Development of the idea of Estonian independence 1917–1918

​Before 1917 there was no talk in public of an independent state as the future dream of the Estonian people. During the February revolution the nationally-minded Estonian circles limited their aspirations to establishing an autonomous national province as stipulated in 1905, and did not present further demands. A step forward was taken at the national congress in early July 1917, which announced the new aim of the Estonians – a Russian Federation of equal republics. Considering the political atmosphere of the time, this seemed a maximum demand.

A new situation emerged due to Germany’s military success on the eastern front of World War I. In August 1917 the German troops crossed the Daugava River and conquered Riga, whereas the demoralised Russian army was unable to put up any resistance. Hence, at the 25 August meeting of the Provincial Assembly, Jaan Tõnisson suggested they should try and find ways to separate from Russia, in order to link Estonia’s future with democratic Western countries. This idea was further strengthened when islands on the western coast of Estonia were captured by the Germans, and the Bolsheviks established their dictatorship on mainland Estonia in the late autumn. In the emerging situation of dual power (national Provincial Assembly contra executive power controlled by Bolsheviks), the Assembly declared itself the sole highest power in Estonia on 15 November, disrupting contacts with Russia. The Provincial Assembly was then disbanded by the Bolsheviks, but continued underground.

Separation from Russia, however, did not automatically mean full independence, as there were other plans as well: for example a double state of Estonia–Latvia, Estonia–Finland union or Estonian independent nationhood within the Russian Federation, because many Estonian national politicians still did not believe in Russia’s collapse and thought the old system of government could be restored in Russia. Only in late 1917, when the German troops advanced and the fear of expanding German occupation emerged, did the idea of a sovereign Estonian state come powerfully to the surface. On 24 December the Council of Elders of the Provisional Assembly decided to declare Estonia independent in case of the general threat of German occupation. The idea found enthusiastic support, and the meeting held at the end of 1917 rephrased the decision, now confirming that a declaration of independence was essential as soon as possible, with no more reference to the German threat. Real steps towards independence began in January 1918, finally declared on 24 February 1918.

Details about this article