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Lithuanian identity and the riddle of General Lucjan Želigowski

Šarūnas Liekis
Eriko Ovčarenko / 15min nuotr. / Šarūnas Liekis
Šaltinis: 15min
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“One of Lucjan Želigowski's ideological arguments for taking Vilnius was this: I want to preserve and rebuild historic Lithuania,” says Šarūnas Liekis, historian and political scientist at Vytautas Magnus University who is writing a book on the short-lived Republic of Middle Lithuania.

92 years ago, on 9 October 1920, General Lucjan Želigowski, following secret orders from Poland's leader Jozef Pilsudski, carried out a mutiny and took over Vilnius and Vilnius region. He set up the Republic of Middle Lithuania that was soon annexed to Poland.

Many Lithuanians still have a grudge against Poles for this incident in history. Historians, however, urge to see the events less emotionally and rather put them in the context of inter-war politics, nation-building processes, and the position of Lithuania itself.

Professor Liekis says that the events after World War One are often presented as a battle of ethnic Poles against ethnic Lithuanians. According to him, such a perspective is wrong, since what was at stake was the very process of choosing one nationality or the other.

- You are writing a book on Middle Lithuania. Why?

- The Lithuanian-Polish conflict was a crucial event that influenced the development of the Republic of Lithuania and the entire region. Formation of Middle Lithuania was an integral part of it.

Wikimedia.org nuotr./Liucjanas Želigovskis
Wikimedia.org nuotr./Liucjan Želigowski

In our political discourse, there are many established stereotypes that often fail to take account of all facts. And when one is not allowed to touch upon one subject or another, a great many things get ignored. The Middle Lithuania period and events surrounding it are quite mythologised. We keep repeating inter-war clichés. On the other hand, there has not been a single comprehensive analysis by Lithuanian authors based on new historic evidence. Historians exclusively draw upon studies carried out over the last several decades by Polish authors.

What is often forgotten is that the events took place against the background of a war between Soviet Russia and Poland. In this war, the Lithuanian government, seated in Kaunas, found itself on the side of Soviet Russia and not the free world. We tend to ignore this fact as well as many other contemporary choices that even in hindsight seem complicated and ambivalent.

The topic has not been explored, while Lithuanian and Polish archives store a wealth of unpublished materials that are still outside academic circulation. Moreover, the topic closely relates to many ideological quarrels of today. That is why I took on the project.

- Želigowski's name still sounds odious to Lithuanian ears, since it is associated with the loss of Vilnius in 1920. Who is this man and what was his connection to Lithuania?

- Želigowski's was an old family coming from Ashmyany (currently part of Belarus), its roots go back to the 16th century. An entry from 1623 in Lithuanian chronicles reads: “Jakob Želigowski from Kimbor estate came with a horse, armour, helmet, and harquebus.”

Želigowski's father Gustav, brothers Jan and Juzef participated in the 1863-1864 uprising. His uncle Edvard Želigowski was arrested for joining the Dalevski brothers' patriotic youth group in Lithuania – the tsar had outlawed the organization and persecuted its members.

In other words, Želigowski did not come out of the blue, he was not from Silesia, Berlin, or Stockholm – he came from here. His fate is comparable to that of thousands of descendants of Polish and Lithuanian nobility who had to choose one or the other nationality in modern times.

Želigowski was a professional military officer at the tsar's army. He studied military sciences in a Junker school in Riga, graduated in 1888, and later continued his service in the tsar's army. He chose the military to escape poverty.

He participate in the Russo-Japanese war and World War One. He was already leading a division in 1917. He was on the White side in Russian civil war, fought in Southern Russia and Crimea. After that he led the 4th Polish rifle regiment, formed of soldiers that came from territories of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, crossed Romania and joined Poland's army. He fought in Ukraine with the Polish regiment.

After that, Želigowski – a loyal, daring, courageous soldier – was entrusted by Jozef Pilsudski with the Vilnius operation.

- Why did the general and his division side with Poland and not Lithuania?

- In 1918-1919, many soldiers chose the Polish sides, 119 generals from many different armies.

Let's take the example of Kazimierz Rumsza, colonel of the Russian infantry and one of the prominent actors of the Russian civil war who fought in the Far East with the Czechoslovak corps and had formed a Polish legion there. He was born in Lithuania. He could choose either side. Why did he choose Poland and not Lithuania?

It is a fundamental question. I have counted more than ten generals who chose to serve in Poland. General Silvestras Žukauskas who chose the Lithuanian army is an exception rather than a rule.

One could say that younger officers, born around 1890, tended to choose service in the Lithuanian army. Older ones chose Poland because their formative years, their socialization happened in a Polophone culture, within the ideology of Lithuanian-Polish nobility. They thought it was natural to choose Poland rather than the new non-historic ethnic Lithuania built on the peasant culture.

Another example – the Inavauskai brothers who chose different Belarusian, Polish, and Lithuanian nationalities. Tadas Ivanauskas, Lithuanian biologist who set up a zoology museum in Kaunas, had a son, Jerzy, who fought with the Armia Krajowa during World War Two.

Therefore all the mythology about what a Pole or a Lithuanian would choose during this turning-point period is false. There is an abundance of archive materials testifying that people from Raseiniai, Tauragė, Mažeikiai, or Kaunas served in Middle Lithuania's army. The Lithuanian Security Police kept logs and tried to work out how and why they ended up there. We are talking about hundreds if not thousands of people from ethnic Lithuania who picked Middle Lithuania or Poland.

