142: The Baltic Takeover


While the Second World War was ongoing elsewhere in Europe, the Soviet leaders would use the distraction to achieve a few of their longstanding goals in the Baltic.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 142 - The Baltic Takeover. This week a big thank you goes out to Zak, Ola, and the Irregular History Buff for choosing to support the podcast by becoming members, you can find out more at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. As part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact signed before the German invasion of Poland the two nations had agreed that there would be two different spheres of influence. For the Soviets this included an area including all of the Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. After the invasion of Poland was over, and after the Soviets had incorporated the new areas of Poland into the Soviet Union, Foreign Minister Molotov turned his focus to the Baltic states. Unlike with Poland, the actions taken against the Baltic nations would be diplomatic in nature, and over the course of a few weeks the three nations would sign what were called ‘mutual assistance treaties.’ The Soviet leaders would say that these treaties were essential for the Baltic states to maintain their independence in the face of possible aggression from other nations, and that it was essential to Soviet security to ensure an enemy did not gain a foothold in the Baltic nations. However, in all cases these agreements were made under the very clear threat that if they were not signed, then a Red army invasion would follow. The Baltic governments tried to negotiate better terms, to guarantee their sovereignty which had been only so recently gained in the years after the Russian Civil War, but the complete power imbalance between the two nations made such negotiations impossible. The three Baltic nations also did not really have any recourse against the new Soviet diplomatic aggression. There was nowhere that they could turn, the only other military power nearby was Germany, and they were clearly working hand in hand with the Soviets, at least during late 1939. The western nations appeared impotent in their war with Germany, having just failed to make any meaningful actions after the invasion and destruction of Poland. With the Red Army, in some cases sitting directly on the other side of the border, there was not really a choice on what the governments of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania could do. This episode will cover these diplomatic actions, along with a brief history of the Baltic states since they had gained their independence during the Russian Civil War.

In the waning years of the Russian Empire before the First World War there had been a growing nationalist movement in the Baltic region, with three of the strongest being in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. When the second Russian Revolution occurred in late 1917 groups within these three areas took the opportunity to break free of the Russian Empire and create their own nations. Initially there were not any moves by the new Bolshevik government against the breakaway nations for two primary reasons: the first was due to a lack of ability to project any real power as they were still trying to solidify their power base in Russia and the idea that they would be reincorporated in time as the Bolshevik, later Communist, revolution spread into eastern Europe. This allowed the new leaders of the three nations to solidify their independence. In the Russian Civil War that followed, the three nations had a rather complicated relationship with both the Reds and the Whites. There was still the looming threat of an invasion from the Communists, which would threaten the new independence of the three nations, which resulted in a resistance to any incursion of Soviet power, with fighting against the Red Army. But equally, there was a hesitancy to really join with the White movement, due to the lack of willingness of White leaders to guarantee the nations independence after the war. There were simply too many old style Russian imperialists among the Whites, whose entire goal was a full recreation of the Russian Empire as it existed in 1914, which meant a reincorporation of any newly independent areas. There would be some level of cooperation between especially Estonia and the White movement, culminating in the White offensive against Petrograd led by General Yudenich in late 1919. The offensive would be a failure, just like every other White offensive. By the end of 1920 all three nations had experienced their own fighting against the Communists, and had signed peace treaties with them. It should be noted that each of the new nations had a slightly different path to independence and relations with the Soviet Union at the time that the peace treaty was signed. If you would like a deeper dive into these events, I recommend checking out History of the Great War episode 215-217 where I spent about an hour discussing what I have covered here in a paragraph.

