1939 German ultimatum to Lithuania

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East Prussia after the ultimatum took force; the Klaipeda Region/Memelland is depicted in blue and East Prussia in pink. East Prussia 1939.JPG
East Prussia after the ultimatum took force; the Klaipėda Region/Memelland is depicted in blue and East Prussia in pink.

The 1939 German ultimatum to Lithuania was an oral ultimatum which Joachim von Ribbentrop, Foreign Minister of Nazi Germany, presented to Juozas Urbšys, Foreign Minister of Lithuania on 20 March 1939. The Germans demanded that Lithuania give up the Klaipėda Region (also known as the Memel Territory) which had been detached from Germany after World War I, or the Wehrmacht would invade Lithuania. The Lithuanians had been expecting the demand after years of rising tension between Lithuania and Germany, increasing pro-Nazi propaganda in the region, and continued German expansion. It was issued just five days after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. The 1924 Klaipėda Convention had guaranteed the protection of the status quo in the region, but the four signatories to that convention did not offer any material assistance. The United Kingdom and France followed a policy of appeasement, while Italy and Japan openly supported Germany, and Lithuania was forced to accept the ultimatum on 22 March. It proved to be the last territorial acquisition for Germany before World War II, producing a major downturn in Lithuania's economy and escalating pre-war tensions for Europe as a whole.

Joachim von Ribbentrop German general

Ulrich Friedrich Wilhelm Joachim von Ribbentrop, more commonly known as Joachim von Ribbentrop, was Foreign Minister of Nazi Germany from 1938 until 1945.

Nazi Germany The German state from 1933 to 1945, under the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler

Nazi Germany is the common English name for Germany between 1933 and 1945, when Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party (NSDAP) controlled the country through a dictatorship. Under Hitler's rule, Germany was transformed into a totalitarian state that controlled nearly all aspects of life via the Gleichschaltung legal process. The official name of the state was Deutsches Reich until 1943 and Großdeutsches Reich from 1943 to 1945. Nazi Germany is also known as the Third Reich, meaning "Third Realm" or "Third Empire", the first two being the Holy Roman Empire (800–1806) and the German Empire (1871–1918). The Nazi regime ended after the Allies defeated Germany in May 1945, ending World War II in Europe.

Juozas Urbšys Lithuanian politician

Juozas Urbšys was a prominent interwar Lithuanian diplomat, the last head of foreign affairs in independent interwar Lithuania, and a translator. He served in the military between 1916 and 1922, afterwards joining the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1938 Urbšys was named its head and served in this position until Lithuania's occupation in 1940. Urbšys was imprisoned by the Soviet authorities in 1940 and deported to Siberia, where he spent the next 13 years in various prisons. Urbšys died in 1991, having lived long enough to see Lithuania's independence restored, and was buried in Petrašiūnai Cemetery, Kaunas.


Klaipėda dispute

Events leading to World War II
Treaty of Versailles 1919
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Treaty of Rapallo 1920
Franco-Polish alliance 1921
March on Rome 1922
Corfu incident 1923
Occupation of the Ruhr 19231925
Mein Kampf 1925
Pacification of Libya 19231932
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Locarno Treaties 1925
Chinese Civil War 19271936
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Great Depression 19291941
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January 28 Incident 1932
World Disarmament Conference 19321934
Defense of the Great Wall 1933
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Nazis rise to power in Germany 1933
Tanggu Truce 1933
Italo-Soviet Pact 1933
Inner Mongolian Campaign 1933–1936
German-Polish Non-Aggression Pact 1934
Franco-Soviet Treaty of Mutual Assistance 1935
Soviet–Czechoslovakia Treaty of Mutual Assistance 1935
He–Umezu Agreement 1935
Anglo-German Naval Agreement 1935
Second Italo-Ethiopian War 19351936
Remilitarization of the Rhineland 1936
Spanish Civil War 19361939
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Suiyuan Campaign 1936
Second Sino-Japanese War 19371945
USS Panay incident 1937
Anschluss Mar. 1938
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Battle of Lake Khasan JulyAug. 1938
Undeclared German-Czechoslovak War Sep. 1938
Munich Agreement Sep. 1938
First Vienna Award Nov. 1938
German occupation of Czechoslovakia Mar. 1939
German ultimatum to Lithuania Mar. 1939
Slovak–Hungarian War Mar. 1939
Final offensive of the Spanish Civil War Mar.Apr. 1939
Danzig Crisis Mar.Aug. 1939
British guarantee to Poland Mar. 1939
Italian invasion of Albania Apr. 1939
Soviet–British–French Moscow negotiations Apr.Aug. 1939
Pact of Steel May 1939
Battles of Khalkhin Gol MaySep. 1939
Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact Aug. 1939
Invasion of Poland Sep. 1939

