Before the First World War, what are today Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were part of the Russian Empire. As that empire fought and fell, so too fought the soldiers of the Baltic States, first during the war, and then in their struggles for eventual independence. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to a Great War Special Article about the Baltic States during World War One. The region was important for international trade and Riga, in Latvia, with a population of over 500,000, had become an important industrial center. Now, going back to the mid 19th century, Russia had been pursuing a policy of “Russification” in the Baltics that encouraged Russian speakers to settle there and made Russian the primary language of education. Estonia and Latvia did have a certain degree of autonomy from the empire at this time, but participation in this limited self-government was restricted to the Russian elite and a minority of Baltic Germans, who made up around 5% of the population. They had ruled the area as traders, artisans, and landowners since the 12th century and traditionally treated the indigenous people as serfs.
They also tried to convince more German speakers to settle the region. Lithuania, on the other hand, had strong historic ties with Poland, and the Poles had been the dominant of the two, so many Lithuanians were hesitant of dealing with Poland, while many Poles couldn’t imagine a new Polish nation without including Lithuania. During the 1905 Revolution, Baltic socialist and social democratic organizations struck in all major cities, and several hundred manor houses belonging to Baltic Germans were burned down. When the Tsar promised to introduce a Duma, Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian nationalists joined the congresses, which clearly expressed a desire for cultural self-determination, but in December that year, St. Petersburg took action against supposed revolutionary excesses in the Baltic. Martial law was proclaimed and the Russian army captured or even outright murdered those who had participated in the revolution. Those army units worked together with hastily assembled Baltic German militias, who sometimes used their position to settle old scores. Many revolutionaries went into hiding, including Karlis Ulmanis and Konstantin Päts, who would become prominent leaders of Latvia and Estonia after the war.
When the Great War broke out, the Latvian, Estonian, and Lithuanian press, and the Baltic delegates to the Duma declared their solidarity with the Empire. This might seem unlikely, but there was a lot of anti-German sentiment there, there was the initial war euphoria we saw everywhere in Europe, and some thought that by showing themselves as patriots, they would earn some self-government. But the resentment of the Russian government remained quite strong, and the Baltic Germans also announced solidarity with the Empire. Just to throw some numbers out, 60,000 Latvians, 120,000 Lithuanians, and 100,000 Estonianswere drafted during the war. Although Russia had some initial successes in the north, the disasters at Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes set the stage for the German occupation, by summer 1915, of all of Lithuania and half of Latvia. The occupied territories became a military state under the leadership of OberbefehlshaberOst – Ober Ost.
This state was concerned with supporting the German war effort, and force-requisitioned livestock and grain, used forced labor, and kept tight control of the local people. In 1916, Germany announced that it would annex a big chunk of Lithuania and Latvia as part of any peace agreement. There were plans for a Kulturpolitik that would Germanize the region through the resettlement of Germans to the Baltics. Germany never fully committed to this vision so it remained a fantasy; wartime realities prevented the funding of any such programs. As for the unoccupied Baltic territories, things weren’t a whole lot better for them. For fear of losing it to invasion, all industrial equipment had been transported eastward in1915, so that part of life slowed to a crawl. Also, 700,000 refugees fled the German-occupied territories and border regions, and many of them fled to the unoccupied regions, crowding them. One thing, though, many Latvian refugees went to Petrograd, where there soon were over 260 support organizations for them, with a newspaper and a refugee school system. This flight gave the Latvians a sense of unity and gave them established organizations outside the Russian administration.
Another factor that contributed to the sense of unity was the Latvian Rifles. The Russian government was skeptical of “national” units, but nevertheless, in August 1915, after the Latvian militia had proved itself in combat, the government gave in to Latvians who argued that men defending their homes would fight better than those who may not know what they were fighting for. Soon, 8,000 volunteers were trained for service in two Latvian Rifle battalions, to be part of the Russian 12th Army. These displayed excellent morale and their communications weren’t hurt by the common language and the near 100% literacy rate, rare for the Russian army then. The Latvian press did present them as heroes defending “our homeland”, and intimating an independence from the Russian army that didn’t actually exist. They followed orders from Russian officers. The Latvian Rifles soon expanded. By 1916, there were 40,000 of them in eight battalions. They fought in the Christmas battles on the Riga Front, taking German positions in temperatures of -40 and then losing them in January. They took nearly 9,000 casualties and became increasingly hostile to Tsarist officers whom they thought incompetent, and more and more, the Latvian Rifles would become a nucleus for socialist opposition to the Tsarist regime.
