Erstveröffentlichung: August 2016
After the final partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795, all Lithuanian inhabited territories (with the exception of the Lithuanian speakers in Eastern Prussia) were subjected to the Russian Empire. The name “Lithuania” remained, but it was rarely used in the official imperial parlance, usually referring to the territory inhabited by the Lithuanian-speakers. The Lithuanian national movement, which emerged during the 1870s, made the first attempts to identify and conceptualise the national territory. This was not an easy task because of multi-ethnic nature of the lands, especially around the city of Vilnius and its region. Even before the outbreak of the First World War, they still had doubts where exactly the “Lithuania” was and how one could define its borders. Therefore, quite often it was depicted as a collage of territories from different maps that supported the Lithuanian National Movements wishes. Yet as an individual territory titled “Lithuania”, it first appeared during the war, when the German army annexed the lands and established the “District of Lithuania” (Bezirk Litauen) in autumn 1915. It was formed from the former Russian Kaunas (Kovno – in Russian) province. Later, during 1916 and 1917, the district was enlarged by adding the adjoining administrative units: Verwaltungsbezirken Suwalki, Hrodna (Grodno – in Russian) and Vilnius and thus forming the Militärverwaltung Litauen. In 1918 most of this territory became the Republic of Lithuania.
The beginning of the war and the retreat of the Russian army (1914-1915)
Russia joined the First World War on the 1 August 1914 (or 14 August according to the Julian calendar, which was used in the Russian Empire). The western border areas immediately suffered the consequences of the war: the concentration of large armies, the requisitions of horses, carriages, and, most importantly, of food. Men were conscripted into the Russian army. With the beginning of military actions, the inhabitants of the border region were ordered to vacate 16 kilometre-wide areas away from the front line. Even though there were few civilian casualties during the early stages of the military actions, nevertheless many households, livestock and other property were destroyed. The defeat of the Russian armies at the Battle of Tannenberg (23-30 August 1914), their subsequent retreat and advancement of the German armies further devastated the border areas. Many towns and villages were burned and people were forced to retreat away from the war zone.
In autumn 1914 for the first time the German army invaded the Russia’s Suwalki and Kaunas provinces. Even though it did not progress far, high contributions were put on the occupied towns and villages (either in money or food), while soldiers plundered households of the inhabitants. Partially this was revenge for the Russian violence and plundering of East Prussia during their invasion. In March-May 1915 the Russian army succeeded in repelling the enemy and again invading and devastating parts of Eastern Prussia. Local inhabitants who did not retreat were taken to Russia, their households destroyed, livestock taken and sold. At the same time the Cossacks raided both sides of the border hunting for the German spies. Without a trial people were beaten, hanged, shot, or forcefully deported. The Jews were especially persecuted under suspicion that they assisted the Germans. Russian authorities issued a special order to deport all Jews deep into Russia, despite the imperial laws prohibiting Jews leaving the zone of the Pale of Settlement (roughly within the limits of the present-day Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine).
German counteroffensive in May 1915 accelerated the events. Retreating Russians evacuated everything they could. For the rest they used the “scorched land” strategy: destroying infrastructure, railways, bridges, roads, villages, factories, etc. Imperial administration offices, schools and other institutions were moved deep into Russia. Afraid of the atrocities of war, many people left their homes voluntarily. Large numbers of local intelligentsia, students, teachers, bureaucracy and other, moved to Petrograd, Moscow, Voronezh, Tula and other imperial centres. Those who did not want to leave hid in the woods or swamps together with their livestock and waited for the Russians to leave. By early autumn, the fast advancing German army annexed most of the former Russia’s Suwalki, Kaunas, Vilnius and Hrodna provinces. Historians tend to agree that German occupation in the Lithuanian lands started after surrendering of the city of Vilnius, on 18 September 1915.
