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IWP alumna on Poland-Lithuania relations

The following is a speech given at the Kosciuszko Chair Conference in May of 2011 at The Institute of World Politics, Washington, D.C., by IWP alumna Lucie Adamski.

One hears much nowadays about the altercations between Lithuania and Poland. This should be contextualized for the modern day quarrels detract from a glorious past of the two nations. And history holds the key to resolving the problem.

Beginning in the XIII century the Teutonic Knights slaughtered the Old Baltic Prussians under the guise of converting them to Christianity.  In this way the whole people disappeared, only their name remained, being appropriated by the German colonizers who arrived from the West.  The Teutonic Knights were brutal.  They claimed that any means were acceptable in the pursuit of their end of conversion.  In this way they enriched themselves on Prussian lands and possessions and raided, raped and then killed the whole population.  Once the Prussians were eliminated the Order set its sights on the last remaining pagans of Europe, the Samogitian tribe, also known as the Lithuanians.  At the 11th hour the Lithuanians were peaceably converted to Christianity through the marriage of Jagiello to Jadwiga and the long partnership of Poland and Lithuania against the Teutonic incursions began. 

Pawel Wlodkowicz was a Polish legal scholar and monk who represented Poland against the Teutonic Order at the Council of Constance in 1414.  Wlodkowicz claimed that the Teutonic method of conversion was heretical, and anyone who supported it was also a heretic.  Forcible integration of a people into the Christian family was a sin of the gravest degree.  Because the Order’s methods were so contrary to the spirit of Christianity they could never affect true conversion.  Means and ends must be consonant insisted Wlodkowicz.  To try to force a man to change his identity defeats its own purpose because it hardens the hearts of those it wishes to convert against the message of Christianity.  It is also to disobey God who commanded his children to preach and not to convert.  Conversion is possible only through free will and God’s grace. 

Wlodkowicz advocated only one method for integration of pagans to the Christian community, and that was through a combination of love and freedom.  Because man has free will he cannot be forcibly integrated or converted to anything at all.  He can only be convinced.  His reason and his will must be appealed to partly through good arguments, but chiefly through example.  For Wlodkowicz this could only be done by sending missionaries to live among the people and proving through their own good example of the life that Christ commands the superiority and truth of the Christian way of life. 

This historical beginning of the Lithuanian and Polish relations and the philosophy of Wlodkowicz are relevant for today’s discussion on the mounting tensions between these very same states.

Though today’s quarrels do not pertain to religion, Wlodkowicz had a very keen insight into human beings that we must keep in mind for our own analysis.  Wlodkowicz recognized that man is defined by his free will.  As the history of both the Polish and Samogitian people under the Soviet yoke well proves, you can enslave a man, but you cannot forcibly convert him, integrate him, or change his identity.  Man is incredibly resilient in this way and resists that which is forced upon him.  The Samogitians especially, despite being a small people and having lost their statehood to the behemoth of the USSR, resisted ‘sovietization’ with great energy.  This is not to say that forcible and especially violent attempts at conversion to either a religion or an ideological creed does not have an effect on a people, because it does of course.  But that effect is rarely the one that the converters hope for.  Man is affected first and foremost by his imagination, that is to say, his understanding of the world, of what is right and wrong, just and unjust.  When a people’s identity is changed by design the effect on the imagination is always deforming.  The natural development of culture and identity through the historical process is ruptured and though the people will resist being saddled with a foreign identity, the very act of resistance will warp them.

Today the Poles living in Lithuania fear that they are being forcibly integrated into Samogitian culture through the undermining of Polish culture by the Lithuanian centralized state.   This is due to recent events regarding both Polish spelling and education. We must explain these two issues in at least a cursory way before proceeding.

First, Poles are not permitted to maintain the integrity of their own names and must change their names in official documentation to a Lithuanian version. 

