Tag Archives: Latvian war for freedom

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

British Royal Navy in the Baltic Sea 1918-1920 Supporting the Latvian Independence

British sailors on board during the Battle of Riga 1919

British sailors on board during the Battle of Riga 1919

On November 1919 Latvian army faced attack from the much superior enemy – superior both in size and weapons. However, Latvian army withstood the attack and chased away the enemy from Riga for the final time. This would not have been done without the support of the British Royal Army, the French Navy and also Italian Navy. The British Royal Navy mission to Baltic Sea to assist Latvia and Estonia in the fight against the Bolsheviks made a great deal in winning the War for Freedom. The British Naval forces not only fought the Bolshevik navy, but also acted as artillery assistance against the pro-German forces that besieged Riga on October-November 1919.  This is a story of the British Royal Navy Mission in the Baltic Sea and how it assisted the Latvian fight for freedom.

The Russian Empire was the British and French most important ally. However, since 1915 when Germans marched deep within the Russian territories it was also the most vulnerable ally. German forces split Latvian lands in half across the river Daugava, but failed to capture Riga. Latvians formed the Riflemen regiments within the Russian Army to defend rest of Latvian territory and liberate the German occupied territories. The front stayed mostly intact until 1917 when the February revolution caused the breakdown of the Russian army. Germans captured Riga and later took over Vidzeme and Latgale. On March 8 1918 the new Bolshevik government signed peace agreement with the Germany and ceded Baltic States to Germany. Allies were shaken by this because now Germans could send their forces from the Eastern front to the Western Front. Their sent naval expeditions to  Murmansk, Arkhangelsk and Vladivostok to secure the large stockpiles of resources and armament both from Bolsheviks and Germans. Meanwhile the German government was reluctant to completely annex the Baltic States. Instead a plan was made to create a United Baltic Duchy that would be a German puppet state. It would be a constitutional monarchy based on the Baltic German political dominance. Its borders would include Estonia and all Latvia except Latgale. As it was part of the Russian province of Vitebsk with small German population. Lithuania as country with less German influence was allowed to proclaim independence on February 16 1918. Germans hoped to keep it under their protection, but Lithuanians projected a very nationalistic policy from the early start. On February 24 1918 Estonia declared independence, but day later Germans captured Reval (Tallinn) and chased away the German provisional government.  Finland meanwhile as autonomous part of the Russian army chased away the Bolsheviks and declared independence. Germans also considered it as ally state.

If Germany had won the Great War the Baltic States would become a formal parts of the German Empire. Supposedly sovereign but as puppet states. That did not happen as on November 11 1918 Germany was forced to sign ceasefire. The United Baltic Duchy proclaimed on November 5 1918 failed to establish a strong administration and after the German defeat lost its way. On November 18 Latvia proclaimed it independence. In Reval German troops started revolt and the Estonian government released from prison immediately started to work. The First Armistice at Compiègne included Article XII that demanded Germans to evacuate the troops from the occupied Russian lands as soon as the Allies would find an appropriate moment to do this knowing the local circumstances. Allies knew about the Bolshevik ambitions and wanted to have the German forces to keep Bolsheviks away from Western Europe. But, Germans in Latvia and Estonia had other plans as they still wanted a United Baltic Duchy. The revolutionary German provisional government was complimentary to this and supported them as discretely as possible.

Soon after the Germany had given up the war in the west, the Bolsheviks broke the peace agreement and wowed to gain back the lost lands of Baltic, Belarus and Ukraine. German army in the eastern front was broken and demoralized. The Britain and France had to make a hectic choice between German interests, the Russian Royalist White Guards and the new national republics in their struggle against the Bolsheviks. The ceasefire also allowed the allied fleet to enter the Baltic Sea first time since 1914. British government was not confident of the new Baltic States, but considered that they need to be supported from the Bolsheviks. Week after the ceasefire Estonian delegation arrived in London and asked to send troops and warships to support them The Foreign Ministry rejected sending troops, but promised to send navy and resources. British however were weary of the minefields set up all across the Baltic Sea. Bolsheviks also gathered their own Soviet Baltic Navy.

On November 21 1918 the first British Naval Squad set sail to the Baltic Sea. Under the leadership of the Counter Admiral Sir Edwyn Alexander Sinlcair the cruiser Cardiff, Cassandra,Caradoc,Ceres,Calypso, 9 squadron minehunters and 7 mine trawlers set sail to the Baltic Sea. Sailors were reluctant because they thought the war is over and wanted a long-awaited vacation. After encountering issues in Copenhagen when the coal transport ship became stranded leaving the mine trawlers without coal Sinclair  was forced to set sail to Tallinn because of the Bolshevik attack. The squadron passed the cold and stranded Liepāja and sailed towards Estonia. On December 4 across the Saaremaa island the cruiser Cassandra struck the mine. Broken in half the ship sank. 10 men died in explosion the remaining 450 were rescued by the mine hunters Westminster and Wendetta. Loosing cruiser at start of the campaign was a heavy blow. The light cruiser Calypso also had to be repaired because it collided with shipwreck in the Liepāja harbor. It took the rescued Cassadra sailors back home along with two damaged mine hunters. Despite the odds Sinclair entered troubled Tallinn. City was harmed by the food shortage, lack of coal and money. In the December cold the Red Army commanded by the Latvian colonel Jukums Vācietis captured Narva on the Russian border. Valka and Tartu also were captured.  Estonians asked British to make Estonia their protectorate and send military mission that would train the Estonian army and the small navy. The Russian Whiteguard North-west army was also in Estonia and asked British help. Sinclair rejected the white Russians because Estonians mistrusted them. Sinclair said that his navy can only stay in the Strait of Finland until it becomes frozen and the weapon transports are on the way.

Despite being asked to only make reconnaissance operations, Sinclair  understood the dangers of loosing Tallinn and started to shell the advancing Bolshevik forces. The only bridge across the Estonian border was destroyed cutting off the Bolshevik supplies from Petrograd (St. Petersburg). On December 24 Estonians begun successful counter offensive with sea landing operation at the Kunda cutting the Bolshevik lines from behind. While Bolshevik fleet stuck in Kronstadt Sinclair set sail to Liepāja to understand the Latvian needs. Bolsheviks had battleship Petropalvosk, smaller Andrej Pervozvannij and cruiser Oleg. And three submarines along with smaller ships. Their naval command was weak and the sailors were poorly trained. Most Tsarist officers were shot. Their commander was Fyodor Raskolnikov. His attempts to attack Tallinn resulted in capture of the mine hunter Spartak.

When Sinclair arrived in Liepāja he saw even more misery then in Tallinn. While in Estonia Konstantin Pats government had the majority support, the Kārlis Ulmanis government was not well received by many. Poor peasants, workers and unemployed welcomed the invading Bolsheviks. The Baltic German nobility was reluctant to support Latvians and organized their own forces. The legendary Latvian Riflemen were converted to Bolshevism and now came to Latvia to install Soviet power. Latvian government managed to organize few ill-equipped companies of students and volunteers. Meanwhile Germans formed better equipped Land Guard the Landeswehr, from the defeated German 8th Army and the Freikorps volunteers from Germany an Iron Division was formed.

The Russian Newspaper reports The English Ships are in Riga and standing right in front the Anglican Church

The Russian Newspaper reports The English Ships are in Riga and standing right in front the Anglican Church

On December 19 the British mine hunters entered Riga. The situation was even more dire than in Tallinn. Sinclair was informed by Latvian Prime Minister Kārlis Ulmanis that 40 000 German troops are preparing to leave Latvia for Germany. Only what was left 700 men from the Baltic German Landeswehr that was made to strengthen the Latvian army. Brits convinced Germans that they must apply to paragraph XII and stay in Latvia to hold off the Bolsheviks. Latvians were weary of the German army, but were forced to cooperate with them. Despite that German army did nothing for next five days. Bolsheviks were just 46 km from Riga. British started to load up 350 British and allied citizens on board of Princess Margaret. Then on 29 December two Latvian regiments who took retreat in Riga has risen up against the Latvian government and wanted to join the Bolsheviks. On January 3 1919 another Latvian unit went rouge. On the same day Sinclair left the harbor and took more refugees and members and supporters of the Latvian government. As the German Iron Division was defeated in Inčukalns on December 30-31 the Latvian government abandoned Riga and moved to Jelgava and then to Liepāja. The British navy left the Baltic shores and reached Rosyth on 8 December. The first naval mission had ended. It had failed to stop the Bolshevik advance in Latvia, but the Estonia and Finland were not overran leaving hope.

Admiral Walter Cowan the commander of the Royal Navy in the Baltic Sea

Admiral Walter Cowan the commander of the Royal Navy in the Baltic Sea

British Navy and Military were concerned about the fate of the Baltic States. It reported to the British government that to fight off the Bolsheviks a significantly larger expedition of land troops were needed. The British government rejected sending land troops to the Baltic States and instead again ordered to send naval mission. The Admiralty was against this. But, it assembled new squadron under the command of the Counter Admiral Walter Cowan. Cowan was one of the most experienced naval commanders of the British navy. His first combat experience was in the British Africa on 1895-1897. He also joined the land forces under the command by the Lord Kitchener  in the Nile expedition. He was awarded with the Exceptional Service  Order and then moved to South Africa. However, the Royal Navy was unimpressed of him leaving the naval service without their consent. So they wanted to cross him out of the service list. He joined navy again, but was not promoted. After marriage and honeymoon he joined the battleship cruiser Prince George of the Channel Fleet. In the age of 30 he was promoted as the commanding captain. On 1914 he as the commanding officer took part in the WWI naval battles including the Battle of Jutland. Awarded with the Order of the Bath, he was however disappointed that the battle was not won. Promoted as commodore and later as counter admiral he was sad that the war was over. When he was called to command naval mission to the Baltic Sea he was again exited.

He was instructed by the Naval command to support the British interests in the region and attack the Bolsheviks from the shores. The Baltic States had to be defended at all costs, however the support had to be only in therms of the naval support and arms shipment. Puzzled by the complicated Baltic situation Cowan set sail to Liepāja while being noted to not visit Riga or Tallinn. When he arrived to Liepāja, the Bolsheviks were just 92 km from the city. Germans were not helping instead they trowed in to sea guns supplied by the British for the Latvian forces. There was also a White Russian corps commanded by the prince Anatoly Lieven  – a member of the old noble German family. He was supportive to the Latvian state but was under the vile German command. Cowan had come to conclusion: “Latvians are powerless to help themselves”. Meanwhile the Estonian forces had chased away the Bolsheviks from their capital and moved towards Tartu and Narva. On January 25 the British were informed that the Bolsheviks were stopped along the lines of the river Venta. Latvian forces gained first victories and the German forces also reached first success. However, on January 31 the port of Ventspils was lost and Liepāja was in danger again. Cowan was asked to bombard the Bolsheviks. Their artillery batteries were destroyed and Bolsheviks fled the city. Latvian forces under the command of the colonel Oskars Kalpaks grew to 3500. Estonians agreed to form a  common front with Latvians against the Bolsheviks. And the German Major General Rüdiger von der Goltz arrived to command the German forces.

