Churchill and the Baltic, Part I: 1918-1931
"Very Lively and Truculent"
BY RICHARD M. LANGWORTH
Finest Hour 53, Autumn 1986
MY GRANDFATHER sailed into Riga in the intoxicating spring of the Latvian Republic to look up distant relatives, trying to track the Latvian branch of his heritage. He told me of it 30 years later: an "eastern Paris," filled with parks and wide streets, fashionable shops and peasant markets, dignified buildings and handsome people; a bustling harbor that handled more timber than any other port in Europe. He remembered the confidence and hope, the exuberance and patriotism, the burgeoning realization that after 700 years Latvians were masters of their land. They could not know that their freedom would be measured by scarcely a generation.
In 1940, as France fell under the Nazi blitz and Britain's attention was focused on avoiding catastrophe, Stalin's Red Army marched into Latvia and the other Baltic States, Estonia and Lithuania. Following "elections" of a one-party slate, the three small border nations "applied for admission" to the Soviet Union, which was graciously granted.
Hitler marched into the Baltic in June 1941, and a strange twilight ensued, during which Balts had the temerity to hope for national reemergence. As the Soviets swept west in 1944-45, most of them fought with the Germans, maintaining a stubborn front against half a million Red soldiers hurled vainly against them, until the final ceasefire on 8 May 1945.
Since then the Soviets have conducted genocide against the native share of Latvia's population, reducing it from 83% in 1940 to 53.7% today1: first by a holocaust which in relative terms puts Hitler's in the pale; later by vast non-native immigration. And the process continues. The USSR has no intention of going back to 1920, when Lenin recognized the small republics, vowing to respect their independence "forever."2
"Here we stir the embers of the past
and light the beacons of the future.
Old Flags are raised anew;
the passions of vanished generations awake;
beneath the shell-torn soil of the twentieth century
the bones of long dead warriors and victims are exposed.
And the wail of lost causes sounds in the wind."
- W.S.C., THE AFTERMATH, 1929
Winston S. Churchill played a varied and crucial role in the bittersweet Baltic story. Ostensibly, after World War I, he was opposed to small national movements among the peoples of Europe. "What was needed," he wrote, "was unity and larger groupings."3 But a far more important objective, in his view, was to rid the world of Lenin, and he easily warmed to what he called "the foul baboonery of Bolshevism."4 On 31 December 1918, Churchill urged Allied intervention upon the Imperial War Cabinet: "Bolshevism in Russia represents a mere fraction of the population, and would be exposed and swept away by a general election held under Allied auspices."5
The Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, viewed Churchill's antipathies with a jaundiced eye. Winston, Lloyd George wrote, "had no doubt
a genuine distaste for Communism. He was horrified, as we all were, at the savage murder of the Czar, the Czarina and their helpless children. His ducal blood revolted against the wholesale elimination of Grand Dukes in Russia. [I believed] that under the impulse of this brilliant Minister, we were gradually being drawn into war with Russia.' '6
Yet Great Britain had been the first nation to take a practical interest in the independence struggle of the Baltic peoples, which began in the wake of the Russian collapse and revolution of 1917. British statesmen had realized that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had advanced sufficiently to form independent nations, controlling their own destinies.7 All three Baltic States had declared independence by the end of 1918.
At the same time, if the Bolsheviks were to be overthrown, Britain looked to a Russian republic with its prewar boundaries intact. Foreign secretary Lord Balfour thus took a middle course, extending defacto, but not dejure, recognition to Estonia on 3 May 1918, and to Latvia on Armistice Day, 11 November.8
Independence and recognition were not, however, won without bloodshed, nor without Allied military intervention. Churchill, writing later, gave a sympathetic view toward the struggles of the small countries. "Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania
found themselves in a peculiarly unhappy position. They were close neighbours on the East to Petrograd and Kronstadt, the nurseries of Bolshevism; on the West to the birthplace and stamping-ground of those Prussian landowners who had proved themselves to be the most rigid element in the German system and one of the most formidable. During the winter of 1918 and the early summer of 1919 the Baltic States were subjected alternately to the rigours of Prussian and Bolshevik domination .. . In these circumstances it is not surprising that the independence of Esthonia, Latvia and Lithuania existed for the time being only in the aspirations of their inhabitants and the sympathies of allied and associated Powers."9
In order to support the three republics, or at least keep them out of Lenin's bloody grasp, the Allies used German troops as a surrogate army. Under the terms of the Armistice, the Germans were to withdraw gradually, leaving the republics to set up their governments. Britain also lent sea power through operation "Red Trek," a naval squadron under Rear-Admiral Alexander Sinclair. In December 1918, Sinclair sallied into Estonian and Latvian ports, sending in troops and supplies, and promising to attack the Bolsheviks "as far as my guns can reach."8 Latvian prime minister Karlis Ulmanis, a patriot returned from exile (he had studied agriculture in the United States), sent the first of many appeals for support to London on 3 December.10
For much of 1919 this strange alliance of circumstance continued, the British with the Germans, aligned with native Balts against the Russians. As the latter retreated, the surrogate German armies turned on the Balts, hoping to establish regional supremacy for the German-Balt barons who had largely run these countries in Czarist days. This resulted in the only British-German military engagement after Armistice Day. On 20 October, for example, German fire killed and wounded 13 sailors aboard the British cruiser Dragon at Riga.11
Throughout 1919 Churchill, as Secretary of State for War, was torn between his own impulse to throttle Bolshevism and an almost unanimous view to the contrary by his fellow cabinet ministers. Lloyd George and the rest highly doubted that the White Russians, under Denikin and Koichak, could successfully oust Lenin; Churchill argued for heightened financial and material support. Seizing every anti-Bolshevik cause to support his view, he took the position of all-out aid to the larval Baltic states, speaking forcefully for their national freedom:
The Estonians, to some extent supplied with British arms, have made a very stout fight and have really shown the weakness of the Bolshevists for quite small forces have driven them back.12 When our pacifists or Bolshevist featherheads in this country raise their shrill voices in hysterical glee at every Bolshevist victory, let them remember that but for the armies of Koltchak and Denikin the whole weight of Bolshevist aggression would be thrust upon these small states.13 These small States have stood. They are intact today. They have maintained their existence precariously. Quivering and shaking, but still standing, they have held back not only the Bolshevik armies but the more devastating Bolshevik propaganda which, applied to people in the depths of misery, just recovering from the convulsions of the War, without any of the resources of a civilised State, offers every temptation to internal disorder and anarchy.14
Lord Curzon, one of Churchill's few supporters, argued in August 1919 that the Balts "were too small and too near Russia and Germany to maintain themselves, and it was desirable therefore that they should have some sort of protection." But G.N. Barnes, a Labour minister-without-portfolio, replied "with his usual shrewdness and common sense (Lloyd George15) that Britain "had fully discharged her obligations to these peoples, we were always backing the wrong horse. The real governing force in Russia was the Soviet Government"15
Curzon became foreign minister on 23 October 1919, a relief to Churchill, whose letters were strong and persuasive. "To what extent do you consider yourself responsible for the policy we are pursuing in the Baltic States?," he wrote Curzon on 10 September. "Secondly, can you give me any idea what that policy is?... Are you going to do anything to prevent the Estonians making peace with the Bolsheviks?"16 Twelve days later Churchill added, "I cannot see why we shd refuse to give any countenance to the claims of these states to a measure of independence, so long as we do not have to guarantee their defence."17
German General Count von der Goltz, commanding the surrogate division who fought with and then against the Baltic national forces, was forced by the British to disband his army and return to Germany this same month. But the struggle for independence continued against the Red Army. Except in Estonia, where they fought with their backs to the sea and relatively untroubled by the Germans, it was a bitter and costly war, one the infant Baltic republics were hard-pressed to weather. Appeals from their heads of state were frequent and heart-rending. When Karlis Ulmanis of Latvia addressed yet another of these to Lloyd George it was sent to Churchill for routine review. It occasioned perhaps the most heated debate ever between Winston and his longtime Liberal colleague.
