May 15, 2015

The Baltic Question During World War II

In this Nov. 28, 1943 file photo, Soviet Union Premier Josef Stalin, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, center, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill sit together during the Tehran Conference in Tehran, Iran. The three leaders, meeting for the first time, discussed Allied plans for the war against Germany and for postwar cooperation in the United Nations.
In this Nov. 28, 1943 file photo, Soviet Union Premier Josef Stalin, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, center, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill sit together during the Tehran Conference in Tehran, Iran. The three leaders, meeting for the first time, discussed Allied plans for the war against Germany and for postwar cooperation in the United Nations.

The nations’ right to self-determination and Wilsonian idealism came under heavy scrutiny in wartime.

Visiting conferences can at times leave the impression that there are fewer and fewer historians interested in reconstructing, interpreting and giving meaning to historic events; so-called “memory studies” that look at how historic events are remembered, presented and used later on are becoming more popular. The accurate reproduction of the past is not paramount for memory studies; what is important is to mark the effects of different discourses and memory cultures on a society after the events have taken place. As historian Marek Tamm has said, “mnemohistory allows us to move on from often unsolved questions, such as ‘what really happened’ to questions about the ways [that] reconstructing the past enables later societies to constitute and sustain themselves”.1 Although Tamm does not delve into what really happened, he contradicts himself by claiming that it is possible to determine how remembering affects a later society. Many memory researchers have actually given up academic historiography, which demands arduous dedication to reconstructing events. It is being replaced by stories about the importance of historical memory in the culture, politics and international relations of societies that are always concluded with the statement—yes, remembering is important.
Marek Tamm also notes that, as a medium, historical research is basically no different from religion, literature, film, ritual or architecture when it comes to producing cultural memory. Because relativism is a silent prerequisite of mnemohistory, strict scientific criteria cannot be applied to its results, which perhaps explains the popularity of the field. “A great appeal of the history of memory appears to be its vagueness,,” said Alon Confino.2
Writing my doctoral thesis and then a monograph about the Baltic question in allied relations during World War II, I sometimes felt as if I was swimming against the current. Why research World War II if it has already been thoroughly dissected? At times, it did seem that it was more important to understand how remembering World War II influenced Estonian society, Estonian–Russian relations, East–West contradictions, etc. instead of studying past events. After the dramatic riots of April 2007, magazines and shop windows were full of articles and books about the “monumental war”, and conference programmes were full of memory panels and memory-related presentations. At the same time, “real history” seemed to be the field of interest of only a few fanatics.
I decided to keep my cool and proceed from the idea that “what really happened” was still an adequate research programme. I dare claim, referring back to my monograph, that offering new perspectives to well-known material and the joy of discovering new facts are still part of the work of a historian. Naturally, unearthing facts from archives (or from interviews, pubic sources and so on, depending on the topic) is not a goal in itself, but it helps to understand better the causes of certain radical developments. Analytical narrative that looks at events chronologically, taking into account the fundamental uncertainty of the future, still has a place in historical research. Narrative history demonstrates how new institutions and systems that may last for decades or hundreds of years are born out of the turmoil of uncertainty, powerful personalities, events, ideas and structural conditions. Thus, narrative history interprets and characterises the logical progression of certain events and their results.3 My goal was to present a more accurate and truthful explanation of why the Baltic States were surrendered to the Soviet Union without a protest from the Western countries at the end of World War II.
Because the summary of history is generally a condensed narrative, I approach my book differently. I proceed from interests, values and ideas, using the aforementioned terms heuristically rather than as a strict research method. Using these concepts as theories would be inaccurate. Raymond Aron, a French theorist on international relations, said that national interest is a pseudo-theory that is usually used ex post facto to explain or justify some political decision. Usually, historical figures cannot define or verbalise national interests, and are, rather, swayed by the impulse of an institution, vague ideas and beliefs.
Almost a hundred years ago, Max Weber offered a conceptual framework for analysing the effect of ideas. Weber was convinced that ideas do not make people take immediate action, but interests do, and these are the driving force of actions. However, Weber did not separate ideas from interests. Using a railway analogy, Weber said that world-views built from ideas—Weltbilder—were pointsmen, who channelled actions in certain directions, in which they were pushed by the dynamics of interests. Later interpreters have expanded Weber’s approach, stating that ideas are not just pointsmen—because that would require already-existing paths—but, rather, tracklayers who make it possible to act in view of a certain direction. For example, the idea of state-controlled economy existed before nationalisation, the idea of racial purity before the Holocaust, the idea of sovereignty before the Peace of Westphalia, etc.