Ober Ost and the German military administration (1915-1918)
Administrative organisation. The German military began fundamental restructuring of the annexed country into a unique territorial-administrative unit, called the Oberbefehlshaber der gesamten Deutschen Streitkräfte im Osten, or Ober Ost. For the most time it was headed by Field Marshal, Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934) and General Erich Ludendorff (1865-1937). By mid-autumn 1915 most of Russia’s Kurland, Kaunas, Vilnius, Hrodna and Suwalki provinces became constitutive parts of the Ober Ost. The management of these territories was undertaken exclusively by the German military. Only before the end of the war, the governance of the region was transferred to the civil administration (Zivilverwaltung), regardless the fact that the newly formed Republic of Lithuania was already acknowledged by the Kaiser and Reichstag (23 March 1918). Just as with the other newly formed East-Central European states – Estonia, Latvia and Poland – German authorities regarded Lithuania merely as a bulwark that separated Germany from Soviet Russia.
The Ober Ost administrative structure changed during the years, especially adapting to the territorial enlargements of the Verwaltungsgebiet. Initially the administration was divided into 12 sections (Abteilungen I-XII), each consisting of smaller sub-sections responsible for specific tasks, like, for example: economy, press, postal and telegraph services, transportation, justice, relations with the local population, gendarmerie, and so on. In essence, the Ober Ost was designed as an autonomous military state with nearly full governmental apparatus while territorially it covered almost all the Lithuanian ethnographic space.
Initially Bezirk Litauen consisted of 14 counties (Kreise). Their number increased with the enlargement of the Bezirk. The centre of administration was in the city of Kaunas (Kowno – in German). Here all the heads of the Bezirk as well as the Ober Ost resided throughout the war. The administration within each Ober Ost’s Bezirk and Kreis was undertaken by numerous administrative staff, composed almost exclusively from the German military. Significant part of lower level bureaucracy was recruited predominantly from the East Prussian Lithuanian-speakers who could understand and to some extent converse with the locals. The military gendarmes and police were responsible for security and order. The only administrative positions that could be occupied by the locals were the community elders (Gemeindevorsteher).
The control of the local population was carried out through numerous orders, instructions and regulations that were disseminated in a form of fliers and public posters in German, Lithuanian, Polish and Yiddish languages. The languages used depended on the density of nationalities within a given Bezirk or Kreis. Additionally, special periodical publications, like the “Verordnungsblatt der Deutschen Verwaltung für Litauen”, were published. They contained summaries of the already issued as well as additional orders. Each Bezirk had its own Verordnungsblatt. During first two years of occupation, military censorship generally restricted publishing materials in local languages, except for the official newspaper “Dabartis” (1915) [The Presence], which was published in Lithuanian. Starting from 1916 local national groups were gradually allowed to publish their own (albeit censored) periodicals, the major of which were: Belarusian “Homan” (1916), Polish “Dzennik Wilenski” (1916) and Lithuanian “Lietuvos Aidas” (1917).
Economy. Throughout the whole war, the occupied territories fell under systematic economic exploitation. The rationale behind it was that the lands, first, had to provide all the necessary provisions for the German armies on the Eastern front, and, second, to provide raw materials (metals, wood, and other), food, grain, and labour force for Germany. Requisitions were carried out methodically and without scruples. Local population could neither interfere, nor resist; high monetary and physical penalties were imposed, including capital punishment. Regulations of prices were introduced together with heavy taxation on most of everyday commodities. Monopoly over alcohol, tobacco, matches and other goods was enforced; special regulations were imposed on bakeries, mills, dairy farms, and so on. No food products could be exported from Ober Ost by the local inhabitants (with the exception of poultry, which also had to get permissions from the veterinaries and highest authorities). Importing from Germany was allowed, although the difference of prices for the products was significant. Custom taxes were imposed between different parts of the Ober Ost so that any trading could be monitored and controlled. In 1916 special currency – the Ost-roubles – was introduced as part of the newly established Darlehnskasse Ost. In 1918 they were replaced by the Ost-marks.
