Vilnius like Fiume? On border changes in Eastern Europe after the First World War

The 100th anniversary of the "Żeligowski's Mutiny"

The military operation after which Vilnius came under Polish control in October 1920 was relatively small and almost bloodless. However, it cast a large shadow over Polish-Lithuanian relations in the interwar period to such an extent that it is remembered, especially in Vilnius, to this day.

The military actions themselves, undertaken a hundred years ago in the vicinity of Vilnius, were really relatively modest, especially considering “the 18th most important battle in the history of the world”, i.e. the Polish-Bolshevik confrontation near Warsaw. In October 1920, the battles between the Polish Army and the Red Army were still in full swing, although diplomats had already begun mediating for a truce.


The Polish-Bolshevik war and the road to Central Lithuania

While the eastern crescent of the front stretched a thousand kilometers long, military operations in the vicinity of Vilnius were limited to a walking distance of 50 kilometers over the course of 36 hours. The first units under the command of General Lucjan Żeligowski set off towards the city before dawn on 8 October, and by evening there were two skirmishes: one in the backwoods of the Rudnicka Forest and a more serious one at the ford of the Merkys River. The actual fighting for Vilnius began at dawn the next day. The Lithuanian commanders, aware of the disproportionate size of the forces, tried to limit the bloodshed, and they quickly began withdrawing the main forces from the city. The fighting was undertaken by the 4th infantry battalion, who had to give way to the Vilnius Infantry Regiment and Polish insurgents who took up the fight. There was even a “race” among individual Polish units, eager for status and fame: order was only restored a few hours before the evening parade. Three days later, on 12 October 1920, General Lucjan Żeligowski, commanding Polish units, proclaimed the creation of Central Lithuania. This is how an ephemeral, largely fictional state was created that would last only a year and a half until it was finally incorporated into Poland in April 1922.

Gen. Żeligowski leading his soldiers, Wilno (Vilnius), 1920 (public domain)

However, the memory of these events has survived incomparably longer than any “Polish” nationality of Vilnius, which was ended by the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact of 1939 and all its consequences. In 1994, a few days after the signing of the Polish-Lithuanian treaty regulating relations between the two countries for the first time since the World War and half a century of communism, the President of the Republic of Lithuania, Algirdas Brazauskas, in a speech delivered to the Lithuanian parliament, emphasized that “Vilnius in the interwar period belonged to Poland as a matter of fact, but not under the law,” and that “the land was torn away from Lithuania by force.” A quarter of a century later, the emotions are more subdued, but the action led by Żeligowski remains one of the most pivotal events in Polish-Lithuanian relations.

However, it is impossible to explain the reasons that led to this event in October 1920, nor the importance of its memory for Polish-Lithuanian relations – without recalling two other historical perspectives, incomparably more extensive than the chronicle of a two-day fight for Vilnius. The first concerns the Polish-Lithuanian dispute from the beginning of the century over the understanding of the terms “nation” and “ethnographic Lithuania”. The second, which is a consequence of it, is a panorama of the events of the summer of 1920, immediately preceding “Żeligowski’s Expedition.”


The dispute over Lithuania

The Polish-Lithuanian dispute at the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th concerning the meaning of the term “Lithuania” and related political projects has already been discussed in polishhistory. It must be emphasized that this dispute remained to a large extent only a potential one at the beginning of the 20th century. St. Petersburg ruled all the way to the rivers of Pregolya and Vistula and was in no way ready to grant autonomy to any of the nations that existed there. This did not prevent many Poles, both under Russian rule and in the other two partitions, from dreaming of regaining independence for the Republic of Poland. Despite the enormous diversity of concepts about political action, ideological orientations and temperaments, the vast majority of supporters of Polish independence hoped to recreate the country’s borders before the first partition (1772) – or at least in a very similar shape. This is where the germ of future conflict was hidden: the initially few Lithuanian activists dreamed of gaining independence for Lithuania at the same time, not of restoring the pre-partition union of the Polish crown and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania!

Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1619 (author: Poznaniak; CC BY-SA 3.0)

Simplifying a bit this complex, evolving over time and multifaceted dispute – Poles on the one hand referred to historical argument (the borders of the Republic in 1772), and on the second hand however made an ethnographic one (citing the territorial range where people declared themselves to be Poles), and reached for one or the other depending on the circumstances. Lithuanians also had their own historical argument (the Grand Duchy of Lithuania within pre-union borders) and ethnographic argument. However, they understood the latter in a special way. “Ethnographic Lithuania does not end where people still speak Lithuanian, but extends to those areas where people do not speak Lithuanian,” declared Mykolas Biržiška, a prominent Lithuanian historian and independence activist of that time. In other words – the Lithuanians understood the category of ethnographic boundaries in a special way, including also areas which they considered to have been “de-lithuanized” or “polonized” in the past.