In addition to material interests, Weber thought that there are ideal interests that originate from a person’s inner, religious needs in order to construe their existence as an individual as well as a member of a collective body. Weber was convinced that ideal interests were just as truthful and decisive as “external”, material interests (e.g. class status). If we talk about the role of collective identity in foreign policy nowadays, proceeding, for example, from the theory of social constructivism (Alexander Wendt), we see that the theoretical prerequisites for a similar discussion were already there a hundred years ago.
Coming back to the Soviet, British and American politicians, diplomats and other agents developing foreign policy in the 1940s, it would be wrong to think that these historical figures discussed the aforementioned topics. We can generalise and state that Soviet politicians spoke in historical, strategic and world-revolutionary terms. Thus, Vyacheslav Molotov, the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, announced to Karl Selter, the Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs, on 24 September 1939: “Twenty years ago you forced us to sit in this Finnish puddle [the Gulf of Finland]. Do you think this will last forever?” On 28 September, he told the Latvian foreign minister, Wilhelms Munters: “Peter the Great was already concerned about an exit to the sea … we cannot permit small states to be used against the USSR. Neutral Baltic States—that is too dangerous.” This clearly demonstrates military-strategic considerations. Breaking out from the “lock” of the Gulf of Finland that left the Soviet Baltic fleet with no chance to influence events in the main maritime area of the Baltic Sea, for example, the possibility of preventing hostile troops being brought to Finland or Estonia became the reason Moscow started to pressurise Estonia as the first of the three Baltic States in September 1939. Establishing a wider scope of action for its navy answered Stalin’s desire to create a Soviet naval power, and was accompanied by an extensive programme to build an ocean-going fleet.4
In terms of strategic interests, neither Churchill nor Roosevelt had a hard time finding a common language with Stalin. Churchill had served as First Lord of the Admiralty in both World Wars; Roosevelt was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for almost eight years between 1913 and 1920. As early as the summer of 1939, while still in opposition, Churchill had insisted that Britain recognise Moscow’s strategic plans in the Baltic States. When he became First Lord of the Admiralty again in the autumn, he said that Soviet strategic bases in the Baltic States served the strategic interests of Great Britain as well, because the increasing influence of the Soviet Union on the Baltic Sea would harm Germany. The same stand was taken by the British government.
At the same time, it is clear that the interests of the Soviet Union were entwined with ideology, maybe even ideal interests in Weber’s terms. According to Vincas Krėvė-Mickevičius, the left-wing Lithuanian vice-premier, Molotov had told him frankly in July 1940 that Germany was exhausting itself in war, and that the “hungering masses” in Europe would rise up against their oppressors. If the Red Army rushed to the aid of the revolution, no bourgeois regime could remain behind their back.
When Stalin explained to his allies why it was necessary to acknowledge the Baltic States as a part of the Soviet Union, he mainly used two arguments. First, the historical one: for example, he told Roosevelt during the Tehran conference on 1 December 1943 that the Baltic provinces had belonged to Russia during the Russian Empire, and nobody protested against it then. His second argument was legal: a referendum had been held in the Baltic States in 1940 and the people chose to be a part of the Soviet Union. So, according to the Soviet constitution, the Baltic States were a part of Soviet Russia—as surely as California or Texas were a part of the United States. It is clear from those examples that Stalin was cunning in using historical and legal arguments, i.e. the language understandable to his Western partner; at the same time, historical truth and the constitution were worthless in the context of Soviet internal and foreign affairs.
Talking about values and the identities based on them was unfamiliar to the diplomats of the time. They did express their sympathies and antipathy, but only in extreme circumstances because diplomats had to remain “objective” in their use of language—they forwarded information to their ministry of foreign affairs without too much emotion so that the capital could reach the most “rational” decisions. This is why we can read about diplomats’ own attitudes in semi-official or entirely private correspondence that the most diligent among them kept in addition to official reports and memoranda. I found the most colourful descriptions in Roosevelt’s library in Hyde Park, where the letters of American consul John Wiley to his colleagues in the US Department of State are maintained. In November 1939, Wiley expressed his admiration for the skilfulness of Soviet diplomacy, despite having previously been utterly convinced that “the Kremlin was populated only by apes[,] and the Narkomindel by their lowly parasites”. In official reports, he remained reserved, even in June 1940, when he described the Soviet occupation and annexation.
