215: Baltic Independence Pt. 1


In the years after 1918 Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia would fight for their independence. 



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 215. In the aftermath of the First World War and the Russian Revolutions four territories which had formerly been a part of the Russian Empire in the Baltic region would all attempt to assert their independence. One of these, Finland, we discussed in the previous two episodes. This episode begins our three part series on the three other territories, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. All three territories would be successful in their quest for independence, although there would be many points along the way where success for all of them, or any of them, seemed far from likely. The three Baltic areas all had well developed nationalist movements by the time that the First World War was over. They all had somewhat similar experiences during the war, with German occupations being a key part of that experience. During these occupations they had to contend with German leaders who, in their racism, looked down upon the local population, and who believed that the locals needed to be civilized. After the Germans had to evacuate the territory, due to provisions in the armistice, the three areas would have to try and find their way through the incredibly turbulent Russian Civil War. This turbulence would destroy many other nationalist movements from around the old Russian Empire, but these three Baltic countries would manage to use it to their advantage. Over the next three episodes we will discuss each country in turn, today we will begin with Estonia.

The nationalist movements in the Baltic countries began to gather momentum after the 1850s, with a big jump occurring in the 1890s. This roughly mirrors the increase in nationalist sentiments around Europe as a whole. One of the most important drivers behind the rise in nationalism was a renewal in the interest of Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian heritage. Old cultural features like language, folklore, customs, all started to feature more prominently in everyday life. This reinforced the idea that they were different than the Russians that ruled them. At the turn of the century the Estonians and Latvians became much more assertive in their quest for some form of autonomy. The Lithuanian nationalist movement was not quite as developed as those in Estonia and Latvia. This was at least partially due to the more rural demographics of Lithuania and its lower literacy rate when compared to its northern neighbors, but this did not mean it did not exist.

An important milestone would be reached for all three countries in 1905, and specifically during the 1905 Russian Revolution. In the years leading up to 1905 the socialist parties in all three regions had been growing in strength and had been able to make contacts with the socialist groups in Russia. This would foster widespread support for the 1905 Revolution, which would see hundreds of people being arrested and deported in Estonia and Latvia. Over the following decade the Baltic socialist groups would begin to pull away from some of the Russian socialists. This was due to a mix of nationalism and just differences in the societies. In the lead up to the 1917 Revolution the Baltic socialists were probably closest in alignment to the Mensheviks and SRs, but their supporters were quite different. In Russia the peasant support for the Mensheviks and SRs was firmly rooted in their land reform policies, but the drive for the kind of radical land reform that was a espoused by the Russian socialists did not find strong support in the Baltics. The Baltic peasants were generally more prosperous than those in Russia, owning more land and having a higher standard of living. They owned a far higher percentage of the land in 1917 than the Russian peasants and this meant that their goals were different. This would also put them greatly at odds with the Bolsheviks when they took power.

The three most important groups in the three Baltic countries were the indigenous groups, so the Estonians, Latvians, or Lithuanians, the Russians, and then the population of Baltic Germans. During the crusades, so way back in the 13th century, most of the Baltic areas had at some point been occupied by the Germans, or at that point the Teutonic Order. Even when they had retreated they left behind a large population of Germans who made of the majority of the upper classes of the Baltic territories. Their presence and power in these areas meant that German was often used for all official communications, and it was taught in the schools all the until the end of the 1800s. It would only be during the early years of the 20th century that the Russians would begin to be used in these official capacities. The Baltic Germans would always received special privileges from the Tsar, and for these privileges they gave their strong support to the leaders in St. Petersburg. During the 1905 revolution this relationship only grew stronger as both groups south to control the more radical socialists and nationalists in the three countries. This was also during a point in time when the relations between Russia and Germany were quite good, and it would only be in the years leading up to the First World War that this relationship would begin to fall apart. In the years immediately prior to 1914 the Baltic Germans would begin to be held under some suspicion by the Russian leaders, however this brief period could not greatly reduce their centuries of influence on the local culture.

