The English-language edition of Lithuanian news portal 15min.lt features an interview with Lithuanian historian Šarūnas Liekis, examining the controversial person of Polish general Lucjan Želigowski. In 1920, Želigowski staged a coup that led to the annexation of Vilnius–now the Lithuanian capital, at the time part of a largely Polish-populated region–into Second Republic Poland. Liekis suggests that Želigowski was acting as a Lithuanian–the only dispute related to questions of identity. Was Lithuania the nation-state of the ethnic Lithuanians, or was Lithuania inheritor of the multiethnic (and largely Polish-speaking) Grand Duchy of Lithuania federated with Poland?
- Želigowski’s name still sounds odious to Lithuanian ears, since it is associated with the loss of Vilnius in 1920. Who is this man and what was his connection to Lithuania?
- Želigowski’s was an old family coming from Ashmyany (currently part of Belarus), its roots go back to the 16th century. An entry from 1623 in Lithuanian chronicles reads: “Jakob Želigowski from Kimbor estate came with a horse, armour, helmet, and harquebus.”
Želigowski’s father Gustav, brothers Jan and Juzef participated in the 1863-1864 uprising. His uncle Edvard Želigowski was arrested for joining the Dalevski brothers’ patriotic youth group in Lithuania – the tsar had outlawed the organization and persecuted its members.
In other words, Želigowski did not come out of the blue, he was not from Silesia, Berlin, or Stockholm – he came from here. His fate is comparable to that of thousands of descendants of Polish and Lithuanian nobility who had to choose one or the other nationality in modern times.
Želigowski was a professional military officer at the tsar’s army. He studied military sciences in a Junker school in Riga, graduated in 1888, and later continued his service in the tsar’s army. He chose the military to escape poverty.
He participate in the Russo-Japanese war and World War One. He was already leading a division in 1917. He was on the White side in Russian civil war, fought in Southern Russia and Crimea. After that he led the 4th Polish rifle regiment, formed of soldiers that came from territories of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, crossed Romania and joined Poland’s army. He fought in Ukraine with the Polish regiment.
[. . .]
One could say that younger officers, born around 1890, tended to choose service in the Lithuanian army. Older ones chose Poland because their formative years, their socialization happened in a Polophone culture, within the ideology of Lithuanian-Polish nobility. They thought it was natural to choose Poland rather than the new non-historic ethnic Lithuania built on the peasant culture.
Another example – the Inavauskai brothers who chose different Belarusian, Polish, and Lithuanian nationalities. Tadas Ivanauskas, Lithuanian biologist who set up a zoology museum in Kaunas, had a son, Jerzy, who fought with the Armia Krajowa during World War Two.