Baltic States Gain Independence Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Through their fights for independence and the organization of their own governments, the three Baltic nations consolidated national political identities that later withstood half a century of Soviet rule.

Summary of Event

The emergence of the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia at the end of World War I World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period had an impact on the history of Eastern Europe throughout the twentieth century. An expression of the idea of the right of national self-determination, the creation of the states was made possible by the collapse of the two major Eastern European empires, czarist Russia and the German Reich. Lithuania, independence Latvia, independence Estonia, independence Baltic states, independence [kw]Baltic States Gain Independence (Feb. 24, 1918-Aug. 11, 1920) [kw]Independence, Baltic States Gain (Feb. 24, 1918-Aug. 11, 1920) Lithuania, independence Latvia, independence Estonia, independence Baltic states, independence [g]Estonia;Feb. 24, 1918-Aug. 11, 1920: Baltic States Gain Independence[04480] [g]Latvia;Feb. 24, 1918-Aug. 11, 1920: Baltic States Gain Independence[04480] [g]Lithuania;Feb. 24, 1918-Aug. 11, 1920: Baltic States Gain Independence[04480] [c]Government and politics;Feb. 24, 1918-Aug. 11, 1920: Baltic States Gain Independence[04480] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Feb. 24, 1918-Aug. 11, 1920: Baltic States Gain Independence[04480] [c]Independence movements;Feb. 24, 1918-Aug. 11, 1920: Baltic States Gain Independence[04480] Päts, Konstantin Smetona, Antanas Ulmanis, Kārlis Laidoner, Johan Lenin, Vladimir Ilich [p]Lenin, Vladimir Ilich;Baltic states Piłsudski, Józef Stalin, Joseph

Before World War I, the territory that became the three states was a part of the Russian Empire. The German offensive of 1915 basically occupied Lithuania and western Latvia. Eastern Latvia and Estonia therefore took part in the political revolutions sweeping Russia in 1917, from the collapse of the czarist order in March to the Bolshevik seizure of power, under the leadership of Vladimir Ilich Lenin, in November. While new democratic ideas came to Estonia and Latvia in 1917, German authorities considered ways of incorporating Lithuania and western Latvia into the German Empire. In February and March of 1918, German troops moved into eastern Latvia and Estonia. Thoughts of national independence for all three nations began to develop behind both the Russian and the German lines, but these became feasible only in the fall of 1918, after the collapse of the German war effort and the victory of the Allies in Western Europe. Even then, however, the new governments had to struggle to find their place in Eastern Europe.

The Estonians were the most advanced in organizing their own institutions. At the time of the collapse of the Russian czarist government in March of 1917, the Russians still occupied Estonia. In May of 1917, the Estonians elected their first local parliament, the Maapäev, and they also began to organize an Estonian military force. After the Bolshevik Revolution, Soviet authorities drove the Maapäev into the underground, but on February 24, 1918, when German forces occupied the region, the Maapäev’s Committee of Elders declared Estonia’s independence and formed a provisional government headed by Konstantin Päts. The Germans suppressed Estonian institutions and arrested Päts. Only after the collapse of the German war effort in November could the Estonian government begin to build public institutions, and then it faced the challenge of the coming of the Red Army.

The Lithuanians, who had lived under German occupation since 1915, were able to organize a national council, the Taryba, only in September of 1917, and even then the Taryba, headed by Antanas Smetona, worked under the supervision of the German military. In connection with the talks with Russia at Brest-Litovsk, the German authorities encouraged the Taryba to proclaim Lithuania’s independence, but when the Lithuanians, on February 16, 1918, issued a declaration that made no mention of maintaining close future ties with Germany, the Germans refused to recognize it. The Lithuanians also were able to build public institutions only in the fall of 1918, after establishing a provisional government. In April of 1919, Smetona became president of Lithuania.

The Latvians were the last of the three to organize, establishing a council on November 18, 1918; the council immediately proclaimed the existence of a provisional government for the Republic of Latvia, headed by Kārlis Ulmanis.

From the fall of 1918 to the fall of 1920, the Baltic area became a major battleground for the contending forces in the Russian Revolution. The Western Allies, fearing the expansion of the Bolsheviks’ revolution into central Europe, insisted that the Germans keep their forces in place in the territory of the former Russian Empire. The troops, however, withdrew on their own initiative, and at a distance the Red Army Red Army;Baltic states followed their tracks into the Baltic.

The Communist leaders of Soviet Russia, after having seized power in November of 1917, proclaimed the right of all peoples to “national self-determination even to the point of separation and formation of an independent state.” They did not, however, automatically recognize the right of the three Baltic peoples to separate from the empire; as Joseph Stalin, commissar for nationalities, explained, the leaders insisted that they themselves would decide who could exercise the right of national self-determination. Although the Soviet government declared that it had no claim on the Baltic, the Bolsheviks organized their sympathizers from the region as local Communist Parties ready to follow the dictates of the leaders in Moscow. The parties then became the spearheads for the advance of the Soviet Red Army into the Baltic. The Soviet military also included troops from the Baltic, the most notable of these being the Latvian Rifles, known as the strelnieki, which were units organized in 1915 and 1916 as part of the Russian army.

