While the History Museum of Lithuania Minor offers interesting exhibitions on the cultural and social history of Klaipeda, it provides relatively little insight on the city’s political history and almost no information of any sort in English. I hope that this brief history will enhance both your understanding and enjoyment of Lithuania’s third largest city and only commercial port.
On the bank of the Danes River stands a large stone monument, sculpted by A. Sakalauskas, inscribed with a quotation by the local writer Ieva Simonaityte, "We are one nation, one land, one Lithuania." The sculpture itself, whose larger gray column represents Lithuania Minor and whose smaller red Doric column represents Lithuania major, hints that history has told a different story. With its deliberately jagged edge, representing the loss felt by Lithuanians because of Russian sovereignty over what is now the Kaliningrad Oblast, it indicates that this thinking remains somewhat wishful.
Klaipeda owes its name to members of the Curonian tribe, among the ancestors of today’s Lithuanians, in whose language the words klaip and eda mean "bread" and "eat" respectively. While they established a fishing village in the general vicinity of today’s city around the first century AD, they rarely had the opportunity to consume their bread in peace. Various invaders, in particular the Vikings and later the Livonian branch of the Teutonic Knights, attacked the region with regularity. The latter succeeded in taking the settlement, and in 1252, erected a brick fortress they named Memelburg (Memel Castle) after the German name for the Nemunas River, which runs into the Curonian Lagoon 50km south, near Nida on the Curonian Spit.
In 1258 the city, which came to be known as Memel, was given municipal rights, and in 1328, the Livonian Order transferred control of the city to its counterpart in Prussia. Despite frequent attempts to take the city, first by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and then by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the town remained firmly in the hands of the Teutonic Knights, even after their otherwise decisive defeat at the Battle of Zalgiris (Gruenwald) in present-day Poland in 1410. After the Order’s abandonment of its religious status in 1525, Memel became the northernmost town of the Duchy of Prussia, which it would remain until 1918.
As a member of the Hanseatic League and a key strategic fortress, Memel was often attacked by foreign powers; however, its sturdy fortress fell into non-Prussian hands on only two occasions – to the Swedes in 1628-1635 and the Russians in 1757-62. The thriving trading city that developed was less fortunate – burning to the ground in 1540, badly damaged again in 1678, and stricken with famine and plague between 1709 and 1711. Nonetheless, it developed strong trading ties with Britain and was settled by both Scottish and English merchants, who gave it something of a multicultural character. When King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia fled French occupation of Berlin in 1807, he made Memel his temporary capital for a single year.
With the establishment of the Second Reich in 1871, the Prussian King Wilhelm I became Kaiser (Emperor) of Germany as well, and on the urging of his Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, commenced a Germanization campaign that rankled with Lithuanians. After Germany’s defeat in the First World War, the city and surrounding region were placed under international jurisdiction (akin to the status afforded the Free City of Danzig/Gdansk) with day-to-day administration to be conducted by the French. Embittered by the awarding of Vilnius (Wilno) to Poland, the fledgling Lithuanian Republic organized demonstrations by the local Lithuanian population, and amid international dithering, annexed the city in 1923, giving the new country a working port.
Although the international community accepted the transfer as compensation for the loss of Vilnius, this Germans regarded the action as yet another entry on the list of territorial grievances they had with their victorious enemies in the First World War. Adolf Hitler was able to play upon this sentiment, and on March 23, 1939, unilaterally announced the annexation of the territory while the international community again stood by. It was Nazi Germany’s last territorial annexation before it attacked Poland in September of the same year.
The Soviet Army seized Klaipeda in 1945 and annexed it to the rest of Lithuania, which it had recently captured from Nazi Germany. During the war, much of the city was destroyed, accounting for the Soviet character of its architecture outside the small (and largely reconstructed) Old Town. The Soviets expelled the German population and deported many members of the Lithuanian population to Siberia. At the same time, Russians were settled in Klaipeda, which became a major shipbuilding and fishing center, and its prewar population more than quadrupled to 200,000. By the time Lithuania regained its independence, Klaipeda had become the fourth largest port in the entire Soviet Union as a result of its status as the country’s only ice-free port.
Unlike Kaunas and Siauliai, which suffered significant economic losses after the end of Soviet control, Klaipeda has risen to become the country’s second most important business center as a result of its port and consequently has begun to recapture some of its old cosmopolitan flavor.