Six myths about Latvia's way to statehood

Myths abound over Latvia's independence proclamation--but thankfully, respected historian Jānis Šiliņš, whose history pieces regularly appear on LSM, debunks the most persistent ones on the website dedicated to Latvia's centenary.  

#1. Latvia gained independence by pure coincidence

The myth: The founding of an independent Republic of Latvia was the result of historical coincidences and blind luck. If Russia and Germany hadn't lost World War I; if revolutions wouldn't have happened in both countries; if civil war hadn't erupted in Russia, Latvia would not have become an independent state. 

The idea that there must be an independent state called Latvia did not come about on November 18, 1918 [Latvia's birthday] but much earlier.

While it is true that by 1917 the idea of independence was not popular in Latvia (and neither it was among Latvians themselves), this started changing rapidly in summer 1917. Following Riga's capture by the German Army, and following the Bolshevik revolution and the dissolution of the Russian Constituent Assembly,  already January 1918 saw most Latvian parties and organizations support Latvia's independence. 

Indeed, people at that time, and even now some historians say Latvia actually proclaimed its independence before November 18, 1918 - the December 2, 1917 decisions by the Latvian Provisional National Council are thought by some to be the declaration of Latvian independence.

The United Kingdom also proclaimed the council to be Latvia's de facto government a full week before November 18, 1918. 

Independence would have been proclaimed when the first opportunity arose. 

#2. Latvia's independence was proclaimed by a handful of unpopular politicians

The myth: The November 18, 1918 declaration was proclaimed by 38 little-known Latvian politicians representing eight small parties. Besides, the largest party at the time, the Bolsheviks, were not present during the proclamation and did not accept Latvia's independence. 

While most of the parties were indeed small and enjoyed little public support, two of them, the Latvian Farmers' Union and the Latvian Social Democratic Workers' Party were veritable political giants.

The farmers' union had participated in most elections held in the territory of Latvia in 1917 and received 20 to 25% of votes.

Meanwhile the social democrats, who had split off from the Bolshevik-controlled Social-Democracy of the Latvian Territory, enjoyed tremendous support among the working populace and had two to three times more members than the Bolsheviks at the time Latvia's independence was proclaimed. 

Indeed, the party went on to win the most seats in each of four parliamentary elections of the inter-war period.

Plus there were many prominent figures among the people who proclaimed Latvia's independence, including Pauls Kalniņš, Farmers' Union head Kārlis Ulmanis, former State Duma member Jānis Zālītis, former Riga mayor Gustavs Zemgals, and others. 

#3. The independence declaration went unnoticed

The myth: Latvia's independence proclamation went unnoticed and most people did not even suspect a historic event had taken place.

The November 18 proclamation was a large-scale event, especially so when taking into account the fact that the Germans still held Riga at that time. 

Participants at the proclamation say that the building, currently the Latvian National Theater, was full to the brim on November 18, with up to 1,000 participants witnessing Latvia's ascent to statehood. 

The event was publicized by all largest Latvia's newspapers, including the German-language press, describing the event in detail. 

The press also published an address to the citizens of Latvia, declaring that the People's Council of Latvia (which later acted as the temporary parliament) now held power and that Latvia is a sovereign, independent and democratic republic. There's not a shadow of a doubt that most of the people living in Latvia learned about the fact within a few days after independence was proclaimed. 

#4. The People's Council of Latvia and the Provisional government were German puppets

The myth: The Provisional government was a German puppet government. Kārlis Ulmanis was of German descent, and the newly-founded republic was ultimately a German project. 

At the time of the independence proclamation, Germany had not yet recovered from the November revolution, and it did not have a clear policy regarding the Baltics. The local German population, the Baltic Germans, tried establishing a Baltic state consisting of Latvia and Estonia. The Council of Regents, which was to rule over this supposed Baltic state (Baltenland), was operational until November 28, 1918. 

However opposition from both Estonians and Latvians, as well as the Allies, did not allow Germans to set up such a state.

It is true that some Germans in Latvia, as well as the new German government, supported the newly-founded Latvian state. German soldiers stationed in Latvia were interested in an independent Latvia as they wanted to go home. A week after the Republic of Latvia was created, Germany admitted its existence de facto. 

While the Provisional Government, led by Kārlis Ulmanis, was all about establishing ties with the Allies and tried taking over the institutions of the occupying Germans as quickly as possible. They also declined giving land to German soldiers who fought the Bolsheviks, despite the Germans' insistence to the contrary.

#5. The People's Council of Latvia and the Provisional government were British puppets

The myth: The United Kingdom wanted to create a 'cordon' between Germany and Russia, so they set up the Republic of Latvia. 

While the United Kingdom was indeed interested in limiting the spread of Communism, the priority up until summer 1919 with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, was not deterring Soviet Russia but rather pressuring Germany into ending the war. 

That's why until summer 1919 the Provisional Government received very limited assistance from the British, limited to some arms supplies, and protecting Kārlis Ulmanis' cabinet, which had been toppled by the Germans on April 16, using their fleet.

The British were reluctant to establish ties with the Latvian government, and refused using their fleet to protect Riga against the Red Army. Together with France, it only used its fleet in October and November 1919, against the pro-German Pavel Bermondt-Avalov's forces.  

While British Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour declared Latvia's independence on November 11, 1918, it was not the People's Council of Latvia which was admitted as the rightful government, but rather the Latvian Provisional National Council.

#6. Civil war broke out after the proclamation of independence

The myth: The civil war that erupted after the proclamation proves that Kārlis Ulmanis' provisional cabinet did not represent the interests of the majority. That means that neither the communists, nor the local Germans - enjoying wide support - accepted the founding of a Latvian republic.

Civil war did not take place in Latvia from 1918 to 1920. In late 1918 there were no indications of civil war, and there were only some 800 local communists in Latvia.

In comparison, the Social Democratic Workers' Party had 2,500 members. The situation changed only after the Red Army entered, bringing with it thousands of communists (most of them Latvian). Latvian communists themselves admitted that they couldn't bring about a revolution in Latvia without military force.

Both Germany and Soviet Russia were interested in portraying the events taking place in Latvia as civil war. That's why both Germans and the communists tried to set up nominally independent states and political structures, which however proved very unpopular despite the funding and military backing they received.

Furthermore, both Germany and Russia had to hide their activities in Latvia and both did not formally declare war against Latvia, even though in 1920 they submitted and signed peace treaties with the new Latvian state. 

(Note: this piece by Dr. hist. Jānis Šiliņš was written with support by the Latvian Ministry of Culture in cooperation with the University of Latvia Center for Research of Social Memory.)

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