During the Middle Ages, Lithuania was transformed from a small duchy into the largest state in Europe. In 1386 a union with Poland was formed by royal marriage, but the 1795 partition of Poland resulted in the division of Lithuania between Russia and Prussia. From 1915 the territory was occupied by the German army fighting the Russians.
The Russian-German truce of 15 December 1917 followed the Russian Revolution of November 1917. During this period of peace on the Eastern Front, Lithuania proclaimed independence from Russia on 16 February 1918. The Bolsheviks immediately attempted to invade, but were repulsed by German forces. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of 3 March 1918 formally ended the fighting. With the German surrender on 11 November 1918, German forces began to withdraw from Lithuania and another Bolshevik invasion was mounted. The poorly trained and ill-equipped Lithuanian army was unable to prevent the capture of the capital city, Vilnius, on 5 January 1919.
The capture of Vilnius by the Bolsheviks brought Poland into the war on the Lithuanian side – the Poles also had claims on the city. With Polish help the Russians were driven from the country. The USSR recognised Lithuania by the Treaty of Moscow on 12 July 1920, which also ceded Vilnius to Lithuania. The Lithuanians took control of Vilnius on 26 August 1920, but they were now fighting Poland for control of the city. On 7 October 1920 fighting ceased when a treaty was signed giving Vilnius to Lithuania. Two days later the Poles reneged on the treaty and seized the city and it’s surrounding area – about one third of Lithuanian territory. A cold war existed between Lithuania and Poland until December 1927.
On 11 January 1923 the predominantly German seaport of Memel (Klaipeda in Lithuanian) was occupied by Lithuanian troops, after being under League of Nations control since 1919. The democratic constitution adopted in 1922 was overthrown in a military coup on 17 December 1926. In the Spring of 1939, Memel and the surrounding territory was annexed by the resurgent Nazi Germany.
Under the 23 August 1939 Russian-German Non-Aggression Pact, Lithuania was initially assigned to German control, but this was later changed to Russia. Following the defeat of Poland by Germany in September 1939, Lithuania was forced to accept a mutual assistance treaty with the USSR, which allowed for the stationing of Soviet troops on Lithuanian territory. On 15 June 1940 Lithuania was invaded and occupied by Soviet troops. Soviet-style elections were organised and the resulting communist parliament applied for membership of the Soviet Union. This was granted on 3 August 1940 as the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic.
On 22 June 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Lithuania was occupied by Nazi Germany 1941-44, during which time almost a quarter of a million people were killed. In 1944 the Soviet Red Army retook the territory and re-imposed control. Many thousands of nationalist sympathisers were deported or killed. In January 1945 Memel was captured by Soviet troops and re-incorporated into Lithuanian territory.
During the post-war years the country was industrialised, but opposition groups later took advantage of increased openness, under Soviet leader M. Gorbachev to press for independence. The Lithuanian Supreme Soviet proclaimed sovereignty in May 1989, and on 11 March 1990 declared full independence and adopted the country’s current name. Soviet Interior Ministry troops were ordered to occupy communist party buildings, and a trade embargo was imposed by the USSR.
The Lithuanians postponed the implementation of independence in favour of talks with Moscow.
When the talks broke down, on 13 January 1991 Soviet troops began attacking and occupying further buildings in Vilnius – resulting in at least 14 people being killed. A referendum on independence was overwhelmingly approved in February 1991, and continued clashes with Soviet troops led to more deaths.
After the failure of the Soviet coup in August, the USSR recognised Lithuanian independence on 6 September 1991. The withdrawal of Soviet troops from the country began in March 1992 and was completed by 31 August 1993. In November 2002 Lithuania was invited to join NATO, and it formally joined on 2 April 2004.