The Story of Latvia—A Historical SurveyArveds Švābe. Latvian National Foundation, Stockholm. 1949
THE FIRST WORLD WAR. STRUGGLE FOR INDEPENDENCE.
- Latvian National Armed Forces are Formed.
- The Germans Have Their Own Ideas.
- The Baltic Peoples Seize Their Chance of Freedom.
- Russia Renounces Sovereignty over Latvia and Estonia.
- Schism in the Soul of the Latvian Riflemen.
- Woodrow Wilsom's 14 Points—A Ray of Hope.
- November 18th, 1918, Independent Latvia Proclaimed.
- Yet More Blood to be Shed.
- General Goltz Still Tries to Save the Baltic for Germany.
- June 22nd—Cesis—The Estonians and Latvian Deal a Mortal Blow to the Baltic Germans.
- Field-Marshal Lord Alexander at the Latgale Front.
- Yet Another German Treachery.
- British Navy Helps to Free Riga.
- The Price of Freedom
During the First World War, Germany again started upon her Drang nach Osten, but when Great Britain, France and the U.S.A. were victorious on the Western Front, Germany tried to improve her position by weakening Russia from the inside and with that purpose fostered the establishment of communism in Eastern Europe.
When the Russian, German and Austrian empires collapsed, the hitherto oppressed nations in the region between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea arose, and by own efforts and aided by the Allies realised Woodrow Wilson's noble vision about the self-determination of peoples, and fulfilled their desire for independence. Thus was frustrated the Russian dream of making the Baltic Sea the Sea of Social Revolution and of sovietising Western Europe, in order that under the guise of "Workers' Paradise" they could make Moscow the Third Rome (a dream cherished by them since the days of Ivan the Terrible) and from there direct a Union of Soviet Republics embracing all nations from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
The second part of the 19th century saw the rise of a keen competition for the DOMINIUM MARIS BALTICI between Russia and Germany. Wilhelm II started the propaganda of his formula that the Baltic Sea was essentially a German Mediterranean. After the completion of the Kiel Canal in 1895, the German fleet could freely manoeuvre from the Atlantic Ocean to the Baltic Sea. Russia, fearing a cut-off from the Atlantic, got busy in developing the ice-free Norwegian fishing harbour, Murmansk. Wilhelm II tried to avert the attention of his cousin Nicholas II from the Atlantic, and to make him concentrate his gaze on the Pacific. The Baltic Sea threatened to become a German lake. After her defeat of 1905 in the Japanese War, Russia had to give up any dreams of dominating the Far East. She again concentrated on a Western expansion. A new danger to Russia had arisen. Great Britain, after the secession of Norway from Sweden in 1905, was able to make use of the South Norwegian ports and, through the Belts, to obtain an entry into the Baltic Sea. To avert suspicion, a Pact was concluded in 1907, guaranteeing Norwegian integrity. But as that would be of little value in case of war, Russia and Germany entered into a secret agreement in October of the same year, which aimed at the maintenance of the actual territorial status quo on the basis of the complete exclusion from the Baltic of all foreign political influence. With that agreement, the Baltic Sea had become a MARE CLAUSUM, as it became in 1939 through the secret protocols between Hitler and Stalin. Thus we see the same political patterns recurring again and again.
However, the Tsar had no confidence in the Kaiser. They both knew that although they were cousins and wrote sentimental letters of friendship to one another signed Willi and Niki, they were each only watching for an opportunity to get the better of the other - as Stalin and Hitler were watching each other's movements like cat and mouse. Already in 1894 Russia had concluded a military alliance with France. This was extended in 1907 by turning it into a Triple Alliance, including Great Britain as the third partner. Financially assisted by France, Russia began the industrialisation of her country. The customs policy of Russia was very harmful to German foreign trade and Russian-German relations grew cooler until finally Germany provoked the First World War. The Baltic nations once again had to experience what it meant to be the piece of iron between the anvil and the hammer.
After initial successes in East Prussia, the Russian army suffered a series of disasters, owing to their incompetent leadership, and, as 700 years before, the German Drang nach Osten went rolling oil. In the second year of the War, 1915, the Germans reached the Daugava and took the Latvian naval base of Liepaja and occupied the whole of Courland.
