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The term Prussian Lithuanians or Lietuwininkai (singular: Lietuwininkas, also Lietuvininkai) refers to a Western Lithuanian ethnic group, which did not form a nation and inhabited a territory in East Prussia called Prussian Lithuania or Lithuania Minor ( , ) in contrast to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and later the Republic of Lithuaniamarker (Lithuania Major).

Unlike the rest of Lithuanians, who remained Roman Catholic after the Protestant Reformation, most Lietuwininkai became Lutheran-Protestants .

There were 121,345 speakers of Lithuanian in the Prussian census of 1890. Almost all fled or were expelled after World War II, when East Prussia was divided between Polandmarker and the Soviet Unionmarker. The northern part became the Kaliningrad Oblastmarker, while the southern part was attached to Poland. Only small Klaipėda Region ( ) was attached to Lithuania.

Ethnonyms and identity

The term Preußische Litauer (Prussian Lithuanians in German) appeared in German texts of the 16th century. The term Kleinlitaw (Lithuania Minor in German) was first used by Simon Grunau between 1517 and 1527. Prussian Lithuanians used various names for themselves: Prussians (Lithuanian: Prūsai, German: Preusch), Prussian Lithuanians (Lithuanian: Pruſû Lietuwiai, Pruſû Lietuwininkai, Pruſißki Lietuwininkai, German: Preußische Litauer), or simply Lithuanians (Lithuanian: Lietuw(i)ni(n)kai, German: Litauer). Local self-designating terms found in literature, such as Sziszionißkiai ("people from here"), Burai (German: Bauern), were neither politonyms nor ethnonyms. Another similar term appeared in the Klaipėda Region (Memelland) during the interwar years – Memellanders (Lithuanian: Klaipėdiškiai, German: Memelländers). Modern Lithuanian historiography uses the term Lietuvininkai or sometimes a neologism unknown to Lietuwininkai themselves, Mažlietuviai. The usage of Lietuvininkai is a bit problematic as basically it is a synonym of the word Lietuviai ("Lithuanians"), not the name of a separate ethnic sub-group.

For Prussian Lithuanians, loyalty to the German state, great religiosity, and mother language were three main priorities of self-identification. Due to differences in religion and loyalties to a different state, the Prussian Lithuanians did not consider Lithuanians of the Grand Duchy to be part of their community. They used the exonym Samogitians ( , ) to denote Lithuanians of Lithuania Major. Antagonism was frequent between the Prussian Lithuanians and Lithuanians, despite the common language. For example, inhabitants of Lithuania did not trust Prussian Lithuanians in the Klaipėda Region and tended to eliminate them from government institutions. When Prussian Lithuanian writer Ieva Simonaitytė (Ewa Simoneit) chose the side of the Lithuanian Republic, she was condemned by relatives, friends and neighbours. Only one Prussian Lithuanian (Dovas Zaunius) worked in the government of Lithuania, between World War I and World War II. The antagonism persisted till the end of the World War II, when East Prussia had gone.


Distribution of the Baltic tribes, circa 1200

Early history

Prussian Lithuanians in 1744

The territory where Prussian Lithuanians lived in ancient times was inhabited by the Old Prussian, Skalvian and Curonian tribes. During the Prussian Crusade and further wars between the pagan Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Teutonic Order the area approximately between the rivers Alle and Neman Rivermarker became almost uninhabited. The local tribes resettled (voluntary or by force) either in the Monastic State of the Teutonic Knightsmarker or in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. This uninhabited area was named wilderness in chronicles. After the 1422 Treaty of Melnomarker, a stable border between the two states was established. Better living conditions attracted Lithuanians and Samogitians to settle in state of the Teutonic Order. Masurians and Curonians migrated into Prussia at the same time.

After 1525, last Grand Master of the Order Albert became duke of Prussia and switched to Protestantism. Prussian Lithuanians also became Protestants. By the will of Albert, church services for Prussian Lithuanians were held in the Lithuanian language. Although Lithuanians who settled in Prussia were mainly farmers, in the 16th century there was an influx of educated Protestant immigrants from Lithuania, such as Martynas Mažvydas, Abraomas Kulvietis and Stanislovas Rapolionis, who became first professors at the Königsberg University. Martynas Mažvydas was a zealous Protestant and urged to stop all contacts between Prussian Lithuanians and Lithuanians of Lithuania wishing to stop Catholic influence.