The start of the First World War would decisively change the future prospects for the Baltic countries. In all three areas the nationalist groups, even though they demanded change, had supported some kind of peaceful move towards autonomy. However, with Germany and Russia at war this was no longer an option. After the war started the most commonly held belief was that if the Germans won then they would be pulled closer to Germany either through annexation or through the installation of German controlled governments. If the Russians won many were concerned that they would use the success to continue, and perhaps finalize, the Russification activities that were already occurring. When the Germans occupied the areas during the war these assumptions would prove to be correct. During this time the Germans attempted to bolster their support among the populations and to put in place favorable governments. They were mostly unsuccessful in these efforts, having greatly underestimated the strength of the local nationalism, and the fears of the people that they were going to be trading Russian masters for German ones. Then in Brest-Litovsk the victory of Germany seemed to be assured. This created many questions about the future of the Baltic regions, few of which were answered before the defeat of Germany. This defeat would result in their retreat from the Baltic states, at least officially, which left a power vacuum that the nationalist groups would attempt to fill.

This vacuum was of course created, at least in part, by the Russian revolutions. The February Revolution was strongly supported among all three Baltic groups. During the first half of 1917 both Latvia and Estonia were mostly controlled by socialist groups that were largely in line with the policies of the Provisional Government. During the summer months the Bolshevik influence would grow, in Latvia it was grow quite quickly, which would be one of the reasons for the prevalence of the Latvian rifles in the nascent Red Army. During the Bolshevik revolution there was not any open resistance among the Baltic countries. Support for the Bolsheviks was pretty sparse, especially in Estonia, but Lenin and the other leaders chose some policies that would keep the Baltics onside for several months. Specifically they allowed elections to be held for local assembles in early 1918. These elections would then be called off, which began the slide into war. With the German retreat after November 1918 the Bolsheviks would announce that they were renouncing all of the contents of Brest-Litovsk, which meant that they soon intended to expand their power back into the West, and back into the Baltics.

This repudiation of Brest-Litovsk caused the nationalist groups to scramble to gain support from the western powers. They would send representatives to Paris as early as the spring of 1918, and then after the German defeat they would stoke the fears of Bolshevik expansion. the late 1918 and early 1919 period saw the Western leaders incredibly concerned about the spread of Bolshevism into Western Europe and this caused them to be strong supporters of the Baltic groups, who they saw as a valuable roadblock between the Bolsheviks and the rest of Europe. In the public area this support was somewhat tempered by the support given to the Whites, but surplus weapons, ammunition, and supplies would be sent to the Baltic countries, items that cost the Allies little due to the fact that they were demobilizing their armies and most of the items were surplus anyway. This support would last throughout 1919 although it would begin to fade in 1920 as the Western governments moved towards more friendly relations with the Soviet leaders. By that point all three of the new countries had benefitted greatly from the Western support and were stable and strong enough to be able to defend themselves without further support.

The retreat of the Germans in late 1918 left the Baltic Germans in an odd situation. During the war they had fully supported the expansionist policies of some of the German leaders. They had, of course, used their positions as Germans to reassert their power in the region. The German occupation then allowed them to re-institute German structure and culture in many different areas of the society, turning back the clock on some of the Russification activities of the previous decades. After the war these activities would backfire. However it should be said that their wartime policies, regardless of what they were, would not have significantly altered the views of the locals towards the Baltic Germans. There was simple too long of a history of the German upper classes being in control. The actions of the German occupation forces just exacerbated these feelings, they did not create it. Regardless of the exact root of the negative feelings, as soon as the German troops were no longer present, the retribution began.

