The Black Knights of 1919. The Baltic Freikorps and the Army of Bermondt

The uniforms of the Baltic  German Freikorps

The uniforms of the Baltic German Freikorps

The Latvian national epoch Lāčplēsis – The Bear Slayer tells the story of the Latvian mythological hero Lāčplēsis fighting against the Crusaders and their vile leader the Black Knight. The 1930 Latvian movie of the same name depicts the Black Knight being reborn in the vile German officer who leads the  war against the Latvian independence. The Black Knight personified the most strongest Latvian enemies – the Baltic German chauvinists, revisionists and imperialists.  95 years ago the new Republic of Latvia faced two strong enemies. The Bolsheviks from Russia and the German chauvinist reactionary forces. While Bolsheviks striven for breaking up the old order, the Baltic Germans and their supporters from the Fatherland fought to restore the old German order and prevent from any major changes directed against them.  Both the Bolshevik Latvia, both the national state of Latvia was their enemy. This article is about these forces, their leaders and the fate of them.

Present day Estonia and Latvia had significant German population since the Middle Ages. The Livonian Confederation ruled by the Livonian Order and the Bishoprics was dominated by the German knights, merchants and nobles. The Confederation was destroyed by the Russian invasion in 1558 and to prevent it from being taken by the Ivan IV The Terrible, the Livonian Order ceded to Poland-Lithuania and Sweden. Despite becoming the Polish and Swedish subjects the Baltic Germans kept their rights and privileges. The Swedish administration in Vidzeme tried to reduce the power of the German nobility, but failed. The Polish leadership was more tolerant, the autonomous Duchy of Courland and Semigallia was lead by the Baltic German elite. In Riga the town leadership was in the hands of Germans. Yet German population in Latvia was around 3%. Yet Germans following the ideas of Enlightenment helped Latvians to gain education and knowledge. First Latvian schools and books were made by the German missionaries and pastors. They believed the peasants should have education to work better, but they never thought that the peasants one day could become strong enough to lead the uprising against their captors.

At the end of the 18th century all Latvian lands were included in the Russian Empire. At first the  Russia was friendly towards Germans – they entered the Royal Court, Administration and the Army. However, during the reign of the Tsar Alexander II the wave of Russian nationalism affected the Baltic Germans limiting their rights and enforcing Russian language and leadership. The Serfdom was abolished after the end of the Napoleonic Wars sparking the rise of the Latvian national movement. The new Latvian educated middle class started tensions with the disturbed Baltic Germans. At the beginning of the 20 century the rise of the Latvian Left movement was equally hostile to the Baltic Germans. On 1905 the Revolution came from Russia to Latvia. The revolutionaries both fought the Russian Tsarist government and the Baltic German nobility. The mansions in the rural areas were burned down, people killed sparking German fear from Latvians. The Russian punishment expeditions trying to stop the revolt made double hate towards Germans and the Russian authorities. Then on 1914 Russia came to war with Germany. On 1915 Germans entered the Latvian lands. Occupying Courland (Kurzeme) and Semigallia (Zemglale). It was a deciding point – while some local Germans greeted them in open arms – thousands of Latvians joined the Latvian Rifleman to fight the Germans under the Russian banner.

On February (March) 1917 the Russian Empire had crumbled. Courland and Semigallia was ruled by the German Eastern Front Chief Command Region (Ober-Ost) The territories were under the German Military Administration. Despite for calls to annex the occupied territories, the German leadership considered Poland and the Baltic States as a military buffer zone to keep Russia as far as possible. Germany first desired to sign a separate peace agreement with Russia that would be complicated because of the annexation. Second – Berlin was unsure of the reaction of the Baltic nations and the local Germans that would want to keep their local power. It was more preferable to either keep the Eastern occupied territories under military administration or form new loyal puppet states. The Ober-Ost was under the direct leadership of the commander in chief Paul von Hindenburg and his deputy Erich Ludendorff. The Courland Civil Authority was lead by reserve major A Gosler. Gosler believed that Latvians must be assimilated despite their intelligence and potential. Although he was forced to accept Latvians within the local rural administrative positions. The German propaganda expressed the ideas of the German superiority and Baltic lands as the ancient parts of the German world.

On September 1917 Riga was captured by the Germans. The city was visited by the Kaiser Wilhelm II  himself. On February 1918 all Latvia and Estonia was taken over by the Germans. After the peace between the Germany and the Bolsheviks a question was raised of what to do with the occupied Baltic States. On February Lithuanian and Estonian national councils already had declared independence. The Latvian Provisional National Council (LPNC) and the Democratic Block was pinned down both by Germans and the Bolsheviks were unable to form a national government. Now was the moment to realize the German dream of restoring the Livonian confederation.

