Figure 1 Memel and the Memelland



Memel before 1918

Memel is a is a city in Lithuania (3,4) situated north of the (5) mouth of the Niemen (9) [OR] Neman River1 (5) at the mouth of the Akmena – Danė River (3) where it flows into the Baltic Sea. (3,8) It is the third largest city in Lithuania and the capital of Memel County. (3) The city has a complex recorded history, partially due to the combined regional (3) importance (3,4) of its usually ice-free (3) port (3,4) and surrounding territory, (4) which for centuries had considerable importance as a trading centre. (9) The eastern boundaries of Prussia had remained unchanged since the Treaty of Melno in 1422. (13,15) Before 1918 Memel had been controlled by the Teutonic Knights, (3) the Hanseatic League, the Swedish, (9) Prussia (3,9) (both the Duchy and the Kingdom) (3) after the Napoleonic Wars (9) and (3,4) from 1871, (3) the German Empire. (3,4) In the 19th Century the Russians banned the Lithuanian language and suppressed Catholic religion. (2) There were two unsuccessful revolts to restore Poland-Lithuania (1831 and 1863) but eventually (2) the National Revival (2,15) established a goal for Lithuania independent of both Russia and Poland. (2) It was then that the idea of uniting The Memelland with Lithuania surfaced. (15) It was part of the vision to consolidate all ethnic Lithuanian lands into an independent Lithuania. (15) As a major sea port in the Baltic Sea, Memel would become Lithuania’s only deep-water access to the sea and having a port was seen as an economic necessity for self-sustainability. (15) There was some industrialisation and urbanisation in the late 19th century. (2) Memel and the surrounding area (9) was a part of the state of East Prussia, (4,5) within the German Empire (3,4) forming part of its eastern boundary. (9) until the end of World War I. (2,4) A large portion of its population, particularly outside the port city of Memel, however, was Lithuanian. (8)


Figure 2: Memel in the Middle Ages

Memel during the First World War

In 1915 the Germans occupied Lithuania. (1) They beat off a Russian counter attack. (11) “Russian militia troops have gained a cheap success in the northernmost corner of East Prussia in the direction of Memel. (11) They have plundered and burned villages and farms. (11) As a penalty, we have ordered the cities occupied by us in Russian territory to pay considerable sums in damages. (11) For every village or farm burned down by these hordes on German soil three villages or farms of the territory occupied by us in Russia will be given over to the flames. (11) Each act of damage in Memel will be answered by the burning of Russian Government buildings elsewhere.” (11)

Vilnius Conference 1917

In 1917 the Germans allowed (1,14) a Vilnius Conference to convene between September 18 and September 22, 1917, with the (14) demand that Lithuanians declare loyalty to Germany and agree to an annexation. (6,14)) The representatives at the conference 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. (14) The mechanism for this process was to be decided by a constituent assembly, but the German government would not permit elections. (14) Furthermore, the publication of the conference’s resolution calling for the creation of a Lithuanian state and elections for a constituent assembly was not allowed. (14) There then followed the Bolshevik Revolution (HN) The Council, led by Jonas Basanavičius, declared Lithuanian independence as a German protectorate on December 11, 1917. (14) Lithuania fought for its independence from Bolshevik and Polish invaders. (6)

Declaration of Independence

The council formed an assembly called the Taryba, (1,14) and empowered it to act as the executive authority of the Lithuanian people. (14) On 16th February 1918, (1,6) its 20 members (6,14) declared Lithuania independent (1,6) and democratic. (14) [OR] The restoration of statehood finally became possible after both the crumbling Russian Empire and the Germans surrendered in World War 1. (2) The Germans, weakened by the losses on the Western Front, but still present in the country, did not support such a declaration and hindered attempts to establish actual independence. (14)

Grand Duchy of Lithuania

Figure 3 Memel in Brest Litovsk


In the meantime, an attempt to revive the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as a socialist multi-national federal republic was also taking place under the German occupation. (14) In March 1918, Anton Lutskevich and his Belarusian National Council proclaimed a Belarusian People’s Republic that was to stretch from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and include Vilnius. (14) Lutskevich and the ‘Belarus National Council’ fled the Red Army approaching from Russia and left Minsk before it was taken over by the Bolsheviks in December 1918. (14) Upon their arrival in Vilnius, the Belarusians proposed a Belarusian-Lithuanian federation, which however generated no interest on the part of the Lithuanian leaders, who were in advanced stages of promoting national plans of their own. (14)

Treaty of Brest Litovsk

In March 1918, the Bolshevik government made peace at Brest-Litovsk, conceding Memel to the Germans. (14)

King Mindaugas II

To prevent being incorporated into the German Empire, (14) Lithuanians elected (14) [OR] offered the throne to (6) Monaco-born (14) Wilhelm 2nd Duke of Urach. (6) He accepted, taking the name Mindaugas II2. (6,14) on June 4th, (6) [OR] July (14) 1918. (6,14) Mindaugas II never visited Lithuania (6) or assumed the throne, however (6,14) and he was removed from the throne on November 2nd, 1918. (6) On November 11th Germany surrendered. (HN) After the Armistice, the former North Eastern corner of the German Empire became a matter of discussion between Poland, Lithuania and the Entente powers. (13) Lithuania (6,8) quickly (6) formed their first government, (6,8) led by Augustinas Voldemaras, who eventually served as the first Prime Minister of Lithuania. (6,14) [OR] Lithuania did not exist as an independent country immediately after the end of the War I (3,11) and it was controlled by the Entente States. (3) [OR] Germany withdrew, but Soviet forces began to expand, reaching the Lithuanian borders in December 1918. (6,14) Their intention was to spread the global proletarian revolution. (14) They created a number of puppet states, including, on December 16th 1918, the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. (14) By the end of December, the Red Army reached Lithuanian borders and started the Lithuanian–Soviet War. (14) The Lithuanian government evacuated Vilnius and moved west to Kaunas, which became the temporary capital of Lithuania. (14) They aimed at creating a state “within ethnographic frontiers,” as they perceived it. (14)