This retribution came in many forms, one of which was political. Agrarian land reform was always part of the platforms of the new governments in the Baltics. This meant taking land away from the large landowners, who just so happened to be predominantly Baltic Germans, and giving that land to others. The Germans could do nothing about this, they had always been a minority within the areas that they lived, and so politically they were unable to prevent the measures from being put in place. as an example of what was happening, in Latvia and Estonia, at the end of the war, land owned by Germans made up around 2 million hectares, a few years later this would be reduced down to just 50,000. It Latvia the government took it a step further and just straight up confiscated the money of any Germans that was held in Latvian banks. Over 90 percent of this money would be taken by the Latvian government, I guess you could call it an extreme form of taxation.

In Berlin the new Weimar republic found themselves having to balance the situation around the Baltic Germans very carefully. Initially they spoke out strongly in support of fair treatment for the Baltic Germans, stating that they would not be able to form official relations with the new countries that did not protect the rights of German citizens. However, this policy would soften over the years as the Baltic states grew stronger. There was a desire in Berlin to begin to build better relations with the new countries, especially as they became stronger and stronger economically and therefore much more enticing trading partners. This caused the Weimar leaders to no longer support the Baltic Germans and instead to begin to distance themselves. They would purposefully do this, making it clear that the Germans in Germany were very different than the Germans in Latvia, Estonia, or Lithuania. This would only really turn around during the negotiations with the countries for trade agreements. In these agreements there were often discussions about some form of compensation for the Baltic Germans for their confiscated property. The Baltic countries were often completely unwilling to even discuss these provisions, for Latvia this would delay the official trade agreement by five years, due almost strictly to disagreements about the compensation provisions.

In Russia plans were being put in place to to extend Bolshevik control into the Baltics even before the German defeat in November 1918. In August a new group, called the Central Bureau, was created to help coordinate the various activities of the Communist groups within Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belorussia, Ukraine, and Finland. This central committee then established and maintained contact with the Communist groups within those countries. These communist groups already existed, and they were for the most part already receiving some support from Moscow, but this coordination helped to organize things a bit more. These efforts were given greater priority as Bolshevik power began to solidify which caused the leaders to look westward for further expansion of the revolution. There would soon be friction between the Russians and the other Communist groups. In general the representatives from the Baltic countries were very radical, far more radical that the Russian Communist leaders were at this point. The Baltic leaders wanted actions, immediately, violent action if that was the only thing available. This at a time when the Russian leaders, and especially Lenin, were beginning to push for a more moderate response while the situation in Russia was handled. This more moderate approach involved the Communist groups actually becoming involved in local government and building support politicaly. While they may have been a valid path to greater influence, it would be rejected by the Baltic Communists, and instead they would move towards more radical approaches.

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So how do the Estonians tie into this story specifically? During the 19th century there was a steady increase in Estonian nationalist feelings. This saw the rise in importance of Estonian culture and language, and clashed with the Tsar’s Russification programs around the turn of the century. During and after the Revolutions the Estonians, from a Western and White Russian perspective, were quite frustrating. They were not really motivated by anti-Bolshevik feeling, they just wanted an independent Estonia, that was their one and only goal and they would work with any party that made that the most likely outcome. During the Provisional Government period they would form an Estonian government, formed from representatives of all Estonian political parties. These representatives jointly demanded greatly autonomy from the Russian leaders, and this autonomy would be granted in April 1917. This did not result in a truly independent Estonia, but it did create the Autonomous Governate of Estonia within Russia. Throughout the summer of 1917 the Estonian leaders would accept this, but then the October Revolution would happen and everything would change.

Unlike the other Baltic states Estonia would not spend most of the war under German occupation. However, after the October Revolution German troops would arrive during the German Army advances that were done to try and push the Bolsheviks to sign the Brest-Litovsk treaty. This would see the short period of Estonian autonomy come to an abrupt end. The burgeoning army that was being created was outlawed, Estonian leaders were arrested and sent to Grodno in Poland. This did not completely destroy the hopes of the Estonian leaders, especially over the next several months as the Western Front turned against Germany. If the Germans would have won the war it is likely that they would have created a new state that would have combined Estonia and a large part of Latvia. This new country would have then seen Adolf Freidrich, the Duke of Mecklenburg, installed as its new head of state. While this was a long term goal, for the duration of the war the area would be led by a council of four Baltic Germans, three Latvians, and three Estonians. This council was controlled by the German leaders through the Ober Ost command structure that was setup by Hindenburg and Ludendorff during their earlier advances into the east.