A vicious and cunning Prussian officer von der Goltz was known for his action in Finland where he helped to re-capture Helsinki from the Bolsheviks. As devout Prussian officer and nationalist he was against the Baltic independence and started to plot against the Latvians and the British. British had no idea of what danger this man could bring. On the path back to Copenhagen Cowan’s ships intercepted German cargo ship transporting unlicensed supplies to Memel (Klaipeda). It was a sign that the seemingly peace wishing Berlin government was secretly aiding the Germans in the Baltic Sea.

On February the frontline in Courland was satisfactory the Goltz forces were ready to lead the counter offensive. Latvians voiced concern about the German real intentions and Cowan was aware of this. He reported to London not to aid the Germans, but support Latvians ass possible for their need the money and support as much as possible. On February 21 first Cowan mission ended and he left, awaiting to return on Spring when the Bolshevik fleet was ready to leave their ports. British, French and US leaders were busy conducting the Versailles Treaty and saw the Baltic States as a secondary objective. The Admiralty voiced concerns on the lack of decisions and concrete stance. France had given the Baltic States under the British sphere of interests. Allies were against the Bolsheviks, but were not ready to send troops. Instead a financial and naval aid was only possible to the White forces and the new republics. Meanwhile Germany defeated in the West hoped to use their forces in the East to re-install their power there. Social-democrat government also hoped to arrange alliance with the Bolsheviks to head against the West once more. Goltz the ex imperial officer who despised the German republic was sent as the envoy of the German Eastern interests. But, Goltz wanted the power for himself and took over the Baltic States.

Liepāja on 1919

Liepāja on 1919

On March 2 the Latvian government uncovered  the documents about the coup plotted by the Baltic Germans under the leadership of von der Stryk. There was no proof of the Goltz involvement. He however moved to Stettin  (Szczecin) to avoid arrest. But, his man tried to seize weapons and ammunition on board the  steamship Saratov. British were concerned and predicted a coup d’etat by the Germans who has a strong force of 8000 man. Berlin was sending more troops than necessary. On March 6 British informed  Goltz that all supply shipments for Germans are brought to halt and no German ship may enter the Baltic ports. Goltz replied with strong statement that in such case he cannot lead the assault on the Bolsheviks and leave Latvia to its own fate.

Royal Navy decided to send new squadron to Baltic Sea. As the Bolshevik fleet was soon to be active and the Baltic States needed supplies and gun fire. The British PM Loyd George sent military and diplomatic mission. But, he was against sending large squad of the naval forces there. So Cowan with his light cruisers and ten squadron mine hunters returned to Baltic Sea. Cowan commanded the cruiser Caledon. Meanwhile Goltz had moved towards Jelgava and to avoid  the British embargo took away the food supplies for Latvian civilians in Liepāja. Cowan arrived in Liepāja and met Goltz. Insulted by the German demands to show entry permit, because of the discovered Bolshevik cell within the Golzt forces, Cowan raised concerns about the dire situation in Riga. He asked when it will be taken back. Goltz replied that he is not sure if Berlin wants him to retake Riga and that he has enough forces. He asked if he captures Riga will British would cancel the embargo. Cowan made clear if Riga was to be taken it will be supplied with food. Few days later Admiral was informed that because of the thaw all military operations has been canceled.  The roads were to no use so Riga had to wait.

On April 14 Cowan informed Goltz that the British government is ready to cancel embargo for a short time if the Germans would stop obstructing the buildup of the Latvian forces. Goltz rejected this. And he had a reason for it. Sensing the danger Cowan stayed in Liepāja. That was a wise move. On April 16 Goltz forces started a coup against the Latvian provisional government. Germans took over the Latvian command center. British learning the danger reinforced the steam ship Saratov filled with supplies for the Latvians.   Germans besieged the Latvian government office, but arrested only two ministers. Saratov moved into trade port. Ulmanis and the rest of government found refuge in the British diplomatic mission. British mine hunters arrived and stopped Germans from taking over the Trade Port. Scared off by the warnings of cannon fire, Germans left off allowing the Latvian government to  get on board the Saratov. Brits rejected Germans demands to hand over the Latvian statesmen. On same day the US military mission arrived surprised by the events and prevented the arrest of the Latvian officer.

The steam ship Saratov where the Latvian government took refuge

The steam ship Saratov where the Latvian government took refuge

German coup had backfired thanks to British action. The Latvian government had avoided the arrest, the Latvian forces disobeyed the German directory government lead by Baron Manteifel. On April 19 French navy arrived in Liepāja with gun boat Dunois and  guard ship Meuse. French captain Brison wanted to sail to Tallinn, but was convinced to stay in Liepāja to guard the city. On April 21 Goltz informed the allies that he has nothing to do with the coup, however it was necessary action to  arrest the Latvian government. Cowan demanded to call of the officers involved in the coup and release the arrested Latvian officers and MP’s. Goltz rejected and accused Ulmanis of aiding the Bolsheviks. Prince Lieven proposed to organize a Latvian coalition government of Latvians and loyal Baltic Germans. Cowan said its not the right time and convinced him to stay true to his country and try to ease the Latvian and German issues. 24 hours later London ordered him to demand to restore the Ulmanis government at once.  However, April 25 Cowan set sail to the Strait of Finland to counter the Bolshevik fleet.

Meanwhile Goltz condemned by the Allies and refusing to admit his leading part in the coup installed a new “Latvian goverment” lead by pastor Andrievs Niedra on May 10. He was rejected by majority of Latvians and the allies who asked to remove Goltz from Latvia. Berlin was irresponive. On May 15 the pro-German government ordered to attack Riga. Berlin was forced to forbid Goltz to lead his Iron Divison to Riga. Instead the Baltic Landeswehr and Latvian forces lead by General Balodis headed towards Riga. Landeswehr entered Riga first and started to terrorize and punish the Bolshevik supporters. They had reason for it as for months the Latvian Bolshevik government had repressed the Baltic Germans killing many thousands of them. The Red Terror was replaced by the White Terror. Day later Latvians arrived trying to stop the Germans from terrorizing the city. Allies were afraid of the German government rejecting the Paris Peace Treaty and Goltz forces attacking their ships and representatives and allowed Goltz to stay, but demanded Berlin to order Goltz stop all actions against Latvians. Berlin replied that the evacuation of the Goltz troops is underway and Goltz has done nothing against Latvians. For Berlin has not instructed him to do so.

The British main naval force moved to Finnish Strait were it fought the Bolshevik navy destroying their ships and trapping them in Kronstadt harbor. As Estonians were already chasing  Bolsheviks to Northern Latvia, the Tallinn was no more in danger and so as Finland. Meanwhile on the beginning of June Goltz moved to north to Vidzeme instead East to Latgale where the Bolsheviks had retreated. Estonian forces commanded by general Laidoner and the Northern Latvian army lead by colonel  Zemitāns has reached Cēsis the central part of the Vidzeme region. From the Latvian refugees in Estonia and Bolshevik deserters a large fighting force was made. Stronger than those on the western part. As Goltz forces moved towards Cēsis he was confronted by Estonians and Latvians and was defeated. Goltz retreated from Riga leaving only garrison of prince Lieven Russian troops. On June 26 Andrievs Niedra government accused of betrayal resigned. The Kārlis Ulmanis government who  spent all this time on board of the ship Saratov arrived in Riga the next day and was greeted by the cheering crowds. After the Red and White Terror Latvian majority finally accepted the democratic government.

The Latvians and Estonians had enough troops to completely destroy the Iron Division. But, the allied powers still wanted them to be used against the Bolsheviks. On July 3 the Strazdumuiža ceasefire was signed. Estonians draw back. The landeswehr Baltic German commander was replaced by the Irish Guard Junior Colonel Harold Alexander the future field Marshall of the North African British forces on WW2. He however had no German knowledge so he was assisted by baron Taube. Goltz was demanded to evacuate all his forces from Latvia as soon as possible. And to leave Riga at end of the July 5. He did that and moved to Jelgava. Germans withdraw their forces also from Ventspils and Liepāja. But, few could imagine that Goltz will give up.

British warships again entered Riga. Goltz was defiant both to Berlin and the Allies and delayed the evacuation of his troops still concentrated in the large parts of the country. Cowan and main fleet was concentrated on battles with the Bolshevik fleet. He led the raid on the Bolshevik war port destroying three warships Petrapavlosk, Andrej Pervozvannij and Pamatj Azova. The Bolshevik Baltic Fleet was sunken, but the British government was unimpressed as  they secretly planned to remove their troops from Arhangelsk and gave up the intervention. But, the main Bolshevik attack force was no more danger to Finns and Estonians.

From July to October it was relative peace in Latvia. Moscow Bolsheviks endangered by the White offensives wanted to give up the Baltic States So there was stalemate on the Latvian Eastern front. Meanwhile in Jelgava Goltz had not evacuated his forces. Making many excuses he delayed the evacuation and accused Latvians of attacking his forces. On April 1919 a plot was born to assemble the Russian WWI POW’s from the camps in Germany to form a White Guard army under German leadership. One part of them were sent to Courland. Their leader was phony Russian colonel Pavel Bemondt- Avalov. A adoptive of the Georgian noble, he started as musical conductor for the Russian cossacks. On 1914 he was Lancer captain. After being captured by Ukrainian nationalists and when released he moved to Germany.

The eccentric  Georgian “count” was only the front of the Goltz plot to strike again. His Western Russian Volunteer Army included all the Goltz Iron Division and The German Freikorps. German soldiers had to wear Russian imperial insignia. His force was well equipped with armored vehicles and warplanes.  Bermondt declared that his objective is to head to Russia and assist General Yudenich. And then on October 8 his planes dropped few bombs on Riga. The attack had begun. 17 000 Bermontd troops with 65 cannons and 24 airplanes, two armored trains faced 11 300 Latvian men with 9 cannons, 23 heavy machine guns, 2 armored trains, 2 armored vehicles and few warplanes

Cowan was still in the Finnish Strait. Cruiser Phanteon led by captain Curtis along with ships Aisne and Abideil was stationed in Riga. Along them the French ships. British ships was instructed to hold fire, but were caught in the fire exchange. Latvians secured the bridges and prevented Germans from crossing them. Germans had problems using their artillery to not hit the British ships. Cowan did not sail to Riga himself. He sent cruisers Dragoon, Cleopatra and Princess Margaret. Germans asked Brits to leave for they are standing in front of their artillery range.  Brits showed the Yudenich proclamation condemning Bermont and excluding from the White Guards. On October 13 French captain asked Cowen to start shelling the Daugavgrīva fortress so the Latvians can regain them, for the Germans are firing their ships.

Allied ships in Daugava. From the movie Lāčplēsis 1919

Allied ships in Daugava. From the movie Lāčplēsis 1919

On October 15 the Allied ships opened fire on the Daugavgrīva fortress. Latvians started to cross river Daugava to chase away Germans from left side of the river. Bermontd expressed confusion about the White Guard army fighting the Bolsheviks are bombarded by the  allies. He was replied that he is no White Guard as the General Yudenich does not recognize him. From October 15 to November 11 the allied warships continued to bombard the Bermondt army greatly assisting Latvian army. On November 3 a counter attack begun and on November 11 the Battle of Riga was won. Estonians sent one armored train. So the main fighting was done by Latvians themselves. But, the artillery fire from the British ships was a major supporting factor.