The map of the proposed United Baltic Duchy

The map of the proposed United Baltic Duchy

On March 8 1918  the Courland Land Council (Kurländischer Landesrat) proclaimed the restoration of the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia. The throne was presented to Kaiser Wilhelm II. The response from Kaiser was positive and on March 15 he recognized the “Duchy” as sovereign state and was ready to sign agreements with it. But that was not enough. With German Military still in charge the Provincial Assembly was formed of the local Germans and loyal Latvians and Estonians. On April 12 the Provincial Assembly (Der Vereinigte Landesrat für Livland, Estland, Ösel und Riga) issued decision to form the United Baltic Duchy and asked Germany to take it under their protectorate. On September 22 Kaiser recognized the sovereignty of the United Duchy. The leadership was presented to the Duke Adolf Friedrich of Mecklenburg. Known as explorer of Africa and governor of the German African colony Togoland until 1914 he was noble candidate for head of the new state. On November 5 1918 the United Baltic Duchy was proclaimed. Until his arrival the Regency Council head by the Vidzeme Land Marshall Adolf Pilar von Pilchau was the acting government. The duchy was to include Courland, Semigallia, Vidzeme and Estonia. Latgale as region with less German influence was left out. The main pillars of the state was the individual freedom of political beliefs, rights of movement, private property and the national equality. That however, did not meant the full equal rights for the Latvian ethnic majority. The Latvians and Estonians would gain proportional part in the parliament.  The Latvians would be represented by loyalists lead by Fricis Veinbergs who was fro pro-German since 1905. From November 5 to November 9 the councils worked on the new state constitution, formed Land Council, elected local governors, some of them Latvians and Estonians.

However, despite official recognition’s Berlin was slow and unwilling to fully realize the Baltic Duchy project. One of the reasons was the ongoing war in the West, lack of resources and hope that after the victory the Baltic question would be fully solved.  The victory never came. After the capitulation on November 11 1918 the United Baltic Duchy project was abandoned. There was no common idea what will happen next. On November 18 1918 the Latvian National Provisional Council and the Democratic Block declared independence. The new state was based on the will of the Latvian majority, it presented equal rights for all national minorities, but they were based on aproportionality. That was not what the Baltic Germans wanted.

German military authority was turned into civil. The LPNC was recognized by the Great Britain as de facto representative of Latvia. Berlin despite abandoning the Baltic Duchy project still tried to support the local German population. But, the main question was when the defeated German 8th army will be moved back to Germany. The question was answered by the Bolsheviks. They annulled the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty and declared the start of the Worldwide Socialist Revolution. With communist uprisings in Germany itself and the Bolshevik threats to march to Europe it was vital for both Allies and Germans to keep the 8th army in the Baltics. For Latvians it was unfortunate, but there was no other choice as Bolsheviks were marching towards Riga on December. Latvian Provisional Government signed provisional agreement with Germany for temporary alliance that would include forming German troops within the Latvian national forces.

The Honorary Badge and Medal of the Baltische Landeswehr

The Honorary Badge and Medal of the Baltische Landeswehr

This leads us to the main part. The 8th army of 75 thousand man was breaking up. The commander general Hugo von der Kathen  had start evacuation, the army withdraw it forces to Istenburg East Prussia. Before leaving von Kathen signed the order to form a Baltic Landguard die Baltische Landeswerh. It was intended to have 18 Latvian, 5 German and 1 Russian company and 5 artillery batteries with the force of 7050 man. The commanding officer was to be Swede. Both local Germans and the Germans citizens could join. The main units were the Baltic German battalion, Stormtroopers, the prince Lieven Russian company lead by Anatol Lieven a member of the historic German noble family, said to be originated from the Livonian (Liv) ruler Kaupo on 12th century. The Latvian units under command of colonel Oskarts Kalpaks and general Balodis was also under this army formation. The first commander was major Sheibert from December 1918 . On February 1919 the command was taken over by major Alfred Fletcher. Born in Germany, fought on many front lines he found himself in Latvia. As imperial officer his main allegiance was the German interests. Many Baltic Germans feared the Red terror and wowed to protect themselves.

The Flag of the Iron Division

The Flag of the Iron Division

Another German formation was the Iron Brigade later the Iron Division. It was formed from the German volunteers or the German Freikorps. The paramilitary German movements spring up from the returning German soldiers taking stand against the Bolsheviks. Adolf Hitler was one of them, as they were instrumental of crushing the communist rebellions in Germany. Freikorpers also moved to Baltic States as they were the main frontier in the war against Bolshevism. The Iron Brigade was  first made to cover the retreating German 8th army. For these men with no connection to Latvia, it was war of loot and adventure. Many hoped to gain land and riches here.

