FOREIGN POLICY OF ESTONIA IN 1939–1940
The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Submission in September 1939
At the present day, more than fifty years later, many of us look upon the 1939 autumn and later events as a kind of fatal era when somewhere far away the destiny of the Baltic states was decided for more than half a century. Taking and writing about the events of 1939/1940 we are often afterwise. This is a kind of speculation over what could the fate have been if one had acted this or that way. The general opinion is that in the given situation Estonia and other Baltic states had no possibility to change anything and the decisions made by the leaders were nearly brilliant. Anything that happened is being justified by the argument that the consequences of a different course of action would have been even worse. Such attitude is based upon the geographical position of Estonia and other Baltic states and upon their small size. We cannot deny the importance by the birth of independent Baltic states of the change in political constellation but the expression of will was added to it as a subjective factor and the aspirations for independence were successful. The change of political constellation played an important role by the loss of independence, but it was not followed by will of independence as a subjective factor. The complex nature of the situation cannot be denied. But the course of action was decided in Tallinn, Riga and Kaunas. The decision for quiet surrender was not taken on August 23 in Moscow. The 1939 autumn collective shock is sure to affect our understanding of the world for a long time. It is also clear the discussions of the 1939/1940 events accompanies us till the end of this century, maybe even for a greater part of the next. Let us stop being afterwise and discuss what really happened, what the causes and the consequences were.
The report consists of three parts. To begin with, I shall speak of what was known in Tallinn of the secret additional protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, then deal upon Estonian foreign policy in September 1939 and during the Winter War. I shall conclude with an overview of foreign policy of the second half of the 30ies and compare the situation in Estonia to what happened in Finland
What was known in Tallinn and Riga of the Moscow events of August 23, 1939? Predictions, that the approach of Germany and the Soviet Union would happen on account of the border states, had occurred in the world press already in the 1920s. In the Baltic States as well as in Finland it was asked what the price of the non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Germany was, at whose account the pact was concluded. Archive material and memoirs confirm that informed opinion in Riga, Tallinn and Helsinki was aware of the fact that Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had left Latvia, Estonia and Finland in Soviet Union sphere of interest.
We must keep in mind that the Soviet Union and Germany agreed to keep in secret the pact concerning the borer states, which the official German foreign policy also did. But the unofficial German foreign policy made no secret of the meaning of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact for the Baltic states. A justified question arises why Berlin disclosed the content of the protocol and if the importance of the agreement for the security of the Baltics was known in the Baltic states why nothing was done to prevent the Soviet actions, neither foreign policy nor military actions were co-ordinated. How can that be explained? Why the governments of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania lied to their people affirming that the great powers acknowledged neutrality of the Baltic states.
Although the influence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact on the security of the border states was obvious, the Baltic States and Finland kept waiting for the Soviet actions and did not co-ordinate their own foreign and military policies. Why was it not done? How can we explain it?
During the first weeks of World War Two Lithuania, Latvia and Finland mobilised a certain number of reservists. On September 17, Lithuania declared general mobilisation. Certain circles in Lithuania wanted to solve the problem of Vilno by force. Germany encouraged Lithuania to do so. Estonia, however, did nothing to safeguard her security. It was explained by a naive statement that mobilisation could be considered as directed against the Soviet Union and it may attack. From this inaction one can conclude that Estonian military leaders had already at the beginning of September made the decision to surrender to the Soviet Union. Every action taken later was an attempt to prevent any encounter with the Soviet Union - to find a peaceful solution so as to wait until the beginning of Soviet-German war.
