Lithuania: A Nation of Many Cultures

The story of the Lithuanian nation spans many centuries and concerns a highly diverse ethnic population that dates back to 2000 B.C. For thousands of years, the Balts, who were the ancestors of modern Lithuanians, were wealthy amber traders along the coast of the Baltic Sea. The Crusaders were the first conquerors of the country, which at the time was the largest pagan European nation.

Foreign occupation incited a dynamic quest for solidarity and the need for Lithuanians to embrace a culture of their own. They were first subjected to the Crusaders, then under Polish dominion in the 12th century when they were forced to accept Catholicism, and finally under the Soviets. It wasn’t until 1991 when Lithuanian independence was finally regained.

Lithuania’s life force is culture, and the appalling price paid to keep it makes this nation unique among others. The country’s focus on a national and cultural identity was the result of a literacy movement that began in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Although the Soviets forbade reading and writing in their national language, a people determined to keep its precious traditions alive developed an unquenchable thirst for national literature.

For centuries Lithuania was home to many Poles, Latvians, Germans, gypsies and Belarusians, but the nation has undergone significant changes in its ethnic population down through the centuries. From 1941-1944, up to 250,000 Jews (Litvaks) were all either killed by Nazi Germany or they emigrated. Catholicism was also very important to the Lithuanian anti-communist resistance under the Soviet Union, and some Catholic priests risked their lives to become leaders in these movements.

Upon the defeat of the Nazis in WWII, the Soviets refused to withdraw from Lithuania, establishing it as part of the U.S.S.R. From 1945 to 1953, the populace was subjected to the wrath of murderous madman, Joseph Stalin. Many thousands were deported to Siberia, including women and small children and intellectuals. Many fled, seeking asylum elsewhere, and countless others were murdered in a bloody genocide campaign. Protecting culture as if it were a precious heirloom became a form of quiet resistance.

Lithuanians have sought recognition from the rest of the world, having paid a terrible toll in loss of life at the hands of foreign nations. Lithuania first applied for North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) membership in 1994, and entrance into NATO and the European Union, which happened in 2004, marked the beginning of a healing process and a burgeoning relationship with both its immediate neighbors and the world community.

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