The military heritage of Latvia and Estonia, 1918-1991

From the period between when Latvia and Estonia first won their independence to when their independence was restored, a great deal of evidence of the monumental events of the time in terms of battle sites, military structures, historical photographs and memoirs have survived. Altogether they make a compelling military heritage story of how the two new countries emerged out of orld War I, how they fought for their survival during the wars of independence, how they were devastated by World War II, how national partisans kept up the battle for more than 10 years after the war, and how independence was restored after decades of occupation. This is a story about political events, the people and their lives during the wars and periods of occupation.


World War I / Wars of Independence (1914-1920)

World War I 1914-1918

Before the establishment of the Estonian and Latvian states, Latvian and Estonian soldiers served in the Imperial Russian Army during World War I. Although both countries proclaimed independence at the end of the war, this did not bring peace for their people. Latvia and Estonia had to defend their existence against several military forces with political ambitions. Germany tried to claim the territories of Latvia and Estonia, Baltic Germans attempted to establish their own country there, Soviet Russia fought to annex the Baltic countries, and officers of the former Russian Empire had a goal to defeat Bolsheviks and return the Baltic provinces to Russia.

LatviaProclamation of the republic of Latvia

German forces occupied present-day Vidzeme and Latgale in February 1918. In March, Soviet Russia signed the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty, waiving their right to rule the territories of Kurzeme, Zemgale and Selonia. In October 1918, Latvia’s nationalist political organisation, the Democratic Bloc, petitioned Germany to say the Latvians wanted to establish an internationally recognised state and that German forces must depart. The Latvian People’s Council proclaimed an independent Republic of Latvia on November 18, 1918.

Latvia Proclamation of the republic of Estonia

A truce in World War I was organised after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Estonians had already started to establish their own national military units. Germany ended the truce and launched an attack which forced the Bolsheviks to flee Estonia. On February 24, 1918, in the power vacuum before the German occupation began, Estonia declared its national independence. German forces entered Tallinn the very next day, but at the end of World War I in November 1918, Estonia’s Provisional Government recovered power in its country.


Wars of Independence 1918-1920

The end of World War I marked the beginning of the Wars of Independence for Latvia and Estonia. By repelling multiple enemies the two young countries proved their ability to exist
as independent states.

LatviaLatvia's War of Independance

Germany withdrew from Latvia at the end of World War I, but a few days after the proclamation of the country’s independence, the Red Army of Soviet Russia invaded. The war ended with a peace treaty between Latvia and Russia which was signed on August 11, 1920, and in which Russia “recognises without any objection the independence, existence and sovereignty of the Latvian state and willingly and for all time eternal waves all sovereign rights which belonged to Russia in relation to the nation and land of Latvia.”

LatviaEstonia'a War of Independance

The Red Army invaded the Estonian border town of Narva on November 28, 1918 marking the start of the war. After more than a year of fighting on multiple fronts Estonia managed to beat it back. A peace treaty with Russia was signed in Tartu on February 2, 1920, with Russia recognising Estonia’s independence for all time eternal and the two countries agreeing on their territorial borders.


World War II, 1939-1945

At the outbreak of World War II, both Latvia and Estonia declared neutrality. However a treaty between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had defined the spheres of power between the two totalitarian regimes and soon the Baltic states were occupied by the Soviet Union. The Soviets were driven out by Nazis in 1941 only to return in 1944. Many Estonian and Latvian men were forced to fight on both sides.

LatviaWorld War II in Latvia

The Soviet Union submitted an ultimatum to Latvia, demanding that an unlimited number of troops be stationed in the country. Soviet occupation began on June 17, 1940. German forces invaded during the summer of 1941. The Soviet Red Army re-took Rīga on October 13, 1944, and the German army retreated to Kurzeme, where it survived a siege until the end of the war and the capitulation of Germany.

LatviaWorld War II in Estonia

Destined to be part of Soviet sphere of influence Estonia shared a similar fate with Latvia having first to submit to the Soviet ultimatum and then on June 17, 1940 being occupied by the Soviet regime. In July 1941 the advancing German army drove the Red Army out. At the beginning of 1944, the Soviet forces approached again and the most brutal battle of World War II on Estonian soil took place along the Narva River. On September 22, the Red Army entered Tallinn and 47 years of Soviet occupation began.


National partisan movement - forest brothers 1944-~1957

At the beginning of the Soviet occupation regime, many men refused to collaborate with the Soviet regime, hid into the forests and continued fighting. Some also feared repressions for their previous service in the German or Finnish armed forces.

LatviaThe National Partisan Movement in Latvia

The resistance movement in Latvia was a reaction to the crimes of the Soviet occupation regime and an attempt to restore Latvian independence. The fiercest battles against Soviet forces took place in the Stompaki swamp in Latgale in 1945 and in Kabile in Kurzeme. The partisan struggle in Latvia lasted until the late 1950s.

LatviaThe National Partisan Movement in Estonia

Many Estonians hoped that Western countries would not permit the reoccupation of their country and that the Soviet rule would soon end. The so-called forest brothers left their homes, sought refuge in the forests and launched attacks against Soviet institutions. The Armed Resistance League was set up in 1946 in pursuit of restoring Estonia’s independence. The last major Soviet security operations against the Forest Brothers took place in 1953, but raids continued throughout the 1950s.


On the way to the restoration of Independence 1945-1991

During the decades of Cold War, the Baltic countries found themselves on the boundary of opposing powers. Large number of Red Army forces were located in Latvia and Estonia, airports, military ports and bases for nuclear weapons were installed, etc. The Iron Curtain isolated people from the rest of the world. Latvia and Estonia restored their independence in 1990 and 1991 respectively as the Soviet Union collapsed.

LatviaThe Soviet Occupation and the Restoration of Independance of Latvia

During the occupation, 3009 units of Soviet troops were stationed in more than 700 locations in Latvia - 3% of Latvia’s territory. In 1990, there were 223 subdivisions of military structures and ~80,000 military personnel in Latvia. The Supreme Council of the Latvian SSR approved a declaration on the restoration of the independence of the Republic of Latvia on May 4, 1990.

LatviaThe Soviet Occupation and the Restoration of Independance of Estonia

After World War II, up to 120,000 Soviet troops were posted in Estonia. The Soviet army had 1,665 military bases which covered ~900 km2, or 5% of Estonia’s territory. TThe Supreme Council of the Estonian SSR passed a resolution proclaiming Estonian independence from the Soviet Union on August 20, 1991 restoring the Republic of Estonia.