To prepare the way for moving into the Baltic, Lenin and Stalin ordered the proclamation of Soviet Socialist Republics for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The Soviet troops succeeded in driving the provisional Latvian and Lithuanian governments out of their capitals, but the Soviet governments failed to win the support of the local peoples in any of the three territories. The men whom Moscow installed actually disapproved of establishing independent republics in the region, and on Moscow’s orders they opposed extensive land reform, preferring to keep large estates intact for more efficient exploitation. The local populations supported their own national governments.

Outside aid helped the Baltic governments to withstand the Soviet attack. British ships provided equipment to Estonians and Latvians. Finnish volunteers arrived in Estonia to fight the Bolsheviks, and in both Latvia and Lithuania, German volunteers fought the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks had to withdraw and Moscow suppressed its puppet governments in the Baltic. The German volunteers, however, together with some Russian adventurers, posed new threats, and in Latvia pro-German forces briefly organized a countergovernment in the spring of 1919. In the summer, the Western Allies demanded that the German forces finally withdraw from the Baltic, and after battles with both Latvian and Lithuanian forces, the last German soldiers left the region in December, 1919.

The Lithuanians had a problem of a different sort in their relations with the new government of Poland, headed by Józef Piłsudski. Piłsudski wanted to extend the Polish frontier with the new Russia eastward as far as possible, and he dreamed of restoring the historic alliance of Poles and Lithuanians in a single state. The Lithuanians rejected his ideas, and in October of 1920, Polish forces seized the city of Vilnius (Wilno in Polish), which the Lithuanians claimed as their capital. The resulting tension between Poland and Lithuania constituted a major block to cooperation between the states of Eastern Europe between the world wars.

The Baltic governments won recognition of their independence in a series of peace treaties with Soviet Russia in 1920. In September of 1919, recognizing their failure in the Baltic, the Soviet leaders had agreed to enter into negotiations with the new governments, and in February of 1920, Estonia signed a peace treaty with Moscow. On July 12, 1920, the Lithuanians signed their peace treaty with the Russians, and the Latvians followed suit on August 11. The three republics became members of the League of Nations in 1921.


In the interwar period, all three Baltic governments consolidated the foundations of their independent existence. All three carried out extensive land reforms; in the case of the Estonians and Latvians, these reforms struck at the historic position of German landowners, and in the case of the Lithuanians, they struck at Polish landowners. The cultural lives of all three developed and grew, with the result that after the Soviet Union occupied and annexed the three republics in 1940, a half century of Soviet domination was unable to wipe away the memories and accomplishments of the period of independence.

The Baltic peoples eventually played a major role in the collapse of the Soviet Union between 1990 and 1991. Each state in turn reasserted its independence from the Soviet Union, starting with a legislative declaration of independence by the Lithuanian parliament in March, 1990. The parliaments of Latvia and Estonia asserted that the annexation and occupation of these countries by the Soviet Union in 1940 constituted illegal acts, and thus there was no need for them to redeclare independence. These legislative declarations in 1990 were followed in 1991 by popular referenda in each of the three countries that overwhelmingly approved independence. Russian reaction to these elections was hostile, and Soviet military intervention seemed imminent until the Kremlin coup of August 19, 1991, which precipitated declarations of independence in all three Baltic republics on August 20. Within weeks, the Kremlin formally recognized these claims to independence, and the Baltic states reveled in the hope of regained autonomy. Lithuania, independence Latvia, independence Estonia, independence Baltic states, independence

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bilmanis, Alfred. A History of Latvia. 1951. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1970. Informative general resource on Latvia before 1940, with emphasis on the modern period. Written from a strongly nationalist viewpoint. Includes index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graham, Malbone. The New Governments of Eastern Europe. New York: Pitman, 1927. Offers a useful introduction to the events of 1917-1922. Appendixes contain important documents, including the constitution of each state.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hiden, John. The Baltic States and Weimar Ostpolitik. 1987. Reprint. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Scholarly and informative work on German-Baltic relations in the 1920’s. Includes map, tables, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jackson, J. Hampden. Estonia. 1941. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979. Somewhat dated and biased, but still a useful general history with a contemporary view of the independence period. Includes brief bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Page, Stanley W. The Formation of the Baltic States. New York: Howard Fertig, 1970. Excellent survey of the independence struggles and their aftermath. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Plakans, Andrejs. The Latvians: A Short History. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1995. Very informative, balanced account of Latvian history. About half of the volume is devoted to the twentieth century. Includes maps, tables, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rauch, Georg von. The Baltic States: The Years of Independence, 1917-1940. London: C. Hurst, 1974. Useful, brief survey of the independence period, with emphasis on politics. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Raun, Toivo U. Estonia and the Estonians. Updated 2d ed. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 2001. Excellent, comprehensive history by an American historian of Estonian heritage. Focuses primarily on the twentieth century. Includes extensive bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Senn, Alfred Erich. The Emergence of Modern Lithuania. New York: Columbia University Press, 1959. Excellent history of the independence period and Lithuanian politics. Includes extensive bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tarulis, Albert N. American-Baltic Relations, 1918-1922: The Struggle over Recognition. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 1965. Examines the national and international issues involved in the American and Western recognition of the Baltics, with an emphasis on Lithuania. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vardys, V. Stanley, and Romuald J. Misiunas, eds. The Baltic States in Peace and War, 1917-1945. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978. Collection of thirteen essays dealing with diverse aspects of the independence period. Intended for readers with a general knowledge of the topic. Includes endnotes, chapter bibliographies, and index.

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Categories: History