Skip to main content
European Commission logo
EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Historical development


1.Political, social and economic background and trends

1.1Historical development

Last update: 27 November 2023

Early history

The first known reference to Lithuania as “Litua” (in Lithuanian, Lietuva) comes from a record of Saint Bruno’s loss of life in the annals of the Quedlinburg Chronicle and is dated March 9, 1009. In the 11th century, facts about Lithuania also appear in the Ruthenian chronicles. From the 12th century, written sources refer to Lithuanians as people making plundering raids into neighbouring territories. Lithuanians belong to the Baltic group of Indo-European people. The Balts settled at the Baltic Sea as far back as the 3rd and 2nd millennium BC. They lived on the territory between the lower Vistula (Wisla), the basins of the Nemunas (Neman) and the Daugava (Dvina) up to the riverheads of the Volga, Oka and Dnepr. The first ruler to have united Lithuanian tribal groups and founded the state of Lithuania is considered to be Mindaugas, the first known Grand Duke of Lithuania. In 1251, in order to enhance his power and end the conflict with the Livonian Order, Mindaugas was baptised and crowned King of Lithuania on July 6, 1253. Mindaugas was the first king in Lithuania's history. At the end of the 12th century, on the basis of the Duchy of Lithuania that was joined by several other Baltic tribal lands, Lithuanians founded their state, the Great Duchy of Lithuania (GDL). In the 14th century, the centralised monarchic Great Duchy of Lithuania was the last pagan country in Europe to have withstood all proposals and negotiations to introduce Christianity into it. 

In 1569, Lithuania and Poland formed a new confederate state: the Republic of Both Nations commonly known as the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (in Polish, Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów, in Lithuanian, Abiejų Tautų Respublika). Both countries, however, preserved their sovereignty and continued to exist in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth as two distinct entities, retaining their separate territories, armies, authorities, treasuries and laws. In fact, the two countries were united only by a jointly elected sovereign and the Seimas (common central legislature). The Northern War that took place at the beginning of the 18th century revealed the weakness of the state and exhausted the country that was constantly afflicted by its own and alien armies. In 1772, the neighbouring countries Austria, Russia and Prussia decided to divide among themselves the ever weakening country distressed by internal conflicts, each annexing part of its territory. The first partition of the Commonwealth was followed by another two. The educated part of society tried to save what was left of the statehood by initiating radical reforms. In order to control the king, the Permanent Council was set up and also the Education Commission was formed.  These institutions were common to both Poland and Lithuania. The period 1788–1792 was marked by the activities of what was known as “The Four-Year Seimas” that prepared the state reforms and a new State Constitution which was adopted on May 3, 1791. At that time, it was the second Constitution in the world. Following the three partitions of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1772–1795, the Russian Empire assumed control of the greater part of Lithuania, including Vilnius, which at that time had a population of 25,000 and was one of the largest cities in the empire.

The 19th century saw two uprisings that involved broad sections of society. They were orientated at the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the revitalization of its union with Poland and also directed against economic oppression: the 1831 rebellion, in which the key role was played by the nobility and the 1863–1864 uprising supported by the peasants. Both rebellions failed and were suppressed. Following the 1862–1864 uprising, the Russian imperial authorities put a ban on press forbidding all Lithuanian language publications printed in the Latin script and trying to replace it by the Cyrillic script. The printing of books and newspapers in the Latin script was arranged in Prussia and Lithuania Minor from where the printed materials were smuggled into Lithuania. After the rebellion, all the monasteries were closed down and protection of the Orthodox Church was intensified. The Russian tsarist administration sought to enforce its power by introducing a strict control on the economic, social and cultural life of the country. Despite the intensive process of Russification, the national cultural resistance continued all the time. Lithuanian schools functioned and the Lithuanian newspapers Aušra ['The Dawn'] (1883–1886) and Varpas [‘The Bell’] (1889–1905) were published in the underground. The patriotically-minded intellectuals cherished the idea of the independent state of Lithuania, and the process of the Lithuanian national revival was gathering momentum. In 1904, the tsarist government abolished the ban on the press in the Latin script. A congress of Lithuanian representatives known as the Great Seimas of Vilnius that met in Vilnius on December 4-5, 1905 demanded autonomy.

