The Klaipėda Convention (or Convention concerning the Territory of Memel) was an international agreement between Lithuania and the countries of the Conference of Ambassadors (United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Japan) signed in Paris on May 8, 1924. According to the Convention, the Klaipėda Region (Memel Territory) became an autonomous region under unconditional sovereignty of Lithuania.
The region was detached from East Prussia by the Treaty of Versailles and placed under a provisional French administration. During the staged Klaipėda Revolt of January 1923, the Lithuanians seized control of the region and attached it to Lithuania. The Conference of Ambassadors accepted this fait accompli and set out to formalize the territorial changes. The inhabitants of the area were not given a choice on the ballot whether they wanted to be part of the Lithuanian state or part of Germany. After difficult negotiations, the Convention was agreed upon in spring 1924. The region was granted extensive legislative, judicial, administrative, and financial autonomy. It had its own democratically elected parliament (Klaipėda Diet) and appointed executive branch (the Klaipėda Directorate). The administration and operation of the port of Klaipėda was entrusted to a three-member Harbor Board. The Neman River, particularly its timber traffic, was internationalized granting freedom of transit to all nations. The Convention became obsolete when the Klaipėda Region was attached to Nazi Germany as a result of the ultimatum of 1939.
The lands north of the Neman River were part of a German state since their conquest during the Prussian Crusade in the 13th century. According to article 28 of the Treaty of Versailles, the region was detached from the German Empire and, according to article 99, were placed under a mandate of the League of Nations effective January 10, 1920. The French became temporary administrators of the region known as the Klaipėda Region or Memel Territory. The Lithuanians believed that the region should be attached to Lithuania due to its significant Lithuanian-speaking population of Prussian Lithuanians. Also Klaipėda (Memel), a major sea port in the Baltic Sea, was the only viable access to the sea for Lithuania. However, such Lithuanian aspirations gained little local or international support. It seemed that the region would be turned into a free city similar to the Free City of Danzig. Rather than waiting for an unfavorable decision by the Allies, Lithuanian activists decided to organize a revolt, capture the region, and present a fait accompli. The revolt, organized by the Lithuanian government and the Lithuanian Riflemen's Union, began on January 9, 1923. The rebels met little resistance and controlled the region by January 15. They organized a new pro-Lithuanian Directorate (main governing institution) and petitioned to join Lithuania. On January 24, the First Seimas (parliament of Lithuania) accepted the petition thus formalizing the incorporation of the Klaipėda Region on the Lithuanian side. The Conference of Ambassadors decided to dispatch a special commission to the region, rejected a military intervention, and agreed to open negotiations with Lithuania.
On February 16, 1923, the Conference of Ambassadors relinquished its rights, granted by the Treaty of Versailles, and transferred the district over to Lithuania with a condition that a formal international treaty would be signed at a later date. Lithuania accepted the transfer and negotiations over the treaty began on March 24, 1923. A special commission of the Conference, chaired by French diplomat Jules Laroche, presented a 50-paragraph project which reserved extensive rights of the Second Polish Republic to access, use, and govern the port of Klaipėda. To Lithuania, which terminated all diplomatic ties with Poland over a bitter dispute over Vilnius Region, this was completely unacceptable. The Lithuanian delegation, led by Ernestas Galvanauskas, responded by presenting their own project which reserved no rights to Poland in April 1923. The negotiations resumed in July when Laroche presented two other projects, which were very similar to the first. Seeing that the situation became deadlocked, Lithuanians suggested to turn over the case to the Permanent Court of International Justice while Laroche preferred the League of Nations. The Conference decided to appeal to the League on the basis of Article 11 of its Covenant. On December 17, 1923, the League authorized a three-man commission to analyze the situation and prepare a report. The commission was headed by American Norman Davis and included A. G. Kröller (Dutch technical expert on transportation) and M. Hoernell (Swedish professor). The commission visited Klaipėda, Kaunas, and Warsaw. It presented a treaty projected on February 18, 1924. After negotiations with the Lithuanians, the League adopted the Convention on March 14, 1924 despite Polish protests. The document was signed by Robert Crewe-Milnes, 1st Marquess of Crewe, Raymond Poincaré, Camillo Romano Avezzana, Ishii Kikujirō and Ernestas Galvanauskas on May 8. It was registered with the League of Nations Treaty Series on October 3. The Convention was ratified by the Entente Powers and took full effect on August 25, 1925. The Lithuanians hailed the final version as their major diplomatic victory as Poland received no special rights in the port.
|Date of payment||Total
(in gold marks)
|To Great Britain
|To Italy |
(in Italian lira)
|15 days after signing||800,000||4,725,998||90,882||–|
|December 15, 1930||1,000,000||5,886,873||113,180||16,273|
|December 15, 1931||1,000,000||5,907,505||113,590||–|
|December 15, 1932||1,000,000||5,907,505||113,590||–|
The Convention had 18 articles. The region was transferred to Lithuania without conditional provisions and granted legislative, judicial, administrative, and financial autonomy to preserve "traditional rights and culture of the inhabitants". The residents were automatically granted Lithuanian citizenship but were also given a window of 18 months to opt out and choose German citizenship. The new Lithuanian citizens were exempt from military service until January 1930. Lithuania agreed to pay war reparations according to the Treaty of Versailles as they related to the region, protect rights of minorities and foreign businesses. Any member of the Council of the League of Nations could draw attention of the League to any infractions of the Convention and such disputes would be referred to the Permanent Court of International Justice. This provision was used by Nazi Germany when it supported anti-Lithuanian activities in the region and accused Lithuania of violating minority rights. The region could not be transferred to other countries without the consent of the contracting parties. This article became relevant in 1939 when Lithuania was presented an ultimatum demanding to transfer the Klaipėda Region to Germany.
The Convention included the statute of Klaipėda Region, agreement on port of Klaipėda and transit as an addendum. The statute of Klaipėda Region had 38 articles and was akin to a constitution. It dealt primarily with detailing the level of legislative, judicial, administrative, and financial autonomy granted to the region. The autonomy was given in the name of Lithuania, which was a significant Lithuanian diplomatic achievement, and the four international signatories just confirmed it. Matters specifically placed under local authority included public worship and education, local administrative divisions, health and social welfare, roads and public works, civil, criminal, and commercial legislation, local police, taxes (except custom duties). The region had its own legislative body (Memel Landtag) elected for a three-year term in free democratic elections. The President of Lithuania appointed a governor of the region. The governor could not veto laws passed the local parliament unless they violated the statute, Constitution of Lithuania, or international agreements. The reasons for a veto did not include laws contrary to the interest of Lithuania. The five-member Directorate was appointed by the governor and served as the executive institution as long as it had confidence of the parliament. The governor in agreement with the Directorate could dissolve the parliament. The Directorate appointed tribunal judges for life. The Lithuanian and German languages were given equal status as official languages of the region. Amending the statute required a three-fifths majority in the local parliament and could be submitted for approval to a local referendum.
The agreement on port of Klaipėda specified that it was a port of international concern and that the Barcelona Convention and Statute on the Regime of Navigable Waterways of International Concern applied. The agreement established a three-member Harbor Board charged with administration, operation, and development of the port. One member was appointed by the Lithuanian government, another by the Directorate, and the third by the League of Nations. The transit agreement had four articles and guaranteed freedom of transit. It particularly concerned export and import of timber via the Neman River.
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