Blood on the Snow:
The Struggle of Red and White in the Baltics
By David Meyler
October 2015

The three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are often treated as a single entity in the history of World War Two — if they are mentioned at all. But the region’s pre-war history if even less well known.

The ancient Romans knew these peoples as the Fenni (the Finnish-speaking Finns, Lapps and Estonians) and the Aestii (the Indo-European Baltic peoples), although, confusingly, this term seems to be the root of the modern word Estonian. The Finns and Estonians are the main surviving members of a linguistic group that once occupied much of the modern state of Russia. Lithuanian is considered the most archaic of all the Indo-European languages preserving memories of the great migrations of the diverse Aryan tribes. Some personal names from the region to this day indicate an ancient connection with northern India.

In short, all the Baltic peoples were cultural survivors, adapting and adopting when necessary, but preserving a unique identity. They proved conservative in religion as well, fiercely resisting conversion to Christianity. While Roman colonization was never a threat, trade routes did connect the Baltic with the Mediterranean, Baltic amber being considered more precious than gold. Gradual German colonization to the east in the early Middle Ages and Slavic expansion westwards pressured the Balts and Finns. Viking raiders established a chain of principalities all along the Baltic coast. The crusading orders of the Teutonic Knights and the Order of the Brethren led to the development of a number of largely German-speaking merchant towns. But the hinterland remained dominated by the unpacified, mostly pagan, tribesmen.

By the end of the Napoléonic wars in 1815, Imperial Russia had become the dominant power in the Baltic, and in spite of the rising power of the German empire during the 19th century, Russia kept control of the region until the Revolution of 1917.

Under the Russians, religion (Lutheran and Catholic opposed to Russian Orthodox), land holding systems (free peasants versus serfdom) and language all served to keep the Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians and Finns as distinct but relatively disenfranchised entities in the empire. A developing nationalism during the 19th century conflicted with Moscow's policy of enforced Russification.

There were important distinctions between the four regions. Lithuania was ruled by a largely Polish aristocracy, or at least heavily influenced by Polish culture, with an influential German-speaking merchant class in the coastal towns. Latvia and Estonia were dominated by German-speaking landowners. Finland was ruled by a Swedish-speaking minority. The native Finnish and Baltic languages were considered little more than peasant dialects. The national awakening of the 19th century, which saw the publication of the such works as the Kalevala, the Finnish equivalent to the Iliad, brought back pride and respect for the native cultures.

The failed Russian Revolution of 1905 was largely led by the Baltic states. However, with the outbreak of the First World War, most of the ethnic Lithuanian, Latvian, Finnish and Estonian units in the Russian army remained loyal, although some small "armies of exile" were formed under German sponsorship. With the collapse of the empire in 1917, all four Baltic states declared independence.

Red Guard, White Guard

Länkipohja, 1918. This White officer has just finished off several of these Finnish Red Guards, gunned down after their surrender.


A four-month civil war, January-May 1918, broke out in Finland between the pro-Soviet Red Guards and anti-Soviet White Guards. The White Guards under General Mannerheim had already gained the upper hand when Germany intervened with both men and supplies. That intervention gave the Whites a definitive victory. Finland was briefly in danger of becoming a German vassal state, having accepted the brother-in-law of Kaiser Wilhelm as king, but the collapse of Germany in November allowed for the creation of a democratic republic. The short but bitter conflict had cost the lives of 24,000 Finns, of whom just 6500 had died in combat. There had been mass executions of civilians on both sides, but the final riposte of the Whites saw some of the worst excesses. That Finland was able to so quickly heal the deep wounds this little-known war caused and maintain a working democracy, is a remarkable achievement.

Revolution Comes to Estonia

Finnish soldiers arrive in Talinn, 1918.


Estonia was briefly occupied by the Germans in late 1917, and then the Red Army invaded, establishing a short-lived, indigenous Soviet government. Gen. Yudenich's White Russian army, meanwhile, had attempted to take Petrograd (Leningrad), failed and retreated into Estonia. Those forces served to distract the local Bolsheviks. The newly-formed Estonian army of Gen. Laidoner was then able to liberate the country from all the Germans and Russians.


The Peoples Republic of Latvia

In Latvia, a Bolshevik government lasted five months, the longest of any of the Baltic states, and had some measure of popular support. The government of the country had been dominated by the German landowning aristocracy, but the conscripts inducted into the imperial army had been the Latvian-speaking peasants. Having become thoroughly politicized by Socialist activists during the last several months of the war, the Latvian troops returned home looking to overturn the status quo. But the intervention of the German Freikorps under Gen. Gustav Adolf Joachim Rüdiger von der Goltz (an unofficial right-wing German militia) overthrew the Reds. A White Latvian government was then established, but Von der Goltz proceeded to overthrow this government as well.

A mixed force of White Russians and Germans attacked Riga, defended by the remnants of the Latvian army, bolstered with some aid from Estonia and Finland. The Western Allies, initially in favor of German intervention against the Reds, now thought it time Von der Goltz returned to Germany. A British expedition arrived in the Baltic, allowing the Latvians to repulse Von der Goltz, who then fell back into Lithuania.

Lithuania’s “War of Liberation”

Lithuania, meanwhile, had to fight off both the Bolshevik Russians and the newly formed Polish army. In February 1919, fighting broke out between the Lithuanian and Bolshevik armies. By the end of August, the Bolsheviks had been contained and pushed out. Northern Lithuania was then invaded by an odd coalition of Von der Goltz's Freikorps and some White Russians, called the "Bermondtists" after their leader. A decisive battle was fought at Radviliskis in November, and the Bermondtists were forced to retreat into Germany.

