The original Scalovian and Curonian territory was conquered the German Order of Teutonic Knights who built the Memel Castle (Memelburg) in 1252. Its main purpose was to strengthen their own control of the area during the period of the Prussian Crusade against the Baltic tribes. The town which grew around it was also named Memel. The Memel soon became the base for attacks into Samogitia and Lithuania. It was recognized as Prussian in 1422 as a result of the Treaty of Melno between Prussia and Lithuania. The border remained unchanged for about 500 years until 1918.
After starting WWI against its neighbors, Germany had to pay enormous compensations to the Allied and Associated Powers as a result of losing war. The major land concessions were forced upon Germany which included loss of all her colonies and several territories in Europe, including the Memel / Klaipėda region, an area roughly the size of Luxemburg with a population.
On January 10, 1920, the Treaty of Versailles, the peace settlement signed after WWI, was ratified and the Memel region was given the status of Territoire de Memel under the administration of the Council of Ambassadors. Territory covered 1,100 sq. miles (2,848 km2); its greatest length from Schmalleningken (Smalininkai) was about 80 miles (129 km) and its greatest width was about 20 miles (32 km).
On February 5, 1920 it was announced that the occupying power in the Territory would be French. The official transfer of the Territory took place on February 10; the withdrawal of German troops was completed on February 12. The following day, first infantry units of the French army (21e Bataillon de Chasseurs à Pied) landed in Memel. The temporary administration of the Memel territory was entrusted to the Allied High Commissioner, General Dominique-Joseph Odry, supported by a battalion of Alpine Hunters (Chasseurs Alpins). All local administrative and judicial officials who had not been hostile to the Allies were allowed to retain their offices.
French military mission staff members in Memel, March 1920.
In the first row, second from the left: Gen. D. Odry. Used with permission from Le Blog de Gilles.
As the newly independent states of Poland and Lithuania emerged in the region, the Klaipėda region becomes another focal point of the Polish-Lithuanian Union debate, supported and strongly pushed by France. While France wished the Memel either to become a part of a Greater Poland or else to come under French protection (as naval base), Lithuanians fiercely opposed any of such arrangements. The Lithuanian government stepped up its efforts for the acquisition of Memel. Although it achieved one major diplomatic victory by mid-1922 (de jure recognition), serious doubts about the turning over of the Memel territory to Lithuania began to appear among the Allies. The French desired the creation of a free city in Memel, but the British seems to have fully disagreed. Poland put in a proposal for a free state for the trial period, which was gaining some traction among the Allies. Lithuanian fears that Memel might become a free city like Danzig were growing. There was a feeling that under such a status it might come under Polish influence.
The idea of staging a revolt seems to have been prevalent in late 1922 among high Lithuanian government officials. However, the decisive factor in the success of any such undertaking according to Lithuanian thinking was the German attitude, which clearly suggested that the locals would not resist a Lithuanian takeover. Moreover, German envoy to Lithuania, Franz Olsenhausen, is said to have forwarded instructions from Berlin to indicate to the Lithuanians the tacit approval of the German government; it was more in the interest of Germany to have Lithuania rather than France or Poland rule the area.
On January 9, 1923, a revolt against the German dominated Directorate (Landesdirektorium) resulted in the end of Allied rule in Memel. The Lithuanian militias seized the city and interned the French soldiers after a brief military engagement.
Lithuanian rebels during the 1923 Klaipėda revolt. Photo from State Archives
On February 16, 1923, the Conference of Ambassadors recognized the fait accompli but insisted on a certain degree of autonomy for the Territory. Lithuania also agreed to compensate Allied costs of administration and assume German liabilities of war reparations.
On May 8, 1924, the Allies and Lithuania signed the Convention concerning the Territory of Memel. Lithuania also signed the Statute of the Memel Territory, which recognized Lithuania’s sovereignty over the Territory, registered with the League of Nations on October 3.
On August 25, 1925, the Convention took full effect. The region was granted extensive legislative, judicial, administrative, and financial autonomy. It had its own democratically elected parliament (Klaipėda Diet) and appointed executive branch (the Klaipėda Directorate). The Convention became obsolete when the Klaipėda Region was attached to Nazi Germany as a result of the ultimatum of 1939.
- Misiunas, R. J. (1968). Versailles and Memel. Lituanus, 14(1), 65-93.
- Gade, J. A. (1924). The Memel Controversy. Foreign Affairs, 2(3), 410.
- Dean, E. P. (1935). Again the Memel Question. Foreign Affairs, 13(4), 695.
- Suksi, M. (2011). The Autonomy of Memel. Sub-State Governance through Territorial Autonomy: A Comparative Study in Constitutional Law of Powers, Procedures and Institutions (pp. 34-77). Berlin Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.
- Wikipedia: Treaty of Versailles
- Wikipedia: Klaipėda Convention
- Wikipedia: Directorate of the Klaipėda Region
- Wikipedia: Klaipėda Revolt