Nations and States

However, it is difficult for a similar category of “virtual ethnicity” to have a strong persuasive power in an era when the idea of ​​national self-determination was becoming more and more pronounced. All the more so when not only national emotions and ambitions, but also ambitions regarding specific territorial recovery began to come into play. The most inflammatory point was Vilnius. For Lithuanians – the center of medieval Lithuanian statehood, a place possessing a huge emotional charge. For Poles – the capital of the Grand Duchy, one of the most important cities of the pre-partition Poland, the epicenter of the “Romantic Revolution” that took place in Polish culture in the 19th century and the center of countless independence conspiracies throughout the 19th century.

The statistics were inexorable: the tsarist census from 1897 showed that 40.3% of Vilnius inhabitants were Jews, 30.9% – Poles, 20.2% – Russians, 4.2% – Belarusians, and Lithuanians – 2%. The census carried out 18 years later by the German occupation authorities left no illusions: in the part of the Vilnius region occupied by the Germans there were 50.1% Poles, 43.5% Jews and 2.6% Lithuanians… Of course, these changes were influenced by many factors ranging from the attitude of tsarist officials in 1897 to the objective fact that the Russians left Vilnius on the eve of the German offensive in 1915. “It was enough that chinovniks and the Russian army fled, and all Russification ran down like paint under a storm” – commented the a Polish landowner, Hipolit Korwin-Milewski. Equally important, however, were the acculturation and assimilation processes: Polish culture was characterized by greater attractiveness, while the nationally conscious and active Lithuanian community of Vilnius remained a small minority.

Demonstration of townspeople of Wilna after seizure of city by Polish Army in 1919 (public domain)

Of course: the statistics from 1915, and even less from 1897, are not entirely reliable indicators of the situation in 1918-1920, especially after several years of war and revolution in these lands. However, it can be assumed that the fundamental disproportion between the number of Poles and Lithuanians in Vilnius was actual. It also reveals the fundamental difference of interests: according to the vast majority of Poles, not only “locals”, Vilnius simply “was Polish” – or at least it should be. According to the vast majority of Lithuanians, it was, or at least it should be, Lithuanian. This contradiction could have been reconciled within a federation; a modernized version of the pre-partition union of the Polish Crown and Lithuania. While there were few enthusiasts for this type of solution on the Polish side, it was impossible to find anyone on the Lithuanian side who would support it.


Fight for Vilnius

Under such conditions, the only solution was to fight. And the fights were quite ruthless. After the withdrawal of the German forces from “Ost-Europa” after the ceasefire in November 1918, only two forces could fight for Vilnius: the Polish Army and the Bolshevik forces. The troops of “white” Russians and the army of independent Lithuania, scattered in the Baltic lands, had to wait for an appropriate opportunity. Meanwhile the Belarusians (of whom there were more than Lithuanians in tsarist times in Vilnius!) could only dream about their own independence.

General Lucjan Żeligowski (public domain)

Thus, in 1918-1920 there were several Polish-Soviet armed confrontations aimed at taking over Vilnius. At the end of December 1918, in view of the prospect of the German troops leaving Vilnius and it being taken over by the approaching Bolsheviks, a Polish voluntary formation – the National Self-Defense of Lithuania and Belarus – began fighting for the city. It managed to capture the city for several dozen hours – on 5 January 1919, Vilnius was occupied by the Red Army. In February 1919, it was proclaimed by the Bolsheviks as the capital of the ephemeral union republic (the Soviet Socialist Republic of Lithuania and Belarus, the so-called Lit-Bel), but on 19 April 1919, the city was occupied by regular Polish troops.

It was, however, the last possibility of launching the above-mentioned federation scenario: Józef Piłsudski, the chief of state, deeply sympathizing with Vilnius as the city of his youth, issued an appeal on 22 April 1919, entitled “To the inhabitants of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania”. However, the Belarusian and Jewish community did not formulate an unequivocal answer to the proposal of self-determination of all nationalities before the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, submitted in four languages ​​(Polish, Lithuanian, Belarusian and Yiddish), but the Lithuanian side rejected it.