British ships also helped Latvians to defend Liepāja. Bermontd forces were unable to capture the important war harbor. After the victory in Riga the Bermontd forces were chased away from Latvia. It took a month for them to leave Lithuania. On December the defeated Bolshevik Baltic Fleet was again ice kept in the harbor. On February 2 1920 Estonia signed Peace Agreement. Latvian and Polish forces chased Bolsheviks from Latgale on January 1920.  Later on August 11 peace agreement was reached. The Allied Naval mission in the Baltic Sea had reached its end. The Bolsheviks in the Baltic States were defeated, Germans pushed away, Latvia and Estonia had reached independence. Petrograd or now known as Leningrad was captured and their fleet despite greatly damaged was still alive. But, Cowan and his allied commanders had made a great deal with their limited resources. Great Britain and France recognized Latvia de iure on 1921 January 26.

Cemetery for the British sailors in Jelgava

Cemetery for the British sailors in Jelgava

Cowan continued his military carrier on 1921 he became the captain of the famous battleship Hood. On 1923 he was appointed as the commanding officer of the Scottish Coast guard.   He was promoted as admiral on 1926 and ended his carrier as the first adjutant of King George V. On 1929 he was retired on the age of 59. When WW2 begun 70-year-old Cowan rushed to ask Admiralty for the job. He ended up in North Africa front and took part in the combat actions. On 1944 he left the military for good as one of the oldest serving officer in the British Army. He was also promoted as honorary colonel. The old man was most happy of such decoration and moved back to England. He died on 1956. As valiant naval officer and a great commander Cowan expressed great sympathies for the Latvians and Estonians and his leadership was crucial for the success of the Allied naval mission in the Baltic Sea.

Selected Sources:

Geoffrey Bennett (2002) Freeing the Baltic. Birlinn Ltd. Latvian translation Atbrīvojot Baltiju 1919-1920. (2012) Rīga. Zvaignze ABC

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

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

Comments Off on British Royal Navy in the Baltic Sea 1918-1920 Supporting the Latvian Independence

Filed under Historical Articles

Latvia-Soviet Russia Peace Agreement August 11 1920

Latvia - Soviet Russia peace agreement on August 11 1920

Latvia – Soviet Russia peace agreement on August 11 1920

On August 11 1920 Latvia and Soviet Russia signed a historic landmark peace agreement. For Latvia it was a guarantee for the independence and sovereignty for years to come. For Soviet Russia, later Soviet Union it was only a temporally setback and 20 years later Latvians learned the deceitful nature of the Soviet diplomacy.   How this peace agreement took place and whats the story behind it – it will be discussed in this article.

On late 1918 the Bolshevik hopes for Worldwide Socialist Revolution were in upswing. Bolsheviks broke the Brestlitovsk peace agreement with Germany they signed themselves and now gathered troops to regain control over Baltic States and Poland. The ultimate goal was Berlin and beyond. Soviet offensive on January 1919 was successful at first – Riga and much of the Lithuania was captured and soviet republics were established there. However, their fight against Estonians and Poles were unsuccessful – on February 1919 Estonians already chased out Bolsheviks from their territory and moved in Northern Latvia. Polish forces pushed into Lithuania and Belarus. Therefore Bolsheviks were forced to ask for peace negotiations to Estonia first.  On March 22 Soviet Russia trough the Hungarian Soviet Government  Foreign Minister Bela Kun sent first peace proposal. The short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic was used for contacts with the western countries and Hungarians as Estonian ethnic brothers were specially used for such matter. However, when Estonians received the peace proposal on April, it was turned down because of British interference. The Great Britain placed hopes on White Russian forces and therefore wanted Baltic states to support them by continuing war against soviets. Later on August 1919 Estonians again received peace proposals, but turned down because of further British resentment and being unsure about Latvia and Lithuania who did not receive any peace proposals yet.

On March 1919 the Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic still controlled large parts of Latvian territory. The Latvian Soviet government tried to realize fanatic communist ideas in even more radical way then their counterparts in Russia. As the regime begun to disintegrate the genocidal policies of the LSSR begun to affect the diplomatic scene. Soviets took hostages on retreat mainly Baltic Germans and German and Danish citizens. Danes and Germans were unable to contact the LSSR government so the question was undertaken by the soviet foreign commissar Georgy Chicherin. Danish Red Cross sent delegation to Petrograd to negotiate the hostage release. Doctor from Riga L T Lukyanov was sent by Latvian Provisional Government to find ways how to start peace negotiations with the soviets. He was instructed by foreign minister Zigfrīds Anna Meireovics and colonel Jānis Balodis. In Moscow he met the top member of the Soviet Foreign Peoples Commissariat Maxim Litvinov, showing that it was important for soviets to seek negotiations with Latvia.

Only on August 1919 three Baltic States and Finland received peace proposals. Soviets were endangered by the White Russian armies and wanted to stop the Baltic States supporting them. And Soviets were concerned about Poland of who they were afraid of gaining more power over Baltic States and attempting to organize a joint offensive against Moscow. None of this were correct, as Poland failed to establish full power over Lithuania and the attempt by the British General F  G Marsh to organize joint Polish, White guard and Baltic offensive were not approved by the British government. However, Vladimir Lenin took this seriously and wanted to isolate Baltic States from Poland by singing peace agreements.

On August 31 1919 Estonia received proposal for negotiations, then on September 11 Finland and Latvia. Lithuania was asked on the same day, but because the proposals were sent using  juzogramm( a special type of telegram) it reached them on September 15. While Estonia received promises to fully recognize their national borders which they were in control off, Latvia and Lithuania only received note that soviets are ready for talks. Latgale was still under the Soviet control and in Zemgale Pro-German forces were preparing for assault on Riga. Lithuanian borders were still in question. Estonia that fully controlled its territory and was pathway to Petrograd was in better position for full peace talks.

Soviets wanted to negotiate alone with every Baltic State to disallow united position. They wanted to negotiate with Estonia first as General Yudenich White forces approached Petrograd. Estonia rejected and asked to make negotiations with Soviet Russia and all three Baltic States together. A conference in Tallinn on September 14-15 was called to discuss this. Latvia was not sure about this as Latgale was still under Soviet control and Pro-German forces were preparing for attack.  As excuse to turn down such negotiations were the reaction of the UK and France that would dislike such talks. However, British cabinet was moving towards allowing Baltic States to allow peace negotiations  with the Soviets. However, all sides were convinced on signing only ceasefire as peace with Soviets seemed unreal at that time.

As Latvia was unable to gain guarantees on Latgale from other states and Finland suggested not to rush, but wait for UK and French acceptance the united stance on negotiations  with Soviets was not reached. On September 24-25 UK changed its policy and allowed Baltic States to organize negations with Soviets. Estonians who already foresaw this change of policy were impressed, while Latvia and Finland for their own reasons were still careful to start peace talks. On October 6 Latvian Peoples Council first discussed the peace negotiation possibility with the soviets. Foreign Minister Z A Meierovics was insisting on discussing peace only with democratic Russia, gaining wide neutral zone and compensations from Russia. Such way was impossible and was proposed to delay talks. Social Democrats proposed to start negotiations immediately, but on note that Latgale should be abandoned by the soviets and LSSR disbanded. In following days the discussions were halted by the pro-German offensive on the Latvian forces. So called West Russian Volunteer Army  commanded by General “count” Pavel Bermondt-Avalov and Rüdiger von der Goltz was formed from local Germans and ex imperial army German soldiers together with Russian army POWS. For two months Latvian government was caught up in fight with Bermontd army until ultimate victory on November.

On November 11-19 in Tartu all three Baltic States representatives including Poland and Finland met together and again discussed negotiations with the Soviets. Estonia now was ready to sign peace deal separately as Yudenich army was broken and Estonian army was tired. Latvia was still fighting Bermondt and Soviets in Latgale. Lithuania was rather concerned with war with Poland and even Latvia. Poland was unable to have any negotiations with Soviets at all. Finland was not in a hurry and disregarded the Baltic positions. The unity was broken, nor it was possible.

On November 6 Latvian delegation to Moscow including nationalist Arveds Bergs, social democrat Fricis Menders and others were instructed to note soviets that only united talks with all Baltic states are possible with support from UK and France.  This a principal yet unrealistic stance by Meireovics or an attempt to delay talks until Latgale is gained back my military means. On November 17 Litvinov insisted on signing peace agreement on spot and promised to leave Latgale. Despite Menders and Litvinov being old revolutionary comrades from 1905 revolutions talks went nowhere because of official Latvian stance. And also Arveds Bergs despite recognizing Litvinov as  “skillful and clever Jew” distrusted his intentions on leaving Latgale. Only thing reached by all Baltic States was the hostage exchange with the Soviet Russia.

On December 5 Estonians started separate talks with Soviets. Lenin and Chicherin were positive on peace agreement while communist hotheads Leon Trotsky and Grigory Zinoviev insisted on second invasion that was rejected by Lenin. Latvia sent their representatives to observe the talks and try to initiate talks with soviets. Estonians were hostile to Latvian delegation and tried to isolate them as much as possible. Menders again used his revolutionary past to approach his old Menshevik  comrade Yoffe and gained soviet confidence on starting secret peace   negotiations with Latvia. Using him Meierovics sent a secret letter to Moscow issuing demands for negotiations – Latgale must be abandoned and LSSR disbanded, and talks must be secret under the guise of Latvian Red Cross delegation. On December 19 Latvian envoy in secret meeting in Tallinn coffee stand gave the letter secretly to Yoffe. The Estonian Secret Police rushed in and arrested them. But message reached Moscow and on December 24 Moscow replied that they accept the Latvian therms.

Despite Soviet promise to leave Latgale, the leader of the Latvian Provisional government Kārlis Ulmanis was sure to regain Latgale by military means.    On December 13 last units of the defeated Bermontd army left the Lithuanian territory. Latvia had to ask either Lithuanian or Polish support for the military campaign in Latgale. Both new countries had ambitions to restore their past empires, that would include significant Latvian parts or Latvia as whole. Lithuanian demands were arrogant and unrealistic, they demanded Ilūkste district and even Daugavpils. Poland despite ambition to restore the borders of 1772 where more forthcoming because of coming military offensive towards the east. They needed Latgale secure from Soviets to aid their attack. On December 29 a Latvian-Polish military cooperation agreement was signed for the Latgale campaign. Some days later on December 31 Estonia and Soviet Russia signed ceasefire. Soviets recognized their independence and borders.

On January 2 1920 Latvia sent the Red Cross Delegation to Moscow and on January 3 Latvian – Polish armies started their assault on Latgale. Fricis Menders and Augusts Frīdenbergs reached Moscow despite going trough front lines and nearly getting killed on January 6. Chicherin was angry about the Latvian-Polish offensive and turned down his old Menshevik comrade. On January 11 Soviets gave unreasonable demands to neutralize Latgale and give it self-determination rights. On January 14 Soviets no longer demanded the Latgale autonomy, but demanded to give a month to leave Latgale and asked Latvians to leave Pytalovo  that was taken by Latvian army. They also refused to disband the Latvian Red Riflemen. Meanwhile on January 15-16 another joint conference by the new states in Helsinki took place bringing no results. Unity was impossible as Lithuania wanted war with Poland and Latvia, they already seized some Latvian border lands they refused to leave. Meirovics were afraid of the Baltic balkanization – driving region to ethnic border wars and proposed a wide alliance. Finland and Estonia were not interested and talks went nowhere.

