AMONG the numerous antagonisms that disturb the new Eastern Europe, there is none that has been more unexpected, none that has proved more troublesome, few that may be fraught with greater dangers than the hostility that has grown up between Lithuania and Poland. For four years now the quarrel between these states, particularly over the Vilna territory, has kept them at swords' points. Periods of armed conflict have alternated with protracted and heated diplomatic struggles; the coveted territory has changed hands six times; the great powers and the League of Nations have been involved in the dispute; and yet today the rivals are still on a war footing towards each other, and the chief question at stake may be reopened at any moment. Nor is this affair one of merely local or neighborhood interest. Apart from the moral issues bound up with the question whether this is or is not a case of a weaker nation suffering from the "imperialism" of a stronger one, the settlement of the Vilna problem is sure to have important consequences for the political equilibrium of Europe. For statesmen at Paris, Moscow or Berlin it is doubtless a matter of great moment whether, by the attribution of Vilna to Poland, a considerable barrier is to be erected between Germany and Russia, while Poland is enabled to join hands with Latvia, Esthonia and Finland, with whom she is trying to form a Baltic League; or whether, by the assignment of Vilna to Lithuania, a corridor is to be opened up between Germany and Russia across the territory of a small state that has shown a certain friendliness to both these powers. In general, the new political system which the Allied Powers have been striving to create would be appreciably strengthened if Poland and Lithuania could become friends or allies, while the continued enmity between these two states may greatly serve the designs of those who desire to overthrow the new order.

This antagonism is the more regrettable in that there are scarcely any other two nations in this part of Europe that have so much in common, that seem so clearly marked out to be friends, as the Poles and the Lithuanians. They do, indeed, differ widely in language, the former, as everyone knows, speaking a Slavic tongue, and the latter a rather archaic and very interesting language of the Baltic group, which, it is frequently said, remains closer to Sanskrit than does any other living European tongue. But the two peoples are bound together by the ties of religion--both being ardently Catholic and almost surrounded by nations of the Protestant or Greek Orthodox faith--by a common and distinctive "culture," and, above all, by having lived a common political life through many centuries in the past. Through most of their history the two nations have been indissolubly united; they long shared in the same glories and achievements; they have since suffered from the same Russian and German oppressors; they recovered their independence simultaneously; they face very similar problems and dangers today. Their past relations with each other were, indeed, of a unique character, and some knowledge of them is indispensable for an understanding of the present situation.

While Poland appears, from the tenth century onward, as a more or less consolidated kingdom in the valley of the Vistula, Catholic in faith and belonging to the cultural world of Western Europe, the Lithuanians in their secluded forests of the Niemen lingered in paganism and figured little in history until in the thirteenth century they were roused from their lethargy by the pressure of the oncoming Germans. Then, under the rule of an unusually gifted line of princes, Lithuania suddenly turned "militaristic." Not only did she successfully defend her independence against those Germans who had just subjugated her only kinsmen, the Letts and the aboriginal Prussians, but, turning to the east and south, where the old Kievan-Russian realm had now split up into a host of weak principalities, she spread her conquests with amazing rapidity. By the latter part of the fourteenth century a vast Lithuanian empire had been built up, extending from the Baltic nearly to the Black Sea, and including most of what in our day has been called western Russia. In this realm the ruling nation formed scarcely one-tenth of the total population, the remainder consisting chiefly of Orthodox White Russians and Little Russians (Ukrainians), peoples so superior in culture to the still pagan Lithuanians that the empire would probably soon have become Russified and riveted to the Byzantine civilization of the East had it not been for a great historical accident. In 1386 Jagiello, Grand Prince of Lithuania, married Jadwiga, the young Queen of Poland. This was the beginning of that Polish-Lithuanian union which lasted, with a few brief interruptions, down to the destruction of the joint state by the partitioning powers in 1795.

This union has scarcely a parallel in history, unless it be the almost contemporaneous union between Denmark and Norway (1380-1814). For the peculiarity of it was that during this long connection Lithuania, much the larger and originally the stronger of the two states, voluntarily submitted to being dominated and assimilated by her associate. Poland inevitably became the dominant partner, not through any external compulsion, but because of her greater wealth and higher civilization, because of the attractions which her social and intellectual life and her freer political system held out to the upper classes in Lithuania. Hence at the very outset the hitherto pagan population of Lithuania proper accepted Catholicism, the Polish religion. Hence, too, Polish culture in all forms gradually permeated the Grand Principality, displacing, not a Lithuanian culture--for one can scarcely say that there had ever been any--but rather that Byzantine kind of civilization which was represented by the Russian element in the population. The numerous nobility and, to a large extent, the townspeople throughout the Lithuanian realm adopted the Polish language, customs, and manners--became in fact quite "Polonized." The institutions of Lithuania were gradually assimilated in all respects to those of Poland. Finally, the two states which originally were bound together only by a common ruler, contracted a perpetual, organic union through the Act of Lublin (1569), and this in turn led to the complete fusion effected by the famous constitution of May 3, 1791.

