The Baltic Countries and their Years of Independence, 1918-1940

Janis Elksnitis    (Map.: John Bartholomew, 1935)


Like most of the European countries forming around this time, the nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were set up as democratic republics.  Historically, if we look at the entire span of European history since the Dark Ages, placing Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into one grouping is very difficult. It is not until the time of the Second World War that we can historically label the three countries as a unit of some sort.  In this paper I will be discussing how the three countries that had never existed before their independence from the Russian Empire in 1918 were able to become free, and what was their economic and political structure during the years of independence. The Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians were able to achieve independence by having an aversion to their foreign rulers, formation of national self-awareness and most importantly being ready to assert themselves politically when the time was right.                                                         


Brief History

Predecessors to today's Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians had occupied the area around the eastern Baltic Sea for thousands of years but it was not until the early part of the 20th century that they were able to once again rule their lands.  Between the beginning of the 13th century and the start of the 20th Germanic noble families controlled the lands of modern day Estonia and Latvia.

Lithuania on the other hand was one of the most powerful states in Europe for a large period of this time. Despite fighting aggression from Muscovy and "crusading" Teutonic Knights, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania managed to become the largest political entity in its day, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. The history of Lithuania since then has always been linked to Central Europe, especially to Poland.

It was during the 12th and 13th centuries that these people started losing their land to foreign invaders.  Since then, Germany, Poland-Lithuania, Sweden and Russia have ruled the different lands.  German and Polish over-lordship of the area continued for five centuries, with a German landowning class ruling over an enserfed Latvian and Estonian peasantry, while Lithuania for a large part of this time was united with Poland but later faced the same discrimination from its Polish lords.  The Baltic Germans, Poles and Russians viewed Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians as people without an identity and that they could be molded into whatever they wanted them to be.  By the 1880’s cultural Russification was going ahead full scale as schools were being only taught in Russian.  According to Toivo Raun the Russian Orthodox Church was also challenging the local Lutheran and Catholic religions.  It was this sort of treatment of the locals that led to the nationalistic movements in the second half of the 19th century.


 Events leading up to 1918

During the 19th century Estonian and Latvian academics read the works collected by Johann Gottfried Herder and others like him in the 18th century and learned about their ideas of how fascinating their native languages are.  The same happened with Lithuanians in the 1880’s and came later than her neighbors because the Russian government banned printing of books in Lithuanian.  Up until this time, the only way for a local peasant to advance in society was to be assimilated into either German culture for the Estonians and Latvians, or Polish culture for the Lithuanians.  More and more natives started reading the folksongs, poems and other literary works of their own people and soon after a nationalistic awakening started to emerge.  “The initial national awakening was essentially a debate conducted in learned societies, journals, newspapers and in middle-class drawing rooms”(Kirby) although this quickly spread to the rest of the local populations through great speakers.  These local speakers told their people that they didn’t need to leave their mother tongue and nation behind in order to advance in society and that they should try to use their new skills to help their own nation.  “The national movements were therefore directed towards achieving equality for the Baltic languages and cultures”(Smith) The idea of an equal class is most likely why socialism caught on quickly in the Baltic lands.

In the 1890’s socialism and its ideas had spread to all three nations and easily became popular because Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians were regarded to as a lower class by their foreign landowners.  The appeal of socialism was furthered by this class struggle and when in 1905 the Russian Tsar’s army opened fire on socialist demonstrators, it sparked demonstrations and strikes all over the Russian empire.  This also spread to the countryside “where the seething discontent among the peasant population provided a perfect setting for violent attacks on German estates.”(von Rauch)  During the 1905 revolution, poverty-stricken Baltic peasants vented their anger at Czarist police and Baltic German nobility, who owned more than half of all land in Latvia and Estonia. “In the Lithuanian provinces the destruction of estates was rare, but strikes by farm laborers were widespread.” (Smith)  In the end almost 600 estates had been destroyed by arson in all three provinces.  "It was a violent time in the Baltic states, where many delighted in torching the manors…and other buildings of the ruling classes. It was the start of a savage century,” said British historian Rowlinson Carter.  As a result, 700 people in the Latvian and Estonian provinces were shot and over 8,000 deported to Siberia.  In the Lithuanian provinces about 2,900 people were arrested.  Many escaped to Britain but the majority ended up in the US