First 6 months of 1919

On January 1st 1919, the German occupying army withdrew from Vilnius and turned the city over to local Polish self-defense forces. (14) Vilnius, was then taken by the Soviet army on January 5th, 1919 due to the fact that the Lithuanian Army had not had time to form adequately to defend itself. (6,14) The Soviet forces moved largely unopposed and by mid-January 1919 controlled about ⅔ of the Lithuanian territory. (14) Vilnius was now the capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Republic, and soon of the combined Lithuanian–Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. (14) From April 1919, the Lithuanian–Soviet War dragged on parallel with the Polish–Soviet War. (14) Polish troops captured Vilnius from the Soviets on April 21, 1919. (14) Poland had territorial claims over Lithuania, especially the Vilnius Region, and these tensions spilled over into the Polish–Lithuanian War. (14) In mid-May 1919, the Lithuanian army commanded by General Silvestras Žukauskas began an offensive against the Soviets in northeastern Lithuania. (14)

Memel and Versailles

Poland laid claim to the Memel country, and as long as there was a possibility of a Polish-Lithuanian confederation, Poland supported the efforts of Lithuania to claim the Memel territory. (12,13) Their idea was that Memel would be given to Lithuania, and then Lithuania would be given to to Poland. (15) Until the Polish–Lithuanian union could be worked out, Memel was to be placed under the temporary administration of the Allies. (15) While such a union had a historic tradition in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, Lithuania categorically refused any such proposals. (15) At Versailles Poland’s Roman Dmowski, (13,15) acting on the orders of Józef Piłsudski: sought to give the lower part of Neman River and its delta, which was located in Germany and called the Memel River, to Lithuania (13) as this would provide her access to the Baltic Sea, (5,13) Lithuania would then enter into a union with Poland. (13,15) On March 24th, (8) [OR] June 28th (11) 1919, the newly formed state of Lithuania requested that the Allied Powers at the Paris Peace Conference grant it possession of the Memel territory (Memelland) (8,12) as “old Lithuanian” territory. (12) However, at the time Lithuania was not officially recognized by the western powers (12,15) and not invited into any post-war conferences (15) because its political situation was unstable (8,12) because of the non-resolved Vilna conflict, (12) Józef Piłsudski of Poland, seeking a Polish-Lithuanian federation, but unable to find common ground with Lithuanian politicians, made an unsuccessful attempt in August 1919 to overthrow the Lithuanian government in Kaunas. (14)


 The Polish union idea was met favourably in Western Europe, (13,15) and was supported by the French prime minister Georges Clemenceau. (13) And so, (13,15) on February 13th (12) 1920 (9,10) according to Article 99 (8) [OR] 28 (15) of the Treaty of Versailles, (8,13) the German area north of the Memel river (9,13) called Memelland (11) was detached from Germany (4,5) and ceded to the Allies. (9,10) After World War I, the Polish Corridor provided access to the Baltic Sea, but the Free City of Danzig was not granted to Poland. (15) The Second Polish Republic regarded the Memel Region as possible compensation for the loss of Danzig. (15) Meanwhile, led by General Silvestras Zukauskas, (6) the Lithuanian army eventually pushed the Soviets out of Lithuanian territory by the end of 1919. (6,14)

The Protectorate over Memel

According to article 99 of the Treaty, (15) Memel became a protectorate of the League of Nations. (9,10) The British declined the protectorate, (15) and it was placed under provisional French administration. (4,5) It was occupied by French troops: (4,9) the 21st battalion of (15) Chasseurs Alpins under General (12,15) Dominique Joseph (15) Odry, arrived (12,15) on February 10, 1920 (15) for protection (9,13) until a more permanent solution could be worked out. (5,10) The area was given the name “Territoire de Memel”: the government was to be administered by a “Council of Ambassadors”. (4,9) Shortly after World War I, efforts were made to conclude a Baltic defence alliance among Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, all of which had recently broken away from the Russian Empire to form independent states and feared the aggressive policies of Soviet Russia. (7) Lithuania obtained international recognition and membership in the League of Nations, passed a law for land reform, introduced a national currency (the litas), and adopted a final constitution in August 1922. (14) In 1920, Lithuania established a parliamentary democracy through its Constituent Assembly. (6,14) However, the council was unable to form a government, develop a police force or create state institutions as German troops still existed in the country. (6) [OR] the Germans had handed over to Poles in January 1919. (14) In June the Lithuanian government adopted the third provisional constitution and (6) on July 12th 1920, signed the Soviet–Lithuanian Peace Treaty. (6,14) by which the Russians recognized Lithuania as an independent country. (1,6) In the treaty the Soviet Union recognized fully independent Lithuania and its claims to the disputed Vilnius Region; Lithuania secretly allowed the Soviet forces passage through its territory as they moved against Poland. (14) On July 14th 1920, the advancing Soviet army captured Vilnius for a second time from Polish forces. (14) The city was handed back to Lithuanians on August 26th 1920, following the defeat of the Soviet offensive. (14) The victorious Polish army returned and the Soviet–Lithuanian Treaty increased hostilities between Poland and Lithuania. (14) To prevent further fighting, the Suwałki Agreement was signed with Poland on October 7th 1920; it left Vilnius on the Lithuanian side of the armistice line. (14) It never went into effect, however, because Polish General Lucjan Żeligowski, acting on Józef Piłsudski’s orders, staged the Żeligowski’s Mutiny, a military action presented as a mutiny. (14) He invaded Lithuania on October 8th 1920. (14) On 9th (14) [OR] 10th (1) October 1920 the Poles occupied Vilnius; (1,14) on October 12, 1920, they established a short-lived Republic of Central Lithuania in eastern Lithuania (14) They hung on to Vilnius, which caused a great deal of tension with Lithuania. (1,15) Worsening Polish–Lithuanian relations led to the Polish–Lithuanian War and dispute over the Vilnius Region. (15) The League of Nations attempted to mediate the dispute between Poland and Lithuania, and Paul Hymans proposed plans for a Polish–Lithuanian union, (14) but negotiations broke down as neither side could agree to a compromise. (14,15)