Nor did this community of interests, culture, traditions, and sentiments disappear with the Partitions. Far down into the nineteenth century, amid common trials and persecutions and ever recurrent common struggles for liberation, the public mind in both countries clung to the ideal of the deathless union between the two "brother nations." Indeed, Poland and Lithuania within their "historic frontiers" of 1772 were still conceived to be one indivisible country, just as France is; and while it was recognized that the peasantry in Lithuania proper spoke an unlettered jargon of their own, just as the Breton peasants do in France, this was not regarded as a danger to the moral unity of a land where the upper classes spoke only Polish and the all-pervasive Polish spirit and culture still seemed as dominant as before the Partitions. This view appeared to be justified as late as 1863, when, in their last struggle for independence before the World War, the Lithuanian peasants vied with the Poles in their efforts for the common cause. In short, down to two generations ago the old ideal prevailed--the ideal enshrined in the Act of 1569, where it was said: "The Crown of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania are only a single body, one and indivisible, as is the Republic itself, which, formed of two states and nations, has united and fused them into one people." Or, in the words of one of the wisest of Polish-Lithuanian rulers (Sigismund Augustus, in 1571): "All the citizens both of Poland and of Lithuania ought to form an indivisible whole . . . . They must love each other with a deep, sincere, fraternal love, like the members of one body, like inhabitants of one and the same republic."

But modern nationalism plays havoc with old ideals and the most venerable traditions. Among the Lithuanians, too, a nationalist movement was bound to develop, as among all the other small peoples of Eastern Europe; a movement which first set out to assert the rights of the national language and then to work for national autonomy and ultimate independence. This movement began on a considerable scale only about 1883, but it has since made remarkable progress. Inevitably, it assumed from the start a marked anti-Polish character. For from the standpoint of the nationalists the first task was to win back the whole Lithuanian people to the use of the Lithuanian language and to a distinctly Lithuanian national consciousness; to overthrow the long predominance of the Polish language, Polish culture, and Polish patriotism; to teach their compatriots to be a self-sufficient nation like any other, rather than to consider themselves a slightly differentiated species of Poles. This attack upon time-honored customs and established positions was conducted in rather militant fashion and aroused an equally pugnacious opposition. Not only the upper classes but in many cases the masses refused to be "Lithuanianized." They clung to the old ideal, that one could be a good Pole and a good Lithuanian at the same time. But if that was no longer possible, if they must choose between loyalties, they preferred to use Polish and to be classed as Poles. In their eyes, the "Lithuanomaniacs" were trying to force an uncultivated and unlearnable jargon upon them, forsaking the good old traditions, betraying the common mother country, serving the ends of Germany and Russia. On the other hand, in the eyes of the Lithuanian nationalists, these "Polonized" or "Polonizing" elements (whom the nationalists always insisted on considering Lithuanians by blood, on the theory that there could be no genuine Poles in Lithuania) were regarded as deserters from the national cause, enemies within the household, traitors to the Lithuanian fatherland. Hence a rather bitter conflict was developing just before the World War between the local "Polonizers" and "Lithuanianizers," which furnished a most unhappy background for all efforts made since the war to restore the old union between the two "brother nations."

