The Baltic Region during WWI


By Erin Gettman


Maps:    Westemanns Atlas zur Weltgeschichte, Berlin, 1953





During World War I the experiences of soldiers on the Western and Eastern fronts were dramatically different. While the West was dominated by industrial warfare, mud, and trenches, soldiers in the East found themselves in huge, evacuated territories, far away from anything familiar to them. Before this conflict, most people outside of Russia new absolutely nothing about the lands to the North. Through eyewitness accounts of various participants, directly and indirectly involved in the war, light is shed on Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania from the beginning in 1914 to beyond the Versailles Treaty in 1918. Despite the area’s unfamiliarity, World War I carried in a certain degree of modernity, as well as altered and recast political ties in the area today known as the Baltic Region. By the weakening of the two main imperial powers in the area – Russia and Germany – small countries such as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were able to emerge on the European map.


Click on the map to see the details



The War at Home


The outbreak of the war in August 1914 was met with mixed emotions in the Northern Baltic region. In Estonia there was a level of excitement for a struggle against a historical enemy, but for many Baltic Germans war against their fellow Germans was inconceivable. The Tsarist authorities, becoming more and more suspicious of a Baltic German – ‘enemy German’ alliance, closed down German schools and societies, and prohibited the public use of the German language. Russian nationalism was not only directed at Germans, however, but also against all non-Russian nationalities. Constraints were likewise placed on the use of Estonian.


Throughout the Russian Empire, the war thrust itself into the lives of millions. The first resistance to German belligerence came about in the formation of nine regiments of Latvian Riflemen (discussed further below). About 100,000 Estonian men – close to 10% of the ethnic population – were conscripted into the Tsarist armed forces. (Raun, p. 95) Despite the fact that Latvian national troops had been incorporated in July 1915, no parallel Estonian or Lithuanian divisions were created before the February Revolution in 1917. There had been a predilection by Estonian political leaders to establish national units, nonetheless fear of simply making the situation worse prevented any such developments at the time.


Although Estonia managed to avoid war on its own soil until after the February Revolution, the proximity of the front, which ran for two years along the present day Daugava river in Latvia, led to great changes in the economy. Industry was now set toward military production, while the agricultural stratum suffered from the consequential loss of men (about 75% of those mobilized came from rural areas), as well as the loss of livestock and machinery. (Raun, p. 95) However, perhaps the most lasting industrial effect of WWI was the fact that the big factories were evacuated into Russia and never returned.



Grassroots Experiences


In the eyes of the common people of Latvia, the old autocracy had returned in defiance of the Allies and America. According to the letters of Warwick Greene, a lieutenant colonel in the American Army sent to negotiate peace in the Baltic, Latvian soldiers were instructed not to resist, and in his opinion showed “admirable fortitude and forbearance under intense provocation and almost intolerable circumstances.” (Greene, p. 93) Because they could do nothing, the native Baltic peoples looked westward for help from democracies or eastward towards Bolshevism. Greene correctly predicted that their patience would not last indefinitely, that the Latvian people would eventually resist the new regime with bloodshed.


Greene’s accounts tell of a Lithuanian Countess and her family who endured three and a half years of German occupation:


                  Prussian soldiers clicked about the manor house, German

                  Soldiers were billeted in the barns. No mail, no newspapers;

                  we were completely cut off from the world. So far as we

                  knew, Germany had conquered the world. (Greene, p. 138)


Justifiably, the Countess questioned her families, as well as her country’s future. Her main concern appeared to revolve around what the Allies would ultimately do with the region. Create an independent Lithuania? Let Germany or Poland take hold? Allow Russia to reabsorb the country, or would they be abandoned to the Reds?


The Countess described the emergence of an organization developed for self-protection called the Green Guards. They named themselves as such in order to be distinguishable from the Reds – the revolutionary troops – and the Whites – the anti-revolutionary soldiers. The Green Guards were created for defense of the village; when White or Red guards came into the area the Green Guards drove the cows into hiding places in the swamps and then hid in the woods to snipe the enemy when they started to plunder.


The following is the story of Khaim Kusilovish, of the village of Pikeli in modern day Lithuania. The population of Pikeli was around 150 families. The overwhelming majority were Jews, but there were also ethnic Lithuanians and Latvians. Relations before the war were entirely benevolent, and mobilization took place peacefully. In 1915 the Germans came to the village. They behaved well towards the inhabitants, and for the most part paid for their goods. The Germans spent about three weeks in the village and then one day they were gone. The week after the Germans left, about ten Russian scouts entered the village and there were slanders against the Jews regarding their hospitality toward the Germans. On May 2, 1915, an officer announced that everyone was being expelled, including the seriously ill and aged.