The escape of the interned Polish submarine "Orzel" from the port of Tallinn on September 18, served as the grounds for the Soviet expansion into the Baltic States. Next day the Soviet navy entered Estonian territorial waters. The Estonian government did not protest. Estonia was declared to look upon the Soviet navy as that of a neutral state, the surveillance actions were approved and all measures were taken to catch the Polish pirate ship. How did the Estonian leaders behave at the peak of the crisis before the conclusion of the pact of bases? The reaction of foreign press was energetic. The foreign newspapers wrote before the escape of "Orzel" already, that the Soviet government makes preparations for conquer of Riga and is going to incorporate Estonia and Latvia. After the escape of "Orzel" a number of foreign newspapers announced that the Soviet navy had begun to blockade Tallinn port. How did the Estonian government react on that news? By the order of the Headquarters and the Bureau of propaganda of the Military Forces the Estonian papers accused their foreign colleagues for dissemination of tendentious news. Copies of the said newspapers were confiscated and their import into Estonia prohibited. The Estonian press continued to give false information. On September 24 the Prime minister Eenpalu appealed to the people to keep up courage because nothing threatened Estonia. The Prime minister declared that the government was going to take measures against the disseminators of rumours. People who talked about prompt arrival of the Red Army and the coming end of the Estonian independence were kept in mind. People were called upon to spy and tell - to inform the political police about persons who talked about the arrival of the Red Army. The political police was ordered to find out and punish those people. At the peak of the crises foreign diplomatic representatives were informed that the Soviet troops had been removed from the Estonian borders and the Soviet navy had left Estonian territorial waters. Many of the Estonian ambassadors learning about the conclusion of the co called mutual assistance pact did not believe that the government could negotiate on such conditions.
At the government meeting on September 20 it was decided that foreign minister Karl Selter had to go to Moscow to find out the wishes of the Soviet Union. Up to that moment the Estonian leaders had been waiting for the Soviet Union to state their demands. Nothing was demanded even after the escape of "Orzel". From the meeting during which decisions were made that influenced the destiny to Estonia and the whole Baltics only a decision of the government has preserved carrying signatures of some of the members of the government. The government decided to ask the President to approve of the conclusion of the Estonian-Soviet Union trade agreement and to authorise the foreign minister to sign it. The next day Selter asked the Soviet ambassador in Tallinn to arrange an invitation to Moscow. The initiative to settle affairs was taken by the Estonian government. The latter knew the subject of the future discussion in Moscow. Officially Selter was announced to have gone to Moscow to sign a commercial treaty. The statements in memoirs and reports of a number of ambassadors that Estonia tried to seek help from Germany, Finland and Latvia appear to be erroneous. The invitation of General Johan Laidoner, the Commander-in-Chief of the Estonian, to the Latvian war minister Janis Balodis, in the second half of September should be seen as a political manoeuvre to confuse those in the Estonian military leadership who favoured actively defending independence. Estonia also refused the Lithuanian proposal to organise a special conference of foreign ministers of the Baltic States for unification of their foreign policy. At the end of August it was clear that no help was forthcoming from Germany.
Having received in the evening of September 24 the demand to conclude the mutual assistance pact and deliver the bases the foreign minister offered bases on Saaremaa, Hiiumaa and in Paldiski instead of those asked for by Molotov in Tallinn and Pärnu. It also shows that delivering of the bases had been discussed in Tallinn before. The visit of the Estonian foreign minister to Moscow on September 24 resulted in the signing of an agreement of mutual assistance of September 28, 1939. The agreement set an example for Latvia and Lithuania. Foreign Estonian historian Evald Uustalu has called the visit of the Estonian foreign minister to Moscow making a H?cha in the Kremlin. Here behaviour of the Czechoslovakian president Emil Haha in Berlin in March 1939 is kept in mind who signed the act of liquidation of the independence of his country. We may agree with it or may disagree. By the way, professor Ants Piip, member of the Estonian delegation in Moscow, also thought about it in the same way. Piip wrote about the discussion between the members of the delegation in the evening of September 27 in Moscow, "What should be done? To accept the Soviet occupation voluntarily... it is thoughtless to oppose the force. Who knows may be H?cha is approved by history. Bases as well as the big garrison means surrendering ones own real fate to somebody else. But what is the alternative? Meaningless slaughter and destruction. Otherwise, maybe people will survive and time will show." The demands of the Soviet Union were taken into consideration by the delegation as a predicted nature catastrophe: submission was looked upon as historical inevitability.