Fighting had by now broken out between the Red Army and the Poles, during which a Polish force had entered Lithuanian territory and occupied Vilnius. The Poles had old historical claims to the city, which the Lithuanians considered their capital. In spite of a treaty in which Poland agreed to give up the city, the Poles re-occupied Vilnius for good in 1922. Lithuania was unable to force them out, although the government did not finally recognize the fait accompli until 1938. In all, some 4,400 Lithuanians had been killed in the "War of Liberation."

Two of Lithuania's staunch defenders.


Between February and October 1920, the Bolshevik government in Moscow signed a series of peace treaties with the four new republics, recognizing their independence. It had been a hard-fought and confused struggle, with little unity among the four states. The domestic political and economic situations remained unstable. Only Finland was able to maintain a functioning democracy. Poland's chaotic political situation led to a military dictatorship in 1926. Lithuania followed with a three-year dictatorship between 1926-29, and after a brief hiatus, in 1932 a one-party state was permanently established. In March 1934, Konstantin Pats established a dictatorship in Estonia, while two months later Ulmanis staged a coup to become dictator of Latvia.

By the late 1930s, Soviet Russia had again become a clear menace to the independence of the four Baltic republics, but mutual distrust prevented any kind of concerted defence. Poland had wished to take leadership of a united block consisting of itself plus the four Baltic states.  Finland, however, preferred to stay neutral and had more natural leanings towards the other Scandinavian nations, and Lithuania had good reason to fear Polish hegemony. In 1934, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia signed an accord called the Baltic Entente. It was both the first and last step toward economic and political co-operation, and nothing further was accomplished.

The Finns had not entirely healed the wounds of the civil war. During the early 1930s, a local fascist party, the Lapuans, had attempted a coup. Following a botched kidnap attempt of Finland's first president, the Lapuans under another former White general, Kurt Wallenius, attempted to overthrow the government in 1932. It was poorly organized, although 6000 followers mobilized. President Pehr Evind Svinhufvud, recently elected, called on the nation for support. Wallenius' following rapidly dwindled to just 300 supporters. Without a shot being fired the rebellion was over. The wily Wallenius managed to survive the fiasco and would eventually receive a combat command during the war with Russia, but the fascist movement was discredited and marginalized.

Lithuania's position was complicated by German claims on Memel, one of the old German trading ports — called Klaipeda by Lithuanians. Most of the Baltic states still looked upon Germany as a natural ally and none wished to go to war with the Germans over Klaipeda. In March 1939, the Lithuanian government gave in to German demands and ceded the city.  This removed one diplomatic complication in the formation of a Baltic union, but it was a devastating blow to Lithuanian morale. Worse was to come. The defeat of Poland by Germany and the Soviet Union in September 1939 brought the brief reunion of Vilnius with Lithuania. At the same time, the Soviet Union made a "request" to each of the Baltic states asking to place Soviet garrisons in each of their territories. Even though acceptance meant the total occupation of their countries as the next likely step, rejection obviously meant war.

Prelude to War

At full mobilization the Latvian army could field one reserve and seven infantry divisions with supporting elements, about 130,000 men combined. Estonia could have mobilized 100,000 men in four divisions, a cavalry regiment and tank regiment. Lithuania would have fielded about 150,000 men in five divisions, plus two cavalry brigades and supporting units. Finland could fully equip eight divisions, about 150,000 men. These were by no means negligible forces, but the Baltic armies lacked motor transport, modern communications, heavy artillery and modern aircraft. Finland was isolated by the Baltic Sea, dominated by the Red Navy.  The remaining three states had no natural lines of mutual defence, and stretched out along the Baltic coast, had a long exposed frontier with the Soviet Union. Perhaps a unified response might have given Moscow some thought, but there was no mutual trust amongst the leaders, and each knew their own countries could not stand up to the Soviets alone. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia peacefully accepted Soviet garrisons. Only Finland rejected the Soviet demands outright, and that meant war.

Lithuanian soldiers man a Browning heavy machine gun, sometime between the wars.


For the other three Baltic states, their time was limited. In the summer of 1940, all were absorbed as integral parts of the Soviet Union. The three national armies, after their officer corps had been liquidated, were re-organized into Red Army units. The Lithuanian forces formed the 29th Rifle Corps (179th and 184th Rifle Divisions), the Estonians became the 22nd Rifle Corps (180th and 182nd Rifle Divisions) and the Latvians formed the 24th Rifle Corps (181st and 183rd Rifle Divisions). For some time, these units continued to use their old uniforms and weapons as the arrival of replacements from Soviet stocks was slow.

As might have been expected, most of these units proved unreliable when Hitler unleashed his massive assault on the Soviet Union in June 1941. Resistance movements, some already long preparing, sprang up. However, by the end of summer, when the Germans were sure the Soviets had been decisively defeated, their secret police moved in and eliminated the nationalist leadership of these resistance forces. Nazi Germany had as little interest in Baltic independence as the Soviets.

Finland’s long struggle during the Second World War is relatively well known, and is too complex to be dealt with here. However, in summary, Finland was the only of the four Baltic republics established after 1918 to preserve its independence, no matter how proscribed, by the end of the war in 1945. For Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, they would have to wait almost another 50 years before they could fly their national flags again.

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