Memel under the Conference of Ambassadors 1920-24

The Germans officially handed over the region on February 15th, 1920. (15) Two days later General Odry established a seven-member Directorate—the main governing institution. (15) After Lithuanian protests, two Prussian Lithuanian representatives were admitted to the Directorate, increasing its size to nine members. (15) On June 8, 1920, France appointed Gabriel Jean Petisné as the head of the civilian administration in the Memel Region. (15) Petisné showed anti-Lithuanian bias and was favorable towards the idea of a free city. (15) General Odry resigned on May 1, 1920, leaving Petisné the highest-ranking official in the region. (15) French Prime Minister and chairman of the Paris Peace Conference Georges Clemenceau commented that the Memel Region was not attached to Lithuania because it had not yet received de jure recognition. (15) The Lithuanians seized this statement and further campaigned for their rights in the region believing that once they received international recognition, the region should be theirs. (15) As the mediation of the Polish–Lithuanian conflict over the Vilnius Region by the League of Nations was going nowhere, (14,15) the Memel Region became a major bargaining chip. (15) Already in 1921, implicit “Memel-for-Vilnius” offers were made. (15) Both Lithuania and Poland campaigned for their rights in the region. (10,12) The Lithuanians rejected the proposal as they were not ready to give up on Vilnius. (15) After the rejection, the French and British attitudes turned against Lithuania and they now favoured the free city solution (Freistadt like the Free City of Danzig). (15) In December 1921, Poland sent Marceli Szarota as a new envoy to the region. (15) Due to his initiative, Poland and Memel signed a trade agreement in April 1922. (15) In addition, Poland attempted to establish its economic presence by buying property, establishing business enterprises, and making connections with the port. (15) In March 1922, the British made a concrete and explicit offer: in exchange for recognition of Polish claims to Vilnius, Lithuania would receive de jure recognition, Memel Region, and economic aid. (15) Central Lithuania held a general election in 1922 that was boycotted by the Jews, Lithuanians and Belarusians, then was annexed into Poland on March 24, 1922. (14) The Constituent Assembly had had to adjourn in October 1920 due to threats from Poland, gathered again and initiated many reforms needed in the new state. (14) Despite the July 12th 1920 treaty, the Soviets and Lithuanians continued to battle until a final constitution was signed in August 1922. (6) The first phase of the Lithuanian Wars of Independence was now over and Lithuanians could direct attention to internal affairs. (14) Lithuania became a democratic state, with Seimas (parliament) elected by men and women for a three-year term. (14) The Seimas elected the president. (14) The First Seimas of Lithuania was elected in October 1922, but could not form a government as the votes split equally 38–38, and it was forced to dissolve. (14)


Figure 4: The Port of Memel

Relations between Memel and Lithuania

Independent Memelland?

On November 30, (15) 1918, the separatist ‘Act of Tilsit’ had been signed by (13,15) twenty-four (15) Prussian Lithuanian activists, demanding the unification of the Memelland with Lithuania proper: (13,15) and the idea of an independent State of Memelland grew in popularity among local inhabitants. (8,9) The Conference of Ambassadors favoured leaving Memel as a free city, (5,9) similar to the Free City of Danzig, (5,10) but their rule was doomed to failure. (4) The populations of both Germany and Eastern Europe, since the conquests of Napoleon Bonaparte at the beginning of the 19th Century, found French military occupation intolerable, (4) Memel city was 93% German. (12) The Memelland had been united since the monastic state of the 13th century, and even many Lithuanian-speakers, regarding themselves as East Prussians, declared themselves as “Memellanders/Klaipėdiškiai”. (13) The majority of (8,13) local Germans wished to preserve their political and cultural dominance in the region. (15) within a Freistaat Memelland, (13) which later should return to Germany (13,15) (although any immediate union with Germany was a political impossibility). (15) There was a strong denominational difference since about 95% of the inhabitants of The Memelland were Lutherans while more than 90% of Greater Lithuanians were Catholics. (13) The Lutherans regarded the Catholic Russian Lithuanians as (12,15) economically and culturally (15) backward. (12,15) Farmers and industry workers worried that cheaper produce and labour from Lithuania would destroy their livelihood. (15) 43.5% of the Memellanders spoke German, 27.6% Lithuanian 25.2% “Memeln” (Memelländisch). (13) The organisation Deutsch-Litauischer Heimatbund (German-Lithuanian homeland federation) had 30,000 members, both ethnic Germans and Lithuanians, about 21% of the total population. (13) In Memelland as a whole Prussian-Lithuanians accounted for 63% of the population, (12) [OR] 41.9% German, 27.1 % Memelländisch, and 26.6 % Lithuanian. (13) Whatever the figures, they did not want to be joined to Lithuania. (12,13) At the end of 1921, Arbeitsgemeinschaft für den Freistaat Memel (Society for Free State Memel) collected 54,429 signatures out of 71,856 total eligible residents (75.7%) in support of the free state. (12,15)

Lithuanian Opposition to a Memel Free State

A separate Memelland was unacceptable to the government of Lithuania, who viewed the area as part of their own (9) and wanted to incorporate the Memelland (5,9) due to its large Lithuanian-speaking minority of Prussian Lithuanians and its major port, Memel. (5) “Kleinlitauische” activists set up the National Council of the Kleinlitauer (Memelland) and (12) called for the annexation of the Memelland to Lithuania. (12,13) According to the Lithuanian point of view, Memellanders were viewed as Germanised Lithuanians who should be re-Lithuanised. (13)) it was taken by Lithuanians as expressing the desire of the Memelland to unite with Lithuania (13) Polish (8) [OR] Lithuanian (13) interest groups also wanted unification, retaining the idea of a Greater Polish/Lithuanian union. (8,13) Germany understood that the region would not be re-attached. (15) Therefore, they favoured the lesser of two evils and tacitly supported the interests of Lithuania. (15) The Weimar Republic saw both Poland and France as its major enemies while Lithuania was more neutral. (15) Also, once Germany restored its might, it would be much easier to recapture the region from weaker Lithuania than from larger Poland. (15) Already on February 22nd 1922, the Germans unofficially informed the Lithuanians that they were not opposed to Lithuanian action in Memel and that, understandably, such a stance would never be officially declared. (15) Such attitudes were later confirmed in other unofficial German–Lithuanian communications and even during the revolt, when Berlin urged local Germans not to hinder the Lithuanian plans. (15) In the Autumn of 1922 (8) during the period of French administration (9) the Conference of Ambassadors created a special commission to review the status of Memelland. (8) On November 3–4, 1922, a delegation of Prussian Lithuanians unsuccessfully pleaded the Lithuanian case to the Conference of Ambassadors. (15) The Commission thus displayed sympathy for the plan to transform Memelland into a free state, (8) and on December 18th 1922, scheduled the presentation of a proposal for the future of the region on January 10, 1923. (15) While the content of the proposal was not known until after the start of the revolt, the Lithuanians expected the decision to be against their interest3 and hastened their preparations. (15)