"I would advise the following reply to the Prime Minister of Latvia," Churchill wrote the PM on 22 September.
I assure Your Excellency that the freedom, safety and wellbeing of Latvia is a matter of earnest concern to His Majesty's Government in conjunction with the other Great Powers. The influence of His Majesty's Government will be consistently used to secure each of these states full and free development under an autonomous constitution in accordance with the wishes of their people
With regard to the Bolshevik danger which Latvia has hitherto so manfully withstood, HMG advise, and so far as they have a right to do so, urge, that concerted action should be taken between the Baltic States to maintain their security against this danger.18
Lloyd George viewed such a statement as the height of folly: "You want their independence recognised in return for [their undertaking to] attack the Bolsheviks. That would not satisfy them in the least." What they wanted, the PM went on, was complete independence, plus British equipment and money.
Are you prepared to comply with these two requests? There is no other member of the Cabinet who would. Whether the Bolsheviks or the anti-Bolsheviks get the upper hand, they would not recognise the independence of these States as it would involve the permanent exclusion of Russia from the Baltic. Would you be prepared to make war with an Anti-Bolshevik regime? . . . do you wish this country to maintain armies in the field of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians to invade Russia? Unless you do it is idle to hurl vague reproaches at your colleagues.
You won't find another responsible person in the whole land who will take your view, why waste your energy and your usefulness in this vain fretting? I think I have given you tangible proof that I wish you well. It is for that reason that I write frankly to you.
One can understand how it was so easy for the Black Dog of depression to occupy Winston Churchill's mind. "I find the suggestions of yr letter vy unkind & I think also unjust," he replied with obvious sadness. He had but tried, he continued,
to impress upon you the realisation I have of the intense and horrible situation in Russia & of its profound influence upon all our affairs. I may get rid of my 'obsession' or you may get rid of me; but you will not get rid of Russia ... the whole anti-Bolshevik front in the Baltic States is treated as if it were a matter of indifference to Britain20
Doggedly, fighting with outmoded weapons, outnumbered by as much as ten to one, the determined Balts fought on. Slowly, after Britain sent the worrisome Germans home, they began to clear their native lands. Russia was too weak, still too divided internally, and too occupied with more urgent matters to press its actions. And did not Lenin himself say the rights of national minorities would be a benchmark for Bolshevik Russia? Apparently he meant it, at least on paper: by the Spring of 1920 peace treaties had been signed between Moscow and all three Baltic republics by which the USSR "voluntarily and for eternal times" renounced "all sovereign rights over the people and territory" of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.21
"To anyone who had seen the Latvian people at war, their gentle tolerance in peace was perplexing," wrote Baltic historian John Roche.22 "By the brutally intolerant standards so common in the world today, one would expect the Latvians to have deported all the Baltic Germans, levied discriminatory taxes on the Jews . . . Instead they pronounced amnesty for those who had fought against them [and allowed] minorities full citizenship and free education." There was strict sexual equality - by allowing women to vote during the momentary Russian elections in 1905, Latvia had become the first district in Europe with female suffrage.
Slowly, the small businesses recovered, and some grew into industries. Textiles, metals and machinery were produced; the famous Minox camera was invented in Riga. As ever, the Baits remained great readers and seekers of knowledge. In books published per capita, the Baltic States ranked among the top five countries in Europe; in college enrollments they were in the top four. National operas were held by many to be the best of their kind; the annual Song Festivals were colossal expressions of national sentiment. "They work and play happily," said Janis Cakste, first president of Latvia. "For them every day is Sunday - now."
But Sundays never last. And, as the 1930s dawned and with them a new, virile form of German militarism, the few far-seeing European statesmen looked with doubt on the future of the Baltic republics.
