February 16, 2018

The Loss of the Baltics’ Independence: Options and Choices in 1939–40

Subduing the Baltic States was the result of a long process, not just the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact

Subduing the Baltic States was the result of a long process, not just the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact

In the history of the Baltic peoples the years 1939–1940 represent the most painful period in the 20th century. These years signified the end of an era—the first spell of independent nationhood.
The question of whether the Baltic states could have avoided entering into the mutual assistance pact with the Soviet Union in the autumn of 1939 and losing their independence in June 1940 is relevant in the historical memory of the Baltic nations even today. It is a complicated question and people often begin to speculate about it. Let us, however, explore the Baltic states’ foreign-, defence- and internal-policy options and choices in a situation where the Soviet Union and Germany had specified their spheres of interest in August and September 1939.
The first alternative was military resistance. In 1939, Estonia’s peacetime army numbered 22,500 personnel, Latvia’s 17,500 and Lithuania’s 12,500. Given their total population, the three Baltic states could have mobilised some 570,000 men—about double what Finland had at the beginning of the Winter War (295,000). True, it has been claimed that, given the weaponry available at the time, Estonia could only have armed 104,000 men, Latvia 111,000 and Lithuania 125,000. It has also been debated whether the Baltic states had enough arms. We underline here that their material resources were limited. In the event of war, they would have needed the support of a great power. According to the American historian of Latvian origin Edgar Anderson, before the Second World War the Baltic states jointly had 4,660 officers, about 900 cannon (including 248 anti-aircraft guns), 102 tanks, 30 armoured vehicles, nine armoured trains and two railway batteries, and more than 400 aircraft as well as field engineering units and signals battalions. The Baltic states also had four modern submarines, one torpedo boat, eight mine-laying boats and minesweepers, eight small battleships, eight icebreakers, five hydrographic service ships, six support ships, one tugboat and one yacht. The Home Guards encompassed nearly 200,000 men and women. At the beginning of the Winter War, Finland had one cruiser, five submarines, four gunboats, six torpedo boats, 14 patrol vessels, one minelayer and 12 minesweepers, six icebreakers, 114 aircraft and 418 cannon. The population of Finland was only half the total population of the three Baltic states combined, and the Finnish border with the Soviet Union was twice as long as that of the Baltic states. But the Finnish eastern border was much easier to defend because of its natural features.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the leaders of the Baltic states repeatedly and publicly declared their readiness to resist aggressors with all available means. But they defined their enemies differently. Lithuania’s territorial problems—Vilnius and Klaipėda/Memel—basically determined its foreign-policy orientation, and thus also greatly influenced the foreign and defence policies of other Baltic states. Until 1934 Lithuania had been politically oriented towards the Soviet Union, and to a lesser degree towards Germany, both enemies of Poland. After the Mykolas Sleževičius government had concluded a Non-Aggression Pact with the Soviet Union in September 1926, Lithuanian military leaders increasingly began to insist on a military alliance with the Soviet Union. The increasingly strained situation in Klaipėda, the German-Polish Non-Aggression Pact, brought about a number of changes in Lithuanian foreign policy in 1934. From then to the autumn of 1938, Lithuanian foreign policy oriented towards the Soviet Union, France and the UK and supported the collective security policies of the League of Nations. Also in 1934, Lithuania began limited cooperation in the field of foreign policy with Estonia and Latvia. At the same time, the Lithuanian military strove to establish a Baltic military alliance directed against Germany and Poland under the aegis of the Soviet Union.