Appeal of the Commander-in-Chief J. Piłsudski to the inhabitants of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania (public domain)

In July 1919, Vilnius tried to regulate the future of the city by the Supreme Council of the peace conference in Paris, proposing to draw a demarcation line along the Grodno-Vilnius-Dyneburg line, leaving Vilnius on the Polish side. The so-called Foch Line was, however, not accepted by either Warsaw or Kaunas; the diplomatic stalemate continued.

The fate of Vilnius changed again a little over a year later, when the Red Army seized it on 20 July 1920, as part of the “offensive on Warsaw and Berlin”. This time Soviet diplomacy played it out masterfully: on 12 July, it signed a peace treaty with Lithuania, in which it recognized Lithuania’s independence and its borders, including Vilnius and Grodno. Although the treaty did not regulate the Lithuanian-Latvian or Lithuanian-Polish border in other disputed sections (including Augustów and Suwałki), for Lithuanians the act of recognizing Vilnius as a part of their country on the international arena was a significant event.

The most troublesome side of the treaty was its secret clause, which allowed the Red Army to pass through Lithuanian territory and be stationed there temporarily. In the realities of the war of 1920, this meant a serious, additional burden for Poland which was fighting against Soviet Russia, and the assurances of neutrality of the Lithuanian Republic in this conflict were in fact empty. The Bolsheviks were stationed in Vilnius until their defeat in the Battle of Warsaw and the defensive breakout after the defeat of the Battle of the Nemunas. Lithuanian troops entered the city only on 27 August 1920. When looking at the map, Vilnius and the Vilnius Region began to constitute a kind of “pocket”, surrounded on all sides by Polish troops displacing the Red Army. An additional element of the new balance of power was the so-called Suwałki Agreement – a military agreement marking a temporary demarcation line between Poland and Lithuania in the area of ​​the border with East Prussia, Suwałki and Druskininkai.

Józef Piłsudski near the Gate of Dawn (Ostra Brama) in Wilno, April 1919 during Polish-Soviet war (public domain)

The Żeligowski Rebellion and Central Lithuania

This conflict and the course of events formed the background of the military operation of 8-9 October 1920. Józef Piłsudski was not afraid of using the “via facti” method. He had proved it a year earlier (by destroying the separatist West Ukrainian People’s Republic) and would again a year later (by supporting the Third Silesian Uprising, which formally broke out in Germany). In this case, however, he wanted to avoid a formal, military conflict between the Republic of Poland and the Republic of Lithuania. He probably still had some hope for a two-country confederation.

Hence the semi-“partisan” nature of the operation commanded by General Żeligowski. The appearance of “rebellion” probably did not convince anyone (except for the handful of officers who refused to participate in the hostilities on 8 October, fearing their self-proclaimed character). Żeligowski, having taken over Vilnius, proclaimed the Republic of Central Lithuania on 12 October. Power structures were established in the republic, and in December 1921, the electoral law was announced. On 8 January 1922, elections to the local Sejm were held. The problem is that almost exclusively the Poles who were eager to rule Central Lithuania and to sit in its parliament, possessed little sympathy for federal ideas (especially after the experiences of recent years). The few remaining in Vilnius and the Vilnius Region consistently boycotted both administrative structures and parliamentary elections. No wonder that once constituted, the Sejm of Central Lithuania quickly adopted a resolution demanding accession to Poland – which finally happened on 18 April 1922.

Map showing the settlement of the Polish population in Central Lithuania. National Affairs Research Institute 1929 (public domain)

Following the fall of Central Lithuania, there remain many postage stamps of the ephemeral state, and are considered both a philatelic rarity and a painful memory, especially on the Lithuanian side. In the interwar period, journalists often tried to compare the seizure of Vilnius to the self-proclaimed occupation of the city of Fiume (Rijeka) by units of Italian volunteers a year earlier. After the Camaro Regency had operated for four years, it was, as we know, incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy.

General Lucjan Żeligowski was indeed an original man: a simple-minded theosophist, famous for bathing in the snow in front of his villa in Żoliborz, in the mid-1930s he became an ardent enthusiast of Pan-Slavism and even after his death he became a hero of a scandal. Communist intelligence managed to smuggle nearly half a ton of gold in his coffin, as it was on its way to Poland,! And he did not complain, like his Italian “twin”, about the lack of favor on the part of the fair sex. Behind his action, however, there were much more complicated reasons than behind the picturesque escapade of D’Annunzio.


Author: Wojciech Stanisławski
Transation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin