Kaunas is the second-largest city in Lithuania, located in the central part of the country, at the confluence of the two largest Lithuanian rivers – the Nemunas and the Neris. Kaunas is and has historically been the leading centre of Lithuanian economic, academic, and cultural life. It was the temporary capital of Lithuania during the interwar period. Since 1991, it is the only city in Lithuania which is a member of the international confederation ‘New Hansa’.
Kaunas is located 100 kilometres from the capital Vilnius, and 212 kilometres from Klaipėda, the country’s largest seaport.
Archeological excavations indicate that people settled at the confluence of the Nemunas and the Neris rivers back in the seventh-sixth millennium BC; the most affluent collections of ceramics and other artifacts found are from the second and first millennium BC.
A settlement on the site of current Kaunas old town was first mentioned in written sources in 1361. To fend off the attacks of Crusaders, a stone castle was built in the 14th century, which became an important part of the city’s defence system. In 1408, the town was granted Magdeburg Rights by Vytautas the Great, which gave Kaunas the right to be called a city, to have a coat of arms and a seal, to conduct international trade more successfully. Since then, Kaunas began to grow rapidly. In 1441, after signing the Hanseatic agreement, merchants of Hanseatic cities opened a Kontor, which operated until 1532. In the 16th century, Kaunas became one of the best formed cities in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
In 1812, Kaunas ended up in the vortex of Russian-French war. In Kaunas, Napoleon with 220 thousand soldiers crossed the Nemunas by pontoon bridges. And it was Kaunas where the French army suffered their final catastrophe. During that war, the city was devastated twice.
Great importance for the economic development of Kaunas had the railway line that was built in 1862, and the first electric power-station that was launched in 1898. New buildings weregrowing rapidly in the New Town… However, further development of Kaunas was halted by the First World War.
In 1919, Russians occupied Vilnius, so the State Council and the Cabinet of Ministers settled in Kaunas. In 1920, Vilnius was occupied by Poland, Kaunas became the temporary capital of Lithuania, and it received a historic and unique opportunity to be the most important city of the young independent state. In 1923, Italian journalist Giuseppe Salvatori was visiting here and he could not believe it: “My heart sank. I thought, how can this village, so unpresentable, so unimpressive, be the capital of a European country?”
At that time Kaunas really looked miserable. The city’s main streets stank, crooked boards served as sidewalks. Laisvės alėja (Liberty Avenue) was dominated by tiny Jewish shops with signboards made from all kinds of scrap.
But over the 20 years, progressive intellectuals have built a true capital city with banks, universities, theatres, funiculars, parks, churches, luxurious palaces, museums, nursing homes, arenas, modern residential houses… and have proven that a young country can speak in unique architectural language that is reflecting the times.
Kaunas has numerous extant buildings in Bauhaus-style which was then regarded as avant- garde in Europe; Lithuanian architects competed in international exhibitions with the designs of those buildings and had won various awards. Central Post Office Palace, Lithuanian Bank building, Officers’ Club, Fire station, Vytautas the Great War Museum, cinema Romuva, Ministry of Justice, Seimas Palace, Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Crafts, Milk Centre – we can continue with the list of buildings that are adorning Kaunas up to this day.
Due to the modern interbellum architecture and notably refined sense of style of the local ladies, Kaunas in the interwar period was called ‘The Little Paris’. At that time, Kaunas was one of the control points of international Monte Carlo Rally. Each contestant of the rally had to stop in Kaunas and get a mark at a special checkpoint.
For a long time, football had been the most popular sport, but after the Lithuanian team won the European basketball championship title in Riga in 1937, it had to concede this position to basketball. And when in 1939 Lithuanian national team again defended the basketball championship title in Kaunas, for Lithuanians basketball became the most popular sport by far, and remains such up to this day.
Like this, during the interwar period, Kaunas from a humble centre of the North West province of the Tsarist Russian Empire turned into a comfortable, dynamic, real Western city, the cradle of Lithuanian intelligentsia and culture.
However, this period of prosperity was broken by the Soviet occupation that had done the most damage. After the Second World War, when Vilnius was restored to be the capital, Kaunas became the second-largest city of Lithuania by size and population.