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COMMEMORATION SPEECH – 102nd ANNIVERSARY OF ESTONIAN INDEPENDENCE

23. February 2020, at Sydney Estonian House,141 Campbell Street, Surry Hills

I pay my respects to the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation whose land this Estonian House stands, and to their elders past, present and future. Like the Estonian people who had their land invaded and occupied for many centuries, I think we must recognise the historical parallels with the Australian indigenous peoples. The desire for cultural identity and independence is a universal concept, not just exclusive to a particular Northern European tribe located on the shores of the Baltic Sea. 

For this year’s Estonian Independence Day commemorations I will again speak in English. Whilst it is normally essential to honour Estonia by speaking it’s language, I recognise that many of our younger generation genuinely struggle with the Estonian language, and so I do this as not to alienate them and to help them better understand their Estonian ancestry.

Today we recognise the 102nd Anniversary of the Estonian Declaration of Independence made on the eve of February 24, 1918. 

Today we also remember those who fought and gave their lives for Estonia’s freedom in the subsequent War of Independence, which began on November 28, 1918. We respect those young men, women, students, farmers, workers – who all responded to the needs of the situation – and risked their lives to turn a dream – into reality.

In my speech last year I gave an overview of the events in the year following the Declaration of Independence. If you will allow me, I will refresh your memory of the events of those critical twelve months:

During most of 1918, the occupying Germans were in power in Estonia so the Independence movement of 24 February 1918 was forced to go underground. It wasn’t until the Germanswithdrew from Estonia after the formal end of WWI in mid November 1918, that Estonia truly had a very brief period of real independence. 

However on 28 November 1918 the Red Army attacked the very poorly prepared new independent state of Estonia from the east, at the Battle of Narva.

Due to basic lack of arms and low morale amongst the Estonian defenders, the Russians conquered more than half of the country in a matter of weeks and almost made it to Tallinn. These were very despondent times, it very much looked like the Independence Declaration made on the evening of 23 February 1918 would remain just an aspirational statement, not a reality. 

But thanks to an increase in morale and belief in nationhood, as well as unexpected help from volunteers from Finland and the arrival of vital arms from the British Navy, the Russians were eventually halted and then they were reversed. 

By the beginning of February 1919, the Estonian Army had successfully pushed the Red Army back all the way to the borders of Estonia.

Of course Estonia’s War of independence did not end there. On the contrary, the leaders of the Red Army, who initially did not believe that the Estonians could mount a defence, began to take the war more seriously, and amassed far more powerful forces against Estonia.

Consequently in 1919 in the months from February through to May, a series of fresh battles were fought, on the southern front of Estonia.

The Estonian Army was forced to protect itself against a now much larger Red Army by periodically retreating – and then attacking. This tactic, together with the increasing resolve and self-belief of the Estonian volunteer soldier in a free and independent Estonia, slowly paid off. The eventual result was that over three months, by May 1919, the Red Army which again expected Estonian resistance to crumble, became exhausted. 

General Laidoner, Commander in Chief of the Estonian forces, then made the decision to take the fighting into enemy territory – ie. into Russia and Latvia – and thereafter Estonia escaped any further destruction. Any future fighting would no longer be on Estonian soil.

In taking the fight outside Estonia’s borders, in June of 1919 the Estonians met a new foe – the Baltic German volunteer army known as the Landeswehr. 

During the past few months, the Baltic German forces in Latvia, had gained considerable strength. By April 1919 they brought down the Latvian Government led by Kärlis Ulmanis and established a puppet government to their own advantage. In May 1919 the Landeswehr – with support from several German Freikorps and anti-Bolshevik Latvians – conquered Riga and then moved northward towards Estonia. 