Estonia didn’t establish a “national” unit because activists were not united on the issue, and anyhow, Estonia was already defended. In Lithuania, where activists had become radicalized and united under German occupation, they established the Taryba, a national council, and publicly declared their desire for self-government in spring 1916. The Germans actually tolerated this, and that council would be vital in later establishing an independent Lithuania. Such institutions could only be established in Estonia and Latvia after the February Revolution and the abdication of the Tsar in 1917. An Estonian national assembly, Maapäev, was elected in June with the Mayor of Tallinnat it’s head despite Bolshevik efforts to postpone the election, and it managed to retain influence, primarily in the country. A Latvian provincial council was elected in March but immediately challenged by a rival socialist council. The socialists would soon become the dominant power there and would establish the ExecutiveCommittee of Soviet of the Workers, Soldiers, and the Landless in Latvia in August, but the struggle in both nations between the conservative and socialist factions prevented progress on the question of whether they should be independent nations, autonomous regions within Russia, or part of a Soviet state.
They were unable to provide stable political structures. And then things got heavy. In the face of war, uncertainty, and all the shortages of everything, there was a general shift to the left. The Bolsheviks, who had not been affiliated with any of the governments responsible for the state of affairs, became increasingly popular, especially among sailors of the BalticFleet and in the army. When the Bolsheviks staged their coup in Petrograd that fall, they got a lot of support from the Latvian Bolsheviks and the Latvian Rifles, and a Bolshevik government was established as the sole authority in Latvia. I should point out that though non-Bolshevik newspapers were shut down and non-Bolshevikparties banned, violence there was rare. This government would have to flee from the invading Germans, though, who had taken Rigaand would take all of Latvia early in 1918. Those Latvian Bolsheviks who fled to Russia played a big part in constructing the RussianSoviet Government, the Red Army, and the Cheka – the secret police.
Historian Andrew Ezergailis went so far as to say, “If any sector of the Russian Empire’spopulation can be designated as a vanguard of Bolshevism, I think the Latvians would qualify. I am persuaded that the Latvians, and here I mean mainly the Latvian Riflemen, were the main support for Lenin, especially in the first year of Soviet power. ”A Soviet government took power in Estonia as well. Here, though, the Bolsheviks managed to alienate a big chunk of the population fairly quickly. In contrast to Latvia, they had no base in the countryside, and the Maapäev had, as1917 rolled on, begun to see itself not as a provincial assembly, but as a sovereign entity representing all Estonians. The Bolsheviks refused even to discuss the question of independence, which further hurt their position. The Maapäev too, though, had to withdraw from the advancing Germans. The Peace Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed on March 3, 1918, between Soviet Russia and the German Empire, laid out the German plans for the conquered territories. They were to be the Baltic States, but closely affiliated with Germany and governed by the aristocratic elite of Baltic Germans. In Latvia and Estonia, a new Landesrat, composed of 35 Germans, 13 Estonians, and 10 Latvians, met in April and petitioned the Kaiser to put the Baltic States under his protection. The immediate concern, though, was supporting the German war effort and so conditions similar to those of Ober Ost were established. German forces in Latvia and Estonia were tasked with suppressing nationalism and socialism. This was all pretty unrealistic, though, and it’s unlikely that the German vision for the region would have been realized even had they won the war. This was now an age of nationalism and political movements, and the Baltic German population was small, unorganized, and played no part in the events of 1917. Keeping the enormous socialist and nationalist movements in check would have been really costly, if even possible. In Lithuania, the German civil administration had recognized a declaration of independence by the Taryba on condition that it would seek a firm and permanent alliance with Germany. A proclamation in February 1918 stated that Lithuania was to become a constitutional monarchy- a continuation of the medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
The German Wilhelm von Urach was elected as King Mindaugas II. His election, though, deepened the divide between the Catholic right and socialist left, even though Urach – who accepted the invitation – never set foot on Lithuanian soil. The German occupying army also prevented the Taryba from establishing a police force and other state institutions, because the military, unlike the civil admin, did not favor a semi-independent Lithuania and favored complete annexation. It was only when it became clear that Germany could not win the war that a new approach was possible. In October, German Chancellor Max von Baden promised to allow Lithuanians to take over the administration. The invitation for Urach to be king was suspended November 2nd, and a constitution that was not monarchic was adopted that day.
All future propositions of Lithuania as an independent state would be democratic. And here we stand in November 1918. Although there is optimism, confusion and uncertainty are still the orders of the day. All three of the Baltic States still faced enormous obstacles on the road to independence, and you can bet your boots I’ll cover that in another special because I personally think it’s some of the most fascinating histories of the whole era, and if you though the wartime situation in Greece was confusing and complicated, wait till you hear this. But wait you will have to do, for today was just a brief look at the Baltic states during the war itself, invaded or oppressed, but still possessing the indomitable courage that would one day lead to independence. Thank you, Marcus Daniels, for the research in this article.