Our names represent our heritage, our culture, our identity.   They are our link to our past, and the legacy we hand down to the future.  I will use my own name as an example. My name reflects both my Polish and French heritage.  My first name Lucie is from an ancestor of my mother’s.  My middle name Marianna is a combination of my Polish great grandmothers’ names Maria and Anna, both of whom my family loved and wished to honor by naming me after them.  And finally my last name, Adamska is from my Polish family and represents much of my identity which I draw from my admiration and love of my grandfather.  Let me illustrate what the Lithuanian policy would mean if the same measure were adopted in the US.  If such a law were adopted here every part of my name would be illegal.  Lucie would be changed to reflect American spelling with a Y (Lucy), Marianna would be changed to reflect American versions of these names and it would be changed to Mary-Anne and my last name would be changed to mean son of Adam or Adamson.  I would be forced to be Lucy Mary-Anne Adamson.  This complete denial of my right to name myself as I please, to honor my tradition and my family, and to signal my heritage through my name is an offense to freedom so great that it seems infantile and petty to Americans.  In this country, for better or worse, you can name your child whatever you wish and spell it however you please.  In Lithuania everyone must be appropriated into Lithuanian or be considered illegal.

It is hard to believe in Lithuanian goodwill toward its minority Poles when it insists on controlling their lives and denying them cultural expression to such a degree.

The second issue tarnishing Polish relations is the encroachment of the Lithuanian state into Polish education.  The history of Vilnus/Wilno is complicated.  However, its rise as a city is undeniably and inextricably tied to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and its population was mostly Polish and Jewish until quite recently.  Let’s quickly go over the numbers:

  • 1897:  (The first year for which census numbers exist)
    •  Jews 40% 
    • Poles 31%  
    • Russians, Belorussians, and Ukrainians 25%
    • Lithuanians 2%
    • other 2%
  • 1916: (19 years later)
    • Poles 54%,
    • Jews 41%  
    • Lithuanians 2%,
    • Other 2%
  • 1923: (7 years later)
    • Poles 60%
    • Jews 33%
    • 7% other
  • 1931: (9 years later)
    • Poles 66%  
    • Jews 28%  
    • Russians and Belarusians 5%
    • Lithuanians and other 1%
  • 2001: (70 years later)
    • 58%  Lithuanians,
    • 19% Poles,
    • 14% Russians,
    • 4% Belarusians,
    • 1.3% Ukrainians and
    • 0.5% Jews;

As these numbers show, until very recently Vilnius has been a Jewish and Polish city.  This historic Polish population, which has lived in Vilnius since its earliest days, wishes to control the education of its children.  They would like that education to be in Polish.  A country which was confident about its identity would not be threatened by the existence of this minority.  A confident country would embrace this as a consequence of history.  It would celebrate the vibrant diversity of its people.

Legally speaking, a friendship treaty between Poland and Lithuania is supposed to ensure the freedom to education in one’s own language for the respective minority populations in each country.  Lithuania is undermining this right in three ways.


  • They are using a reduction in country-side population as impetus to close half of all Polish school in Lithuania.  There are currently 120 Polish schools educating the minority Polish students.  After July there will only be 60. 
  • In any location where new and more rational class size quotas are not met for both a Lithuanian and a Polish school, the Polish school will close. 
  • For example, if the new requirements state that a school must have at least 500 enrolled students, and in one town the Lithuanian school has 50 students, the Polish school has 400 students, the Polish school will be closed and the children will be forced to attend a Lithuanian school
  • Subjects pertaining in any way to Lithuanian history, geography or culture must be taught in Lithuanian, in practice this means that this subject will be taught by Lithuanian teachers. This seems to indicate that the Lithuanians do not trust the Poles to teach these subjects.  They would like to control the historical record concerning the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, and perhaps also the Polish-Soviet and Lithuanian-Soviet wars of the interwar period.
  • Finally, as in many countries in Europe, Lithuania has a comprehensive exam at the end of high school.  This exam counts both toward graduation from high school and the chances of admission to University.  Until now the expectation for Poles’ during the Lithuanian language part of the exam was slightly less demanding than that for Lithuanians.  In 3 years Polish students will be expected to take the same exam, and will be graded according to the same standards as Lithuanian students.  This in effect requires Polish students to speak in Lithuanian at the same proficiency as Lithuanian students.  This being highly unlikely, will make it more difficult for Polish students to succeed, and some have suggested that the purpose of this clause is to limit the disproportionately high number of Polish students who are admitted to Lithuanian universities. 

