Land of Ifs and Buts

Imaginary State

History is a never-ending list of what-ifs, maybes and perhapses. In a sense this post is related to a previous one (Królewiec Returns). The ‘what-ifs’ in history relate to different futures with each ‘what if’ being a bifurcation in the historical timeline. At these points, two or more alternate timelines are created but only one is ‘experienced’ by us. We won’t go into a discussion of alternate histories or sci-fi-like alternate universes but it’s fascinating to look at the geopolitical history of Europe and see how things actually did turn out and also what could have been.

Lithuania and Poland… Again
One of the previous posts looked at the possibility of Poland and Lithuania gaining new territory from the defunct Kaliningrad Oblast (to happen in the near future). This post will again mention these two countries which once shared an almighty Commonwealth. It is no mistake that historical discussions of either of these two states need to include a discussion of the other. They are intrinsically linked, rather like strands of wool that become entangled.

After Peace, War
So after so many years together as the Commonwealth of Two Nations, Lithuania and Poland became separated by the partitions. Poland was neatly divided up between Russia, Prussia and Austria whereas Lithuania wholly came under the control of the Russian Empire. After regaining independence (albeit briefly for Lithuania), Poland brutally attacked its former ally and took Vilnius/Wilno/Vilna (the capital of Lithuania). Granted, the large majority of the population was Polish, however, the surrounding area was predominantly Lithuanian and Belarusian. What is more, Vilnius has always been seen as the cradle of Lietuvių Kultūra (Kosovo could be analogous, perhaps).

Central Lithuania

Central Lithuanian Republic
Armed forces, at the behest of Józef Piłsudski, took Vilnius and the surrounding area. In order to appease the west Piłsudski did not, at first, annexe the area outright. The territory became the Republic of Central Lithuania in 1920. In fact, the Republic had its own (provisional) government, president (Lucjan Żeligowski), flag and postal stamps. After two years and disputed elections, the (puppet) republic voted for the incorporation of the whole of its territory into Poland. It was annexed by Poland in 1922. Thus ended the brief and controversial life of the Republic of Central Lithuania.

Other Bizarre Oddities
There are other such states that have had a brief and fruitless life. States such as the Free, Independent, and Strictly Neutral City of Kraków which survived from 1815 to 1846; the Rusyn Republic of Lemkos (from 1918-1920) or the Republic of Perloja (from 1918-1923) centred around the village of Perloja in Lithuania all serve as great examples of ‘what might have been’ and how important politics can be in the face of self-determination or even sheer brute force.


Looking Back
To this day, many Poles hark back to the past and ruefully wish that their forbears had not made the mistakes that so cruelly extinguished the huge Commonwealth. “If only we had managed to hold onto our territory (from the Baltic to the Black Sea)…” There is something universal in longing for the past and wishing that things could have been done better so that our future might now be more rosy. All nations and peoples do it. Another example, and interesting bifurcation, is the creation de jure of a Ruthenian state in 1658. Had the Principality/Duchy of Ruthenia become a de facto state it would have laid the foundations perhaps of a fledgling Ukraine – “one of the great what-ifs of Eastern European history” according to Andrew Wilson of UCL. Those pesky what-ifs…

15 thoughts on “Land of Ifs and Buts

  1. PS: if I sounded contentious in my replies to your post about Wałęsa, it’s only because I liked your piece: we may not agree, but it’s always nice to read an opposing point of view if it’s well-written. So, while we may disagree about ‘ole Lech, at least one good thing I can say about him is that he helped me find this blog.



  2. Thanks for stopping by Transpacifica. Interesting entry here, and way to go on the chinchilla avatar. They are the best animals that walk this earth.


  3. “After regaining independence (albeit briefly for Lithuania), Poland brutally attacked its former ally and took Vilnius/Wilno/Vilna (the capital of Lithuania)”


    First of all when the German Ober Ost was leaving the area a power vacuum was created and the strongest , most organised and most numerous grasped the whole area. Short lived Belorussian Republic was amonst the first victims, but when it comes to Vilnius case it is entirely a different matter.

    First of all local population lived there for centuries and till late XIXth century no real national issues appeared. Granted, the region seen huge support in all uprisings against Russia and the local people refered to themselves as Lithuanians, but did so in Polish and with a reborn Pol-Lith state as their country.
    After the fall of the January Uprising the old ideas were gradually abandoned, the russyfication policy and the birth of modern nationalism all left something behind. It resulted in quick polonisation of local population and opposed to that Lithuanian nationalism, but rather very weak in Vilnius itself.
    Actually even the name ‘Vilnius’ wasn’t used before that period…

    Anyway since strenght in unity became a principle it grtadually removed any possibility for a compromise. The majority of the locals started considering themselves Polish in every way – given the choice to live as Lithuanians i.e. reject Polish culture and language they considered their own it is not a suprise. Besides Lithuanian nationalist coming from Semigatia seemed completely foreign, especially more zelous types.