Economic draining of the country went hand-in-hand with the exploitation of human resources. This was done in part to rebuild the destroyed and improve local infrastructure. Soon however, groups of workers started to be forcefully taken to Germany for work in industry and agriculture. Moreover, every male from 15 to 60 years of age had to pay the so-called “pillow tax” (with the exception of the Ober Ost officials, military personnel and local clergy). This was an even greater burden on the local population.
Everyday life. The change of regimes brought significant modifications of everyday life. The military enforced curfews, harsh restrictions, punishments for the disobedient. Contributions for towns and villages were put for breaking laws, harbouring Russian soldiers, death penalties became a common practice for inducing sense of terror. People were punished for not showing respect for the German military, hiding food supplies, livestock, failing to pay taxes, etc. Travelling within the country was allowed only with permissions from local authorities and in special train wagons marked “für Landeseinwohner”. Registration became compulsory. Thorough statistical scrutiny was carried out. Each individual was issued with a passport.
In the beginning of 1916 the Ober Ost administration established its own postal service. All correspondence had to undergo censorship and therefore only letters written in German were allowed. For this reason, standard letters forms were introduced, which were especially used for the correspondence asking for money from family and friends living abroad. People did not have to write anything only to underline particular words and phrases.
Even though schooling system was partially restored, yet it fell under strict control. The Russian language lessons and general use of Russian everywhere was prohibited. German language classes were not obligatory in lower schools, whereas in higher schools and gymnasiums they were compulsory.
All these new rules forced people to adapt to the new environment. The attempts to resist the military regime were rare and the society itself did not support such actions fearing for its own safety. The acts of disobedience usually manifested in the distribution of illegal pamphlets, which called to resist the German administration. Much bigger threat for the local German officials and local inhabitants too were the bandits. Gangs of armed Russian soldiers – the escaped prisoners of war, sometimes joined by the locals – hid in the forests. They not only staged attacks on German authorities, but also robbed local population in search of food, clothing and other valuables. Bandit gangs were especially spread in the northern part of Bezirk Litauen. This was serious concern for the military administration. Special instructions in fighting the gangs and protecting locals were issued, military detachments were sent to assist local gendarmes and police to contain the threat. However, banditism was rather difficult to eradicate, especially with the growing dissatisfaction among the general population regarding the rule of the country. Armed gangs continued to terrorize and murder people even after the end of the war. They were eradicated only around the mid-1920s.
The military rule during the First World War did not manifest only in oppression; it also had some positive impact on the country and society too. In general terms this can be described as forced “westernisation” or “Europeanisation” of the country. Even small changes like, for example, the introduction of the Western calendar and Berlin time zone, removal of Russian language and imperial attributes from public spheres and so on – all this must have had positive impact on the “civilizational shift” of the peoples. New ideas on hygiene were introduced. Instructions on how to fight diseases and infections as well as newest medicines were brought from Germany.
As regards the matters of nationalities and religion, for most of the time the German military administration maintained neutral standpoint. The Catholics enjoyed greater freedoms than under the Russian imperial regime. The Jews were also acknowledged as generally equal ethnic and religious community thus receiving special treatment from the military administration. In this way, the country and its society was forced from the Russian political, social and cultural gravitational field and brought closer to the German/European one.
Declaration of Independent Republic of Lithuania. Starting from early 1916 the German military administration started rearranging Ober Ost’s territorial-administrative division. Vilnius and Suwalki districts were merged first and later conjoined with the Hrodna Bezirk thus forming the Bialystok-Hrodna administrative unit. Partially this was done as the attempt to counteract Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg’s (1856-1921) plans to make Ober Ost as Poland’s buffer zone and diminish the military administration. At that time Polish lands also underwent significant restructuring: in the beginning of 1916 it became a civil-administered Generalgouvernement Warschau and from 5 November 1916 it was transformed into the Regentschaftskönigreich Polen.
