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Klaipeda Region

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Klaipeda Region

Northern March
pre–12th century
Old Prussians
pre–13th century
Margraviate of Brandenburg
1157–1618 (1806)
Teutonic Order
Duchy of Prussia
Royal (Polish) Prussia
Kingdom in Prussia
Kingdom of Prussia
Free State of Prussia
Klaipėda Region
1920–1939 / 1945–present
1947–1952 / 1990–present
Recovered Territories
Kaliningrad Oblast

The Klaipėda Region (Lithuanian: Klaipėdos kraštas) or Memel Territory (German: Memelland or Memelgebiet) was defined by the Treaty of Versailles in 1920 when it was put under the administration of the Council of Ambassadors. The Memel Territory, together with Saar and Danzig, was to remain under the control of the League of Nations until a future day when the people of these regions would be allowed to vote on whether the land would return to Germany or not.

The original Scalovian and Curonian territory was conquered around 1252 by the Teutonic Knights, who constructed Memelburg ("Memel Castle") and the city of Memel (now usually known by its Lithuanian name Klaipėda). In 1422, a border was drawn up between Prussia and Lithuania under the Treaty of Melno, and this border existed up to 1918.

The then predominantly ethnic German (other ethnic groups, Prussian Lithuanians and Memellanders constituted the other ethnic groups) Memel Territory, situated between the river and the town of that name, was occupied by Lithuania in the "Klaipėda Revolt" of 1923. It was annexed by Nazi Germany in March, 1939 and immediately reintegrated into East Prussia, just half a year before the outbreak of the Second World War. In the final stages of the war in 1945 it was occupied by Soviet forces, and was formally annexed by the Soviet Union in 1946, cleared of its native German population, and made a part of the Lithuanian SSR in 1948. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, it has been part of the Republic of Lithuania and contained within Klaipėda and Tauragė Counties. The border, that was established by the Treaty of Versailles along the river, remains in effect as the current international boundary between Lithuania and the Kaliningrad Oblast of Russia.


Timeline with changes of control over the territory
pre–1252 Curonian and Scalovian tribes
1252–1525 Livonian Order and Monastic State of the Teutonic Knights (also Monastic State of Prussia)
1525–1657 Duchy of Prussia, a fief of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (with Prussia in personal union with Brandenburg since 1618)
1657–1701 Duchy of Prussia, a sovereign state in p.u. with Brandenburg, a fief of the Holy Roman Empire (together also called Brandenburg-Prussia)
1701–1871 Kingdom of Prussia
1871–1918 Kingdom of Prussia, part of the German Empire
1918–1920 Free State of Prussia, part of Weimar Republic
1920–1923 Council of Ambassadors
1923–1939 Republic of Lithuania
1939–1945 Nazi Germany
1945–1948 Russian SFSR, part of the Soviet Union
1948–1990 Lithuanian SSR, part of the Soviet Union
1990–present Republic of Lithuania

Treaty of Versailles

The eastern boundaries of Prussia (from 1871, part of the German Empire), having remained unchanged since the Treaty of Melno in 1422, became a matter of discussion following World War I, as the newly independent states of Poland and Lithuania emerged. The separatist Act of Tilsit was signed by few pro-Lithuanian oriented Prussian Lithuanians in 1918, demanding the unification of Prussian Lithuania with Lithuania proper. It is traditionally viewed by Lithuanians as expressing the desire of Lithuania Minor to unite with Lithuania – but the majority of Prussian Lithuanians did not want to join with Lithuania[1] and the Prussian Lithuanians did not make up a majority of the population.

The division of Prussia was also promoted by Poland's Roman Dmowski[2] in Versailles who acted by orders of Józef Piłsudski: the purpose was to give the lower part of Neman River and its delta, which was located in Germany and called the Memel River, to Lithuania as this would provide her access to the Baltic Sea, while Lithuania itself should be part of Poland. These ideas were supported by the French prime minister Georges Clemenceau.[3]

In 1920, according to the Treaty of Versailles, the German area north of Memel river was given the status of Territoire de Memel under the administration of the Council of Ambassadors, and French troops were sent for protection. During the period of French administration, the idea of an independent State of Memelland grew in popularity among local inhabitants. The organisation "Deutsch-Litauischer Heimatbund" (German-Lithuanian homeland federation) promoted the idea of an Freistaat Memelland, which later should return to Germany. It had 30,000 members, both ethnic German and/or Lithuanian, about 21% of the total population.