Lithuania claims that these measures are being taken for the Poles’ own good.  The Poles are disadvantaged in society because of an inadequate knowledge of Lithuanian and the state must rectify this disadvantage by forcing homogeneity.  Tyranny cloaks itself most often in sentimental good will.  Well organized minorities are a threat to any centralized state, because large groups of people who are well organized can mount a concerted defense against the policies of a state.  Alexis de Tocqueville was right to recognize voluntary associations in the United States as perhaps the most important guarantor of liberty for Americans.  When a state begins to dismantle and attack these associations it is because it is threatened by them.  For when man is stripped of his community structure, of his group organization, then he stands naked before an all-powerful state, with very little recourse to resist it. We cannot help but wonder why the Lithuanian state has felt so threatened by its minority.  We cannot help but wonder what it plans to do once its minority has been stripped of its power to resist as a group.  After so much bloodshed in the last century in Eastern Europe, one cannot help but feel saddened that even now we cannot accept each other and let our neighbors and their Diasporas live in peace. 

Much of the animosity of the Lithuanians today against Poland is due to the perception that during the era of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth Lithuania suffered from Polonization.  Today a strong nationalistic Lithuanian element claims that inside its own borders there is a danger of a renewed Polonization because of the Polish minority.  They fear a contamination of their own culture or its undermining by the existence of a different culture within its borders.  They want to protect themselves against the danger of Polonization.  They think they can do this by forcing Poles to abandon their Polish culture. 

Lithuanian claims that they were victims of Polonization are inflated.  We know that the ‘Polonization’ of Lithuania was not orchestrated from above by Warsaw or any other center of Polish power.  Rather it was an act of goodwill by the Polish nobility to accept the Lithuanian nobility into its ranks.  The Polish nobility, enjoying greater freedom and a more highly developed culture, sought to raise their Lithuanian counterparts up.  They were offered accession into Polish nobility.  Having been granted access to something they wished to be part of, the Lithuanian nobility began speaking Polish and thinking of themselves as Poles. 

Herein lies the crux of the matter.  Being a Pole, just like being an American, is not a distinction of blood.  Any who were willing to adhere to the virtues and ideals of freedom loving Poland could be ‘Polish’.  They were united in spirit and eventually in language.  Poles historically were not ethno-nationalists.  As evidence of this they most often elected as their Kings men and women of non-Polish blood.  Be it Hungarians, Frenchmen, or the long and successful and still beloved and celebrated Lithuanian Jagiello dynasty. 

Lithuania has, however, imbibed the ethno-national identitarian politics of modernity that are the result of a long march toward centralization and homogenization. 

The Partitions of Poland-Lithuania at the end of the 18th century, which marked the end of the Polish Lithuanian commonwealth, coincided with the rise of centralized monarchies elsewhere in Europe.  Previous to this centralization, local loyalties naturally lay with the local nobility.  Desirous of more power, the increasingly absolutist kings began undermining the power of local lords.  One method was to destroy intermediary associations.  Those things which impeded loyalty to the central authorities were undermined.  Thus the nobility was relieved of its historic responsibility to the people.  The church was relieved of its services to the community.  More and more man was made to depend upon and look to the centralized authority as its protector and savior.  More and more the rationale for a state had to be based upon blood and membership in an undifferentiated mass.

After the French revolution the levee in masse was the new paradigm for state organization.  Loyalty to blood and ethnicity began to rise.  The deracinated individual was expected to be loyal to and integrated in the national identity.  States that depend on blood to define themselves are necessarily threatened by differentiations within their populations.  Split loyalties challenge the very logic of the whole.  Lithuania has fallen victim to what Robert Nisbet calls the ‘quest for community.’  Having lost its traditional organizing structures in small communities the nation attempts to create a mass community.  Its entire legitimacy is based on loyalty to the whole, which is most often understood racially.

Lithuania is a tiny country.  There are barely 3 million Lithuanians.  What is worse, a new census shows that in the last ten years the Lithuanian population has declined by a radical 10 percent.  Declining birth rates and high emigration are a ticking time bomb for this country. 

A quick anecdote: In the summer of 2008 I traveled to Kruszyniany, a small town outside of Bialystok in Poland.  In 1679 the Polish king Jan III Sobieski gave this town to the commander of Tatar regiment Samuel Murza Krzeczkowski.  In addition to the town, the King commissioned the locals to build a Mosque in anticipation of the new inhabitants and in respect of their religion.  The Mosque, which looks like a wooden church crowned with Crescents because the towns people only knew of one type of house of worship, was accepted by the Tatars graciously and is used to this day. 