On the other hand, the army of the Republic of Lithuania contained Varsovians who were descendants of the Lithuanian nobility. General Silvestras Žukauskas or Lithuania's first cavalry commander General Bronislavas Skomskis, to name only a few, who openly identified themselves as Polish.

It is also noteworthy that Pilsudski called himself Lithuanian and was puzzled until the end of his life about what all these peasants and Augustinas Voldemaras (prime minister in the inter-war Republic of Lithuania) had in common with the Lithuanian nation.

- What were the fundamental reasons for choosing one nationality or the other?

- Nationalism, much like ethnicity, is a construct. Nation is a choice, not an inheritance. Identity is not an objective given. The popular notion that ethnicity is something objective comes from the Slavophile ethnography, German romanticism, and the Soviet notion of ethnicity.

The list of high military officers in inter-war Poland contains many German names. They might have made the choice because they came from the same social, ideologically similar milieu, they felt patriotic towards their fellow-citizens and not because they thought of themselves as good or true Poles.

American historian Hans Kohn claims that Central and Eastern European nationalism was formed by historic myths and fantasies about an ideal past Motherland that has absolutely nothing to do with the present but hoping that it might one day become a political reality. The new Lithuanians were building this newly-contrived and imaginary reality in all possible ways. And quite successfully. At the turn of the 20th century, many thought that arguments put forward by the new Lithuanians were unhistorical and unconvincing.

We often speak about events between the wars as a battle of ethnic Poles against ethnic Lithuanians. That is entirely false. Želigowski himself was of a completely different ideological position, he was far from being a narodowiec, champion of national democracy. One of his ideological arguments for taking Vilnius was “I want to preserve and rebuild historic Lithuania.”

Those who were nurtured in high culture did not like the mixture of the cult of Vytautas the Great and serf village sensibilities propagated by politicians of the new ethnic Lithuania. And it continues until now. Even today there are attempts to present the Lithuanian culture exclusively as a people's culture – as if people's culture were equal to national culture.

And just take a look at 18-century Lithuanian-Polish political philosophy – there are volumes that are not considered our own in Lithuania. And such attitude, upheld by many modern-day Lithuanians, is unhistorical, since an 18-century Lithuanian was usually a Polish-speaking nobleman who identified himself as Lithuanian. Back then, peasantry was not part of the nation nor did it consider itself as such.

By speculating retrospectively and identifying ourselves only with current forms of Lithuanianness, we cross out from our history all cities, crafts, wars. Since if we consider as Lithuanian only things created by Lithuanian-speakers – if we neglect to see identity shifts and changes in its forms – we are nothing more than a folklorized culture of wooden farm implements.

Between the wars, Lithuania's cultural compass rejected entire centuries of past history. Therefore the choice of siding with Poland was a way of saying: What are you trying to do? Presentify us, cross out the entire civilization evolution from the 15th century onwards? In other words, straight from Vytautas to Jonas Basanavičius and Žemaitė. Such discussions have been widespread since the beginning of the 20th century.

It presented a great dilemma for Želigowski, too, who repeated in many interviews that he was still a Lithuanian. Sure, his saying so was a cover for the true goal and the point of his operation, but it is still true that his words made perfect sense. “I was going to my home, I did not suddenly emerge from nowhere,” Želigowski said.

- Želigowski's march on Vilnius left a very negative mark in our collective consciousness. How would you suggest this historic event be interpreted, as it still obviously affects Lithuania's relations with Poland?

- The problem was that leaders who had different visions for a state could not come to an agreement, on both sides. Both Polish and Lithuanian politics operated as a mirror-image to one another. There were many aggressive nationalists among politicians. Since religious and other difference were negligible, one had to look for them with a microscope. Therefore any differences of identity they managed to come across were immediately blown out of proportions. The biggest of them was language. We will never back off on language and manners of spelling, we would rather die.

There were many possible scenarios of how things could have gone. There could have developed a separate nation of Lithuania's Poles. We could have had a Lithuanian nation that spoke Polish, while the Lithuanian language, without a state language status, could have remained in use only in remote villages. Just like Irishmen who speak English and are still very comfortable with their Irish identity.

Had we managed to come to an agreement, we could have had a bilingual country of Lithuanian-speaking Lithuanians and Polish-speaking Lithuanians. After all, Želigowski, too, had an option of becoming a general of the new Lithuania, encompassing both Kaunas and Vilnius and Lida, nurturing union relations with Poland, he could have defended it from the Soviet Union or Germany in 1939.

When we look back at events between the wars, we must, first of all, be critical towards ourselves. And not expect ordinary Poles to be critical of their own actions and tradition because, you know, they tried to coerce Lithuanians – who, in their view, were destroying the historic tradition and were seduced by Russia and Germany – into the right path.

We must admit that the Poles, too, were right in many cases when they said that, without union ties with Poland, Lithuania would eventually fall prey to Germans or Russians. The argument was put forward back in the beginning of the 20th century – and the inter-war history confirmed it.

We, as Lithuanians, should first of all scrutinize our own position and not that of others. Pointing fingers is easy, but one should first point at oneself, acknowledge one's mistakes so they can be avoided in the future. We must continue to creatively reinvent Lithuania, bearing in mind that Lithuania and Poland share a historical heritage, 99 percent of which is conflict-free. For centuries, Poles and Lithuanians died side by side in battle fields fighting against common enemies.

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