With the collapse of the German armies in the West many the Estonians that had been arrested at the beginning of their occupation were released including Constantin Pats, who would be one of the leading figures during the fight for Estonian independence. The retreat of the German troops, and the growing violence in Russia, convinced the Estonian leaders that some kind of military organization needed to be created, and created quickly. They would call for volunteers in late 1918, with some disappointing results. One of the most pressing problems was that the Estonian leaders were recruiting an army to fight for independence, and there were many Estonians who believed that this movement was destined to fail. It was hard to motivate people to fight for something that they believed would most likely result in failure. The turning point would be when land grants were promised to volunteers, land plots would be created by the agrarian reforms, and then those agrarian reforms would create new plots of land for those who volunteered. This did cause a surge in volunteers to enter the Estonian army, which was critical because fighting was already beginning on the borders.

The geography of the border region between Estonia and Russia a this point in history would shape the nature and type of fighting. Prit Buttar in The Splintered Empires: The Eastern Front 1917–21 would discuss the geography and how it would effect the operations of the two armies, this is a long quote, but absolutely worth it. “The border between Estonia and Russia is dominated by Lake Peipus, with the result that land routes for combat operations are either north or south of the lake. To the north, the confrontation would be across the River Narva, with the city of Narva itself forming part of the battlefield. This area offered the most direct route for a Russian advance towards the Estonian capital, Tallinn (previously known to both the Russians and Germans as Reval), but the northern flank of any such operation would be exposed unless the sea was controlled by the Russian Navy. Consequently, naval operations would play a major role in the fighting. To the south of Lake Peipus, any Russian advance to the Baltic coast, roughly along the border between Latvia and Estonia, could conceivably come under pressure from either flank. As a result of these geographic constraints the conflict in the northern part of the Baltic region, which became known as the Estonian War of Independence, saw repeated thrusts by either side north of Lake Peipus, and although the same territory changed hands on several occasions to the south of the lake, the fighting tended to follow the same pattern: a Bolshevik advance, and an Estonian counterattack against its flanks.” As an aside, Buttar’s books on the Eastern front are by far the most detailed accounts I have found in English, and I highly recommend them. The first soviet invasions would be executed by the Seventh Army. They would be opposed by a scratch force of Estonian troops with some German assistance. The Russians would attack during December, before the Estonian leaders had truly established themselves, which resulted in some chaos on the Estonian side. This resulted in some initial successes for the Red Army, which eventually saw them in control of about half of the Estonian territory. This had a unifying effect on Estonian society, with groups like the Baltic Germans and the upper classes throwing their support behind the new government in Talinn due to how they were being treated by the Russians.

While the Red Army was pushing its way into Estonia, Estonian representatives were discussing the situation with the Western powers, seeking their support in the fighting. The Allies, and for the Baltic areas the British specifically, were interested in assisting. The leaders in London made it clear that there were limits to this support, specifically they could not send troops, but they would arrange for some Royal Navy ships to be sent. This fleet would eventually be made up of five light cruisers, 9 destroyers, and seven minesweepers under the command of Rear-Admiral Edwyn Alexander-Sinclair. On the scale of the Royal Navy this force was quite small, but in the Baltic Sea, with the German Navy interned in Scapa Flow, and the Russian Navy almost non-existent, it represented the most powerful naval force in the region. Alexander-Sinclair was told to support the Estonian and Latvian leaders, but to make it clear that he would not be joining in the fighting on land. His ships would be loaded with weapons and munitions, which he would offload in Estonia, but his men would stay on the ships. When they arrived off the coast of Estonia, and a bit of an adventure in an old German minefield which would see the loss of one of the destroyers, they would quickly become involved with the fighting. Alexander-Sinclair sent two cruisers and five destroyers along the coast to Narva. At this location they were able to bring the large road which ran along the coast under fire, preventing Soviet forces from being able to use it. With the coastal road being one of the most important supply routes for the Soviet advance, this action gave the Estonians some much needed breathing space.