On January 30 at 3:00 in the night the ceasefire between Latvia and Russia was reached. Latvian army had taken over all Latgale. Parts of the ceasefire regarding the disbanding the Latvian Communist Party in Moscow and halting anti-Latvian propaganda were never realized. Ceasefire should had started on February 1, however Poland insisted to capture the city of Drisa (Verkhnyadzvinsk) for strategic purposes. That was done and new ceasefire on  February 1 was signed making new demarcation line. The ceasefire took effect on 12:00 at February 1.

On February 2 Estonia signed peace agreement with Soviet Russia first of the three Baltic States to do so. Estonians in return for recognizing independence agreed on not demanding financial compensations and allowed full rights for Soviet transit in Estonia. Estonia received 15 millions of gold as reward for being the first to allow such transit privileges.  Estonia also received the territories of Eastern Narva and Pechori (Petseri). Same as later Pytalova they were mainly Russian inhabited regions.

Latvia was reluctant to give such privileges for the soviets and wanted compensations from Russia. Large numbers of factories and equipment were moved to Russia from Riga on 1915 and Latvia wanted it back. And still Meierovics hoped on joint Latvian, Polish and Lithuanian talks despite being completely impossible. Poland insisted on  delaying the talks, Finland too. Meanwhile  UK was now moving towards reconciliation with Soviet Russia and was hostile towards Polish will to fight further. Britain insisted Latvia to stop siding with Poles for it will do no good. Latvians hoped for conference in Riga as follow up for Helsinki conference but it never took place. Poland started marching towards Belarus and Ukraine.

Because of these reasons the talks on peace agreement started two months later. Latvia was issuing high demands on compensations 37,5 million golden rubles were demanded and 72 million rubles for injured soldier families. Latvians were also skeptical on soviet transit rights. Also commissions in Riga demanded to give 40 year concession for Volga -Daugava canal. Such canal has never been built until this day. Such fantastic demands made by commissions in Riga were made in disregard of the real situation in Russia. Soviets were either unable or unwilling to fulfill such demands. Also as the first election took place the peace talks now became part of the party battle. Latvian Green Farmers combated Social Democrats. Menders was removed from leading the talks, A Zēbergs the deputy of the foreign minister was appointed as the head of the negotiations.

On April 10 the delegation finally traveled to Moscow. 34 people delegation in Sebezh, met the first group of Latvian hostages including social democrat V Bastjānis and doctor V Mintz who treated Lenin’s assassination attempt injuries. As all demanded hostages were gathered the exchange took place on April 16. On this day the delegation reached Moscow and was “greeted” by angry Latvian communists who protested against the peace agreement. Despite all attempts to preserve the LSSR in Latgale and convince Lenin to keep fighting, the LSSR was disbanded. LCP despite being still active part of Commnintern was lost and confused. Zēbergs was unsuitable for leading the talks the Yoffe got better of him and rejected all kinds of demands for compensations. Soviets also wanted Drisa and Pytalovo back. Zēbergs who wanted fast talks was angry about this and demanded Meireovics to come to Moscow himself which Meirovics rejected. He was caught up in forming the new government and did not feel no need to head to Moscow.

Then talks went to halt as Poland started major offensive towards Kyiv. While Latvians believed this will make Soviets to sign peace agreement with Latvia faster, soviets regarded Latvians and Polish allies and made aggressive statements. As soviets pushed Poles back they hoped to capture Warsaw and make a difference in Baltic-Soviet relations. Soviets however gave up Pytalova and surrounding areas, but did not want to give up Drisa. In the end Verkhnyadzvinsk a mostly a Belarusian city was given up to Soviet Russia. Pytalova was gave up by Soviets because of war of Poland and Latvian reluctance to give it back. On May 22 Zēbergs unsatisfied with his work left Moscow and later resigned from delegation. He was replaced by Jānis Veismanis.

Talks again were brought to halt after Meierovics was cited in Latvian Russian newspaper about plans about Baltic state military convention against Soviet Russia. Such convention was in plans on this time, but made Soviets halt the talks. On June 17 Soviets rejected Latvian demands on compensating or returning the lost pre WWI industrial equipment. On July 9 the sick and exhausted Latvian delegation asked to head back to Riga and resume talks there. Reluctant soviets worried by the strain on propaganda agreed, but noted that the final agreement must be signed in Moscow. On July 12 after peace agreement with Lithuania soviet delegation arrived in Riga and were met with hostility from the press.

As soviets pushed offensive towards Warsaw that would lead to ultimate capture of Berlin, the soviets openly rejected any economical demands from Latvia.  Lithuania meanwhile signed dubious peace agreement with Soviets, where Lithuania acquired Vilnius, Belarusian Hrodna, Polish Augstowa and Suvalki and in secret protocol allowed to use its territory for soviets against their war on Poland. However, as soon a soviets captured Vilnius instead of giving it to Lithuania they installed a soviet government there. It took month for Lithuanians to convince Russians to evict from Vilnius. During the final faze on Soviet war against Poland the Soviet delegation became even more reluctant and hostile towards Latvian counterparts. Meireovics included multi-party representatives including social democrats that soviets disliked. Social Democrats rejected to take part in the first Commitern congress. Soviets were running out of patience – battle for Warsaw was close. Latvians also had enough. Soviets at least returned a half amount of  locomotives and train wagons taken away during WWI. On August 7 Soviet representative Ivans Lorencs sent message to Moscow that Latvian demands are unbearable and that we need to organize a local invasion, dress up Red Army men as “green partisans”, kill some nobles, kulaks and priests. That was not necessary on August 9 the agreement was reached, Soviets finally agreed to compensate 4 million golden rubles in two months. Latvia gave up Drisa but kept Pytalova later called Abrene.

On August 11 12:40 the peace agreement took place. It was signed in Riga not Moscow as originally intended. On August 12-15 the Polish army sealed this agreement by defeating the Soviets near Warsaw and chasing them away. The peace agreement between Poland and Soviet Russia was signed in Riga on March 18. Without Polish victory the Baltic States would be in danger. Soviets stated in the agreement that “for eternal times to come they will respect and will not endanger the Latvian independence”.   The first article stated that “The state of war existing between the Parties shall be ended as of the effective date of this Peace Treaty.”Article 2 declared the independence and sovereignty of Latvia and Article 3 set the borders of the State of Latvia, while also creating deadlines by which foreign troops should leave. Articles 4-6 dealt with military affairs and war damage, Article 7 with provisions for the return of prisoners of war, should they desire to return. Articles 8 through 9 concerned citizenship, repatriation of refugees, and property claims. Adults aged 18 or older were free to choose either Latvian or Russian citizenship, the default being that individuals were citizens of the state in which they resided at the time the treaty was signed. Articles 11 through 16 dealt with reparations Russia was to make to the Latvian state and its citizens. Articles 17 and 18 dealt with commercial, transit, postal and navigation arrangements and Article 19 with diplomatic relations. Article 20 address nationality issues and Article 21 established a commission to handle issues of mutual interest. Articles 22 and 23 deal with treaty technicalities such as language and ratification. August 11 was celebrated as Victory day.

Latvia could not gain its lost infrastructure, that was however technically belonged to Russian Empire on 1915, but was on Latvian soil. For next 20 years the agreement was guarantee for Latvian independence and sovereignty. German statesman Otto von Bismark stated many years before that its pointless to believe that Russia will fulfill its signed treaties. For next 20 years Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin plotted the next world war. When the chance finally came on 1939 Stalin had no problem breaking the peace treaty of 1920. The “eternal times” lasted only 20 years after Latvia was occupied and annexed. On 1944 Soviet Union took away Abrene and joined back to Russia. Russia only fulfills agreements as long as its up to its imperial interests. The Budapest Memorandum on Ukraine on 1994 was advantageous for Russia as its removed nuclear weapons from Ukraine and also guaranteed its borders.   On 2014 the borders of Ukraine and its sovereignty was no   longer advantageous for Russia, it was advantageous now to violate it. The Latvian – Soviet Russia peace agreement with Russia shows that only agreement Russia accepts is made by blood   and iron  not by paper. Diplomacy is weakness for Russia, the only diplomacy Russia understands is force.

Selected Sources:

Stranga, Aivars. (2000) Latvijas – Padomju Krievijas Miera līgums. 1920. gada 11. augusts. Rīga. Fonds “Latvijas Vēsture”

http://www.mfa.gov.lv/en/policy/peace-treaty/

 

Comments Off on Latvia-Soviet Russia Peace Agreement August 11 1920

Filed under Historical Articles

Soviet Latvia 1918-1920

The emblem of the Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic

The emblem of the Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic

During the 1918-1920 War for Freedom, Latvia had three alternatives- the Republic of Latvia, Baltic German Duchy and Latvia as the Soviet Republic. From the end of 1918 to early 1920 in the various parts of Latvia a communist regime called Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic existed. Despite being dependent on communist government in Moscow and part of the Soviet plan for the Worldwide socialist revolution, it was formed by local Latvian Bolsheviks or lielinieki as Latvians called them. It was a harsh totalitarian regime that could serve as prototype for future totalitarian regimes. In its short time of existence the  regime attempted to make a Stalinist style collectivization and organize its own army. This article will attempt to explain this seldom researched topic in detail.

The roots of Latvian Marxism begun in late 19th century during rapid modernization and industrialization. Socialism became very popular among the working class Latvians and middle class educated circles. On 1904 the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party (LSDWP) was founded gathering around a wide spectrum of socialists, from anarchists to radical Marxists. The revolution of 1905 was crucial for LSDWP as it took the main role in local activities and lead the uprising against the tsarist regime. However, the failure of the revolution weakened and split the party. Many active leaders were exiled or sent to Siberia. One small faction by the lead of Peter the Painter took the anarchist route, others moved towards Russian Socialists lead by Vladimir Lenin. The democratic and national minded politicians fell out and were called mensheviks or mazinieki in Latvian and lost the in the power struggle. On 1906 LSDWP joined the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party (RSDWP) becoming an autonomous territorial entity called Latvian Social Democracy (LSD). LSD became more and more Bolshevik and formed the most part of the  RSWDWP.

The First World war was calamity for Latvia. The German invasion on 1915 caused a large masses of refugees to go to Russia. The evacuation of industrial objects lead to the rise of poverty. And Latvian lands were divided in German -Russian front line for two years. The right-wing politicians used to war to raise patriotic feelings among Latvians and convinced Tsar Nicholas II to form a Latvian Rifleman Regiments within the Russian army to defend Riga. Tsar had his doubts about it, he remembered the 1905. Meanwhile LSD took the anti-war position that proved successful. Latvian Rifleman were torn in bloody battles Christmas battles on 1917 January and were angered by the lack of support from Russian army formation and the incompetence of the Russian leadership.

After the February revolution the Bolsheviks managed to  take over the Latvian Rifleman. The LSD despite made legal was weakened by the repressions and the fact that many were forced to emigrate to Russia and Europe. In Russian controled Vidzeme and Riga, Bolsheviks started to organize various soviets that were beyond the Russian Provisional government control. Riga City Workers Soviet and Landless Peasant Soviet were the main Bolshevik ruling organs. On April 29 – May 1 1917 in Valmiera Landless Peasant Congress elected Bolshevik lead Vidzeme Landless Peasant Soviet and were formed in every parish in the region. Soviets issued order to confiscate the lands of church and estates. Since Latvian peasants owned a small portion of land compared to noble estates and church the move was supported.

