Latvia as many other nations were the pioneers of the parliamentary democracy. The hopes for political freedoms were high as Latvian politicians made one of the most liberal constitutions of those times. The election law was also very generous as no percent cap was made and only 100 signatures were needed to form a party. The good intended policy soon turned into a chaotic political struggle between various parties. Two largest political forces – The Latvian Farmers Union and the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party never managed to achieve political prominence because they had to mingle with the small parties. This caused resentment in many and opposition against the parliamentary democracy grew stronger every year. Obvious opponents of the parliamentary system were radicals both left and right wings. Latvian Communist Party worked in underground by the guidance of the Comintern and various nationalist movements also strived for dissolution of the parliament (Saeima). However, as in many cases abroad the people who destroyed the parliamentary democracy were the ones who actually helped to make and took part in it. They were so called founding fathers – the leaders of the wars of independence whose ambitions were limited by the parliamentary democracy. For Poland it was Jozef Pilsudsky, for Lithuania Antas Smetona, for Estonia Konstantin Päts.
Kārlis Ulmanis was born on September 4 1877 at a Bērze parish house called “Pikšas”. He was the third son in a wealthy land owner family. As a third son, he was sent to various educational facilities. He studied at Zurich and Leipzig universities and earned an agronomist diploma. His entry into politics begun with the revolution of 1905. Czarist authorities sent him to Pskov prison where he spent a few months. After release he went to Germany where he worked as a teacher in Agricultural school. From 1908 to 1909 he was at Nebraska University Lincoln Industrial Agricultural college. After graduating it, he opened his milk farm in Texas. But, his homeland was more dear to him, so he returned to Latvia in 1913. He resided in Valmiera and worked as an agronomist and the editor of the newspaper “Zeme” (Land). During the First world war he worked in the refugee support committee. After the February revolution of 1917 he again could start his political career. His biography was perfect: son of a rich farmer family, diplomas from foreign universities, took part in the revolution of 1905 and took part in the important refugee support work.
So no wonder his designed political force was called the Latvian Farmers Union. Founded by his own initiative and him as the chairman the LFU soon became the leading force. By scoring support with his charisma and willpower, he took the role of the Prime Minister of the Provisional government in 1918. He led Latvia during the War of Freedom from 1918 to 1920 and became widely recognized by the Latvian nation.
He continued to take part in the Latvian politics and was elected in every election. Many times he again took the role of the Prime Minister, he also served as foreign, war, welfare and agricultural minister. Ulmanis also tried his hand in the business, by founding the Latvian Farmers bank that turned out to bee short lived project. As the years went by his political image faded. Many blamed him for corruption, others noted that Ulmanis was too friendly with national minority party leaders especially Mordehai Dubin the Jewish orthodox politician. The last election results showed a dreadful possibility for Ulmanis not to be elected in future elections.
The opposition against the democratic system started to rise in the late twenties. In the first discussions were merely about changing the constitution (Satversme) or the election law. However, the leading parties especially LFU discovered that making the election law will hurt them too. Then in early thirties various proposals for changing the constitution appeared. The usual call was for the president elected by the people not by parliament and making his powers stronger. The idea of a strong personality that would replace a quarreling parliament of 100 men was stronger than ever. The right wing Nationalist Union and the Ulmanis supportive block of the LFU was for this notion.
On October 24 1933 the LFU fraction proposed a radical change in Satversme. 100 parliament seats should be minimized to 50, the age of voting raised 21 years and president is elected by the people for five years. The presidential powers could allow him to dissolve parliament, remove ministers and suppress civil and political liberties. The proposal was not rejected but in usual style sent for examination at the parliamentary commission. That would take long months and that is what Kārlis Ulmanis needed. He was already plotting a coup and long unearthly discussions to divert attention is what he required.
Kārlis Ulmanis was a believer of the strong, solid government with the complete support of the people. He predicted the coming of the new age of unity. His ideal politician was the British dictator Oliver Cromwell, who was the leader of the English civil war and later deposed the parliament. His two close aides were Vilhelms Munters and Alfrēds Bērziņš. Important ally was General Jānis Balodis also an independence war hero. With his high rank and influence in the Latvian army he devised the plan for the coup. Two other affiliated supporters were Marģers Skujenieks an ex moderate leftist now a nationalist and long time nationalist leader Arveds Bergs.
Conspiracy has begun in summer 1933 and continued until spring 1934. Ulmanis was also a Prime Minister that time that made the job easier. His military supporters took time to gather loyal army units. The most significant achievement was the support from the Aizsargi – civil guard a popular paramilitary organization. They would act as police and ensure order in rural areas.