What the attitude of the Latvian people was is best illustrated by the fact that about three-fifths of the inhabitants of Courland (about 355,00 people) left their homes and undertook the life of refugees in Russia. All the peoples of the Western provinces of Russia - the Balts, the Poles and even the Finns-were completely loyal to Tsarist Russia, despite the many grievances they collectively and separately had against the Russians, their methods of government and their imperialistic policy. But the Germans were hated and feared and all these nations fought on the Russian side because that meant fighting together with France and Britain, and later also America, against the resurrected hereditary enemies, the Teutons. Right at the beginning of the War, at the Extraordinary Session of the Duma on August 7th, 1914, the Latvian Deputy for Courland, J. Goldmanis, declared: "At this historic moment I solemnly proclaim, in the name of the Latvian and Estonian people, that we shall fight with all our heroism in the ranks of the Russian army, so that Berlin shall drown in the sea of blood that it has released."
Those were not just empty words, because already in the early successful operations in East Prussia there were units 80 per cent Latvian and they fought with great valour. However, the glory was Russian, though the blood was Latvian. Only in the second year of the war, in April, 1915, was it that the Russian High Command announced in one of its communiqués that two Latvian battalions had saved the ancient Ducal capital, Jelgava.
After this Latvian leaders made representations with the Imperial Commander-in-Chief that the formation of Latvian national units should be permitted. This step was taken with the fully conscious end in view of making the kernel of a Latvian army for a free Latvian State. The Latvians realised that the times were momentous, that "gods were sharing out land," and, as the great Latvian poet, J. Rainis, said, "If this time is slept away we shall sleep not hundreds but thousands of years." Despite the intrigues of the Baltic nobility at court, the Commander-in-Chief, Grand-Duke Nikolai Nikolayevitch, gave his consent on August 1st, 1915, for the creation of Latvian Rifle Regiments of volunteers, with the above-mentioned two battalions as nucleus, consenting also to the battle flags and badges of these regiments bearing Latvian inscriptions side by side with those in the official State language. By that decree the Latvian language for the first time for 700 years had gained an official standing.
The response was enormous; men from all parts of the country volunteered, and many well-known Latvian authors, painters and singers joined the colours. In a very short time 8 field battalions and one reserve battalion were formed. These were later enlarged into regiments and organised in 2 brigades with 4 regiments each. Altogether the Latvian force was 130,000 men strong and it held the Riga front against German crack units for two years, right up to the Russian revolution in 1917. They fought many bloody battles in which some formations lost more than half of their effective strength. Altogether the losses were 35,000-40,000 officers and men. One of the most dreadful was the Christmas Battle of 1916, in terrible winter weather, which has been described by one of our foremost novelists, A. Grins, under the significant title, "The Blizzard of Souls." Some of the battlefields gained names like, "Machine-gun Hill" and "Island of Death," which will live in Latvian history for ever, reminding of the suffering and heroism they represent, as Verdun and Passchendaele will live in the history of France and Britain. The Island of Death, a 4-5 klm. wide stretch of land washed on the one side by the waters of the river of Latvian destinies, the Daugava, and on the other side by the stream of Latvian blood, was held for months, preventing the Germans from moving on to Riga and St. Petersburg. Not without reason did Field-Marshal Hindenburg write in his memoirs : "I should have been in Riga already at Easter, 1916, if eight bright Latvian Stars had not shone over its sky."
The Latvians knew full well for what they were shedding their blood; they knew what a German victory would mean. As early as July 28th, 1915, Baltischer Vertrauensrat, a body of the Baltic nobles, sent a memorandum to the German Chancellor, asking that at the future peace settlement the Baltic should be made a province of Germany. The German Chancellor, Bethmann Hollweg, replied in April, 1916, in a statement to the Reichstag, saying that the Baltic would be annexed and its colonial character retained. This meant that the German Reich wanted to make the proposals of the Vertrauensrat a reality. This body proposed to settle in the Baltic a million and a half of German colonists from the small scattered German colonies near the Volga, in the Caucasus and in Southern Russia. This action had already been begun by the squires of Courland in 1908 and about 13,000 Russian Germans had been settled in Courland.
