The Story of Latvia—A Historical SurveyArveds Švābe. Latvian National Foundation, Stockholm. 1949



Although during the First World War, in the actual fighting against Germany, in the widespread turning of populations into refugees, during the German occupation (1915-1919) and in the subsequent Wars of Liberation Latvia lost 27 per cent of her population, nevertheless the three Baltic States amply proved their right to an independent existence. They achieved great heights in cultural as well as economic development and in the level of social justice. The foreign trade turnover of the four Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland in 1938 was 583 million dollars. These nations comprise only 9.5 million inhabitants. The foreign trade turnover of the U.S.S.R. with 180 million inhabitants was only 512 million dollars.

In the Second World War, Latvia experienced two Red Army occupations (1940-1941 and 1944-   ) and one Nazi occupation (1941-1945). Both these regimes meant the dictatorship of one party, Gestapo methods, concentration camps, deportation to forced labour, forcible mobilisation, general nationalisation of property, pauperisation and colonisation with the purpose of annihilating the Latvian nation, whom both occupants blamed for having Anglo-Saxon sympathies and preferring the principles as well as the economic and political systems of the West.


Although Latvia, with her territory of 65,791 square kilometres (25,402 sq. miles), is larger than Denmark, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, etc., many people prophesied that the country would prove too small and would be economically too weak to exist and maintain itself and its State apparatus and to honour its international obligations. These prophets forgot that the State of the Teutonic Order in Livonia, of exactly the same size and a much worse administrative structure, existed for 350 years; and the Duchy of Courland of only one-third of the size of Latvia existed for 230 years and achieved international greatness, being one of the rising colonial powers. Latvia soon showed that she was able to live and she solved her post-war economic and social problems earlier than many other European States. The economic and cultural achievements of Latvia during a development of 20 years are generally acknowledged.


The vitality of the nation is shown by the increase of its population. In 1920 there were 1.6 million inhabitants of Latvia; in 1939 there were again over 2 millions. Even if we allow for the 200,000 odd who returned from the exile of the war years after 1920, the increase is still over 200,000 whereas that branch of the Latvian tree which was transplanted into foreign soil did not take root and prosper; on the contrary, it was slowly withering. When war was over, 250,000 Latvians still stayed in the Soviet Union. At the beginning of the Second World War, of that number there remained only 126,000.

In the past there had been several attempts to colonise Latvia by Germans and thus to secure a grip on the land, with an eye to future affiliation with Germany. This was possible because the Baltic barons disposed of large latifundia, varying in size from 100 to 70.000 hectares, where there was plenty of empty space for various projects. Though in numbers they consti­tuted only 1.6 per cent of the total number of farming enterprises, they took up 57 per cent of the whole privately owned land. The Baltic nobility realised that they were a very small minority, and one, moreover, that had not by wisdom and clever guidance of the country's affairs endeared itself to the majority, but on the contrary had used every opportunity that history pre­sented to oppress the majority. Feeling, therefore, that such a position was difficult to maintain as time marched on, the Baltic German squirearchy several times tried to supplement its power by another element on which it could lean - a German small-holder class. Hence the repeated attempts at colonisation. This was another reason for the new Latvian State to settle its agrarian conditions and to distribute the land among loyal Latvian farmers and do away with the empty spaces that again at a future opportunity might be used to introduce a foreign body into the living organism of the Latvian nation. The Germans scoffed and cursed. They said the new farms should be built on wheels, to be rolled away when they returned to power. True, the curse has partly come to pass, and many of the farmers are now displaced persons or deportees in Siberia. However, the German Balts rolled away first when Hitler called them "home". And when in 1941 they returned as Hitler's gauleiters, their glory was short-lived. The chief among them, Alfred Rosenberg, was disposed of at Nuremberg.


Latvia has only 35 per cent of town dwellers and, therefore, agriculture is obviously her main industry. It was, therefore, essential that this principal source of income and livelihood should be properly and economically organised. It was essential to do away with the remnants of feudalism. The State Land Pool was 3.3 million hectares large. Each estate was left with 50 hectares of land; the former owners could work on there, not as large-scale industrial farmers, but simply as every other farmer, and many of them did. After the reform, 65 per cent of all the farms were of the size between 10 and 50 hectares. Over 100,000 new farms were created and an equal number strength­ened by additions.

Not only did this Agrarian Reform give the Latvian people satisfaction for an injustice done to them centuries earlier, but it also created a solid foundation for the country's economic life, and created social peace within the State - a condition unknown in Latvia for generations. That social contentment was growing, can be seen from the results of parliamentary elec­tions. In the elections of 1920, the Left Wing parties, which usually attract the vote of the discontented, were given 39 per cent of the total votes; whereas in 1931 they gained only 27 per cent. Particularly great was this swing towards moderate political views in the country districts; radicalism remained only in the towns. Communists were of no account. When they did go to the polls as a separate party they reaped only very small returns - in 1928, 8 per cent. ; in 1931, 7.4 per cent.

