The Vilnius Conference or Vilnius National Conference (Lithuanian: Vilniaus konferencija) met between September 18, 1917 and September 22, 1917, and began the process of establishing a Lithuanian state based on ethnic identity and language that would be independent of the Russian Empire, Poland, and the German Empire. It elected a twenty-member Council of Lithuania that was entrusted with the mission of declaring and re-establishing an independent Lithuania. The Conference, hoping to express the will of the Lithuanian people, gave legal authority to the Council and its decisions. While the Conference laid the basic guiding principles of Lithuanian independence, it deferred any matters of political structure of the future Lithuania to the Constituent Assembly, which would later be elected in a democratic manner.
Lithuania existed as an independent state from the beginning of the 13th century until 1569, when it entered into a union with Poland, forming the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Commonwealth ceased to exist after the Partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the late 18th century. Most of the Lithuanian territory was incorporated into the Russian Empire. A Lithuanian independence movement arose during the 19th century, based on concepts of national self-determination that were formalized in Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points speech in January 1918.
During the course of World War I, the German Army invaded Russia and soon entered the territory which comprised Lithuania. In 1915, the Germans assumed control and organized a military administration known as Ober Ost (short for der Oberbefehlshaber der gesamten deutschen Streitkräfte im Osten: "supreme command of all German forces in the East"). At first the Germans simply exploited Lithuania for the benefit of their war effort. As the war progressed, it became evident that the two front war that Germany was engaged in would necessitate a compromise peace with the Russian Empire. This necessitated a re-thinking of strategies concerning the occupied territories in the east. An openly pursued goal of annexation gave way to a more guarded policy after Germany perceived that a public relations backlash might occur: the Central Powers realized that the Allies could use such territorial expansion in their propaganda. Lengthy debates between German military leaders (who favored open annexation) and the civilian administration (which leaned towards a more subtle strategy) resulted in a resolution, passed by the Reichstag on July 19, 1917, called the Resolution of Peace. It declared that the military administration governing occupied territories would grant some semblance of autonomy to their populations. The plan was to form a network of formally independent states that would in fact be completely dependent on Germany, the so-called Mitteleuropa.
Organizing the Conference
A Vertrauensrat ("Council of Trust" or "Confidential Council") was authorized in May 1917; its membership was to consist of Lithuanians and ethnic minorities in Lithuania. The military administration approached a number of prominent members of the Lithuanian community, including Bishop Pranciškus Karevičius, Antanas Smetona, and Jonas Basanavičius, all of whom refused to participate in their rubber stamp advisory council. The Lithuanian Relief Committee, an organization that helped war victims and mobilized political activists, then entered into negotiations between the Lithuanians and the occupational authorities. The Committee demanded that the Germans agree to permit a national convention, elected directly by the people. After lengthy negotiations, the parties reached an agreement that a conference could convene that would represent the Lithuanian's aspirations; however no elections were allowed to take place.
The Organizing Committee of the Conference (Ausschuss) met in Vilnius between August 1 and August 4, 1917. At the start of the meeting, the military authorities presented an ultimatum that any future conferences would need to declare loyalty to Germany and agree to an annexation. Since no elections had been held the representatives had to be invited by the Organizing Committee, which included Mykolas Biržiška, Petras Klimas, Antanas Smetona, Jonas Stankevičius, and Jurgis Šaulys. The Committee strove to choose representatives from a wide political, professional, and social spectrum. In total 264 representatives were selected, five to eight from each county (Lithuanian: apskritis). 214 of them attended the conference that convened on September 18, 1917, and remained in session until September 22.
Proceedings of the Conference
The meetings of the Conference were held behind closed doors and no German representatives participated. A number of speeches were delivered during the early sessions of the council that denounced the German occupation, mentioning forced labor, heavy requisitions, and rampant deforestation. The Conference, however, concentrated on three main questions:
- The future of Lithuania and its national minorities;
- Lithuania's relations with Germany;
- Election of the Council of Lithuania.
Future of Lithuania and national minorities
In regards to the future of Lithuania, the Conference announced that an independent state, based on democratic principles, needed to be declared. In response to various schemes to re-create the old Grand Duchy of Lithuania or Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the new state was to be created only in the lands, that were assumed to be ethnically Lithuanian. Lacking real powers to represent the nation (the Conference was not democratically elected by the citizens), it did not specify the foundations of the state or relationships with other countries. These were to be decided by the Constituent Assembly, elected by popular vote. These three principles were echoed by the Council of Lithuania when it declared the Act of Independence of Lithuania.
The national minorities were promised freedom for their cultural needs. In later years national minorities were granted the same rights as Lithuanians and in some cases extra representation in the government: after the war ended, the Council of Lithuania was expanded to include Jewish and Belarusian representatives; the first governments of Lithuania included Ministries for Jewish and Belarusian affairs; in 1920 the Jewish community was granted national and cultural autonomy with the right to legislate binding ordinances; the Russian Orthodox Church received financial support from the government; Germans, concentrated in the disputed Klaipėda Region, were also granted autonomy. The only sizeable group that did not have extra representation was the Polish minority because of intense conflicts over the Vilnius Region.