Lithuanian takeover

Main article: Klaipėda Revolt

On 9 January 1923, three years after the Versailles Treaty had become effective, Lithuania occupied the territory during the so-called Klaipėda Revolt,[4] mainly by militia that had entered from Lithuania. France at the same time had started the Occupation of the Ruhr in Germany, and the French administration in Memel did not take any significant counteractive measures against the rebels and on 19 January, the territory was annexed by Lithuania, and the fait accompli was eventually confirmed by the Council of Ambassadors in 1924.

Autonomous region within Lithuania

The area was subsequently annexed by Lithuania. In the Klaipėda Convention, signed between Council of Ambassadors and Lithuania, the area was granted a separate parliament, two official languages, capacity to raise its own taxes, charge custom duties, manage its cultural and religious affairs, allowed a separate judicial system, separate citizenship, internal control of agriculture and forestry, as well as a separate social security system. The Council of Ambassadors accepted the resulting arrangement and confirmed the autonomy of the region within the Republic of Lithuania. On 8 May 1924 a further Convention on the Klaipėda region confirmed the annexation, and a resulting autonomy agreement was signed in Paris. Memel Territory was recognized as an integral part[dubious ] of the Republic of Lithuania also by Germany on 29 January 1928, where the two countries signed the Lithuanian-German Border Treaty.

Importantly, the annexation gave Lithuania control of a year-round ice-free Baltic port. Lithuania made full use of Klaipėda port, modernizing and adapting it, largely for its agricultural exports. The port reconstruction was certainly one of the larger long-term investment projects enacted by the government of Lithuania in the interwar period.

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. Since the pro-German political parties had an overall majority of more than 80% in all elections to the local parliament (see election statistics below) in the interwar period, there can be little doubt that such a referendum would have been in favour of Germany. In fact, the area 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" in the official census (see below for demographic information) and did not want to belong to a Lithuanian national state. According to the Lithuanian point of view, Memellanders were viewed as Germanised Lithuanians who should be re-Lithuanised.[5]

There was also a strong denominational difference since about 95% of the inhabitants of Lithuania Minor were Lutherans while more than 90% of Greater Lithuanians were Catholics. Following the Agreement concerning the Evangelical Church of the Klaipėda Region (German: Abkommen betr. die evangelische Kirche des Memelgebietes) of July 23, 1925, concluded between the Directorate of the Klaipėda 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 Klaipėda) in the Klaipėda Region were disentangled from the old-Prussian Ecclesiastical Province of East Prussia and formed the Regional Synodal Federation of the Memel Territory (Landessynodalverband Memelgebiet) since, being ranked an old-Prussian ecclesiastical province of its own.[6] An own consistory in Klaipėda was established in 1927, led by a general superintendent (at first F. Gregor, elected in 1927, succeeded by O. Obereiniger, elected by the regional synod in 1933). The Catholic parishes in the Klaipėda Region used to belong to the Bishopric of Ermland until 1926 and were then disentangled, forming the new Territorial Prelature of Klaipėda under Prelate Justinas Staugaitis.

The government of Lithuania faced considerable opposition from the region's autonomous institutions, among others the Parliament of the Klaipėda Region. As years passed, claims were becoming more and more vocal about a re-integration into a resurgent Germany. It was only during the latter period that Lithuania then instituted a policy of "Lithuanization". This was met by even more opposition, as religious and regional differences slowly became insurmountable.

After the December 1926 coup d’état, Antanas Smetona came to power. As the status of the Memel Territory was regulated by international treaties, the Memel Territory became an oasis of democracy in Lithuania. Lithuanian intelligentsia often held marriages in Memel/Klaipėda, 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. Thus, Lithuanian opposition to Smetona's regime was also based in Memel Territory.

At the start of the 1930s, certain leaders and members of pro-Nazi organizations in the region were put on trial by Lithuania "for crimes of terrorism". The 1934–5 proceedings of Neumann and Sass in Kaunas can be presented as the first anti-Nazi trial in Europe. Three members of the organizations were sentenced to death, and their leaders imprisoned. On account of later political and economical pressure from Germany, most were released.

