The act laying Lithuania’s legal foundations was lost for almost a century. Some said it was shredded by bees, others claimed it was forgotten and lost inside a book. In 2017, a little known professor from Kaunas embarked on a quest to Berlin in search of Lithuania’s original Act of Independence.
Signing Lithuania into existance
A little before noon, members of the Council of Lithuania assembled in a flat on Wielka Street on a wintery Saturday in 1918.
It wasn’t the usual meeting place for the Council of Lithuania established a year ago, which normally held its sessions in a building several hundred meters down the road. But it was a cold day and the host, Dr. Jonas Basanavičius, was economising on firewood.
Refusing to sit in a room with their coats on, the members gathered in the Sztral House, which also hosted the headquarters of the Lithuanian Society for the Relief of Victims of War, a crucial body in Lithuanian self-organising that the Council owed its existence to. Sztral House would later become known as the House of Signatories.
The meeting was chaired by Basanavičius, the eldest of the 20 men. Moving swiftly, they unanimously adopted a short one-page document that had been drafted in advance. Everyone put their signatures in alphabetical order and moved on to other issues on the agenda.Another session was scheduled for the evening and everyone left for lunch, without much euphoria for the crucial judicial step they had just taken.
How did they get there?
Since 1795, lands inhabited by ethnic Lithuanians were ruled by the Russian Empire. As in many places in Europe, the second half of the nineteenth century saw the emergence of a national movement, culminating in demands for some form of autonomy within Russia.
Circumstances changed dramatically with the outset of World War One. Months into the war, the German army marched across Russia, occupying western parts of the empire. For the rest of the war, Lithuania was under German administration.
After the Russian revolution of 1917, Germany considered turning the occupied lands – Mitteleuropa – into a buffer zone of puppet states to contain the spread of the revolution from Russia. The nations of Eastern Europe were to be nominally independent, but tightly controlled by Germany.
It was under this plan that the German administration agreed to allow Lithuanians to hold the Vilnius Conference of September 1917, hoping that it would lend legitimacy to an alliance with Germany.
It didn’t quite go that way. The conference adopted a more ambitious resolution, calling for an independent state and any closer relationship with Germany were to be conditional on Berlin’s acceptance of Lithuania’s independence. The 214 attendees of the Vilnius Conference also elected a 20-member Council of Lithuania to carry on with the work.
The Council initially tried to balance what was desirable and what was possible. Its first independence act, signed in December 1917, called for “a firm and permanent alliance” with Germany, but Berlin’s reluctance to grant any actual control was exasperating and almost split the Council.
It was under these desperate circumstances that the Act of February 16, 1918, was signed. It was addressed to the “governments of Russia, Germany and other states” and declared an independent and democratic state of Lithuania with Vilnius as its capital.
What happened next?
Immediately, nothing much. The first order of business for the Council was to publicise the declaration, which the German authorities were intent on supressing. They seized almost the entire run of the Council’s newspaper, Lietuvos Aidas (Echo of Lithuania), but the Lithuanians managed to smuggle the act out of the country and publish it in German newspapers several days later.
It did not change the situation on the ground, however, as the country was still under firm German control. It wasn’t until Germany itself had become enthralled in a revolution and was facing certain defeat in the war that the Lithuanians could effectively start building a state of their own, after the principles set out on February 16, 1918.
The Republic of Lithuania was independent until 1940, democratic until 1926 – and as for the capital in Vilnius, it didn’t materialise until 1939.
What happened with the Act of Independence?
Algimantas Kasparavičius, a historian with the state-run Lithuanian Institute of History, said the Council probably produced five hand-written copies of the Act: three in Lithuanian, one in German and one in Russian.
One of the signatories, Jurgis Šiaulys, took two copies in German and Lithuanian to Berlin’s diplomats in Kaunas. The Russian copy, along with a Lithuanian one, in all likelihood ended up with the Russian government in Petrograd, according to Kasparavičius, while the last copy must have remained in Lithuania.
This copy was probably handed over to Jonas Basanavičius who chaired the historic Council meeting, according to the diaries of one of the signatories, Petras Klimas. Later, it probably went to President Antanas Smetona’s chancellery in Kaunas.
In 1940, when the USSR occupied Lithuania, the archives of the president and the Foreign Ministry were taken to Moscow. It’s unclear if the act was among the trove of documents.
Lithuania lost its founding document?
Until recently, most people of Lithuania were familiar with a typed version of the 1918 Act of Independence that was reproduced in textbooks and posters. This was not the original document, Kasparavičius previously told LRT, but one from 1928 when it was first published on the 10-year anniversary of independence.
Until very recently, the hand-written originals were thought to be missing. Many historians had been on the quest to find them and theories proliferated about what may have happened.
According to one, Basanavičius may have put the document inside a book and forgot about it. One of the wilder theories maintained that it was hidden inside a beehive and shredded by bees.
Serches were even carried out in a Vilnius townhouse that was owned by Petras Klimas who kept the original act at one point. None of these theories produced any results.
The million-euro discovery
As Lithuania was gearing up for the centenary of the 1918 independence, a business group, MG Baltic, upped the game by offering a one-million-euro reward for returning the 1918 Act of Independence to Lithuania. The company had been embroiled in a nasty political corruption scandal, so in addition to patriotic fervour, many saw behind the initiative an attempt to purge its reputation.
Be that as it may, a little-known political scientist from Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas shook the nation in spring 2017 by announcing he had discovered the Act in Berlin.
Liudas Mažylis’ quest for the document was as fascinating as it was simple. A history buff, Mažylis later told the media how he decided to spend his holidays looking for Lithuania’s founding document – and Germany’s state archives were a natural place to start.
“I wrote an email to Germany’s state archive, saying which period and which topics I was interested in. I received a list of files they said I should look at – and so I did,” Mažylis explained. “It took me two days.”
He said he had hoped to find a German translation of the document in the archives of Germany’s Foreign Ministry – discovering a Lithuanian copy, too, was a pleasant surprise.
The discovery sent patriotic shiver up many spines, while the rest wondered whether MG Baltic would live up to its million-euro promise. Mažylis assured he wasn’t in it for the reward, while the company pointed out the condition was returning the Act of Independence to Lithuania. Germany would not give away documents from its archive and only agreed to lend it to Lithuania for five years.
MG Baltic used the money it pledged for the discovery to set up a foundation for historical research, while Mažylis became a household name. He would host a TV programme and published a fictionalised account of his quest for Lithuania’s Act of Independence. In 2019, he successfully ran for the European Parliament with the conservative Homeland Union party.
Meanwhile, the Act of Independence is currently exhibited in the House of Signatories in Vilnius, in the same room where it was signed by 20 men 102 years ago.