The most emotional descriptions come from the pen of the British consul, Thomas Preston. In the summer of 1940, he wrote about the occupation of Lithuania that “a prosperous and orderly little country” had been turned within a few weeks “into a scene similar to that to which we are accustomed all over Russia: queues waiting outside the bread shops, empty shops, dirty streets and ragged people”. In October 1942, back in England, he prepared a memorandum for his superiors in the Foreign Office, in which he warned against the dangers of what might happen if the Red Army was encouraged to cross the borders of the Soviet Union. Preston’s warnings were not taken into consideration, of course, because the Allies’ strategy saw the Red Army as a “steamroller” to wipe out the Wehrmacht on its way to Berlin. Wilfred Gallienne, the British consul in Tallinn, also expressed his opinion, adding rather apologetically at the end of his report on the occupation: “If I write with some bitterness it is because I regard Estonians as a fine race, and feel that the method of their virtual extinction might have been less ignoble”.
Although diplomats did not express it explicitly, one can still see that they could identify with the way of life and lifestyle of the Baltic nations, which is why the Bolshevik system seemed extremely loathsome to them. Even so, the positive approach was not universal; there were also other opinions. An example is the ironic message of Douglas MacKillop, the British consul in Riga, stating that Latvian nationalism, “a romantic aspiration, a battle cry and a crusade, had in its final manifestations become something of a racket”. Because of internal divisions and economic weaknesses, he did not feel regret for the disappearance of Latvia from the world map.
The British diplomatic service was quite homogeneous at that time; applicants were expected to have been educated at Oxford or Cambridge, which also meant a secure financial situation. MacKillop’s views were called totalitarian by his superiors in London—since the consul though that a large nation swallowing a small “racket” state was progress—and his reports were swept under the carpet in the Foreign Office. Censoring somebody who was outside the ministry’s system, however, was a lot more difficult. In June 1940, just at the time of the annexation of the Baltic States, Stafford Cripps, who had been expelled from the Labour Party in 1939 for his pro-Soviet attitude, became the British ambassador in Moscow. In September 1940, Cripps organised a dinner for Gallienne and Preston, the two consuls who were forced to leave the Baltic States. After that dinner party, Cripps recorded in his diary: “The universal hymn of hate whenever a few Englishmen meet together against the Russians makes me rather depressed and cross. Most of them have had associations with White Russians and the whole tradition and bias of the Foreign Office and the Diplomatic service is violently and unreasoningly anti-Russian.” In his diary entries, Cripps recognised the flaws in “Russian methods”: a perpetual change of personnel and “liquidation” of many of the more intelligent people. Despite that, and even after seeing the long queues outside every shop, Cripps still thought that the Soviet person was “healthy and well fed”, much more so than their equivalents in a “Lancashire industrial town”. Although according to Cripps the clothing situation was “very bad”, he still found that “few if any” suffered from cold.5
Thus, Cripps did not share the values of the diplomats. He was probably trying to be fair towards Russians, as he held the view that the British should not judge Russians if they had not resolved problems in their own society. He did notice the downsides of Soviet life, but he did not think that criticising “Russian methods” was a good custom, presuming that the Russians knew better what was right in their conditions. If an intellectual must be “liquidated”, then that is probably necessary. He considered the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany to be a new, effective type of country which would reign in the future. Hence, he did not identify himself with British society, which he considered bourgeois and decadent, but to some extent at least with the so-called “new civilisation”, the shining examples of which were emerging in Germany and a bit further east.
Because Cripps was a political appointee, he had more influence than an average career diplomat. Advising London to acknowledge the Soviet annexation of the Baltic countries quickly, he immediately opposed the mainstream policies of the Foreign Office, but he was not ignored. Moreover, he had direct ties with the political elite, and this started to have an effect, especially after early 1941 when Anthony Eden became Foreign Secretary.
What was the role of ideas in the treatment of the Baltic question? Judith Goldstein and Robert E. Keohane differentiate between three types of ideas in their book Ideas and Foreign Policy.6 Firstly, ideas as world-views—borrowed from Weber—that include views on cosmology, ontology and ethics. On this level, ideas are connected to peoples’ identity, and thus concern deep emotions and feelings of loyalty. Secondly, ideas as principled beliefs that consist of criteria that help differentiate between good and evil. This, for example, includes the opinion that killing intellectuals or occupying small countries for the sake of progress is not right. Thirdly, ideas as causal beliefs—beliefs that give people instructions on how to achieve their goals. This includes the opinion that the actions of the Soviet navy beyond the Gulf of Finland would strengthen the military position of the Soviet Union.