Election results for the local parliament

The local parliament had 29 seats, one for every 5,000 inhabitants. Men and women from age 23 had the right to vote.[7] [8]

See also the results of the January 1919 elections to the Nationalversammlung.[9]

Year Memelländische
("Agricultural Party")
("People's Party")
("Social Democratic Party")
(Worker's Party)
Communist Party
Others Lithuanian
People's Party
1925 38.1%: 11 seats 36.9%: 11 seats 16.0%: 5 seats Others 9.0%: 2 seats
1927 33.6%: 10 seats 32.7%: 10 seats 10.1%: 3 seats 7.2%: 2 seats 13.6%: 4 seats
1930 31.8%: 10 seats 27.6%: 8 seats 13.8%: 4 seats 4.2%: 2 seats 22.7%: 5 seats
1932 37.1%: 11 seats 27.2%: 8 seats 7.8%: 2 seats 8.2%: 3 seats 19.7%: 5 seats
Unified German Election List Greater Lithuania Parties
1935 81.2%: 24 seats 18.8%: 5 seats
1938 87.2%: 25 seats 12.8%: 4 seats

Demographic data

A Lithuanian census carried out in the region found its total population was 141,000.[10] Declared language was used to classify the inhabitants, and on this basis 43.5 percent were German, 27.6 percent were Lithuanian, and 25.2 percent were "Klaipėdan" (Memelländisch).[10] Other sources give the interwar ethnic composition as 41.9 percent German, 27.1 percent Memelländisch, and 26.6 percent Lithuanian.[11][12]

Population German Memellandish Lithuanian other Religion Source
141,645 41.9% 27.1% 26.6% 4.4% 95% Evangelical Christians [5]
141,645 (1930) 45.2% 24.2% (1925) 26.5% - Evangelical Lutheran 95%, Roman Catholic (1925) [6]

Overall, Prussian Lithuanians were more rural than Germans; the part of Lithuanian speakers in the city of Klaipėda itself increased over time due to urbanization and migration from villages into cities and later also from remaining Lithuania (in the city of Klaipėda, Lithuanian-speaking people made up 21.5% in 1912, 32.6% in 1925 and 38.7% in 1932*). Foreign citizens might include some Germans, who opted for German citizenship instead of Lithuanian (although at the time the German government pressured local Germans to take Lithuanian citizenship, so that German presence would remain). There were more Lithuanian speakers in the north of region (Klaipėdos apskritis and Šilutės apskritis) than in south (Pagėgių apskritis). Other locals included people of other nationalities who had citizenship of Lithuania, such as Jews.

In the 1930s, a novel by local author Ieva Simonaitytė[13] based on family history illustrated the centuries-old German–Lithuanian relations in the region.

The authoritarian regime of A. Smetona enforced a policy of discrimination and Lithuanisation: it sent administrators from Lithuania, and German teachers, officials and priests were fired from jobs. Local inhabitants—both Germans and Prussian Lithuanians—were not accepted for state service in Memel Territory. People were sent from Kaunas instead.

Until 1938, no Governor was appointed from local Prussian Lithuanians. This policy led Prussian Lithuanian intelligentsia and some local Germans to organise a society in 1934 to oppose Lithuanian rule. This group was soon dismantled.[14]

Election results in Memel Territory were irritating for the authoritarian Smetona regime, and it attempted to "colonise" Memel Territory with Lithuanians. The Lithuanian settlements Jakai and Smeltė were built. The number of newcomers increased: in 1926 the number was 5,000, in 1939—30,000.

Lithuania introduced a hard-line Lithuanisation campaign that led to even deeper antagonism between local Prussian Lithuanians, Memellanders, Germans and newcomers.[15]

German ultimatum

By late 1938, Lithuania had lost control over the situation in the Territory. In the early hours of 23 March 1939, after an oral ultimatum had caused a Lithuanian delegation to travel to Berlin, the Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Juozas Urbšys and his German counterpart Joachim von Ribbentrop signed the Treaty of the Cession of the Memel Territory to Germany in exchange for a Lithuanian Free Zone for 99 years in the port of Memel, using the facilities erected in previous years.

