- Act of Independence of Lithuania
The Act of Independence of Lithuania ( _lt. Lietuvos Nepriklausomybės Aktas) or Act of February 16 was signed by the
Council of Lithuaniaon February 16, 1918, proclaiming the restoration of an independent State of Lithuania, governed by democratic principles, with Vilniusas its capital. The Act was signed by all twenty representatives, chaired by Jonas Basanavičius. The Act of February 16 was the end result of a series of resolutions on the issue, including one issued by the Vilnius Conferenceand the Act of January 8. The path to the Act was long and complex because the German Empireexerted pressure on the Council to form an alliance. The Council had to carefully maneuver between the Germans, whose troops were present in Lithuania, and the demands of the Lithuanian people.
The immediate effects of the announcement of Lithuania's re-establishment of independence were limited. Publication of the Act was prohibited by the German authorities, and the text was distributed and printed illegally. The work of the Council was hindered, and Germans remained in control over Lithuania. The situation changed only when Germany lost
World War Iin the fall of 1918. In November 1918 the first Cabinet of Lithuania was formed, and the Council of Lithuania gained control over the territory of Lithuania. [cite book| first=Vytas Stanley |last=Vardys |coauthors=Judith B. Sedaitis |title=Lithuania: The Rebel Nation |publisher=WestviewPress |year=1997 |series=Westview Series on the Post-Soviet Republics |isbn=0-8133-1839-4 |pages=22–23] Independent Lithuania, although it would soon be battling the Wars of Independence, became a reality.
While the Act's original document has been lost, its legacy continues. The laconic Act is the legal basis for the existence of modern Lithuania, both during the
interwar periodand since 1990. The Act formulated the basic constitutional principles that were and still are followed by all Constitutions of Lithuania. The Act itself was a key element in the foundation of Lithuania's re-establishment of independence in 1990. Lithuania, breaking away from the Soviet Union, stressed that it was simply re-establishing the independent state that existed between the world wars and that the Act never lost its legal power.
Historic background and Council of Lithuania
After the last Partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795, Lithuania was annexed by the
Russian Empire. [cite book |last= Grenoble |first= Lenore |title= Language Policy in the Soviet Union|date=2003-07-31|publisher= Kluwer Academic Publishers |pages=104 |isbn= 1402012985] During the 19th century, both the Lithuanians and the Poles attempted to restore their independence. They rebelled during the November Uprisingin 1830 and the January Uprisingin 1863, but the first realistic opportunity came when both Russia and Germany were weakened during World War I.
In 1915, Germany occupied western parts of the
Russian Empire. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, Germany conceived the geopolitical strategy of Mitteleuropa– a regional network of puppet states that would serve as a buffer zone – and agreed to allow the Vilnius Conference, hoping that it would proclaim that the Lithuanian nation wanted to detach itself from Russia and establish a closer relationship with Germany.cite encyclopedia | editor = Simas Sužiedėlis | encyclopedia = Encyclopedia Lituanica| title = Council of Lithuania | year = 1970–1978 | publisher = Juozas Kapočius | volume = I | location = Boston, Massachusetts | id = LCC|74-114275 | pages = 581–585] However, this strategy backfired; the conference, held from September 18–22 of 1917, adopted a resolution that an independent Lithuania should be established and that a closer relationship with Germany would be conditional on Germany's formal recognition of the new state. lt icon cite book |last= Kulikauskienė |first= Lina |title= Lietuvos istorijos vadovėlis/1917 metų Lietuvos Taryba
year=2003| url=http://mkp.emokykla.lt/gimtoji/?id=9410 |accessdate=2007-01-27 |publisher=Elektroninės leidybos namai |location= Vilnius| isbn=9986921694] On September 21, the 214 attendees at the conference elected a 20-member
Council of Lithuaniato codify this resolution. [lt icon cite journal|url=http://web.archive.org/web/20070506063343/www.patriotas.lt/2002-1vas.htm |title=Kelio į Vasario 16-tąją pradžia ir vyriausybės sudarymas| accessdate=2007-01-29| first=Jonas |last=Jusaitis| journal=Patriotas |year=2002 |month=February |volume=2 |issue=37 |id=ISSN 1648-1232 ] The German authorities did not allow that resolution to be published, but they did permit the Council to proceed. The Vilnius Conference also resolved that a constituent assembly be elected by popular vote as soon as possible.
