Churchill and the Baltic States: From WW2 to Liberation

Churchill and the Baltic States: From WW2 to Liberation

EXCERPT ONLY: For the com­plete text of “Churchill and the Baltic” with end­notes, please go to this page on the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project.

“No doubt where the right lay”: 1940-95

Sovi­et Ambas­sador Ivan Maisky was a “Bollinger Bol­she­vik” who mixed sup­port for Com­mu­nism with a love of West­ern lux­u­ry. Friend­ly to Churchill, he knew the Eng­lish­man hoped to sep­a­rate Hitler and Stal­in, even after World War II had started.

But Maisky tend­ed to see what he wished to see. In Decem­ber he record­ed: “The British Gov­ern­ment announces its readi­ness to rec­og­nize ‘de fac­to’ the changes in the Baltics so as to set­tle ‘de jure’ the whole issue lat­er, prob­a­bly after the war.” There was no such announcement.

“The Russian danger…”

Ger­many invad­ed the Sovi­et Union on 22 June 1941. Churchill broad­cast: “the Russ­ian dan­ger is there­fore our dan­ger.”  Why then not rec­og­nize the Sovi­et occu­pa­tion of Latvia, Lithua­nia and Esto­nia? The ques­tion came now, not only from soft-lin­ers like Cripps and Hal­i­fax, but from close Churchill asso­ciates like Eden and Beaver­brook. But de jure recog­ni­tion was one thing Stal­in would nev­er get get.

When Eden, now for­eign min­is­ter, vis­it­ed Moscow in Decem­ber 1941, he implored Churchill to mod­i­fy his stance. It was Eden’s first major for­eign pol­i­cy assign­ment. Tem­pera­ment, ambi­tion, anx­i­ety for vic­to­ry impelled him. Amer­i­can opin­ion influ­enced Churchill too, and the USA at that time remained opposed to rec­og­niz­ing a Sovi­et Baltic.

While Eden was in Moscow, Churchill was in Amer­i­ca. Eden urged him and Roo­sevelt to rec­og­nize imme­di­ate­ly the Sovi­et Baltic. “Stark real­ism” demand­ed it. The Anglo-Amer­i­cans could not stop the Rus­sians from get­ting their way.

Churchill still demurred. The 1941 Sovi­et con­quests, he replied,

were acquired by acts of aggres­sion in shame­ful col­lu­sion with Hitler. The trans­fer of the peo­ples of the Baltic States to Sovi­et Rus­sia against their will would be con­trary to all the prin­ci­ples for which we are fight­ing this war and would dis­hon­our our cause….there must be no mis­take about the opin­ion of any British Gov­ern­ment of which I am the head, name­ly, that it adheres to those prin­ci­ples of free­dom and democ­ra­cy set forth in the Atlantic Charter.

“The Ireland of Russia”

In Feb­ru­ary 1942 the War Cab­i­net dis­cussed alter­na­tives to out­right recog­ni­tion. Eden pro­posed agree­ing to Russia’s Baltic mil­i­tary bases. Hal­i­fax pro­posed qua­si-inde­pen­dence, with Russ­ian con­trol of Lat­vian, Eston­ian and Lithuan­ian defense and for­eign pol­i­cy. Churchill opposed both.  In Wash­ing­ton, Hal­i­fax men­tioned recog­ni­tion to Roo­sevelt. The Pres­i­dent was inter­est­ed, but Under­sec­re­tary of State Sum­n­er Welles told FDR it would epit­o­mize “the worst phase of the spir­it of Munich.” In anoth­er thrust, Beaver­brook asked: “How can it be argued now that ter­ri­to­ry occu­pied then by the Russians—Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia—is not the native soil of the Rus­sians?” Lithua­ni­ans, Lat­vians and Esto­ni­ans could offer some arguments.

The pres­sure of events wore on the Prime Min­is­ter. The Rus­sians were hold­ing down 185 Ger­man divi­sions on a thou­sand-mile front. On 7 March 1942, Churchill sent a feel­er to Roosevelt:

The increas­ing grav­i­ty of the war has led me to feel that the prin­ci­ples of the Atlantic Char­ter ought not to be con­strued so as to deny Rus­sia the fron­tiers she occu­pied when Ger­many attacked her. This was the basis on which Rus­sia acced­ed to the Char­ter, and I expect that a severe process of liq­ui­dat­ing hos­tile ele­ments in the Baltic States, etc. was employed by the Rus­sians when they took those regions at the begin­ning of the war.

* * *

Churchill’s sus­pi­cions were cor­rect. Latvia’s Pres­i­dent Karlis Ulma­n­is had been arrest­ed and deport­ed; he died in 1942. Kon­stan­tin Päts of Esto­nia spent years in pris­ons or “psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tals,” final­ly dying in 1956. Lithuania’s Antanas Sme­t­ona, the first Baltic pres­i­dent to insti­tute an author­i­tar­i­an regime (1926), fled, ulti­mate­ly to the USA, where he died in 1944. From June 1940, politi­cians, teach­ers and intelligentsia—anyone who seemed a threat to the Sovi­et rule—was deported.