World War I and the subsequent wars over the Baltic territory

By 1915 all the Lithuanian provinces and the Courland region of Latvia was occupied by the German army and by 1917, they occupied Estonia. Their advance into the region was urged on by Baltic Germans, who hoped the German military presence would help them maintain their property and privileges.  Baltic nationalists had been pushing mainly for greater autonomy within what they hoped would be a reformed, democratically oriented Russian Empire.  The Latvians and Estonians had not even considered the possibility of setting up independent states in the initial phases of World War I. Certainly for the masses the question of independence simply did not arise. (von Rauch)  The same might be said of Lithuania.  The tsarist regime in Russia was overthrown between February and March of 1917.  On February 16th Lithuania declared itself an independent state and was quickly recognized by GermanyEstonia proclaimed independence on February 24th and after the collapse of Germany in November of 1918, Latvia declared independence of November 18th.  The newly independent Baltic countries fought against both German and Soviet Union forces until 1920 when the last of the German armies were beaten and peace treaties were finally signed with the Soviet Union


Newly Independent Countries


“By the end of 1920, the Baltic States had applied for membership in the League of Nations to acquire its “guarantee” of their “territorial integrity”(Crowe) and in the fall of 1921 all three countries were admitted.  The League of Nations was intended to be a worldwide peacekeeping organization but this later proved unsuccessful as it did nothing to stop the annexation of the Baltic States by the USSR.  All three countries looked to Britain for help in achieving international identity and the Baltic States introduced liberal-democratic constitutions, with most of the power vested in their parliaments, similar to that of Britain. In Estonia, a democratic government was formed in 1918 and was headed by Konstantin Paets who held power until 1919, when he was elected out of office.  In Latvia, Karlis Ulmanis had set up the provisional government in 1918 and was also shortly voted out and gave up his post in 1920.  The Lithuanians took two years longer to organize a government due to the fact that the political situation remained undecided because of fighting still raging on in parts of Lithuania.  It was not until 1920 that the Lithuanian government could meet for the first time.  Antanas Smetona who had been president of the Republic from April of 1919 under the National Council (Taryba) stood down in 1922 to Aleksansdras Stulginskis.  In 1923, in search for a port to the Baltic, Lithuanian military forces took over the area of Klaipeda (Memel), formerly administered by the League of Nations and claimed by Germany. The dispute over the city seriously strained Lithuanian relations with Germany throughout the '20s and '30s.

Click on the below map for better resolution:


Economy and Education

In an atmosphere of general economic misery and wartime decimation of much of the region's infrastructure, land reform was carried out in all three countries.  Estonia and Latvia stripped their Baltic German nobility of their land and redistributed it to peasants.  The same happened in Lithuania and its Polish nobility.  Estonia and Latvia had reasonably mixed economies similar to Scandinavian types while Lithuania relied almost completely on its agricultural produce for money.  This was partly due to the fact that Estonia and Latvia had the big port cities or Riga, Tallinn and Narva.  Foreign investment, government investment and tariffs on imports were just some of the ways in which the three countries developed their booming economies in the 30’s.  Lithuania also experienced a very rapid increase in its economy during this time.  By 1939 when the rest of the world’s production rose by an average of 2.5 percent, Lithuania’s jumped to 172 percent.  (Reddaway)  In Estonia and Latvia free compulsory education was offered but Lithuania had more of a problem with illiteracy.  In 1923, 32.6% of the whole population was unable to read or write although free education was also provided. (Smith)