From the birth of independent statehood till the middle of the 1930s, Estonia and Latvia viewed the Soviet Union as the only hostile power in the region. In fact, both countries were oriented towards Poland and the UK in their foreign-policy operations. On 1 November 1923, the Estonian-Latvian Military Alliance was formed. This foresaw mutual military assistance if one of the parties were attacked without provocation. It did not matter who the attacker was. By the end of the 1920s, the Estonian military leadership had already determined that the alliance between Estonia and Latvia should be annulled. This decision derived from the following considerations: Estonia, in cooperation with the Finnish military forces, would be able to close the Gulf of Finland and defend the Estonian coastal region from Paldiski to Narva; Estonia could defend the border zone between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Peipsi, and a stretch of land between Lake Pskov and the Latvian border, altogether 165 km; in the event that the enemy attacked Estonia through Latvia, the only perilous sector would be the Estonian-Latvian border, because the 296-km-long border between Latvia and the Soviet Union, being devoid of natural obstacles, was open to the invading military forces. Poland played an important role in influencing Estonia not to nullify the alliance. The Polish military leadership believed that Estonia’s withdrawal from the alliance would force the Latvian military to seek cooperation with Lithuania, a circumstance that was unacceptable to Poland, which consequently requested Estonia to continue the military collaboration with Latvia.
In the middle of the 1930s, the rise to power of the Nazis in Germany, the normalisation of German-Polish relations and the subsequent growth of Germany’s military power also brought about a change in the foreign policy of both Estonia and Latvia. In the second half of the 1930s the Latvian military leadership, as well as most of the nation, considered Germany their principal enemy, and expressed readiness to fight on the side of the Soviet Union against Germany, whereas Latvia’s foreign-policy leadership viewed the Soviet Union as the nation’s archenemy. Until the conclusion of the Munich Pact in the autumn of 1938, Latvia’s foreign-policy leaders believed that only the UK and the League of Nations and collective security could guarantee their country’s independence. After the conclusion of the Munich Pact, however, the Latvian foreign-policy leadership began to discuss “unconditional neutrality”, which in essence meant orienting foreign policy towards Germany. Unlike Latvia, since 1935–6 Estonian military and foreign-policy leaders viewed the Soviet Union as the main threat to their sovereignty, while the population at large feared Germany before all else.
In a situation in which Poland had ceased to exist and Germany and the Soviet Union had charted their respective spheres of interest, the Baltic states could have fought only a short-term war. Through Scandinavia, Finland had a way to obtain war materiel from friendly countries. It was able to resist the Soviet Union for three months. At the beginning of the Winter War, Germany supplied Finland with its weaponry, whereas later in the war Germany sold its weaponry and war materiel to Sweden, which then in turn sold its own weapons to Finland. Germany feared that the Soviet Union would not confine itself to conquering Finland but would attempt to subjugate the whole of Scandinavia. For Germany this would have meant the end of imports of high-quality iron ore, irreplaceable for the German war industry, from Sweden. Germany had been prepared for a short war, and depended on supplies of food and raw materials, including from the Soviet Union and the Baltics. The Baltic region was also important to Germany for the transit of goods from the Soviet Union, Japan and China. A war in the Baltic region would have seriously disrupted the German war economy. It is impossible to guess what the German reaction would have been to a war between the Soviet Union and the Baltic states. In 1940, in a situation where Soviet military bases existed in the Baltic states, and additional large Soviet military units were invading across their borders, a large-scale armed resistance would obviously have been a hopeless enterprise.
The second alternative: real neutrality. The exiled Estonian diplomat Aleksander Warma believed that a small country like Estonia had no guarantees other than actually (rather than apparently) observing neutrality when war broke out. As archive material shows, Soviet foreign-policymakers and military planners were worried about the public reaction around the world to Soviet activity or an attack in a situation where the Baltics were able to protect their neutrality, even for a short period. These fears were well-founded. At the outbreak of the First World War, Germany had presented an ultimatum to Belgium for the right of German military forces to pass through the country. At this point it behoves us to recall how Belgium reacted to the German ultimatum in August 1914. The note delivered in answer to the ultimatum declared that only one reply was possible—a decisive and scornful “no!”. When Germany invaded Belgium—a neutral state—public opinion in many countries turned against it.
In the prevailing crisis in European foreign policy, by 1939 Latvia and Lithuania had followed Estonia’s example of hiding behind the rhetoric of neutrality, while adopting a foreign-policy orientation which least answered their respective national interests. Motivated by the fear of losing private as well as state wealth to the anti-capitalist Soviet Union, the three governments put all their hopes on Nazi Germany as the most powerful opponent to bolshevism.