Klaipėda (German: Memel), an important seaport in East Prussia, was detached from Germany by Article 28 of the Treaty of Versailles and was governed by the Allies according to Article 99. France assumed administration of the region while Lithuania continued to lobby for its control, claiming that it should belong to Lithuania as it had a significant Lithuanian population (see Lithuania Minor) and was that country's only access to the Baltic Sea. Poland also laid claim to the territory. As the Allies were hesitant to make a decision and it seemed that the region would remain a free state much like the Free City of Danzig, Lithuania took the initiative and organized the Klaipėda Revolt in January 1923. [1] Soviet Russia and Germany supported the action. [2] The region, as an autonomous territory with its own parliament (Klaipėda Parliament), was attached to Lithuania. The region covered about 2,400 km² and had a population of approximately 140,000. [3]

Klaipėda City in Lithuania Minor, Lithuania

Klaipėda is a city in Lithuania on the Baltic Sea coast. It is the third largest city in Lithuania and the capital of Klaipėda County.

East Prussia province of Prussia

East Prussia was a province of the Kingdom of Prussia from 1773 to 1829 and again from 1878 ; following World War I it formed part of the Weimar Republic's Free State of Prussia, until 1945. Its capital city was Königsberg. East Prussia was the main part of the region of Prussia along the southeastern Baltic Coast.

Treaty of Versailles one of the treaties that ended the First World War

The Treaty of Versailles was the most important of the peace treaties that brought World War I to an end. The Treaty ended the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers. It was signed on 28 June 1919 in Versailles, exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which had directly led to World War I. The other Central Powers on the German side of World War I signed separate treaties. Although the armistice, signed on 11 November 1918, ended the actual fighting, it took six months of Allied negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference to conclude the peace treaty. The treaty was registered by the Secretariat of the League of Nations on 21 October 1919.

During the 1920s, Lithuania and Germany maintained a relatively normal relationship as they were united by anti-Polish sentiment. [4] In January 1928, after long and difficult negotiations, Germany and Lithuania signed a border treaty, which left Klaipėda on the Lithuanian side. However, tensions began rising in the 1930s after the Weimar Republic was replaced with Nazi Germany. An especially tense period came in February 1934 when the Lithuanian government arrested dozens of pro-Nazi activists. In response to these arrests and trials, Germany declared a boycott of Lithuanian agricultural imports. [5] The boycott caused an economic crisis in Suvalkija (southern Lithuania), where farmers organized violent protests. [6] However, after the plebiscite in Saar most of the pro-Nazi prisoners received amnesty. In the wake of the amnesties, Lithuanian prestige suffered both abroad and in Klaipėda, allowing Germany to strengthen its influence in the region. [7]

Weimar Republic Germany state in the years 1918/1919–1933

The Weimar Republic is an unofficial historical designation for the German state from 1918 to 1933. The name derives from the city of Weimar, where its constitutional assembly first took place. The official name of the republic remained Deutsches Reich unchanged from 1871, because of the German tradition of substates. Although commonly translated as "German Empire", the word Reich here better translates as "realm", in that the term does not have monarchical connotations in itself. The Reich was changed from a constitutional monarchy into a republic. In English, the country was usually known simply as Germany.