Churchill's immediate impulse after Baltic independence was established de jure was their common defense. His prescription was typical of his career as a whole: amalgamate, ally, stand together for the mutual safety; do not go it alone. One may wish the Balts had listened to, or even heard, that lonely voice from the wilderness, from a man with much to offer, yet no audience to hear.
Arguably his old friend Sir Henry Wilson put the idea to Churchill in September 1919, at the height of the controversy over British aid to the Baltic: "I would have liked to see some effort made, if such a thing were possible, to combine the Baltic States, including Finland and Poland, in an effort to keep the Bolsheviks out of their territories. "23 Two months later Churchill in a cabinet memo pointed to "the dubious value of any title deeds obtained at this stage from the Bolsheviks," and suggested
an autonomous federal State comprising Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, within the limits of a reconstituted Russia. The agreement, if reached, should be under the safeguard of the League of Nations. Although this solution is not all the Baltic States desire, where else are they going to get so good a title deed?24
Before World War II the facade of the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Riga contained an inscription in Latin: Concordia res parvae crescunt, discordia rnagnae concidant.25 An old but still true counsel by Sallust: united they stand, divided they fall. Churchill used it well and often during the great war to come.
But geography, politics, culture and development prevented Sallust's or Churchill's advice from being taken. Baltic security, if it existed at all, depended on stalemate and stand-off between the two giant neighbors, Germany and Russia. "But Baltic perceptions of their relations with these neighbors differed widely," wrote Professor Edgar Anderson:
A sympathetic British observer noted that Baltic attitudes had a certain "lives of the haunted" quality, making it difficult for the Baits to decide whether they feared most the provocative solicitude of the Soviet Union, the clumsy directness of a potentially aggressive Germany, or the devouring overtures of Poland.26
Though several conferences were held between Finland, Poland and the Baltic republics, no federation was ever seriously discussed, and worse, no military cooperation. Aside from cultural differences there were politics: Poland had taken the ancient Lithuanian capital of Vilnius and surrounding territory when it won independence following the Great War; the Lithuanians had never forgiven the Poles; the Estonians and Latvians avoided close alliance with Poland for fear of antagonizing Lithuania. Finland, across its gulf, was geographically isolated. Finland, too, had signed a treaty of peace and security with Russia.
Would Russia one day seek to reclaim the conquests of Peter the Great, regaining her ice-free Baltic coastline, which the Czars had dominated for 200 years? In the early 1930s, the small republics could only hope that the Soviet treaties would hold, or that Germany would insist on Baltic integrity for her own security interests.
Others were less optimistic, and among these - inevitably - was a Cassandra named Winston Churchill In 1931 he spoke of the upcoming Disarmament Conference in Geneva which - much as today - had been hailed as a sure step toward preventing war. While most of his decent, fair-minded, democratic contemporaries expressed their fervent belief in the process of negotiations, Churchill was not sure.
Hitler, of course, was still the nebulous leader of a small party, an unknown quantity. But there was a factor other than Germany in the equation, even then. "The foundations of world peace are strengthening among all the civilised countries of the world," Churchill said, "but there is one country that is outside these considerations, and that is Russia. Russia is incalculable, aloof and malignant.
All that line of small new States from the Baltic to the Black Sea are in lively apprehension of Russia. Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and Rumania - every one is in great fear and anxiety about its neighbour.
All are strongly anti-Communist. They have gone through great internal stress and tension, and they have built themselves up on a Radical, democratic antithesis to Communism.27
From their founding amidst blood and war in 1918, through their successful transition to nationhood in the 1920s, and on into the 1930s, Churchill had been one of the outstanding friends of the Baltic States. The day would come, however, when he would be forced to reexamine those views, during the gravest years in the history of his country
In the Thirties that time was still ahead. For the nonce, Churchill's own philosophy on the Baltic was much as he described those countries in The Second World War: "Very lively and truculent."28
For footnotes click here.