Pllanning a revolt

Figure 5: Galvanauskas Galvanuskas

Not waiting for an unfavourable decision (10,15) Lithuania decided (10,12) during a secret session on November 20, 1922, (15) to take the region by force, (10,12) and present the Entente with a fait accompli. (10,15) They recognized that the diplomatic efforts through the League of Nations or the Conference of Ambassadors were fruitless and economic measures to sway the inhabitants towards Lithuania were too expensive and ineffective in international diplomacy. (15) General Silvestras Žukauskas claimed that the Lithuanian Army could disarm the small French regiment and take the region in 24 hours. (15) However, a direct military action against France was too dangerous, both in military and diplomatic sense. (15) Therefore, it was decided to stage a local revolt, using the example of the Polish Żeligowski’s Mutiny in October 1920. (15) The preparations were left in the hands of Prime Minister Ernestas Galvanauskas. (15) While he delegated specific tasks, the grand plan was kept secret even from the First Seimas or Ministry of Foreign Affairs and thus very few Lithuanians understood the full role of the government in the revolt. (15) Thus the main credit for organization of the revolt is sometimes given to Vincas Krėvė-Mickevičius, Chairman of the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union, which provided the manpower. (15) Galvanauskas planned to present the revolt as a genuine uprising of the local population against its German Directorate and not against the French or Allied administration. (15) Such plan was designed to direct Allied protests away from the Lithuanian government and to exploit the anti-German sentiment in Europe. (15) Galvanauskas warned that all those involved could be subject to criminal persecutions if it was necessary for Lithuania’s prestige. (15) The Lithuanian inhabitants of the Memelland, (8) encouraged from Lithuania, (9,10) and with the tacit support of Germany, (10) formed a Committee for the Salvation of The Memelland (8) and began to organise local infantry units (12) using numerous local volunteers (8) and militia (9,13) [OR] irregulars (11) from Lithuania proper. (8,9) The main task of these volunteer infantry units was to disguise the participation of the Lithuanian army in the uprising. (12) Galvanauskas was careful to hide any links between the rebels and the Lithuanian government so that if the revolt failed he could blame the Riflemen and the rebels absolving the government of any responsibility. (15) The Lithuanian cause was also supported by industrialists, who expected cheap labour and raw materials from Lithuania. (15) Lithuanians also engaged in intense propaganda. (15) They established and financed pro-Lithuanian organizations and acquired interest in local press. (15) Many of these activities were coordinated by Lithuanian envoy Jonas Žilius, who received 500,000 German marks for such purposes. (15) In December 1922, Krėvė-Mickevičius met with Reichswehr’s commander Hans von Seeckt and was assured that German army would not interfere with the Lithuanian plans in the region. (15) Krėvė-Mickevičius cheaply bought 1,500 guns, 5 light machine guns, and 1.5 million bullets from the Germans. (15) Banker Jonas Vailokaitis donated US$12,500 for the cause and pledged another $10,000 if needed. (15) Additional support was provided by Lithuanian Americans, including Antanas Ivaškevičius (Ivas) and Andrius Martusevičius (Martus). (15) For several weeks before the revolt, the local press reported on alleged Polish plans for the region. (15) A “Committee to Save Lithuania Minor” distributed leaflets in the German language arguing that the Memellanders should choose “the lesser evil” of Lithuanian rule over being “transformed into a Polish colony.” (12) This was designed to strengthen the anti-Polish sentiment and paint Lithuania as a more favorable solution. (12,15) During the planning the Lithuanians received a boost from Soviet Russia. (15) When the Allies had mooted turning Memel into a free city like Danzig, Polish Foreign Minister Konstanty Skirmunt believed that such a free city would hurt the Polish interest by allowing Germany to maintain its influence in the region. (15) Skirmunt instead supported the transfer of the region to Lithuania if Poland would secure unrestricted trade via the Neman River and the port. (15) At the same time Poland was preoccupied by other issues (assassination of President Gabriel Narutowicz, economic crisis, territorial disputes in Silesia, tense relations with Soviet Russia) and paid less attention to Memel. (15) Lithuania understood that a military action against Polish interest in the region could resume the Polish–Lithuanian War. (15) To counter the expected backlash from Poland and France, the Lithuanians looked for an ally in Soviet Russia, which opposed a strong Polish state. (15) On November 29th Soviet Foreign Minister Georgy Chicherin stopped briefly in Kaunas on his way to Berlin. (15) In a conversation with Galvanauskas, Chicherin expressed support for Lithuanian plans in Memel and declared that Soviet Russia would not remain passive if Poland moved against Lithuania. (15)

