Antanas Smetona (Lithuanian pronunciation: [ɐn̪ˈt̪äːn̪ɐs̪ s̪ʲmʲɛt̪oːˈn̪ɐ] ( listen); August 10th, 1874 – January 9th, 1944) was one of the most important Lithuanian political figures between World War I and World War II. He served as the first President of Lithuania from April 4th, 1919 to June 19th, 1920. He again served as the last President of the country from December 19th, 1926 to June 15th, 1940; before its occupation by the Soviet Union. He was also one of the famous ideologists of nationalism in Lithuania.
Born in the village of Uzulenis, Taujenai rural district of Ukmergė district municipality, Antanas Smetona was sent to the primary school in Taujenai. Graduating from the Palanga Pre-Gymnasium in 1893, he passed his entrance examinations into the Samogitian Diocesan Seminary in Kaunas, with thoughts of becoming a Catholic priest, but various circumstances soon thereafter changed these plans, and he enrolled at Jelgava Gymnasium (high school) in Latvia. Here, together with Jonas Jablonskis, Vincas Kudirka and others, he belonged to a secret Lithuanian students' organization. This organization was nationalistic, and anti-Czarist in nature. In the autumn of 1896, he organized the resistance of students against obligatory attendance of the Russian Orthodox Church, and was expelled from the Gymnasium, but was later allowed to study at the Gymnasium No.9, in Saint Petersburg.
After graduating from this Gymnasium in 1897, Smetona entered the Faculty of Law of the University of Saint Petersburg. He joined the activities of the secret Lithuanian Student Organization at the University, and was made its chairman. He became involved with the publishing and dissemination of Lithuanian books. On two occasions he faced the threat of being expelled from the University, and experienced being arrested and a short imprisonment. After his graduation from the University in 1902, he worked at the Agricultural Bank of Vilnius. Two years later he married Sofija Chodakauskaite.
From his very first days in Vilnius, Smetona became involved in the activities of various Lithuanian nationalist groups, and joined the Lithuanian Democratic Party, which he represented in the Great Seimas of Vilnius. He was later elected into its Presidium. In 1904 and 1907, he was on the staff of the Lithuanian newspapers, Vilniaus Zinios (The Vilnius News), and in 1905-1906, edited the weekly Lietuvos Ukininkas (The Lithuanian Farmer). In 1907, Smetona and the Rev. Juozas Tumas-Vaižgantas established a venture to print the newspaper Viltis (The Hope), and started publishing and circulating it. In Viltis, Smetona advocated national unity; he was also one of the incorporators of the AuSra (Dawn) company for the publishing of Lithuanian books, a member of the Lithuanian Mutual Aid Society of Vilnius, the Lithuanian Learned Society, the Vilniaus ausra (The Dawn of Vilnius), and Rytas (The Morning) education societies, the Rūta Art Society and many other societies, taught the Lithuanian language at Vilnius schools. In 1914, he started publishing Vairas (The Rudder), a new bi-weekly magazine.
During the World War I, he was the 1st Vice-Chairman, and later Chairman, of the Central Committee of the Lithuanian Relief Society for helping victims of the war. In the summer of 1916, Antanas Smetona, together with other Lithuanians from Vilnius, presented a memorandum to the German Chief Commander of the Eastern Front, in which he demanded the right of the Lithuanian nation to have an independent State. On 6 September 1917, he started printing the newspaper Lietuvos Aidas (Lithuania's Echo), worked as its publisher and its editor-in-chief. In the first issue of the newspaper, Smetona wrote that the most important goal of the Lithuanian nation was the re-establishment of an independent Lithuanian state.
Between 18 and 22 September 1917, he participated in the Lithuanian Conference in Vilnius, and was elected Chairman (1917–1919), of the Council of Lithuania (later Council of the State). On 16 February 1918, Antanas Smetona signed the Act of Independence of Lithuania.
Between December 1918 and March 1919, he lived primarily in Germany and the Scandinavian countries, soliciting loans for the cause of Lithuanian independence.
On 4 April 1919, the State Council of Lithuania elected Smetona the first President of the Republic of Lithuania. On 19 April 1920, the Constituent Assembly elected Aleksandras Stulginskis President. Not re-elected to the Seimas, from 1921 throughout 1924 he edited several periodicals, as Lietuvos balsas ("Voice of the Lithuania"), LietuviSkas balsas ("Lithuanian Voice") and Vairas ("The Steering Wheel").
After the Klaipėda Revolt of January 1923, in the Memelland, which had been separated from Germany, he was made commissioner there on February 20, but due to disagreements with Prime Minister Ernestas Galvanauskas, he resigned from his post.
In November 1923, authorities imprisoned Smetona for several days for publishing an article by Augustinas Voldemaras, in Vairas. Between 1923 and 1927, he was an assistant Professor at the University of Lithuania - at first at the Chair of Art Theory and History and later at the department of Philosophy. He lectured on ethics, antique philosophy, and gave lectures on Lithuanian linguistics. In 1932, he was awarded an honorary Ph.D. at the Vytautas Magnus University.
