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The New International, June 1938



Russia and the Lithuanian Crisis


From New International, Vol.4 No.6, June 1938, pp.186-187.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


SINCE THE YEAR 1920, when the Polish General Zeligowsky broke the just concluded peace treaty of Suwalki between Poland and Lithuania and occupied one-fourth of the Lithuanian Republic including her capital, Vilna, there have been neither diplomatic, political nor trade relations between the two countries. The “dead” Polish-Lithuanian frontier was always strongly guarded by both sides, and the small frontier traffic, often interrupted for months by the Polish authorities, continued under the most difficult conditions.

While the “Ambassadors’ Conference” recognized the status quo in the Vilna region in 1923, Lithuania never renounced her capital. The protocol of this conference was never recognized by the USSR. In the course of years, the Poles repeatedly made efforts to conclude an agreement with Lithuania on the basis of the status quo. Their efforts nevertheless failed, for even the International Arbitration Court at The Hague declared in 1931 that Lithuania was under no obligation to cultivate any relations with Poland.

This conflict seemed to have become latent and the question of Vilna had shrivelled into a shibboleth of the Lithuanian fascists, when, suddenly, it took on international importance.

How explain it? How explain, above all, that Poland suddenly displays so much interest in the small peasants’ republic of Lithuania, a typical agrarian state? Very suspect is the fact that Poland mobilized a fifth of her entire army, hundreds of airplanes, motorized brigades, etc., allegedly only in order to establish diplomatic relations with Lithuania.

The diplomatic thrust is, however, only the introduction to a new thrust by Poland on the economic, and above all the strategical, field, and only from this standpoint can the totality of the Polish-Lithuanian question be treated.

Lithuania is a typical purely agrarian state, which exports agricultural products in order to be able to import semi-manufactured and finished commodities. Up until 1933-1934, more than 60 percent of Lithuania’s exports went to Germany. But since the sharpening of relations with Germany, because of the Memel district belonging to Lithuania, the latter found herself forced to seek new markets in order to escape the economic exactions of Germany. She oriented her entire foreign trade towards England, which now receives more than 50 percent of the exports. Since Poland is in part also an agrarian state, her exports to Lithuania could never be substantial nor could they interest her in the slightest. Always much more important for Poland was the question of the outlet to the sea. While the Polish Corridor, with the Polish port of Gdynia, allows Poland an outlet to the Baltic Sea, the growing military might of the Hitler regime makes ever more problematic the length of time that this region will continue to belong to Poland.

Lithuania posseses a 56-mile-long stretch of the Baltic coast, including the port of Klaipeda (Memel) and the fishing port of Sventoji. Memel was built up strongly in recent years so that it now shows a comparatively large turnover in goods. In addition, there is the possibility of building up and expanding the fishing port of Sventoji.

The connection between the inland and the coast is completely satisfactory, thanks to the new Kretinga-Telsai railroad line and the Memel-Kaunas autombile highway now under construction, and busines can easily be multiplied. Likewise, Lithuania lies on the road from Poland to the two splendidly constructed Latvian ports, Libau (Liepaja) and Riga. In other words, the establishment of diplomatic relations with Lithuania signifies for Poland, hitherto dependent upon Gdynia, access to the ports named.

The rich Polish forest regions lie on the upper courses of the rivers Nemunas and Neris (Vilija), flowing through Lithuania. Poland would like to extend her forest riches, but cannot, for timber cutting is notoriously unprofitable unless the transportation of the wood takes place along waterways and not on expensive railway lines.

The second question – Lithuania’s strategical significance – plays by far the greatest role in the Polish-Lithuanian conflict. As the southernmost of the three Baltic republics (Esthonia, Latvia, Lithuania), Lithuania has a common border with Germany and Poland. Before the occupation of the Vilna region, Lithuania also bordered on the Soviet Union, but since after 1921 she has been separated from Russia by a comparatively narrow corridor.

In case of war with Germany, Russia can march into Lithuania in less than 12 hours and from there directly threaten East Prussia. Kaunas is in fact scarcely an hour and a half by airplane from Minsk. But should the Soviet Union have to fight a war against Germany-Poland, it has the possibility of developing the front line roughly in the direction of Memel-Grodno-Byalostok. The advantages of such a front are the following:

  1. the struggle is conducted on foreign soil;
  2. the actual frontiers of Germany are directly threatened;
  3. the march on Warsaw lies straight in the direction of this front.

For a long time the Soviet Union recognized this and counted strongly on it. Thus, for example, she has had a non-aggression pact with Lithuania since 1927 and always the best diplomatic relations.

In recent years much has been said in Lithuania about certain strategical highways, the arming and equipping of the Lithuanian Army, the construction of barracks and airports, being subsidized by the Soviet Union. Just how true this is cannot be exactly established.