Lithuanian Revolt, 1923

On January 7th, the Lithuanian front organisation, the SCSLM, published a proclamation, Broliai Šauliai!, alleging that the Lithuanians were persecuted by foreigners, declaring its resolve to take up arms to rid itself of “slavery”, and pleading the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union for help. (15) This became the official pretext for the riflemen to enter into the region on January 9. (15) The Lithuanians duly staged (5,8) a revolt (3,5) on January (5,8) 9th, (8,9) [OR] 10th (15) 1923, (3,5) announcing at Silutė (Heydekrug) that they were taking over the government of Memelland in order to unite the region, as an autonomous unit, with Lithuania. (8) The SCSLM declaration also provided that the German and Lithuanian languages were given equal status as official languages of the region, all political prisoners were to be released, martial law was enacted. (15) In addition to this declaration, the Committee issued a French appeal to the French soldiers, in which they, as “fighters for noble ideas of freedom and equality”, were asked not to fight against the “will and achievements of the Lithuanian nation”. (15) The ‘rebels’, (12) provided with 1,500 German rifles and light machine guns and ammunition (12,15) on easy terms, had 2-3,000 men against 200 French soldiers with machine guns. (12) They were taken by train (12,15) TO kretinga and Tauragė (15) on the border of Memel. (12,15) 1,090 volunteers (40 officers, 584 soldiers, 455 riflemen, 3 clerks, 2 doctors, 6 orderlies) crossed the border into the region. (15) Among them were Steponas Darius and Vladas Putvinskis. (15) They wore civilian clothes and had green armband with letters MLS for Mažosios Lietuvos sukilėlis or Mažosios Lietuvos savanoris (rebel/volunteer of Lithuania Minor). (15) Each man had a rifle and 200 bullets; the rebels had a total of 21 light machine guns, 4 motorcycles, 3 cars, 63 horses. (15) It was a well-chosen moment, as western Europe was distracted by the occupation of the Ruhr. (10,13) As planned, the affair was carefully presented as an uprising of the local population. (5,15) The Lithuanians covered up their involvement by announcing via their news agency that neither regular nor irregular troops had crossed into Memel. (12) In hopes to negotiate a peaceful retreat of the French and to avoid any casualties, shooting was allowed only as a last resort of self-defense. (15) Galvanauskas ordered perfect behavior (politeness, no plunder, no alcoholic drinks, no political speeches) (12,15) They carried no Lithuanian identification (no Lithuanian documents, money, tobacco, or matchboxes). (15) Once inside the Memel Region, they were met by some 300 local volunteers, though Lithuanian historian Vygandas Vareikis disputed the accuracy of this assertion. (15) More local men joined once the rebels reached cities. (15) [OR] The Memellander population reacted with indifference. (12) The rebels met little resistance, (5,15) from either the German Police (5) or the French Army. (4,5) but struggled with cold winter weather, lack of transportation and basic supplies (they were not provided with food or clothes, but were given a daily allowance of 4000 German marks). (15) By January 15th, (8,14) the revolt succeeded in taking (4,8) the entire district, including (8) the city of Memel (3,4) by force. (4,8) During the brief fighting, 12 insurgents, two French soldiers, and one German policeman were killed. (15) According to German sources, one French soldier died and two were injured. (15) The rebels established a pro-Lithuanian administration, which petitioned to unite with Lithuania, citing the right of self-determination. (5) On 19th January the territory was annexed by Lithuania. (4,9) The Lithuanians began organizing a local army, which included 317 men by January 24th. (15) The men were enticed by a guaranteed 6-month position and a wage of 2 litas a day. (15) In March the Conference of Ambassadors awarded Vilnius to Poland. (14) Lithuania did not accept this decision and broke all relations with Poland. (14) For Lithuania, the occupation of the Memelland was a brave step that was a state-building factor. (12) Stamp

Figure 6: Lithuanian Stamp commemorating the 1923 seizure of Memel

International Reaction

France at the time was preoccupied with the Occupation of the Ruhr in Germany, and (9,10) the French administration in Memel did not take any significant counteractive measures against the rebels, (4,9) On January 16, the Polish ship Komendant Piłsudski entered the port of Memel carrying Colonel Eugène Trousson, a member of the French military mission in Poland, and reinforcements to French troops. (15) On January 17–18, British cruiser HMS Caledon and two French torpedo boats Algérien and Senégalais reached Memel. (15) French cruiser Voltaire was on its way. (15) However, the ship soon departed as the fighting was over and ceasefire was in effect. (15) Nevertheless, the Versailles Treaty was broken. (12) The Allied Powers (8) [OR] the League of Nations (10) sent formal notes to Lithuania (8) protesting against this action. (8,10) But at the end of January (4) [OR] on February 17th, (5) [OR] 16th (8) 1923 (4,5) the League of Nations (5,8) via the Ambassadors’ Conference (8,12) decided on an unofficial exchange: Lithuania would receive the Memel Region for the lost Vilnius Region. (15) Accepting the fait accompli, the Memel Region was transferred as an autonomous territory to the Republic of Lithuania. (5,8)


The region was officially handed over from French administration to Lithuania. (11,12) The French evacuated their garrison. (12) After prolonged negotiations (5,8) concerning the nature of the union and control of the port of Memel, and only after the matter was referred to the League of Nations (8) the annexation was recognized by the Council of Ambassadors (4,9) on May (5,10) 8th (10,13) 1924, (4,9) when Lithuania reached an accord with (8,13) Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan (the member states of (8) the Ambassadors’ Conference), and (8,9) a formal international agreement, the Memel (5,8) Convention, (5,13) [OR] Statute (8) was signed. (5,8) While the sovereignty of Lithuania in the region was acknowledged, (5,13) the Convention outlined the governmental structure of the territory (5,8) with its extensive (5,10) legislative, judicial, administrative, and financial (5,13) autonomy. (5,10) The Memelland area was granted a separate parliament, two official languages, the capacity to raise its own taxes, charge custom duties, and manage its cultural and religious affairs, and was allowed a separate judicial system, separate citizenship, internal control of agriculture and forestry, as well as a separate social security system. (13) A resulting autonomy agreement was signed in Paris, (13) and the Convention was confirmed by the League of Nations in 1925. (9) The annexation gave Lithuania control of a year-round ice-free Baltic port. (13) The annexation of Memel had enormous consequences for the Lithuanian economy and foreign relations. (10) The convention was hailed as a major Lithuanian diplomatic victory as it contained none of the special rights initially reserved for Poland and placed no conditions on Lithuanian sovereignty in the region. (15) However, the convention severely limited the powers of the Lithuanian government and caused frequent debates on the relationship between central and local authorities. (15)

Lithuanian rule after the Revolt

It was its only lasting achievement. (14) [OR] There was an interlude of prosperous freedom. (2) The Second Seimas of Lithuania, elected in May 1923, was the only Seimas in independent Lithuania that served its full term. (14) The Seimas continued the land reform, introduced social support systems, and started repaying foreign debt. (14) The first Lithuanian national census took place in 1923. (14)The interwar period of independence gave birth to the development of Lithuanian press, literature, music, arts, and theater as well as a comprehensive system of education with Lithuanian as the language of instruction. (14) The network of primary and secondary schools was expanded and institutions of higher learning were established in Kaunas. (14) Lithuanian society remained heavily agricultural with only 20% of the people living in cities. (14) The influence of the Catholic Church was strong and birth rates high: the population increased by 22% to over three million during 1923–1939, despite emigration to South America and elsewhere. (14) In almost all cities and towns, traditionally dominated by Jews, Poles, Russians and Germans, ethnic Lithuanians became the majority. (14) Lithuanians, for example, constituted 59% of the residents of Kaunas in 1923, as opposed to 7% in 1897. (14) Memel was incorporated as an autonomous district of Lithuania in May 1924. (14) The Lithuanians renamed it Klaipeda, Lithuanian for the region. (9) Meanwhile Latvia and Estonia had formalized a bilateral-defense agreement in November 1923. (7) Lithuania was still an agricultural society (2,13) and made full use of Memel’s port, modernizing and adapting it, largely for its agricultural exports. (13) The port reconstruction was certainly one of the larger long-term investment projects enacted by the government of Lithuania in the interwar period. (13) [OR] little was done to expand the port (12) The region subsequently accounted for up to 30% of the Lithuania’s entire production. (10) Between 70% and 80% of foreign trade passed through Memel. (10) The region, which represented only about 5% of Lithuania’s territory, contained a third of its industry. (10) Weimar Germany, under Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann, maintained normal relations with Lithuania. (10,15) Poland and Lithuania were officially at war over Vilnius, the historical capital of Lithuania, inhabited at that time largely by Polish-speaking and Jewish populations between 1920 and 1938. (14) The dispute continued to dominate Lithuanian domestic politics and foreign policy and doomed the relations with Poland for the entire interwar period. (14)


Figure 7: Memel (Klaipeda) within Lithuania

Smetona Coup 1926-40

The Third Seimas of Lithuania was elected in May 1926. (14) For the first time, the bloc led by the Lithuanian Christian Democratic Party lost their majority and went into opposition. (14) It was sharply criticized for signing the Soviet–Lithuanian Non-Aggression Pact (even though it affirmed Soviet recognition of Lithuanian claims to Poland-held Vilnius) and was accused of “Bolshevizing” Lithuania. (14) As a result of growing tensions, (14) an army coup took place in (1,14) In December (13,14) 1926. (1,14) the government was deposed. (14) The coup, organized by the military, was supported by the Lithuanian Nationalists Union (tautininkai) and Lithuanian Christian Democrats. (14) Antanas Smetona came to power (1,13) as the president and Augustinas Voldemaras as the prime minister. (14) Smetona suppressed the opposition (14) and remained as an authoritarian leader (1,14) until June 1940. (14) The right-wing dictatorship of 1926–1940 had strangely stabilizing social effects, as it prevented the worst of antisemitic excesses as well as the rise of leftist and rightist political extremism. (14) The Seimas thought that the coup was just a temporary measure and that new elections would be called to return Lithuania to democracy. (14) Instead, the legislative body was dissolved in May 1927. (14) Later that year members of the Social Democrats and other leftist parties tried to organize an uprising against Smetona, but were quickly subdued. (14) In May 1928, Smetona announced the fifth provisional constitution without consulting the Seimas. (14) The constitution continued to claim that Lithuania was a democratic state while the powers of the president were vastly increased. (14) Smetona’s party, the Lithuanian Nationalist Union, steadily grew in size and importance. (14) He adopted the title “tautos vadas” (leader of the nation) and slowly started building a cult of personality. (14) Many prominent political figures married into Smetona’s family (for example, Juozas Tūbelis and Stasys Raštikis). (14) (7) Voldemaras grew increasingly independent of Smetona and was forced to resign in 1929. (14) Three times in 1930 and once in 1934, he unsuccessfully attempted to return to power. (14) The idea of a broad Baltic league was dropped in favour of a pact among Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. (7)

Memel 1928-33

From Dec 17th, 1926 to November 1938, the Memel area remained under martial law. (12) As the status of the Memel Territory was regulated by international treaties, the Memel Territory became an oasis of democracy in Lithuania. (13) On 29th January (13) 1928 Germany recognised the Lithuanian possession of Memel (4,13) when the two countries signed the Lithuanian-German Border Treaty. (13)


The Memel Convention severely limited the powers of the Lithuanian government. (15) This exacerbated tension and conflict between the Memellanders and the Lithuanian government in Kaunas. (10,12) Smetona instituted a discriminatory (13) policy of “Lithuanization” (10,13) to “re-Lithuanize” Prussian Lithuanians by promoting Lithuanian language, culture, education were often (10) met with resistance from the locals, (10,13) Prussian Lithuanians, Memellanders, Germans and newcomers. (13) He sent administrators from Lithuania, and German teachers, officials and priests were fired from jobs. (13) Local inhabitants—both Germans and Prussian Lithuanians—were not accepted for state service in Memel Territory. (13) People were sent from Kaunas instead. (13) Religious and regional differences slowly became insurmountable. (13) Lithuanian intelligentsia often held marriages in Memel/Memel, since Memel Territory was the only place in Lithuania where civil marriage was in use, in the rest of Lithuania only church marriages were legitimized. (13) Thus, Lithuanian opposition to Smetona’s regime was also based in Memel Territory. (13) This policy led Prussian Lithuanian intelligentsia and some local Germans to organise a society in 1934 to oppose Lithuanian rule. (13) This group was soon dismantled. (13) Following the Agreement concerning the Evangelical Church of the Memel Region of July 23rd, 1925, concluded between the Directorate of the Memel Region and the Evangelical Church of the old-Prussian Union, a church of united administration of Lutheran and Reformed congregations, the mostly Lutheran congregations (and a single Reformed one in Memel) in the Memel Region were disentangled from the old-Prussian Ecclesiastical Province of East Prussia and formed the Regional Synodal Federation of the Memel Territory since, being ranked an old-Prussian ecclesiastical province of its own. (13) An own consistory in Memel was established in 1927, led by a general superintendent. (13) The Catholic parishes in the Memel Region used to belong to the Bishopric of Ermland until 1926 and were then disentangled, forming the new Territorial Prelature of Memel. (13) The government of Lithuania faced considerable (13) opposition from the region’s autonomous institutions, among others the Parliament of the Memel Region. (10,13) In 1932, a conflict between the Memelland Parliament and the Lithuanian government had to be resolved by the Permanent Court of International Justice. (10)

Hitler and Memel

Tension between Memel and Lithuania

When the Nazi Party came into power in Germany, German–Lithuanian relations worsened considerably as (14,15) the Nazis did not want to accept the loss of the Memelland (10,14) and wanted to reacquire the region. (10,15) German Nationalism had long celebrated Germany ‘from the Maas (in Belgium) to the Memel’ (Wikimedia Commons) Germany replaced the Soviet Union as the most likely aggressor. (7) The Nazis sponsored anti-Lithuanian organizations in the region. (14,15) In elections for the Memel parliament, the pro-Lithuanian party won only between 2 – 5 of 29 seats. (12) whereas the pro-German political parties had an overall majority of more than 80% in all elections to the local parliament in the interwar period. (13) There can be little doubt that a referendum would have been in favour of Germany. (13) Election results in Memel Territory were irritating for the authoritarian Smetona regime, and it attempted to “colonise” Memel Territory with Lithuanians. (13) The Lithuanian settlements Jakai and Smeltė were built. (13) The number of newcomers increased: in 1926 the number was 5,000, in 1939—30,000. (13) As years passed, claims were becoming more and more vocal about a re-integration into a resurgent Germany. (13) 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. (13) The extensive autonomy guaranteed by the Memel Convention prevented Lithuania from blocking the growing pro-German attitudes in the region. (15) Pro-German parties won clear supermajorities in all elections to the Memel Parliament, which often clashed with the Lithuanian-appointed Memel Directorate. (10) In 1934 the pro-German political parties in Memel were suppressed by the Lithuanians. (12)

Neumann Sass Trials

In 1934–1935 (10,13) the Lithuanians attempted to combat increasing Nazi influence in the region by arresting and prosecuting (10,12) over 120 (12) [OR] 26 leading (12) Nazi activists (10,12) “for crimes of terrorism”, (13) an alleged plot to organize an anti-Lithuanian rebellion. (10) The 1934–5 trials of Neumann and Sass (10,13) in Kaunas can be presented as the first anti-Nazi trial in Europe. (13) Three members of the organizations were sentenced to death, and their leaders imprisoned. (13) Despite these rather harsh sentences (10,13) most of (13) the defendants in the so-called Neumann–Sass case were soon released (10,13) under political and economic (13) pressure from Nazi Germany. (10,13) Germany, one of the main trade partners of Lithuania, declared an embargo of Lithuanian products. (14) In response, Lithuania shifted its exports to Great Britain. (14) That measure did not go far enough to satisfy many groups, and peasants in Suvalkija organized strikes, which were violently suppressed. (14)

Baltic Entente

In February 1934, Latvia and Estonia renewed the alliance they had made in 1923, and invited Lithuania to join it. (7) On Sept. 12th, 1934, (7) Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia signed the Treaty of Understanding and Cooperation at Geneva, (7,14) forming the ‘Baltic Entente’, a mutual-defense pact that laid the basis for close cooperation among those states, particularly in foreign affairs. (7) The treaty was to last for 10 years, and provide for mutual-defense assistance in case of attack and for semi-annual foreign ministers’ meetings to coordinate the signatories’ foreign policies and diplomatic activities. (7) It also pledged the three countries not only to confer with each other on all foreign-policy matters of mutual concern (excluding Lithuania’s outstanding territorial disputes with Germany over Memel and with Poland over Vilnius) but also to give each other diplomatic and political aid. (7) As a result, the three Baltic nations sent only a single representative to all international conferences, including the meetings of the League of Nations; in 1936 Latvia, as a representative of all three states, was elected a non-permanent member of the League’s council. (7)

