Vilnius.info - History of Vilnius

Vilnius has a long and complicated history. Two nations – Poland and Lithuania claimed the city, and two powerful states Russia and Germany tried to include Vilnius and its area in their empires. 1387- 1500 Vilnius received the city rights from the Grand Duke of Lithuania Jogaila in 1387. It has been originally a Lithuanian town, but as the Polish-Lithuanian Union (since 1385) grew to the most powerful state in this part of Europe, Vilnius also grew rapidly becoming multicultural, vibrant, rich through crafts and commerce town. Among the newcomers were Polish and German craftsmen and Jewish refugees from persecutions in the West of Europe.

1500 - 1795
During the 16 th century Vilnius became the important city in this part of Europe. The town grew rapidly. It has been surrounded by the defensive walls with nine gates. The Gate of Dawn is the only remaining today. Vilnius became the center of the Polish-Lithuanian Union when in 1544 King of Poland and the Grand Duke of Lithuania Sigismundus II Augustus established his court here. In the years to follow thousands of houses were built. Most of them remain until today. Vilnius was at the end of the 18th century the 3 rd biggest city in the Eastern Europe, with the important university (est. 1597) and a vibrant center of Jewish culture.

1795 – 1915
In 1795, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth has been finally partitioned between Russia, Austria and Prussia. Vilnius became a capital of the Russian governorship and remained as such until 1915, with the short episode for the Napoleon’s Russian Campaign. In 1812, Napoleon conquered the city and when his army was retreating from the failed Moscow campaign, tried to defend the town against the Russians. 80 000 French soldiers remained buried in Vilnius and its region.

The inhabitants of Vilnius fought in all patriotic uprisings of Poland against Russia in the 19 th century. Several important figures to the Polish national identity, as the National poet of Poland Adam Mickiewicz and the first leader of the independent Polish state after 1918 Józef Piłsudski were born in the Vilnius region and later studied and lived in Vilnius.

Throughout the 19 th century Vilnius grew as the city, becoming an important cultural centre. Its Jewish population grew even quicker because of the anti-Jewish restrictions introduced inside Russia. Vilnius became e real centre for the Yiddish language, often called by East European Jewry Second Jerusalem or Jerusalem of Lithuania (Yerushalayim de-Lita). Most of the Jewish population was very poor. Increasing unemployment led at the end of the 19 th c. and the beginning of the 20 th c. to a large-scale emigration to the United States, as well as to the beginnings of the emigration to Palestine.

1915 – 1919
During the World War I, Vilnius was occupied by the army of the German Empire for almost four years, from 1915 until the end of 1918. An attempt was made to create several German administrated Baltic states, basing on the local German population living in this part of Europe. Large German military cemetery in Vilnius reminds the visitor about these failed ambitions.

1919 - 1939
After the WWI and the capitulation of Germany, Vilnius was the most important point of conflict between Poland and Lithuania. Most of the city population has been Polish (ca 65%). Other nationalities in Vilnius were Jews (ca 30%), Russians, Germans, Ukrainians and a very small percentage of Lithuanians. Polish army took Vilnius by force and conducted parliamentary elections in the city and its region. The population voted for the parliament, which united Vilnius and its region with Poland (1922). Lithuanians believed the only fair election should be conducted in the whole of Lithuania. Life in Vilnius of that time flourished. A number of new factories as well as growing production of lumber from the local forests were moving the economy forward. University and the cultural life in the city influenced the whole region.

1939 – 1944
At the very beginning of the WWII, Soviet Union collaborating with the Nazi Germany invaded Vilnius with other territories of Eastern Poland on September 19, 1939, less then three weeks after the war started. Poland fighting much stronger enemy in the West was not able to defend itself from the East. On October 10, 1939 the city and its surrounding areas were transferred to then German ally - Lithuania. Lithuanian authorities entered Vilnius and began its rule by closing the university and making all cultural life in the city impossible. Only a year later Vilnius with the rest of Lithuania has been again annexed by the Soviet Union for a short, but marked with bloody persecutions of Polish intelligentsia period of violent terror (1940-1941). On June 24, 1941, the army of Nazi Germany army invading Soviet Union entered Vilnius. Persecution of Vilnius Jewish population began. In the old town centre two ghettos were set up for the 100 000 of Jewish population from Vilnius and its region. Jewish ghetto uprising on September 1, 1943, was only a symbolic and dramatic gesture of protest – both Vilnius ghettos were destroyed, their population murdered. Polish population was also persecuted with an estimated 30 000 killed, mostly POW´s, member of intelligentsia, resistance fighters. The war destroyed more than a third of the Vilnius buildings, but almost all architectural treasures survived the war. Only the ghettos with the important Great Synagogue were destroyed.

1944 – 1991
Vilnius was liberated in July 1944 by the Polish Home Army together with the Red Army. Soviet authorities within days disarmed Polish forces, arrested and sent to Gulag its fighters and decided to move 2 millions of Poles living in Vilnius and its region to Poland in its new borders. Most of the inhabitants of Vilnius had to leave the city, virtually destroying for decennia its way of life and its culture. Many of the Poles who decided to stay in the city were arrested and sent to gulags or resettled to Siberia for a certain death. New vast areas of Vilnius were constructed. Vilnius experienced a big influx of population from the rural Lithuania and from Russia.

Until 1990 Vilnius has been the capital of the Soviet Republic of Lithuania. Since the beginning of the 70-ties of the past century, an effort has been made to preserve and restore its monuments. During these works, not always professional, many of the old building were wrongly restored, traces of their religious past removed.

Since 1987 there were big demonstrations in Vilnius demanding independence of Lithuania. On March 11, 1990, the Supreme Council of the Lithuanian Soviet Republic announced the independence from the Soviet Union and proclaimed the independent Republic of Lithuania. But in the January of 1991 a short but violent Soviet Army intervention took Vilnius. Fourteen unarmed Lithuanian demonstrators, part of them young women, were killed by the Soviet soldiers during this independence protest. Finally on Sept. 6, 1991 the Soviet Union formally recognized the independence of Lithuania.

Today
Today Vilnius is a capital of Lithuania, EU member state, and Vilnius is a quiet tourist city welcoming its visitors.