In 1708, the Kingdom of Prussiamarker was devastated by plague, especially its easternmost part, where Prussian Lithuanians lived. About 50% of Prussian Lithuanians died. To compensate the population loss, king Frederick II invited settlers from Salzburgmarker, Pfalz, and Nassau. These persecuted Lutherans brought strong Pietism ideas, spreading them among Prussian Lithuanians. In 1811 a teacher's seminary for Prussian Lithuanians was established in Karalene near Insterburgmarker (closed in 1924 due to lack of students after detachment of the Klaipėda Region — where the majority of Prussian Lithuanians lived). From the mid-18th century, a majority of Prussian Lithuanians became literate; in comparison, the process was much slower in the Greater Lithuania.

19th century

The Lithuanian national revival in the late 19th century was mostly ignored by Prussian Lithuanians. To them integration with Lithuania and Lithuanians was not understandable and not acceptable as their loyalty to the German state was strong.Daugumai mažlietuvių integracinės Didžiosios ir Mažosios Lietuvos apraiškos buvo nesuprantamos ir nepriimtinos

For a majority of mažlietuviai integrational ideas between Lithuania proper and Lithuania Minor were not understandable and not acceptable. The idea of Lithuanian–Latvian unity was more popular than idea of unity between the Lithuanians and the Prussian Lithuanians during the Great Seimas of Vilnius. The first Prussian Lithuanian elected to Reichstag, Johann Smalakies, was a fierce German agitator for the integrity of the German Empiremarker. In 1879, in newspaper Lietuwißka Ceitunga he published poem "Lietuwininkais esame mes gime" and 7th stanza was dedicated to William I.

There was no national Germanisation policy until 1870; Prussian Lithuanians voluntary adopted German language and culture. After the Unification of Germany in 1873, learning the German language was made compulsory in state schools. The German culture provided a possibility for Prussian Lithuanians to adopt Western European cultural values through the German language. Germanization evoked a cultural movement of Prussian Lithuanians. In 1879 and 1896, petitions for the return of the Lithuanian language to schools was signed by 12,330 and 23,058 Prussian Lithuanians from the districts of Memel, Heydekrug, Tilsitmarker, Ragnitmarker. In 1921, the French administration made a survey in the Klaipėda Region that showed that only 2.2% of Prussian Lithuanians would prefer the Lithuanian language schools. In contrast to the Russification policies and the Lithuanian press ban in the Russian Empiremarker, the Lithuanian language and culture was not persecuted in Prussia. The Prussian Lithuanians could publish own newspapers and books, even helping Lithuanians from Russia to bypass the press ban by publishing their newspapers, like Auszra and Varpas.

Interbellum years

East Prussia's northern part beyond the Neman Rivermarker was detached from the East Prussia in the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, dividing the territories inhabited by Prussian Lithuanians between Weimar Germanymarker and Klaipėda Region (Memelland) under the administration of Council of Ambassadors. Organisation "Deutsch-Litauischer Heimatbund" ( ) sought to return to Germany or at least to create an independent state of Memelland and had membership of 30,000 individuals. Two dozen pro-Lithuanian representatives of the Prussian Lithuanians signed the Act of Tilsit, asking to unite the Klaipėda Region with Lithuania; such an idea was not supported and not accepted by majority of Prussian Lithuanians. However, the war was followed by severe economical hardships and inflation in Germany, that had the influence on the acception of attachment of the Klaipėda Region to Lithuania by Prussian Lithuanians. In 1923, the Republic of Lithuaniamarker occupied the Klaipėda Region during the Klaipėda Revolt. According to the plan, the revolt would be undertaken by the local Prussians Lithuanians, but even most radicals declined.

In the beginning, a situation in the Memel Territory was acceptable for Prussian Lithuanians. According to the secret report by Jonas Polovinskas-Budrys, a professional in counterintelligence, made in 1923, around 60% of local inhabitants supported the Revolt, 30% kept a passive stance and 10% were against, namely the supporters of freistadtmarker status or Germany. However, soon Lithuanian policies alienated the Prussian Lithuanians. People from the Greater Lithuania were sent to assume public administration offices in the region. According to the Lithuanian view, the Prussian Lithuanians were Germanised Lithuanians who should be re-Lithuanized. Prussian Lithuanians saw such Lithuanization policy as a threat to their own culture and began support German parties and even started identifying themselves as Germans. During the 1925 census, 37,626 people declared themselves as Lithuanians and 34,337 people self-identified as Memellanders, a neologism to express difference from Lithuanians. Inhabitants of the Klaipėda Region continuously voted for German or German-oriented parties.