The March Revolution in Russia (1917) created a completely new situation. On March 15th the Tsar abdicated and a new democratic government took over, which wanted to carry out democratic reforms and to continue the war to keep faith with the Western Allies. The German Secret Service saw its chance and speedily despatched Lenin and other Russian Communist leaders in sealed carriages from Switzerland to Russia "to return to their democratic fatherland" and take part in the "reconstruction of the land." In practice this reconstruction meant the deliberate spreading of chaos and undermining of discipline in the army. The new Russian Government was weak-hearted and lacking in foresight. Instead of rendering these treacherous German agents harmless at the start, they were given freedom to carry on their disruptive work, and the result was that the whole Russia was thrown into untold miseries and bloodshed. Lenin's "work" was successful; the Russian army disintegrated, "fraternisation" with the enemy began everywhere and no resistance was shown to the Kaiser's armies. The Latvian Riflemen could not alone hold them and on September 3rd, 1917, the Germans entered Riga, from where they spread and occupied most of Livonia.
The Baltic nations took advantage of the democratic freedoms, and a movement of self-determination began in the unoccupied Baltic districts under the slogan, "A free Baltic in a free Russia." By special decrees the Provisional Government of Russia proclaimed Estonia and Latvia as autonomous provinces, fixing their borders according to the ethnographic principle. Special Regional Commissars were appointed and regulations regarding Temporary Regional Councils were passed. The Councils for Livonia, Latgale and Courland were elected. On July 30th 1917 a political conference was held in Riga, where representatives of these regional councils, including the deputies of Riflemen, workers, and landless peasants took part. This conference declared Latvia to be an autonomous political unit within a democratic Russian Republic, and that all state power passed on to the Latvian Constituent Assembly to be elected. Unfortunately, about 30 per cent of the whole population of Latvia were living as refugees in Russia: they were scattered over a 10,000-miles-wide territory and some of them had wandered as far as the Pacific coast. The unoccupied Estonia managed to hold general elections on May 23rd, 1917, for an Estonian National Council. In order to create a similar representative body for Latvia the Central Committee of Latvian Refugees in St. Petersburg decided, on October 29th, 1917, to call a constituent congress for a Provisional Latvian National Council.
However, Russia experienced new disorders; there was a coup d'etat, and the Bolsheviks, with Lenin at their head, came to power. Therefore the Latvian congress was postponed and took place on November 18th, 1917, in Valka, on the Latvian-Estonian border. This town was, in a way, symbolic because in the Middle Ages it had often been the seat of Livonian parliaments. The Congress resolved that, "Latvia is an autonomous and indivisible political unit, whose internal form of government and foreign relations will be decided by its Constituent Assembly." It was also decided to send representatives abroad in order to inform the Western Allies. As such were chosen, Janis Cakste (1859-1927), later first President of Latvia, and Zigfrids Meierovics (1887-1925), later first Foreign Minister of Latvia. The latter was received on October 23rd, 1918, by the British Foreign Secretary, Mr. Balfour, who stated that His Majesty's Government had decided to recognise the Latvian National Council as Latvian Government. On November 11th this was followed by a letter from Mr. Balfour. Already earlier, on May 3rd, Mr. Balfour had given a similar declaration to the Estonian diplomatic representative in London, Ants Piip.
In occupied Riga, too, the political leaders remaining there started organising themselves and the so-called Democratic Bloc was formed. They started propaganda for a free and independent Latvia and organised a resistance movement in Courland, where the Germans were engaged in suppressing national thought. 669 persons were arrested and put in concentration camps. In secret security reports it was stated that Courland had been infected by nationalism from Riga and Russia.
The Bolsheviks were in charge of Petersburg and some other centres, but they had a very stiff opposition. Although they called themselves the Majority Group (Bolsheviks means Maximalists) they were actually only a minority and the bulk of the Russian people were against them. Therefore, Lenin declared that Russia needed breathing-space in which to deal with international foes, and separate peace talks with Germany were entered upon at Brest-Litovsk. On January 5th, 1918, the Russian Constituent Assembly met, but the Communists had no majority there (only 175 Bolsheviks out of 707 members) and Lenin dispersed it by force. The talks at Brest-Litovsk were of no avail and Germany started a big advance on the whole front. As there was no resistance she occupied Latgale, the whole of Livonia and Estonia, and threatened Petersburg. Owing to this threat a peace treaty was finally signed at Brest-Litovsk on March 3rd. According to this treaty Russia renounced all sovereign rights over Courland, but the inhabitants of Estonia and Livonia were to choose for themselves what they wanted to be.
