A Different War in Latvia

This is the first article in a series of culture- and history-related pieces appearing in the Centenary magazine and on the Satori.lv culture portal. This time, political scientist Roberts Rasums examines the complex role German forces played in the Latvian War of Independence a hundred years ago.  

The proclamation of Latvia’s independence on November 18, 1918 was a very significant but nevertheless formal act, which soon had to be backed with armed force; in December 1918 the Soviet Latvian forces, backed by Soviet Russia, crossed the border into Latvia.

The Latvian War of Independence was not just a small nation’s attempt to win independence. It was also part of larger conflicts – the Russian Civil War, domestic bickering in Germany, and the global fight against Bolshevism.

From the very early days, the battles for independence in Latvia were not fought exclusively by Latvians: the first battle started on December 31 at Inčukalns, where the freshly established Baltic Landwehr held off the Bolshevik’s approach to Riga for twenty-four hours. Among the 35 people who fell there were Latvians, Baltic Germans, Germans, and Russians. Later on, Estonians, Lithuanians, Brits and Poles spilt blood for Latvia, and their tribute is gratefully commemorated each year. The matter of Germans is not a simple one: on the one hand, they were our allies in this fight, but on the other hand, they were our sworn enemies against which more blood was shed than any other.

The situation in Germany in late 1918 and in 1919 was full of destruction. Only a year ago, in late 1917, Germany seemed unshakable in its fight against the Entente, but it took just a year for Rhineland to be occupied by the Entente’s forces; the Poles had split East Prussia off from the rest of Germany, and the country was plagued by unemployment, hunger and political anarchy. Even though a shameful but stable peace was achieved, Germany’s domestic affairs became more and more unstable. The sailors’ mutiny continued in Bremen, Cologne and elsewhere, with the threat of civil war sweeping throughout the country, further exacerbated by the growing influence of the Bolsheviks on Germany’s eastern borders.

Those parts of the army that were not disbanded could not be trusted and refused to suppress the communists’ demonstrations. In situations such as this, the high-level command of the German army had a great role; as Captain Walter von Medem, the commander of the Badisches Freiwilligen Abteilung wrote in his memoirs, they “did not believe in such a thing as being freed from an oath”. The so-called Iron Brigade movement gained force in Germany, uniting the forces that were still fit for battle, and later on forming the basis of the Freikorps movement. These units suppressed the January 1919 communist uprising in Berlin, and parts of these units responded to the German government call to defend the borders of Germany. There were many Freikorps in Latvia, and these are usually referred to by the names of their commanders: Lütz’s machine-gun battalion; Stöwer’s artillery squadron; Damm’s machine-gun unit; the Freikorps of von Plehwe, von Brandis, Petersdorff, Jena, and others. These Freikorps stood by the Baltic Landwehr, the first Latvian militia unit that united Latvians, Russians, and Baltic Germans.

Recruitement centres for volunteers were set up in many German cities, where so-called Baltic fighters (Baltikumer, Baltikumkämpefer) were invited to serve in the army. These fighters had different motivations for voluntarily going to war despite the recent end of World War I: from the desire for adventure and material gains, to the idea to fight for Germany until the very last bullet in the so-called Baltic redoute.

There were also those who hoped, after fighting, to obtain land and make a life outside Germany, especially as recruitment agents in Germany promoted the belief that such an agreement existed between the Latvian Provisional Government and the German official August Winnig, signed on December 29, 1918.

Many considered their path to the East to be part of a self-styled “Holy Crusade” against Bolshevism. Herbert Volk, a commander of one of the Freikorps, described the April 16 events – there was a coup against the Kārlis Ulmanis-led government at that time – in his own terms: “Some Baltic compatriots want my Freikorps to partake in the coup against the Latvian’s Ulmanis government. But then who will defend Liepāja? The greatest part of the Landwehr is stationed far away, near Ventspils. But the German border continues to worry me. Liepāja must not fall. If the Bolsheviks arrive here, they will be at Königsberg soon, where the headquarters fear the Reds.” The so-called Baltic redoute became a romanticised battlefield where the German army was not yet defeated and its men were fighting for Germany.