Similar soviets were organized within the Latvian Rifleman. The Russian Provisional Government was unable to step out of the war. That many Latvian soldiers to protest, however, most still wanted to defend their homeland. Slowly the LSD took over Latvian Executive Rifleman Committee (Iskolatstrel) and gained the rifleman support. LSD promised to end war, gain back lost lands of Courland and Semigalia and give land to everyone. Right wing politician realistic goal to continue war had no real political gains and could not favor the masses.  However, it was a political delusion  that was impossible to achieve. Despite being a totalitarian party LSD took part in four democratic elections, town council, Vidzeme Land Council, regional council, and in the Constituent Assembly. LSD won in all of them achieving a landslide victories. However, the voter activity was only above 30% showing that most people did not understand the point of these elections.

Germans started a grand offensive on September 1917 and captured Riga. Latvian Rifleman in the Battles of Jugla took the most hit, while cowardly and disorganized Russian army units retreated. Germans were unable to move swiftly to take over all Vidzeme. So after the communist coup in November 7 (October) Vidzeme were taken over by Bolsheviks. On November 21-22 in Valka the Soviet power was issued. The Executive Committee (Iskolat) was led by Fricis Roziņš. Iskolat fired all governing bodies – the land councils and town councils. Many democratic newspapers were banned. Revolutionary Tribunals were formed and Red Guard was organized. The Iskolat in Vizdeme and Latgale managed to rule only few months until February 1918. However, the Iskolat was ready to nationalize all rural and industrial property.

Germans resumed their offensive and on February 1918 captured all Vidzeme and Latgale. On they way of retreat the Red Guards took hostages many of them did not survive. LSD was shaken by the events and split in two parts. Fricis Menders and Pauls Kalniņš formed Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party. Others were either deported to Russia by Germans or escaped themselves. The LSD now was directed from Moscow. Iskolat was a prelude to future Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic.

As discussed in other articles Latvians took significant posts in Soviet government, army and secret police. Latvian Rifleman despite weakened by the loss of their homeland were still ready to fight and helped to form the Red Army. Despite the peace agreement with Germany that gave Baltic provinces, Belarus and Ukraine away, Bolsheviks waited for Germany to lose against the Western Allies and prepared for war. Latvia was to be taken back. On November 18 1918 the time struck when revolution in Germany brought down the Imperial government and forced Germany to end war. Soviets were convinced that socialist takeover in Germany is imminent and canceled the Brest-Litiosvk peace agreement. However, the German communists were too weak to take over alone. The Red Army had to lead the Red Crusade towards Berlin.

For this Bolsheviks needed first to re-conquer Latvia and form a national soviet republic dependent on Moscow. However, the LSD only wanted to restore Iskolat style government – an autonomous Latvia within Soviet Russia. They wanted to form a “United Latvian Commune”, that would include Courland, Vidzeme,Latgale and Riga Commune. The man leading this idea was Pēteris Stučka. He did not want an independent Latvia, nor a formally sovereign soviet republic. Moscow meanwhile pushed for national soviet republic that would fit the popular self-determination doctrine issued by US president Woodrow Wilson. Of course such national soviet republic would be completely dependent on Moscow and annexed in to World Socialist State.

One of the pushers for Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic was Joseph Stalin, he condemned the LSD intentions and November 23 demanded to form revolutionary Latvian provisional government, declare its foundation on of the close border posts like Toroshina. He did this on behalf of Lenin, the national question was also Stalin’s prime responsibility. LSD was forced to submit to Stalin’s commands and made a list government members and committee to form manifest.

On December 4 the Latvian Provisional Soviet Government was formed. Red Army had already crossed Latvian borders on November 22-23, on November 29 Rēzekne was captured by the soviet troops. Meanwhile the Estonian Soviet Government was declared already after taking of Narva on November 29. Despite Stalin orders to form the government on spot, Latvian communists delayed and tried to avoid the forming the Soviet Latvia. LSD members in Latvia were surprised by this move as the order to proclaim the republic came from Moscow and was against LSD ideology that denied national sovereignty.

On December 17 1918 the Soviet Power was declared in Latvia. There is common misconception that declaration power in Valka, although it was  captured day later. The Soviet government entered Valka only on December 22. In reality the declaration was issued in press and radio and many received these news many days later. This was done reluctantly while Estonian communists showed great enthusiasm.

Invasion towards west begun on November 15 1918. On November 18 in Riga the Latvian Republic was proclaimed. Supported by right-wing parties like Latvian Farmers Union it was also supported by LSDWP who however, declared Latvian Republic as temporary solution for their goals. Remaining German army and authorities also saw Latvian Provisional Government this way and formed a temporary alliance with them against Bolsheviks. Their goal of  forming the Baltic Duchy failed and now on behalf of UK and France they had to cooperate with Latvians to defend their possessions.

 Latvian Red Riflemen took part in invasion despite Moscow being reluctant to move them to Western Front. Most Latvian units were scattered all across Civil War front and were vital in struggle against White Guards. However, Red Army clearly lacked enough forces to lead a wide offensive towards Baltic region, Belarus and Poland. On December 18 Valka was captured. Then it was ordered to pursue attack towards Riga. However, the Latvian red regiments should instead attack Parnu and then Tallinn, while other Soviet forces lead the attack from Ogre and Pļaviņas from Latgale side. That was a crucial mistake, since the Red Army was unable to defeat the Estonian National Forces that later turned crucial for the Soviet Latvia.

Latvian communist ambitions took over strategic considerations as  they rushed towards Riga. On December 30 crucial victory was held at Inčukalns. Red Rifleman defeated the German formed Landeswerh (Land Guard), Latvian Company loyal to Latvian Provisional government refused to take part in the battle. On January 2 1919 Latvian Provisional Government left Rīga and head to Liepāja. Next day Landeswerh and German Iron Brigade along with few remaining Latvian units evacuated from Riga. On January 3 Riga was taken by Soviets. Massive arrests started and Riga Soviet Militia was formed to keep order.

Pēteris Stučka and his soviet government in Riga

Pēteris Stučka and his soviet government in Riga

With German and Latvian units in retreat the Soviet power was established in Latgale, Vidzeme, Rīga and Zemgale. Soviets sent Latvians back to Latvia to take part in the new soviet state. Russian Bolsheviks were reluctant against massive Latvian will to head towards their homeland in risk of loosing valuable workforce. On January 13 1919 the United Latvia workers, rifleman and landless peasant congress took place. Congress continued until   January 15 and made the constitution and many resolutions. With Lev Kamenev and Yakov Sverdlov as special guests the LSSR Constitution was proclaimed. Since Pēteris Stučka the leader of the Soviet government had helped to write the Constitution of Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic the LSSR constitution was very similar. The United Latvian Workers Soviet Congress became the highest governing body. It elected Latvian Central Executive Committee that served as legislative body.  LCEC elected the 11 member Soviet Government.

Similar to Russia all main sectors were guided by commissariats and corresponding departments. LSSR had no Foreign Commissariat, only Foreign Secretariat showing that Latvian communists had no interest in diplomacy. All power was in LSD and republic was in fact a single party dictatorship.   In resolution about relations with Russia it was proposed that after war Latvian proletariat should unite with their Russian brothers and live in brotherly union. It was according to original reluctance  of forming soviet republic. The flag, coat of arms and even the name of the republic was formed in the same way as RSFSR.

Latvian communists were convinced in their quest for worldwide socialist revolution and saw Latvia as flaming torch against the revolutionary enemy powder tower. Pēteris Stučka declared a steadfast move to socialism. To start this a Red Terror was initiated. At first it was chaotic, made towards former governmental workers and keeping the order. Special local investigative commissions were formed and first revolutionary tribunal in Vecgulbene on December 18. After realizing all these institutions were working independently beyond government control the LSSR Commissariat of Justice   begun to take direct control over them. Revolutionary Tribunals were made in every district. The goal was the struggle and extermination of bourgeoisie.

Armed Latvian communist women. Many women took part in the soviet atrocities

Armed Latvian communist women. Many women took part in the soviet atrocities

The class war started with the removal of political rights for everyone except  workers. Next step was struggle against private property. To assist front line  confiscations of personal belongings  were issued by force. After that the people considered bourgeoisie started were forced to take part in social work. Nobles, land and real estate owners, tradesman, businessman and intellectuals were sent to work on streets and heavy works. Those who resisted were threatened with revolutionary tribunal and concentration camp.

As the front line reports became more threatening, the enslavement was no longer enough. On the frontline communist groups took hostages and cleared the prisons on retreat.  On March 14 first mass execution in Riga took place.  57 prisoners were shot. Next day in Riga Female Prison 30 people were killed. At the end of March 200 people were shot in Riga main prions. Executions took place in country side and in Daugavpils far from frontlines. 98 people were shot there on March 26-27. If that was not enough an order was issued to forcibly move people from Riga Central Districts to remote places such as Zaķusala, Kundziņslala and Sarkandaugava.Hundreds of thousand people were moved, the exact number is unknown. People were sent to ghetto like envoriments

One of the main sufferers of the terror were Baltic Germans. As front came closer soviets begun to take hostages 91% of imprisoned hostages were Germans. More than thousand people were taken hostage. Nationalistic hate towards Germans was clearly present in soviet Latvian ideology and was seen as revenge for the events of 1905 and beyond.

The main terror institutions were Interior affairs commissariat and commissariat of Justice. In contrary to Russia, own Latvian Emergency Commission the Latvian version of Cheka was not made. As Cheka in Russia was autonomous from other state institutions causing problems, Latvian soviets made secret police within Interior Affairs commissariat called Political Department. The “trials” were made by revolutionary tribunals. Soviets managed to build concentration camps  in various parts of Latvia. Largest one was in city of Pļaviņas.

The amount of victims by the Red Terror is not precisely known. One account names 3632 of them 1549 murdered in Riga. Pēteris Stučka later himself claimed to have killed 1000 people during his rule. Various documents deny us to make precise calculations. The Latvian Soviet government had genocidal character as it was clear attempt to exterminate completely various  social and ethnic groups. The terror was disproportional to actual resistance and increased because  of front line problems. The terror only boosted the resistance against the regime.

The reason for this was also radical economic reforms. Steps were taken to completely destroy the private property. First drastic emergency tax was instituted against bourgeoisie and confiscation of the capital. Then in February banks were nationalized. Then on March 1 1919 major step was done to begin nationalization of all rural lands. Land owners became renters and had to sign contract to use the land further. It was done according to teachings of Karl Marx that expropriation and land rent would ensure state income. However, Stučka was planning to create soviet collective farms.  This was the move that made people against the soviet power. Instead of giving land to landless peasants everything was taken by the state and gathered in collective farms. On March 8 last decree was made to confiscate all industrial, trade and agricultural enterprises in value of 10 0000 ruble. Only thing that soviets were unable to ban was money, but they hoped to ban it sometime later.

First of May parade in Riga where now stands Monument of Liberty

First of May parade in Riga where now stands Monument of Liberty

To defend this “paradise” from foreign threat on January 4 a Soviet Latvian Army was founded. While strategically such formation was not needed as it would be made from Red Army units it was a political display to “prove” the sovereignty of the LSSR. First commander was Jukums Vācietis also the Commander in Charge of the Red Army. Formed mainly from Latvian Riflemen it was controlled by the Latvian soviets. More than 7000 people joined voluntarily. Then the mobilization was issued. It took place on many occasions when front line was in danger. Despite large influx of soldiers contributed by mobilization the army soon break apart following military collapse  of the Soviet Latvia.

