Latvian Foreign Policy 1921-1940

The Main Building of the Latvian Foreign Ministry

The Main Building of the Latvian Foreign Ministry

After Latvia was internationally recognized by all major powers in 1921, it was ready for its own part in the world diplomatic arena. The diplomacy in the twenties and thirties was complicated and double sided. There were hopes and talks about regional unity, international assistance in case of invasion and even calls for disarmament. However, the old imperial interests, national ethnic issues and revisionism by some countries made this impossible. Latvia as a small country had to find a way to keep their sovereignty  in these uncertain times.

Latvia was in full of support of the so called Versailles system, a system based on Paris peace conference. The Versailles system allowed Baltic States to be independent and added new countries in the Eastern Europe. However, this was done at the expense of collapsed empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russian Empire. The heirs of these empires the Veinmar republic, Hungary and the Soviet Union were looking for revision and revenge. That was one of the main reasons of the failure of the Versailles system.

The first conception of the Latvian foreign policy was designed by Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics. He was the first Foreign minister and desired to ensure mutual solidarity between the Baltic States to keep the Soviet Russia off. The potential allies were seen as the Great Britain and France. Also for the sake of the stability good relations needed to make with Germany and the Soviet Russia – the ex enemies. The first period of the foreign policy was the “vertical line” that was based on forming the Baltic Union. After 1925 the line went horizontal and was based on making common ground with the Soviet Union and Germany.  The main concern for the Latvian diplomats was to find ways for solid external security.

Latvian attempts at forming the Baltic Union was rather unsuccessful. The mutual defense fact between Latvia and Estonia signed on November 1 1923 was the only real achievement. The main reason for the failure of the Baltic Union talks was the conflict with Lithuania and Poland. In 1920 Poland had captured the city of Vilnius, that Lithuanians regarded as their historic capital. Lithuania was unable to get it back and the Vilnius region became the official part of Poland. The tensions between the two states continued throughout the two decades. Poland was against the small Baltic Union and Lithuania was against the big Baltic Union together with Poland.

Germany and the Soviet Union were also against the Baltic Union and did everything to prevent it. Soviet Union regularly boosted the Vilnious question to prevent forming the union with Poland in the lead. Soviets signed separate pacts between all three Baltic countries to weaken their position. Lithuania was also playing a highly dangerous game by regarding the Germany and the Soviet Union as their allies since they both were against Poland. So they had to balance between them both.

Germany prevented the Baltic states from initiating the Eastern Lockarno Pact. The Lockarno conference made the Western German borders inviolable making illegitimate to change them. Poland and The Baltic states wanted to the same with the Eastern German borders. The plan however failed making it possible for the Germans to manipulate with the Polish and Lithuanian borders in the future.

The League of Nations proved to be ineffective from the very start. Latvian delegation actively pushed to add more changes that would empower the national sovereignty. The Geneva Protocol for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes was intended to find solutions for international conflicts in a peaceful way. The rights of the invaded nation and the aggressor was set out in this paper. However,  it failed to reach majority support. The protocol of 1928 that issued the forming of the international jury  for solving diplomatic conflicts was only supported by 23 countries.

The disarmament conferences failed due to the lack of support from the US and USSR. The pact of Paris in 1928 called to cancel war as a diplomatic solution. But, since of the lack of the aggressor definition and no institutions that should monitor the fulfillment of the pact it was again very useless. Moscow made Baltic States and Poland and Romania to sign a protocol that would ensure that the Pact of Paris comes to an effect with the Soviet Union before it comes in full international effect. Soviet Union tried to play the role of peacemaker by signing non-aggression pact with each Baltic State in 1932. However, on 1940 Soviet Union without hesitation broke every agreement they signed.

All the international treaties that Latvia signed guaranteed its full sovereignty only in paper. In reality Latvia was in constant danger. While Latvia was placing too much hope on Great Britain and France, their interest in defending the Latvian sovereignty was not so high. For some time the stabilizing factor was the German trade interests with Latvia and bad relations with Poland that kept the Moscow further.

On September 12 1934 all three Baltic States with new authoritarian regimes in each (Lithuania abolished democracy in 1926, Latvia and Estonia in 1934) finally signed the Baltic Union Pact. All three states agreed to make tighter diplomatic contacts and form meetings. The Vilnious question was treated as specific problem only for Lithuania.