The commander of the German forces, Major General Rüdiger von der Goltz, could be considered to be the most colourful of the cast of characters. Von der Goltz started his anti-Bolshevik campaign in Finland, leading the Germans’ VI Reserve Corps that helped Finns in their drive towards freedom. Von der Goltz cut an impressive figure; he was ambitious, an absolutely ardent German patriot and a dedicated monarchist. It should be noted that Goltz never swore fealty either to the Latvian state or the Provisional Government.

His adventurism is admirable, and it was based on the belief that it was possible, here in the Baltics, to start a process that would give Germany back its positions it lost after signing the Treaty of Versailles.

He described his goals thusly: “In case of success, I hoped to achieve nothing more and nothing less than saving Germany from ruin, which could be brought about by Soviet Russia, civil war, an economic and financial collapse, and by the hands of the Entente’s extortionists.” Nevertheless, the Baltics, in von der Goltz’s plans, would have only served as a military base. Even though he was sympathetic to the Baltic German movement, von der Goltz’s plan was to defeat the Bolsheviks, reinstate monarchy in Russia, and to create an army of Russian soldiers and German instructors that would be able to march to Berlin, reinstate monarchy and thus renew Germany’s might. Even though strong Latvian and Estonian states would have been but an obstacle in these plans, it would be an unjust oversimplification to say that Germans only played the role of occupiers or aggressors in the Latvian Independence War.

It seems odd to say it, but it would have been harder for Latvia to become independent if not for von der Goltz.

He arrived in Latvia on February 1, at a time when the Bolsheviks had taken Panevėžys and were moving towards Palanga and thus threatening to split off the anti-Bolshevik forces from their only remaining supply line, i.e. Germany. As von der Goltz arrived in Liepāja, all that separated the German border and the idea of an independent Latvia from the Bolsheviks was a 50 km enclave defended by just 3,850 men, of whom just a few hundred were Latvian. It is thanks to von der Goltz that in March 1919 a successful offensive was started against the Bolsheviks, with Latvians, Baltic Germans, Germans and Russians battling side by side to drive the Bolsheviks out of Latvia. Until the Battle of Cēsis, the weight of the Freedom Battles in Latvia was shouldered by the allied Estonians and Germans: the Iron Brigade, the Landwehr, the Freikorps and other units. A strong Latvian Army was established only in the latter half of 1919.

On 22 May 1919, before the operation to free Riga, both the German Iron Brigade and Freikorps, as well as prince Lieven’s White counter-revolutionary units, along with the Baltic Landwehr and a Latvian brigade lead by Jānis Balodis, and at the same time Estonian and Latvian troops of the Northern Latvia brigade fought in Vidzeme. The Landwehr’s shock troop battalion, led by Hans Manteuffel and the Edelweiß Freikorps lead by von Medem bore the brunt of the task of freeing Riga. They took Torņakalns by storm, and in a bold move took the bridges over the Daugava River, which they held unscathed until the main forces arrived, beating back incessant counter-attacks.

Just twelve German and Baltic German men could be allotted to the task of breaking through the Old Town, taking the Riga Castle and freeing the hostages the Bolsheviks had taken in the so-called “march of death” from Jelgava who were in grave danger.

Manteuffel fell during the task, but the remaining men were able to accomplish their objective. Even if this fight was based on the principle “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, many of those who were rescued later became citizens of independent Latvia.

It is fraught with irony that these former brothers in arms in Latvia, meaning Latvians under Ulmanis, Balodis and Zemitāns; Russians under Prince Lieven; Germans under von der Goltz; and the Estonians allied with Ulmanis, who jointly marched through battle from Liepāja to Rīga and from Valka to Cēsis – each true to their own ideals, which could scarcely be called false or condemnible – were in the end unable to take common action. The case was similar with the Baltic Germans.

It would be pertinent, now, to quote von Medem’s dedication to his men when, following the Battle of Cēsis, they left the bridges of Rīga which they had taken a month before: “When we took these bridges and opened the prisons, we did not ask whether the ones we freed were Germans or Latvians. We only saw their shared plight. Now the unfavourable political conditions force us to leave Rīga. But you should not be ashamed to leave with banners high. Awareness of the duty that we have fulfilled is greater than these politics.” No matter what happened next, clearly it is quite possible that without the blood of German soldiers shed in the first half of 1919 in Latvia, another, harsher fate would have befallen both Germany and the fledgling Latvian state.

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