In the Winter of 1937, when the head of the Russian General Staff, the “fascist agent” who now sits behind lock and key, Yegorov, took a trip through the Baltic countries, he remained longest in Kaunas, where he was received with great pomp. At all times the relations between the Lithuanian and the Red General Staffs were most cordial.

It is generally known that Germany and Poland have sought for years to bring together all the countries bordering on the Soviet Union into a powerful anti-Soviet bloc. This coalition was to extend from the once philo-Hitlerite Finland, through the Baltic states, through Poland and Rumania, down to the Black Sea. This front, some 2,000 miles long, was to seal the USSR hermetically from Central and Western Europe and thus heighten the chances of a capitalist intervention in Russia. In recent times, the only ones missing in this alliance were the Baltic states, for Rumania now stands closer to the Rome-Berlin axis than to France and the Little Entente. Latvia and Esthonia were already inclined to join this bloc, but bound to Lithuania through the Baltic Entente, they were compelled to take into consideration Lithuania’s foreign policy and especially Lithuania’s relations to the USSR.

In recent months, however, Poland conducted an extremely energetic diplomatic offensive in Riga and Tallin (Reval) and, it must be recognized, not without success. She succeeded in improving the relations between Poland, on the one side, and Latvia-Esthonia, on the other, to such an extent that some began to count even upon an eventual alliance between the countries named. But it was not only a closer collaboration with Poland, but a quite concrete drawing closer to the bloc of the fascist countries in Europe: Germany-Italy-Poland. This is evidenced also by the visit which the Latvian Foreign Minister, Munters, recently paid to Rome, where he was received with open arms. Now, only Lithuania was still missing from this chain, an extremely important link, for in league with Russia it could be and would be a bastion of the Red Army. But this might bring the front, in case of war, uncomfortably close to the actual territory of the Reich and of Warsaw. But if Lithuania were an ally and not an opponent, then, again in case of war, it would be an easy matter to attack Leningrad through Lithuania-Latvia-Esthonia and to shut off the USSR hermetically from the Baltic Sea and from Central and Western Europe.

It cannot be accidental that the border incident on the Lithuanian-Polish frontier should occur right on the day of the march of German troops into Austria and of the Italian offensive in Spain. Just as little an accident can it be that precisely this time the border incident should be snatched up politically and not before this; that it was right at that time that Beck, after a visit to Hitler, went to Italy, whence this Foreign Minister of a 30-millioned state suddenly hastened to Warsaw in order to put an ultimatum to a tiny 2 millioned state.

The Polish ultimatum was couched extremely categorically. The sense is clear: Lithuania will first be compelled to establish diplomatic relations with Poland, then to associate herself with Poland’s policy, etc., assuming that, following the example of Austria, she does not lose her independence together with Czechoslovakia. Possibly she will be exchanged by Hitler for Posen and West Prussia. The military offensive against Prague will probably be coordinated with the occupation of Lithuania by Poland.

And what did the Soviet Union do when she saw her line of defense threatened?

She simply made it known through her envoy in Kaunas that while she was filled with sympathy for Lithuania, she could not intervene at the moment.

Whereas the USSR had never declared herself in agreement with the robbery of Vilna, she now deemed it possible to swallow the restoration of “diplomatic” relations between Poland and Lithuania, which had been preceded by an unheard-of military demonstration. With that the Soviet Union only covers up her flat capitulation, her weakness before the aggressive fascist states. Naturally, nobody can put the question in such a manner that Russia should have acted with military force in this case and brought the Red Army into play. No, it would have sufficed completely if the USSR had adopted an energetic position, testifying to her self-respect. But in order to intervene energetically, she would have to cease being absorbed by a creeping civil war in the “land of socialism”; it would have to count upon a genuine Communist International which, by its revolutionary behavior, could call an energetic “Halt!” to the plans for annexation and dominance of German-Polish fascism. But are the present-day mercenaries of the Third International, corrupted by the ravages of Stalinism, capable of appealing for the revolutionary action of the toilers? Have they not allowed themselves to be degraded to the level of spies and provocateurs of the GPU?

The fascist Lithuanian government, which oppresses the toiling masses, and which is the only factor the Soviet government counts upon, is unable to do anything but fling itself into the arms of the stronger.

It is indeed out of the question that Stalin could summon the toilers to an independent revolutionary action, to the defense of the USSR, when he is murdering revolutionists by the thousands right behind the frontier!

This sinister policy is, however, only the result of “socialism in a single country”, which, instead of strengthening the Soviet Union, has only lead to her enfeeblement and isolation.

Hence the most important task of the Lithuanian section of the Fourth International, like that of all other sections, is not only the enlightenment of the masses on the counter-revolutionary policy of Stalin, but also the preparation for the defense of the only workers’ state in the world – the Soviet Union.

Kaunas, April 1938

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