They used this space to prepare for a counterattack. The Estonians would have tow major advantages for their attack, the first was the British ships which guaranteed control of the seas as well as some protection from Soviet attacks from the north. The second was a group of Finnish volunteers which arrived in January 1919. 3,500 Finns would volunteer to go to Estonia to help fight against the Russians, and when they arrived they brought extra weapons and munitions with them. Beyond the material support that they provided they also arrived with very high morale, they were coming off their own fighting against the Red forces in their country, which many believed had been supported by the Russians. To prepare for their attack the Estonians had concentrated and armed 13,000 men. They would also use several armored trains that were built specifically for the attack. These trains mounted machine guns and 6 inch artillery and were invaluable bastions of fire support, even if they were limited in their positioning. The Estonian attack would focus on moving south, to the south side of Lake Peipus, with their first target being the city of Tartu which would be liberated on January 14th. One of the Estonian armored trains would play an important role in this attack, moving directly through the Russian defenses and into the middle of the city. The next major target was the village of Valga, an important target because it controlled the rail link between Estonia and Latvia. The fighting in this area would be fierce, but with Finnish volunteers would tip the balance in favor of the Estonians. The units of the Latvian Rifles who had been defending the town would be forced to retreat on February 1st. After Valga was in Estonian hands Soviet forces in southern Estonia were forced to retreat back to the east due to the difficulties involved in moving troops and supplies into the area while the Estonians controlled the rail network. By the end of the February all of the territory that the Estonian leaders claimed as Estonia was free of Russian forces.

The liberation of the country was accomplished, but the Estonians were still uncomfortable in their position. Bolshevik forces were still strongly ensconced in Latvia, and therefore the Estonian signed a mutual defense agreement with the Latvian nationalist government. This would come into play later in the year when the Estonian army would march south to help the Latvians push out the Soviet Red Army. Before they moved into Latvia the Estonians would have to fight off some attacks by the Red Army in the north, where they launched several attacks between February and April. Here the Estonians were reinforced by the British ships from the sea, and also by White Russian forces that had taken refuge in Estonia. Over the next several months the Estonians and the Whites were able to hold back several attacks, until eventually the Red Army was forced to give up on the idea of entering Estonia from the North. During the spring the Estonians would have another set of elections, which would see the Social Democrats win a third of the votes. They were then able to implement the promised land reforms, solidifying their support among some of the rural populations, an important step in moving the country from war to peace.

In Episode 205 I discussed the attacks of General Yudenich, the White Russian general who attacked Petrograd from Estonian territory in late 1919. I will not go over all of that information here, but I do want to touch on it since it is an important piece of the story of Estonia during this time period. During May the Estonians, again with the held of the White forces, attacked to the south of Lake Peipus eventually capturing the city of Pskov. They gave the territory that they captured in this offensive, all of which was very clearly Russian, over to Yudenich and the White political leaders. They did this both from a publicity perspective, not wanting to look like conquerors, but also because they wanted the White forces out of Estonia. To accomplish both of these goals they, essentially, created a White Russian buffer state, which served their purposes very well. The Whites would take over the area and use it as a base of power for future operations. Yudenich would then begin planning for his attack on Petrograd, which would be unsuccessful. After this failure Yudenich would retreat back into Estonian territory, where he hoped to recover and try again. The Estonians would now allow this to happen, and they would disarm and intern the White forces. This would be a critical point in Estonian and Soviet relations, preventing any future attacks by the Whites would help buoy relations between the two countries. Thank you for listening and I hope you will join me next week as we continue to discuss the fate of the Baltic countries, moving our eyes a bit to the south and to Latvia, where the struggles for power would be much bloodier than those in Estonia.