On December 3 1918 Bolsheviks invaded Latvia. They took over Valka, Valmiera, Rēzekne and Daugavpils. Latvian Provisional Government was forced to sing agreement with the Berlin representative August Vinning to give Latvian citizenship to all German volunteers who fought in the Latvian lines for at least 4 weeks. It was viewed as disgrace by many, leading to support the Bolsheviks rather than the Latvian “German puppets”. Latvian ethic units given order to face the Latvian Red Riflemen started uprising and were disarmed by the Landeswerh. On January 1 the German Iron Brigade and Landeswerh faced the Latvian Red Rifleman at Inčukalns and were defeated. Germans tried to stop their advance to Riga and took the old WWI positions. However, they were attacked from behind and were forced to retreat leaving all the cannons and machine guns. The route to Riga was open. Germans evacuated it along with the allied warships and the Latvian government. Bolsheviks chased Latvians and Germans to Courland and stopped along the river Venta. The German forces were broken and needed leadership and reinforcements. The remaining Latvian forces gained experience and strength in battles with Bolsheviks. Berlin needed the right the card for the Baltic gamble. They choose the King of Spades – Rüdiger von der Goltz.

Rüdiger von der Goltz.

Rüdiger von der Goltz.

Von der Goltz was born in December 4 1865 in Züllichau, Brandenburg. He graduated War Academy, served the German General Staff  for 13 years. On WWI he commanded the German army 12th Landeswerh division. On 1918 he was appointed as the commander of the German voluntary Ostsee division to fight the Bolsheviks in Finland. Together with the Finnish leader Karl Gustav Mannerheim he directed the operations against  the Bolsheviks. The victory was reached, however ethnic German Mannerheim served the Finland’s needs. Von der Goltz was appointed to Liepāja to lead the fight against the Bolsheviks. As the commander of the 6th German reserve corps and the Governor of Liepāja he soon accumulated great power he wanted to keep after the war. He had no respect for the Latvian Provisional Government and was playing tricks with the British Military Mission, for he once served in the English department of the German General Staff.

The stabilization of the Courland front on January 1919 was not just Goltz achievement. Latvian forces under colonel Kapaks stopped Bolsheviks at the Battle of Skrunda, but the city of Venstpils was lost. The worst case scenario was to evacuate to Lithuania and Northern Estonia. But, in the same time Estonian forces secured victory and pushed Bolsheviks downwards to Vidzeme. The Latvian Soviet Army was forced to send many regiments there. As Estonians were defeating the Latvian Red Rifleman, on February the Germans became active. The 6th German reserve corpus subordinated to the Northern Border Defense Staff were filled with men hostile towards the Latvian independence. They were young well equipped men akin to burn the Baltic States with fire and sword for a reward. Many of them later became members of the Nazi movement and served as the Third Reich as generals.

The 6th reserve corpus gained success in offensive of taking Kūldīga and Ventspils. Latvians moved along only to be caught in the friendly fire exchange at Airītes that caused the loss of the colonel Oskars Kalpaks. Latvians and Germans tried to encircle Bolsheviks, but unexpectedly they retreated by side and both Latvians and Germans fired on one other. As Germans were not keeping communications with Latvians, but just relied on the information from the Bolshevik POW, it could be a possible  German political conspiracy.

As mentioned A Vinning, Goltz and their henchmen had no positive regards towards Latvians. A scandal erupted when documents were uncovered about the plot to overthrow the Latvian government. The “von der Stryk affair” caused strife between Latvians and Germans, however the Goltz involvement was not proven.  Was the Stryk plot a unrelated to Goltz or a diverting move from the Goltz planned coup remains a question.

The April 16 coup was opened by the landeswerh unit lead by baron von Manteifel who disarmed the Latvian garrison. With silent accept by Berlin the Fatherland front force security committee lead by Manteifel, von Rekke, A, Maidel was established. Next day they declared that the Latvian Provisional Government was dissolved. However, it was still functional as it escaped on board the steamship Saratov that was guarded by the British ships. Goltz plan backfired because of the allied involvement.   The Military Directory was not accepted by the Latvian commander Balodis who replaced Kalpaks and Prince Lieven. In attempt to gain some legitimacy a new government was formed by pastor Andrievs Niedra that was formed from Baltic Germans and pro-German Latvians. O Borovskis was the nominal leader acting as Interior Affairs Minister. War minister Juris Seskovs, Minister of Justice Baltic German P. Sokolovskis, foreign Minister von Brimmer, minister of Agriculture K Slienis, and minister of national enlightenment pastor J.Kupčs. Niedra at first did not participate in the government meetings hoping to reach compromise with Ulmanis and the allies. After that failed Niedra issued order to fire the Ulmanis provisional government. On May 13 in the Liepāja war port he was kidnapped by the loyal Latvian officers and was forced to sign the resignation documents.  He soon escaped and rejoined his government. With no support and recognition both from Latvian nation and the allies the Niedra government was only the Goltz puppet.

