My Grandparents’ Kaunas: Searching for the 1920’s in 2010

Nancy L. Heingartner (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

This paper investigates the experiences in Lithuania of Robert Heingartner, a career U.S. diplomat who served as American consul in Kaunas from 1926 to 1928, and describes the experiences I shared with Wisconsin-Madison emeritus Professor of History Alfred Senn in 2010 as we retraced Heingartner’s steps in Lithuania of the 1920s.  A career diplomat (and my paternal grandfather), Robert Heingartner spent most of his life abroad, primarily in Western European capitals, and kept a careful diary for much of his diplomatic career, documenting events that both politically and personally were of note.  Professor Senn has edited Heingartner’s diary and published it in 2009 as Lithuania in the 1920s: A Diplomat’s Diary, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009.  The diary makes it clear that the life of a U.S. diplomat abroad in the first half of the twentieth century was very different from that of one in the early twenty-first century.  Most importantly, life moved at a much slower pace—air travel was uncommon and radios were considered high-tech.  In his diary, Heingartner describes countless social events he attended in Kaunas.  Though one might be tempted to think that his life consisted of nothing but parties, in truth, social events served a very important function.  Without the technologically advanced means of collecting intelligence that exist today, in 1920s Lithuania these gatherings were the main way that foreign diplomats gained access to “insider” information on conditions and attitudes in society.

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