Hitler had anticipated this aboard a Kriegsmarine naval ship, and at dawn[16] sailed into Memel to celebrate the return heim ins Reich of the Memelland. This proved to be the last of a series of bloodless annexations of territories separated from the German or Austrian Empire by the Treaty of Versailles which had been perceived by many if not most Germans as a humiliation. German forces seized the territory even before the official Lithuanian ratification. The United Kingdom and France, as after the revolt of 1923, did not actively protect the autonomy of the territory. 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.

Still, the reunion with Germany was welcomed by the majority of the population, both by Germans and by Memellanders.[5]

According to the treaty, the citizens of Memel Territory were allowed to choose citizenship: either German, or Lithuanian. 303 people (counting family members, 585) asked for Lithuanian citizenship and only 20 requests were granted.[17] Another item stated that persons who had settled in the Memel Territory during the occupation period from 1923 to 1939 should emigrate. About 8,900 Lithuanians did so. At the same time, Nazis expelled about 1,300 (local Memel and Lithuanian) Jews and only about 40 Prussian Lithuanians.

World War II and after

When the area was returned to German control in 1939 under Nazi Germany, many Lithuanians and their organizations began leaving Memel and the surrounding area. Memel was quickly turned into a fortified naval base by the Germans. After the failure of the German invasion of the USSR (Operation Barbarossa) in 1941, the fate of East Prussia and Memel was sealed. By October 1944 the inhabitants of the area, without ethnic distinction, had to make a decision whether to stay or leave. Nearly all of the population were evacuated from the approaching Red Army, but the city itself was defended by the German army during the Battle of Memel until January 28, 1945. After its capture only six persons were found in the city.

The resulting decisions of the Potsdam Conference decreed that northern East Prussia, and therefore the Memel Territory as part of it, should be placed under the administration of the Soviet Union. On 7 April 1946, the Königsberg Oblast (later renamed Kaliningrad Oblast) was founded. It included the Memel Territory and became a new subject of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic.[18] On 7 April 1948, the Soviet Union transferred the Memel/Klaipėda District from Kaliningrad Oblast to the Lithuanian SSR and the area was divided between several rayons of the Lithuanian SSR.

At the end of the war, the majority of the inhabitants had fled to the West to settle in Germany. Still in 1945–46 there were around 35,000[19] local inhabitants, both Prussian Lithuanians and Germans. The government of the Lithuanian SSR sent agitators into the displaced persons camps to make promises to former inhabitants that they could return and their property would be restored, yet the promises were never fulfilled. In the period of 1945–50 about 8,000 persons were repatriated. Bilingual Lithuanian-German returners were viewed as Germans.

The few remaining ethnic Germans were then forcibly expelled, with most opting to flee to what would become West Germany. Autochthonous people who remained in the former Memel territory were dismissed from their jobs. Families of notable local Lithuanians, who had opposed German parties before the war, were deported to Siberia. In 1951 the Lithuanian SSR expelled 3,500 people from the former Memel Territory to East Germany. In 1958, when emigration was allowed, the majority of the surviving population, both Germans and Prussian Lithuanians, emigrated to West Germany; this event was called a repatriation of Germans by the Lithuanian SSR. Today these formerly Lutheran territories are mostly inhabited by Lithuanians who are Catholic and by Orthodox Russians. However, the minority Prussian Lithuanian Protestants historically were concentrated in these regions, and some remain to this day. Only a few thousand[19] autochthons are left. Their continued emigration is facilitated by the fact they are considered German citizens by the Federal Republic of Germany. No property restoration was performed by the Republic of Lithuania for owners prior to 1945.[19]

Although maintaining that the Memel Territory in 1939 was re-annexed by Germany and acknowledging that Lithuania itself was occupied in 1940 by the Soviets, Lithuania after regaining independence on March 11, 1990, neither restored autonomy to the Memel Territory nor returned citizenship and property to former inhabitants, even to those who had opted for Lithuanian citizenship in 1939.

See also


External links

  • (German) Joachim Tauber: Das Memelgebiet (1919–1944) in der deutschen und litauischen Historiographie nach 1945 [7]
  • Local heritage book Memelland
  • (German) (larger)
  • (German) German translation of the Commission Report to the Council of Ambassadors [8]
  • (German) German translation of Vygantas Vareikis' thesis
  • YouTube

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