A brief history of Latvia[1]

Latvia was originally settled by the ancient people known as Balts. In the 9th century the Balts came under the overlordship of the Varangians, or Vikings, but a more lasting dominance was established over them by their German-speaking neighbours to the west, who Christianized Latvia in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Knights of the Sword, who merged with the German Knights of the Teutonic Order in 1237, conquered all of Latvia by 1230, and German overlordship of the area continued for three centuries, with a German landowning class ruling over an enserfed Latvian peasantry. From the mid-16th to the early 18th century, Latvia was partitioned between Poland and Sweden, but by the end of the 18th century the whole of Latvia had been annexed by expansionist Russia. German landowners managed to retain their influence in Latvia, but indigenous Latvian nationalism grew rapidly in the early 20th century. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Latvia declared its independence on November 18, 1918, and, after a confused period of fighting, the new nation was recognized by Soviet Russia and Germany in 1920.

Independent Latvia was governed by democratic coalitions until 1934, when autocratic rule was established by President Karlis Ulmanis. In 1939 Latvia was forced to grant military bases on its soil to the Soviet Union, and in 1940 the Soviet Red Army moved into Latvia, which was soon incorporated into the Soviet Union. Nazi Germany held Latvia from 1941 to 1944, when it was retaken by the Red Army. Latvia's farms were forcibly collectivized in 1949, and its flourishing economy was integrated into that of the Soviet Union. Latvia remained one of the most prosperous and highly industrialized parts of the Soviet Union, however, and its people retained strong memories of their brief 20-year period of independence. With the liberalization of the Soviet regime undertaken by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s, Latvians began seeking Latvia declared restoration of its independence on May, 1990 and attained full independence from the Soviet Union in August 21, 1991.

The Latvians constitute a prominent division of the ancient group of peoples known as the Balts. The first historically documented connection between the Balts and the civilization of the Mediterranean world was based on the ancient amber trade: according to the Roman historian Tacitus (1st century AD), the Aestii (predecessors of the Old Prussians) developed an important trade with the Roman Empire. During the 10th and 11th centuries Latvian lands were subject to a double pressure: from the east there was Slavic penetration; from the west came the Swedish push toward the shores of Courland.

German rule. During the crusading period, German--or, more precisely, Saxon—overseas expansion reached the eastern shores of the Baltic. Because the people occupying the coast of Latvia were the Livs, the German invaders called the country Livland, a name rendered in Latin as Livonia. In the mid-12th century, German merchants from Lübeck and Bremen were visiting the estuary of the Western Dvina; these visits were followed by the arrival of German missionaries. Meinhard, a monk from Holstein, landed there in 1180 and was named bishop of Üxküll (Ikskile) in 1186. The third bishop, Albert of Buxhoevden, with Pope Innocent III's permission, founded the Order of the Brothers of the Sword in 1202. Before they merged in 1237 with the Knights of the Teutonic Order, they had conquered all the Latvian tribal kingdoms.

After the conquest, the Germans formed a so-called Livonian confederation, which lasted for more than three centuries. This feudalistic organization was not a happy one, its three components—the Teutonic Order, the archbishopric of Riga, and the free city of Riga—being in constant dispute with one another. Moreover, the vulnerability of land frontiers involved the confederation in frequent foreign wars. The Latvians, however, benefited from Riga's joining the Hanseatic League in 1282, as the league's trade brought prosperity. In general, however, the situation of the Latvians under German rule was that of any subject nation. The indigenous nobility was extinguished, apart from a few of its members who changed their allegiance; and the rural population was forced to pay tithes and taxes to their German conquerors and to provide corvée, or statute labour.

Poland-Lithuania, Sweden, and Russian encroachment. In 1561 the Latvian territory was partitioned: Courland, south of the Western Dvina, became an autonomous duchy under the suzerainty of the Lithuanian sovereign; and Livonia north of the river was incorporated into Lithuania. Riga was likewise incorporated into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1581 but was taken by the Swedish king Gustav II Adolf in 1621; Vidzeme—that is to say, the greater part of Livonia north of the Western Dvina—was ceded to Sweden by the Truce of Altmark (1629), though Latgale, the southeastern area, remained under Lithuanian rule.

