from Piltz, Wielhorski insisted there was no russophile tendency in Lithuanian politics. The left was admittedly sympathetic to the Russians, but it lacked "revolutionary temperament." Eugeniusz Romer followed Wielhorski's talk with a long, pessimistic account of the Lithuanian economy.

 The assembled group agreed that Poland could not take up arms against the Lithuanian state. Their best alternative was to undermine the government by supporting sympathetic elements within Lithuania. Among the possible channels for intervening in Lithuania, the group listed Polish schools, the Red Cross, the French mission in Kaunas, and the Papal Apostolic Visitor in Lithuania, Antonino Zecchini.18 Warsaw should also try to undermine Lithuania's international position; this would involve intervention with the League of Nations as well as isolating Lithuania by hindering better relations between Kaunas and Riga.

 These few documents add an interesting dimension to the history of Polish-Lithuanian relations. They buttress arguments that an agreement was impossible. The distrust the Poles held for the Lithuanian government was compounded by a variety of misconceptions: the view that the Lithuanian national movement had no genuine roots; the image of the Lithuanian government as first the client of the Germans and then of the Bolsheviks; the assumption that Lithuanians of good will would naturally follow the lead of the Poles. The Poles, moreover, could not speak with one voice; such an elaborate maneuver as the plan submitted to Hymans was in the end rejected by Warsaw itself. Even in 1924 Polish policy was aimed more at weakening the Lithuanian government than in finding an accommodation with it.


1 The two collections contain several files on Lithuanian affairs. The documents cited in this article come from Akta Erazma Piltza, sign. 23, and Archiwum Leona Wasilewskiego, sign. 35. 
2 On Piltz's activities and views during the First World War, see Alfred Erich Senn, "The Entente and the Polish Question, 1914-1916," Jahrbūcher fur Geschichte Osteuropas, 25 (1978): 21-33.
 3 For an example of Wasilewski's views, see his Litwa i Bator's (Warsaw, 1925). 
4 Cf. Mykolas Biržiška's views in Alfred Erich Senn, "A Conversation with Mykolas Biržiška," Lituanus, 21 (Summer 1975): 62-63.
 5 The file contains three reports: November 20,1919, listing nine items for discussion; December 10, 1919, listing five items; and January 8, 1920, listing six items. 
6 On Viskontas see Roy E. Heath and Alfred Erich Senn, "Edmond Privat and the Commission of the East in 1918," Journal of Baltic Studies, 6 (1975): 9-15. 
7 Ratti, later Pope Pius XI, is the only pope to have visited Lithuania.
 8 See Alfred Erich Senn, The Emergence of Modern Lithuania (New York, 1959), p. 195.
 9 Alfred Erich Senn, The Great Powers, Lithuania, and the Vilna Question, 1920-1928 (Leiden, 1966), pp. 27-46.
 10 Lukasiewicz, long Polish Minister in Riga, was considered a key figure in Polish policies toward Lithuania throughout the 1920's. 
11 A. E. Akselrod headed the Soviet mission in Lithuania, opened after the ratification of the peace treaty of July 12, 1920. 
12 See Senn, The Great Powers, . . . , pp. 66-82. 
13 Alfred Erich Senn, "Vaclovas Sidzikauskas on the Early Years of Lithuanian Diplomacy," Lituanus, 21 (Winter 1975): 67. 
14 See Senn, The Great Powers . . ., p. 71. 
15 Ibid., pp. 130-32. 
16 For Wielhorski's views, see his Polska a Litwa: Stosunki wzajemne w biegu dziejow (London, 1947). 
17 Cf. Alfred Erich Senn, "Die Besetzung Memels im Januar 1923," Forschungen zur osteuropaischen Geschichte, 10 (1965): 334-52. 
18 On Zecchini, see Senn, The Great Powers . . ., pp. 141-44.