Klaipėda Region - Autonomous Region Within Lithuania

Autonomous Region Within Lithuania

The area was subsequently annexed by Lithuania. In the Klaipėda Convention, signed between Council of Ambassadors and Lithuania, the area was granted a separate parliament, two official languages, capacity to raise its own taxes, charge custom duties, manage its cultural and religious affairs, allowed a separate judicial system, separate citizenship, internal control of agriculture and forestry, as well as a separate social security system. The Council of Ambassadors accepted the resulting arrangement and confirmed the autonomy of the region within the Republic of Lithuania. On 8 May 1924 a further Convention on the Klaipėda region confirmed the annexation, and a resulting autonomy agreement was signed in Paris. Memel Territory was recognized as an integral part of the Republic of Lithuania also by Germany on 29 January 1928, where the two countries signed the Lithuanian-German Border Treaty.

Importantly, the annexation gave Lithuania control of a year-round ice-free Baltic port. Lithuania made full use of Klaipėda port, modernizing and adapting it, largely for its agricultural exports. The port reconstruction was certainly one of the larger long-term investment projects enacted by the government of Lithuania in the interwar period.

The inhabitants of the area were not given a choice on the ballot whether they wanted to be part of the Lithuanian state or part of Germany. Since the pro-German political parties had an overall majority of more than 80% in all elections to the local parliament (see election statistics below) in the interwar period, there can be little doubt that such a referendum would have been in favour of Germany. In fact, the area had been united since the monastic state of the 13th century, and even many Lithuanian-speakers, regarding themselves as East Prussians, declared themselves as "Memellanders/Klaipėdiškiai" in the official census (see below for demographic information) and did not want to belong to a Lithuanian national state. According to the Lithuanian point of view, Memellanders were viewed as Germanised Lithuanians who should be re-Lithuanised.

There was also a strong denominational difference since about 95% of the inhabitants of Lithuania Minor were Lutherans while more than 90% of Greater Lithuanians were Catholics. Following the Agreement concerning the Evangelical Church of the Klaipėda Region (German: Abkommen betr. die evangelische Kirche des Memelgebietes) of July 23, 1925, concluded between the Directorate of the Klaipėda Region and the Evangelical Church of the old-Prussian Union, a church of united administration of Lutheran and Reformed congregations, the mostly Lutheran congregations (and a single Reformed one in Klaipėda) in the Klaipėda Region were disentangled from the old-Prussian Ecclesiastical Province of East Prussia and formed the Regional Synodal Federation of the Memel Territory (Landessynodalverband Memelgebiet) since, being ranked an old-Prussian ecclesiastical province of its own. An own consistory in Klaipėda was established in 1927, led by a general superintendent (at first F. Gregor, elected in 1927, succeeded by O. Obereiniger, elected by the regional synod in 1933). The Catholic parishes in the Klaipėda Region used to belong to the Bishopric of Ermland until 1926 and were then disentangled, forming the new Territorial Prelature of Klaipėda under Prelate Justinas Staugaitis.

The government of Lithuania faced considerable opposition from the region's autonomous institutions, among others the Parliament of the Klaipėda Region. As years passed, claims were becoming more and more vocal about a re-integration into a resurgent Germany. It was only during the latter period that Lithuania then instituted a policy of "Lithuanization". This was met by even more opposition, as religious and regional differences slowly became insurmountable.

After the December 1926 coup d’état, Antanas Smetona came to power. As the status of the Memel Territory was regulated by international treaties, the Memel Territory became an oasis of democracyin Lithuania. Lithuanian intelligentsia often held marriages in Memel/Klaipėda, since Memel Territory was the only place in Lithuania where civil marriage was in use, in the rest of Lithuania only church marriages were legitimized. Thus, Lithuanian opposition to Smetona's regime was also based in Memel Territory.

At the start of the 1930s, certain leaders and members of pro-Nazi organizations in the region were put on trial by Lithuania "for crimes of terrorism". The 1934–5 proceedings of Neumann and Sass in Kaunas can be presented as the first anti-Nazi trial in Europe. Three members of the organizations were sentenced to death, and their leaders imprisoned. On account of later political and economical pressure from Germany, most were released.

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