After the Russian Civil War, the Baltic nations were still in a precarious position, as they tried to find their own independent way in the world. There were also some disagreements between them which prevented full and complete cooperation even with each other. Much like the other new nations of Eastern Europe at this time, there would also be problems maintaining their republican government which were created at the time of independence, over the course of the interwar period. All three nations would begin their lives with a democratically elected assembly, but in 1926 Lithuania would experience a coup d’etat which would result in an authoritarian constitution being adopted in 1928. In 1934 the current head of state, Konstantin Pats, would establish an authoritarian government before a new constitution was adopted in 1938, after the banning of all opposition political parties. Also in 1934 Karlis Ulmanis would establish a dictatorship in Latvia, with a push for national unity much like in the other two nations. In all three cases the new dictatorships were able to take advantage of the challenges faced by the nations, in Estonia and Latvia challenges exacerbated by the economic problems of the Great Depression to push aside the democratically elected governments. Those democratically elected bodies had been strongly divided among the young nations, which was a common problem faced by the new nations of Eastern Europe and was a major contributing factor for most of them having some type of authoritarian government during the 1930s. With the rearmament efforts in Europe in the late 1930s there would be efforts to bring the three nations, along with Finland, together in some way to present a united front against their neighbors. This would lead to various conversations, like between the Estonians and Finns in early 1939 . Unfortunately none of these efforts advanced beyond very early conversations. While a major large scale Baltic alliance would prove to not be possible, there was close cooperation between Latvia and Estonia, with the creation of an Estonian-Latvian treaty of mutual assistance.

There were other diplomatic conversations occurring in 1939, but for Estonia and Latvia those conversations were with Germany. Throughout 1939 Germany would prepare for its attack on Poland by initiating diplomatic conversations with many of the nations of Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. The primary offer to Latvia and Estonia would be made in late April in the form of nonaggression pacts. The goal of these offers was to try and establish economic and military agreements which would prevent other nations from coming to the aid of Poland. The agreements with Latvia and Estonia were quite simple, containing only two articles. The first article was the kind of generic administrative items about the agreements and then the second was a simple explanation that the treaty meant that the two nations would remain neutral in any fighting between the signatory parties and any other nation. There was some additional clarification needed due to the existing agreements between Estonia and Latvia, which both nations believed was a very important agreement to hold onto, the clarifications would eventually be made .These agreements would in retrospect prove to be very flimsy agreements that would mean little. For the Germans they were entirely superseded by the later negotiations with the Soviet Union, which were not even being considered at the time that the agreements with Estonia and Latvia were occurring. Although the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact technically did not involve a violation of the agreements made between the two nations with Germany. For the Baltic nations, they are just a great example of how few options they really had in the rapidly escalating environment of the late 1930s. The small nations were caught beside a very large and known hostile nation in the Soviet Union with very few real options. The agreements with Germany at least had the possibility of eliminating Germany as a threat, even if it did little to really solve the national security dilemma posed by the Soviet Union.


The Soviet movements against the three Baltic nations would begin after the situation in Poland had been sorted out, but the actions against the nations would be very different to what the Soviets had done in Poland. Due to the German invasion of Poland, the Red Army had also joined in that invasion during September 1939. Then after the Poland surrender the areas of eastern Poland which had been occupied were incorporated into the Soviet Union after a demarcation line had been agreed to with the Germans. After this occurred the Soviet actions in Poland would look a lot like other military occupation, with attempts to eliminate any persons around which resistance could coalesce, which would lead to over 20,000 people executed. This was obviously quite a violent occupation, and it would not be the path pursued with the Baltic nations. Instead, from the very beginning the efforts against the three Baltic nations were focused on diplomatic conversations. But in all cases the threat of possible military occupation was always present, and both parties during the discussions knew it. We are going to look at the events for each of the three nations individually, as they are all at least somewhat unique, even though the treaties that were signed were quite similar in the end.

In Latvia the negotiations would be quite straightforward, with Molotov presenting an ultimatum to the Latvian ambassador in Moscow . The ultimatum came with a very brief 48 hour expiration and a notice that if the agreement was not made by that time the Red Army was ready to cross the Latvian border. To add emphasis to the military threat Molotov had brought along Marshal Voroshilov and the Soviet Chief of Staff Shapsoshnikov to the meeting, just to make it clear that the Red Army was interested in and ready to carry forth actions as required. The ultimatum would lead to an agreement that the Latvian representatives felt they had to sign on October 5th which contained 6 articles. The first article contained the information about the military assistance, saying that both nations would render military assistance to the other if there was a foreign act of aggression, this would give the Soviets the ability to move troops into Latvia if required. The second article offered armaments and war material to the Latvians. The third article gave the Soviet union the right to to base naval and air forces in two different Latvian cities on the Baltic coast, which also of course brought along with it the need to base Red Army troops to protect those bases, it was this article that posed such a threat to Latvian independence because it brought Soviet military strength right into the heart of Latvia. Molotov would claim that these actions were essential for Soviet security, as they could not risk a foreign power gaining a foothold in Latvia. The exact wording would be “The Latvian Republic, with a view of ensuring the security of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and consolidating its own independence, grants to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics the right to have […] naval bases and a number of aerodromes for an air force.” The fourth article said neither party would join a coalition against the other. The fifth article said that the agreement did not interfere with existing agreements. The sixth that stated that the agreement would be valid for 10 years with an automatic 10 year extension unless one of the parties withdrew after 10 years.