On 8 April 1942, the War Cab­i­net approved British recog­ni­tion of the 1941 Sovi­et bor­ders. But now Roo­sevelt object­ed. The Unit­ed States, he said through Sec­re­tary of State Hull, “would not remain silent if ter­ri­to­r­i­al claus­es were includ­ed in the [Anglo-Sovi­et] treaty.” Eden con­veyed this to Sovi­et For­eign Min­is­ter Molo­tov who, sur­pris­ing­ly, accept­ed.  Thus it was that Amer­i­can, not British diplo­ma­cy that fore­stalled de jure recog­ni­tion of the Sovi­et Baltic in 1942. But Mar­tin Gilbert main­tained that this was actu­al­ly “to Churchill’s relief.” Alexan­der Cado­gan, a For­eign Office offi­cial who shared Churchill’s views on the Baltic, wrote, “We must remem­ber that [recog­ni­tion] is a bad thing. We oughtn’t to do it, and I shan’t be sor­ry if we don’t.”

Baltic “Ostland”

There mat­ters rest­ed while the Ger­mans, first hailed as lib­er­a­tors, con­duct­ed anoth­er vio­lent eth­nic clens­ing. Over 300,000 Lat­vians, Lithua­ni­ans and Estonians—one out of ten—were exe­cut­ed. They slaugh­tered Jews in hasti­ly-built death camps. The Gestapo and a few quislil­ngs ruled the Nazi colony “Ost­land.” With the Red Army’s return in 1944 came a third holo­caust. An Eston­ian remem­bered: “The Ger­mans were bru­tal, the Rus­sians worse.” Clear­ances of Baltic cit­i­zens con­tin­ued under Stalin’s suc­ces­sors. Eth­nic Rus­sians moved in while natives were shut­tled out. To this day, native Lat­vians form bare­ly a major­i­ty in their country.

At the Teheran con­fer­ence in late 1943, Roo­sevelt aban­doned his non-recog­ni­tion policy—but not open­ly. With remark­able cyn­i­cism, he explained to Stal­in that he did not wish to lose the votes of the six or sev­en mil­lion Pol­ish-Amer­i­cans, or of the small­er, though not neg­li­gi­ble, num­ber of vot­ers of Lithuan­ian, Lat­vian and Eston­ian origin.

How eas­i­ly Roo­sevelt sur­ren­dered the lib­er­ties he had so strong­ly defend­ed a year ear­li­er. “Moral pos­tures in the harsh world of pow­er pol­i­tics may acquire a cer­tain nobil­i­ty in their very futil­i­ty,” wrote David Kir­by. “But when taint­ed by a his­to­ry of com­pro­mise and failed bar­gains, they tend to appear some­what shabby.”

* * *

But Teheran also left Churchill with a soft­er atti­tude toward Stal­in. His feel­ings had changed, he wrote Eden, tem­pered by hard real­i­ty on the ground:

The tremen­dous vic­to­ries of the Russ­ian armies, the deep-seat­ed changes which have tak­en place in the char­ac­ter of the Russ­ian State and Gov­ern­ment, the new con­fi­dence which has grown in our hearts towards Stalin—these have all had their effect. Most of all is the fact that the Rus­sians may very soon be in phys­i­cal pos­ses­sion of these ter­ri­to­ries, and it is absolute­ly cer­tain that we should nev­er attempt to turn them out.

Churchill was a politi­cian depend­ing on the sup­port of a major­i­ty, and no politi­cian could remain blind to that real­i­ty. But in judg­ing Churchill, must con­sid­er his com­plete record. And for him, the sub­ject remained.

To his War Cab­i­net in late Jan­u­ary Churchill said the “ide­al posi­tion would be to post­pone any deci­sion about fron­tiers until after the war, and then to con­sid­er all fron­tier ques­tions togeth­er.” Nev­er­the­less, the Red Army was  “advanc­ing into Poland.” Churchill knew he was caught in a shock­ing com­pro­mise of pro­claimed prin­ci­ple. What were they to say to Par­lia­ment and the nation, he asked Eden, about the ide­al­is­tic prin­ci­ples declared in the Atlantic Charter?

The March of Fate

Front lines 1 May 1945 (pink = allied-occu­pied ter­ri­to­ry; red = area of fight­ing. Cir­cle indi­cates the Cour­land Pock­et, upper right. (Wiki­me­dia)

As the Red Army swarmed west in 1944, sur­viv­ing Balts had the unpalat­able choice of sid­ing with one bar­bar­ian or the oth­er. More fought with the Ger­mans than the Rus­sians. Stal­in expend­ed half a mil­lion men vain­ly try­ing to storm the “Cour­land Pock­et,” declar­ing that the impe­ri­al­ist West would try to pre­vent reestab­lish­ment of Sovi­et author­i­ty. But the West had no such inten­tions. Instead, Balts faced tanks bear­ing Amer­i­can white stars. They were U.S. Sher­mans, thrown into bat­tle with­out their new red stars. But the Baltic fight­ers gave up only with the Ger­man surrender.

