Kestutis Kilinskas: The Interwar Military Forces of Lithuania as a Window into Imperial Legacy and Tradition

My research deals with the military forces of interwar Lithuania (1918 – 1940). I look at military forces from two methodological perspectives: a) military forces as a state institution; and b) military forces as group of society. The first view is more useful to research military institution types, their positions in the state and relations with other state institutions. The second method is more reliable to analyze problems about the identity of the officers, policy regarding national minorities in military forces, political attitudes and lobbying of interests, the cultural behavior of officers and soldiers. Both of them are useful to define the imperial legacy of Lithuanian military forces during the interwar period.

We distinguish military organization from all other institutions of the state in terms of their regularity, discipline, expertise, obedience to state and sense of officers and soldiers’ corporation. Towards the end of the 18th century, Lithuania became a part of the Russian Empire, and Lithuanian forces started serving in the imperial army as conscripted soldier unites or officer corps. After WWI, when Lithuania (as well as Latvia and Estonia) declared independence and initiated the creation of national, democratic state and military forces, a huge political challenge was faced – how was it to form military forces in democratic way? How could the new state separate it from imperial-autocratic political traditions and incorporate it into the democratically elected government? How could the political rights of officers and soldiers be ensured? In my presentation I will reveal how imperial legacy and pressure correlated with democratic thinking, ideas of a new political order, and how the Lithuanian government solved challenges regarding the type of army, the subordination of the army to democratically elected state institutions, and how they ensured the political rights of military forces and controlled them at the same time. For this part of my research I use an institutional approach to military forces and I will argue and discuss the benefits and limitations of this method.

Imperial legacy on the institutional level was not the only pressure the Lithuanian military forces faced during interwar period. No less important was the pressure on officer corps, because they consisted of “old imperial officers” and “young Lithuanian nationalists”. For the analysis of these questions, I use an approach that examines military forces as a group of society. It enables me to surpass their institutional cover and to focus on military persons based on their division into two main analytical groups and make further conclusions centered on the behavior of this diverse communities. The distinction of officer groups was based on educational, religious, language and political aspects. Because of their policy of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality”, the Russian empire forbade Catholics (i.e. Lithuanians) to joint Russian military academies, therefore Lithuanians who wanted to became officers changed religion, joined military forces, got educated and became high ranked officers in the imperial army during their service. When the imperial army collapsed, these officers came back to Lithuania, entered the Lithuanian national army and came into conflict with “young nationalists”. Those nationalists were Catholic, they had no military education, but they were members of the Lithuanian awakening movement and became officers only during the imperial mobilizations of WWI. My research shows that the “old imperial officers” and these “young Lithuanian nationalists” had different group identities and the conflict between those groups was so widespread that the young nationalist officers created secrets unions and established relations with political parties, and this became one of the reasons for the 1926 coup d’etat in Lithuania when the democratic state was overthrown by a military coup and imperial officers were dismissed from military forces. In my presentation I will argue how I analytically separate these groups, how they interacted, what was the cultural and political difference between them and how these aspects correlate with imperial legacy and tradition in Lithuanian army.

My current research shows how the Lithuanian state and military forces experienced competition regarding imperial legacy and democratic ideas during the democratic transition process on the institutional and military society levels. It also opens doors to social-cultural research about soldiers.

Kestutis Kilinskas works at the University of Vilnius Faculty of History. In 2018, he defended doctoral thesis on the subject “Civil Military Relations in Lithuania 1918-1940”. His research focuses on military history, war and society, and the memory of war. He has participated in international conferences in Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Israel, Romania, UK, USA and has published numerous articles in national and international journals.

At the University of Vilnius, Kilinskas teaches the modules “War and Society”, “Socioeconomic Transformation of Lithuanian Society in the first half of the 20th century” and “History of Poland” for BA students and the MA seminar “Historical Analysis of Contemporary Wars”.


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