There were also conspiring forces like nationalistic movement “The Legion” lead by “kopvedis” Voldemārs Ozols. Their inspirations were uncovered by the secret police and their leaders were arrested few days before the coup. Another nationalist movement “Thundercross” despite sparking anti-governmental agenda was actually preparing for elections. Ulmanis was actually quite sympathetic to them, however their negative stance on LFU proposed changes in Satversme was a negative surprise for him. Eventually the “Thundercross” movement turned out to be the most active underground resistance movement against Ulmanis regime. Meanwhile Latvian Social Democrats that had the most largest arsenal of weapons and supporters was warning everyone about the coming danger against democracy.
A similar coup took place in Estonia few months ago, Lithuania had already deposed of democracy in 1926. Nazi’s came to power in 1933. The heated rumors about communist/nationalist/military conspiracy was good enough for Ulmanis to call a cabinet meeting on May 15 to inform about expected riots by “the criminal elements”. Therefore an extra security was needed for main governmental buildings including Saeima and the House of Cabinet and also the Postal and Telegraph center. At 19:25 the last parliament session ended. Social Democrats were joking to Ulmanis to treat them as nice as could if he really makes a coup. Ulmanis replied: “Sure as best as I can!”
The conspirators went to jachtclub to play a card game. There Ulmanis said that the time has come. In 23:00 the telephone communications were shut down. At the same time police raided the Social Democrat headquarters. The only shot that was fired during the coup was made by social democrat Bruno Kalniņš that fired his pistol at the ceiling as a protest to his arrest. Despite having arms social democrats were taken by surprise and did not resist. Conspirators moved to the Foreign Ministry. At 8:00 in a morning Ulmanis visited the president of Latvia Alberts Kviesis to inform about the coup. With resentment Kviesis accepted the coup. This was one of the most civilized coups in Europe despite the heavy army and police involvement.
The official explanation for the coup was that other radical organizations were intending to seize the power, however the parliament was too weak to resist them. Also the unstable international situation was blamed. The reaction against the coup was passive. LFU elected deputies were quite sad about losing their jobs so as the other right wing parties. However, they seen Ulmanis as the lesser evil and silently resigned from their posts. Radical socialists decided that resistance is useless and decided to ally with the Communists and go underground. “Thundercross” was utterly surprised and was angry that Ulmanis had stolen their ideas. In so decided to go against Ulmanis. National minority leaders were worried about loosing their status. Mordechai Dubin called Ulmanis and said “If I am no longer needed here, I will leave!” Ulmanis however talked him out of it. The overall reaction from the people was passive and even welcoming.
The new authorities made arrests. The social democrats were arrested the most. With almost no use of violence, expect broken doors and windows people were taken to Riga Central Prison or the Liepaja Concentration camp. The target groups were social democrats, Thundercross, Jewish socialists and German and Austrian socialist emigrees that werre exiled from Latvia. 503 social democrats, 128 Thundercross members, 15 Jews, 2 Belorussians, one German, and a few members of the right wing parties were jailed. The main scapegoats for the coup – the Legion members were already jailed before May 15 and only six of them were taken into custody after it. Only a few people were actually put on trial and sentenced. The usual sentence was four months in the correctional facility.
The so called Liepaja Concentration Camp had 369 prisoners. The purpose of the camp was to keep the people from making trouble for some time then let go. The conditions of the camp were fine comparing to Nazi and Soviet camps. Until the end of the year nearly all people were released from the prison. The camp was closed in 1935.
Ruling regime fired many people from state sector considered unloyal. All 109 official political parties including LFU were closed. 113 societies were either closed or demanded to close themselves. Most closed societies were leftist based. A censorship was issued and 50 newspapers were closed. Newspapers were banned from discussing social and national issues. For the first time it was banned to write bad remarks about other ethnic nations.
The press analysis of the 1933-1934 shows relative rise of antisemitism and social tensions within Latvia even in the rural areas. The growing radicalization on both wings was halted by the Ulmanis regime. We may suggest that political radicalization inspired by the Nazi Germany and the falling popularity of the ruling parties may cause greater danger than on May 15. If so then Kārlis Ulmanis had actually saved Latvia from possible problems in the future.
The new government issued a state of emergency for six months. A declaration was issued that stated that parliament is dissolved and constitution has lost its effect until a new one is made. All regional municipalities were fired and replaced with loyal councils.
Although Kārlis Ulmanis was talking about the Latvian national unity and placed Latvians first, he did not dare to suppress the national minority rights completely. However, he changed the liberal education law, by removing minority school councils. He replaced them with a single desk officer for each minority. The number of minority schools dropped, but not in the critical level. Even if some schools were forced to include more Latvian language and history lessons than usual it was nothing that could be compared with countries like Poland or Romania. Ulmanis continued to be a good friend to Jewish leader Mordecai Dubin. Ulmanis only suppressed Jewish socialist activities, he was very found of the Zionist ideas. Consequently from 1934 to 1940 Ulmanis helped thousands of the Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and Austria to escape to Palestine, Australia and US.