This long story was ultimately ended by the Estonian army and after that by the Latvian – German forces. While soviets were holding congress in Riga on January, the Estonian army effectively resisted the Red forces. South Estonia was lost and Estonian army headed towards Valka. On January 31 Estonians captured Valka and moved into Latvian Northern Vidzeme. Then Soviet Latvian Army faced troubles in Courland. Soviets captured Jelgava and moved towards river Venta. Despite German – Latvian forces weakened and divided, the offensive stopped as soviets moved forces to Vidzeme against Estonians. On January 29 1919 battles erupted at Skrunda along river Venta.  On February German Iron Division and Landeswerh captured Kuldīga and Vetspils. On March 3 anti-soviet forces begun offensive towards Jelgava. On March 18 Landeswerh captured Jelgava.

One of the ships in the Soviet Latvian War Fleet. Slogan on side says Death to Capitalism!

One of the ships in the Soviet Latvian War Fleet. Slogan on side says Death to Capitalism!

The taking of Riga was imminent, few defeated and in rush formed units defended city for a week. Large masses of soviet soldiers, deserters, officials begun to leave the city. Prison populations were executed. Soviets held Riga all April while trying to push away Estonians facing miserable defeat against smaller enemy force. As in May German and Polish forces chased away soviets from Latvia. Then on May 12 Estonian forces and White Guards marched   towards Petrograd. On May 26 Pskov was captured. Soviet Latvia was effectively in siege from two sides. Soviet High command demanded to leave Riga, however Latvian communists resisted for loosing Riga would mean the breakup of the regime. The Soviet Latvian Army was deserting, the partisan activity on the rise. Because of harsh economic policies the soviets lost their support.

On May 22 at early morning anti-soviet forces begun offensive towards Riga. Latvia 1st Special Brigade, Landeswerh, Iron Divison broke trough the LRA lines and rolled in Riga. Soviet government escaped towards Latgale. As German forces entered Riga a new wave of terror – the White Terror was made against remaining soviet supporters. Germans took their revenge once again. LRA was broken and retreated to Latgale. 60-70% soldiers deserted the soviet ranks. On July 7 it was disbanded and renamed to 15th Army. LSD now known as Latvian Communist Party was in disarray and the question was raised of liquidation of the LSSR. Officially the LSSR still formally existed until January 1920 when Polish – Latvian forces liberated Latgale. Until then the LSSR was under Moscow dictate and its government was powerless. After Latvia was liberated and signed peace agreement, LCP worked in Latvia in underground while old LSSR leaders worked in Latvia and were erased by Stalin’s purges.

The Soviet Latvia on 1918-1920 was a totalitarian regime, that tried to realize the Marxist ideals at full-scale. Its terror and actions were mostly dictated by  ideological beliefs rather than strategical considerations. In its short time of existence this regime managed to realize a limited genocide against middle and high-class members and local German population. If such regime managed to survive and be victorious against its rivals, Latvia would suffer major social and ethnic changes and today would be comparable to Belarus. The Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic is also comparable to present day “Donetsk Peoples Republic” and “Peoples Republic of Luhansk” both a fake puppet terror states conducting genocidal policy on behalf of Moscow.

Selected Sources:

Šilinš, Jānis. (2013) Padomju Latvija 1918-1920. Rīga. Vēstures Izpētes un popularizēšanas biedrība.

Popoff, George (1932). The City of the Red Plague: Soviet Rule in a Baltic Town. London; New York: George Allen & Unwin; E.P. Dutton & Co

Pētersone, Inga. (Ed) (1999) Latvijas Brīvības cīņas, 1918-1920 : enciklopēdija. Riga: Preses Nams.
Bērziņš, Valdis. (2000) 20. gadsimta Latvijas vēsture. I, Latvija no gadsimta sākuma līdz neatkarības pasludināšanai, 1900-1918. Riga: Latvijas vēstures institūta apgāds.

Comments Off on Soviet Latvia 1918-1920

Filed under Historical Articles

Lāčplēsis – the First Latvian Major Movie from 1930

Lilita Bērziņa as Laimdota in the opening scene

Lilita Bērziņa as Laimdota in the opening scene

Lāčplēsis day on November 11 is heading close. The Latvian victory over the German-White Russian army of Bermont-Avalov was one of the major military victories of the Latvian people. No wonder why many still held this date and celebrations as sacred. But, they were even more sacred during the first twenty years of independence. Latvia was full of war veterans and large portions of Latvian society remembered the events of 1918-1920 like they were yesterday. So it was no wonder why the Latvian cinema and theater were dedicated to war events. First Latvian movie made on 1920 was called “Me joining the war”. Latvian cinematographers  had very little experience to make high quality movies like in US or Germany. Even Soviet Union started to make high class works of art despite their propagandist character.

As the 10 anniversary of the victory in the War for Freedom was heading close, a grand movie was needed to mark these events and show them in nationally patriotic way. And that is where actor Aleksandrs Rusteiķis, cameraman Jānis Sīlis and drill sergeant of the Civil Guard Alfrēds Bērziņš came in. On 1928 they made the first movie For Fatherland on 1928 about the Soviet invasion in Latvia on 1919. Movie was known for explicit scenes of violence and rape, but managed to pass the censorship law  that usually rejected such scenes. Mostly because of the Civil Guard support that was very popular paramilitary movement. The movie was poorly received and was technically weak for those times.

Then Rusteiķis started his project for the movie to mark 10 years of independent Latvia. His movie was called “Lāčplēsis” Lāčplēsis translated roughly in English as Bear Slayer was mythical hero who first appeared in Andrejs Pumpurs epic poem of the same name. Lāčplēsis is a strong ancient Latvian hero who fights against the German crusaders and also for his beloved Laimdota. This epic poem was one of the strongest literal works of the New Latvian movement. After Latvian army defeated the mainly German lead army of Bermont the victory seemed almost like the final victory of Lāčplēsis. Since the epic poem ended tragically with both Lāčplēsis and his enemy the Black Knight drowning in the river Daugava. The poem said that they still fight with each other in the deeps of the river and when Lācplēsis finally defeats the Black Knight the Latvian nation shall be free again. It seemed on November 1919 that this day has come and ever since then the November 11 is celebrated as Lāčplēsis day.

The movie was silent, but with musical score that follows the plot and changes according to dramatics. However, for our days it seems rather annoying. Massive battle scenes involving gas and artillery attacks were made. There are many special effects like explosions and falling war planes. However, in same cases like the war plane explosions its clearly seen that a plane is just a model.

So it was logical to name the movie in such way. The main cast for the movie was mostly amateurs. Voldemārs Dimze was a pilot. He played the main hero Lāčplēsis and Jānis Vanags as Lāčplēsis spiritual incarnation. His character is brave, honest and monolith personality not bounded by fear or lust. His character set the traditions for the future Latvian male characters as manly and patriotic. The main female character Laimdota or Marta was played by Lilita Bērziņa. She played beautiful and honest Latvian virgin who is trapped by the evil forces.  She also shows signs of courage and self confidence. She can spend a great time alone and defend herself. It was common for post war Latvian society with lot of single women forced to look after themselves. The main villain the Black Knight or later German officer was played by Osvalds Mednis. His character was shown in the best traditions of horror movies of those times. With one eye, bald head and frozen sinister look he resembled Count Dracula. A minor but colorful role by Jēkabs Upelnieks was Kangars. The vile Latvian traitor who assisted the Black Knight. Sinister expressions and moves were played out well.

The main characters of the movie. From the left: Lilita Bērziņa as Laimdota/Marta, Voldemārs Dimze as Lāčplēsis/Jānis Vanags, Osvalds Osis as the Blak Night/German villain, Kangars as Jēkabs Upelnieks

The main characters of the movie. From the left: Lilita Bērziņa as Laimdota/Marta, Voldemārs Dimze as Lāčplēsis/Jānis Vanags, Osvalds Osis as the Blak Night/German villain, Kangars as Jēkabs Upelnieks

As we already noticed all three main epic characters – the Lāčplēsis, Laimdota and the Black Knight appear later as people within the historical setting of 1905-1919. That’s because the movie starts in Mythical age within the setting of Andrejs Pumpurs and then all three main characters spiritually reborn within Jānis Vanags, Marta and unnamed German officer. Also Kangars appears by his side as unnamed Latvian traitor. This seems rather mystical for our days, but in those days it was understood perfectly. Also special part in the movie is given to Laimdota brooch, decorated with Latvian  folk symbols including swastikas this decorative peace had rather mystical role on the main characters. It was nothing unusual to add such esoteric things as  spiritual rebirth or magic brooches since these things were very popular among European society.

The magical brooch of Laimdota

The magical brooch of Laimdota

The movie starts with Laimdota trapped in crusader castle with her brooch on her chest. Then the vile Black Knight appears and attempts to take her by force. In the event of struggle she looses her brooch and its been taken by Kangars. The brooch seems to defend Laimdota. A bunch of witches and wizards with grotesque expressionist style faces tries to place spell on the brooch to make Laimdota love the Black Knight. After failed attempts the evil spirit appears from nowhere and commands to use the blood of dove. As they prepare to spill the blood of dove on the brooch the Lāčplēsis appears. Lurking in darkness within the castle walls he hears the cry from Laimdota about her lost brooch. He throws the spear at the room where wizards are and stops the dove from being killed.

Wizards and witches

Wizards and witches

As Lāčplēsis then rushes to free Laimdota he defeats the German soldiers, who curiously wears more WWI style helmets rather than Medieval helmets. Some even have horns on them showing the way people understood ancient days in those times. Lāčplēsis meets the Black Knight in duel. Kangars tries to stab the Lāčplēsis in the back, but gets killed by the Black Knight’s sword who falls out of the knights hands. By loosing his sword Black Knight retreats and Lāčplēsis considers it as a victory. But, the vile knight grabs the sword and apparently kills Lāčplēsis.

Tzarist executioners on 1905. The vile German/Black Knight on the left

Tzarist executioners on 1905. The vile German/Black Knight on the left

Movie then departs to the revolution of 1905. Lāčplēsis is spiritually reborn in the young Jānis Vanags. Vanags means hawk and hawk was a very popular Latvian patriotic symbol. He has the Laimdota brooch with him proving his connection with Lāčplēsis. He then encounters the Tsarist punishment expedition   driving to Saulīšu house. He immediately recognizes the peculiar looking stiff faced Baltic German  Tsarist officer with one eye as reincarnation of the Black Knight. Violent Russian officer demands to show the way to Saulīšu house. Jānis ruins the carriage wheel and makes to Saulīšu house before the officers do. There he meets Saulītis and his young daughter Mirdza. Saulītis manages to escape, but the vile German Tsarist officer slain Jānis with a whip and leaves a scar on his left cheek.