The negotiations with Estonia would follow a similar path. During early June some initial conversations would occur in Moscow between the Estonian ambassador and Molotov. During these discussions various topics were discussed including Estonian neutrality and the possibility of an agreement between the two nations. Then in late September the Estonian Foreign Minister, Selter was invited to Moscow to sign a trade agreement. Along with the trade agreement he was confronted with the exact same ultimatum that was given to the Latvians, sign the treaty of mutual assistance or Estonia would be invaded. Selter was informed with the ultimatum that there would be no negotiations, and that he would have to either accept or reject the agreement as written. And it would be written almost exactly as the Latvian agreement had been, to the point where many of the articles match word for word between the two agreements. It also included the same type of basing agreements within Estonia, which removed the ability of Estonia to defend itself against Soviet aggression. Selter would also sign the agreement, on September 28th, seeing no other real options.

The situation with Lithuania was slightly different than what had happened with its northern neighbors. For the negotiations the Lithuanian Foreign Minister Urbsys arrived in Moscow on October 3. The initial reason for the negotiations was the long standing disagreements between the two nations around the Vilnius region, which had been part of Poland during the interwar years. But when the negotiations began, there were not really negotiations, instead demands that the Lithuanians agree to the terms as laid out by the Soviet leaders. The good part of the treaty was that Lithuania would be given the areas in the Vilnius region by the Soviets which had recently been taken from Poland. The bad part of the agreement was that is also included the basing of Soviet troops in Lithuania, again under the idea that they would help to protect not just the Soviet Union but also Lithuania from possible German aggression. The agreement also involved some territory to be given to Germany in western Lithuania. There was then some similar articles to what had been put in place with Latvia and Estonia. In the end there was little choice about what to do, even though the Lithuanian leaders feared that the basing of Soviet troops in the country meant a de facto end to their independence. It was made clear in Moscow that even if they declined the agreement, the Soviet troops would be placed in Lithuania, the only question was how much fighting would have to occur to make it happen.

In the immediate aftermath of the treaties being signed, things calmed down in the three nations. Soviet troops moved into their new bases, but did not immediately cause any problems. But that would all changes in June 1940. In the days leading up to June 17th there would be a series of accusations made against each of the three nations that they had in some way violated the terms of the agreements made with Moscow. The exact violations varied, and do not really deserve to be discussed in detail because they were fabricated. They were just an excuse for Red Army troops to move in and fully occupy all three nations, which would occur on June 17th, 1940. These actions did not garner the international reaction that they deserved, as it occurred at the same time that France was falling apart under the German invasion that had began just a month earlier. These Soviet invasions, largely unresisted, would be the first of several for the three Baltic nations. First the Soviets, then the Germans in 1941, then the Soviets again later in the war. Each time an army marched through and a new occupation regime was put in power, more people would be arrested or be killed. It is a huge understatement to say that the years between 1940 and 1945 would be a very hard time for the people of the Baltic region, and those hard times would continue after 1945 as they were incorporated, at times very brutally, into the Soviet Union.

While the Soviet Union was threatening, and eventually occupying Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, they were attempting to do the same thing with their northern neighbor, Finland. In October 1939 an ultimatum would be given to Finland, with the hopes that the Finnish government could be made to sign a similar agreement which would grant the Soviet Union the ability to greatly erode Finnish autonomy. Unlike their southern neighbors, the Finnish leaders felt that they were in a better position to resist, and resist they did, kicking off a conflict that would be called the Winter War, which the podcast will begin to cover next episode.