Even with this light approach to things the Kārlis Ulmanis regime can be called exceptionally radical. Instead of Estonia and Lithuania, where the new dictators passed new constitutions, Ulmanis never bothered to do that. The Satversme was simply taken out of effect to a “better times”. Because of this Latvia still uses the 1922 constitution while other two Baltic States had to pass a new one. While other two Baltic States had a single official ruling party, Ulmanis simply ruled with his own loyal government. There are however speculations that Ulmanis was actually intending to make his own party, but the war canceled this. Ulmanis only took the president post once Alberts Kviesis had officially finished his days in office in 1936. The presidential title was just a decoration for Ulmanis. His true title was the Leader “Vadonis” that was almost a God like figure.
But, there are no reasons to label the Ulmanis regime as “fascist”. Soviet propaganda has created myths about the fascist nature of the Ulmanis regime. No political prisoners were ever sentenced to death. Antisemitism in the mass media was suppressed. There were no single leading party. It’s true that Ulmanis went to Germany in 1933 to rehab, but that he met Hitler there who instructed him do make a coup is highly questionable. Even wilder tales of book burning marches that are still echoing in the modern Russian historiography are no more than fantasy. The Kārlis Ulmanis regime was a simple authoritarian regime with the featured cult of personality.
Ulmanis regime did a semi-centralization of the Latvian economy. Corporate economic chambers were made for every state sector. Six of them were made for trade and economy, agriculture, manufacture, labor, arts and writing and professions. Corporate chambers worked as a consultative body to the government and controlled associated societies and enterprises. Trough the Ulmanis rule many large enterprises were nationalized and the size of the public sector doubled. In later years plans were set for collective farming. The Latvian economy that already had recovered from the Great Depression experienced an upswing. It’s hard to say whether this was because of Ulmanis policies.
Ulmanis regime ideology was based on holy trinity- The Leader, national unity and Latvian nationalism. The Ulmanis nationalism was to achieve the Latvian national dominance in economy and culture. The Latvian culture and language was regarded as the uniting factor. National minorities were not excluded, nor was it possible to do that, however they experienced a minor reducing of their national rights. Greater importance was added to national unity. The solidarity, unity and common thinking were put in first place. Latvian farmer was placed as the main symbol of the Latvian nation.
The personality cult of Kārlis Ulmanis himself reached high level. He was called the “most wisest statesman in Europe” a “double genius”. His rights of dictatorship were given by the God himself. In the last years before the war Ulmanis had issued to make silver coins with his portrait on it and even new order with his face on it. The propaganda gave rapid dose of positivity and gave one sided look of the world outside and within. The fact that Ulmanis even suppressed to write negative comments about the Nazi Germany and Soviet Union proved to be highly unproductive during 1939-1941.
Ulmanis had vivid ideas in architecture. He planned to demolish much of the Old Riga buildings for being too German. His achievement was the creation of the Dome Square – before there were many small streets with buildings that were removed. He even wanted to remove more buildings. On 1936 The Monument of Liberty was finished (the project was started before Ulmanis rise to power) marking great celebrations. But Ulmanis wanted an even larger monument to the Victory in the War of Freedom. His wish was to build a 25 0000 seat stadium and 50 meter tall tower of victory. 3 million lats were already gathered in public charity, but WW2 halted these plans. Later in that same spot Soviets built the infamous Monument of Victory.
Ulmanis and his foreign minister Vilhelms Munters proved to be far less successful in foreign policy. The neutrality policy was not working in practice. Latvia became far too close to the Soviet Union. Ulmanis despite knowing the context of the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact may have hoped that the Soviets would keep him as a satellite state leader. On 17 June 1940 Ulmanis said a rather shameful speech urging not to resist the invaders and said a historic phrase: “I will stay in my place, you will stay in yours!” He was under the house arrest until 21 July and then deported on the next day to Stavropol. After the German invasion he was accused of anti-Soviet activities and jailed. On July 1 as the German army was approaching he was loaded on a ship to transport him to Krasnoyarsk prison. He fell ill on the ship over the Caspian Sea. He died in the Krasnovodsk prison on September 20. His resting place is unknown, most probably in the modern day Turkmenistan city of Türkmenbaşy (Krasnovodsk).
The cultivated positive image of the Karlis Ulmanis regime has stayed in the minds of many. What happened after 1940, made a myth of the “good Ulmanis times”. From one side they were good times of stability and relative prosperity, from the other side the removal of democracy and the delusional positivism made Latvians totally unprepared for the greatest shock of the 1940-1941 and the Nazi invasion afterwards.
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Bleiere, Daina, Butulis, Ilgvars, Stranga, Aivars, Feldmanis, Inesis and Zunda, Antonijs. (2006) History of Latvia : the 20th century. Riga: Jumava.