At the town of Cesis in Latvia (known to Estonians as Võnnu), the Landeswehr came up against the Estonian forces, who saw the Germans as an old enemy and a threat to Latvia as well as to Estonia. A war between the two sides ensued, and in a final battle on June 23 the Estonian forces took Cesis and then pushed the Germans all the way back to Riga. TheGermans were effectively routed. To this day, the anniversary of the Battle of Võnnu (or Cesis) is celebrated in Estonia as Victory Day (or Võidupüha), a national public holiday.

As a consequence of Estonia’s defeat of the German Landeswehr, in July 1919 the government of Ulmanis was returned to power in Riga. In September 1919, the Latvian Provisional Government asked for further military help from Estonia, and so two armoured trains were sent to Riga, helping to stabilise the situation and keep the Latvian Provisional Government in power.

Thus in Latvia’s hour of need, the fresh Republic of Estonia helped it’s southern neighbour to rid itself of foreign occupiers and helped Latvia to also achieve it’s independence as a new nation. 

The decisive victory over the Landeswehr initially produced unprecedented enthusiasm for the war amongst Estonians. While the Red Army was fought against out of a patriotic sense of duty to protect the homeland, the war against the Baltic Germans was driven by a desire by Estonians for payback for imagined or real injustices that had lasted for centuries. 

However, now that the Germans were defeated, and the Estonians had expelled the Red Army well out of Estonia, this enthusiasm had started turning into fatigue, as after a year of fighting ordinary Estonian volunteer soldiers were increasingly yearning to return home to their families and their former lives. 

So, following Estonian Army’s final battles in late 1919 against the Red Army outside the gates of St. Petersburg, Estonia was relieved that Lenin’s government for the first time expressed serious desire to make peace with the Estonians. Negotiations proceeded, and on 31 December a ceasefire was signed, and on 2 February 1920 – just over 100 years ago – Soviet Russia formally signed a peace treaty with the Republic of Estonia, recognising Estonia’s independence and it’s sovereign borders “for perpetuity”.

The Peace Treaty of Tartu ended Estonia’s War of Independence, which ultimately cost the Estonian side over 6,000 lives, 3,558 of them killed in direct combat, and many times that number seriously wounded and maimed. In terms of percentage of population this was a very high price to pay for a small, fledging nation of a million people to achieve independence. As a comparison, this would be the equivalent of modern day Australia losing over 80,000 souls in war.

The common saying is that history is written by the winners. In the case of Estonia, we are indeed lucky to be in a position today to tell our story, because we won our war of independence and we won our nationhood. 

A big danger to us today are world leaders who are history revisionists who will readily employ false news and misinformation to seed doubts, with the objective of denying us legitimacy and generally confuse the minds of younger generations. 

As example, last week Vladimir Putin made the argument that poor Russia was forced to enter into it’s infamous secret pact with Hitler just before WWII (whereby Estonia was illegally occupied by the Soviet Union) only because of the actions (or inactions) of Poland. Yet again, someone else is to blame. This ridiculous new version of history is clearly an insult to the memory of the brave Poles, whose country never really threatened anyone, and was subsequently divided in half and cannibalised by these two heinous regimes. A clear case of the winner trying to re-write history.

Say these mistruths often enough, and sadly, people start believing it. So, we must remain vigilant and never stop telling people our history, our proud story. 

Thank you to the young team here today – Marju, Ella, Felix, Kristjan, Peeter, Oskar, Andrew, Rhys, Sandra, the ‘Kooskõlas’ choir, ‘Lõke’ choir, folkdancing group ‘Virmalised’ – who have together here staged a wonderful and unique version of the events of over a century ago.

Like the proud indigenous people of this land, we Estonians also have our own aspirational dreamtime stories that are thousands of years old, except in our case 102 years ago we were lucky enough – despite our small size and location in Europe – to finally see our dream of independence and nationhood come to reality.

Long Live the Estonian peopleLong Live the Estonian Republic!

Sulev Kalamäe

Honorary Consul of Estonia

By Kristi Barrow

Loves all things Estonian. Especially Crafters Elderflower gin. Aussie born.

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