Another eyewitness account is from the village of Kleidany in the district of Kaunas (Lithuania). All throughout April of 1915 there were Russians who stole from the shops, gathered all of the goods together and sold them to peasants for next to nothing. There were incidents of assaults and rapes, but when victims went to the commandment he did not even bother to answer. (Chayesh)



Latvian Soldiers


As a part of the Russian Empire at the onset of the First World War, Latvia was immediately brought into the conflict. In August 1914, the integrated Latvian soldiers were sent to Eastern Prussia where they met defeat at the hands of the Germans. In April of the same year, the German army advanced into Latvian territory. With the looming threat of losing their homeland, a request was put forth to the General Headquarters of the Russian army for the establishment of separate Latvian military units in order to defend themselves. In August 1915 eight regular and one reserve Latvian Riflemen battalions were created, all named after Latvian towns, as part of the 12th Russian army. (Latvian War Museum) Collectively, 8,000 soldiers volunteered to join the battalions. Latvian officers were allowed to undertake command, and the use of their native language was even permitted. These units were involved in much of the fighting of 1916, sustaining exceptionally heavy casualties in the ‘Christmas Battles’ of December 1916 - January 1917, where their death rate reached a dramatic 37%. (Latvian War Museum)


The Latvian Riflemen set themselves apart from other units through discipline, fighting capabilities, educational and cultural levels, and most importantly by their heroism, which arose from a foundation of faith in freedom and independence of Latvia.


German Occupation: Verkehrspolitik & Kultur


Military triumphs in 1914 and 1915 brought the German armies into possession of the territories along the Baltic Coast. They found themselves in a land of foreigners with unfamiliar traditions, cultural identities, and histories. Seeing the east for the first time during the war, amidst the disorder, disease and confusion, they took these sights as ordinary, constant, characteristics of the newly conquered land, not as instances of life under the oppression of war. (Liulevicius, p. 6)


The October Revolution forced the Russian army out of the war, resulting in the Armistice of December 1917. The ensuing Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918 established peace between Germany and Russia, as well as brought about a new, German dominated stage to WWI. (Raun, p. 104) The Brest-Litovsk Treaty gave Germany the freedom to pursue ambitions in regards to Russia’s former possessions in the East. The German army believed it could reshape these lands and peoples into one resembling its own image, in turn paving the way for permanent possession. Their first challenge was the utter extent of the captured spaces, and how to go about implementing control. The resulting attempt was to build an immense military state beyond Germany’s borders named “Ober Ost” (after the title of the Supreme Commander in the East, Oberbefehlshaber Ost). (Liulevicius, p. 7) in the Ober Ost, General Erich Ludendorff and his officials established a huge structure of administration in the occupied territories. One specific practice was called Verkehrspolitik, or “movement policy,” by which officials sought to impose control over not only the population, but to direct all activity in the area to benefit the military state. It used modern techniques of surveillance, registration, and documentation to assemble all available resources, object and human. The administration’s first step was to close off the territory. The land was then divided up into administrations, which were further separated into administrative regions, and finally subdivided into smaller districts.


As natives were not allowed to move between the official boundaries, this created obvious hardships. The borders were often established without any consideration given to existing patterns of settlement of social organization. Natives could not travel to visit relatives or friends, and traveling Jewish merchants lost their livelihood entirely. Military courts inflicted huge fines, penalties and even confiscation for violations.


There was also a cultural counterpart to the ‘movement policy.’ While Verkehrespolitik controlled the land, borders, and movement, Ober Ost’s command aimed, through a process called Kultur, to transform the identities of the different native populations, essentially trying to impose a new culture where ‘uncivilized’ peoples would be ameliorated by German ‘genius.’ Considering the area’s ethnic diversity, this was a rather large objective, which involved, more or less, reinventing their culture. Ober Ost’s cultural policies had three aims. First, they wanted to put forth an impressive image of the state and it’s civilizing effect in the East. Second, native culture was to be infused with German institutions, which would redefine their identity and guide their development. Finally, they also aimed to provide German soldiers with a sense of their mission.


Regardless of these objectives, arrogant, overreaching ambitions brought constant conflict between the seemingly utopian ends and barbarous practices of the state’s policies. Instead of successfully molding the native peoples to German ideals, what resulted was an outburst of native resistance. Throughout the implementation of German Kultur, the native Baltic peoples had come to recognize and embrace the individual characteristics of their own cultures. A feeling of nationalism sprung from these realizations and a renewed sense of vigor spread throughout the region.



War Beyond November 11, 1918


Collapse of the ‘German Order’ in 1918, after an almost assured victory in the east, was beyond comprehension for the soldiers of Ober Ost. Humiliation, frustration, and regret caused a feeling of fury, which was then aimed at the East and its inhabitants. The resulting group of German Freikorps unleashed their hatred as well as their refusal to accept defeat on the Baltic lands after the war. Contrary to popular belief, World War I did not end precisely in November 11, 1918, but continued through acts of violence let loose from a group of people who refused to accept defeat.



In June of 1919, in an effort to secure its southern border, Estonian national forces were compelled to defend themselves against two groups; the Landeswehr, a Baltic German military force, and the Iron Division, which was made up of Baltic and Reich Germans led by General Rudiger von der Goltz. (Raun, p. 109) In the Landeswehr War, as it was refered to, and under the guise of fighting Bolshevism, Von der Goltz attempted to takeover the Baltic, but was nevertheless defeated in a short, yet bloody battle, by the Estonians.