In 1950, Churchill sad­ly sum­ma­rized the tragedy of the Baltic States:

Hitler had cast them away like pawns in 1939. There had been a severe Russ­ian and Com­mu­nist purge. All the dom­i­nant per­son­al­i­ties had been liq­ui­dat­ed in one way or anoth­er. The life of these strong peo­ples was hence­for­ward under­ground. Present­ly Hitler came back with a Nazi counter-purge. Final­ly, in the gen­er­al vic­to­ry the Sovi­ets had con­trol again. Thus the dead­ly comb ran back and forth, and back again, through Esto­nia, Latvia and Lithua­nia. There was no doubt how­ev­er where the right lay. The Baltic States should be sov­er­eign inde­pen­dent peoples.

In the end, the Unit­ed States, along with Britain, Aus­tralia, Cana­da and a few oth­er coun­tries, nev­er rec­og­nized the Sovi­et annex­a­tion of Esto­nia, Latvia and Lithua­nia. Baltic gold remained safe in Lon­don, and their embassies con­tin­ued to func­tion. But Balts for­tu­nate enough to escape, and their chil­dren, have long mem­o­ries. They did not look kind­ly on Roo­sevelt, nor, one has to say, on Churchill.

What we can learn

It is use­ful to study Churchill and the Baltic for what it can teach us today about pow­er­ful aggres­sors and the fate of small nations. In wartime nego­ti­a­tions, the Sovi­ets were con­sis­tent. They made the most extreme demands, offer­ing lit­tle in exchange. Meet their demands and more fol­lowed. When­ev­er the oth­er side said they would not agree, an eleventh-hour shift by Moscow would result. Even this was not a defeat, since the democ­ra­cies were often so grate­ful for evi­dence of good will that they would strug­gle to meet the next round of Sovi­et demands. The per­cep­tive Churchill once told Eden, “do not be dis­ap­point­ed if you are not able to bring home a joint pub­lic declaration.”

Churchill fre­quent­ly repeat­ed the Boer expres­sion, “All will come right.” By 1992, when I made my first vis­it, the Baltic was free. In 1995 with three friends, I bicy­cled the Lat­vian coast from Lithua­nia to Esto­nia, and pre­sent­ed a Lat­vian trans­la­tion of Churchill’s The Dream to Pres­i­dent Gun­tis Ulma­n­is.

The British ambas­sador had arranged for us to meet local offi­cials along the way. I will nev­er for­get the words of Teodors Eniņš, May­or of Liepa­ja. He raised the ques­tion of why the Anglo-Amer­i­cans hadn’t fought Rus­sia to free East­ern Europe in 1945. We said the Amer­i­can and British pub­lic would have nev­er coun­te­nanced it. “You should have done it any­way,” May­or Eniņš replied. “Think of how much trou­ble you would have saved yourselves—not to men­tion us.”

One thought on “Churchill and the Baltic States: From WW2 to Liberation

  1. A long­time col­league has writ­ten me thus: “You let the Mayor’s ring­ing com­ment stand as your sign off, sug­gest­ing you agree. I found it the kind of emo­tion­al chest-thump­ing that mis­di­rects our under­stand­ing of his­to­ry. Just what ‘trou­ble’ would have been avoid­ed? More impor­tant, what trou­ble would have been cre­at­ed? Dreams about the future are to be encour­aged. They can open new paths. I’m less con­vinced of the val­ue of counter-fac­tu­al history.”
    The “trou­ble” May­or Eniņš referred to was fifty years of com­mu­nism. But no—as I wrote, we argued with him, say­ing the Amer­i­cans and British would have nev­er stood for a pre­ven­tive war with Rus­sia in 1945. He wasn’t buy­ing it. A brief addendum:

    The May­or met us for break­fast that day with the rain pour­ing down and nobody want­ed to ride, so it was a leisure­ly chat. He recalled that as kids, he and his pals would often sneak down to the beach­es at night. The Sovi­ets had barb-wired the Baltic coast from end to end, with armed guards patrolling. Eniņš and his friends would slip through the wire and repeat­ed­ly walk back­wards to the sea, and then for­wards, their foot­prints mak­ing the beach guards think there had been an mini-inva­sion. (One of my friends quipped, “Amber waves of Danes.”)

    We laughed about this until the May­or sud­den­ly pulled up his shirt and showed us the scars where they strafed him one night when he let the guards get too close. A slight­ly bet­ter shot and there would have been no Teodors Eniņš.

    The moral I took away from that meet­ing was: How you think and dream depends a lot on when and where you grew up.

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