Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
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The Miracle of 1918:
The Baltic States' Victorious Battles
for Independence

In 1918 the Baltic State of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had been the the domination of assorted (and sorted) empires for close to seven centuries. First it was the Germanic empires but finally from the 18th century it was the Russian Empire. That these three states could have achieved independence in 1918-20 was virtually a miracle. It involved courage and sacrifice on the part of the Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians and an astuteness on the part of their leaders but usually that is not enough when a small state confronts the power of a superstate, as was the case when Finland valiantly tried to resist Stalinist Russia.

In 1918 there were special circumstances that allowed the miracle to materialize. At that time both the German and Russian Empires had been defeated in a long and costly war. The three Baltic States declared independence in 1918. Vladimir Lenin believed the proletariats of the Western European nations were on the verge of revolution. This is probably why he was willing to let Finland go so easily. He believed they would return to the fold as socialist states. In particular he believed the German proletariat was ripe for revolution. He decided to send them military support. This involved Red Army troops passing through the Baltic States. In November those Red Army troops began an invasion of Estonia and occupied three fourths of the country by the end of that year. The Allied Powers had sanctioned the German troops which were in the Baltic States to remain there for a period of time to protect them from invasion. The German troops and their leaders wanted no part of more fighting and they retreated. There were some German Freikorps troops which went to the Baltic States to fight the Russians but they could not be considered defenders of Baltic States' freedom. They had entirely different motives in mind.

There were however Finnish volunteers who were an aid to the defense. The British supplied weapons, other military goods and some naval support. Together these elements helped the Estonians halt the Russian advance. The Estonian force counterattacked the Russian forces in January of 1919 and by the end of February were able to drive them out of the country.

Latvia and Lithuania were not spared in the Russian invasion. In the first few days of 1919 their capitals of Riga and Vilnius were captured by the Red Army. From the capitals the Red Army spread out to occupy major portions of Latvia and Lithuania.

In their battles with the Russian Bolshevik forces Latvia and Lithuania were less fortunate than the Estonians. The German forces fighting the Russians in Latvia and Lithuania were not fighting for Latvian and Lithuanian independence. Instead the German forces were like latter day Teutonic knights trying to gain control of the Baltic states once again. Nevertheless the combination of the native forces and the German force brought the invasion by the Bolshevik to a halt in February of 1919.

In March Poland also entered the battle against the Russian forces in Lithuania. In April the Polish forces captured the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. This defeat for Russian forces was however was not a victory for Lithuanian forces. The Poles kept Vilnius and the surrounding region until the 1940 when Joseph Stalin came to control Lithuania and eastern Poland. He transferred the Vilnius region from his Polish territories to his Lithuanian territory.

In April of 1919 the Baltic German forces, erstwhile allies of Latvia, overthrew the Latvian government in Riga and installed a pro-German government in its place. After that, the Baltic German forces made a more determined effort to defeat the Red Army in Latvia and they were able to do so in May 1919. The German forces then turned their attention to defeating the native Latvian and Estonians. They were unsuccessful in this venture and were defeated in June in Cesis. The Latvian forces then drove the German forces out of Riga and restored the deposed Latvian government to power. The Baltic German forces did not just disappear; they regrouped in Courland. From Courland these Baltic German combined with sme anti-Bolshevik forces in an attempt to recapture Riga. In this they were unsuccessful, they were able to capture northwest Lithuania. However, by August of 1919 the Lithuanians were able to drive the Bolshevik army out of Lithuania. But the Bolshevik forces invaded Estonia in November and December in an attempt to wipe out an anti-Bolshevik Russian force ensconced there. The Estonian forces however were able to stop this invasion.

In January of 1920 the Latvians were able to drive the Red Army out of the southeastern region of Latvia (Latgale). Lenin then accepted the independence of the Baltic States and treaties formalizing this acceptance were then signed:

In November of 1923 Latvia and Estonia entered into a mutual defense treaty. Lithuania was not brought into the arrangement until September of 1934 when fears of German agression prompted a Baltic Entente composed of all three Baltic States.

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