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The ambiguity of power left behind by Ober Ost created an opportunity for many competing political groups in the area. With the defeat of Germany, natives from the three Baltic countries rushed to establish republics. These ambitions soon faced a new threat from the East when the Red Army invaded. The Bolshevik’s leader was actually a Latvian and former head of the 5th Latvian Rifles Regiment. Despite the fact that they were lacking in organization and equipment, the Reds experienced little opposition from the exhausted natives. The Latvian population, in fact, provided the newly declared Soviet government with the most support of any of the Baltic countries. This was mainly due to sympathies held for their fellow countrymen in the Latvian Rifles Regiments, the Red Army’s most trusted division. Nevertheless, the violent atrocities that ensued over the coming months depleted Latvian patience and cooperation.


In Lithuania the Bolsheviks found even less support than in either Latvia or Estonia. In rural areas, farmers organized local assemblies supporting their resistant government, and eventually – after an incentive of land reform – the formation of an army began. Even so, by late February, Latvia and most of Lithuania were under communist control.


The tables began to turn in Estonia, where officers coordinated an army out of sections of disbanded Estonian regiments. The Allies, concerned about Soviet expansion (though not willing to offer troops), provided them with weapons and supplies, while 1,000 Finnish volunteers provided reinforcement. On February 24, 1919, Estonia defeated the Reds and claimed its independence.


Almost a year later, on December 13, 1919, Lithuanians pushed the last of the Freikorps into Prussia.      As was common with most of the invading troops of World War I, the Freikorps saw the East as a place with no limits. Unaware of the existing plethora of culture, German and Russian soldiers attempted to overrun the native Baltic population and force upon them an entirely new, and in their view, civilized way of life. Although these ambitions were never completely met, the events of World War I radically altered the world’s perception of Northeast Europe, and put Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania on the map.





Chayesh, Anatolii, LitvakSIG, Chicago, IL, [On the Front Line in Lithuania, 1915], 2002.

(May 28, 2002)

This site contains 25 eyewitness accounts of German and Russian occupation in various Lithuanian villages during WWI. They describe their treatment by their occupiers as well as their feelings towards them.


Department of History Map Library, [Maps of the World War I], n.d.

(May 20, 2002)

Provides 52 maps of various stages of the war, from the western front to the eastern front. Begins with the eve of the war in 1914 and ends with the political realignments in 1919. Map #40 shows Hutier’s offensive in September 1917, a battle in Riga where the Russian troops surrendered to the Germans.



Greene, Warwick. Letters of Warwick Greene, 1915-1928. Boston: Houghton

Mifflin, 1931.

This primary document is a compilation of the letters of Warwick Greene, Director of the Rockefeller War Relief Organization. It gives incite into his thoughts as well as a running account of the war. Sections are dedicated to Greene’s mission to the Baltic States to negotiate peace, investigate and report on military, economic and political conditions during the war.


Latvian War Museum, Riga, Latvia, [Latvian Soldiers in the First World War 1914-1918], n.d.

(May 28, 2002)

This site provides information on Latvia from the First World War up until the end of Soviet occupation in 1990. Eight sections emphasize Latvian soldiers during various wars, including WWI, the Russian Civil War, and WWII.


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

In Kirby’s second volume of the History of the Baltic, he disputes the idea that the many reforms, revolutions, and rebellions of the time were brought about by actions by the outer rim of society. Kirby argues that Northern Europe was actually very flexible to change. Beginning in 1772, Kirby breaks his information into two sections, The Age of Empire, ending with WWI. Section Two, Nations and States, begins with the New Order and ends with the fall of the Soviet Union and its effects of the people of the Baltic.


Liulevicius, Vejas. War Land on the Eastern Front. Cambridge; The Press

Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 2000.

This book tells of the German army’s experience on the Eastern front, and explains how radically different it was from the Western front. It also describes how the primitiveness of the East led to the “demondernization” of the Eastern front, as technology was not as important there as it was in the West. There are also a number of wonderful maps depicting the changing borders and front lines of Eastern Europe.


Mawdsley, Evan. The Russian Revolution and the Baltic Fleet. London; The

Macmillan Press Ltd., 1978.

Mawdsley argues that the slight attention that has been paid to the Baltic region has had too much focus on the leadership of government and political parties, and not enough on the ‘grass-roots’ of the area. While he does examine the developments at the center, Mawdsley also looks at provincial areas. The book continues past the end of the war into April 1918, discussing what he calls the real end of the ‘pre-soviet’ Baltic Fleet.


Tschischwitz. The Army and Navy During the Conquest of the Baltic Islands

October 1917. Fort Leavenworth; The Command and General Staff School

Press, 1931.

This primary document written by then Chief of Staff of the German Expeditionary Corps, Lieutenant General Von Tschiswitz. He goes further than just retelling his experiences and also analyzes his enemy –The Baltic Fleet’s- strategies and defenses. He compiles them into 24 descriptive chapters along with 16 sketches of the Baltic area in different stages of the war.



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