On November 18 96 years will pass since nationally minded politicians gathered in Second Riga City Theater (now known as National Theater) and proclaimed the Republic of Latvia. Its a key date in Latvian history when finally after long years of foreign oppression Latvians took important steps to proclaim their country. Every year there is a military parade in Riga and other national celebrations. This article will describe how Latvia was proclaimed and who are the people who made this possible.
Latvian nationalism came to light in the second half of 19 century. It was known as “New Latvian” movement, which was formed from young Latvian students and intellectuals. The abolition of serfdom made opportunities for Latvians to get educated. Education is seed of national growth. Latvians gathered in unions, made their own schools and organized cultural activities. Because of success of national unions Russian enforced Russification suffered defeat. Latvians spoke in Latvian actively and became politically active. However in the last decade of 19 century left ideology was also present in Latvia. Such persons as Jānis Pleikšāns (Rainis) and Peteris Stučka was main socialist leaders of that time.
The revolution in 1905 was the first sign of Latvian national awaking. Although the main force in the revolution was Latvian social democrats the whole revolution was made against foreign oppression. The attacks on German mansions and calls for Latvian autonomy had national character. The next crucial point was the First World War. In 1915 the German army invaded Latvian territory. 567 000 people fled Latvia to Russia. It was a catastrophic situation when half of Latvian population left their homeland. Nationally minded refugees organized self-support committees in all Russia. Only Jewish refugees were more organized than Latvians. German army stopped near Riga and stayed there until 1917. To fight Germans Latvians organized national rifleman regiments. Latvians gathered under the Russian banner to protect their land. This was a birth of the Latvian national military.
1917 was a time of change. Czar Nicholas I was deposed from the throne and Russia was at the brink of collapse. This was a chance for Latvian politicians to fight for Latvian freedom. The first calls for independence was made in 1913 and 1914 by Marģers Skujinieks and Miķelis Valters. In 1915 social democrat Fēliks Cielēns made project for Latvian political autonomy. However he was talking about Latvian autonomy within Russia, the prospects of full independence was still unclear. In 1916 Social democrats organized a Latvian national committee in Switzerland to promote Latvian autonomy. The motion was supported by Jānis Rainis who had a passion for socialism but supported Latvian independence. He wrote the famous poem Daugava which became popular among patriots. Latvian politicians within Russian borders such as Jānis Čakste and Jānis Zālitis hoped for Russian victory that could help Latvians gain freedom. Refugees in Russia called for founding of national party and denounced all ties with Russia.
On March 17 1917 at Riga 48 representatives of Latvian organizations gathered to acquire resolution for Latvian autonomy. The resolution was met with excitement by Karlis Ulmanis who understood that his time has come to fight for Latvia. Latgalians also decided to join Latvian fight for freedom and Latgalia was accepted as part of Latvia.
The national aspirations were condemned by Latvian communists. Social democrats who were allied with them now left the split from the Latvian Social democratic party because of their strive for Latvian sovereignty. In April the Latvian National democratic party was formed with people as Jānis Akuraters, Atis Ķenins and Kārlis Skalbe.
In May 12 1917 Karlis Ulmanis and his colleagues founded Latvian Farmers Union. Karlis Ulmanis declared “We must be masters in our own land and keep in mind not only good for classes but good for all of us”. Latvians everywhere hoped for Latvian autonomy in free democratic Russia. “Free Latvia in Free Russia!” was a popular slogan among Latvians. However Russian Interim Government declined Latvian calls for autonomy. Such rights however were given to Estonia only because the large Estonian military force was present in Petrograd. In September local elections were held in Vidzeme and Latvian Social democratic party won a majority with 60% of the votes. The farmers union won 35%. In the elections of Russian constituent assembly social democrats and Bolsheviks (lielinieki in Latvian) participated separately. The Bolsheviks gained 72%. It was a clear sign that communist propaganda had high support among Latvians. Assembly was deposed by the Bolsheviks.
The Communist coup was dividing point among Latvians. Communists with leadership of Fricis Roziņš took power over Vidzeme and Latgale. For some months they were ruled by Latvian rifleman, soldier and peasant deputy soviet executive committee or Iskolat. The communists wanted to add Latvia to Soviet Russia. Majority of Latvian rifleman supported communists because they promised to end the war and give land to everyone. Vladimir Lenin was at first positive to national sovereignty of nations in the former Russian empire.
The communists did not hold long because the German army captured Riga in September 1917. Latvian nationalists and social democrats joined together to form Democratic Block which operated in Riga. Kārlis Ulmanis, Miķelis Valters was active persons in the block. At the end of September DB adopted the resolution of Latvian independence.
From November 29 to December 2 in Valka a convention of Latvian politicians and intellectuals was held. All Latvian organizations except the Bolsheviks took part in the gathering. Latvian interim national council was founded. Social democrats despite an invitation to join stayed out. Council was formed of all top Latvian national politicians. Most of them became an important statesman in future Latvian Republic. Council had a disagreement on Latvian statehood. Some asked for a declaration of independence but the farmers union turned down such proposal. The council declaration called Latvia “an autonomous state unit, whose position on foreign and interim matters will define its constitutional assembly and people’s plebiscite”. Council sent Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics to a diplomatic mission to western countries to introduce Latvian sovereignty. In second session council now named itself as a Latvian National Council. On October 23 1918 British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour recognized the National Council as independent legal institution that has right to operate in Latvia.
Both Democratic Block and National Council had disagreement on which of them are rightful institution regarding Latvian interests. DB also hoped for German support while Council only relied on the powers of the Entente. After long quarrels both institutions agreed to form a Latvia Peoples Council that required proclaiming the Republic of Latvia. The elected chairman was Jānis Čakste who was not present at the event of the proclamation.
On 17 November eight Latvian parties gathered to set last discussions before proclamation. Social Democrats again had disagreements and talks almost failed. However Miķelis Valters in powerful speech asked to stop keeping party interests above the state interests. Social Democrats finally agreed and the proclamation was scheduled on 18 November.
The proclamation took place in the Second Riga Theater. A large red and white flag was chosen for decoration. This flag was already used as a national symbol. At the beginning of the meeting a national hymn “God bless Latvia” composed by Blaumaņu Kārlis was sung. Gustavs Zemgals called meeting to open. Karlis Ulmanis held a speech where he promised equal rights for all nations living in Latvia and asked everyone to take part in state matters. Social democratic leader Pauls Kalniņš however declared that independent Latvia is only instrument not a goal for social democrats and they will keep their position on the basis of international socialism. The Republic of Latvia was proclaimed and Karlis Ulmanis became prime minister of new Provisional government.
The first months of Latvian Republic were hard. Government had no army to protect Latvia from attacking Bolsheviks. The German army was also still present in Latvia and German politicians were against Latvian independence. 1918.-1919 was years full of troubles when German and Bolshevik forces tried to stop Latvian fight for independence. That is a story to be told in the future.
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