In 1933, Adolf Hitler promised to return Klaipėda to Germany during the meeting in Königsbergmarker. In 1935, Nazi activists Ernst Neumann and Theodor von Sass organized a revolt against the Lithuanian government, participated by some Prussian Lithuanians, like J. Brinkies, M. Scheidereitis, H. Stallgies, W. Naujoksas, G. Wallatas, H. Lakischus, E. Awiszus etc. In 1939, Nazi Germany reclaimed Klaipėda after the ultimatum to Lithuania. The inhabitants were allowed to choose Lithuanian citizenship. Only 500 asked for optation, and only 20 were awarded it. Reunion of Klaipėda with Germany was met with joy by a majority of inhabitants. About 10,000 refugees, mostly Jews, fled the region.

After Nazis came to power, from 1933 Prussian Lithuanian activists living in Germany were persecuted. In 1938, due coflict with Lithuania over Klaipėda Region, Prussian and Lithuanian toponyms in East Prussian were translated to German. Thus, for example, Lasdinehlen (Lazdynėliai) were converted to Haselberg, Jodlauken (Juodlaukiai) to Schwalbental etc. Prussian Lithuanians in East Prussia made only small minority. Toponyms of Klaipėda Region after reunion with Germany were not renamed. Prussian Lithuanian newspaper "Naujaſis Tilźes Keleiwis" was closed only in 1940. On the other hand, church services in Tilsitmarker and Ragnitmarker were held in Lithuanian language till evacuation of East Prussia in 1944.

World War II and after

Soviets made no distinction between Germans and Prussian Lithuanians. During the evacuation of East Prussia, Prussian Lithuanians, like other Eastprussians, were trying escape for the fear of revenge. Mass murders, rapes, and looting were common. After the end of fights people were returning to their homes, but returners were discriminated, denied food rations, were deported to Siberiamarker. Later people were expelled from Kaliningrad Oblastmarker and from the former Klaipėda Region, which was transferred to the Lithuanian SSR in 1947. By 1945, there were about 20,000 local inhabitants left in the Klaipėda Region, compared to 152,800 in 1939. The government of the Lithuanian SSR followed the policy of Soviet Union and viewed to the Prussians Lithuanians as Germanized Lithuanians. About 8,000 persons repatriated from the DP camps in the period of 1945–50. Their property was not returned as Russians and Lithuanians usually already lived in these homes. Autochthonous people who remained in the former Memel territory were dismissed from their jobs and otherwise discriminated.

3,500 people from the former Memel Territory were expelled by the authority of the Lithuanian SSR to East Germanymarker in 1951. After the Konrad Adenauer's visit to Moscow in 1958, the former citizens of Germany were allowed to emigrate and the absolute majority of the Prussian Lithuanians who were in the Lithuanian SSR, similarly to many Lithuanians from Greater Lithuania fleeing from the coming Soviet occupation, emigrated to West Germanymarker. Only about 2,000 local Lithuanians remain in the Klaipėda Region and virtually none in the Kaliningrad oblastmarker. Today, the majority of Prussian Lithuanians lives in Germanymarker. Some groups of Prussian Lithuanians have settled in Canada, United States, Sweden and Australia. Separate ethnic and cultural identity is not as strong as was, and is vanishing. After the collapse of the Soviet Unionmarker Prussian Lithuanians have not regained all of their property in the Kaliningrad Oblastmarker or the Klaipėda region.

Culture and traditions

The Prussian Lithuanians that settled in the State of the Ordermarker over the centuries were affected and influenced by German lifestyle, German culture, German Ordnung and the German language. They adopted the cultural values and social conventions of the German state, but preserved their Lithuanian language, traditions and folk culture. For centuries Prussian Lithuanians lived in a political and confessional environment that was different from that of other Lithuanians and evolved into a separate ethnic group. The common German state united both Germans and Prussian Lithuanians, who viewed its rulers as their own rulers. Having portraits of the Hohenzollern at home was widespread, since Prussian Lithuanians were great patriots of both Prussia and Germany.

The Pietist congregational movement attracted large numbers of Prussian Lithuanians: evangelical fellowships ( , ) were very active in Prussia like in the rest of the German Empiremarker. About 40% of Lithuanians belonged to such fellowships, whose members lived by ascetic principles.