On May 22 after pushing off the Bolshevik counter attacks Goltz ordered the landeswerh to capture Riga. City was captured without a fight and the “liberators” started to terrorize citizens. Bolshevik supporters and everyone suspected to be such was arrested or killed. Streets were filled with dead bodies. Shot people were dropped in the city canal. Germans established their own court or the Standrecht (the neck court) that routinely executed people without trial. 2-4 thousand people were killed during the white terror. However, its worth to note that during the Soviet rule even more thousands of Germans and Latvians were killed.

The Goltz reign of terror was stopped at Cēsis on June 22. The landeswerh and the Iron Division marched towards the united Estonian and Latvian forces in Vidzeme. That proved to be fatal mistake. Niedra government gathered the Iron Brigade and the Landeswerh under the “Latvian Forces”. On June 4 Estonian and Latvia  command demanded the major Alfred Fletcher to move away from their lines. Niedra ordered Fletcher to attack and defeat the Estonian forces. On May 6 his forces attacked the Cēsis 2th battalion forcing it leave the city. On June 10 allies forced to sign ceasefire. Allies made decision to order Germans to withdraw from Cēsis, but Germans ordered Estonians to do the same. After reaching no common ground battle started again. The reinforced Latvian and Estonian forces held off the attack and struck back, defeating the Goltz forces.

It was possible for Estonians and Latvians to wipe out the Iron Division and the Landewerh once and for all. However, they were spared by the allies who insisted to sign ceasfire on July 3 at Strazdumuiža. Germans retreated to Jelgava. The Landeswerh was brought under control by the British colonel Harold Alexander. Prince Lieven forces did not joined the Goltz side. His company was moved to Jelgava and Liepāja. As Russianized  German prince Lieven did not want to fight against the Latvians and Estonians, he wanted to fight Bolsheviks.

Pavel Bermondt Avalov in the center

Pavel Bermondt Avalov in the center

The Black Knight struggle reached the final phase. A new plan was devised to restore the dream of the United Baltic Duchy. This time more evil and vicious. Germany was holding thousands of Russian WWI POW’S. They were unable to return to Civil war raged Russia. So Berlin devised a plan to gather them in the anti-Bolshevik White Guard forces.  The chosen commander was peculiar individual named Pavel Bermondt-Avalov. His origins were a mystery. Born as Pavel Berman on 1877 in Tbilisi Georgia, he was rumored to have Karaite Judaist farther and Georgian mother. He gained the surname Avalov from his adoptive father Georgian prince Mikhail Avalishvili. His military carrier started with the Ussurian Cossacks  as musical conductor. He took part in the Russian wars against China and Japan. During WWI served in Caucasus. He made contacts with Germans in Southern Russia, but was arrested by Ukrainian nationalists. Germans recommended to release him. He moved to Saltzwedel POW camp. There he gathered forces to fight the Bolsheviks. With  his men he moved to Jelgava on August 12 1919. The White Guard Leader general Yudenitch appointed him as commander of the Western Voluntary Russian Army. General hoped that self declared count and major general will aid his forces to capture Petrograd.

The West Russian Volunteer Army badges

The West Russian Volunteer Army badges

Instead he joined with the remaining Iron Division and other Germans to lead march against Latvians in Riga. His army was formed from the Count Keller Corpus named after the fallen Russian general was mainly devised from the Russians in Germany. The Vigolitch corps were also Russian mainly. The Dibitch Corps were mainly from German volunteers. The Pleve group also and so as the German Legion. The defeated Iron Division joined the Bermondt. Only 1/6 of the “Russian” army were Russians. The German soldiers had to wear Black Uniforms with Russian Imperial symbols. As some Germans did not know how the Russian Orthodox Cross looks like they placed it on their uniforms the wrong way. Their symbolism included the Iron Cross and skull and bones. Many of their members were future Nazi party members.