The German-organised Landtag of Courland sent a petition to Wilhelm II, asking him to accept the crown of Duke of Courland. He replied that he recognises Courland as an independent Duchy with whom Germany was prepared to enter into a Customs Union and Military Alliance. On April 12th, 1918, the Landrats of Estonia, Livonia, and Saaremaa (Oesel) gathered in Riga and decided to ask the Kaiser to recognise the Baltic as a constitutional monarchy which would be in Personal Union with Germany. The Latvian Provisional National Council presented several protests to Germany and the Allies, pointing out that the German Landrats were usurping the power to speak in the name of the people, who had a right to self-determination and did not desire a personal union with Germany, which was only a camouflaged annexation.
The Russian Council of Peoples' Commissars had no effective power. Everywhere there were risings, and they were completely dependent on the German envoy in Moscow and the German Secret Service, who organised "protection for German war prisoners." Therefore, a supplementary agreement to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed in Berlin, on August 27th, according to which Russia relinquished also her rights of sovereignty over Estonia and Livonia, keeping only Latgale. Thus the ancient adversaries, Germany and Russia, who periodically changed their roles as friends or foes, were freely slicing the living body of the Latvian nation.
After the separate Russo-German peace the Allies started their ill-fated armed interventions in Russia, supporting several "White Governments". As these people were Russian monarchists who stood for the "great and indivisible" Russia, and were opposed to the freedom of the small nations, the Latvians had nothing in common with them. In the body and the souls of the Latvian Riflemen who had gone into Russia a schism occurred. One part, about 5,000 of them, supported the Reds and actively engaged themselves in a fight against Denikin. These Latvian men chose to serve the evil genius of communism, but in a sense they did a service to the Latvian good genius in that they helped to prevent the rise of a Russian monarchy which certainly would have prejudiced Latvian independence. The Latvians were always intrepid soldiers and they did great service to the Soviets. For a few years after the establishment of the Soviet Union they were honoured; pictures of these battles hung in Red Army clubs. Then Stalin decided that it was not right that Latvians should be remembered and all trace of them disappeared. The last leading Latvian soldiers in the Soviet hierarchy, the Generals Alksnis and Eidemanis, were "liquidated" in the great purge of 1937.
The other part of the Riflemen (about 2,000 men) followed the call of their national officers and remained neutral in the internal Russian strife. They chose the same route as did the Czech Legion and went across Siberia to return home. In Vladivostok they put themselves at the disposal of the Far Eastern Latvian National Council. From these men a Latvian regiment, the Imanta (named after one of our ancient kings) was formed under the command of General Janin, the Allied Commander in the Far East, "to fight with the Allies against the Germans." A second regiment was formed in Troitzk. These units still had to fight several battles in Siberia, to prevent anarchy and gangsterdom in the confused Siberian Civil War. General Janin, in a special order of the day, recognised the valour of Latvian fighting men. These officers, experienced in many battle fronts, later formed about half of the officer cadre of the Latvian national army.
As we have seen, the main enemies of the independence of the Baltic States were Russia and Germany who, irrespective of the internal regime ruling in those countries, tried to suppress it. Thus the political vision of Woodrow Wilson about the self-determination of peoples (though originally conceived only in relation to Poland and the Czechs) could be realised in the Baltic only after the fall of both these mighty imperialisms. However, the 14 points of Wilson were an incentive and ray of hope that set the whole region of the small oppressed peoples from the White Sea to the Black Sea ablaze in political and national aspirations. Thousands of men who valued freedom and human dignity above their life, sacrificed themselves for these ideals.
In the autumn of 1918 when, owing to the revolution in Germany, the occupation regime in the Baltic slackened, most of the members of the Provisional Latvian National Council were able to assemble in Riga. There they joined with the Democratic Bloc, thus forming the first Latvian Provisional Parliament-The People's Council-which met at its first solemn inaugural meeting on November 18th, 1918, in the hall of the Russian theatre in Riga, which later became the State Theatre, and proclaimed Latvia as a sovereign, independent, democratic republic, whose constitution and relations with foreign countries would be defined by the Constituent Assembly. The President of the Council was Janis Cakste, but owing to his absence on diplomatic missions abroad the Act of Proclamation of Latvian Independence was read by the first Vice-President, Gustavs Zemgals (later the second President of Latvia). This Assembly also created the first Latvian Provisional Government with Karlis Ulmanis as the first Prime Minister.
On November 26th, the Plenipotentiary of the new Germany, A. Winnigs, declared that after the conclusion of a special agreement, Germany would cede all civil power to the Latvian Government. It was clear that in spite of the change of regime, Germany still hoped to be able to keep the Baltic for herself.