Smetona participated in the activity of the Lithuanian Riflemen's Union that had staged the Klaipėda Revolt, which gave him greater name-recognition. More than once, he was elected to its central board. Between 1924 and 1940, he was the vice-Chairman of the Board of the International Bank, and one of the members of a number of societies and companies.
Antanas Smetona was one of the leaders of the coup d'état of 1926, which deposed President Kazys Grinius, and Smetona once again became President on 19 December of that year (two others briefly held the office during the coup, which began on 17 December, before Smetona was formally restored to the Presidency). He designated Augustinas Voldemaras as Prime Minister. One year later he suppressed the parliament, and on May 15, 1928, with the approval of the government, he promulgated a new Constitution of the Lithuanian State with more extensive presidential powers. In 1929, he removed Voldemaras and became authoritarian head of state.He was re-elected President in 1931 and 1938, and remained in office until June 15, 1940, heading a Seimas composed by his adherents.
As a nationalist, Smetona’s regime closed many Polish-language schools upon coming to power, and he established a totalitarian state with extensive school indoctrination and mandatory membership of the “Young Lithuanians” movement. The regime repeatedly arrested and imprisoned members of the already-banned Communist Party – as with almost all interwar European dictatorships the threat of Communism was the source of its legitimacy and the regime executed the original leadership five days after coming to power– but despite propaganda that Communists were a “non-Lithuanian force invading the country’, they continued to operate underground with growing membership and it is known today that their leaders were ethnically Lithuanian.
In 1935, Smetona suffered a blow when farmers in southeast Lithuania organised a strike and refused to sell their produce. Reprisals led to five deaths and 456 farmers being arrested, and exacerbated long-standing tensions within his regime between hardliners arguing for a more rigid totalitarian control over Lithuanian life, and moderates who wanted liberalisation. These difficulties, however, were already becoming overshadowed by the threat of Nazi Germany. Smetona’s regime was the first in Europe to trial Nazis: as early as 8 February 1934 action had began against Nazis in the Memel region which was autonomous within Lithuania.The Smetona regime’s trial of Ernst Neumann and Freiherr von Sass (July 1934 to March 1935) was the first attempt anywhere to bring Nazis to justice, and saw 76 Hitlerites imprisoned and four sentenced to death – though this was commuted to life imprisonment. By 1938, however, Memel was becoming a difficult issue for a regime spending a quarter of its budget of defence and expensive army modernisation, and Nazis were able to win 26 of 29 seats in elections. The following year Smetona surrendered Memel to Hitler and declared a state of emergency – he never lost his distaste for Hitler and Nazism because he valued the independence of his small nation so firmly.
Smetona’s government was cautious about industrialisation, as its support base lay in the dominant rural population, and as dictator Smetona did nothing to encourage direct foreign investment, which remained extremely limited throughout his rule.Nonetheless, during Smetona‘s dictatorship Lithuania did advance economically: industrial output – mainly directed to domestic demand – when he was overthrown by the Soviet invasion was twice what it had been before the coup that brought him to power, and the country’s transport network had been greatly improved by the construction of railways from Siauliai to Klaipeda and from Kaunas to the south and northeast. In contrast, Smetona was more generous in support for the agricultural sector, which at the time provided almost all of Lithuania’s exports despite occasionally protesting the regime.
Lithuania was occupied by Soviet troops in 1940, as a consequence of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. After the USSR presented an ultimatum to Lithuania in June of that year, Smetona proposed armed resistance against the Soviets. The majority of the government and the commanders of the army did not concur with this proposal. On 15 June, Smetona turned over the duties of President to Prime Minister Antanas Merkys on an interim basis as per the constitution, and fled to Germany with his family. Shortly afterward, the Smetonas fled to Switzerland.
A day after Smetona left the country, Merkys announced he had deposed Smetona and was now president in his own right. Two days later, Merkys was pressured into appointing the more pliant Justas Paleckis as prime minister and resigning himself. Paleckis then became acting president, and was used as a puppet to oversee the final stages of Lithuania being incorporated into the Soviet Union a month later. Lithuania’s current official position on the matter is that Merkys’ takeover of the presidency was illegal, since Smetona never formally resigned. Therefore, Lithuanian officials argue, all subsequent actions leading up to the Soviet annexation were ipso facto void.
In 1941, Smetona emigrated to the United States, and lived in Pittsburgh and Chicago before settling in Cleveland, Ohio in May 1942 with his son Julius’ family. While in exile, he began work on a history of Lithuania and on his memoirs. Smetona died in a fire at his son’s house in Cleveland, on January 9, 1944, and was buried there. According to his son-in-law he was assassinated by the NKVD. His wife Sofija died in Cleveland, on December 28, 1968, and he also had a daughter, Birute, who married Juozas Ambrazas. They conceived a daughter Nijole. Birute was killed in a bombing raid leaving Nijole to be cared for by her father Juozas until he, having to leave Nijole behind with relatives, escaped to Germany in 1944. In 1975, his (Antanas') remains were moved from Cleveland's Knollwood Cemetery mausoleum to All Souls Cemetery in Chardon, Ohio.