The rivalry between the Ober Ost’s military and Germany’s civil government went on throughout the war. As a consequence of Bethmann-Holweg’s initiatives to strengthen Poland, the military administration of the Ober Ost decided to start careful discussions with the local national groups in order to gain support and preserve Ober Ost from being integrated into Poland.
Every local national group - the Belarusians, the Jews, the Lithuanians, and the Poles – tried to get more favourable disposition of the military administration. Even though the cultural life was restricted, but contrary to the Russian, the German administration regarded every local culture and language as equal: national schools, newspapers in national languages were gradually allowed since early 1916. This, as, for example, in case of the Belarusians, had a positive impact: they were allowed in opening national schools, publish in Belarusian language (in Latin letters) and thus strengthen their national consolidation. The biggest obstacle was political preferences. At first all the national groups were favouring some form of federal state. Soon, however, their ways started to part: most of the Ober Ost’s Poles wanted that these territories would join Poland, especially when it acquired the Regentschaftskönigreich status in November 1916. The Belarusian, some of the Jewish and Lithuanian national leaders were against joining Poland. In their understanding it would have resulted in Polish political and cultural dominance. Such standpoint was favourable for the Ober Ost administration, who during the second half of 1916 decided to support Belarusians and Lithuanians and not the Poles.
In early 1917 Lithuanian intelligentsia dropped the idea of joint Belarusian-Lithuanian federal state and strive to acquire an independent national state. They addressed German military administration offering them to establish Lithuania, which would be Germany’s buffer state. To wrap this as an act of national self-determination, the authorities permitted to assemble a meeting of Lithuanian representatives in Vilnius. The idea behind the meeting was to form a Lithuanian Landrat. Some 200 people from various political and social groups gathered in Vilnius on 18-23 September 1917. This assembly appointed a group, called the Lietuvos Taryba (Litauischer Staatsrat), which was enabled to act on behalf of the nation until the Constituent Assembly convened. On 11 December 1917 the Ober Ost military administration forced Taryba to declare independence of Lithuanian state, which was under complete Germany’s control.
At the same time Germany was preparing for the cease-fire negotiations with the Bolshevik representatives at Brest-Litovsk, which ended with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (3 March 1918). The negotiations, gave an opportune moment for the Council of Lithuania to announce new act of independence. On 16 February 1918 a declaration was released which stated: "The Council of Lithuania, as the sole representative of the Lithuanian people, following the recognized right to national self-determination, and in accordance with the resolution of the Conference of Lithuania held in Vilnius, September 18-23, 1917, hereby proclaim the restitution of the independent State of Lithuania, founded on democratic principles, with Vilnius as its capital and declares the rupture of all ties which formerly bound this State to other nations."
The declaration of independence did not bring any immediate changes. It was a political act. The Ober Ost administration continued ruling the country almost singlehandedly, despite the fact that Kaiser Wilhelm acknowledged Lithuania’s independence on 23 March 1918. At the same time new threat arose in the shape of the Bolshevik Red Army, which started its march to the West. During 1918 the German army held the Red Army from fast advancement to the west. At the same time other military and paramilitary units started to form within the Ober Ost territory during 1918. Besides the German regular army, there were: the Lithuanian national army, the White Russian military groups, the Freikorps units, pro-Polish paramilitary units, the Bolshevik paramilitary groups, and many other. Even though officially the First World War finished on 11 November 1918, military actions between different groups and armies in Lithuania continued for another three years.
 The name of the city has a number of spellings: Vilnius – in Lithuanian, Vilna – in Russian, Wilna – in German, Vilno – in Yiddish. Here it is used in the current, Lithuanian, form.
 It has to be noted that even though generally belonging to the Ober Ost, most of the northern Verwaltungsbezirk Kurland (the present day territory of Latvia) had special status due to the large numbers of Baltic Germans living in these lands.