Baltic Countries and their Years of Independence,
(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
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.
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
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
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 Germany.
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.
“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
stripped their Baltic German nobility of their land and redistributed it to
peasants. The same happened in Lithuania and its Polish
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
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
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 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
in a country with only one fiftieth the population.
had fairly large metal goods, woodworking, textile and food producing
industries from which it could develop a strong economy through
exports. Germany and
were the main importers, importing up to three fourths of its total
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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 Powers. Westview
Kirby, David. The
Baltic World 1772-1993. Longman
Publishing, New York,
The Baltic Revolution. Yale
University Press, London, 1993.
The Latvians. Hoover
Institution Press, Stanford, 1995.
and the Estonians. Hoover
Institution Press, Stanford
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 Independence. Westview
Von Rauch, Georg. The
Baltic States: The Years of Independence
1917-1940. St. Martin’s Press, New York 1974.
published at http://depts.washington.edu/baltic/papers/
THE BALTIC STATES