Until the mid-19th century Prussian Lithuanians were mostly villagers. Their feudal mentality is reflected in the poem The Seasons by Kristijonas Donelaitis. Like all peasants in feudal societies they respected their rulers. The Seasons criticizes their tendency of adopting German ways, since this was often associated with decadent noblemen. Donelaitis called for Lithuanians to do their duties, not to envy those who went to German towns, not to complain or be lazy and try to work as much as was needed for the good of a peasant.Towns were not big. Those who went to the major towns, Königsbergmarker and Memel, usually became bilingual and eventually completely Germanized.After World War II, virtually no Prussian Lithuanians remained in Russia's Kaliningrad Oblastmarker and only a small number survived in the Lithuanian SSR. Their peasant culture, threatened by germanization in the German Empire and politically oppressed in the Nazi era was now completely wiped out by the Soviets, who made no distinction between Germans and Lithuanians. Both had lived together, and thus nearly all their churches and cemeteries were destroyed, especially in Russia. The situation was somewhat better in the former Memel Territory but even there churches and cemeteries have been destroyed [551042].

Personal names

The person could have only one variant of surname. Prussian Lithuanians surnames are such: The patronymic with suffixes -eit- and -at-. It has the same role what for example English -son does in the surnames Abrahamson, Johnson etc. Examples include: Abromeit, Grigoleit, Jakeit, Kukulat, Szameitat, etc.

Another type of Prussian Lithuanian surnames are with the endings -ies, -us: Kairies, Resgies, Baltßus, Karallus, etc.

The dual naming (of Lithuanian and German forms) was usual and acceptable among Prussian Lithuanians and even highly educated and pro-Lithuanian oriented Prussian Lithuanians as philosopher Wilhelm Storost, famous Prussian Lithuanian linguist Georg Gerullis had always preferred the surname of the German style, used to sign with it and had never changed it.

The difference between female and male surnames in everyday speech existed. While officially the wife of Kurschat (Prussian Lithuanian Kurßaitis or Kurßatis) also was called Kurschat, in the Prussian Lithuanian language forms were used in speech: the form of a wife's surname was Kurßaitê / Kurßatė and the form of a unmarried woman was Kurßaitikê / Kurßaitukê etc.


Prussian Lithuanians had been usually bilingual since the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuryThe German language used by Prussian Lithuanians belongs to Low Prussian dialect of Low German, Mundart des Ostgebietes subdialect.

Lithuanian language of Prussian Lithuanians could be divided into two main dialects: Samogitian dialect and Aukštaitian dialect. Prussian Lithuanians did not classify their language themselves. Standard language is quite similar to standard Lithuanian except for the number of German loanwords. The Lithuanian language which had been spoken in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and later Russia was influenced by the Polish and Belarusian languages, while in Prussia it was influenced by the German language. Thus, while Lithuanians used Slavic loanwords and translations, Prussian Lithuanians used German loanwords and translations, in addition to earlier Slavic loanwords.

Prussian Lithuanian literature

Prussian Lithuanian newspaper Pakajaus-Paſlas!: Lietuwos Brolams bei Seſerims Diewo-Ʒodi ir Surinkimus apſakas
The literature in Lithuanian language has appeared earlier in the Duchy of Prussiamarker than in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The first book in Lithuanian was published in Königsbergmarker in 1547 by Martynas Mažvydas, émigré from Samogitia, while the first Lithuanian book of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was printed in 1596 by Mikalojus Daukša. Many other authors who wrote in Lithuanian were not Prussian Lithuanians, but local Prussian Germans: Michael Märlin, Jakob Quandt, Wilhelm Martinius, Gottfried Ostermeyer, Sigfried Ostermeyer, Daniel Klein, Andrew Krause, Philipp Ruhig, Matttheus Praetorius, Christian Mielcke, Adam Schimmelpfennig, etc. The first Lithuanian poet Kristijonas Donelaitis was from East Prussia and reflected Prussian Lithuanian lifestyle in his works. The first newspaper in the Lithuanian language Nuſidawimai apie Ewangēliôs Praſiplatinima tarp Źydû ir Pagonû was published by Prussian Lithuanians too. Prior to World War I, the government and political parties financed Prussian Lithuanian press.


The Prussian Lithuanian Orthography was based on German style, while in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania it was primarily based on Polish. Prussian Lithuanians used Blackletter. The differences show that Lithuanians were not reading Prussian Lithuanian writings and vice versa and the cultural communication was very limited. The attempts to create a unified newspaper and common orthography for all Lithuanian speakers in the beginning of the 20th century were unsuccessful. After 1905, modern Lithuanian orthography was standardized while Prussian Lithuanian orthography remained the same – German Blackletter, a noun was begun with a capital letter, letters ſ, ß, ʒ were used, the construction of sentences was different compared to Lithuanian.