Ethnic make up and Minorities in the Baltic

From the time of their independence until their annexation by the Soviet Union the three Baltic country’s ethnic minority population was less than a quarter of the total population.  In 1922 Estonians made up 87.7% of the entire population while Latvia’s population in 1920 was 72.6% native and Lithuanians made up 80.6% of its population in 1923.  (Smith)  All three countries had passed extremely egalitarian constitutions that allowed for extensive minority rights.  These constitutions all contained a general statement to the effect that no citizen was to be victimized on account of his nationality, belief or race.  (von Rauch)  In the 1920’s in Estonia and Latvia the largest ethnic minority was Russian while in Lithuania it was Jewish.  (Smith)  Minorities were given assurances that they could teach their children their mother tongue and even establish schools in their own languages.  In Lithuania the influential Jewish community had gained constitutional autonomy over its own affairs.  In Latvia and Estonia the minorities were also involved in government where mainly Baltic Germans and Russians established their own political parties.   While minority political groups were allowed to exist, they never played a huge part in parliament due to their lack of numbers and votes.


Establishment of authoritarian regimes

When we hear someone speak of an authoritarian regime we automatically assume that this is synonymous with terror and fear.  This was not the case in the Baltic lands but strangely enough, in all three countries parliament was suspended in a coup by their first presidents.  By the late 20’s governments were changing an average of once a year, causing instability in politics.  In 1926, the Lithuanian Antanas Smetona suspended parliament and announced himself as sole leader of the nation.  In 1934, citing threats from extremist movements, Estonian Konstantin Pдts and Latvian Karlis Ulmanis dissolved parliaments and established themselves as rulers. Their regimes were rather mild authoritarian regimes compared to elsewhere in Europe.


The 1930’s

The 1930’s brought prosperity to the Baltic lands.  The greater powers of Europe were once again building up their strength for an inevitable war to come.  This brought about a need in agricultural, metal and oil products, all of which the Baltic countries could produce and as a result they prospered.  The independence period as a whole witnessed a remarkable expansion of education, culture and society as a whole. (Smith)  In 1930 the Great Depression slowed their progress but only a year later, their economies were back in full gear.  The Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian economies were among the most successful in Europe in their recovery from the depression.  (Reddaway)  In 1920, Estonia had received 15 million gold rubles from the Soviet Union for war reparations that it used for capital investment.  Oil deposits had been found and were turned into a major industry.  By 1939 Estonia’s oil production was one fifth as big as Germany’s in a country with only one fiftieth the population. (Smith)  Latvia had fairly large metal goods, woodworking, textile and food producing industries from which it could develop a strong economy through exports.  Germany and Britain were the main importers, importing up to three fourths of its total goods.  Lithuania’s economy was largely based on agricultural and forestry products.  Like Latvia and Estonia, Britain and Germany were also the largest importers of Lithuanian goods.  The progress being made by the Baltic countries could be seen if their trading position in 1938 is considered, when they exported about $65.8 million worth of goods, which was about half the amount exported by the [entire] Soviet Union in that year. (Smith) 

 From the mid-1930s onwards, the foreign policies pursued by the Baltic States were influenced to an ever-larger extent by the rivalry between Germany and the Soviet Union. (von Rauch)   The Baltic countries became increasingly frantic about threats to their independence from Soviet Russia to the east and Nazi Germany to the west.  More specifically Lithuania’s main concerns were with Poland and Germany while Estonia and Latvia felt most threatened by the USSR.  Baltic diplomats considered dozens of different treaties and alliances in a desperate effort to keep both powers at bay and eventually chose to maintain a policy of strict neutrality. Berlin and Moscow pressed the Baltic countries to sign non-aggression pacts in 1935, but they refused, saying they would instead maintain their policy of neutrality. 