Returning to the British and American attitude towards the Baltic question, it can be said that a large part of the discussion took place on the level of causal beliefs. People with no significant differences in their world-view discussed what should be the best tactics for handling Stalin. Should one make concessions to him to gain friendship and secure allied cooperation to defeat Hitler’s Germany, or should one be firm to earn his respect and cooperation in matters important to the West (e.g. the Polish and Baltic questions)? At the same time, there was a conflict caused by world-views and principles between diplomats on the one side and Stafford Cripps (whose views had supporters in England and the United States) on the other.
It seems to me that there was a similar divide in terms of world-views between the US president and the Department of State. Franklin D. Roosevelt thought, exactly like Cripps, that the Soviet Union was, despite the brutalities of the Bolshevik regime, a progressive occurrence in the development of civilisation. He was one of the advocates of the convergence theory who thought that a golden mean could be found between the Soviet planned economy and the Western market economy (his critics, however, thought that Roosevelt’s New Deal was totalitarian).
While analysing the effect those ideas had on the Baltic question, I found that they were evident mostly in the attitude towards the right to self-determination and small nations. Whether it was a world-view, principled or causal idea is secondary: for one person, it might be a question of world-view or principles—small nations are brilliant!—while, for another, a causal and completely pragmatic question—for example, small nations are securing a more stable world order. During World War II, the right to self-determination and Wilsonian idealism came under heavy scrutiny. E. H. Carr and The Times were in particular responsible for this in Great Britain; in the US, the subject was championed by Walter Lippmann, one of the most influential political commentators. Carr’s Marxist starting point was that an effective economy needed large markets and potential and that this was why small nations could not be successful economically. Lippmann proceeded from geopolitics: small nations were militarily too weak and, besides, the Baltic States were created as a buffer zone that Russia did not need to, and could not, like.
It is usually quite complicated to identify the direct effects of ideas on critical decisions—it is easier to see the indirect effects. I studied the official recommendations of British and American think tanks on how to establish a post-war world order. The main brains trust in Britain, led by the historian Arnold Toynbee, proceeded from the conviction that the system established after the Treaty of Versailles had not justified itself. The national right to self-determination was considered to be a Western concept that could not be transferred to an Eastern European context. Like the British peace planners, the US also reached the decision that compromises needed to be made with regard to the Baltic nations’ right to self-determination. For example, John V. A. MacMurray, who was assigned as minister to the Baltic States in 1933–36, consulted the US Department of State on the Baltic question. He claimed that the Baltic countries were not viable because they had lost their economic position with the loss of Russian markets. Based on MacMurray’s information that the Baltic countries wanted to return to being a part of Russia, the planning commission adopted the opinion that the Baltic countries should be returned to the Soviet Union.
What I discovered when writing my doctoral thesis and, after that, the monograph, was that the role of the Baltic question in World War II was to a large extent unexplored. A careful reconstruction of events revealed previously hidden reasons, explaining why the Baltic countries remained a part of the Soviet Union after the end of the war. Of course, these new facts are not valuable on their own, but rather as part of the narrative that interpreted and characterised the course of events. The methods of historical research that some consider outdated are thus still employable. Moreover, in principle, they can be transferred to the modern day, and even used for analysing current events in Ukraine.
1 Marek Tamm, “Beyond History and Memory: New Perspectives in Memory Studies” in History Compass 11:6 (2013), pp. 458–73.
2 Alon Confino, “Collective memory and cultural history: problems of method” in The American Historical Review 102:5 (1997), pp. 1386–1403.
3 Geoffrey Roberts, “History, theory and the narrative turn in IR”, in Review of International Studies 32:4. (2006), pp. 703–14.
4 Gunnar Åselius, The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Navy in the Baltic 1921–1941. London and New York: Frank Cass, 2005.
5 Gabriel Gorodetsky (ed.), Stafford Cripps in Moscow 1940–1942: Diaries and Papers. London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2007.
6 Judith Goldstein and Robert O. Keohane (eds.), Ideas and Foreign Policy: Beliefs, Institutions, and Political Change. Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 1993.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.