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History of Lithuania

Lithuanian history goes back to almost 2000 BC, although the modern country was formed due to more recent events. In about 2000 BC the Baltic people arrived in the region and settled what is today Lithuania.

There is little written history of the Lithuanians for the next 3000 years other than mention of the amber trade, which was based in this area. In 1253 the country was briefly united, but didn't solidify this union until 1290 when the people both unified and began expanding their kingdom. This expansion continued until the kingdom was weakened and forced to take action in the late 1300s before the country would have surely been taken over by either the Russians to the east or the Teutonic Knights to the west. To avoid this, King Jogaila married the Polish princess, Jadwiga and united the two kingdoms as the first ruler of the powerful Jagiellonian Dynasty.

Over the next 400 years Poland and Lithuania were one country, and for most of this time they were a very strong and powerful country, which began in 1410 by defeating the Teutonic Knights. Lithuania primarily converted to Catholicism and became a center of learning and education. Unfortunately for the locals, Poland dominated the relationship and Lithuanians became nearly forgotten in their own country. After Polish dominance, the Russians partitioned much of Poland, including nearly all of Lithuania in the late 1700s.

After the Russian takeover, Vilnius became a center for both Lithuanian and Polish elite. The Russians were ruthless to Lithuanians and forced the Russian language and religion on the people. Lithuania also became a destination for Jews throughout Russian-controlled lands, and they soon made up nearly have of Vilnius's population.

Lithuania finally regained independence in 1919 with the help of the Russian Revolution and Germany's loss in World War I. The independence pitted former allies against each other though, as both Lithuania and Poland fought over the city of Vilnius, which Poland eventually won and kept through the interwar period.

At the outbreak of World War II (WWII), the Soviets and Nazis invaded and successfully took all of Lithuania. The Soviets promised to return Vilnius to Lithuania if they fought with them in the war and the Lithuanians agreed. Unfortunately, the Soviets killed thousands of Lithuanians and Jews in the region and deported many more. After WWII, Lithuania was incorporated into the Soviet Union and the Soviet government flooded the area with Russians in order to collect a loyal base and to oversee factories and collective farms.

In 1989 the people finally regained their voice and in 1990 declared independence, but were met with economic blockades from the Soviets, forcing both sides to the negotiating table. Despite the talks, the Soviets attacked the capital in 1991, but this only created a stronger movement for independence, which was gained later that year.

Since independence Lithuania has struggled, but has also solidified its economy and established good relations with neighboring Poland and has even kept open communication with Russia, although describing them as an ally might be an exaggeration. In 2004, Lithuania joined the European Union (EU).

This page was last updated: February, 2012