Mirdza and Jānis meets again

Mirdza and Jānis meets again

Movie then moves to 1914. Germany invades the territory of Latvia. Latvian rifleman comes to defend their homeland. With them the officer Jānis a grownup mature man. He is summoned by Captain Briedis a real life person to send a message to Colonel Francis another real life personality. Colonel Jānis Francis is stationed on the Island of Death a bridgehead encircled by Germans. The Island of Death was one of the most bloodiest war points for the Latvian riflemen. In his way he encounters Mirdza and his father who are trapped in forest after their refugee carriage crashed in the forest. Another – Latvian social trauma the massive Latvian exodus during the first months of WWI. To make things more dramatic the refugee caravans are bombed by German war planes. Luckily Mirdza who lost her conciseness is found and rescued by Jānis. Mirdza recognizes the boy who saved her father and instant love erupts between them. She and her father moves further to Riga, while Jānis continues his military duty. He survives many battles because of Laimdota brooch that stood in the way the bullets as he was always carrying underneath his uniform. After last such event in 1917 Christmas Battles he sends the brooch to Mirdza as sign of his love to her.

German WWI gas attack

German WWI gas attack

A major war scenes are shown: artillery fire and German gas attacks. The Eastern front within Latvia was no stranger to chemical warfare another message for the social memory. Meanwhile in Riga, the Baltic Germans and the ex-Tsarist officer are plotting against the Latvians. Baltic Germans who were on the other side of the front were not united against the Tzarist regime, as there was many German nationals fighting within Russian lines. However, there were certain Baltic German groups who wanted to create the German state in the outcome of the war. Movie shows real footage of Germans entering Riga on 1917 and Kaiser Wilhelm II who made a visit there.

The proclamation of independence on November 18 1918

The proclamation of independence on November 18 1918

However, then movie departs to November 18, 1918. Around the present day National theater where the proclamation of independence took place, a man in a German spike helmet is hanging around showing that independence was proclaimed during the German military presence. A unique scenes were made as the directors choose to replay the whole proclamation scene with people who took direct part there. Kārlis Ulmanis and Gustavs Zemgals as well other real life people were present at the proclamation scene. Its known that there is only one picture made from this event. On 2008 it was done for the second time in the movie The Only Photograph.

While the rule of the Soviet government in Riga from 1918 to spring of 1919 its not directly mentioned, the next part begins in winter time Riga where Mirdza is struggling to survive by selling her valuables. A reference to poverty made by Bolshevik terror. She is then approached by the vile German alias Black Knight who she does not recognize. He seduces her by buying some valuables and asks if  there is more. She says “Yes in apartment”. German follows her to her apartment and notices the brooch. He wants to buy it as well, when Mirdza rejects he tries to take it by force. He is only interrupted by Mirdza father who recognizes him. After the German leaves the father angrily asks: “You did not know what is person did in 1905?”. German returns again to steal the brooch and assaults Mirdza. In the event of struggle she runs away, but the German assistant the reborn Kangars finds the brooch and gives it to vile German. After, Germans demands to give herself in return for brooch she leaves Riga and sends letter to her imprisoned father to tell Jānis to find the villain.

Pavel Bermont Avalov

Pavel Bermont Avalov

Jānis meanwhile is in Estonia and takes part in the organization of the Northern Latvia brigade that together with Estonians defeated Germans at Cēsis at June 22. A scenes show the Latvian army marching in the streets of Riga Jānis returns to Riga and finds that Mirdza had left for country side. Vile German and his traitor is leaving his office, but forgets the brooches. Jānis finds it takes it back. However, the German is far from giving up. He plots with Bermont-Avalov who stereotypically chews his cigar and shows eccentric dull behavior.  The Bermont army is showed in German and Tzarist uniforms and are marching to Riga. The German finds out where Mirdza is. As she tries to hide he asks: “Why you are so inhospitable to the victors?”, she replays: “I am not won yet!”, “Then soon you shall be!” German smears.

The Symbolism in the movie

The Symbolism in the movie

The Battle of Riga is shown in grandiose way. The allied help from British and French navy was not forgotten, instead their ships play exact role as they really did. A scene of Bermont war plane being shot down and exploding on ground was rather unsuccessful since its clearly seen its just a prop. Then there is a interesting special effect: on the left side of River Daugava that was taken by Bermont a vile German face appears and changes to Black Knight, and on the right side of Riga the opposite happens – Jānis face changes to Lāčplēsis. It was a symbol of eternal struggle between Latvians and Germans. The Germans were clearly shown as enemies and many people who lived those times really saw Germans as the main enemies of the Latvian nation. And the Black Knight was the symbol of the German reactionary forces.

The battle scenes with the spirit of Lāčplēsis taking action

The battle scenes with the spirit of Lāčplēsis taking action

In grand battle scenes Latvians chase away Bermnot, another special effect the spirit of Lāčplēsis clears the front line with  his sword. As the battle ends a map shows up showing Latvian forces marked as Swastikas chasing away the Germans shown up as crosses. On 1930 swastika was still mainly seen as Latvian national folk symbol and as we see this movie had very anti-German character. The Bolsheviks were never directly mentioned in this movie.

Defeated Bermont is enjoying himself in Jelgava

Defeated Bermont is enjoying himself in Jelgava

Vivid scenes are shown after Germans are forced to retreat to Jelgava. The officers of the Bermont army is enjoying wild party with dancers and alcohol. Such travesty actually took place not to mention the damage the Bermnont made to Jelgava before finally leaving it.

The movie ends with Jānis confronting the German. He unhands his pistol and orders to defend himself with his sword. Kangars again sneaks to shoot Jānis from behind and gets killed by the German sword. Again the vile German tries to grab his pistol, but the father of Mirdza shows up and fires from behind. German is shot twice and falls down the stairs. As the father is looking if her daughter is fine, he sees her kissing with Jānis. He silently closes the door and in relief lights up his smoking pipe.

The ending scene

The ending scene

The movie was praised by viewers and the press. Few criticized for being oriented slightly towards the Kārlis Ulmanis party the Green Farmers Union, since it was funded by Civil Guards who were openly supportive of Ulmanis. Jānis Čakste and Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics was not present at the movie. Some technical flaws made this movie not as good as Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. In Hollywood first full audio movies were already present. But, what it makes this movie so special it was first major Latvian movie, with special effects, major historical background and artistic quality. On 1939 the Fishermans Son was first full audio Latvian movie a classic a adaptation of Vilis Lācis novel. But, without Lāčpēsis the Latvian cinema would be different.

Latvian post stamp showing the score from the movie

Latvian post stamp showing the score from the movie

On 2007 similar Latvian movie The Guards of Riga was produced. Also resolved around the Battle of Riga on 1919 sadly it was more historically biased then 193o Lāčplēsis. While Lāčplēsis showed that Latvians had enough forces at the beginning of the battle, the Guards of Riga was showing that Latvians had to build army from the scratch. The role of the Northern Latvia brigade and the allied warships were completely diminished by the Guards of Riga, while Lāčplēsis took large detail on this. The whole historical context of the battle events were completely misinterpreted in the Guards of Riga while they mostly close to history in Lāčplēsis. This shows, how the national memory about the War for Freedom gets deformed by the years. On 1930 the movie producers who witnessed the war themselves despite lack of technical advances made a movie that by all right is included in the Latvian national canon.

Comments Off on Lāčplēsis – the First Latvian Major Movie from 1930

Filed under Historical Articles

Jews of Latvia fighting for Latvian Independence 1918-1920

The cover of the Jewish Liberators Society almanac "The Liberator"

The cover of the Jewish Liberators Society almanac “The Liberator”

During the war of independence the new Latvian Republic faced many enemies and nearly impossible task to form own Latvian armed forces. The Bolsheviks wanted Latvia as part of the new Worldwide Socialist republic, while the Baltic Germans striven for Baltic Duchy. However, Latvian Provisional government managed to form an army capable to secure our independence. Not only Latvians fought under the Latvian banner. Latvia was a multi-ethnic country and many national minorities also came to help. One of them were Jews. During the war for freedom more than 1000 Jews fought in the lines of the Latvian army. Some of them received highest state awards. 22 men lost their life’s. Many continued their service after the war. This is a story about them. Some of these soldiers were my personal relatives that make this story even more special.

Latvian Jews were at first quite skeptical about the new Latvian state. Many did not believe it could last for long, others still had a sentiment for collapsed Russian empire or even the new Bolshevik regime. Many searched ways to escape conscription and acquired the citizenship of the short lived Peoples Republic of Belarus and Ukraine. Some just declared allegiance to  non-bolshevik Russia, that was still legally acceptable. However, there were people who joined the Latvian army voluntarily or did not resist conscription.  Some Jews gave charity to Latvian army in Ludza the most contributors for the funds to buy a new flag of Latvia were the local Jews.

On Autumn 1919 most Jews started to support the Republic of Latvia. The support rose sharply during the attack of the Army of Bermont.  Jews understood that the free democratic Latvia is the best form of rule for them. The chance for autonomy of education, political and economic freedoms were more tempting than the brutal Bermont rule and the Red terror.

According to latest research 1000- 1200  Jews took part in the war of freedom. With them 12 officers, 19 medics and war employes. Jews also took part in the Latgalian Partisan Regiment. There were also Jews serving the Landeswerh and German land guard.  The most oldest Jewish soldier was 59 year old Haims Šteins and the most youngest was 10 year old Kopel Gorelik. He could be the youngest Latvian soldier ever. He took part in the 2th Cesis Battalion, later 2th Ventspils battalion where he fought the Bolsheviks for four months. He died in Riga in 1935. Jēkabs (Jakovs) Rics was 13 year old when he joined the 4th auto service. Many young Jewish boys either joined or were conscripted. Some had wrong birth date in the passports Mozus Dobrins was considered as 16 year old, while really he was 3 years younger. He was wounded near Jelgava on 20 November 1920 and later discharged as underage.

Many 18-19 year old’s took part. Hiršs Hermanis from Dobele took joined by his own will already on March 1 1919. He was lost in action against the Bermont army on October 9 1919, in the same day 18 year old Hiršs Hirholm also auxiliary soldier lost his life. Many Jews joined simply because they were unemployed and short of money.

On July 1919 when the Estonian army entered Vidzeme, a mobilization for Latvian armed units were issued. From 40 Jewish families, 20 youths showed at the draft point on the first day. Most of them were sent to 4th company, that was nicknamed the “The Mozes Squad”. In the battles of Cēsis 1 man was lost and six were wounded 2 Jews with them. Some Jews from Estonian towns were also called in the Latvian ranks. Jews supported Latvian army in the Latgalian front and joined the partisan units. Others helped in field hospitals. Many Jewish schoolboys defended the city of Liepāja during the Bermont attack, later they came to Latgalian front.

After the war Jewish veterans formed their own societies. Jewish Liberators of Latvia were active society releasing the journal “Liberator” where they gathered all the info about the Jewish soldiers. Also Jewish retired soldier’s society was present.  At the end of the war there were 84% of Latvians, 5,6% Germans, 3,9% Russians, 1,8% Poles, 1,3% Belorussians, and 1,7% Jews. It was a rather high number knowing the situation. Most Jews were only soldiers or private first class (dižkarievis), first class sergeants were Movša Hemohs Maļeckis, Sergejs Mahmoņiks, Jēkabs Zilberbrants, sergeants Boriss Kessels, Mirons Solomonovičš, Boriss Joffe, Leo Goldarbeiters, Šloms Taube, Rafails Sļedzevicš, Josifs Aļšvangs, corporal Oskars Goldblats, Nahmans Hiršovičs, Leiba Models, Nikolajs Zilberts, Nahmans Jakubovicš, Zamuels Klemptners, Jozefs Taics, Šloma Sandlers and others.