Now the most tremendous period in the life of the Latvian nation began. The age-long dream of freedom and mastery of its own land seemed to have been achieved. Latvian independence was there, proclaimed and recognised. For the rest of the world the war, the most terrible war hitherto known, had ended, and Europe began to heal her wounds, but for Latvia another war was just beginning. Exhausted, economically depleted, its population scattered, the Latvian nation had to start a War of Liberation on two fronts. Both the Russian and the German aggressions were still alive.
According to the Armistice of November 11th, 1918, the German forces had to stay in Latvia until the Latvian Government had been able to organise its own national army. However, the Germans withdrew immediately, and the provisional government had been able to form only a unit of 300 men, mainly officers, N.C.O.'s and students. The German Balts, too, started organising their army, the so-called Landeswehr, which was being equipped by the H.Q. of the retreating German army. Of that a unit of Reich-German Volunteers split off under the name of the "Iron Division." The Baltic Germans established also a political Executive of the Landeswehr, the Baltischer Nationalausschuss in Liepaja. This body opened 10 recruiting offices all over Germany. It was obvious that the Germans were still planning something against the National Government of Latvia.
The Russians, too, could not rest at peace. They could not see that their policy of Russian domination of the Baltic Sea would now be smashed. They could not recognise the Baltic Sea becoming a Free Sea, enveloped and guarded by free people in the interests of the free world. They wanted to use the period of the weakness of the new governments and turn the Baltic Sea into the Sea of Social Revolution.
On December 2nd, 1918, following in the heels of the retreating German 8th Army, the Russians crossed the Latvian frontier and on January 3rd, 1919, they entered Riga, where they established a puppet government called the Soviet Latvian Government, with a Latvian Communist, Peteris Stucka, at its head. The British Navy left Riga, and so did the Latvian Government, proceeding first to Jelgava and then to Liepaja. With it went the first Latvian Commander-in-Chief, Colonel Oskars Kalpaks, at whose disposal there were only 132 men, while the Red Army comprised about 6,000 soldiers. Finally, it was possible to hold the Russians on the Venta river. Thus only a very small corner of Courland was still free and from that the Latvians had to defend their liberty.
The Estonians were in a much more favourable position. With British help they were able to free their country from the Bolsheviks already in February 1919.
In spite of the prohibition of the Allies, the German Government sent their General Rudiger von der Goltz to assume command of all German forces in the Baltic. This was done under the pretext of defending the safety of East Prussia. He understood that the German cause in the Baltic would be lost if it were to be based only on the 5 per cent German minority. The proBritish Government of K. Ulmanis was unacceptable to him. Therefore he wanted to put into power a government of quislings. For this task he chose a Latvian clergyman and novelist, Andrievs Niedra. To prevent the Latvians from organising themselves into an effective force, General Goltz, did not allow Ulmanis' government to carry out a mobilisation.
However, the force of volunteers grew, and in March the Latvian and German forces went over into attack and soon the whole of Courland was free of the Bolsheviks, and the way to Riga was open. There was constant friction between the Latvians and the Germans and in one such skirmish the Commander-in-Chief of the Latvian forces, Colonel Kalpaks, fell to German bullets (on March 6, 1919.) Colonel Janis Balodis became the new Commander-in-Chief. Goltz, who was the Supreme Commander of the operation, stopped short of Riga. It would have been easy to take the capital, but the General did not want the Ulmanis Government to enter the metropolis, and his plans with his puppet, Niedra, were not yet quite ready. He wanted to have Niedra drive into Riga in triumph, to increase the prestige of the puppet. On April 16th the coup d'etat at last took place in Liepaja, but it was only partially successful, as Ulmanis, his War Minister, and some other members of the Government, found refuge on a ship and were protected by a British cruiser. The Latvian Commander-in-Chief, Balodis, also declared that the Latvian forces would remain faithful to Ulmanis.
On May 22nd, Goltz ordered an attack on Riga, and the capital fell on the same day. Niedra had no forces loyal to him, no support at all among the Latvians. He hung there sadly on the strings of von der Goltz, a complete puppet. So the triumph that was planned for him did not come off. Moreover, Goltz could not allow the Latvian national forces to get the laurels of the capture of Riga, though all the important fighting had been theirs. So the astute General ordered the Landeswehr to drive into Riga and on into Livonia, in spite of the protests of the Chief of the Allied Mission, Sir Hubert Gough. General Goltz wanted the Landeswehr to overthrow also the Estonian Government. However, he miscalculated.