In the 1930ies the Estonian leaders had often in their public speeches declared readiness to offer armed resistance to any enemy. Three days before conclusion of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact the president Päts had announced in his public speech, "That would not be either an Estonian man or an Estonian woman any more who would hesitate when there is a need to fight for his dear country..." The hand reached out by the aggressor was accepted without any argument. In his speech held after the conclusion of the so called mutual assistance pact the President announced that the demands of the Soviet Union were not unusual because the history of Estonia, its geographical and political situation had shown the necessity of coming to an agreement with the Soviet Union. What did the people think at the fatal moment? We must admit that in the situation were political parties were prohibited, the military leaders and political police worked hand in hand in the name of voluntary submission there was no possibility to protest. The Parliament which had not been elected on democratic principles preserved its obedience and did not protest. There were organisations and private persons who sent telegrams to the president which welcomed submission. But there were also those who did not share that opinion. Let us quote a schoolboy's letter written to the president in October 1939, "I find no reason to approve of Your politics and to congratulate... This only was very bad that You were not willing to inform the people what kind of a trade agreement was going to be concluded in Moscow... For the talk that originated in a cafe or at a market place one could today get 3000 kroons but tomorrow it had become a reality ...You have for sure saved us from our independence for a quarter of a century at least..."
Submission without resistance was in accord with the aims of German foreign and military policy. Oral promises were given by Berlin in autumn 1939 and later that Germany considering her economic interests would keep the keep the Soviet Union in check, so that the political system of the Baltic States would not be affected by the bases. The governments of the Baltic States were given to understand that peace in the East was useful for everybody except the Russians and that the Soviet Union's bases in the Baltic States were only a temporary phenomenon. Military conflict between the Soviet Union and the Baltic States would have ruined the transport system of the western part of the Soviet Union. For the duration of the conflict trade would have stopped between Germany and the Soviet Union as well as the Baltic States. It would have meant cutting off Germany from its suppliers. Germany was equipped for a short war that was to be made up of a series of separate "blitz" attacks.
In Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian military circles the situation where Soviet units were located on the territory of the Baltic States was called a delaying battle. The Home Guards were now seen as main hope for maintaining independence. As no peace treaties were signed England, France and Germany after the defeat of Poland and the planned German offensive in the West was suspended, the battle of delay conducted by the Baltic States dragged out. The possibilities to defend their independence with their own forces diminished to nil by June 1940 as the Soviet bases were built up, the number of the troops in the bases and the quantity of military equipment were increased.
Finland like Estonia and Latvia did not take any steps to form a front against the Soviet Union although in the established the British suggested that Finland should co-operate with the Baltic States. Finland calmly watched the events that took place in the Baltic States. The optimism of the Finnish leaders was based in Berlin's promises to give diplomatic support at the negotiations with the Soviet Union and military assistance in case of war. But on November 29 war broke out between the Soviet Union and Finland (the Winter War).
The Winter War did not change the attitude of the Estonia towards the Soviet Union. The Baltic States abstained from voting on the question of condemnation of the Soviet Union by the League of Nations. The attitude of the Baltic governments had no influence on the attitude of the Baltic nations towards Finland. Public opinion in all the three Baltic states took the Finnish side.
Among the Baltic States Estonia as the neighbour of Finland was affected most of all by the Winter War. The Soviet Union used the bases in Estonia to attack Finland. The mutual assistance agreement between the Soviet Union and Estonia gave the Soviet Union a right to use the bases only on case of an attack by a European great power, not for destroying a small country like Finland. The use of the bases against Finland meant a great number of emergency landings of Soviet aeroplanes and bombing of Estonian territory. Estonia did nothing to prevent Soviet Union military action against Finland. The government feared that any protests concerning violations of the treaty would provoke the Soviet Union to make new demands, further restricting Estonian independence. There was still hope that if the Russians were not provoked Estonia could remain sheltered till the outbreak of German-Soviet war. Officially the use of the bases by the Soviet Union was denied.
The use of the bases situated on Estonian territory brought about the exchange of notes between Finland and Estonia. The Finns demanded that Estonia should apply the principles of neutrality. As the belligerent parties had not declared war the Estonia treated the Winter War as a reprisal and announced that the principles of neutrality could not be applied. In accordance with international law such manner of treatment was correct. From the military point of view Finland was in a much better situation that her southern neighbours. The Baltic States, situated between the Soviet Union and Germany, had been after the defeat of Poland cut off from the rest of the world. But Finnish hopes of getting foreign help failed. Obviously a small country like Finland could not offer resistance against the Soviet Union during a longer period. Immediately at the beginning of the Winter War certain Finnish circles saw possible allies in Estonia as well as Latvia and Lithuania. For that purpose radio transmissions in Estonian were started. They called for to begin resistance against the Soviet Union. At the beginning of January, 1940 professor Lauri Kettunen, a linguist, was sent to Estonia. His task was to find out the possibilities for Estonia to join the war and whether Estonia could act as a peace mediator.