Path to the Act of February 16
Act of December 11
The Act of December 11 was the second stage in the progression towards the final Act of Independence. The first draft, demanded by chancellor
Georg von Hertling, was prepared by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs on December 1. Further changes were jointly prepared by the German chancellery and by a delegation of the Council of Lithuania. The delegation's members were Antanas Smetona, Steponas Kairys, Vladas Mironas, Jurgis Šaulys, Petras Klimasand Aleksandras Stulginskis. lt icon cite journal|url=http://www.ceeol.com/aspx/getdocument.aspx?logid=5&id=8e57bf2c-f20c-494d-8b04-9bfedd6a3fbd |title=Vasario 16-osios aktas: teksto formavimo šaltiniai ir autorystės problema| accessdate=2007-01-27|first=Raimundas |last=Klimavičius|journal=History. A Collection of Lithuanian Universities' Research Papers |publisher=Vilnius Pedagogical University |issue=59–60 |pages=57–66 | date=2004-02-17] After discussion amongst the parties, a compromise was reached on the document's text. The German representative, Kurt von Lersner, insisted that not one letter be changed in the agreed-upon text and that all the Council members sign the document.
After the delegation returned to Vilnius, a session of the Council was held on December 11 in order to discuss the Act. It was adopted without any further changes. Fifteen voted in favor of the Act, three voted against it, one member abstained, and one did not participate. It is not entirely clear whether every member of the Council signed this document. The Act was written in German, and apparently no official Lithuanian translation was prepared. Therefore different sources provide slightly different translations. The Act of December 11 pronounced Lithuania's independence, but also asked German government for protection (clause 2) and called for "a firm and permanent alliance" with Germany. Since the Act specified that the alliance was to be formed based on conventions concerning military affairs, transportation, customs, and currency, many Lithuanians argued that the Council had overstepped its authority: the September resolution adopted by the Vilnius Conference clearly demanded that a constituent assembly decide these crucial matters of state.
Act of January 8
When peace talks started between Germany and Russia in 1918, German authorities asked the Lithuanian representatives to prepare two notifications of independence — one for Russia, in which Lithuania's ties with Russia would be denounced and nothing would be mentioned about an alliance with Germany, and a version to be released in Germany that would essentially repeat the Act of December 11. The Council decided to amend the first part of the Act of December 11.
Petras Klimasincluded a sentence calling for the Constituent Assembly. lt icon cite book |last=Skirius|first=Juozas |url=http://mkp.emokykla.lt/gimtoji/?id=1012 |accessdate=2007-01-27 |title=Lietuvos istorijos vadovėlis/Lietuvos nepriklausomybės akto paskelbimas| year=2003| location=Vilnius |publisher=Elektroninės leidybos namai |isbn=9986921694] Another important development was the statement that democratic principles would be the basis of the new state's governance, something that was declared by the Vilnius Conference, but omitted in the Act of December 11.lt icon cite journal| title=Jonas Vileišis ir Vasario 16-osios Aktas |url=http://ausis.gf.vu.lt/mg/nr/2001/12/12v.html |accessdate=2007-02-10 |first=Dobilas |last=Kirvelis| journal=Mokslas ir gyvenimas | year=2001 |volume=12 |issue=528] The second part, mentioning the "firm and permanent alliance with Germany", was completely omitted. Its final version was approved on January 8, 1918, the day that U.S. President Woodrow Wilsonannounced his Fourteen Points. In its essence, the Act of January 8 did not differ from the Act of February 16.