On the Polish side, indeed, the desire for such a reunion has been deeply felt and very frequently manifested. Overtures to Lithuania in that sense were made by the declaration of the Polish Council of State of April 6, 1917, the declaration of the seventeen Polish parties at the assembly of May 19 and 22, 1917, the declaration of the Polish Government of January 30, 1918, the note of the Paderewski cabinet to the Lithuanian Government of February 12, 1919, and on numerous other occasions. But this persistent wooing of the erstwhile partner has evoked no response. To the Lithuanian nationalists everything Polish is anathema. According to their (rather questionable) reading of history, the former connection with Poland was the ruin of that great Lithuanian empire of the Middle Ages of which they are so proud. They cannot forgive Poland for having "stolen" their upper classes away from them, "robbed" them of Kosciuszko and Mickiewicz (the one the Polish national hero, the other the greatest of Polish poets, and both born in Lithuania). They fear that in a new union Poland would once more become the dominant partner and Lithuania would again be threatened with denationalization. And while they have at times appeared to recognize that, in view of Lithuania's small size and exposed geographical position, her fortunes would be better assured if she had some connection with Poland, the union they have had in mind has been of a kind which the Poles have thought it impossible to accept. It would be, namely, a union in which, within the territory which the nationalists consider to be Lithuanian, their own language and culture should exclusively prevail: that is, the Poles are asked to agree to the complete "Lithuanianization" of a large region, particularly around Vilna, which they regard as essentially Polish. To such a sacrifice the Poles have felt unable to assent. They would prefer a federal union between Poland proper and a Lithuanian state which would be frankly binational, placing the Lithuanian and Polish languages on a plane of equality; and in that case they might renounce the Vilna region in favor of Lithuania. But as this solution has seemed impossible, they have fallen back on the other alternative of claiming the disputed territory for themselves, in order to save it from "depolonization." It is this quarrel over territory that has wrecked the relations between the two new republics in the past four years.

In approaching the merits of this dispute, it is well to remember how much confusion is introduced into the question by the numerous divergent uses of the term Lithuania. One can, in fact, distinguish five different senses in which that name is used, five different areas to which it is at times applied. First, there is what may be called "original Lithuania"--the region which in primitive times was occupied by Lithuanian tribes and which probably coincided roughly with the modern Russian governments of Kovno, Vilna, and Suwalki. Secondly, there is "Lithuania proper"--to use a term familiar during the period of the mediæval Lithuanian empire, i.e., "original Lithuania" plus certain White Russian territories in the modern governments of Minsk and Grodno, which were early conquered and partially colonized by the Lithuanians and were long considered by them as forming, within the wider complex of their loosely-knit empire, the special domain of their race. Thirdly, there is "historic Lithuania"--the whole area of the old Grand Duchy, an area which varied at different epochs but which from 1569 to 1772 consisted essentially of the modern governments of Kovno, Vilna, Suwalki, Grodno, Minsk, Vitebsk, and Mohilev. Fourthly, there is what may be called "linguistic Lithuania," i.e., the small area within which the Lithuanian language is spoken by the majority of the population today. In spite of the claims sometimes put forward by overheated patriots, the limits of this area have been fixed with much precision by the labors of Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, and German scholars. It includes the government of Kovno, the northern part of Suwalki, a narrow fringe around the western and northern border of the government of Vilna, and what was formerly the northeastern corner of the German province of East Prussia (which also belonged to "original Lithuania"). It is to be noted that for centuries the Lithuanian language has been losing ground, on the south and east to Polish and White Russian and on the west to German. This may help to explain the desire of the nationalists today to establish their concept of the fifth term in our series: what they call "ethnographic Lithuania," i.e., the region where the population, though now in many districts denationalized, weaned away from the old national language and sentiments, is still of Lithuanian stock and could and should be won back to conscious Lithuanian nationality. This area has been defined in somewhat divers ways by recent Lithuanian spokesmen. Sometimes it is restricted to what I have called "original Lithuania" --Kovno, Vilna, Suwalki, and part of East Prussia; sometimes it is also made to include much of the governments of Minsk and Grodno, i.e., to approximate the concept of "Lithuania proper."

The vast differences between these various meanings of the name is shown by the fact that "historic Lithuania" had an area of over 117,000 square miles (about the size of Italy or Norway) and a population before the war of 12 1/2 millions; while "ethnographic Lithuania," defined by the limits of what the Kovno Government is claiming today, has an area of about 60,000 square miles (half as large as Norway) and an estimated population of 4 millions; and "linguistic Lithuania," which coincides pretty well with what this government holds at present, includes only about 24,000 square miles (i.e., it is not much larger than Denmark) and a population of about 2 millions. Or, if one applies what is after all the most workable test of nationality in Eastern Europe, the language spoken today, one finds, on the basis of what is necessarily a rough estimate, that 80 per cent of the population of "linguistic Lithuania" speak Lithuanian; less than 50 per cent in "ethnographic Lithuania;" and only about 16 per cent in "historic Lithuania." Nevertheless, in spite of these great differences in the size and in the racial and linguistic character of the various areas to which the name Lithuania has been attached, the word is too often used loosely in present-day discussions, now in one sense and now in another. It is important to remember that the name is commonly used by the Poles and in general by many of the inhabitants of the old Grand Duchy simply in the historic sense, to denote a vast region which long formed a political unit and still possesses a large measure of economic and cultural unity, although it has always had a very mixed population, speaking four languages--Lithuanian, Polish, White Russian, and Yiddish. It is in this sense that Polish patriots like Mickiewicz have lavished their affection upon Lithuania, their secondary, local fatherland; that Marshal Pilsudski calls himself a Lithuanian; and that Zeligowski proclaimed his "Government of Central Lithuania" at Vilna. But the nationalist government at Kovno uses the word in a quite different sense. Since they have always aimed at creating a state based on unity of language, culture, and nationality--quite unlike the old Grand Duchy--they have refused to lay claim to the eastern half of "historic Lithuania;" they have limited their ambitions to what they consider their legitimate ethnographic domain. But they have, on the other hand, taken this concept in a rather generous and elastic sense; they have included within it wide areas where it is doubtful whether the inhabitants ever were Lithuanian, and it is certain that the bulk of the population does not speak Lithuanian today; and in advancing these claims they have gained a far more ready hearing from the outside world through the ambiguity of the word Lithuania. The western public, knowing that the Poles themselves referred to Vilna as in the center of Lithuania, was inclined to conclude that Vilna must be Lithuanian in language and nationality. From the fact that all the territories claimed by the Kovno Government lay in what the native population called Lithuania, it seemed to follow that that government was fully justified in its claims. Unfortunately, the matter is not so simple.

