The role of the army in securing Latvia's independence

Take note – story published 5 years ago

In cooperation with the magazine, we present another of the pieces which appeared in the final installment of the Centenary magazine, paid for by the Culture Ministry. This piece by historian Roberts Rasums examines the role of the army in securing Latvia's independence. 

It’s possible to create a new country only by giving up an existing state structure, and that’s why a process like this always involves conflict. Even though international recognition is an important factor for the existence of a state, for a country being brought to being its de iure recognition is usually only a political confirmation of reality, i.e. it’s recognising a power that is truly capable of ruling.

In today’s story about Latvia’s foundation a less popular fact is that the first country to recognise the Republic of Latvia de iure was not the UK, or France, or the US. It was the Soviet Union.

On 11 August, 1920 the Treaty of Rīga was signed, and its second article said: “Russia recognizes without objection the independence and sovereignty of the Latvian State and forever renounces all sovereign rights held by Russia in relation to the Latvian nation and land on the basis of the previous State legal regime as well as any international agreements, all of which lose their force and effect for all future time as herein provided.”

Even though the proclamation of the Latvian state on 18 November, 1918 is the most important date in Latvian history, at the time it was but a symbolic act the likes of which could be witnessed throughout the region, from Finland to Georgia. In late 1918 the Latvian Provisional Government represented just one out of three possible scenarios for Latvian development, competing with Latvia’s ending up within the German sphere of influence or becoming part of Soviet Russia.

In December 1918, when the Red Army entered Rīga, all that Rīga could muster as anti-Bolshevik forces were the remains of the 8th Army of the German Empire and the Baltic German Baltic Landwehr, which per an agreement between the Latvian Provisional Government and the German party also included the first units set up by Latvians. 

At the turn of the year, these units fought shoulder to shoulder in the first battle for Latvian independence. It took place near Inčukalns, and in the battle which saw the defending side lose a total 43 German, Latvian and Russian soldiers fell, but the Bolsheviks’ impetus was slowed down for long enough to allow the German and Provisional Government institutions evacuate from Rīga.

After a month of stepping back, the retreat finally stopped by the Venta River. After leaving Rīga, most of the Latvian units became scattered and the remaining men were united under Colonel Oskars Kalpaks in the Independent Student Company and the Latvian Independent Battalion. The basis of these was made up by the student intelligentsia and hardened veterans of the former Tsarist army in World War One. The situation became stable, however. It was made possible not only by Estonian success in their independence battles and the arrival of German units, but also by a complete lack of support for the Latvian Soviet government, which first of all became expressed in massive desertions from the Red Army, with entire units sometimes leaving to join the Latvian Provisional Government.

At the same time, Latvian units under the Estonian Army were formed and united into the North Latvian Brigade under Jorģis Zemitāns. On 3 March the Latvian-German joint offensive started, while Estonian-Latvian forces marched on from the north. After Rīga fell on 22 May, the Red Army units made a chaotic retreat towards Latgale. This stage of the Independence War concluded with the Battle of Cēsis, in which the conflict of interest between the new Baltic countries and Germans concluded with defeat for the latter. Following the Battle of Cēsis, representatives of the Entente, who wanted the German units to remain as an important anti-Bolshevik force in the region, saw to it that the Strazdumuiža truce was signed. The agreement said that German units would have to leave Latvia, but the Germans had no intention of doing it and started assembling a new force, namely the West Russian Volunteer Army nominally under the command of Pavel Bermondt-Avalov.

The Allies were not ready to get involved directly to achieve the evacuation of the Germans, so Latvians had to take action themselves. On 10 July, 1919 the Latvian Army was born by merging the North Latvian Brigade and the Latvian Independent Brigade. Its first commander was general Dāvids Sīmansons. The army was poorly provisioned and was in a difficult situation – in the east, it had to fight the Red Army, while in the south an inevitable conflict was brewing with the German forces, which on 8 October launched an attack on Rīga under the command of Bermondt and von der Goltz.

From this point on, the Latvian Army had to fight on two fronts against an enemy that surpassed it both in technology and absolute numbers.

The only advantage for the Latvian Army was the considerable support by Latvian locals, which was expressed in financial and material donations to the army, as well as massive voluntary enlistment and partisan groups fighting behind enemy lines.