Ober Ost, the German military administration, rejected the changes. On January 26, in compliance with the earlier request, the two versions of the notification were approved, but they did not include the changes of January 8. The texts were prepared based on the Act of December 11. These concessions to the Germans created tensions among the Council members. Four members – Mykolas Biržiška, Steponas Kairys, Stanislovas Narutavičiusand Jonas Vileišis– resigned from the Council in protest. The chairman of the Council, Antanas Smetona, who supported the Act of December 11, stepped down. Jonas Basanavičius, who would later be called the patriarch of independence, was elected as the chairman. [lt icon cite book |last=Nezabitauskas |first=Adolfas |title=Jonas Basanavičius| year=1990| pages=6| publisher=Vaga |location=Vilnius| isbn=5-415-00640-0]
Act of February 16
Germany failed to recognize Lithuania as an independent state, and the Lithuanian delegation was not invited to the Brest-Litovsk negotiations that started on December 22, 1917 between the
Central Powersand Russia in order to settle territorial claims. During the first and final official joint session between the Council and the German authorities, it was made it clear that the Council would serve only as an advisory board. This situation gave additional backing to those Council members who were seeking independence without any ties to other countries. The prime concern at this point was to invite back those members who had left the Council. Negotiations were undertaken that led to the reformulation of previous versions of the Act.
The four withdrawn members demanded that the Council return to the Act of January 8 and omit the mention of any alliance with Germany. After heated debates that lasted for several weeks, on February 15, at 10 o'clock AM, the new revision of the Act was ready. It included, with minor stylistic changes, wording of the Act of January 8 and
promulgationand notification, drafted on February 1. Promulgation and notification do not carry legal weight and do not change the meaning of a legal document. The Council, including the withdrawn members, was invited to return the next day for its finalization. On the next day, February 16, 1918, at 12:30 PM, all twenty Council members met in the room of Lithuanian Committee for Support of the War Victims, at 30 Didžioji Streetin Vilnius. The building has since been known as House of the Signatories( _lt. signatarų namai) and houses a museum. The Council first voted to approve the first part, the first two paragraphs up to the word "drauge", of the Act. This section was approved unanimously.lt icon cite book| first=Mindaugas |last=Maksimaitis |title=Lietuvos valstybės konstitucijų istorija (XX a. pirmoji pusė) |publisher=Justitia |location=Vilnius |year=2005 |isbn=9955-616-09-1 |pages=36–44] The second part, however, did not receive support from the four withdrawn members because they were not satisfied with the word "finally" in describing the duties of the Constituent Assembly (in "...the foundation of the Lithuanian State and its relations with other countries will be finally determined by the Constituent Assembly..."). They were afraid that this word would give a pretext for the Council to usurp the powers of the Constituent Assembly, while the majority argued that the word simply expressed the non-negotiable and non-appealable nature of the future Assembly's decisions. Therefore the Act was unanimously approved "" but did not have full-fledged support from all twenty men.
Final text of the Act
Path to the Act: graphic representation
"Note: the colors of the functional sections correspond to the colored lines in the original text above."
Soon after the signing, the Act was taken to Germany and handed to parties in the Reichstag. On February 18, the text was reprinted in German newspapers, including "
Das Neue Litauen", " Vossische Zeitung", " Taegliche Rundschau" and " Kreuzzeitung". In Lithuania a text of the proclamation was prepared for printing in newspapers, particularly in " Lietuvos aidas", the Council's newspaper established by Antanas Smetona; but the German authorities prohibited this publication. [cite web|url=http://www.aidas.lt/about.htm |title=About Us|accessdate=2007-01-30|publisher=Lietuvos aidas|year=2005] Although the majority of the copies of the issue were confiscated, the newspaper's editor, Petras Klimas, managed to hide about 60 of them. This censorship meant that the distribution and dissemination of the Act was illegal in Lithuania.
