At the close of the 20th century Lithuania appears to be a new
nation, freshly liberated from its submersion in the defunct Soviet Union.
For this reason one finds that its entries in current encyclopedias, almanacs,
and gazeteers tend to be perfunctory, as befits a place with a short history.
The current apprehension of "newness" is mistaken. This heavyweight
of the Baltic states is a region with a long history. It has been
the seat of an empire and its culture profoundly influenced the nations
by which it came to be dominated for almost half a millennium.
I actually have a personal connection with Lithuania.
One of my grandmothers came from Kaunas. She called it Kovno, and
left in 1905 or '06, she wasn't sure which, when she was about 4 years
old. The only thing she remembered about the trip was watching a
big fire on the shoreline as the boat pulled away. Whatever relatives
were left behind undoubtedly died during World War II.
The Baltic coast has been subject to human occupation
since neolithic times (c. 5000 BCE). Around 1500 BCE the people we
now know as Lithuanians began to settle around the Nemunus (Nieman) River.
This people prospered and grew into the dominant ethnic group in the region.
Trade was developed with the southern cultures of Greece and Rome, the
principal export products being the Baltic mainstays of fish, furs, and
Though the land was penetrated and overrun by the
Goths in the waning centuries of the Roman Empire, the Lithuanians retained
their ethnic and political dominance. Raids by the Scandinavian freebooters
known as the Vikings occurred from the 7-11th centuries CE, and it is probable
that semi-permanent trading stations were established along the coast.
By the 12th century Germans had begun to migrate
eastwards, displacing and dominating the Prussians, ethnic kin to the Lithuanians,
who lived in what is now northeastern Poland. In 1229 the Boleslaw
V, duke of Poland, let the wolf in the door by requesting the aid of the
Teutonic Order against the pagan Prussians. The knights did a thorough
job. Indeed, the Prussians were so thoroughly trounced that they
shortly ceased to exist as a people, leaving behind only their name.
The problem thereafter was that the Teutonic knights
refused to leave. Instead, they organized the territory they had
conquered and ruled it, ostensibly in fief to the Pope, but in actually
as an independent entity. Under the knights German settlement in
East Prussia, as it came to be known, intensified, sowing the seeds of
ethnic rivalry that eventually flowered into World War II.
Though the Teutonic Order came to dominate the entire
Baltic coast to the Gulf of Finland, it was unable to penetrate the eastern
interior, which was organized as a pagan Lithuanian duchy powerful enough
to resist the forces of the German knights. In fact, the Lithuanian
dukes were actually expanding their power through the 14-15th centuries,
until they came to control a large swath of territory that ranged as far
south as central Ukraine near the Black Sea.
The Teutonic knights kept trying to get their hands
on Lithuania even after its definitive adoption of Christianity in the
late 13th century, but its efforts were unsuccessful. The Lithuanian dukes
fought off the Mongols as well. Lithuanian culture, now Christianized,
came to dominate not only in the Lithuanian domains, but also in the neighboring
kingdom of Poland in the west and in disorganized Russia to the east.
The height of Lithuanian influence seemed to be
obtained in 1386 when duke Jogaila (Polish = Jagellon) married the Polish
princess Jadwiga and became king of Poland under the name Ladislas II.
This union of Poland and Lithuania produced the most powerful political
entity in eastern Europe, if not all of Europe of that age. In 1410
combined Polish-Lithuanian forces inflicted a decisive defeat on the Teutonic
Order at the battle of Grunwald (Tannenberg), a blow from which the knights
never recovered. In eastern Europe the Jagellonian kingdom reigned
The result of this great access of power by the
Jagellonian kings turned out to be insalubrious for the Lithuanian part
of the kingdom. In the aftermath of Grunwald the political institutions
of Lithuania were altered to conform to the Polish norms, which vastly
increased the power of local lords and the Catholic church while stripping
the common people of many of their
traditional rights and freedoms. This process continued until
serfdom became the norm for the peasantry. In 1569 Lithuania was
formally incorporated into the Polish state, thereafter sharing in the
vicissitudes of that beleaguered nation.
During the dissolution of Poland during the 17-18th
centuries most of Lithuania fell to an expanding Russia. The title of Grand
Duke of Lithuania was taken by the Russian Tsars, and that was the extent
of the political existance of Lithuania until the close of World War I.
The first coins of Lithuania were not coins at all,
but rather the so-called "grivna" silver ingots. Despite the ease
with which these could be counterfeited, they are extremely rare on the
market, and none of the specimens I've seen offered recently has generated
even so much as a rumor questioning its authenticity. They were cast
in simple open molds consisting of a straight groove. Typical bars
approach 6 inches and about 4.75 Troy ounces, and have several characteristic
transverse chisel cuts on the round side. One of my life's goals
is to hold one of these things in my own trembling hands.
As for normal looking coins, these begin with crude
little silver denars of debatable attribution. Of modest size and
purity, all bear the ancestral Lithuanian tamgha. In the Saurma catalog
are tamgha denars with a mounted knight charging right, attributed to dukes
Kestutis and Vytautas, and another with a cross and lance head type, also
attributed to Vytautas. The rider coins are very rare, but the lance
head pieces have been on the market in tiny numbers in recent years, typically
attributed these days to
duke Jogaila, the one who married the Polish princess Jadwiga and set
in train the flowering and decline of his nation.
The earliest reasonably priced Lithuanian coins
belong to Jogaila's grandson Alexander. He produced silver ½
groschens with the typical mounted knight (this time charging left) and
denars. The denars are rare, but the ½ groschens are readily
Even more common are the ½ groschens of Sigismund
I, ruling 1506-44. This king put dates on his money, and these
are the cheapest of the early dated European coins. There are
also rare groschens. As the 16th century passed and the Polish influence
waxed the coinage took on a Polish cast as well. Under Sigismund
August, 1548-72, and his successors a range of
silver and billon denominations was struck, but as in the rest of Europe
at the time there was one workhorse denomination, and for Lithuania it
was the ½ groschen. It is interesting that these common coins
are the only ones to use traditional Lithuanian types, the other denominations,
all somewhat scarce, conforming to the Polish norms.