Books and newspapers that were published in Lithuania in Latin letters were reprinted in Blackletter in the Memel Territory in 1923-39. The Prussian Lithuanian newspaper Naujaſis Tilźes Keleiwis ( ) had been published in Blackletter till 1940 in Tilsitmarker, when was closed by Nazis. After Germany had occupied Polandmarker in 1939 and Suwalki triangle had been directly attached to the Third Reich Lithuanians of Punskmarker were unable to read Naujaſis Tilźes Keleiwis and failed to comprehend it.

Notable Prussian Lithuanians

Notes and references

  1. Prussian Lithuanians were not a nation, only an ethnic group, that fulfilled criteria required to ethnos (ethnie) by Anthony D. Smith: common selfname or ethnonym, faith in common ancestry, common history, existence in historically stable territory, one or some signs of culture, solidarity feeling of a group”
  2. Loyalty to state power, great religiosity and mother language were three self-identifying priorities of mažlietuviai
  3. All the national revival movement's ideas were alien to them.
  4. Galima teigti, kad vadinamoji germanizacija, priešingai nei polonizacija ir rusifikacija LDK, lietuviams Vokietijoje pirmiausia leido įsijungti į bendrą Europos kultūros plėtros eigą, atnešė raštą suformulavus bendrinės savosios kalbos pagrindus, į šią veiklą įsijungus visam būriui vokiečių kilmės kunigų liuteronų, o vėliau ir inteligentijos.
  5. Ko neįstengė suprasti Lietuvos valdžia ir klaipėdiškiai 1923-1939 metais?
  6. prancūzų administracijos Klaipėdos krašte 1921 m. vasarą buvo surengta gyventojų apklausa tarp save dar lietuviais laikančių piliečių, kuria norėta sužinoti apie jų norus leisti vaikus mokytis grynai lietuviškose mokyklose. Dar 1910 m. visame krašte 71 156 gyventojai laikė save šeimose vokiškai, o 67 259 – lietuviškai kalbančiais. Dabar pasirodė, kad iš pastarųjų tik 11,2 proc. pageidavo lankyti lietuviškas pamaldas, o net tik 2,2 proc. norėjo, kad mokyklose būtų kalbama ir rašoma lietuviškai.
  7. Ko neįstengė suprasti Lietuvos valdžia ir klaipėdiškiai 1923-1939 metais?
  8. According to the pre-war Lithuanian view, the Memellanders were Germanised Lithuanians who should be re-Lithuanised
  9. The forms of Lithuanization policy were not acceptable for Klaipėda region local Lietuvininkai people. Having no other alternatives, they started to nestle themselves with much more known for them German national identity
  10. Rinkimų į Klaipėdos krašto seimelį rezultatai ir jų dinamika šiuo atveju vienareikšmiai: net ir vis labiau į nacionalsocializmą linkusios provokiškosios partijos laimėjo vis daugiau balsų, atsverdamos net ir imigravusius iš Didžiosios Lietuvos gyventojus.
  11. "In March 1939 the majority of Memellander greeted the reunion with the Reich with joy"
  12. "Kai kurie ir iš nepriklausomos Lietuvos išvažiuoja į Vokietiją, nes čia ne visiems pavyksta atgauti žemę ir sodybas, miestuose ir miesteliuose turėtus gyvenamuosius namus. Vis dar yra net nebandomų sudrausminti piktavalių, kurie lietuvininkams siūlo "grįžti" į "faterliandą"." Tr.: Even some from independent Lithuania emigrates to Germany, because not for all property is returned. There are still persons who propose for lietuwininkai to "return" to "vaterland"
  13. Lithuanians living in the lands governed by the Order and then by the dukes of Prussia (after 1525) were strongly affected by German language, lifestyle and culture. The acculturation process increased during and following the Reformation. Gradually the Prussian Lithuanian adopted cultural values and social conventions of the German state whilst retaining a separate identity and the Lithuanian language.
  14. , traditions, folk culture. The sense of their common homeland and the use of the German language united Germans and the bilingual Lithuanians of Lithuania Minor
  15. Loyalty to state and proud of "own" German state through two centuries became inherent elements of identity.
  16. Main principles of the old fellowships were worship, poverty, fast, kindness, justice, honesty and patience ... rejection of bodily pleasures and worldly delights: abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, satanic card playing, wicked books.
  17. Living in a German state the Mažlietuvis was naturally prevailed upon to integrate into state political life and naturally became bilingual in German and Lithuanian. Especially after the industrialization and modernization of Prussia the Mažlietuvis was bilingual. This bilingualism is a constant characteristic up to the end of World War Two.

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