Lithuania takes centre stage at last with presidency of Council of European Union
European letter: Baltic country plans to leave behind its chequered history
Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite addresses the European Parliament during a debate on the program of the Lithuanian presidency of the EU for the next six months, in Strasbourg, July 3, 2013.
Last Friday the bells of Vilnius University rang out to herald the start of Lithuania’s presidency of the Council of the European Union. Hundreds of dignitaries had gathered in the courtyard for the opening ceremony, a dazzling display of music and culture.
Ireland’s connections with Lithuania were brought into focus in a much more tragic way this week, when the bodies of Jolanta Lubiene and her daughter Enrika were flown home from Kerry to their home town of Gedrimai, 300km north of the capital.
Like the community of Killorglin, the people of Gedrimai have been numbed by the tragedy. But the story also shows how the histories of two very different countries have become intertwined through EU expansion. Like many of their compatriots, Lubiene and her siblings left home for Ireland after Lithuanian joined the EU in 2004.
Just as Irish emigrants once followed their older siblings to the US in search of work, the Lithuanians followed their brother Arvydas who first went to Glenbeigh in 2005.
Migration to Ireland
It is estimated that a third of all Lithuanians who left the country between 2004 and 2007 settled in Ireland.
The pattern of east-west economic migration that has characterised the past decade for Lithuania, is just the latest phase in the history of a country with a troubled and chequered past.
In the middle ages, the grand duchy of Lithuania was a formidable presence on the European continent, stretching as far south as the Black Sea. A union with Poland in the 16th century lead to a gradual increase in Polish influence across Lithuania.
The Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth was weakened by a series of wars, eventually leading to a ceding of control of most of modern day Lithuania to Russia by the early 19th century – a trend that was to characterise Lithuania’s history up to the 20th century.
Nonetheless Lithuanian nationalist movements flourished right into the 19th and 20th century. Vilnius, in particular, was a centre of culture and learning, with the city’s university, founded in the late 16th century, playing a major role in cultural life.
The country was known for its religious tolerance. While Orthodox and Roman Catholicism prevailed, it was a major Jewish centre, with Napoleon describing Vilnius as the “Jerusalem of the North”.
The 20th century marked a dark period in Lithuania’s history, as the country found itself trapped in the contested land between Germany and Russia.
Lithuania fell to Germany in 1915, but after the first World War became a sovereign state.
Once again it found itself in the crossfire when hostilities broke out in 1939. Lithuania was bartered about between Germany and the Soviet Union as part of the German-Soviet pact in the early stages of the war, before being occupied by both powers.
When Nazi Germany declared war on Russia in June 1941, the Nazis took Lithuania in little more than a week. This ushered in one of the most controversial periods of Lithuanian history.
As the Nazis began a massive extermination programme aimed primarily at Lithuania’s Jewish population, a significant proportion of Lithuanians collaborated in the killings.
Today, the Museum of Genocide Victims, located in an ex-KGB building in Vilnius, shows footage from Panerai, a suburb of Vilnius, where hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians, mainly Jews, were shot by the Nazis with the help of local collaborators.
By the end of the second World War, about 90 per cent of Lithuania’s Jewish population had been exterminated, one of the highest proportions of any European country during the war. The end of the war brought further suffering to Lithuania as the county was incorporated into the Soviet Union.
Countless Lithuanians were killed by the Soviets, while hundreds of thousands were displaced from their homes and deported to Siberia, where traditional Lithuanian culture and tradition flourished underground.
Juozas Olekas, Lithuania’s current minister of defence, was one of thousands of Lithuanians born in camps in remote central Asia.
Today Lithuania has emerged from its troubled history as a modern, outward-looking nation. It was the first Baltic state to declare independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. Although it suffered a banking collapse and property boom during the financial crisis, real GDP is expected to grow 3.1 per cent this year.
As the first Baltic country to hold the rotating presidency of the EU Council, Lithuania will be hoping its moment at the helm will help to showcase this small, little-known country in the northeastern corner of Europe, and to highlight a new chapter in its history.