Council of Lithuania
The Council of Lithuania (Lithuanian: Lietuvos Taryba, German: Litauischer Staatsrat, Polish: Rada Litewska), after July 11, 1918 The State Council of Lithuania (Lithuanian: Lietuvos Valstybės Taryba), was convened at the Vilnius Conference that took place between September 18 and 23, 1917. The council was granted the executive authority of the Lithuanian people and was entrusted to establish an independent Lithuanian state. On February 16, 1918, the members of the council signed the Act of Independence of Lithuania, and declared Lithuania an independent state based on democratic principles. The council managed to establish the proclamation of independence despite the presence of German troops in the country until the autumn of 1918. The council continued its efforts until the Constituent Assembly of Lithuania (Lithuanian: Steigiamasis Seimas) first met on May 15, 1920.
Historical background and Vilnius Conference
After the last Partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795, Lithuania had become part of the Russian Empire. During the 19th century, both the Poles and the Lithuanians attempted to restore their independence. They rebelled during the November Uprising in 1830 and the January Uprising in 1863, but the first realistic opportunity came about during World War I. In 1915, Germany occupied Lithuania as its troops marched towards Russia. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, opportunities for independence opened up. Germany, avoiding direct annexation, tried to find a middle path that would involve some kind of union with Germany. In the light of upcoming peace negotiations with Russia, the Germans agreed to allow the Vilnius Conference, hoping that it would proclaim that the Lithuanian nation wanted to be detached from Russia and wished for a closer relationship with Germany. However, the conference, held between September 18 and 23, 1917, adopted a resolution that an independent Lithuania should be established and that a closer relationship with Germany would depend on whether it recognized the new state. On September 21, the attendees at the conference elected a 20-member Council of Lithuania to establish this resolution. The German authorities did not allow that resolution to be published, but they did permit the council to proceed. The authorities censored the Council's newspaper, Lietuvos aidas (Echo of Lithuania), preventing the Council from reaching a wider public audience. The Vilnius Conference also resolved that a constituent assembly should be elected by popular vote as soon as possible.
Structure and Membership
The twenty men composing the Council were of different ages (the youngest was 25; the oldest 66), social status, professions, and political affiliations. There were eight lawyers, four priests, three agronomists, two financiers, a doctor, a publisher, and an engineer. Eight of the members were Christian democrats and seven were not affiliated. All except one held degrees in higher education, and all were multilingual, fluent at a minimum in Lithuanian and Russian and often in Polish and German as well. The Council's last surviving member, Aleksandras Stulginskis, died in September 1969.
During the first meeting on September 24, Antanas Smetona was elected as the chairman of the council. The chairman, two vice-chairmen, and two secretaries made up the presidium. The vice-chairs and secretaries would change from time to time, but Smetona retained the chairmanship until 1919 when he was elected the first President of Lithuania. Smetona was succeeded by Stasys Šilingas as the chairman. He was not among the original twenty members. The first change in membership took place on July 13, 1918, when six new members (Martynas Yčas, Augustinas Voldemaras, Juozas Purickis, Eliziejus Draugelis, Jurgis Alekna and Stasys Šilingas) were admitted and four (Kairys, Vileišis, Biržiška, Narutavičius) resigned. By spring of 1919, the council had almost doubled in size.
Declaration of Independence
Soon after the council was elected, major developments took place in Russia. The October Revolution brought the Bolsheviks to power. They signed a truce with Germany on December 2, 1917 and started peace negotiations. Germany needed some documentation of its relationship with Lithuania. In the so-called Berlin Protocol Germany offered to recognize Lithuanian independence if the latter agreed to form a firm and permanent federation with Germany, based on conventions concerning military affairs, transportation, customs, and currency. The council agreed, on condition that Lithuania would decide its own internal affairs and foreign policy. The Germans rejected this proposal. On December 11, the council adopted a resolution agreeing to a "firm and permanent alliance" with Germany on the basis of the four conventions. Only fifteen members voted for this resolution, but all twenty signed it.
The Germans broke their promise and did not recognize the state and did not invite its delegation to the negotiations of Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Lithuanians, including those living abroad, disapproved of the December 11 declaration. The declaration, seen as pro-German, was an obstacle in establishing diplomatic relations with England, France and the United States, the enemies of Germany. On January 8, the same day that Woodrow Wilson announced his Fourteen Points, the council proposed amendments to the declaration of December 11 calling for a constituent assembly. The amendments were rejected by the Germans and it was made clear that the Council would serve only advisory functions. The council was torn apart and a few members threatened to leave. On February 16, the council, temporarily chaired by Jonas Basanavičius, decided to re-declare independence, this time mentioning nothing specific about a relationship with Germany. That was left for a constituent assembly to decide. February 16 is now one of Lithuania's two official Independence Days.
The Germans were not satisfied with the new declaration and demanded that the council go back to the December 11 decision. On March 3, Germany and Bolshevik Russia signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. It declared that the Baltic nations were in the German interest zone and that Russia renounced any claims to them. On March 23, Germany recognized independent Lithuania on the basis of the December 11 declaration. However, nothing in essence changed either in Lithuania or in Council's status: any efforts to establish administration were hindered. The form of government, however, was left undecided. Germany, ruled by a kaiser, obviously preferred a monarchy. They proposed a personal union with the Prussian Hohenzollern dynasty. As an alternative, on June 4 the council voted to invite Duke Wilhelm of Urach, Count of Württemberg, to become the monarch of Lithuania. He agreed and was elected King of Lithuania (Mindaugas II) on July 13, 1918. The decision was very controversial and four members of the council left in protest.
Germany did not recognize the new king and its relationship with the council remained tense. The council was not allowed to determine the borders of Lithuania, establish an embassy in Berlin, or begin forming a stable administrative system. It received small funds to cover its expenses only in September 1918. The situation changed when the German Revolution started and Germany lost the war in fall of 1918 – it was no longer in a position to dictate terms. On November 2, the council adopted the first provisional constitution. The decision to invite King Mindaugas II was annulled and this helped to reconcile the political factions. The functions of government were entrusted to a 3-member presidium, and Augustinas Voldemaras was invited to form the first Cabinet of Ministers. The first government was formed on November 11, 1918, the day that Germany signed the armistice in Compiègne. The council began to organize an army, police, local government, and other institutions. It also expanded to include ethnic minorities (Jews and Belarusians).
As German forces retreated and Bolshevik forces approached Vilnius, on January 2, 1919 the council moved to Kaunas. The Freedom Wars started. On April 4, the second provisional constitution was adopted, creating the office of President of Lithuania. Antanas Smetona, as the chairman of the council, became the first president. The German forces did not leave Lithuania until July 1919. Due to wars and other turmoil, elections to the Constituent Assembly of Lithuania were not held until spring of 1920. The council adjourned on May 15, 1920.
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