Comparing the attitude of the Estonian leaders towards the Winter War with that of the Latvian and Lithuanian representatives it occurs that the latter did not hesitate to show the Soviet representatives their approval of Finland and indignation concerning the aggression. In this connection the foreign minister of Latvia Wilhelms Munters, war minister Janis Balodis and the Lithuanian ambassador in Riga Pranu Dailid should be mentioned.
The influence of the Winter War on the Baltic States reached its height at the beginning of February 1940. By that time the Soviet Union had already concentrated great forces against Finland, including the divisions situated on the borders of the Baltic States. The activities of the forces in the bases were impeded by bad weather. The military men of the three Baltic countries expressed serious discontent with the government's pro- Soviet policy in the situation where the actions against Finland had exposed the real nature of the Soviet Union to the whole world. It was rumoured that the Baltic States were going to attack the Soviet bases. The Estonian military leadership excluded such a possibility even if Latvia would have consented. The European strategic situation was of decisive importance - military action in the East-Baltics would have meant cutting Germany off from its supply base. Estonia had to carry on the delaying battle and endure the Soviet military bases until the outbreak of the German-Soviet war. When the Winter War ended Baltic governmental circles were of the opinion that Finland should have agreed to the Soviet demands in November 1939 already. It was suggested that if Finland had followed the Baltic example, it had also won time to make preparations for the decisive battle.
The September events of 1939 in Estonia have often been compared to those in Finland. The repression that followed the Finnish Winter War and the submission of the Baltic states bring about the question of who reasonable the conclusion of the so called mutual assistance pact was. About 25.000 Estonian soldiers died during the Second World War wearing foreign uniform. The total loss of Estonian population during 1940-1945 was about 21%. Theoretically, the military forces of the three Baltic states formed quite a remarkable force which potential was greater than that of Finland. The population of Finland was only half of that of the three Baltic states. The border of Finland with the Soviet Union was twice as long as that of the Baltic states but it was still better guarded thanks to the natural conditions. In case of total mobilisation Estonia could gather 100.000, Latvia and Lithuania 500.000 men, that is 600.000 men from all three Baltic states. Armed resistance could have been one alternative in the course of the events. It could only have been temporary. But it was never used. Therefore it cannot be the object of scientific analysis. We must still bear in mind that between the wars the Baltic states never came to an agreement in foreign or defence political questions. In the course of the security discussions between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 30 is it became evident, that the position of the three Baltic States regarding the security problems of the Eastern-Europe were absolutely in-combinable. Attitudes towards security differed greatly. The relations between Lithuania, Germany and Poland were also tense due to Vilnius and Memel. The Soviet Union was thought to be a friend of Lithuania. Latvia's attitude towards the Soviet Union and Germany was one of apprehension. They dreamt of closer ties with Scandinavia. In Estonia the Soviet Union was despised and feared most of all; relations with Poland and Germany were good. On the 12th of September 1934 the agreement of concord and co-operation was signed by Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in Geneva. The first article of the pact obliged the three governments to co-ordinate their foreign policies regarding questions of mutual interest. Nevertheless the agreement was stillborn. The third article of the pact spoke about specific problems in which case the first article did not apply. The agreement did not include any military articles. The military pact concluded between Estonia and Latvia in 1923 remained in force. Immediately after the formation of the Baltic League the Lithuanians took steps to organise the military alliance of the three states. Estonia rejected Lithuanian insinuations as if the formation of the Baltic military alliance would harm the Estonian-German and Estonian-Polish relations. The distancing of Finland from the Baltic States, the weakening of the League of Nations and the steady growth of the German influence in Europe drove Estonian military leaders towards the realisation that in the new situation it was wise to take a German orientation in the defence policy. The nomination of Friedrich Akel, the former ambassador in Berlin, as the Estonian foreign minister in June 1936 meant the beginning of the German orientation in the Estonian foreign policy. This was followed by the visits of military leaders to Germany and their participation in German military manoeuvres. In the eyes of Estonian military leaders in 1936 Germany was the only country who could have been able to give assistance to the border-states in case of an attack by the Soviet Union. German foreign policy and the military leaders promised to help and support the western neighbours of the Soviet Union in case Russia attacked. There was a country in Europe who, as Tallinn believed, would guarantee security for Estonia.
