The 20th century threw Latvia into endless trials and turbulences: a revolution, two world wars, freedom fights, several occupations, deportations, refugees and a large exodus among them. However, this was also the century when the Latvian state was created. In the aftermath of World War I, realising its right of self-determination the Latvian nation became a sovereign in the territory which since times immemorial had been inhabited by Latvians.
Establishing a country in turbulent times
The Republic of Latvia was proclaimed on November 18, 1918, by the People’s Council of Latvia which gathered representatives from most every ethnographic region of Latvia and declared independence at the National Theatre of Latvia in the city of Riga.
At the time, the territory of Latvia was overrun by the army of the German Empire. Yet the Empire lost the war and was shaken by a revolution. Therefore, the German army in the territory of Latvia agreed under Allied pressure to work together with the Army of the Provisional Government of Latvia against the Bolsheviks, who invaded in December 1918.
Latvian War of Independence
Latvians fought together with the remains of the German army until the Germans staged a coup and turned against Latvians in April 1919. They wished to make Latvia a duchy subject to Germany, however the Latvian Army defeated the German forces at Cēsis in June 1919.
Yet another attempt to subvert the independence of Latvia took place at the end of 1919. Former soldiers of German Empire and the Russian Empire were led by Colonel Bermondt against the outnumbered soldiers of the Provisional Government of Latvia. The Latvian drive for independence overcame the opponents who wished to resurrect the empires, as the Latvian Army achieved a victory on November 11, 1919. The army of Bermondt was driven out of Latvia by the end of the year.
After that the Latvia had to deal with a Bolshevik invasion and coup, as well. Latvia was victorious in 1920 and the Peace Treaty between Latvia and Russia signed on August 11, 1920 finalized the War of Independence. With the treaty Soviet Russia renounced all claims to Latvia “in eternity”.
Building the foundations of a state
Despite the war, steps to build the newly established state were taken. National administration and court system, the police, Opera, Conservatory, Academy of Art, and the University of Latvia were all established in 1919.
Meanwhile, the Constitutional Assembly was elected and gathered on May 1, 1920, to create the Constitution of Latvia. Furthermore, the Assembly initiated the historical Agrarian reform, redistributing the feudal lands to the landless peasants and the veterans of the War of Independence.
The early 1920’s was a period of rebuilding economy and establishing democracy. On January 26, 1921, the first Foreign Minister of Latvia Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics persuaded the Supreme Council of Allied Powers (Great Britain, France, Italy, Belgium and Japan) who recognized Latvia de iure. Latvia was accepted into the League of Nations.
The first Parliament or Saeima was elected on October 1922. The Saeima elected the prominent lawyer Jānis Čakste as first president of Latvia. For the first four parliaments 1922-1934, the Social Democrats always had the largest fraction of votes, however the runner-up conservative Farmers Union was usually the party which formed a coalition and led the government. Gustavs Zemgals was elected president in 1927 and was followed by Alberts Kviesis in 1930.
Latvia developed regional transit connections and ran international trade with the West and East. Strong agricultural foundation of the economy permitted Latvia to survive the Great Depression with lesser losses. By the 1930’s the level of welfare in Latvia was comparable to developed European countries such as Denmark and Finland.
End of democracy and the breeze of war
Kārlis Ulmanis, the prime minister at the time, organized a coup and seized power in May 1934. The state was ruled in an authoritarian way and liberties such as freedom of speech were limited. However, no violence or killings happened.
Political deals between the two totalitarian regimes in Europe – the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union – interrupted the independence of Latvia. According to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 23, 1939, the Soviet Union claimed the Baltic States as its zone of interest. As the Nazi Germany invaded France in May 1940, the Soviet Union invaded Latvia in June the same year.
© Latvian Institute 2015;