While I was there a young Tatar gave me a tour of this mosque.  He showed me the cemetery where his ancestors are buried according to Muslim tradition with their heads pointing toward Mecca; their tombstones written in Arabic or sometimes in Arabic and Polish.  He spoke slightly accented but perfect Polish.  I asked him how he identified himself.  He answered in no uncertain terms that he was a Pole.  A Pole of Tatar descent, but first a Pole.  He told me that his whole community agreed to this identification. 

Poland treats her minorities, be they Germans, Ukrainians, Vietnamese, Chinese, or Lithuanians, with the same degree of respect.  Minorities are officially given representation in the Polish Sejm, they are given all the freedom to spell their names as they like and teach their children in the language they like.  And in this way its minorities come to adopt Poland as their home.  They love Poland and feel themselves to be Poles.  They do it with an open heart and with free will.  As Pawel Wlodkowicz knew hundreds of years ago there is no other way to create true peace between people or to assimilate populations.  If Lithuanians want Poles to integrate into their society they must demonstrate that theirs is a society worthy of adoption.  Until then, the Poles will only cling to their Polish identity more tightly.  They will weather this authoritarian attack on their identity as they weathered that of the Russians, the Soviets, and the Germans before them. 

The very survival of Lithuania depends upon its ability to define itself in a way that is not racially based.  If it can find a way to open its heart to its minority populations, to treat them like true brothers, to grant them dignity, then their minority populations will become Lithuanian.  Perhaps still Lithuanian of Polish or Russian descent, but Lithuanian none the less.  This is the only method that has ever worked, and it was and is wildly successful in both Poland and America. 

In this very room there is an enormous testament to this truth.  Poles are the fastest assimilating minority in America.  In one generation we love our adopted country as well as we love Poland.  This is because here we are free to be whomever we choose.  When people ask me about my identity I tell them I am 50% French and 50% Polish and 100% American.  They all seem to understand.  There is no contradiction here.

One more anecdote: My whole youth I marched in the May 3rd Polish Constitution Day parade through Chicago.  The whole city mobilized for this event.  Major roads in the heart of the city were closed, streets were decorated, Chicago Police were called to redirect traffic, Polish flags were raised along with American ones at official city buildings, all of these were arrangements made and paid for by the city of Chicago.  In America we are encouraged to celebrate our traditions and roots. 

A few days ago I watched a video of a young Lithuanian student not older than myself.  She gave a speech before some members of the Lithuanian parliament during which time she expressed her genuine horror at the fact that the Polish minority celebrated Polish national holidays in Lithuania.  For her, this enormous breach of loyalty to Lithuania was unforgivable.  The possibility of a person having loyalty to both his historic homeland and his adopted new home never crossed her mind.  Unless this attitude can be radically reversed there is no hope for the integration of the Polish minority in Lithuania. 

If Lithuania could understand why its ancestors rejected the conversions of the Teutonic Order and why Pawel Wlodkowicz was right, then they would find the answer to their enormous problems.  Means and ends must be consonant.  If the Lithuanians want to the conversion and integration of the Poles they can only do it by appealing to their free will.  They can only do it by convincing the Poles that the Lithuanian culture is one of freedom and respect, one that they should adopt.

As for the Poles, they should not let the actions of Lithuania affect their own policies.  Poland was and must continue to be a bastion of freedom in central Europe.  That which the Russians call the ‘Polish disease’ is the disease of freedom.  The legacy of Pawel Wlodkowicz should not be forgotten.  If Poland remains free then the people of the world will continue to flock to her shores.  Her national identity will be strengthened by diversity and improved by greater interaction with other cultures.  Perhaps with time and luck Lithuania will see that there is nothing to fear from her Polish minority. 

Pawel Wlodkowicz was a man ahead of his time.  He foresaw that the crushing structure of the Church and State of the Middle Ages, that too often denied man the dignity of the exercise of his free will, would eventually lead to disintegration.  He was right, and the Reformation, which was inspired largely by a call for more faith in the critical spirit of individual man, divided the Christian and European world, perhaps forever.  Stripping man of his free associations so that he can be more easily molded to the desires of authority, regardless of his free will, can end only in the eventual disintegration of that coercing authority.  Man’s free will is a fundamental truth that no government policy can change, and the successful ones embrace.