Lithuania and Latvia had an apprehensive attitude toward Germany. The Munich pact and, henceforth the growing German influence in world politics also caused changes in the foreign policies of Latvia and Lithuania. So far the orientation of Lithuanian and Latvian foreign policies were nearly identical with that of Czechoslovakia. The foundation stones of the Lithuanian foreign policy were the League of Nations and collective security. The foreign policy of Kaunas was founded on confidence in the Soviet Union, friendship with England and France and hope of receiving assistance if necessary. Under German pressure the Baltic States announced in September 1938 that they would reserve themselves the right to decide over the extent of applying article 16 of the League of Nations Statute. In the case of Latvia and Lithuania it meant renouncement of the previous policy. In October, 1938 the Baltic states worked out the principles of neutrality. Unconditional neutrality was in German interest. The neutrality policy was a peace-time policy. It was innocuous in the eyes of one's own people as well as the world. When war broke out war time policy was to take its. Berlin and Moscow did not hide the fact that there existed no possible way for the Baltic States to stay out of the war. The depth of territory behind the front line determines the base of military operations. For Germany the Baltic states and Finland formed this territory in the war against the Soviet Union.
At the beginning of 1939, regardless of the co-ordination of the Baltic States foreign policy after Munich, Estonia decided to withdraw from Baltic collaboration. In essence this meant the suspension the Baltic League. Estonia was afraid that Germany and Poland would decide over the transit-question at Lithuania's and Latvia's expense. At the beginning of 1939 in Estonia a German- Polish conflict was considered unlikely. In addition, the Estonian military leaders feared that the Latvians and Lithuanians would offer military resistance to Germany and receive help from the Soviet Union.
Finland, contrary to the Baltic states, had a way for getting war materials and this was Sweden. In the situation where the Soviet Union and Germany co-operated the Baltic states had no such rear. German foreign policy encouraged the Baltic States to surrender to the Soviet Union without resistance, whereas in the German attitude towards Finland we can notice two standpoints of the foreign policy: the official foreign policy tried to stress the absence of interest in Finland; the non-official foreign policy encouraged Finland not to give in to the demands of the Russians. It was caused by the interests of German war industry. Berlin was afraid that if Finland satisfied the demands of the Soviet Union, the Swedish export of iron ore, that German war industry was depending on, would be in danger. A risk existed that as soon as the Soviet Union had finished with Finland it would direct the active foreign policy towards the Balkans. Therefore Finland was advised to bargain with the Russians only over the Baltic Sea island belonging to Finland, and Eastern Finnish territory. Finland tried to prolong the negotiations in the belief that war against the Soviet Union could be postponed the late spring of 1940. It was hoped that the European military and political situation would have changed by that time. But the situation went out of control.
It would be unfair to find the reasons for voluntary submission of Estonia and the other Baltic states in the changed international situation only. In 1939 the people of Estonia and Lithuania were, contrary to Finland, not really represented. The loss of independence was determined by internal political situation at the moment when the shift in foreign policy took place which enabled the liquidation of independence. The authoritarian regimes left the Baltic peoples without any possibility to have a say in deciding their own future. In Latvia there was no parliament at all. The foreign policy of a small state can only be successful if supported by successful internal politics.
Now more than fifty years later we are facing the problem of assessment of the quiet submission and the behaviour of the Estonian leaders in 1939/1940. Obviously it is not possible to take a unique position in this question. Many of the politicians who escaped to the West evaluated the 1939/1940 events - situation where occupation was carried out by mutual agreements - as treachery. But we will never know what could have happened if in September 1939 different decisions had been taken in Tallinn. Therefore we may also agree with those who assert that quiet submission did not save the state but it saved part of the nation who half a century later was capable to restore independence.
© Lietuvos gyventojø genocido ir rezistencijos tyrimo centras