If you’ve taken a look at the calendar of holidays for Lithuania, you may have noticed two days marked as Lithuanian Independence Day there.
The first Lithuanian independence day falls on February 16 as the Day of Restoration of the State of Lithuania (also known as State Restoration Day).
The second one falls on March 11 and is called the Day of Restitution of Lithuania’s Independence (it is also known as the Day of Restoration of the Independence of Lithuania or the Day of Re-Establishment of Lithuania’s Independence).
In addition, Lithuania celebrates the July 6 Statehood Day, also known as King Mindagas’s Coronation Day.
What’s going on here and why does Lithuania have two independence days as well as a day celebrating its date of gaining statehood?
First, let’s take a brief look at Lithuanian history, particularly with relation to its statehood.
Medieval Lithuania and the Grand Duchy
To do so, we must go back to medieval times. Lithuania was at that time a grand duchy, with powerful dukes presiding over their own swaths of territory, but infighting among ruling parties created opportunity for outside alliances. Mindaugas ruled southern Lithuania and aligned with the Livonian Order of the German Teutonic Knights, promising land and to convert from Baltic paganism to Christianity in exchange for their help in defeating his enemies as well as a kingship.
Mindaugas’s baptism allowed the pope to recognize him as king. He was crowned in 1253, and though the actual date is disputed, Lithuanians celebrate this date on July 6.
It’s likely that Mindaugas returned to pagan worship after his Christian baptism, though he did establish some Christian institutions even while the majority of his subjects clung to their pagan ways. Mindaugas is recognized as Lithuania’s first, last, and only king, the rest of its royalty having the title of grand duke.
July 6 is celebrated as a day off in Lithuania, and in Vilnius, people gather by the Mindaugas Bridge for a ceremony. One very special thing that happens on this day is the collective singing—by Lithuanians all over the world—of the national anthem in their local time zone.
Lithuania’s existence as an independent state ended in 1385, when Lithuania and Poland were joined through the marriage of a Polish queen to a Lithuanian grand duke, and this union led to the two countries officially becoming the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569.
The commonwealth’s demise began in 1772, when the First Partition of Poland occurred when the Russian Empire, Prussia, and Austria began to divide the territory of the commonwealth among themselves. Subsequent partitions, the final in 1795, divided the remaining territories of the commonwealth so that it ceased to exist altogether. The territory of Lithuania became a part of the Russian Empire.
The First Lithuanian Independence Day—Restoration of Independence
It wasn’t until 1918 when Lithuania saw its chance to gain freedom from Russia. Russia and Germany had both been weakened by WWI. Lithuania had long been looking for its opportunity to break free from outside rule, with many nationalist movements having formed over the decades. Germany, however, had occupied the western part of the Russian Empire early in the war, and it hoped that Lithuania and other territories would fall under Germany’s political influence.
Lithuania had other plans, and it declared its first independence with a proclamation with 20 signatures of leading Lithuanians, copies of which were sent to Germany, where newspapers printed the declaration. Germany acknowledged Lithuania’s independence, though it wasn’t until WWI ended and Germany lost that Lithuania was able to form a government.
The 1918 declaration of independence was specific in that it referred to the historic independent state of Lithuania, established with the coronation of Mindaugas, and proclaimed the restoration of this independent state rather than declaring initial statehood, creating continuity with its proud heritage. It is interesting that, for many years, the original declaration was lost, but it has recently been found in German archives and has been loaned for display in Vilnius.
February 16 Independence Day
Today, this Lithuanian independence day is marked by blazing bonfires on Gedimino Avenue, which warm the winter air and help gather people to recognize this first independence day. Lithuania also marks this independence day with a flag-raising ceremony, visits to the graves the signatories in the historic Rasos Cemetery, and concerts and ceremonies. Lithuanians also have a day off. Be sure to take a walk past the House of Signatories on Pilies Street when you’re in Old Town Vilnius to see where it all happened!
The Second Lithuanian Independence Day—Reestablishment of Independence
Not to confuse things, but March 11 is the Day of the Restoration of the State of Lithuania, which is when Lithuania declared its separation from the USSR and the reestablishment of both its original statehood as well as its freedom from the Russian Empire and Germany 72 years before. This is the day in 1990 that Lithuania declared its second independence—from the Soviet Union.
Loss of Independence to the Soviet Union
The Soviet Union had claimed Lithuania—along with Latvia and Estonia—upon the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Act in 1940, which divided the region and its surrounding areas between Nazi Germany and the USSR. While Lithuania’s government was given the veneer of legitimacy, elections were rigged, and the now Communist government requested that Lithuania join the Soviet Union.
Changing Policies and the Baltic Way
Again, Lithuania had to wait for its opportunity. Mikhail Gorbachev’s new policies of openness and restructuring led to the door opening for Lithuania to again declare independence. Support for such an act had been gaining traction in the 1980s, when a softening of attention to protests against the Soviet regime made the Lithuanian movement for independence bolder.
The Baltic Way, the 30th anniversary of which was celebrated in 2019, was a peaceful protest that linked the three Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in a bid for global recognition of their desire for independence.
A New Declaration of Independence
After the 1990 elections in Lithuania, which was still nominally Soviet, the freely elected and non-communist members of government passed the Act on the Re-establishment of the Republic of Lithuania, mentioning the original Act of Independence of 16 February 1918 as a way to assert that it was still legally valid given the historic circumstances that led to its losing independence as a result of WWII.
March 11 Independence Day
March 11, also considered a Lithuanian independence day, is a national holiday in Lithuania, with the three colors of the Lithuanian flag visible as street decorations and on people’s clothing. A ceremony takes place in front of the Parliament building, where the act restoring Lithuania’s independence was signed.
Both Lithuanian Independence days are important to Lithuanian culture, each showing Lithuania’s perseverance in gaining – and gaining back – its sovereignty.