The territory chiefly in dispute coincides roughly with the former Russian government of Vilna.[i] It is probable, but not certain, that this territory was originally settled by Lithuanian tribes, as the place names seem to suggest, and that a large part of the present population is of Lithuanian ancestry, though it would be difficult to say how large. But for centuries there has apparently been a steady infiltration of White Russians and Poles, and a still more marked tendency to the spread of the languages of the latter two peoples at the expense of Lithuanian. This latter phenomenon may be ascribed largely to the influence of the Polish clergy, the Polish or "Polonized" upper classes, and latterly of the Russian officials and of service in the Russian army. In mixed districts the peasant was likely to conclude that Lithuanian--a language so different from the Slavic tongues--was of little use to him in his dealings with the outside world, whereas Polish or White Russian (closely related and mutually intelligible tongues) or the characteristic local jargon, composed of a mixture of both, would serve him equally in his relations with the priest, the squire, the chinovnik, or the drill-sergeant. Moreover, Polish was the "gentleman's language," which one naturally adopted as he rose in the social scale and which alone was proper to be used on solemn occasions or for polite intercourse. This linguistic change and in particular this process of "Polonization" seem to have made most rapid progress in the last half-century. It is said that there are villages in this region where the elders still speak Lithuanian habitually, the middle-aged people White Russian, and the youngest generation Polish, Amid the resulting chaos in the linguistic situation, one fact stands out as certain: the area within which the Lithuanian language still predominates in the government of Vilna is confined to a narrow strip around the western and northern border of the province, seldom approaching nearer than 20 or 25 miles to the city of Vilna, and then to a few scattered linguistic "islands."

The remainder of the population--the great bulk of it--has now come to speak either Polish or White Russian.[ii] But as between these two languages, the exact ratio is very difficult to establish, because of the unsatisfactory nature of the existing statistics. There are four main sets of statistical data that come into account here: the Russian census of 1897, the Russian estimates of 1909, the census taken by the Germans in 1916, and the one carried out by the Poles in 1919. These sets of data agree tolerably only in one thing: in presenting the Lithuanians as only a small minority of the population (18 per cent in 1897; 13 per cent in 1909; 7 per cent according to the Polish census, which, however, does not refer to precisely the same area as the Russian estimates). But they differ enormously as to the proportions of Poles and White Russians. The two Russian estimates purport to show a large White Russian majority in the province of Vilna. But these estimates are so generally suspected of political bias--of being distorted in order to minimize the importance of the Polish element and to prove that this was a "genuinely Russian country;" they differ so widely from the German and Polish censuses; and they exhibit so many improbabilities and glaring contradictions between themselves that it is difficult to attach any real faith to them.[iii] And yet through the long-existing alliance between Russian statisticians and German cartographers, virtually all our current maps of the racial situation in this region are based on this utterly unreliable census of 1897--a veritable ethnographic mare's nest.

The Polish census of 1919 might, perhaps, be suspected of an equal bias on the other side. But the methods by which it is known to have been taken seem to afford some guarantee of its honesty, and at all events it has the great advantage of agreeing tolerably well with the German census--the only census ever held here against which no charge of political bias can be raised, since the German military authorities took it solely for their own information, with no intentions of publication. Unfortunately, the German census was taken only in the western half of the province of Vilna, and its results, in as far as they have been published, are not so complete or detailed as the Polish census. At any rate, I am inclined to hold that these two latest sets of data taken together furnish a much more reliable basis of approach to the Vilna problem than do the old Russian estimates.