Relations with Germany
In response to the ultimatum by the Germans, the following resolution was adopted:
|“||If Germany agrees to proclaim the state of Lithuania before the Peace Conference and to support the needs of Lithuania at the Peace Conference, then the Lithuanian Conference, bearing in mind that in normal conditions of peace the interests of Lithuania incline not so much to the East or to the South as to the West, recognizes the possibility for the future state of Lithuania to enter into a certain relationship, still to be determined, with Germany, without harming its own independent development.||”|
East, South, and West in this context referred to Russia, Poland, and Germany, respectively. This carefully balanced passage was a response to German demands to declare loyalty to Germany. It did not please the Germans and they did not allow the publication of the resolution.
Council of Lithuania
At the end of the proceedings the conference elected twenty members to the Council of Lithuania to act as the executive authority of the Lithuanian people. The Council was empowered to carry out the resolution adopted by the Conference, i.e. to negotiate with the Germans and declare an independent Lithuania. The Social Democratic members of the conference were dissatisfied with the composition of this council, since it included only two members of that party, and of the twenty members, six were Roman Catholic priests. Two of the priests then resigned; their places were taken by Stanisław Narutowicz and Jonas Vileišis. Five months later, on February 16, 1918, the Council of Lithuania issued the Act of Independence of Lithuania.
- Rimša, Edmundas (2005). Heraldry: Past to Present. Vilnius: Versus aureus. pp. 82–87. ISBN 9955-601-73-6.
- Many sources state that the Conference ended on September 23, and not September 22. This mistake probably originated in the Act of Independence of Lithuania, passed on February 16, 1918. This is one factual mistake in the text of the Act.
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- Šakalys, Jūratė A. (Winter 1985). "Higher Education In Lithuania: An Historical Analysis". Lituanus 4 (31). Retrieved 2007-09-15.
- (Lithuanian) Maksimaitis, Mindaugas (2005). Lietuvos valstybės konstitucijų istorija (XX a. pirmoji pusė). Vilnius: Justitia. pp. 35–36. ISBN 9955-616-09-1.
- Stražas, Abelis S. (Winter 1996). "From Auszra To The Great War: The Emergence Of The Lithuanian Nation". Lituanus 4 (42). Retrieved 2007-09-15.
- Gudavičius, Edvardas (1999). "The Year 2000: History and Contemporary Experience" (PDF). Lithuanian Foreign Policy Review 2 (2). Retrieved 2007-09-15..
- Eidintas, Alfonsas; Vytautas Žalys, Alfred Erich Senn (September 1999). "Chapter 1: Restoration of the State". In Ed. Edvardas Tuskenis. Lithuania in European Politics: The Years of the First Republic, 1918-1940 (Paperback ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press. pp. 20–28. ISBN 0-312-22458-3.
- Simas Sužiedėlis, ed. (1970–1978). "Vilnius National Conference". Encyclopedia Lituanica VI. Boston, Massachusetts: Juozas Kapočius. pp. 173–175. LCC 74-114275.
- Gerutis, Albertas (1984). "Independent Lithuania". In Ed. Albertas Gerutis. Lithuania: 700 Years. translated by Algirdas Budreckis (6th ed.). New York: Manyland Books. pp. 151–155. ISBN 0-87141-028-1. LCC 75-80057.
- Laučka, Juozas (Winter 1984). "Lithuania's Struggle for Survival 1795-1917". Lituanus 4 (30). ISSN 0024-5089. Retrieved 2007-02-11.
- (Lithuanian) Skirius, Juozas (2002). "Vokietija ir Lietuvos nepriklausomybė". Gimtoji istorija. Nuo 7 iki 12 klasės. Vilnius: Elektroninės leidybos namai. ISBN 9986-9216-9-4. Retrieved 2007-01-28.
- (Lithuanian) Banavičius, Algirdas (1991). 111 Lietuvos valstybės 1918-1940 politikos veikėjų. Vilnius: Knyga. pp. 11–20. ISBN 5-89942-585-7.
- Vardys, Vytas Stanley; Judith B. Sedaitis (1997). Lithuania: The Rebel Nation. Westview Series on the Post-Soviet Republics. WestviewPress. p. 39. ISBN 0-8133-1839-4.
- (Lithuanian) Šetkus, Benediktas (2002). "Tautinės mažumos Lietuvoje". Gimtoji istorija. Nuo 7 iki 12 klasės. Vilnius: Elektroninės leidybos namai. ISBN 9986-9216-9-4. Retrieved 2007-02-11.
- Simas Sužiedėlis, ed. (1970–1978). "Council of Lithuania". Encyclopedia Lituanica I. Boston, Massachusetts: Juozas Kapočius. pp. 581–585. LCC 74-114275.