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View from Lithuania – Part I: Lithuania, a Haven of Tolerance

Amy E. Smith

Norman Davies, author of God’s Playground a History of Poland, is chair of the history department with the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, at the University of London. Davies regards Lithuania as forming Europe’s “prime haven of tolerance.”

This first article written by Amy E. Smith, an American student living in Vilnius, Lithuania, introduces a new serie of papers “View from Lithuania”, one of the new EU Member states.

According to the French National Geographical Institute , the centre of Europe is about 20km north of Vilnius; according to Norman Davies, the centre of European tolerance in the 1400’s, lies here as well. At its furthest extent the realm of Lithuania stretched all the way from the Baltic to the Black Sea, encompassing numerous cultures. Despite the differences, people coexisted with relative ease. The roots of this fact can be traced back through a series of steps in history.

Here’s how:

1253 During Mindaugas’ rule, he managed to establish a stable state comprised of peoples of varied ethnicity and religious confessions. 

1323 Gediminas established Vilnius as the capital of Lithuania. 

1385 Lithuania grew immensely after its ruler Grand Duke Jogaila married Queen Jadwiga of Poland and concluded in a personal union with Lithuania and Poland. Lithuania and Poland, under united rule, began to Christianize people according to the rules laid out by Pawel Wlodkowic. Their marriage enabled the Christianization of Lithuania and the final defeat of the Teutonic Knights.

1386 Grand Duke Jogaila began to remove the outward symbols of the pagan religion. He instructed the people in Christianity and mass baptisms were preformed.

1387 The foundation of the bishopric in Vilnius took place.

1400’s The Eastern Europe of the fourteenth century, continued to steadily grow more peaceful. There were several distinct nationalities in the territory, including Russians, Lithuanians, Poles and Jews. Only the Roman Catholics had less freedom of worship, due to their association with the crusaders.

1500’s Catholicism was the main religion during this time, but there was a great openness toward other religions in Lithuania. As the great military leader Jan Tarnowski stated, “this is not a question of religion; it is a question of liberty.” This openness concerned also the non-Christian religions. Muslims were also widely tolerated.

1569 By the Union of Lublin, Poland and Lithuania became united constitutionally: “the Commonwealth of Good Will…. Free Men with Free. Equal with Equal.” The Lithuanian and Ruthenian (Belorussian and Ukrainian) elites joined their Polish equivalents in the parliament and government administration of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

1573 The Parliament in Warsaw passed the Act of Toleration. This Act ensured that there would be no suppression of any Christian denomination. Protestants and Catholics were to work in harmony for the greater glory of the Commonwealth.

1592 The Jewish community in Poland organized itself on an autonomous basis with its own-quasi parliament, The Council of Three Lands, responsible only to the King. Lithuania became haven for Jews escaping slaughter and persecution all over Western Europe.

1650 The population and diversity continued to grow. Lithuanians made up only around one-third of the total population of an estimated 3 million people. Slavs, Germans, Jews, Poles, Tatars and Karaites composed the remaining two-thirds. The diversity of peoples, faiths and political convictions were more and more resistant to centralized administration.

1800’s Vilnius was known as the “Jerusalem of the North.” In the 18th century it was celebrated for the presence of the “Vilna Gaon.”

1890 The power of the Commonwealth dissipated and the country was partitioned between Russia, Prussia, and Austria. This was largely the end of the original, indigenous legal and political thought. Afterward, this type of contribution from the Polish-Lithuanian Union, to the human heritage, was mostly limited to the romantic slogan, “For our freedom and yours.”

1900’s The city contained 96 synagogues before World War Two. Today only one remains.

Vilnius has always been a prominent intellectual centre, thereby attracting foreigners from all over the world. Today it continues to play the role. In Davies most recent book, God’s Playground a History of Poland Part II, he states, “Throughout nearly all its history, Lithuania was more tolerant of Jews and other minorities then most of the neighbouring areas. The Pogroms which disfigured so much of Tsarist Russia were hardly known in Lithuania. The capital, Vilnius, was a safe haven of toleration in which Poles, Lithuanians, Russians and Jews lived side by side (1400’s).”

Davies wasn’t the only one who took notice of this. Erasmus of Rotterdam is quoted as stating, “I congratulate this nation (Lithuania) which now, in sciences, jurisprudence, morals, and religion, and in all that separates us from barbarism, is so flourishing that it can rival the first and most glorious of nations.”

Today Vilnius faces a new wave of foreigners and Lithuanians will once again face this age old issue of tolerance. If history plays a part, we can expect that Vilnius will continue to be a growing international centre.

– Part II –


Amy E. Smith

Vilnius (Lithuania)