As early as January, 1919, Ulmanis had sent Colonel Zemitans to Estonia and Northern Latvia, some districts of which were already liberated by combined Estonian and Finnish forces. Zemitans had organised the Latvian Northern Army which, together with the Estonians, freed a considerable part of Livonia. On June 1st this force reached Cesis (Wenden). Next day, however, this ancient seat of the Master of the Teutonic Order began to be infiltrated by the Landeswehr. The Estonian High Command (under whom Zemitans was operating) ordered the Landeswehr to withdraw to a specified line. The Landeswehr relied on their numerical superiority and better equipment and disregarded the order. A battle was unavoidable, and it was joined on June 22nd, ending with a complete victory of the Estonians and Latvians (8000 men) over the Germans (9000 men). This was a turning point in the Estonian and Latvian War of Liberation, and the last battle that a general of the Kaiser fought on Latvian soil.
The Landeswehr retreated to the River Jugla, near Riga, and there, on July 3rd, an armistice was concluded. On July 4th, units of the Zemitans' army and those of the Balodis' Southern group entered Riga in triumph. Estonian naval units came into the mouth of the Daugava. The armistice stipulated that the Germans should be withdrawn from Latvia, while the Landeswehr, consisting of local Germans, was to become part of the Latvian army under the supreme Latvian Command.
On July 8th the Ulmanis Government returned to Riga. As the Landeswehr could not be completely relied on, on 25th July, an Ulsterman, a 28-years-old Lt.-Col., the Hon. H. R. L. G. Alexander, third son of the Earl of Caledon, was appointed its commander. Twenty-five years later this colonel of the Latvian army, who fought for Latvian freedom on the Latgale front against the Bolsheviks, became a figure of world repute. He is Field-Marshal Lord Alexander, the victor of North Africa and the liberator of Italy from Hitler's yoke.
The Liberation of Latgale could really start only on January 3rd, 1920, when 3 Polish divisions came to our aid, and with the united forces Latgale was cleared of the Bolsheviks in a month. On February 1st, 1920, an Armistice was signed between Russia and Latvia and on August 11th, 1920, the final peace treaty.
The clearance of Latgale was so delayed because the young Latvian Government, which had almost established its feet firmly on native Latvian soil, had to go through one more challenge, perhaps the most serious of all. General Goltz could not yet admit his defeat. He wanted to try once more. He had no intention of keeping his word to the Allies and withdrawing the remnants of the German forces. On September 26th, 1919, he entered into a secret agreement with a Russian adventurer, Paul Bermondt, who titled himself Prince Avaloff. This shady character, together with some Russian monarchists and German Baltic barons, was recruiting an army of volunteers, ostensibly to fight against the Bolsheviks on the Narva front. According to the secret agreement Goltz put the remnant of his forces formally at the disposal of Bermondt and they became "volunteers" in the "Russian" Corps. This Corps arrived in Jelgava and attacked the Latvian army from the rear.
The protests and ultimata of the Allies, and the orders of General Judenich (for whose benefit Bermondt said he had been recruiting) to transfer his troops to the Narva front, were of no avail. On October 8th Bermondt ordered his forces to attack in the direction of Riga. The situation was very critical. The young Latvian army lacked munitions, arms and clothing. Despite the autumn weather it was a common sight to see Latvian soldiers marching in an assortment of clothes and with their feet wrapped in rags fastened by strings. The next day already Bermondt had reached the suburbs of Riga.
The commander of the British naval squadron stationed in the mouth of the Daugava, Sir Walter Cowan, opened fire and with his long-range guns stopped a further advance, while under the cover of this artillery the Latvian units were able to cross the Daugava and organise a front in the middle of the town, keeping Bermondt on the west side of the river. At last consignments of munitions and arms arrived in Riga, and this enabled the Latvians to prepare their decisive blow. The attack started on November 10th, this time, too, supported by the guns of Sir Walter Cowan's Baltic fleet. Already the next day, November 11th, after severe and bloody battles, saw Riga liberated. That day is celebrated as the day of Latvian war heroes - the day of Lachpleshi - so named after the legendary Latvian hero, the Bear-Slayer. Riga was free and the German-Russian bands retreated in confusion. There were still minor clashes with them; they retreated into Lithuania, where the Lithuanians dealt them the final blows and only very sad remnants of general Goltz's last hope reached Germany.