According to the census of 1919, the Polish-speaking inhabitants make up 53.6 per cent of the population in the province of Vilna, as against 21.4 per cent of White Russians, 8.1 per cent of Jews, and 6.9 per cent of Lithuanians. In the city of Vilna itself there were reported to be 56.2 per cent of Poles, 36.1 per cent of Jews, and 2.3 per cent of Lithuanians. In nine out of the twelve districts into which the province was divided, the Poles had an absolute or relative majority, which in the districts of Vilna (without the city) and Lida rose to 87.3 and 76.0 per cent, respectively. It is probable that, apart from all questions about the fairness of the census, the proportion of people who habitually speak Polish is not so high as these figures might suggest, for the census of 1919, unlike that of 1897, called for a declaration from each inhabitant, not about his language, but about what "nationality" he professed to belong to; and doubtless many people who do not usually speak Polish, declared themselves to be of Polish nationality--it may be, in some cases, for prudential reasons, or because of genuine Polish sympathies. This must, in particular, have been the case with large numbers of Catholic White Russians--for the most part a poor and ignorant population which seems utterly destitute of any national feeling based on language, but naturally oriented towards Poland by their religion (the "Polish faith," as they are wont to say).

The evidence supplied by the censuses is somewhat reënforced by the results of such elections as have been held in this region. In all four of the Russian Dumas the province of Vilna regularly had a majority of Polish representatives (5 out of 7 or 5 out of 8). The municipal government of the city of Vilna has almost invariably been in Polish hands; and the communal elections held throughout the province in 1919 and the elections to the constituent assembly in 1922 seem to attest the predominance of Polish sympathies.

It may be admitted that every election, like every census, is open to some charge of unfairness, and that all these bits of evidence taken together do not furnish entirely conclusive proof of the political aspirations and affinities of the population of the Vilna territory. But what evidence there is does seem to favor the claims of the Poles. The Lithuanians, in making out their case, are obliged to repudiate the results of all the censuses and all the elections, and have nothing serious to fall back upon except the originally Lithuanian character of the population and the argument that all the Jews and all the White Russians wish to belong to Lithuania, and that these two races, if added to the Lithuanians, would produce an anti-Polish majority in this territory. But the Poles deny both halves of the latter proposition, and as to the former one they retort with some justice that the fate of Vilna ought to be settled on the basis, not of the hypothetical character of the population centuries ago, but rather of the present situation and the wishes of the population today.

Since 1918 the Polish-Lithuanian dispute has passed through vicissitudes too numerous to be more than briefly recapitulated here.

It will be recalled that during the World War and the German occupation of the country a Lithuanian nationalist government was organized at Vilna. After the armistice and the withdrawal of the Germans, the Bolshevik flood burst in from the east and the Lithuanian authorities had to retire to Kovno (January, 1919). Soon afterwards Poland, which was quicker than her rival to get organized in a military way, assumed the offensive on the east, and gradually drove back the Red armies from the Bug and the Niemen to the Berezina. In the course of this operation the Polish troops occupied Vilna on April 20, 1919. The government at Kovno at once protested warmly against this "seizure of its capital," and with that the long litigation over Vilna began. Some fighting also broke out between Polish and Lithuanian troops, which led the Allied Powers, in the interest of peace, to fix a provisional line of military demarcation (the "Foch line" of July, 1919) to the northwest of Vilna. Meanwhile the two governments conducted intermittent negotiations, which are very little known to us (the Staniszewski and Wasilewski missions to Kovno, the Saulis mission to Warsaw, etc.). It appears that the Poles continually urged a new federal union between the two countries, intimating that in that case Lithuania might have Vilna; but the Lithuanians always replied in substance, "Give Vilna back to us, and then--we'll see." As the Poles would not surrender the bird in their hands for the very uncertain one in the bush, and the Lithuanians refused to treat of a union as long as the Poles were "invading their territory," no agreement could be reached.