On March 3, 1918, Germany and the now-
BolshevikRussia signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. It declared that the Baltic nations were in the German interest zone and that Russia renounced any claims to them. On March 23, Germany recognized independent Lithuania on the basis of the December 11 declaration. However, in substance, nothing had changed either in Lithuania or in the Council's status: any efforts to establish an administration were hindered.cite book |last=Gerutis |first=Albertas |editor= Ed. Albertas Gerutis |others= translated by Algirdas Budreckis|title= Lithuania: 700 Years |year=1984 |edition=6th |publisher= Manyland Books|location= New York|id=LCC|75-80057. ISBN 0-87141-028-1 |pages=151–162 |chapter=Independent Lithuania] This situation changed when the German Revolutionstarted and Germany lost the war in the fall of 1918 – it was no longer in a position to dictate terms. The Council of Lithuania adopted the first provisional constitution on November 2. The functions of government were entrusted to a three-member presidium, and Augustinas Voldemaraswas invited to form the first Cabinet of Ministers of Lithuania.cite book |last=Eidintas |first=Alfonsas |coauthors=Vytautas Žalys, Alfred Erich Senn |editor=Ed. Edvardas Tuskenis |others= |title=Lithuania in European Politics: The Years of the First Republic, 1918–1940 |edition=Paperback |year=1999 |month=September |publisher=St. Martin's Press |location=New York |isbn=0-312-22458-3 |pages=24–31 |chapter=Chapter 1: Restoration of the State ] The first government was formed on November 11, 1918, on the day that Germany signed the armistice in Compiègne. The Council immediately began to organize an army, police, municipalities, and other institutions. The proclaimed independence was established.
Two copies of the Act were signed: the original and a duplicate. The original was given to Jonas Basanavičius to safeguard and protect. The original was never published or used in any public matters; its existence was first mentioned in the press in 1933.lt icon cite web|url=http://www.lnm.lt/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=64&Itemid=100 |title=1918 m. vasario 16 d. Lietuvos nepriklausomybės akto pasirašymas| publisher=National Museum of Lithuania |work=Naujausių laikų Lietuvos valstybingumo istorija |accessdate=2007-02-06] The whereabouts of the original remain unknown. The duplicate was used in day-to-day business, and was stored in the president's archives until June 15, 1940, the day when Lithuania lost its independence and was occupied by the Soviets. After that date the document disappeared. Neither the original or the duplicate has been located; historians and adventurers continue to hunt for it. In 2006, a team of engineers searched the walls of the former house of
Petras Vileišis. [lt icon cite web |date=2006-02-13 |title=Viltis rasti Vasario 16-osios akto originalą vis labiau blėsta |url=http://www.lrytas.lt/?id=11398300311138538447&view=4 |publisher=Lietuvos rytas |accessdate=2007-02-06 ] Two facsimiles of the duplicate were produced, one in 1928 and the other in 1933. The 1928 facsimile is a closer reproduction of the Act in its original state; there are spelling errors, and the background is visually "noisy", while the 1933 facsimile shows the Act in an "improved" condition.
Most of the signatories of the Act remained active in the cultural and political life of independent Lithuania.
Jonas Vileišisserved in the Seimasand as mayorof Kaunas; [cite encyclopedia | editor = Simas Sužiedėlis | encyclopedia = Encyclopedia Lituanica| title = Vileišis, Jonas | year = 1970–1978 | publisher = Juozas Kapočius | volume = VI | location = Boston, Massachusetts | id = LCC|74-114275 | pages = 124–125] Saliamonas Banaitiswas involved in finance, opening several banks. [cite encyclopedia | editor = Simas Sužiedėlis | encyclopedia = Encyclopedia Lituanica| title = Banaitis, Saliamonas | year = 1970–1978 | publisher = Juozas Kapočius | volume = I | location = Boston, Massachusetts | id = LCC|74-114275 | pages = 282] Among the signatories were two future Presidents of Lithuania, Antanas Smetonaand Aleksandras Stulginskis. Jonas Basanavičius, chairman of the Council of Lithuania, returned to an academic life, pursuing his research in Lithuanian culture and folklore. [cite encyclopedia | editor = Simas Sužiedėlis | encyclopedia = Encyclopedia Lituanica| title = Basanavičius, Jonas | year = 1970–1978 | publisher = Juozas Kapočius | volume = I | location = Boston, Massachusetts | id = LCC|74-114275 | pages =307–310] Five signatories died before World War IIstarted; three perished during the Nazi occupation. Those who did not emigrate to Western countries became political prisoners after Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union. [ lt icon cite web|url=http://www.lrt.lt/sites/static.php?strid=215331&|title=Vasario 16-osios Akto signatarai|accessdate=2007-02-07|first=Sigitas |last=Jegelavičius |publisher=Lithuanian National Radio and Television |year=2005] Aleksandras Stulginskisand Petras Klimaswere sent to prison in Siberiaby Soviet authorities, but survived and returned to Lithuania; [cite encyclopedia | editor = Simas Sužiedėlis | encyclopedia = Encyclopedia Lituanica| title = Klimas, Petras | year = 1970-1978 | publisher = Juozas Kapočius | volume = III | location = Boston, Massachusetts | id = LCC|74-114275 | pages =142-143] Pranas Dovydaitisand Vladas Mironaswere also sent to Siberia but died there. [cite encyclopedia | editor = Simas Sužiedėlis | encyclopedia = Encyclopedia Lituanica| title = Dovydaitis, Pranas | year = 1970–1978 | publisher = Juozas Kapočius | volume = II | location = Boston, Massachusetts | id = LCC|74-114275 | pages =101–103] [cite encyclopedia | editor = Simas Sužiedėlis | encyclopedia = Encyclopedia Lituanica| title = Mironas, Vladas | year = 1970–1978 | publisher = Juozas Kapočius | volume = III | location = Boston, Massachusetts | id = LCC|74-114275 | pages =545–546] Kazys Bizauskasdisappeared during the summer of 1941 while being transported to a Soviet prison in Minsk; he is presumed to have been shot along with a number of other prisoners. [cite encyclopedia | editor = Simas Sužiedėlis | encyclopedia = Encyclopedia Lituanica| title = Bizauskas, Kazimieras | year = 1970–1978 | publisher = Juozas Kapočius | volume = I | location = Boston, Massachusetts | id = LCC|74-114275 | pages =372–373] Donatas Malinauskasalso disappeared during the mass deportations to Siberia that occurred in Lithuania on June 14, 1941; his fate and his burial site have never been determined. [cite encyclopedia | editor = Simas Sužiedėlis | encyclopedia = Encyclopedia Lituanica| title = Malinauskas, Donatas | year = 1970–1978 | publisher = Juozas Kapočius | volume = III | location = Boston, Massachusetts | id = LCC|74-114275 | pages =459–460]
Several of the signatories went into
exile, including Jurgis Šaulysand Kazimieras Steponas Šaulys, who died in Switzerland. [cite encyclopedia | editor = Simas Sužiedėlis | encyclopedia = Encyclopedia Lituanica| title = Bizauskas, Kazimieras | year = 1970–1978 | publisher = Juozas Kapočius | volume = I | location = Boston, Massachusetts | id = LCC|74-114275 | pages =372–373] [cite encyclopedia | editor = Simas Sužiedėlis | encyclopedia = Encyclopedia Lituanica| title = Malinauskas, Donatas | year = 1970–1978 | publisher = Juozas Kapočius | volume = III | location = Boston, Massachusetts | id = LCC|74-114275 | pages =459–460] Antanas Smetona, Mykolas Biržiškaand Steponas Kairysfound their final resting places in the United States. [cite encyclopedia | editor = Simas Sužiedėlis | encyclopedia = Encyclopedia Lituanica| title = Smetona, Antanas | year = 1970–1978 | publisher = Juozas Kapočius | volume = V | location = Boston, Massachusetts | id = LCC|74-114275 | pages =231–235] [cite encyclopedia | editor = Simas Sužiedėlis | encyclopedia = Encyclopedia Lituanica| title = Biržiška, Mykolas | year = 1970–1978 | publisher = Juozas Kapočius | volume = I | location = Boston, Massachusetts | id = LCC|74-114275 | pages 364–365] [cite encyclopedia | editor = Simas Sužiedėlis | encyclopedia = Encyclopedia Lituanica| title = Steponas Kairys | year = 1970–1978 | publisher = Juozas Kapočius | volume = III | location = Boston, Massachusetts | id = LCC|74-114275 | pages 17–19]