The rulers of Muscovy had so far failed to reach the Baltic shores of the Latvian country, though Ivan III and Ivan IV had tried to do so. The Russian tsar Alexis renewed the attempt without success in his wars against Sweden and Poland (1653-67). Finally, however, Peter I the Great managed to "break the window" to the Baltic Sea: in the course of the Great Northern War he took Riga from the Swedes in 1710; and at the end of the war he secured Vidzeme from Sweden under the Peace of Nystad (1721). Latgale was annexed by the Russians at the first partition of Poland (1772), and Courland at the third (1795). By the end of the 18th century, therefore, the whole Latvian nation was subject to Russia.

Russian domination. In the period immediately following the Napoleonic Wars, the Russian emperor Alexander I was induced to grant personal freedom to the peasants of Courland in 1817 and to those of Vidzeme in 1819. This did not imply any right of the peasant to buy the land that his ancestors had tilled for centuries. Consequently, there was unrest in the Latvian lands until the emancipation of the serfs throughout the Russian Empire (1861) brought the right to buy land in ownership from the state and from the landlords, who were still mostly German.

In step with the growing economic strength of the local peasantry came a revival of national feeling. Educational and other national institutions were established. The idea of an independent Latvian state was openly put forward during the Russian Revolution of 1905. This revolution, evoked as it was simultaneously by social and by national groups, bore further witness to the strength of the Latvian reaction to economic and political German and Russian pressure.

Independence. After the Russian Revolution of March 1917 the Latvian National Political Conference, convened at Riga, asked for complete political autonomy in July. On September 3, however, the German army took Riga. After the Bolshevik coup of November 1917 in Petrograd, the Latvian People's Council, representing peasant, bourgeois, and socialist groups, proclaimed independence on Nov. 18, 1918. A government was formed by the leader of the Farmers' Union, Karlis Ulmanis. The Soviet government established a communist government for Latvia at Valmiera, headed by Peteris Stucka. The Red Army, which included Latvian units, took Riga on Jan. 3, 1919, and the Ulmanis government moved to Liepaja, where it was protected by a British naval squadron. But Liepaja was still occupied by German troops, who the Allies wished to defend East Prussia and Courland (Kurzeme) against the advancing Red Army. Their commander, General Rüdiger von der Goltz, intended to build a German-controlled Latvia and to make it a German base of operation in the war against the Soviets. This intention caused a conflict with the government of independent Latvia supported by the Allies. On May 22, 1919, von der Goltz took Riga. Pushing northward, the Germans were stopped near Cesis by the Estonian army, which included 2,000 Latvians. The British forced the Germans to abandon Riga, to which the Ulmanis government returned in July. In the meantime, the Red Army, finding itself attacked from the north by the Estonians, had withdrawn from Latvia.

In July the British demanded that the German troops retreat to East Prussia. But von der Goltz now raised a "West Russian" army, systematically reinforced by units of German volunteers. These forces, headed by an adventurer, Colonel Pavel Bermondt-Avalov, were to fight the Red Army, cooperating with the other "White Russian" armies of Kolchak, Denikin, and Yudenich, supported by the Allies. But on October 8 Bermondt-Avalov attacked the Latvian troops and occupied the suburbs of Riga south of the river. By November 10, however, the Latvians, aided by the artillery of an Anglo-French naval squadron cooperating with Estonian forces, defeated von der Goltz's and Bermondt-Avalov's troops, attacked finally also by the Lithuanians. By December 1919 all German troops had abandoned Latvia and Lithuania. Only Latgale remained in Red hands; but this province was soon thereafter cleared of Red troops.

A Latvian constituent assembly, elected in April 1920, met in Riga on May 1; and on August 11 a Latvian-Soviet peace treaty was signed in Riga, the Soviet government renouncing all claims to Latvia. The Latvian constitution of Feb. 15, 1922, provided for a republic with a president and a unicameral parliament, the Saeima, of 100 members elected for three years.