    After the fall of Russia, the defeat of Germany and all else local self-defence groups became a norm.
    Vilnius became one of the strongest Polish strongholds and the city was taken from Germans by local units commanded by general Wejtko (1st January 1919).

    Between 3rd and 5th January the fighters defended it from the Red Army which came at that time – which is considered the beginning of the Polish-Bolshevik war.
    The region is occupied and becomes a part of Soviet Lit-Biel SSR.
    In April 1919 the whole region is re-taken by Polish army and is safe behind the lines to July 1920.
    During the successful Soviet offensive the area is gradulally occupied by the Red Army. Lithuanins also attack, but only with small forces and it has little impact on the campaign.
    Anyway on 12th july the Soviets and Lithuanian sign a peace treaty according to which Wilno together with Grodno, Lida etc are given to Lithuania – two days before the Reds actually occupy Vilnius.
    Later after the defeat at Warsaw the Reds are again beaten during the Nemel offensive where a detached assault group crosses the Lithuanina border to outflank the Soviet defences. It ends in a Soviet massive defeat and an agreement between Poland and Lithuania which leaves Wilno on their side – but not Grodno, Lida etc which are re-taken. The next day the agreement is signed general Żeligowski leads ‘rebelled’ forces of 1st Lit-Bel Division (its core is formed from the original forces defending Vilnius in January 1919) and beats the Lithuanians taking the city back once more.

    Complicated ? Actually even more in real life and CERTAINLY NOT so simple as a certain author in this blog describes in one, easy sentence.

    The truth is that there could be no compromise – at least from Polish side there were the federalists of Pilsudski, but were met with hostility equal to such expressed by Polish eNDecja. If there could be no solution making everyone happy onse side won and that could only be Poland.

    let us not forget that Lithuania tried to rebuilt the Grand Duchy when it comes to their territorial ambitions, but it was no more the XIVth century and it was simply too small and its rule too unpopular to achieve results.

    When it comes to the ethnical composition of the region – it was and actually still is in some parts – it supports Polish claims to full extent in the Vilnius area – the whole area, I must add. Poles formed the majority in the whole province – even if they were ‘polonised Lithuanians’, Belorussians formed the majority slightly more to the south-east in Belorus proper. Lithuanians however had neither – a small minority in the entire area with some local spots where it was more than 50 %.

    Vilnius might be a cradle of the state of Lithuania but ceased to be Lithuanian with the birth of nationalism- without it it would be Lithuanian, but as a part of the recreated Pol-Lit Republic – so said the Lithuanin guerillas from 1863-64, Lithuanin soldiers in 1831, 1812 – not to mentnion 1794.

    For the record, for the future please don’t use radical and judgementl statements with no support in the reality.

    My regards.

  4. Cegorach,
    Many thanks for the fascinating post. Really. I enjoyed reading your comments. All very interesting and no doubt much of what you write is true. History is complicated and NEVER black and white. History also shows that there is always two sides to the story but that usually only one view is taken.
    I wonder if we can make comparisons here between the ‘Germanness’ of Wroclaw/Breslau, the ‘Czechness’ of Cieszyn or the Orthodoxy of Podlasie. Generalisations (and I too am guilty here) serve to manipulate and distort reality. What are Poles? Lithuanians? Belarusians? If polonised Lithuanians can be counted as Poles then surely the Polish press should lay off people like Lukasz Podolski, who is in fact German by this kind of reasoning. Black and white divisions may well be cosy but they’re certainly not helpful for understanding history.

  5. Congrats for your blog, I find it deeply interesting, especially in the history posts.
    In the past few days I’ve been scratching my head about the first map of this post (“Poland & the nes Baltic states”). I just can’t figure its possible date. I mean, it sure comes from any time between 1918 and 1922, but I can’t give it a precise date. By any chance, can you?


  6. Cegorah said that the name Vilnius wasn’t used till XIX century…but this is a complete bulshit. The name Vilnius was used from the foundation of the capital in the early 12th century, later due to polish catholicism and political polonization they started to call the city Wilno which makes no sence since Vilnius in Lithuanian language means a wave and the river later was called Vilnija and even later Vilija, this name for the river Neris still is used in Belorussia

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