As Lithuania was preparing to commemorate the centenary of its statehood in 2018, celebration plans included erecting monuments to the leading figures of the Lithuanian national movement. While monuments to Jonas Basanavičius and the Vileišiai brothers rose up in central Vilnius, a tribute to Smetona has stalled, not least due to its subject's more ambiguous role in history.
An important milestone in the national independence movement was the Lithuanian Conference in Vilnius in 1917. Jonas Basanavičius, the publisher of the first Lithuanian-language periodical ‘Auszra’ who was in his 60s at the time, was elected honorary chairman of the conference and Antanas Smetona became the chairman of the Council of Lithuania.
About five months later, on February 16, 1918, both signed the Declaration of Independence, a document establishing the Lithuanian state. Another year later, Smetona was elected the country's first president.
To mark the centenary of these events, the Lithuanian capital erected a statue of Basanavičius in the square opposite the building that hosted the 1917 conference. While the statue has been surrounded with some controversy – the project was to involve private sponsorship, but was eventually paid for with public funds – its subject is not controversial.
That is not the case with Smetona. After serving briefly as president in 1919-1920, he returned to power in 1926 with a military coup that ended Lithuania's fledgling democracy. Smetona served as an authoritarian leader until 1940 when the Red Army invaded and occupied the country and he fled Lithuania.
These circumstances, and the fact that he ruled from Kaunas, ‘the temporary capital’, rather than Vilnius, partially explain why the Lithuanian capital does not have a monument for President Smetona.
When asked about the prospects of erecting one, Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius remains ambivalent.
“We haven't got a monument for the Sąjūdis or the Helsinki Group. [...] We don't have monuments for Algirdas or Kęstutis, even though Belarus does. I really wouldn't want to say now whether I'd approve or not [a monument to Smetona],” the mayor told LRT TV.
Lithuanians take pride in the history of the first Lithuanian Republic of the 1920s and 1930s, a period often described simply as ‘Smetonian’. ‘Smetonian intellectual’ and ‘Smetonian times’ generally carry positive connotations, so much so that businesses market their products as ‘Smetonian’ to signal quality.
However, historians disagree on how to judge Smetona's political activities and are not ready to forgive the president for some of the events in Lithuania's interwar history.
“Perhaps not so much for the coup itself than for disbanding political parties and essentially destroying the opposition,” says Vilnius University historian Alfredas Bumblauskas.
An even darker moment in the history of ‘Smetonian Lithuania’ is remembered to be the last government meeting of June 1940, which decided not to mount military resistance to the Soviet demands, and Smetona's fleeing the country.
This episode, however, may have been exaggerated by Soviet historiography in order to discredit Lithuania's pre-Soviet regime.
“We often say, he [Smetona] betrayed the nation. [...] He ran away. But why no one reproaches the Polish government for fleeing to the West via Romania and setting up a government-in-exile?” asks Bumblauskas.
Everyone expected that once Smetona was safe abroad – he went to Germany first and then to Switzerland – he would lead an effort against the Soviet occupation from there.
But Lithuanian émigrés did not set up a government in exile and this circumstance, Bumblauskas says, is crucial in judging Smetona's legacy. “So let's weigh now – do we or do we not owe a monument to Smetona,” he asks.
Art historian and curator Laima Kreivytė says that the drive to build or take down monuments has been antagonising the Lithuanian society and suggests calling a decade-long monument-building freeze.
“It even seems to me that these symbolic gestures have become more important than real work – it's an easy way to score political points for either side,” Kreivytė tells LRT TV. “This monument-building frenzy is a strange phenomenon, because usually it is more characteristic of totalitarian states.”
But others disagree, including Vilius Kavaliauskas. An adviser to former Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius, he was one of the curators of the statehood centenary celebration programme.
“If we are a state – and if the majority of citizens believe that we are, we want to be and we will remain a state – then we must pay tribute to our roots. I think that we cannot celebrate our statehood without the first president,” Kavaliauskas says.
There is a Smetona street in Vilnius and a memorial plaque on a house where the president used to live.
A statue of Antanas Smetona stands outside the historical president's palace in Kaunas and another one was recently erected in the village of Užulėnis where Smetona oversaw a school construction.