Creating National Universities in Latvia and Lithuania, 1919-1925

Per Bolin (Södertörn University, Sweden)

The formation of the new Latvian and Lithuanian states in 1918-1919 had radical implications also for academia. The crucial undertaking of creating new and national universities in Riga and Kaunas was as a way of structuring these new nations in both symbolic and institutional terms. In these projected universities, the imperatives concerning the respective nation’s history and culture could be materialized. Moreover, instruction would be conducted in Latvian and Lithuanian, languages that had hitherto been seen as simple peasant vernaculars, completely unfit for the purpose of academia or even higher abstract reasoning.

The academics assembling in Riga and Kaunas to create these new universities had to handle a number of problems and dilemmas, one of which is the focus of this paper: the recruitment of a sufficient number of well-qualified academics—who preferably were to be fluent in the state language—in a situation where very few Latvians and Lithuanians had previously received proper university training.  This gave rise to a particular dilemma: should the organizers rely on less qualified academics from the majority nations, or should they also appoint outstanding scholars and scientists of other nationalities?  While the first option would certainly fit the agenda of a nationalizing state, it would to some extent run counter to established notions within the European academic field: that appointments and promotions should be made solely on the basis of scientific and scholarly merit.

In this paper I explore the different ways the organizers of Latvia’s and Lithuania’s universities handled this dilemma during the formative years of 1919 to 1925.

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