Suvalkija or Sudovia is the smallest of the five cultural regions of Lithuania. Its unofficial capital is Marijampolė. People from Suvalkija are called suvalkiečiai (plural) or suvalkietis (singular). It is located south of the Neman River, in the former territory of Vilkaviškis bishopric. Historically, it is the newest ethnographic region as its most distinct characteristics and separate identity formed during the 19th century when the territory was part of Congress Poland. It was never a separate political entity and even today it has no official status in the administrative division of Lithuania. However, it continues to be the subject of studies focusing on Lithuanian folk culture of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Rising tension

In the spring of 1938 Adolf Hitler personally stated that gaining Klaipėda was one of his highest priorities, second only to gaining the Sudetenland. [8] When Poland presented its ultimatum to Lithuania in March 1938, Germany openly declared that in the event of a military clash between Poland and Lithuania, its army would invade Lithuania to capture Klaipėda and a large portion of western Lithuania. A week after Lithuania accepted the Polish ultimatum, [9] Germany presented an eleven-point memorandum that demanded freedom of action for pro-German activists in the region and a lessening of Lithuanian influence there. Its points were worded in a deliberately vague manner, which would enable Germany to accuse Lithuania of violations. [7] Lithuania chose to postpone dealing with the problem, hoping that the international situation would improve. In the meantime it hoped to give the German population no reasons for complaint. [7]


The Sudetenland is the historical German name for the northern, southern, and western areas of former Czechoslovakia which were inhabited primarily by Sudeten Germans. These German speakers had predominated in the border districts of Bohemia, Moravia, and Czech Silesia from the time of the Austrian Empire.

1938 Polish ultimatum to Lithuania

The 1938 Polish ultimatum to Lithuania was an ultimatum delivered to Lithuania by Poland on March 17, 1938. The Lithuanian government had steadfastly refused to have any diplomatic relations with Poland after 1920, protesting the annexation of the Vilnius Region by Poland. As pre-World War II tensions in Europe intensified, Poland perceived the need to secure its northern borders. Five days earlier, Poland, feeling supported by international recognition of the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany, decided to deliver an ultimatum to Lithuania. The ultimatum demanded that the Lithuanian government unconditionally agree to establish diplomatic relations with Warsaw within 48 hours, and that the terms be finalized before March 31. The establishment of diplomatic relations would mean a de facto renunciation of Lithuanian claims to the region containing its historic capital, Vilnius.

Memorandum document

A memorandum is a written message that may be used in a business office. The plural form of the Latin noun memorandum so derived is properly memoranda, but if the word is deemed to have become a word of the English language, the plural memorandums, abbreviated to memos, may be used..

This tactic did not prove successful: pro-Nazi propaganda and protests were rampant, even among the Lithuanian population, and the local government was powerless to prevent them. [7] The Nazis physically harassed Lithuanian organizations. On 1 November 1938 Lithuania was pressured into lifting martial law and press censorship. [9] During the December elections to the Klaipėda Parliament, pro-German parties received 87% of votes (25 seats out of 29) in the Klaipėda territory. [10] Dr. Ernst Neumann, the chief defendant in the 1934 trials, was released from prison in February 1938 and became the leader of Klaipėda's pro-German movement. In December he was received by Adolf Hitler, who assured him that the Klaipėda issue would be resolved by March or April 1939. [11] Neumann and other Nazi activists claimed the right of self-determination for the region and demanded that Lithuania open negotiations over the political status of Klaipėda. [12] The parliament was expected to vote for a return to Germany when it convened on 25 March 1939. [13] Germany's official channels maintained silence on the issue. Germany hoped that Lithuania would voluntarily give up the troubled region, [9] and a public stance could have disturbed the sensitive discussions it was then engaged in with Poland over an anti-Communist alliance against the Soviet Union. [14]

Martial law temporary state of government wherein curfews, the suspension of civil law, civil rights, and habeas corpus are suspended, and the application of military law is extended to civilians

Martial law is the imposition of direct military control of normal civilian functions of government, especially in response to a temporary emergency such as invasion or major disaster, or in an occupied territory.

The Parliament of the Klaipėda Region was the parliament of the Klaipėda Region, an autonomous region of Lithuania. The parliament was established by the Klaipėda Convention of 1924 and the first elections took place in October 1925. In all elections pro-German parties received more than 80% of the vote. The major parties included the Memel Agricultural Party, Memel People's Party, and Social Democratic Party of the Memel Territory. The pro-German parliament often clashed with the pro-Lithuanian Klaipėda Directorate and the first three parliaments were dismissed before the end of their full three-year term. The parliament was disbanded after the ultimatum of March 1939 and subsequent Nazi German takeover of the region.