In the meantime the Peace Conference at Paris, after some discussion of the eastern frontiers of Poland, renounced a definitive solution of that question for the present in view of the uncertainty of the ethnographic situation in the debatable border lands and the lack of a recognized Russian Government with which a treaty could be concluded. The Conference contented itself therefore with voting the resolution of December 8, 1919, which marked out a line on the eastern side of the former "Congress Poland" and declared that what lay to the west of this line was indisputably Polish territory, within which Poland might organize a permanent administration, while what lay to the east of it was left for future adjudication, with all rights reserved. Though this so-called "Curzon line" was put forward only as a kind of provisional, minimum Polish frontier, with express recognition of the fact that Poland had claims to the east of it that might come up for consideration in the future, there has ever since been a strong tendency in various quarters to assume that the Allies had now defined, not the minimum, but the maximum limits of what Poland could justly aspire to on the east, and that any claims beyond this must be a case of sheer Polish "imperialism." That seems, in particular, to have been the attitude of the British Government, as was soon to be demonstrated.

The events of 1920 singularly aggravated the situation. At the beginning of July the Polish front temporarily collapsed, and for the second time the Red armies occupied Vilna. At the same moment Russia concluded a treaty with the Kovno Government by which most of the Vilna territory and parts of the former provinces of Grodno and Suwalki were ceded to Lithuania (Treaty of Moscow of July 12). Polish resentment over this transaction was increased by the fact that it was believed at Warsaw that the Lithuanians had pledged themselves by an annex to the treaty to put their new territories and railroads freely at the disposal of the Bolsheviki for the prosecution of the war with Poland; and whether or not there was an engagement to this effect, the Bolsheviki undoubtedly acted as if there had been. Meanwhile Poland, apparently driven into the last ditch, appealed to the Allies for aid. At the Spa conference her prime minister seems to have given a promise, demanded, it is said, by Great Britain, that in return for aid Poland would accept the "Curzon line" as a final frontier on the east. Not long afterwards the Poles were disposed to hold that they were not strictly bound by this engagement, since no effective aid from England was actually received by them; but at all events that promise seriously hampered them in the events that immediately followed.

By the middle of August the military situation was suddenly reversed by the "miracle of the Vistula" and the ensuing complete débacle of the Red army. The Lithuanian Government had scarcely installed itself for the second time at Vilna when the Poles came thundering northward in hot pursuit of the Russians. Lithuanian and Polish troops again met, and at once started firing. Lithuania appealed to England, Poland to the League of Nations. The latter body at once agreed to mediate and sent out a commission, under whose auspices on October 7th the two contesting parties concluded the famous and ill-fated armistice of Suwalki. Under the terms of this agreement a line was drawn about twenty-five miles south of Vilna, beyond which the Poles agreed not to push their operations. Apparently it was the Spa engagement that prevented the Polish Government from reoccupying Vilna by force, which from a military standpoint it was amply able to do.

Immediately afterwards General Zeligowski, a Polish officer, and the "Lithuanian-White Russian division" in the Polish army "mutinied" and went off to do what the Polish Government seemed diplomatically precluded from doing. Only two days after the Suwalki armistice these Polish troops occupied Vilna, the Lithuanian Government, after a few glorious weeks in "its capital," again retiring to Kovno, where it has ever since perforce remained. Zeligowski proceeded to organize a "government of Central Lithuania" for the territory about Vilna, announcing that the ultimate fate of this region was to be decided only by the inhabitants thereof. Whether the Polish Government had a hand in preparing Zeligowski's coup has never, I think, been fully established. At any rate, that government could scarcely have opposed it, had it desired to do so, for the whole Polish public enthusiastically applauded this "liberating act." Much as one may deplore this flagrant violation of the Suwalki agreement and this resort to naked force, it was the not unnatural retort of a nation which had found the Bolsheviki, the Lithuanians, and even the Allied Powers leagued together to deprive it of what it considered to be an essentially Polish land--with a population of 800,000 Poles against only 100,000 Lithuanians.

The League of Nations patiently resumed its task of pacification. A new line of demarcation and a neutral zone were arranged between Zeligowski's forces and the Lithuanians (November 29, 1920). It was agreed that the future of the disputed territory should be settled by a plebiscite to be conducted under the supervision of the League, while an international force was to be sent to Vilna to replace Zeligowski's troops and to keep order. Unfortunately, however, these plans were not carried out. Owing to the difficulties encountered in arranging for the international force, and even more in bringing Lithuanians and Poles to agree on the terms of the plebiscite, the Council of the League presently decided to abandon the project (March 3, 1921) and instead to invite the two states to settle their disputes by direct negotiations, under the guidance of a representative of the League, M. Hymans of Belgium.