The three countries, along with Finland and Poland did however attempt to create a 5-country alliance, which was to be called the Baltic Entente.  While Finland, Poland and Lithuania never officially signed anything with the other countries, Latvia and Estonia managed to sign the Estonian-Latvian pact that reaffirmed the need for a militarily united Baltic for the two countries. (Crowe) The original Baltic Entente however never came to be, mainly because Lithuania was still officially at war with Poland over the taking of Vilnius.  Although there was no fighting between the two, the fact that Lithuania didn’t recognize the incorporation of Vilnius into Poland and still declared itself at war with Poland definitely hampered talks of an alliance.  After a few ineffective talks, Poland and Finland lost interest in an alliance with the Baltic countries.

On March 17, 1938 Poland and Lithuania signed a peace treaty but by September, Poland no longer existed because Germany and the Soviet Union had occupied it.  On March 22, Germany took back the Klaipeda (Memel) district from Lithuania.  On August 23, 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in which the two agreed on a peace treaty but at the same time divided up Europe in a secret protocol between two superpowers. (1)

The Soviet Union had already been building up its forces on the borders of the three countries since 1934 and on September 28, 1939 the Soviet Union gives Estonia an ultimatum, which it must decide on and respond to in 24 hours.  Either Estonia lets them place troops inside Estonian territory or they would do so by force.  This was said to be for the protection of the Soviet Union and Stalin said that he would respect Estonian sovereignty after the war.  The same ultimatum was issued to Latvia on October 5th, 1939 and consequently to Lithuania on October 10th, 1939.  Lithuania was offered Vilnius from the recently conquered Poland lands and it accepted the offer.  All had seen the brutal Winter War against Finland when it refused to accept the ultimatum and they had no choice but to accept the “treaty” as their armies were even smaller than that of Finland.

By July of 1940 Moscow pressed for the full incorporation of the Baltic States into the USSR. Backed by the overwhelming presence of 650,000 Russian troops in the Baltic, Stalin's appointed representatives in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania staged parliamentary elections with only Communist appointees eligible to run.  According to official results, the Communists drew over 90 percent of the vote. Within days of the elections, Soviet loyalists, mostly Soviet troops in civilian uniform, march through the streets demanding the Baltic states be "accepted" into the Soviet Union.  Both the elections and demonstrations had been staged by the Soviet Union but there was nothing that the Baltic States could do but accept their fate and become republics of the USSR.  By 1941 all hope was lost as mass deportations of the previous political leaders, anyone in the upper class and even the local populations were carried out.

The history of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania before, after and during their short 20 years of independence is that of a tragic one.  When the three countries had finally rid themselves of foreign rule, they were invaded again without anyone to back them up.  Even though all three countries were members of the League of Nations, no one physically stepped in to help them and no one stepped in to halt their occupation and annexation by the Soviet Union. By doing so, all members broke Article 10 of the League of Nations constitution which stated “to respect and preserve against external aggression, the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all its members and article 16 ”provided for immediate economic and social, and potential military, sanctions against any member that committed an act of aggression.”  After WWII, the three countries lost about 30% of their pre-war population and would suffer through another 50 years before they reclaim their independence. 



1. A website at Yale University containing information and facts on the Secret Additional Protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 23, 1939.  Retrieved June 2, 2000 from the World Wide Web.

Crowe, David M.  The Baltic States and the Great PowersWestview Press, Oxford 1993.

Kirby, David.  The Baltic World 1772-1993Longman Publishing, New York, 1995.

Lieven, AnatolThe Baltic RevolutionYale University Press, London, 1993.

Plakans, AndrejsThe LatviansHoover Institution Press, Stanford, 1995.

Raun, ToivoEstonia and the EstoniansHoover Institution Press, Stanford University, California, 1991.

Reddaway, W.F.  Problems of the Baltic.  Cambridge University Press, London, 1940.

Smith, Graham.  The Baltic States.  Macmillan Press Ltd, London, 1994.

Taagepera, Rein.  Estonia, Return to IndependenceWestview Press, Oxford, 1993.

Von Rauch, Georg.  The Baltic States: The Years of Independence 1917-1940.  St. Martin’s Press, New York 1974.


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