Sulev Kalamäe, Eesti Vabariigi Aukonsul Sydneys
At last year’s Eesti Vabariigi aastapäeva aktus I deliberately spoke in Estonian. It was essential on that critical day, in my view to honour Estonia by speaking it’s language. But many of our younger generation genuinely struggle with the Estonian language, and so as not to alienate them and to help them better understand their Estonian ancestry, this time I will speak in English.
If you are anything like me you are probably wondering where 2018 went. Today one year ago we were celebrating Estonia’s 100th birthday, yet now we are assembled here again to celebrate Estonia’s 101st birthday.
Relatively little has happened here in Australia, on a nation-building scale.
However what happened in Estonia during that same twelve months, 100 years ago during that precarious first year of Estonia’s existence after the Declaration of Independence was issued on 24 February 1918, was absolutely critical and things were literally on a knife’s edge.
If you indulge me, I will provide a quick summary of that critical twelve months between 24 February 1918 and 24 February 1919 (today 100 years ago).
First a bit of a recap. In early 1918 following the Russian Revolution of October 1917, the Russian state was in relative disarray – and it was in this context that the German Army began their offensive against Estonia on 18 February 1918. As the Russian Army and the Bolsheviks fled the country, it left a power vacuum before the arrival of the German troops. Within the space of a week (ie. between 20-26 February) with the help of Estonian national brigades that had, up to then been part of the Russian Army, Estonian politicians took power in all country towns in Estonia (except for Võru). The Estonian Declaration of Independence was read out to the public for the first time on the evening of 23 February, in Pärnu. However, by convention Independence Day is not celebrated on that day, but on the next day 24 February, as this is when the Salvation Committee of Estonia took power in Tallinn and formed the Estonian Provisional Government (led by Prime Minister Konstantin Päts).
Thus Estonia’s first period independence commenced, but it practically lasted only a few days.
The Germans arrived very soon and immediately placed Estonia under a military dictatorship. The Provisional Estonian Government and the Declaration of Independence were not recognised, even banned. Estonian political; leaders were arrested or fled the country. Within two weeks, by 4 March 1918, the whole of Estonia had been occupied by the Germans. The Bolsheviks had all fled back to Russia.
During the next 9 months of German occupation the Estonian nation could do very little, but prepare behind the scenes. It was a promising gesture, that in May 1918, Great Britain, France and Italy (who were all at war with Germany) gave de-facto recognition of Estonia as an independent free nation, and did not recognise the illegal German occupation.
However, it was the German nation’s very own and unexpected ‘November Revolution’ in their homeland that allowed Estonia’s leaders to exploit the subsequent general confusion of the occupying Germans in Estonia. The underground Estonian Provisional Government quickly took the opportunity to reconvene in Tallinn on 11 November 1918 (yes, this is Armistice Day on the Western Front, the end of World War 1) to commence the transfer of power from the demoralised Germans.
So remember – Armistice Day 11th November – the surrender of the Germans in WWI – is the very day the Estonian nation seized the moment to seek regain it’s independence. Next time you salute the Australian flag on 11 November, remember the alternative untold back story involving your heritage.
The Germans agreed to formally transfer all power over to the Estonian Provisional Government, at noon on 21 November 1918, ten days after Armistice Day, when hostilities ceased on the Western Front.
However, Communist Russia was having no bar of this so-called new independent nation, and saw itself as the rightful heir to the former Czarist empire, including Estonia and the other two Baltic States.
Unfortunately for the Estonians, World War 1 would continue on, despite the Armistice. Just a mere seven days after the departing Germans had handed over power to the Estonian Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks launched their attack on Estonia, commencing with the Battle of Narva, on 28 November 1918.
With this attack, the actual Estonian War of Independence had begun, and the war would last another 14 bloody months until the Peace Treaty of Tartu was finally signed with Soviet Russia on 2 February 1920.
However back in November 1918, the new nation of Estonia was in fact unprepared, and exhausted after four previous years of WWI, the Estonian soldiers had low morale and lacked arms and sufficient trained men. So initially the Red Army was quickly able to capture vast areas of Estonia. Within a couple of weeks Viru, Võru and Tartu counties fell, as well as parts of Harju, Järva, Viljandi and Pärnu counties. By Christmas Day 1918, a hundred years ago, the front line was approaching Tallinn, Paide, Viljandi and Pärnu.
By any person’s assessment, the situation was looking quite hopeless, so in an act of desperation on 27 December 1918 (virtually just a month after the War of Independence began) the Provisional Government of Estonia contacted Great Britain and requested their help to fight the Red Army.
Great Britain was reluctant to send troops, but (thanks mainly to Winston Churchill) the British instead sent their warships to Tallinn carrying much needed munitions & weapons for the Estonian armed forces. British naval ships also took over the maritime defence of Estonia’s coastline, to defend against Russian warships.
The British squadron’s arrival brought a huge positive effect on the morale of Estonian troops, as did the arrival of Finnish volunteers to Estonia on New Year’s Eve in 1918. In addition to our northern cousins, the Estonian Army suddenly had the assistance of the White Russian, Latvian, Ingrian, Baltic German, Danish & Swedish volunteer units who had all come to help us. The fledgling Estonian nation suddenly realised – we were not alone!
The key turning point in Estonia’s War of Independence thus came during the most depressing days of late December 1918. It was then that people who valued nationhood came to the realisation that they needed to protect their homeland, and to cast aside the fear of Russia’s might and size that had been instilled in them for centuries. Slowly, but with increasing pace, one after another, volunteer battalions of Estonians were formed, given fresh arms, and set off to defend their new nation. These volunteers included many schoolboys, university students, young intellectuals and women.
By the first week of January 1919, the Red Army’s advance was halted in many small ‘breakthrough battles’, after which the Reds were resisted everywhere across the front. The tide of war turned!
By February 1919, this very time 100 years ago today, the Red Army had been pushed back – completely beyond the Estonian border.
The Estonian War of Independence did not end there, of course. On the contrary, the leaders of the Red Army, who had initially mistakenly believed the Estonians would not defend themselves, now began to take the war of Independence more seriously and amassed far more powerful forces against Estonia.
Thus, from now, February through to May 1919, 100 years ago today, fierce battles would be waged on the southern front of Estonia. And worse, in June 1919 Estonia would be attacked by another new foe – the German Landeswehr and German Freikorps. And later on, the Estonian Army would then go on to help the Latvians defeat their occupiers, in one massive battle on Latvian soil – the Battle of Cesis – that is still commemorated each year to this day by Estonians by a national public holiday – Võidupüha – on 23rd June .
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. That is another chapter of history – and it will not be until the next Vabariigi aastapäev in February 2020 that we will be able to properly commemorate and remember what happened 100 years ago.
EV100 is after all, a three-year long celebration – from 1918 to 1920.
I hope you will forgive me for my rather long history lesson. But as someone wiser than me once told me – if you don’t remember the past then you have no reference points for living the future.
Or as my father Raivo once told me – Kui sul ei ole meeles mineviku, siis sul ei ole õiget tuleviku.