In the ensuing conferences at Brussels and Geneva, intermittently pursued from May to September, 1921, M. Hymans made a brave and persistent attempt to find a way out of this impasse. His fundamental idea was to satisfy the Lithuanians by giving them the Vilna territory, and to gratify the Poles by ensuring autonomy to Vilna and arranging some kind of federal union between Lithuania and Poland. At the opening of the conference he stated that in the view of the Council of the League there ought to be a close connection, approaching federation, between the two states with regard to economic interests, military defense and foreign policy. He embodied this idea in a draft agreement, which provided for:

1. The establishment of a federal Lithuanian state, made up of the two autonomous cantons of Kovno and Vilna, with the capital of the joint state at Vilna.

2. The permanent connection of Lithuania and Poland through:

(a) A joint council for foreign affairs, with parliamentary control maintained through something resembling the former Austro-Hungarian Delegations;

(b) A defensive military convention;

(c) An economic convention embodying the principle of free trade between the two states.

Objections and reservations were offered by both sides, Poland insisting that the inhabitants of the Vilna territory must be consulted before their fate was settled, and Lithuania protesting against the degree of autonomy accorded to Vilna. Hence M. Hymans prepared a second plan, considerably reducing that autonomy, while trying to satisfy the Poles by providing that the agreement between Poland and Lithuania should be ratified by an assembly in which the Vilna population would be represented (among the delegates of Lithuania). But all efforts were useless. The Polish Government finally rejected the plan on the ground that the proposed connection between Kovno and Vilna was quite too close and that between Poland and Lithuania not close enough. The Lithuanian Diet rejected the plan for the opposite reason: it could not bear to be so closely bound to Poland. After this disappointing outcome, the Council of the League wearily washed its hands of the matter and invited the two litigants to settle the question as best they knew how. The representatives of the League had at least shown the highest impartiality, breadth of view and constructive statesmanship in this affair, and they can scarcely be blamed for not trying to impose their solution upon the two parties by force.

The Poles now proceeded to a decisive stroke. In January, 1922, elections were held throughout the contested territory for a "constituent assembly of Central Lithuania." As Polish troops were occupying the electoral area and Polish officials made the arrangements for the elections, the validity of this popular consultation has often been questioned. It is, at any rate, clear that the rules issued for the occasion were fair enough, that the vote was granted to nearly all resident adults, and that the elections passed off quietly and peaceably. While many Jews, White Russians, and Lithuanians kept away from the polls, nearly two-thirds of the qualified voters (64 per cent) cast their ballots. The result was a complete victory for the Polish cause. The constituent assembly promptly met and on February 20th, by a vote of 96 out of 102, passed a set of resolutions repudiating "the pretensions of the Lithuanian Republic" to their territory, and declaring that "the territory of Vilna, without conditions or reservations, forms an integral part of the Polish Republic." The Diet at Warsaw then ratified this decision, and in spite of protests from Kovno, Moscow, and London, the annexation of Vilna to Poland was formally carried through (March to April, 1922).

Whatever displeasure England may have felt over this dénouement, France was probably not a little pleased with it, and during this past year French diplomacy seems to have exerted itself to bring her allies to recognize the fait accompli. Two means were at hand for partially mollifying Lithuania: to grant her government de jure recognition, and to hand over the Memel territory to it as an offset to the loss of Vilna. The recognition was at last given in December, 1922, but the transfer of Memel was delayed until the impatient Lithuanians took matters into their own hands.

When the Allies by the Treaty of Versailles took the northeastern corner of East Prussia away from Germany, their only excuse was that the majority of the population here was Lithuanian and that Memel, the port at the mouth of Lithuania's great river, the Niemen, was the one natural outlet for the trade of that country. Nevertheless, for nearly four years the Allies failed to take the next logical step by ceding the Memelland to those whom they had recognized as its rightful owners. One can only guess as to the reasons for this strange delay, but the ostensible pretext was that Lithuania's juridical status was not yet finally determined. Meanwhile, the district remained under French occupation and control; the Germans began to agitate for the return of the region to Germany or at least for its erection into a "free city" on the model of Danzig; and the Poles commenced to display a strong interest in Memel, which might possibly be excused on the ground that they held large territories on the upper course of the Niemen, but which, in view of all that they had recently taken from Lithuania, does not do credit to their tact or moderation.

The Lithuanians feared that even Memel was about to elude their grasp. Hence they proceeded to carry out a stroke somewhat reminiscent of Zeligowski, but which was natural enough for an exasperated people, who felt that they had been too long deceived and trifled with. On January 10, 1923, an insurrection broke out in the Memel district against the Allied authorities. A provisional Lithuanian Government was installed, headed by M. Simonaitis. A local diet, made up of 120 representatives of the various political and economic organizations of the district met at Heydekrug (January 19) and unanimously voted for the union of the Memelland with Lithuania, with provisions for local autonomy as already sanctioned by the Lithuanian Diet. After a brief outburst of wrath, the great powers of Europe surrendered to a handful of Lithuanians. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say they decided to perform a belated act of justice. On February 16, 1923, the Council of Ambassadors voted to transfer the Memel territory to Lithuania, though apparently under certain conditions guaranteeing the autonomy of the district and the rights of Poland to the use of the Niemen and the port of Memel.