The right of a people to self-determination is a cardinal principle in modern international law, binding, as such, on the United Nations as authoritative interpretation of the Charter's norms. It states that people, based on respect for the principle of equal rights and fair equality of opportunity, have the right to freely choose their sovereignty and international political status with no interference.

The ultimatum

Hitler making a speech in Memel the day after the ultimatum was accepted Hitler speech in klaipeda.jpg
Hitler making a speech in Memel the day after the ultimatum was accepted

Rumors had reached the Lithuanian government to the effect that Germany had specific plans to take over Klaipėda. On 12 March Foreign Minister Urbšys represented Lithuania at the coronation of Pope Pius XII in Rome. On his return to Lithuania he stopped in Berlin with the hope of clarifying the growing rumors. [7] On 20 March Ribbentrop agreed to meet with Urbšys, but not with Kazys Škirpa, who was asked to wait in another room. The conversation lasted for about 40 minutes. [9] Ribbentrop demanded the return of Klaipėda to Germany and threatened military action. Urbšys relayed the verbal ultimatum to the Lithuanian government. Because the ultimatum was never set down in writing and did not include a formal deadline, some historians have downplayed its import, describing it as a "set of demands" rather than as an ultimatum. [11] However, it was made clear that force would be used should Lithuania resist, and it was warned not to seek help from other nations. While a clear deadline was not given, Lithuania was told to make a speedy decision and that any clashes or German casualties would inevitably provoke a response from the German military. [9]

Pope Pius XII 260th Pope of the Catholic Church

Pope Pius XII, born Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli, was head of the Catholic Church from 2 March 1939 to his death. Before his election to the papacy, he served as secretary of the Department of Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, papal nuncio to Germany, and Cardinal Secretary of State, in which capacity he worked to conclude treaties with European and Latin American nations, most notably the Reichskonkordat with Nazi Germany.

Kazys Škirpa Lithuanian army officer and diplomat

Kazys Škirpa was a Lithuanian military officer and diplomat. He is best known as the founder of the Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF) and his involvement in the attempt to establish Lithuanian independence in June 1941.

Lithuania secretly informed the signatories of the Klaipėda Convention about these demands, since technically Lithuania could not transfer Klaipėda without the approval of the signatories. [15] Italy and Japan supported Germany in the matter, while the United Kingdom and France expressed sympathy for Lithuania but chose not to offer any material assistance. They followed a well-publicized policy of appeasing Hitler. The UK treated the issue in the same way as it had treated the Sudeten Crisis and made no plans to assist Lithuania or the other Baltic States if they were attacked by Germany. [16] The Soviet Union, while supporting Lithuania in principle, did not wish to disrupt its relations with Germany at that point, since it was contemplating an alliance with the Nazis. [9] Without any material international support Lithuania had no choice but to accept the ultimatum. Lithuanian diplomacy characterized the concession as a "necessary evil" that would enable Lithuania to preserve its independence and maintained the hope that it was merely a temporary retreat. [7]


At 1:00 a.m. on 23 March Urbšys and Ribbentrop signed a treaty, effective 22 March, stating that Lithuania was voluntarily transferring the Klaipėda Region to Germany. The treaty comprised five articles:

Article I: The Klaipėda Region, cut off from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, is reunited with the German Reich, effective today.

Article II: The Klaipėda Region is to be evacuated immediately by Lithuanian military and police forces. The Lithuanian Government will take care that the territory is left in orderly condition through the evacuation.

Both sides will name commissioners, so far as it will prove necessary, who are able to carry out the handing over of administration not held in the hands of autonomous authorities of the Klaipėda Region.

Regulations of the rest of the questions resulting from the exchange of State sovereignty, especially economic and financial questions, questions of officials as well as citizenship, are reserved for special agreements.

Article III: In order to make allowance for her economic needs, a Lithuanian free-port zone will be established for Lithuania in Klaipėda. Details will be expressively regulated in accordance with directions of an enclosure attached to this agreement.

