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THERE is a strange contrast between the history of this sleepy Baltic port in the centuries prior to the Paris Peace Conference and its prominence in the subsequent fifteen years. Until 1917, Memel had few claims to fame. As a port it was surpassed by the greater activity of Königsberg and Danzig. Historically, it was overshadowed by Tilsit, that city farther up the Niemen where Napoleon and Alexander of Russia had divided the world between them.
In 1919 Memel City and its hinterland were separated from East Prussia. The unit comprised an area of 945 square miles and a population of 150,000 (25,000 Germans and 125,000 who consider themselves Lithuanians). To Germany's protests the Allies answered that although the city of Memel was largely German, the hinterland was Lithuanian in sympathy. Furthermore, Memel was the only outlet to the sea for the newly created state of Lithuania. Until that country had definite boundaries (she had a continuing conflict with Poland after Zeligowski's seizure of Vilna in 1920), the Allies continued to rule Memel. They wished to make Memel available for Lithuanian commerce but were not willing to give Lithuania unconditioned sovereignty over the Territory.
The period of inter-Allied government was scarcely a happy one. The Germans in Memel Territory demanded the status of a free city, such as Danzig, for they considered this the quickest route to reunion with Germany. Even Lithuania had little respect for the port which supposedly was to serve her needs. She erected customs barriers between herself and the Territory, and directed her own trade to Königsberg and Libau.
The stalemate was ended in January 1923. A filibustering expedition of Lithuanian soldiers in civilian dress entered Memel and, after some fighting with Allied troops, proclaimed the union of Memel and Lithuania. In February 1923, the Conference of Ambassadors recognized the fait accompli but insisted on a certain degree of autonomy for the Territory. The task of defining this autonomy was ultimately given to a committee of the League of Nations. On this committee the United States was represented in a private and quasi-arbitral capacity by Mr. Norman H. Davis who, more than anyone else, was responsible for the drafting of a compromise acceptable to all concerned. This compromise is known as the Statute of Memel.[i]
The Statute of Memel, signed by the Allies and Lithuania on May 8, 1924, recognized Lithuania's sovereignty over the Territory but promised for the latter an important degree of autonomy. This autonomy was threefold: governmental, cultural and economic. In internal matters the Territory was to be self-governing. The government consisted of an executive, the Governor, appointed by Lithuania; a cabinet, known as the Directory, composed of five men, the President, appointed by the Governor, and four colleagues chosen by the President; and a legislature, the Diet, of 29 members elected by universal suffrage. The cultural guarantees safeguarded German residents in their language, in the maintenance of their schools, and in their religion -- most of the Memel Germans are Protestants whereas Lithuania is essentially Roman Catholic. Economically, all states whose commerce must pass through the Territory should be assured of free passage to and from the port of Memel.
More important than the precise terms of the Memel Statute is the attitude of those to whom it applies. The attitude of both Lithuania and Germany was the same after 1924 as it had been earlier. Lithuania acted as if she possessed complete sovereignty, whereas Germany could not forget that Memel had once been Prussian. Hence it is not surprising that there have been a series of crises. That of March 1935, when Lithuania sentenced four Nazis to death for plotting the return of Memel to Germany, is the most recent. But the crises of 1932 and 1934 are more revealing of the nature of the conflict.
In February 1932 the Governor of Memel dismissed the President of the Directory, a certain Dr. Böttcher. The charge was that Dr. Böttcher, during a recent visit to Berlin, had talked with two Prussian ministers. Although the subject and purpose of the discussion were unknown, Lithuania considered the affair an infringement of her exclusive right to control the foreign policies of Memel. Dr. Böttcher refused to resign. The Governor arrested him, dismissed the Directory, and appointed a new President who subsequently chose colleagues unacceptable to the Diet. The latter had and has always had a German and autonomist majority. The Governor promptly dissolved the Diet. Germany, attentive to the grievances of her compatriots, referred the case to the League, which in turn delegated it, as a legal question, to the World Court. The Court, while not wholly vindicating the Governor, ruled in 1932 that he had the right to dismiss functionaries disloyal to the Statute, and that he had been justified in dismissing Dr. Böttcher. The Court reminded German Memel-landers that a minority has duties as well as rights.
The crisis of 1934 reveals still another aspect. There has doubtlessly been considerable Lithuanization in Memel Territory. German names of streets have been changed; Memel City, a German stronghold, is required to call itself Klaipeda; and Protestant parishes were severed from the Consistory of Königsberg. On the other hand, the rise of the Nazi Party has been accompanied by intensive German propaganda in the Territory. A Lithuanian investigation revealed the extent of this propaganda in the schools. Memel Nazis, aided from Berlin, had instituted new schoolteachers; pictures of German heroes adorned the walls of schoolrooms; and the curriculum was the same as that in Prussia. Most of the teachers could not speak Lithuanian and many confessed to having attended special propaganda courses in Berlin.
A solution of the Memel problem obviously is not easy to find. Many forces are at work. There is, for example, the constitutional question. Neither Germans nor Lithuanians are adapted by historical background and experience to a régime of constitutional liberty. Both have sent agents into the Territory, both desire to end the present régime, both will attempt to utilize a régime of constitutional liberty to extirpate their enemies and blot out constitutional liberty itself. But the real issue lies deeper. Lithuania has gained by the Peace Treaty and she intends to consolidate her gains. Germany has lost, but she is not reconciled to her loss. This was shown as recently as May 21, 1935. Germany, said Chancellor Hitler, is "ready to negotiate non-aggression pacts with all our neighbor states. If we except Lithuania, this is not due to the fact we desire war there, but because we cannot enter into political treaties with a state which disregards the most primitive laws of human society."
Deeper still there is another factor. Lithuania considers the centuries of German rule along the Baltic provinces as an injustice; it is a wrong to be righted. Germany considers those centuries as part of a natural order, an order to be restored as soon as possible. Given such divergent mentalities, it is difficult to forecast a solution which will be both peaceful and lasting.
[i] For the early history of the Memel situation and an account of the work of the Davis commission see John A. Gade's "The Memel Controversy," FOREIGN AFFAIRS, March 1924.