Baltic States’ Foreign-policy Cooperation and the League of Nations

The third alternative was a Baltic united front against Soviet demands, and a plea for political and moral support from the League of Nations and democratic states, while appealing to international law. It is worth mentioning that many diplomats accredited to the Baltic states in the autumn of 1939 felt this way. Jerzy Kłopotowski, the Polish envoy in Riga, who analysed Latvian foreign policy in November 1939, wrote: “I would like to emphasise a point that I consider proved fatal to the Baltic States … Only a strong union of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, supported by a well-trained and technically equipped army, could have put a stop to or at least softened Soviet demands.” With the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation signed in Geneva in 1934, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had agreed to work together on foreign-policy issues of common concern, and to provide each other political and diplomatic support in international relations. The treaty envisioned both regular and special conferences of the countries’ foreign ministers. At the Baltic League foreign ministers’ conferences held between September 1934 and February 1939, discussions were held on foreign-policy issues affecting the three states. In truth, these events were ineffective, and unanimity in foreign policy was rarely achieved. In March 1938 Estonia and Latvia did nothing as members of the Baltic Entente to defend Lithuania in response to the Polish ultimatum, and failed to condemn the annexation of Klaipėda a year later. The Baltic Entente showed no signs of life even after the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact or in the summer of 1940. After entering into the mutual assistance pact, the governments of all three Baltic states kept declaring to the world that the 1939 mutual assistance pacts with the Soviet Union had been concluded voluntarily between equal partners. And in June 1940 all three Baltic governments announced that the ultimatum by the Soviet Union in no way meant the liquidation of these states. Furthermore, at the time of the ultimatum all political leaders and high-ranking military officers of the Baltic states assured their people that the Soviet Union and the Red Army were the Baltic states’ best friends and helpmates.
Some circles in the UK, France and the US (the large Lithuanian community) were hostile to the Soviet Union. A good example is these countries’ attitudes towards the demands addressed to Finland and the Winter War. For instance, French newspapers were full of spontaneous articles on Finland and photographs of President Kyösti Kallio and Marshal Mannerheim after Soviet demands had been announced. The war against Finland created real hostility towards the Soviet Union in many countries, even if this was expressed primarily on the moral level. It was demanded that diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union be broken off. The US declared an embargo on exports of military and strategic material needed by the Soviet Union.
In the inter-war period, the three Baltic states belonged to the League of Nations, and in the autumn of 1939, Latvia was a member of the League’s Council. In 1936, Latvian foreign minister Vilhelms Munters had declared that the League of Nations was the only force in the world that small states could trust. His Lithuanian counterpart, Stasys Lozoraitis, often made statements defending the policy of collective security. Politicians of the Baltic states never even thought of raising the question of defending independence at the League in September and October 1939 after the Soviet Union had announced its demands. True, the League had not discussed the Austrian Anschluss, destroying the state of Czechoslovakia, the Italian aggression in Albania or the German invasion of Poland either. In the last case, there was no need since the United Kingdom and France declared war on Germany.
Oskar Öpik, the Estonian deputy foreign minister, mentioned in his memoirs only that appealing to the League of Nations seemed fruitless, and moral support alone would have been meaningless. Professor Ants Piip, who had participated in the mutual assistance pact negotiations in Moscow, remembered the League of Nations in October 1939, after he became Estonian foreign minister. Piip told the Finance Committee of the Estonian Parliament (Riigikogu) that former foreign minister Karl Selter should be accredited as envoy to the League of Nations in Geneva, that the League of Nations was not yet dead but continued to develop, and that even the British prime minister spoke approvingly of the League of Nations.
Still, although it knew that the League of Nations had no power, having lost its former influence and being unable to provide any military support, in December 1939 the Finnish government turned to the League for help and support. True, the organisation only mildly reprimanded the Soviet Union for its actions, as a result of which it left the organisation. In addition, the League appealed to the moral sensibility of other states so they would support Finland. It did not stop the aggression of the Soviet Union, and thus could be construed as a purely symbolic act. Regardless, the feeling of contempt against Soviet aggression, brought on by the decision of the League of Nations to expel it, reverberated all over the world.

Government in Exile

The occupation of a state does not mean its independence is lost. Governments in exile and refugee committees recognised by several countries and viewed as real governments were active during the Second World War. A number of diplomats and politicians from Baltic states assumed as early as the autumn of 1939 that, sooner or later after the surrender of bases to the Soviet Union, the liquidation of their countries’ independence would follow. Those who understood this tried to convince their governments to take steps towards the formation of governments in exile. However, these were not created. It was believed in Baltic capitals that the only way to get rid of Soviet bases was with Germany’s assistance. Hence, it can be understood why they contributed to increasing defence expenditure and acquiring arms. On the other hand, any activities undertaken to create governments in exile would immediately have become known in both Berlin and Moscow.
After the conclusion of mutual assistance pacts between the Baltic states and the Soviet Union in the autumn of 1939, all three states oriented towards Germany as well as towards the Soviet Union. The orientation towards Germany was justified by the conviction that a militarily powerful Germany, after winning the war in Western Europe, would easily crush the Soviet Union. They were ready to make concessions to the Soviet Union at the expense of independence until the war between Germany and the USSR began, but planned to cooperate with the latter even after the war started. Preparing for the creation of a government in exile—or creating one in a country hostile to Germany or a neutral state—would have been a clear sign of the Baltic states’ distrust of Germany and the Soviet Union, and was in conflict with the foreign-policy objectives of Berlin and Moscow.


On the one hand, the loss of independence of the Baltic states was caused by a crisis in European grand politics, generated by the Munich Pact; by the collapse of the League of Nations’ collective-security policy; by the agreements between the Soviet Union and Germany; by German treachery; by the clever Soviet propaganda and future-oriented subversion; and, on the other hand, by the absence of a realistic and independent Baltic foreign policy in the period 1939–1940; and the prevailing circumstances in domestic politics of the Baltic states at the time, when important changes in European grand politics made the liquidation of the Baltic states’ sovereignty possible. In fact, the catastrophe of 1939–40 was the logical outcome of the serious crisis in the authoritarian domestic politics of all Baltic states. The silent disappearance of the independence of the Baltic states, and their total elimination from the political playground of European countries, was therefore the result of a long-lasting process, essentially not because of a totally hopeless situation—an enforced move flowing from the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. Czechoslovakia’s fate can be used as an elucidating example in discussion of democratic versus authoritarian political systems: Czechoslovakia was a democratic state, but nevertheless lost its independence because of deals concluded between the Great Powers. Czechoslovakia actually collapsed because of the internal conflicts between different national sub-groups residing in the country: Czechs, Slovaks, Sudeten-Germans and Hungarians.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.