These concessions to Lithuania seemed to some extent to pave the way for further action by the great powers in the Vilna question. Already on February 3rd the Council of the League of Nations had recommended that the narrow neutral zone established since 1920 between the areas of Polish and of Lithuanian occupation should be divided between the two states for police and administrative purposes, though without prejudice to the question of sovereignty. There was a real need that this lawless no-man's-land should disappear. The Poles gladly acquiesced, and on the appointed date (February 15) proceeded to occupy the portion of the zone assigned to them by the League. The Lithuanians, fearing that the territorial question would now in effect be regarded as settled, protested against this new "invasion." A little fighting took place, but the partition of the neutral zone seems now to have been completed.

Finally, on March 15, 1923, the Council of Ambassadors passed a momentous resolution to regulate en bloc all the long-pending questions regarding the eastern frontiers of Poland. By this act the Allied Powers recognized the Russo-Polish frontier as fixed by the Treaty of Riga, and the Polish-Lithuanian frontier as defined by the recent recommendation of the League of Nations concerning the neutral zone. The official sanction of Europe for her possession of Eastern Galicia, of Vilna, and of all the broad territories won by the war with Soviet Russia--such were the fruits which Poland obtained by this decision. Her government has seldom gained so great a victory.

Lithuania has, of course, refused to accept this verdict. She maintains her attitude of indignant protest. She will not even treat with Poland unless the latter shows true repentance for past sins by restoring the status established by the Suwalki agreement. But one must suspect that in their hearts the Lithuanian leaders know that the great question is definitely settled against them--at least for a long time to come.

One can understand the bitterness of the Lithuanians over all that has happened: the violation by their neighbor of a solemn agreement; the loss of half of what they regard as their rightful territory; above all, the loss of that beautiful city of Vilna, the historic capital of the old Grand Duchy, the one city in that whole region which seems fitted to be the capital of a state and beside which Kovno is no more than a shabby country town. But, on the other hand, it is only fair to recall that the best evidence available seems to show that the majority of the disputed population feels itself to be Polish and desires to go with Poland. As far as language statistics afford a criterion, the Lithuanians are hardly more than an insignificant minority in the territories to which they lay claim: scarcely ten per cent in the region as a whole, not three per cent in what they call their "rightful capital." At bottom it appears to be a question in which claims based chiefly upon "historic rights" and sentiment are matched against claims based on the principle of nationality and what seems to be the will of the population concerned.

A happier outcome might probably have been attained along the lines of the Hymans proposals, had both sides displayed more wisdom, generosity, and willingness to compromise. And perhaps one may express the hope that in the future, when passions have cooled and long-range views again become possible, these two nations will find the way to adjust their differences through some kind of federal union and will become again what they were through so many centuries in the past--allies and comrades in glory and adversity.

[i] The Poles have never claimed the northern and western fringe of this province, which since 1918 has remained in Lithuanian possession. The Lithuanians have never claimed the two northeastern districts (Dzisna and Wilejka), which Russia has now ceded to Poland; while, on the other hand, they do claim some small parts of the old governments of Grodno and Suwalki.

[ii] Or among the very numerous Jewish population in the towns, Yiddish.

[iii] For example, the uiezd (district) of Vilna had only 20 per cent of Poles according to the census of 1897, but 43 per cent according to the Russian estimates of 1909, while the German census of 1916 showed 75 per cent and the Polish census of 1919 made it 87 per cent. The conflict of authorities could scarcely be worse!

What particularly undermines one's faith in the Russian statistics is such a case as that of the district of Bialystok, where one is asked to believe that in 1897 the Poles formed 34 per cent of the population, but in 1909 only 18 per cent (the German census shows over 50 per cent of Poles); or of the district of Bielsk, where the Poles are supposed to have fallen off catastrophically from 35 per cent in 1897 to 4 per cent in 1909. There are plenty of other examples.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • ROBERT H. LORD, Professor of History in Harvard University, Chief of the Division of Russian and Polish Affairs in the American Delegation at the Paris Conference, 1918-1919, American representative on the first Inter-Allied Commission to Poland, 1919
  • More By Robert H. Lord