Article IV: In order to strengthen their decision and to safeguard the friendly development of relations between Germany and Lithuania, both sides assume the obligation neither to proceed against the other by force nor to support an attack from a third side against one of the two sides.

Article V: This agreement becomes effective upon signature. In witness, whereof, the plenipotentiaries of both sides sign this treaty, prepared double in double original in the German and in the Lithuanian languages.

Berlin, March 22, 1939

Lithuania–Germany Treaty as quoted in The New York Times [17]


German warships in the port the day after the ultimatum was accepted Nazi armada in klaipeda.jpg
German warships in the port the day after the ultimatum was accepted

Before the treaty was signed, German soldiers had already entered the port of Klaipėda. Adolf Hitler, on board the cruiser Deutschland , personally toured the city and gave a short speech. The armada sailing to Klaipėda included the cruiser Admiral Graf Spee , the light cruisers Nürnberg , Leipzig , and Köln , [11] two destroyer squadrons, three torpedo boat flotillas, and one tender flotilla. [18] At the time the Lithuanian navy had only one warship, the Prezidentas Smetona , a 580-ton converted minesweeper. [19] While the Germans were celebrating the return of the city, European politicians expressed fears that the Free City of Danzig would be Hitler's next target. [18]

Industry in the Klaipėda Region (1939) [20]
(in 000's litas)
(% of national total)
Metals and machinery2,37710.6
Leather and fur7644.2
Paper and printing20,74457.6
Electricity and gas4,93828.6

President Antanas Smetona's unconditional acceptance of a second ultimatum in the space of a little over one year became a major source of dissatisfaction with his authoritarian rule. The German ultimatum triggered a political crisis: the passive cabinet of Vladas Mironas was replaced by a cabinet headed by General Jonas Černius. For the first time since the 1926 coup d'état, the government included members of the opposition: Leonas Bistras, of the Lithuanian Christian Democratic Party, was named Minister of Education and Jurgis Krikščiūnas, of the Lithuanian Popular Peasants' Union, was named Minister of Agriculture. [21] Because other parties were banned, Bistras and Krikščiūnas were officially billed as independent private citizens. [20] Four generals were now members of the cabinet as well. However, even the looming international crisis did not induce Lithuanian politicians to unite, and they continued to engage in petty political disputes. [21]

The loss of its only access to the Baltic Sea was a major blow to the Lithuanian economy. Between 70% and 80% of foreign trade passed through Klaipėda. [7] The region, which represented only about 5% of Lithuania's territory, contained a third of its industry. [7] Lithuania also lost its heavy investments in the port's infrastructure. About 10,000 refugees, mostly Jews, left the region and sought shelter and support from the Lithuanian government. [9] Lithuanians doubted the fate of their country: in March–April withdrawals of deposits in banks and credit institutions totaled almost 20% of total deposits. [20] After the loss of Klaipėda, Lithuania drifted into the German sphere of influence, especially in terms of trade. At the end of 1939, Germany accounted for 75% of Lithuanian exports and for 86% of its imports. [9] Germany and the Soviet Union concluded the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, dividing Eastern Europe into their respective spheres of influence. Not surprisingly, Lithuania was, at first, assigned to Germany. [9] The Nazis went so far as to suggest a German–Lithuanian military alliance against Poland and promised to return the Vilnius Region, but Lithuania held to its policy of strict neutrality. [22]

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Directorate of the Klaipėda Region

The Directorate of the Klaipėda Region was the main governing institution in the Klaipėda Region from February 1920 to March 1939. It was established by local German political parties to govern the region between the signing of the Treaty of Versailles and establishment of French provision administration. Instead of replacing it, the French legitimized the Directorate. It mainly represented German interests and supported the idea of leaving the region as a free city, similar to the Free City of Danzig. Dismayed Lithuanian government and Prussian Lithuanian activists, who campaigned for incorporation into Lithuania, organized the Klaipėda Revolt in January 1923. The revolt was staged as a popular uprising against the unbearable oppression by the German Directorate. The revolt was successful and the region was incorporated into Lithuania as an autonomous region, governed by the Klaipėda Convention of May 1924.


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