The multiplicity of parties in the Saeima (22 in 1922 and 24 in 1931) made it impossible to form a stable government; and in 1934 Ulmanis, prime minister for the fourth time since 1918, proposed a constitutional reform. This was angrily opposed by the Social Democrats, the communists, and the national minorities. The German minority became Nazified, and Ulmanis had to suppress the Latvian branch of the Baltischer Bruderschaft ("Baltic Brotherhood"), whose program was the incorporation of the Baltic state into the Third Reich; but a Latvian fascist organization called Perkonkrust ("Thundercross") developed fierce propaganda. On May 15, 1934, Ulmanis issued a decree declaring a state of siege. The Saeima and all the political parties were dissolved. On April 11, 1936, on the expiration of the second term of office of President Alberts Kviesis, Ulmanis succeeded him. The country's economic position improved considerably.

Soviet occupation and annexation. When World War II started in September 1939, the fate of Latvia had been already decided in the secret protocol of the so-called German-Soviet Non-aggression Pact of August 23. In October Latvia was coerced to sign a dictated treaty of mutual assistance by which the U.S.S.R. obtained military, naval, and air bases on Latvian territory. On June 17, 1940, Latvia was invaded by the Red Army. On June 20 the formation of a new government was announced based on fraudulent elections[2]; on July 21 the new Saeima voted for the incorporation of Latvia into the U.S.S.R.; and on August 5 the U.S.S.R. accepted this incorporation. In the first year of Soviet occupation about 35,000 Latvians, especially the intelligentsia, were deported to Russia.

Nazi occupation interrupts the Soviet. The German invasion of the U.S.S.R., from July 1941 to October 1944, Latvia was a province of a larger Ostland, which included Estonia, Lithuania, and Belorussia. The Nazis implemented the Holocaust immediately upon invading Latvia's territory. This was a particularly tragic period as a small number of Latvians chose to collaborate in the extermination of their neighbors.

Soviet return. About two-thirds of the country was re-occupied by the Red Army in 1944. The Germans, along with the Latvian Legion (Waffen SS[3]) held out in Kurzeme until the end of the war. About 100,000 Latvians fled to Sweden and Germany before the arrival of Soviet forces.

The first postwar decade proved particularly difficult. The uncompromising effort of the regime to transform the country into a typical Soviet bailiwick compounded the devastation of the war. Severe political repression accompanied radical socioeconomic change. Extreme Russification numbed national cultural life. Several waves of mass deportation to northern Russia and Siberia—altogether involving at least 100,000 people—occurred, most notably in 1949 in connection with a campaign to collectivize agriculture. Large-scale immigration from Russia and other parts of the Soviet Union began and continued throughout the postwar period. In just over 40 years the proportion of Latvians in the population dropped from roughly three-fourths to little more than one-half.

The ruling Communist Party was disproportionately composed of immigrants. A concerted effort made to nativize the party and especially its ruling cadres triggered a wholesale purge in 1959 of indigenous high-level officials. The immigrant element headed by first secretary Arvids Pelse and his successors Augusts Voss and Boriss Pugo remained entrenched in positions of power during the following three decades.

Restoration of independence. A national renaissance developed in the late 1980s in connection with the Soviet campaigns for glasnost ("openness") and perestroika ("restructuring"). Mass demonstrations on ecological questions in 1987 were the first non-officially-staged political gatherings in the country in postwar times. In 1988 the Latvian Popular Front emerged in opposition to the ruling establishment. It triumphed in the elections of 1990. On May 4, 1990, the Latvian legislature passed a declaration on the renewal of independence. A period of transition was provided. Soviet efforts to restore the earlier situation culminated in violent incidents in Riga in January 1991. In the aftermath of the failed coup in Moscow in August of the same year, the Latvian legislature declared full independence.


[1]Originally at http://www.latvia-usa.org/hisoflatbrie.html, with our updates. The original page is no longer available.
[2]"Results" were accidentally released in London prior to the election.
[3]The Latvian Legion were conscripted after the Holocaust to fight on the Eastern Front against re-invading Soviet forces. No one has ever been accused of a war crime while in the service of the Legion. They were not part of Hitler's elite SS convicted at Nuremberg, nor did they ever swear any allegiance to Nazism.

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