On July 1934 France and the Soviet Union both proposed an Eastern Pact. The pact included guarantees for USSR, Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Finland and the Baltic States. France should guarantee the Eastern Pact, but Soviet Union the Lockarno pact. Estonia and Latvia both supported the pact. However, the pact never came to reality.

The international situation in mid-thirties changed. The new German Nazi leadership signed non-aggression pact with Poland, the Soviet Union was enforcing heavy militarization while calling for more peace conferences. Latvia was forced to use neutrality politics and try to find common peaceful grounds with Germany and Soviet Union. Such policy was unstable and regularly shifting. From 1935 to 1938 Latvia was more pro-soviet, but after the Munchen conference Latvia was pro-German.

Latvian Foreign Minister Vilhelms Munters was elected as an impermanent member of the council of the League of Nations.  It was an honor, however the League of Nation was heading for a breakdown.  Failures to stop Italian and Japanese aggressions. In 1938 Latvia made a mistake by stepping away from the principles of the collective security of the League of Nations. By not recognizing the 16th point that was the only guarantee for Latvia in case of invasion. This foul step was dictated by the growing pressure of the Soviet Union. Latvian neutrality was a delusion because Latvia could not make anyone to accept it.

All major countries in 1938-1939 head for the abolition of the world peace. Great Britain and France payed a heavy price for WWI and feared that a new one will destroy its imperial status. However, the British-French methods of appeasement only boosted the German ambitions. The nazi aggressive foreign policy could have been effectively stopped already in 1936 when Germany was still very weak. Allowing the occupation of the Rheinland on 1936, and silently watching the Austrian Anschluss was a prime mistake. Hitler was now sure that the French and British will fulfill his every wish in order to keep peace. After Munich conference and the annexation of Memel from Lithuania his ambitions went further to Poland. Meanwhile Soviet Union was watching this with joy. All the proposed peace conferences have been just the guise to keep the Eastern Europe apart. In reality Soviet Union was waiting for the new world war that in their minds would initiate the worldwide socialist revolution. When Germany came in conflict with the Poland and UK and France was looking for the Soviet support, Soviets instead pushed for agreement with Germany. And that would cause war.

Latvia had signed a non-aggression pacts with Germany and the Soviet Union. When allies tried to make talks with the Soviets, Latvia was strictly against the allied- soviet agreement. Moscow proposed that the invaded nation may be directly supported even without its permission. Soviets even designed so called event of indirect  invasion that would also need the Soviet support. Understandably this would mean that the Soviet Union may occupy Latvia for every small reason.

Since Stalin from the very start had wished to sign an agreement with the Nazi Germany, the talks with the allies were just a cover up and tool to blackmail Germans. The Molotov-Ribentrop pact signed on 23 August 1939 effectively canceled the Latvian sovereignty. Ribbentrop had a disagreement with Stalin about Latvia. Germans wished to divide Latvia and add Courland to German sphere of interest. Stalin with anger replayed until the Germans withdraw this demand no further talks can continue. Ribbentrop phoned Hitler and he agreed to give whole Latvia to Stalin.

After the WWII broke out, Latvia was in a grave situation. UK and France were far away, Poland was invaded from both sides. As the Soviet Union was gathering enormous forces at the border Latvia had to submit to the Soviet demands. On 10 October 1939 Latvia signed mutual assistance pact  with the Soviet Union, together with Lithuania and Estonia. Latvia allowed to host the Soviet garrisons and gave part of their sovereignty away. Latvia was aware of the secret protocols but hoped that the Soviets would keep them as a satellite state with some freedom. Finland who rejected the Soviet demands was invaded. Interestingly enough even Germans also thought that the Baltic states will not be annexed, just kept as Soviet satellites.

On June 1940 one by one the Baltic states were occupied. The hopeless situation with Soviet troops already inside the Baltic governments was forced to surrender. Twenty years work of keeping the national sovereignty failed.  The imperialistic interests prevailed over ideas of peace and international rights. This is the lesson that the Latvian modern diplomats must learn: never get in isolation, never rely only on treaties and sound promises. And report to the whole world if the country ever falls into danger.

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