At the breakout of World War I, the whole of the present territory of Lithuania was occupied by Germany by the end of 1915. Through incorporating Lithuania, Germany was pursuing certain economic and political objectives: to have a stranglehold on the Baltic Sea region, strengthen its influence over the Nordic countries, cut off Russia from the Baltic Sea and use Lithuania as a source of agricultural products. Lithuanian politicians began discussing issues of Lithuania’s future in the autumn of 1914. In December 1917, the Council of Lithuania applied to Germany asking it to recognise Lithuania’s independence, authorise the establishment of Lithuania’s representative office in Berlin and creation of a civil government. On December 11, 1917, an act on declaration of independence which also provided for a close union between Lithuania and Germany was signed. This act caused indignation of the population as it was understood as Lithuania’s incorporation into Germany. 

Modern history

At the beginning of 1918, taking into account the past experience relating to the act of December 11, 1917, the Council of Lithuania started discussing new projects for Lithuania’s future statehood. On February 16, 1918, the Council of Lithuania declared independence by adopting the Act of Independence of Lithuania. On November 2, 1918, a Provisional Constitution was adopted and on November 11, 1918 the first government was formed. On September 22, 1921, Lithuania gained accession to the League of Nations and in July 1922 was recognised by the United States de jure. On 1 August 1922, Lithuania adopted the final Constitution that reflected the prevailing western values of liberalism, individualism and pluralism.

During the period of its independence, the State recovered and became stronger. It established and developed economic, cultural and diplomatic relations with various countries of the world. The foundations of an independent economy were created. The focus was on the development of those fields of industry that were orientated to the Lithuanian economy, resources and consumption. The Lithuanian monetary unit – the Litas – was one of the most stable currencies in Europe before the Second World War.

After signing the secret protocols of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940. The country‘s annexation was followed by mass deportations of its residents as well as cultural and ideological genocide against the nation. During the Second World War, the territory of the country was occupied by the forces of the Nazi Germany. 

After the country was re-occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of the war, the Lithuanian people resisted to the occupation by fighting a partisan warfare against the Soviet regime (in 1945–1956) which later developed into cultural resistance. A great number of Lithuanians were deported to Gulags in Siberia or killed, others managed to escape to Western countries. From 1940 to 1953, Lithuania lost one-third of the population. During the deportations to Siberia and other remote parts of the Soviet Union that took place in 1940–1941 and 1944–1953, at least 29,923 families were exiled. Stalin's death (in 1953) put an end to further deportations and the people deported were allowed to return.   

Even after suppressing the guerrilla resistance, the Soviet regime failed to subdue the movement for independence in Lithuania: a number of dissident groups, though persecuted, were active in the underground. They were engaged in publishing the underground press and Catholic literature. Following an international conference in the Finnish capital, which recognised the borders established after World War II, the Helsinki group formed in Lithuania used the foreign radio to proclaim a demand for the country’s independence.

The year of 1988 marked the revival of the national movement in Lithuania. On March 11, 1990, Lithuania proclaimed the re-establishment of its independence. On October 25, 1992 the Constitution was adopted by the referendum. In 1993, the last soldier of the occupation army left the country. Since then, Lithuania has been consistently carrying out reforms seeking for a more speedy integration into the political and economic structures of Europe (the European Union) and defensive structures of the world (NATO). On March 29, 2004, Lithuania became a member of NATO, on May 1, 2004, the country gained access to the European Union and on November 11, 2004, the Seimas (Parliament) of the Republic of Lithuania ratified the Treaty to establish a Constitution for Europe.