According to information gathered by the Jewish organizations 37 men lost their life’s for Latvia. Their names were imprinted on memorial stone made in 1935 in the Riga Old Jewish cemetery.  However, the latest research concludes that actually 23 Jews lost their life’s, 3 died from other causes, one was part of the Landeswerh unit before it was submitted to the Latvian command. One actually survived. 4 men were not Jews, who simply had surnames that resembled Jewish surnames. 4 others may not be Jews. That however does not wash away the courage and dignity of each of these men who gave their lives for Latvia.

Four Latvian Jews received the highest Latvian military award – The Order of Lāčplēsis. All of them were awarded with 4th Rank of the order.  Josifs Hops born on 1898 was from Parnu Estonia and was mobilized into Latvian forces. Before he served in the Russian armed forces. He was admitted to the 1st Valmiera infantry regiment. He fought the Bolsheviks and the army of Bermont. From September 1 1919 he was the squad commander. He was promoted to private first class. He was decorated  with 4th Rank of the Order of Lāčplēsis  for crossing the enemy lines from behind, cutting the telephone wires and assaulting the Mamoņu house. Under heavy crossfire they first reached the enemy post and captured the machine gun along with its crew. After that they turned the machine gun towards the enemy and retreated leaving behind many dead and wounded soldiers. After retiring from office in 1921 he and his brother who also served returned back to Parnu Estonia. In 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded Estonia he joined the Soviet destroyer battalion where he was lost in action.

His brother Zamuēls Hops born on 1890 also served in the Russian army was medic, he then was admitted to Latvian army where he gained the rank of sergeant. He was decorated for his outstanding service as a medic. He survived the Holocaust by evacuating to Russia. He then returned to Estonia where he died on 1962.

Robrts Simons Maļeckis born in 1899 September 17 in Riga was mobilized on October 3 1919. Together with his brother Herman he was admitted to the 1ts Liepāja Infantry regiment. He was decorated for outstanding courage against the Bolsheviks. His brother lived in Soviet Russia and was a high rank official. He joined his brother in USSR and became a communist party member. He and his brother was killed in Great purge of the 1937.

Maksis Gringūts was born in 1896 in Jēkabpils. Served in the Russian ranks, was decorated with the Cross of St George fourth rank. On 1919 he was mobilized in the Latvian army North Latvian brigade. He fought both Germans and Bolsheviks. He received the award for entering the enemy lines from behind and with a rifle fire he dispersed the whole enemy squad allowing for attack to continue and capture two enemy canons. He was later suffered a concussion  and was sent to Border guard. After retiring was caught in smuggling over the Estonian border and fined. He went to France on 1923, later on 1935 returned. He was soon arrested for using fake Czechoslovakian passport. He was jailed from 1936 to 1938 and was dishonored by the Jewish Liberators society. He died in Riga on 1941. Latvian first foreign minister Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics was a Jew from a fathers side, but considered him a Latvian.

Four Latvian Jews received The Order of Three Stars. They received the 5th rank. Hiršs Berkovičš  was from Estonia and voluntary joined the Latvian army. He was a brave soldier who was assigned to difficult tasks and left memoirs of his action in the field. Eliass Rihters fought the Bermont army in Ķemeri, Rīga and Jelgava and was outstanding first line soldier. Zālmans Levinsons and Dāvids Bērs also were awarded.

Nine others were nominated for the order but did not received. Filips Farbmans was a Lithuanian citizen, but joined the Students Company. He showed courage at the battles near Jelgava and Kalnciems. Later he joined the Lithuanian army, but went back to Latvia after the war. Beiness Bērmans a lieutenant of the 5th Cēsis regiment and sergeant Leopolds Šalīts who was the member of the Oskars Kalpaks special Latvian battalion were among the nominated.   The corporal of 4th  Valmiera infantry battalion Jāzeps Binders also my distant relative received the award for capturing the enemy machine gun and as a skilled mechanic he repaired it and used against the enemy. He fought both Bermont and Bolsheviks. Later he was a member of Aizsargi (Civil Guards) and received the Civil Guard cross. From the same 4th Valmiera infantry regiment Zālamans Levitāns made an outstanding act of courage by capturing two Red army soldiers and their machine gun with out using a single weapon. Mozus Lihmans was captured by the Soviets, but escaped captivity. Together with other Latvian soldier he for nine days in cold and hunger reached back his army lines. Leiba Blumbergs was part of the original Kalpaks battalion. Mozus Špungins was one of the first who joined the Latvian army by his own will. Izāks Jāzeps Usikers was nominated to be awarded posthumously.

There was some deserters among the Jews, however their numbers were low. Some Jews fought in Latvia in the enemy ranks mostly in the Bolshevik army together with Latvian Red Riflemen. The Latvian Army was not always tolerant to Jews, there was event of looting the Jewish shops and assaults. Polish army who was present at Daugavpils also made many robberies were Jews suffered. However, in this hard years were Latvia faced many enemies and little support the outstanding courage of these men is to be remembered for ever.

Memorial to fallen Jewish soldiers who fought for free Latvia

Memorial to fallen Jewish soldiers who fought for free Latvia

Selected Sources:

Jēkabsons, Ēriks (2013)  Aizmirstie karavīri – ebreji Latvijas armijā 1918.-1940. gadā.Rīga : Biedrība “Šamir”

 Atbrīvotājs : almanachs : Žīdu tautības Latvijas atbrīvotāju biedrības izdevums.  (1931-1933.) Rīga : Žīdu tautības Latvijas atbrīvotāju biedrība.

Dribins, Leo. (2002)  Ebreji Latvijā. Rīga : Elpa

Comments Off on Jews of Latvia fighting for Latvian Independence 1918-1920

Filed under Historical Articles

Latvian Orders and Medals

The three most famous Latvian Orders. The Order of Viesturs (left) The Order of Lāčplēsis (center) and the Order of Three Stars (right)

Awarding people for high merits of the state has been a noble tradition for many centuries. Even the most revolutionary countries like United States of America and the Soviet Union have and had the most complex system of state awards.

Latvia is no stranger for Orders and Medals and since its foundation it has introduced many notable state awards. The first award was the Order of Lāčplēsis (Bear Slayer) named after the Latvian epic war hero. The order was founded on  November 11 1919 the day when the Latvian army fought the battle of Riga. Only after complete liberation of Latvia at 18 September 1920 the requirements for the order were made. The order was to be awarded only for war merits and only for those who served the duty to act of valor for the honor and glory of Latvia. The other recipients were members of the Latvian Army, the members of the former Latvian rifleman corps and foreigners who took part in the War of Freedom.  The Order statutes included 62 points and the questions of awarding were decided by the Council of the Order of Lāčplēsis.

The Order of Lāčplēsis

The president of Latvia awards soldier with Order of Lāčplēsis

The order is a stylized swastika with white enamel coating and red and aureate enclosing. In avers in the center of the cross on the medallion is the depiction of Lāčplēsis. At the corner of the cross two crossed swords. On the reverse its written in medallion ” 11 November For Latvia”. The order has three classes. The order was designed by J. A. Libert. The first class also had its own star.

The first class was awarded to high rank officers like General J. Balodis, K, Berķis. O. Kalpaks the first commander of the Latvian army and F. Briedis the famous leader of the Latvian rifleman was awarded posthumously. The first class was also awarded to foreign leaders. The king of Belgium Albert I in 1923 the Estonian general J. Laidoner who fought on Latvian soil, Polish marshal J. Pilsudsky, two French generals, one British general and the king of Italy Emanuele III. Also the dictator of Italy Benitto Mussolini was later awarded. The second class was awarded to 18 Latvians and 43 foreigners, with 3th class 1600 members of the Latvian army. And 271 foreigners (the Estonians, Poles, French, Finns, Czechs, Lithuanians and the fortress of Verdun.). Three women were awarded with the third class.

The Order of The Three Stars

The Order of Lāčplēsis was a strictly a military order. It took some years before the highest civilian award was introduced. The Order of the Three Stars was founded in 1924. The order has five classes and three decorations of honor. The council of the Order was led by the president of Latvia and parliament members along with two high awarded members. The Order was given to all Latvian soldiers who voluntarily joined Latvian forces and took part in battles (excluding those who received the Order of Lāčplēsis).

The first class was given to 285 people, second to 391, third 1323, fourth 2194 and fifth 4417. The last order was given in  May 11 1940. The honor decorations were given in three classes. First class 2834, Second class 3624, Third class 1515.

The Order of Viesturs

In 1938 a new military decoration was founded the Order of Viesturs named after the ancient Latvian war leader. The order has five classes and three class decorations of honor. It’s a rare award because it was only awarded few times from 1938 to 1940. The first class was given to six Latvian army generals. Including J. Balodis, K, Berķis and J. Kurelis. The second class was given to 28 people, third in 126, fourth in 390 and fifth to 701 persons.

The Cross of Recognition

In the same year the Cross of Recognition was founded as the award for highest Latvian elite members. The Order was first was founded by the Duke of Courland and Semigallia Friedrich Wilhelm (1692-1711) in 1710. The eighteen year old king took over the throne and issued the new order. However, the Order existed only for a year as the young king died on his return from the wedding in Petersburg. The restored order was meant for people with great love for the fatherland and for the merits in state, social and cultural work. First who received the first class was historian the director of the Latvian State institute professor A. Tentelis. The next ones were the foreign minister V. Munters, professor V. Purvītis, J, Vītols. The last awarded to the third class the chief of Civil Guard K. Prauls. The second class was given to 21 persons including opera singer E. Laube, poet Aspazija, and many other high merit cultural workers. The fourth and fifth class was given to many notable members of various professions.

The Latvian Liberation War Commemorative badge

The Latvian War of Liberation 10Th anniversary medal

There were also many medals. The Latvian Liberation War Commemorative badge was given to all who served duty during the war of liberation. In 1928 during the celebration of 10th anniversary the Commemorative medal was given to persons who took part in the battles.

 The Civil guard (Aizsargi) was a paramilitary organization that took the role of imposing order and security in towns and countryside after the war. The organization became a popular army like formation that everyone could join in. The Aizsargi became even more prominent after the coup of Karlis Ulmanis where they played an active role. They had their own Cross of merit and medal. The National youth organization “The Hawks of Latvia” had their medals, also the Red Cross of Latvia four classes of awards. The firemen had their decoration, rare decoration was the medal for life saving.

The Aizsargi (civil guard) cross of merit

The Soviet occupation removed all these awards. During the years of occupation Latvians were awarded with Soviet awards. After the restoration of independence the main decorations the Order of Three Stars, The Order of Viesturs and the Cross of Recognition was restored. For now the most popular award is the Order of the Three Stars. The notable members of the Barricade movements have their own award. Many new medals have been made for police, military and firefighters. The awards are given by the president of Latvia. The Latvian Orders and Medals are beautiful and are made in the best Western European traditions.

Selected Sources:

Ducmane, Kristīne, (1993) Apbalvojumi Latvijas Republikā 1918-1940. Rīga : Latvijas Vēstures muzejs : Latvijas enciklopēdija.

Gerts,Oskars (Ed.) (1997) Triju zvaigžņu gaismā. Rīga : Latvijas Vēstnesis.

Grīnberga, L. (1999) Ceļvedis ordeņu vēsturē. Rīga : Zvaigzne ABC.

Comments Off on Latvian Orders and Medals

Filed under Historical Articles