The Memel Crisis, March 1939


Figure 8: Hitler speaks to the people of Memel

Smetona’s prestige was damaged by the outcome of the Neumann Sass trials, and in September 1936, he agreed to call the first elections for the Seimas since the coup of 1926. (14) Before the elections, all political parties were eliminated except for the National Union. (14) Thus 42 of the 49 members of the Fourth Seimas of Lithuania were from the National Union. (14) This assembly functioned as an advisory board to the president, and in February 1938, it adopted a new constitution that granted the president even greater powers. (14) As tensions were rising in Europe following the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany (the Anschluss), Poland presented the 1938 Polish ultimatum to Lithuania in March of that year. (14) Poland demanded the re-establishment of the normal diplomatic relations that were broken after the Żeligowski Mutiny in 1920 and threatened military actions in case of refusal. (14) Lithuania, having a weaker military and unable to enlist international support for its cause, accepted the ultimatum. (14) In the event of Polish military action, Adolf Hitler ordered a German military takeover of southwest Lithuania up to the Dubysa River, and his armed forces were being fully mobilized until the news of the Lithuanian acceptance. (14) By late 1938, Lithuania had lost control of the situation in the Territory. (13) On November 1st 1938 martial law was lifted, and on December 11th the first free elections were held. (12) For the first time in 1938, a Governor was appointed from local Prussian Lithuanians. (13) In December (14) 1938, (12,14) on a turnout of 97%, 87.2% voted for the German Unity List with only 12.8% for pro Lithuanian candidates. (12) Following this Nazi electoral success, (12,14) Germany decided to take action to secure control of the entire region. (14) On March 20, 1939, just a few days after the German occupation of Czechoslovakia of March 15, Lithuania received the 1939 German ultimatum to Lithuania from foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. (14) It demanded the immediate cession of the Memel Region to Germany. (14) The Baltic pact, which had been successful in stimulating close cooperation in cultural and economic as well as foreign affairs, failed as a means of defence. (7) Despite their declaration of neutrality (1938), the Baltic-pact members were not able to defend their independent status. (7) Lithuania signalled its willingness to negotiate with Germany. (12) As tensions in pre-war Europe continued to grow, it was expected that Germany would make a move against Lithuania to reacquire the region. (10) The German (3,5) Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop delivered (10) an ultimatum (3,5) to the Lithuanian Foreign Minister on 20th (10) March 1939, demanding the surrender of Memel. (3,5) Lithuania was unable to secure international support for its cause (10) and submitted to the ultimatum (10,14) to avoid an armed intervention. (14) The Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Juozas Urbšys and his German counterpart Joachim von Ribbentrop signed the Treaty of the (13) Cession of the Memel Territory to Germany (10,13) in exchange for a Lithuanian Free Zone (10,13) for 99 years (13) in the port of Memel, using the facilities erected in previous years. (10,13) This was in the late evening (10) of 22nd (10,12) [OR] the early hours of (13) 23rd (11,13) March 1939. (10,11) German troops marched in. (12) Hitler had anticipated this aboard a Kriegsmarine naval ship and at dawn (13) sailed into Memel harbour (10,13) to celebrate the return to the Reich of the Memelland. (13) while Hitler visited the and (10) delivered a speech to (10,12) the cheering (12) city residents, (10,12) thinking only of their liberation and not the totalitarian future. (12)

After the coup

German forces seized the territory even before the official Lithuanian ratification. (13) The Memel Statute was suspended, (8) and Memel was transferred to Nazi Germany, (3,5) and incorporated into the East Prussian province of the German Reich. (14) This triggered a political crisis in Lithuania and forced Smetona to form a new government that included members of the opposition for the first time since 1926. (14) The loss of Memel was a major blow to the Lithuanian economy and the country shifted into the sphere of German influence. (14) This was the last of Hitler’s series of bloodless annexations of territories (10,13) separated from the German or Austrian Empire by the Treaty of Versailles, which had been perceived by many Germans as a humiliation. (13) The United Kingdom and France, as after the revolt of 1923, took no action. (13) It was under these conditions that the Seimas was forced to approve the treaty, hoping that Germany would not press any other territorial demands upon Lithuania. (13) Still, the reunion with Germany was welcomed by the majority of the population, both by Germans and by Memellanders. (13) According to the treaty, the citizens of the Memel Territory were allowed to choose their citizenship: either German or Lithuanian. (13) 303 people or, counting family members, 585, asked for Lithuanian citizenship but only 20 requests were granted. (13) Another term stated that persons who had settled in the Memel Territory during the occupation period from 1923 to 1939 should emigrate. (13) About 8,900 Lithuanians did so. (13) At the same time, Germany expelled about 1,300 local Memel and Lithuanian Jews and about 40 Prussian Lithuanians. (13) When Germany and the Soviet Union concluded the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact in August 1939 (7,14) and divided Eastern Europe into spheres of influence, Lithuania was assigned to Germany (14) [OR] the Baltic States were recognized as belonging to the Soviet sphere of interest (7,14) after Smetona’s refusal to participate in the German invasion of Poland. (14) During the subsequent invasion of Poland, the Red Army captured Vilnius, regarded by Lithuanians as their capital. (14) According to the Soviet–Lithuanian Mutual Assistance Pact of October 10, 1939, Soviet Union transferred Vilnius and surrounding territory to Lithuania in exchange for the stationing of 20,000 Soviet troops within the country. (14) It was a virtual sacrifice of independence, as reflected in a slogan “Vilnius – mūsų, Lietuva – rusų” (Vilnius is ours, but Lithuania is Russia’s). (14) When Finland refused to join the Balkan Pact, the Winter War took place. (7) Lithuania’s short period of prosperous freedom was cut short again by the World War 2, (2) and they were unable to prevent being occupied by the Russian army (1,7) in 1940. (1,2) In August 1940 (1) it was annexed by the Soviet Union. (1,7) In 1941 Nazi Germany invaded and committed genocide here. (2) There was a further genocide (1,2) in which thousands of Lithuanians were executed or deported. (1) Later it was again occupied by the Soviet Union. (2) At the close of World War II, Memel was returned to Lithuania, (3,8) which by then had become part of the U.S.S.R. (8) Memel was incorporated into Lithuania during its tenure as a Soviet Socialist Republic and has remained within Lithuania following its re-establishment as an independent state. (3)

FRESCI on Memel

Foreign and Military

Complex Historical Status of Memelland between Poland, Germany and Lithuania; Confusion post WW1 during Versailles Conference; Greater Poland? Memel for Danzig. Russo-Polish War; French Mandate; Baltic Pact; Armed seizure 1923 and 1939.

Religion and Ideas

Nationalism; Lithuanisation; Racism; Communism; Irredentism; Wilsonianism;

Economic and Financial

Importance of relatively ice free entrepot.

Social and Cultural

Ethnic and linguistic mix; Lithuanisation;


Taryba Declaration of Independence; League Mandate; French Protectorate; 1st Seimas Oct 22; Memel Convention; Regime of Smetona; German-Lithuanian Treaty March 1939

Individual and Random

Clemenceau; Pilsudski; Galvanauskas; Smetona; Hitler

1 Which is also known as the Memel River

2 Mindaugas I had been crowned King of Lithuania, in 1253

3 It did indeed propos either creating a free city (an autonomous region under the League of Nations) or transferring the region to Lithuania if it agreed to a union with Poland. (15)

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