The Act of February 16 proclaimed the "re"-establishment ("atstatyti") of the Lithuanian state, making it the successor to the Lithuanian historical state, the
Grand Duchy of Lithuania. lt icon cite web| url=http://www.lrs.lt/sventes/980216/vas16mod.htm| title=Vasario 16-oji - modernios Lietuvos valstybės atkūrimo simbolis ir pamatas |accessdate=2007-01-31| first=Vytautas |last=Landsbergis |authorlink=Vytautas Landsbergis|publisher=Seimas |date=1998-02-16] In this respect the Council deviated from the resolution adopted by the Vilnius Conference which called for establishment ("sudaryti") of a Lithuanian state. However, it was made clear that the new state would be quite different from the old Duchy: it was to be organized only in ethnic Lithuanian lands and was to be governed by democratic principles, as opposed to the multi-ethnic Duchy that had been ruled by aristocracy. The termination of the ties binding Lithuania to other states was addressed to Germany, Russia, and Poland, all of which had their own plans for the country. Even though not addressed directly, the Act renounced any attempt to resurrect the former Polish-Lithuanian union.
The Act of February 16, 1918, is the legal basis for the existence of present-day Lithuania, both during the
interwar periodand since 1990. The Act became one of the key elements during the restoration of Lithuania's independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. [cite book |last= Ziemele |first= Ineta |title= Baltic Yearbook of International Law| year=2002| publisher= Martinus Nijhoff Publishers |pages=9 |isbn= 9041117369] cite web|url=http://www3.lrs.lt/seimu_istorija/w3_viewer.ViewTheme-p_int_tv_id=281&p_kalb_id=2&p_org=0.htm |title=Supreme Council - Reconstituent Seimas 1990–1992| accessdate=2007-01-30| publisher=Seimas| year=2002] A paragraph in the Act of the Re-Establishment of the State of Lithuania, delivered on March 11, 1990, stated:
This formulation emphasized the continuity of the two legal Acts. The Act of February 16, 1918 and its successor, the Act of March 11, 1990, are regarded as two of the most important developments of Lithuanian society in the 20th century. lt icon cite journal|url=http://www.voruta.lt/article.php?article=726 |title=Vasario 16-osios Akto reikšmė lietuvių tautos politinei raidai| accessdate=2007-01-30| first=Antanas |last=Tyla |journal=Voruta |date=2005-03-06 |id=ISSN 1392-0677]
February 16 in Lithuania is now an official holiday. [lt icon [http://www3.lrs.lt/pls/inter3/dokpaieska.showdoc_l?p_id=134377 Lietuvos Respublikos švenčių dienų įstatymas] , Žin., 1990, Nr. 31-757. Seimas (2001-05-24). Retrieved on
2007-02-07.] On this day various ceremonies are hosted all across Lithuania, but the main commemoration is held in the House of Signatoriesin Vilnius where the Act was signed in 1918. During this observance the Flag of Lithuaniais hoisted, and Lithuanian cultural activists and politicians deliver speeches from its balcony to the people gathered below. Special masses in churches and cathedrals are also delivered. Honoring the Act's legacy, the President of Lithuaniahosts a reception for the signatories of the Act of March 11, 1990, in the Presidential Palace.
In 1992, an award was established in honor of Jonas Basanavičius, who led the Council of Lithuania when the Act of February 16 was signed. The Jonas Basanavičius Prize is bestowed for distinguished work within the previous five years in the fields of ethnic and cultural studies. [lt icon cite web|url=http://whatson.delfi.lt/archive/article.php?id=8031858 |title=J.Basanavičiaus premija šiemet skirta mokslo istorikui L.Klimkai| accessdate=2007-02-07| publisher=Delfi.lt and BNS| date=2005-11-21] The prize is awarded in the House of Signatories, in homage to its history.
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