First man who died for Estonian Independence was Latvian

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Today at 24 February Estonia marks it 95 anniversary since its proclamation of independence. Estonian armed forces played an important role into the liberation of the whole Baltic region. Without the help of Estonians, Latvia would have harder time to win its own independence. But until this day little known is the fact, that first man who died in the Estonian ranks was a Latvian national Jānis (Johans) Muižnieks. This article  tells a story about him.

In 2011 12 November at the church of St. George at the Tori village near city of Parnu, the President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilvess unveiled a memorial plate to Latvian fighters that were awarded with the Cross of Liberty. In his speech the president noted that first man who fell for Estonia in 24 February 1918 in a battle with the Soviets was Latvian Johans Muižnieks.

The Republic of Estonia was first proclaimed in 23 February at Parnu in situation when the German army was advancing and the Soviet army was retreating. In the same day at Tallinn the Estonian Defense League begun its work along with many self-defense units. Soviets could only hold the portside of the city. In 24 February the Estonian interim government took office and spread the Manifest of the Estonian independence. Already in the spring of 1917 the gym teacher of Tallinn Peter Science School Anton Eunapu had formed the so-called Studying youth company (SYC) that was composed from students from the elder classes, from many Tallinn high-schools.

In the February 23 SYC together with other self-defense units started to patrol in Tallinn. In the next day one youth group was assigned to the Tallinn old city, because of the news about planned Soviet attack on electrical station and the city center. In the evening first battles were fought near the Electrical station. At 16:00 the fire exchange between self-defense units  and Soviet mariners near the Tallinn Town Square.  Soviets lost some man and few were wounded and fall back. The retreating mariners got themselves located near the so-called Fat Margarita medieval tower and then  continued to head to the electrical station. Also the size of the attacking Estonians dropped to eight man as others were patrolling elsewhere. The company of eight man were heading to the Electrical station becoming involved in more serious fire exchange

At the beginning of the shooting one member of the self-defense unit Johans Muižnieks, who was described as the leader of Peter Science school group was seriously wounded. Two others got lighter wounds. Estonians fought back near the Fat Margarita tower taking Muižnieks along with them. The battle near the Fat Margarita and the Electrical station continued until 25 February, when Soviet mariners could no longer break the self-defense units.

Johans Muižnieks was gravely wounded in breast and died next day. He was declared as the first martyr of the Estonian War of Independence. At 1936 on the Fat Margarita tower a memorial plate was unveiled commemorating him. During the Soviet occupation the plate “vanished”. In 28 September 1991 a new plate was unveiled with text: “At 24 February 1918 near the Fat Margarita in the first battle for Estonian Republic, the student of Tallinn Science School self-defense man Johans Muižnieks fell in battle”.

The Tower of Fat Margareta where Johans Muižnieks died in battle with the Soviets

The Tower of Fat Margareta where Johans Muižnieks died in battle with the Soviets

However, for long decades the identity of first Estonian hero was mistaken. In many books it was falsely stated the first man who died for Estonia, was the son of Tallinn wine trader Johan Muižnieks named Johans Gotlībs Bērends. Because of many false witnesses in exile after the World War II this false version still traveled on many Estonian textbooks.

First who found out this mistake was Estonian historian Killo Arjakass who published an article in the Estonian newspaper Postimes called: “The first who died for Estonian Independence was… Latvian” and asked everyone who have any information about the Johan Muižnieks to contact him. By the help of his distant relatives and Estonian and Latvian historians the story about the Johans Muižnieks became more clearer.

Johans Muižnieks was not a son of the wine trader Johans Muižnieks, but his nephew and godson, who in the years of the First World War worked as the assistant in the wine shops. Also in 1918 Johans was already 34 old and could not study in the science school. In the church of St Olav congregational metrics book register of the deceased persons, it has been stated that Jānis Johans Muižnieks had died and was conducted to funeral service at 3 March. The reason for death was stated as a wound from ricochet of bullets near the Fat Margarita. His year of birth was not mentioned but later it was discovered that he was born at 1883.

The Johans Gotlībs Bērneds is known to have studied at the Tallinn Peter Science school, but he already finished it at 1913. He was conscripted in Russian Army in the First World War. He really died in 1918, but in November from illness. The history simply mixed two nephews do the lack of proper information. Many questions still lay unanswered about Johans Muižnieks life. He was the member of rich Latvian family from town of Rauna in Latvia, who moved to Tallinn. Its not known how Johans Muižnieks joined the Estonian self-defense forces, was he already called into army at the First World War and how he was mixed with Johans Gotlībs Bērends, but the fact that lies that he was the first or one of the first who gave his life for Estonian independence.

The historical ties between Latvia and Estonia have been deep since the times of the Livonian confederation. Although our languages are different and life outlook may differ, there is much common in our history. The good relations and cooperation between Estonia and Latvia is key to stability and well-being of the whole Baltic Region.

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