Reflections of Ideological and Party Polemic on Social Issues in the Lithuanian Oberost Press, 1917–1918

  • Edmundas Gimžauskas
Keywords: social question, polemic, First World War, German occupation, Lithuanian periodicals


In the second half of the nineteenth century, a production structure based on a new form of property and a new form of labour – capital and wage labour, respectively – were evolving in the economies of Western European countries. Societies began to exhibit divisions and oppositions based on this conflict between labour and capital. Pope Leo XIII referred to this conflict, which had become particularly acute in Western countries, as ‘social question’. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the discussion of this issue became topical in Lithuania as well and was active primarily in Catholic circles. Although the period of the German occupation in Lithuania during World War I became a crucial starting point on the path to the social security policy of an independent state, it has been very poorly researched in this regard until now. It is therefore important to clarify how social problems were reflected in the environment of Lithuanians under the German occupation and what the tendencies of the pre-war social discourse were under the new circumstances. The essence and features of such discourse are most promisingly revealed not through the simple broadcast of certain attitudes and postulates by specific social groups, which, incidentally, was a common practice, but through polemic on an ideological, party basis. Therefore, in this study, we attempt to look at the perception of the ‘social question’ through this particular prism.

315 ISSN0235–716X eISSN2424–4716 LITUANISTICA. 2023. T. 69. Nr. 4(134)

In the autumn of 1917, as the political process leading to greater independence for Lithuania was developing, the Germans allowed the establishment not only ofLietuvos aidas [Echo of Lithuania], the official organ of the Lithuanian Council, but also of two other Lithuanian periodicals, organised on the party principle and representing the two largest Lithuanian political-ideological currents: the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats. From then on, it becomes possible to talk about the columns, themes, their differences and tendencies of the Lithuanian periodical Oberost press, including the sphere of social issues. It is important to note that both Christian and social democrats viewed ideological and party polemic, which were essentially a continuation of the pre-war polemic, as a natural and self-evident phenomenon with a positive foundation. However, a systematic constructive polemic between these different forces did not develop, and the reason for this should be sought in different strategic visions of the future: while the Christian movement desired only to improve and reform the existing social order, the leftists sought to fundamentally transform it into a socialist one, in other words, to change the rules of the game as such. This also applied to the discussion of social issues, but it was only in the discussion of the socially relevant issue of land reform that manifestations of a constructive dialogue could be observed. As the socialists sought to expand their support base among Lithuanian peasants, they seemed to listen to their wishes and created an impression of flexibility.

In early October 1918, as Germany approached the brink of military defeat and began to liberalise its policies, changes also swept through Oberost. One of them was the complete abolition of press censorship on 15 October. From then on, party polemic in the Lithuanian press became significantly sharper and more straightforward, but did not gain constructiveness. It was more like a political struggle taken to rhetorical extremes, with disinformation and demagoguery. The Darbo balsas [The Voice of Labour], the mouthpiece of the left wing, poured criticism on the right-dominated Lithuanian State Council, which was still freeing itself from the grip of the occupation administration and trying to become an actual governing institution. In this situation, the nationalist-dominated Lietuvos aidas, the official organ of the Council, which until then was trying to maintain the role of a unifier or a mediator of political forces, also engaged in the polemic. From now on, the nationalist current, united with the Christian Democrats, stood against the socialists on the ideological front. Yet again, we find only meagre manifestations of social content in that sharp polemic. Individual publications of social content would occasionally appear in the right-wing press, and a tendency towards a decisive role of the state in solving social problems emerged in late autumn of 1918. Meanwhile, the echoes of the revolution in Germany gave the leftists the illusion that the time had come for a decisive transformation of society in Lithuania, so they did not attach great importance to narrow social polemic with opponents at that time. With a small layer of industrial workers in Lithuania, the attention of both the left-wing and right-wing press concentrated on the situation and problems of manor workers as a social group whose attitude was imagined to be decisive in the development of events in the upcoming revolutionary upheavals.