The War of Liberation of the Latvian people lasted 628 days, from November 18th, 1918, until August 11th, 1920, when the Russians signed a peace treaty in Riga, recognising Latvian independence and for ever relinquishing Russian claims of sovereignty over Latvian territory and people.
The Latvian national army created from scratch, from a handful of enthusiasts in 1918, had fought 75 battles and liberated 65,000 sq. kilometres of territory, with 1.6 million inhabitants. During the war, Latvia had lost a whole million people. It is true that during the years 1919-1927 236,000 refugees returned; all the same, the total loss was about 700,000 or almost 27 per cent of the inhabitants. With so much blood was the freedom of the new republic bought. With the sign of the rising sun on his forehead (the army badge) the Latvian soldier had beaten the two heraldic animals of the period of interregnum - the lion and the griffin. This was later symbolised in the Latvian coat-of-arms, where the rising sun spreads his rays over the lion and the griffin.
Having achieved this, the Latvian soldier could return to his plough and elect the Constituent Assembly in April, 1920. On May 1st, this Assembly gathered, setting itself two tasks: (1) The adoption of the Constitution, and (2) The passing of the Agrarian Reform Bill. The latter was the most urgent task, in order to break the backbone of the economic power of the disloyal German minority, to create social justice and to build sound and stable economic foundations for the new State.
These tasks were accomplished. An extremely liberal and almost too democratic Constitution was agreed upon. It provided for a parliament of 100 members - in which at one time there were 27 political parties. This, of course, did not create stable governments. However, this was our first experience of self-government in modern times. We gained valuable knowledge and wisdom. Given time we would have smoothed out all our clumsy beginner's faults. The Latvian people have a sound political instinct and avoid extremes. Since 1934 the country had been ruled by our fourth President (and first Prime Minister) K. Ulmanis and his Government, without parliament. Hostile propaganda brands this period as fascist dictatorship. Perhaps it was a form of dictatorship, but it certainly did not bear the all-too-familiar gruesome hall-marks of fascism: concentration camps, secret political police rule, arbitrary courts. It entirely lacked these - the only criterion by which a fascist regime can be recognised, whether it be the black fascism of Mussolini, the brown one of Hitler, or Stalin's Red Fascism.
The Agrarian Reform was a wise and far-sighted measure. The land was pooled in a state pool. The old-established farms of the small-holders, who were the backbone of the national renaissance in the 19th century, were not touched, but all the big estates were redistributed among war veterans and landless peasants, in small farms calculated to be of a size that would provide a living for a family. This created social content and economic prosperity. Stimulated by a strong co-operative movement, the new farmers in a few years built up a prosperous agriculture, which not only satisfied all the home needs, but also provided the basis of a great export' trade in butter, bacon, eggs, grain, etc.
Latvia started her independent life with empty bank vaults, ruined industry, devastated fields and destroyed houses, with a scattered population. But in a timespan of 20 years the prosperity of the nation had risen greatly and a standard of life approaching that of Western Europe had been achieved, with a level of social justice exceeding that of many old western States. All this was the fruits of the sacrifice of the blood shed by the Latvian soldiers. The Latvian soldiers knew not only how to fight, but also how to use peace. We shall finish this chapter with words of a member of the British Military Mission, General Alfred Burt, who said: "Every Latvian soldier can be proud of being a member of a gallant army which has defended its country against the Germans and the Bolsheviks with such heroism."
- Chapter I, The Baltic Problem is Age-Old.
- Chapter II, The Baltic Sea—A Bone of Contention.
- Chapter III, From Freedom to Thraldom.
- Chapter IV, Emancipation and Renaissance.
- Chapter V, The First World War. Strugle for Independence.
- Next Chapter VI, Independent Latvia.
- Chapter VII, The Tragedy of 1940.
- Chapter VIII, Baltic Sea to Become Sea of Social Revolution.
- Chapter IX, Lies and Violence as Instruments of Russian Policy.
- Chapter X, The Last Act of the Baltic Tragedy «In the Shadow of Death».
- Postscript, Russia still denies it invaded and occupied Latvia—the tragedy remains fresh and painful
- THE STORY OF LATVIA (PDF FILE, 769 KB)
The Latvian National Foundation, Box 108, S-101 21 Stockholm, Sweden, retains all rights.