On August 26 in Riga allies called a meeting and issued goal for a common attack on September 9 towards the East. Yudenitch ordered Bermondt to send his forces to Narva. Prince Lieven forces loyal to the White Guard did so. The rest of the Bermondt army instead marched to Riga on October. His adviser was Andrievs Niedra while Goltz was pulling the strings from behind. The goal was to destroy Latvian government and make Latvia a Germanic Russian province and assured the White Guard commanders that after capture of Riga he would move towards Russia. Yudenitch and Denikin mistrusted the pro-German cossack and turned him down. Traitor Bermondt issued operation “Thunderstrike” Bliztschlag. A force of 45 thousand men started attack on October 8.

Goltz-Bermondt venture ended in disaster. After getting stuck at the left bank of Riga, unable to capture Liepāja they were pushed away from Riga on November 9-11. On December all of the broken army of rouge terrorists who later claimed they “killed Latvians like rabbits”, burning down Jelgava on their way back. The German high command sent statement on November 25 that Bermondt army is under their command now. Latvia in return concluded that its in the state of war with Germany. Germany replied that its in no means in the state of war with Latvia. Later when a agreement with Berlin was signed to normalize the relations between two states, Germans refused to call it a Peace agreement since there was no war between Germany and Latvia.

Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter right from Hitler planning the Beer Hall Putsch

Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter right from Hitler planning the Beer Hall Putsch

Various were the fates of the Baltic Freikorps. One of its members Ernst von Salomon later remembered: “We killed what fell into our hands, . . . We saw red, we had nothing in the heart of human emotions. . . what were earlier houses, were rubble, ash and smoldering beams, like festering sores in the bare field . . . We had lit a bonfire, there was burning more than dead material, there also was burning our hopes, our desires, . . . the laws and values of the civilized world. . . We retreated, bragging, intoxicated, loaded with booty”. It was no wonder many of them became radical Nazis. One of the most well known was Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter. Born in Riga on 1884, he first took action on 1905 commanding German noble self defense units. He moved to Germany after the revolution. During the WWI he was German vice councilor in Turkey. After Riga was taken by Germans he returned to work in the press center. For his service in Estonia he was awarded with the First Class Iron Cross. After German defeat in WWI he joined the Landeswerh and then the Bermondt army. After the defeat he moved back to Germany were together with Alfred Roznenberg another Baltic German from Estonia organized a secret German emigrant society from Russia.  Then he joined the Nazi Party and became one of the early prominent members. He made the plan for Hitler  for the infamous  Beer Hall Putsch on 1923. On November 9 1923 during the final phase of the coup attempt in Munichh he was walking arm-in-arm with Hitler, and was shot in the lungs and died instantly as Hitler and others marched toward armed guards.He had brought Hitler down and dislocated Hitler’s right shoulder when he fell. He was the only first-tier Nazi leader to die during the Putsch. Of all the early party members who died in the Putsch, Adolf Hitler had claimed Scheubner-Richter to be the only “irreplaceable loss”. Hitler dedicated his first part of the Mein Kampf to him and other fallen revolutionaries.

The fates of two main Black Knights Goltz and Bermondt were more humble. Bermondt moved to Germany and wrote memoirs of his adventures on 1925. As others he was involved in right wing movements. On 1936 he was exiled by the Nazi government and  then moved to Yugoslavia. When WW2 reached Belgrade he moved to US and died in New York on 1973. His satiric appearance as eccentric incompetent army musician wanting to lead the army, but defeated by the smaller Latvian forces haunted him his entire life.   Goltz moved to Germany also wrote memoirs of explaining his motives and actions. From 1924 to 1930, he headed the German government department on the military education of young German youth. On 17 July 1931 he handed over the command of the Economic Policy Association Frankfurt am Main to the Reich President Paul von Hindenburg. In the age of 80 he died on November 4 1946 after witnessing another major German defeat.

Selected Sources:

Juris, Ciganovs. (2013) Latvijas Neatkarības Karš 1918-1920. Rīga. Zvaignze ABC.

Latvijas Brīvības Cīņas. Enciklopēdija (1999) Riga. Preses Nams

Zariņš, Klāvs (2014) Vācu Okupācijas režīms Kurzemes Guberņā (1915-1917) Militārā Pārvalde un civiliedzīvotāji. Rīga. Drukātava.

Cerūzis Raimonds. Vācu faktors Latvijā (1918-1939). Politiskie un starpnacionālie aspekti. – LU Akadēmiskais apgāds: Rīga, 2004.

Advertisements

Comments Off on The Black Knights of 1919. The Baltic Freikorps and the Army of Bermondt

Filed under Historical Articles

Comments are closed.