LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 44, No.3 - Fall 1998
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
Copyright © 1998 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Alfonsas Eidintas, Vytautas Žalys & Alfred Erich Senn. Edvardas Tuskenis, ed., Lithuania in European Politics - The Years of the First Republic, 1918-1940, (St. Martin's Press, New York: 1998), 241 pages including map and photographs.
The authorship of this book is in itself remarkable. It is a solid blend of the best American and Lithuanian scholarship presented in a passionately dispassionate diplomatic manner. Alfonsas Eidintas and Vytautas Žalys are accomplished Lithuanian historians and members of the Lithuanian Foreign Service. Both held high positions as Ambassador and First-Secretary at the reactivated Lithuanian Embassy in Washington, DC. Alfonsas Eidintas is now the Lithuanian Ambassador to Canada. Vytautas Žalys has returned to the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry in Vilnius. Alfred Erich Senn is a professor of history at he University of Wisconsin-Madison and is an internationally recognized American authority on Lithuanian history and politics. His publications are required reading for anyone seriously interested in modern Lithuania. Edvardas Tuskenis is an American-Lithuanian who has brought considerable editorial skills to this volume.
In commenting on this work, Zbigniew Brzezinski, an internationally renowned American expert on international relations currently associated with the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, DC. states: "Modern Lithuanian history is deeply enmeshed in the complex tangle of competing Central European national aspirations. This volume ably conveys both the determined character of the Lithuanian quest for national independence and the tragic consequences of Lithuania's vulnerability." After an introduction by Alfred Erich Senn, the nascent evolution of the modern Lithuanian national movement at the start of the twentieth century is described juxtaposing the demands of a modern nation State against the romantic legacy of a multi-ethnic and culturally diverse medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Two directions were clearly possible, the re-establishment of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in some sort of relationship with Poland, Russia or Germany, or a modern ethno-centric Lithuanian national republic.
Although Lithuania chose the latter course, the undertow of the historical baggage of the Grand Duchy during the period of the First Republic weighed heavily upon the country. Coupled with a less than enviable geopolitical position it almost predestined the course of Lithuanian foreign policy at that time. While neighboring Latvia and Estonia began their modern statehood comparatively unencumbered by their history, Lithuania was hackled in the grip of its past. The dispute over Vilnius was much more than a territorial issue. It was waged over possession of the historical soul of Lithuanian statehood. The tension over Vilnius between Lithuania, Poland and Belarus was based on two diametrically opposite visions of what modern Lithuania should be. The bitter friction poisoned Lithuanian relations with Poland and negatively impacted on ties with neighboring Soviet Russia to entice Lithuania into their spheres of influence. The ensuing acrimony earned Lithuania the disdain of Great Britain and the wrath and anger of France. Washington would have been content to leave Lithuania within the Russian orbit or appended in some way to a greater Poland, had it not been for the vociferous and successful lobbying efforts of the Lithuanian American Community. Vytautas Žalys describes these events artfully and diplomatically.
Alfonsas Eidintas directs most of his attention to the creation of the modern Lithuanian state. He presents much new information based upon hitherto inaccessible archival sources and research much of which can be found in his Lithuanian language study entitled Aleksandras Stulginskis, Lietuvos prezidentas - gulago kalinys [Aleksandras Stulginskis, President of Lithuania - Prisoner of the Gulag] published in Vilnius in 1995. During the period of Soviet occupation every effort was made to wipe the period of independence from the collective Lithuanian subconscious and the pages of history. What is now called the First Republic was defamed as "bourgeois" and "fascist". Lithuanian homeland historians who attempted to objectively delve into this period did so at great personal risk. The subject was ideologically and politically taboo in Lithuania. Little was written about the presidential regime of Antanas Smetona by Lithuanians abroad as well but for very different reasons. The failures and mistakes of his administration were still too fresh and painful to be examined objectively by emigre historians and publicists. Battles long since won or lost were refought in exile. Antanas Smetona simply did not fit into the hallowed pantheon of past Lithuanian rulers such as Vytautas the Great, Gediminas, Kęstutis, Mindaugas or even Jogaila. Many thought Antanas Smetona was a weak and pusillanimous leader, who had brought the country to ruin, a frocked former employee of a Polish bank in Vilnius who deserted his country in a time of tribulation and died ignobly allegedly trying to retrieve his wife's fur coat from a Cleveland fire. The perceived anti-clerical measures of his administration lessened his popularity even more among Lithuanian Catholics.
Alfonsas Eidintas is among the first post-Soviet Lithuanian historians to approach the complex life and times of Antanas Smetona in a scholarly and rational way, covering such topics as the governmental structures of the First Republic, constitutional issues, internal party squabbles and conflicts, economic development, land reform, the role of minorities especially the Jews and Polish speaking citizens of Lithuania and the remarkable achievements in all areas of life at that time. Although such topics may not seem particularly exciting to the average reader, those with a deeper interest in contemporary Lithuanian history and politics will find his presentation invaluable in understanding the internal and foreign policies of Lithuania today many of which though rooted in the past to some degree must be addressed again by a new generation.
As in every work there are shortcomings which in no way unfavorably impact on the validity of the study. Most are of a stylistic or technical nature. Some Lithuanians will find fault with the use of English rather than Lithuanian by the authors. The choice of English the international language of our time will make this volume available to readers throughout the world. Others will criticize the selection of topics, but every author must in a sense edit and limit his own work. However, the index of personal and place names could have been more comprehensive for the more focused reader. A complete and separate bibliography would have been most welcome. There are some discrepancies in the style of footnoting. In some instances the American system is used, in others the Lithuanian. Certain phrases and abbreviations readily understood by Lithuanian readers as well as terminology in German, Polish, Russian and French should have been translated into English, such as "Nationalists" for "tautininkai". One would have expected more in the way of Polish, German and Russian primary sources. Some commentary on the rather striking and even disconcerting appendices would have been illuminating. For example, twenty-one Lithuanian governments between November 11, 1918 and November 21, 1939 are listed within a time frame of some twenty-one years without an explanation. Other issues first touched upon by Konstantinas Račkauskas, the father of Lithuanian constitutional legal studies in his pioneering work entitled Lietuvos konstitucinės teisės klausimais, [Questions of Lithuanian Constitutional Law], published in New York in 1967 invite further research.
In conclusion, this is a very important and much needed study. The history presented is not only timely but extremely usable in understanding the perennial internal and international problems facing Lithuania today. Unless more creative and effective solutions are found to long-standing issues a real danger exists that many of the mistakes of the First Republic will be unwittingly repeated. The continued existence of an essentially flawed, dysfunctional mixed parliamentary-presidential political system, pursuing less than clear foreign policy objectives based more on ideology, vainglorious historical romanticism and mythical flights of fancy or simply personal ambition rather than realistic and practical assessments of international realities could again lead to what Zbigniew Brzezinski describes as "tragic consequences" for Lithuania.
Thomas A. Michalski