Critics of the agrarian Reform gave warning that the consequences would be a falling off in production and an economic crisis. The contrary was the case. The 275.698 small-holders became more and more prosperous. In 1913 there were 320,000 horses; in 1920, 261,000 (most of them discarded army horses); in 1938 there were more than 400,000 horses. The same picture can be seen regarding cattle; in 1913 there were 912,000 cows and in 1939, 1.278,000. Harvests show a similar rise. The average harvest of winter rye during the years 1921-1939 increased by 0.33 quintals per hectare annually, and winter wheat by 0.26 quintals per hectare. The same picture shows itself in dairy farming. In 1929 the average yearly yield of butter was 108 kg. per milking cow; in 1939 it was 130 kg. The Soviet authorities main­tain that these results were achieved by exploitation of agricultural workers and their sweated labour. Not to enter into comparisons of labour conditions in Latvia and the U.S.S.R., suffice it to say that in no other branch of Latvian economy was the percentage of hired labour so small as in agriculture; only 18 per cent of all people who derived their livelihood from the land were wage-earners.


Latvian foreign trade is characterised by the 224,711,000 Lats worth of imports and 227,053,000 Lats worth of exports, in 1939. In other years the preponderance of exports has been even more striking. Among the exports, butter takes the first place - 21,929 tons, 51 million lats in value. Next in order of importance come timber, flax, bacon, live pigs, paper and grain. The importance of the Baltic States as producers of food for industrial Europe must not be under-estimated. Though small, these countries played a considerable part in the feeding of European workers. Now Europe is robbed of these supplies. If the Baltic food-productice capacity were available, many European food problems would be easier. The productive capacity just now is, of course, through ravages of war and senseless deportations of people, much lower than formerly; yet Russia is exporting Baltic food into the Russian interior, depleting the Baltic forests and driving off Baltic cattle. And all the while Russia herself is potentially one of the greatest food and timber producers of the world, though her resources are not available to the world.


According to countries, Latvian foreign trade shows the following picture in 1938 (the last complete normal pre-war year) : in percentage of the total, Great Britain - imports 20.8, exports 41.9; Germany - imports 38.9, exports 29.5; U.S.A. - imports 6.3, exports 1.4; U.S.S.R. - imports 3.5 per cent, exports 3.0 per cent.

It is clearly seen that Russia played a part of no importance in the Latvian foreign trade balance; even the distant U.S.A. was of greater importance. And Germany, though she was geographically the nearest, and by her trade methods was always attempting to penetrate and dominate the Baltic, was by no means the most important. Latvian trade was definitely oriented to Western Europe.

According to the Census of 1935, 58.5 per cent of all the inhabitants of Latvia derived their livelihood from agriculture, while of the working population this represented 62.3 per cent.


On the whole, the Latvian people are a people of work. The percentage of working people in relation to the total population is one of the highest: two-thirds of the population earn their own living by work and only one-third are maintained by someone else. That was the main reason why social legisla­tion received so much attention, and Latvia was one of the most progressive States in Europe in this respect.

16.6 per cent of the population in 1935 derived their livelihood from indu­stry. The main industrial centres were Riga and Liepaja. There 39 per cent of the inhabitants lived by industry; 6.5 per cent were employed in trade and 3.1 per cent in transport.


Latvian foreign debts, on 1st April, 1940, were: to the U.S.A., 7 million dollars (2.5 million dollars was the war debt for food and war materials during the War of Liberation, payable in 62 years) ; to Great Britain, about 2 million pounds (£1,300,000 war debt, payable in 30 years) ; France, 4,5 million francs; Sweden 9.3 million kronor (mainly for the building of the Kegums Hydro-Electric Power Station). In lats, the foreign debt represented 100 millions, or 50 lats per head of the population. The Internal Debt was 52 million lats. These debts were secured by gold and foreign currency. The Latvian currency was, in 1939, covered by foreign currency to the value of 37.6 million lats ; short term Bills of Exchange 20.5 million lats ; and gold, 87.6 million lats. Latvian national wealth is calculated to be 6 milliards of lats, i.e., about 3,000 lats per head of the population. Directly or indirectly, the State owned about 40 per cent of all the National Wealth.


Cultural life and education were on a high level. In the year 1939-40 there were 4 higher educational establishments: the University, the Academy of Agriculture, the Academy of Arts and the Academy of Music. The teaching staff (academic) in these establishments numbered 522 and the students, 7,713. There were 111 secondary educa­tional establishments, comprising 2,371 teachers and 24,928 pupils; and 1,800 elementary schools with 9,000 teachers and 224,700 pupils. There were, besides, various trade and technical schools and Higher Institutes, such as the Institute of Commerce, Institute of English, etc. Altogether Latvia had over 8,000 persons with academic education, among them 1,800 engineers, 1,600 doctors of medicine, 1,400 lawyers, etc. In numbers of books published in proportion to population, Latvia occupied the second place among European nations, the first being Denmark. The arts, painting, literature, music, the theatre, were all highly developed and keenly appreciated by the people.

This account of Latvian achievements and development is purposely short, factual and dry. It is by no means comprehensive, but is intended, by giving a few random facts, to give a general idea. There is no denying that Latvia had used her freedom well.

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