Between revolutionary Russia and the German Empire

The dreams of independence became reality after two important events in the second half of 1917. On the one hand, in October 1917 (7 November) the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd, thus starting a historical experiment in which the majority of Estonians did not want to participate. On the other hand, German troops launched a new offensive on the eastern front against the demoralised Russian army. In this connection were revived the plans of the local Germans to unite the Baltic countries with the monarchist Great Germany, another state of affairs which was not acceptable to the Estonians. Germany was inevitably associated with the former masters, i.e. the Baltic German landowners, and remained an alien power, although this position had begun to soften with tsarist laws and the buying of the farm lands that had started in the late 19th century. Since the majority of people had not yet become independent landowners, Estonians were not in favour of German victory in the First World War.

The Bolsheviks, though, were interested in keeping power at all costs, even if the price they had to pay was the loss of the provinces. In separate talks with Germany, they renounced sovereignty over the Baltic countries, as was confirmed in the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty on 2 March 1918. This meant that, after the signing of the treaty, democratic Russia ceased to exist for Estonia — the Russian Bolsheviks seemed to have betrayed both democracy and Estonia.

In view of the imminent danger from imperial Germany and the now Bolshevik Russia, the Estonian Provincial Assembly (Maapäev) had declared itself the supreme power on 15 November 1917. Simultaneously, a specially elected Committee of Elders of the Assembly — Vanematekogu — was authorised to declare Estonia’s independence. The situation seemed hopeless and the idea did not gain wide support as yet. But there was no time for more extensive preparation. The decisive step was taken on the very day the Bolsheviks were leaving the capital of Estonia and German troops were approaching the town. Independence was publicly declared on 24 February 1918, although it took at least another nine months before the new republic was actually born.

A demonstration of intent was not enough to create a state; the viability of the new state had still to be proved both at home and abroad. At first, Estonia could expect the Allied Forces to be supportive: the newly established Baltic States were recognised de facto in 1918 in the expectation that they could withstand the German occupation. Latvia gained recognition even before the official wish for it came from Riga.

As a matter of fact, recognition was granted to the Baltics primarily as a potential anti-German force rather than as three newly established states. German occupation did not just mean an invasion by an alien army, it also entailed an indirect attempt at annexing Estonia. However, the idea of turning Estonian and Latvian areas into a Duchy of the Baltic with an unspecified degree of sovereignty that would form an economic and military alliance with Germany was not acceptable to either Estonians or Latvians. At the same time, Estonia’s political leadership tried to avoid direct confrontation with Berlin and to maintain neutrality as declared in the Manifesto of Independence. Thus the Estonian Provisional Government did not declare war on the German Empire in 1918, although the Western allies presented such demands via the first Estonian diplomats accredited in Europe; and the nature of the German occupation regime would have warranted it. The policy of neutrality pursued by the Baltic States resulted, after the First World War, in their not being regarded as among the winners; unlike, for example, Czechoslovakia or Poland.

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