While aided by cannon fire of the English fleet early on, the Latvian Army pushed Bermondt’s forces out of Latvia fully on its own by December 1919. This time the Entente’s calls for a truce were not heard and the operation was quickly finished before the arrival of their representatives. The only thing that remained was the battle of Latgale, and Estonian and Polish help was enlisted for this.

The Latvian War of Independence is as substantial a part of the story of Latvian independence as the country’s political, economic and social history. Even if you avoid romanticised clichés about the fact that “no country has gained independence without spilling blood” and “better die standing than live on one’s knees”, the War of Independence makes you realise several political mechanisms that are important today as well.

First of all, defending independence does not consist solely of paying certain sums to the army. It can be ensured only by the entire public, furnishing both material and human resources: the army was born from volunteers who arrived in their own clothing and whose guns were provided for by selling donated valuables, growing gradually to reach 75,000 men in February 1920.

Secondly, only if there is a powerful and battle-willing core there can be hope for allied support. Were the Latvian Army unwilling to fight, British and French cannons would have never fired upon Bermontian positions by the mouth of River Daugava; Estonian forces would have never fight for Cēsis and Polish divisions wouldn’t have helped freeing Latgale. Thirdly, there is no dividing line between the army and the public. The army is part of the public and the people’s readiness to defend their country is a litmus test for its willingness to have a country of their own; the Latvian Army was an army of Latvian citizens, with Russian princes, Baltic German barons and Latvian farm owners fought side by side, and this continued into the interwar period.

The Latvian Army succeed in its task. Not only did it win the struggle for independence, but also bestowed a legendary aura on the freedom battles, one that can be readily observed in the memoirs of the time. During the interwar period, the Latvian Army was an element that united residents of different Latvian regions and ethnicities, while institution of officers created not just military specialists but the social elite. Nowadays this aura has vanished, perhaps due to the 1940 occupation in which the lack of Allied support as well as the politicians’ overreliance on international treaties about neutrality and the powers of the League of Nations did not allow Latvia to keep its independence. The Latvian Army therefore fought as part of the armies of the Soviet Union and Germany, winning recognition and a fearsome reputation, which was however overshadowed by the political heritage coming with it.

In 1991 Latvia eschewed military conflict in regaining its independence. However, it doesn’t mean that Latvian independence was won without the help of the Latvian Army. The first National Guard battalions were set up in the same way as the first Latvian Army units in 1918. These were volunteers that bought their scant equipment, including guns, for their own money and joined in units despite the fact that a foreign military force was on Latvian territory. Only gradually could the Latvian fighting structures become professionalised, and until then the Latvian Army served as the backbone of foreign and domestic security, starting from national defence and fighting gangsterism. As the millennium turned, the situation became normal and as a result of general international euphoria Latvia joined NATO and the EU.

This time coincided with the conclusion of the Cold War, when the world was swept by a belief that armies are a thing of the past, necessary not for national defence but fighting terrorists in the Near East. Sadly, just as it only took two decades for the Soviet Union to reconsider its promise made in Rīga, it took just a little more time for Russia to reconsider the security guarantees it gave Ukraine, making us think about territorial defence.

A total of 3,046 soldiers fell in the Latvian War of Independence, and they bought 20 years of freedom with their blood. It may not seem much, but these 20 years are the heritage that makes us different from the other countries in the post-Soviet space, seeing as they laid the groundwork and political practice that survived the occupation and lead Latvia into NATO and the EU.

It’s not free – following reinstatement of independence, fighting side by side with our allies, seven soldiers of the Latvian Army have fallen. The army has two obligations against the state: it has to win the struggle for security, and, secondly, it must preserve this security during times of peace. The timeless phrase, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, is where a country starts, and it must remain an extreme means to express the people’s willingness to have a country; but the task if only fulfilled if the army has to spill as little blood as possible in the future to keep their country safe. Sadly, there’s only one way of ensuring it, namely being ready to stand for ourselves. In the 21st country too, this readiness shows the will to a state among the public, and with the motto “Honour to Serve Latvia” it unites Latvian citizens of all ethnicities, sexes and professions.

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