By the 17th century the Polish influence was nearly
complete, with a range of denominations from small billon coins to large
gold multiple ducats. These coins look Polish, with only the charging
knight somewhere in the design to show where they came from, and they circulated
throughout the entire kingdom just like any other Polish coins. In
terms of scarcity these Lithuanian pieces, compared with the typical Polish
lots (pretty common as 17th century coins go) out of which they have to
be picked, are not so easy to find.
For the 18th century there are only 2 coin types
for Augustus II, 1697-1704, but dated after his abdication for the years
1706 and 1707! Perhaps someone will write in and explain this anomaly.
At any rate, the coins are very scarce. Maybe you've seen them, but
I, determined generalist that I am, have not.
The idea of Lithuania went into eclipse at that
point, and by the end of the 18th century the idea of Poland disappeared
BIRTH OF THE NATION
In the early 19th century romantic nationalism became
the cutting edge of European politics. The old system of feudal family
loyalties that had been all there was in the 18th century had been cracked
wide open by the French Revolution and its aftermath: Napoleon. All
the various ethnic groups began to think of themselves organically (or
tribally, as it were), rather than as subjects of a prince.
This awakening of national consciousness naturally
tended in numerous, powerful peoples to result in strong, centralized states
that engaged in pompous and overbearing political behavior, as the belligerent
and competitive activities of such heavy hitters as England and France
and Spain and Denmark and Russia illustrate. With less numerous peoples
such as, for instance, the Lithuanians, the tendency was to yearn for independence,
to be free of the Russians always wanting them to give up being Lithuanians
and become Russians. Like others everywhere in Europe, they formed
cultural groups and clandestine cells of activists, and at times there
were acts of rebellion and there were acts of brutal repression by the
Russians. Things were tough all over Russia in the 19th century.
A couple of those 19th century Tsars were, shall we say, heavy handed.
The Lithuanians remembered all of their history
and they chafed. Independence was declared immediately after the
abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in 1917, Germany providing security.
A Lithuanian Diet was formed with Antanas Smetona as president, and in
1918 a German prince was elected king. When the war ended the king
was sent packing and a republic declared with Augustinas Voldemaras as
premier. The new government stablized economic and social conditions
and began to develop infrastructure.
There were territorial problems, however; an argument
with Poland that resulted in the annexation of southeastern Lithuania including
Vilnius, and later the seizure of Memel, a bit of the Baltic coast held
since the days of the Teutonic Order by Germany (or Germans). By
the mid-1920s Lithuania had become estranged with two of the largest nearby
countries, and of course they didn't want to have anything to do with the
Russians. Because of these problems Lithuania was perceived as less
stable than neighbors Latvia and Estonia, and these nations refused to
cooperate as a united Baltic bloc in international affairs.
In 1926 there was a coup that brought Fascists to
power. The Fascists were bureaucratically defeated in 1929, just
in time for the depression and the upsurge in left wing militancy brought
by the generalized poverty.
It became one thing after another in the 1930s.
Difficulties with Poland and Germany increased, Poland demanding normal
relations under threat of force, and Hitler demanding the return of Memel.
In 1939 the boil was lanced with the joint German-Soviet invasion of Poland.
Lithuania, theoretically still free, became automatically a Soviet client
state. The Soviets, who had occupied the lands seized by Poland in
1920, returned them to the Lithuanian government, in return obtaining,
in grateful thanks, the right to garrison troops in the country.
Then they wanted changes made in the government, their own people in key
posts and so forth. Then they wanted to hold elections, which produced,
amazingly, sold majorities for pro-Soviet candidates on every level.
A new government was formed, which petitioned to join the Soviet Union
as a constituent republic, and after due consideration the request was
granted. All this had taken a bit less than a year.
Lithuanians pretty much kept their mouths shut for
the next 40 years, but when Gorbachov sprung the lock on the mental dungeon
of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s Lithuanians led the charge away from
the Union. They talked about it earlier and louder than any of the
other constituent republics, and after the failure of the 1991 coup, in
an echo of 1917, the Republican government immediately declared independence,
and this was acknowleged by the Soviet government shortly after.
The rest of the world, having never accepted the annexation in the first
place, quickly extended recognition.
TWENTIETH CENTURY COINAGE
For the First Republic there are basically two issues
and an odd commemorative. The 1925 minors are made of what
I consider to be a rather unfortunate aluminum-bronze alloy.
During Soviet times they often came with tiny corrosion pits. Nowadays
wholesome pieces are the norm, but they still commonly come dark or with
spots. They are available, but not particularly common. Not
that many were made in the first place.
The 1925 silvers are available as well. 1
litas coins seem to be quite a bit more common than the 2s and 5s.
For all 1925 coins average grade is VF or so. Uncirculated examples
The 1936 coinage was somewhat abbreviated in terms
of denominations, but the copper alloy used for the minors wore
much better than the aluminum-bronze of the 1925s. These coins
are reasonably available in XF, but uncirculateds are rare. Similarly,
the 1936 5 litai and 10 litu are fairly easy to find in XF, but rarely
come better than AU. The only scarce coin type of the First
Republic is that 1938 10 litu commemorating the 20th anniversary of the
Republic. Prominently displayed on the obverse is the tamgha first
seen on the denars of the 14th century.
The Second Republic...
Well, it looks like the Second Republic section
fell out of the file somehow. I'll go find it one of these days.
Better something than nothing.