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Churchill and the Baltic, Part 3
“It Leaves Me Quite Cold,” 1931-40
Baltic historians in their partisanship tend to see British prewar policy toward Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in a narrow light. “Great Britain generally supported the Baltic States morally but did not commit herself economically,” wrote one in 1980. This contrasts somewhat with a statement in the same article: “The British had made considerable investments in the Baltic countries.”29 In fact, Britain was the largest or second-largest Baltic trading partner throughout the inter-war period, and British trade agreements with Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia offered tariff concessions on British exports.30 It is fair to say, however, that the Baldwin-Chamberlain policies made Britain an unreliable ally, and squandered the only prewar chance for Baltic security by failing to reach an understanding with Russia, as Winston Churchill had urged.31
Churchill’s view during the 1930s varied inversely with those of Britain’s prime ministers. They looked to Germany as a bulwark against Bolshevism; Churchill saw Germany as the main threat to peace. With his grasp of strategic reality, despite his lifelong antipathy to communism, the Member for Epping became increasingly disposed to an Anglo-Soviet accord in the face of Hitler.
The story of the Western powers’ long, futile negotiations with the Soviet Union is one of missed opportunity, not because an understanding with the Allies was not in Soviet interests, but because the Allies would not pursue one. Ivan Maisky, Soviet Ambassador to Britain in 1932-43, imprisoned during one of Stalin’s Jewish purges in 1949-53, later a remarkably frank memoir-writer, always blamed the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 on Chamberlain and Daladier, blaming them for failing seriously to negotiate with Moscow.32
British attitudes pre-dated Chamberlain. When foreign secretary Anthony Eden visited Moscow in 1935, Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov asked if there was any chance that Britain would join Russia in guaranteeing Baltic security. “In my view there is not,” Eden replied. Litvinov then asked, was the security of the Baltic States a British interest? Eden said, “it would be short-sighted of anyone to think it better to have a war in the east than to avoid war in the west. The interest of His Majesty’s Government in the Baltic States is not like their interest in Belgium and the Low Countries.”33
Soviet Overtures to Britain
Litvinov replied that Britain’s reluctance to involve itself in a “Baltic Pact” was not conducive to peace in Europe: “On the one hand there is Germany with obviously aggressive designs. On the other hand, there are a number of states trying to check Germany. Great Britain, by failing to support these attempts, appears to be going to the aid of Germany.” Eden replied that this “was a misreading of British policy.”34 Later, visiting Poland’s Col. Beck, Litvinov supported the idea of an “Eastern Locarno,” not involving Britain.35 (The Locarno Treaties of 1925, between the World War I Allies and new states of central and eastern Europe, sought to secure their territorial borders and normalize relations with defeated Germany.)
Only Churchill among Britons seemed able to comprehend that pacts of mutual security, without the participation of Britain, were as meaningless as the Estonia-Latvia pact without Lithuania, Finland and Poland. British disdain for collective security was heightened in June 1935 with the signing of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement. Now, Churchill wrote:
Europe was astonished to learn that the British Government had made a private bargain for themselves about naval strength with Nazi Germany [which] condoned the breaking of treaties about naval strength at the very moment when they were urging the smaller powers of Europe to make a combined protest against the breaking of the military clauses. This was a heavy blow at all international cooperation in support of public law. They now found themselves left high and dry, and the interests of Scandinavia and the Baltic were profoundly affected.36
Anglo-French diplomacy could not prevent Nazi-Soviet rapprochement four years later, even after Chamberlain’s “hardening” toward Hitler following the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in early 1939. The most notable event during the last months of peace was a Soviet offer, on 18 April 1939, of a formal alliance between Britain, France and the USSR, pledging all three to “act together“in case of aggression against any one of them, or against all countries “situated between the Baltic and Black Sea and bordering on the USSR.”37 Chamberlain refused this offer because, The Times said, “a hard and fast alliance with Russia might hamper other negotiations and approaches.”39 In other words, Erick Estorick wrote, “it would rule out a continuation of the Munich policy.”39 Chamberlain believed it would have resulted in “an immediate declaration of war on the part of Germany.”40 The unlikelihood of Hitler wanting a two-front war in 1939 aside, Chamberlain’s inaction distressed Churchill, who knew that “to Germany the command of the Baltic is vital.”41 Repeatedly he urged Chamberlain to embrace the “great identity of interests” between Britain and Northern Europe:
Take the countries of the Baltic, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which were once the occasion of the wars of Peter the Great. It is a vital major interest of Russia that these Powers should not fall into the hands of Nazi Germany….I should have thought that this plan of a triple alliance is a preliminary step, and an invitation to other countries in danger on this front.42
Chamberlain was unmoved and Churchill by then probably too late: On 3 May 1939 Maxim Litvinov, Jewish proponent of collective security, was replaced by Vyacheslav Molotov, chosen partly to please Hitler. Chamberlain also downplayed American overtures, spurning Roosevelt’s February 1938 offer to mediate in Europe. The American ambassador to Moscow, Joseph Davies, predicted disaster, telling U.S. Ambassador to Britain Joseph P. Kennedy that:
…he could tell Chamberlain from me that if they are not careful they will drive Stalin into Hitler’s arms. Britain and France snubbed Russia by excluding the Soviet from Munich; the Soviets did not trust them anyway, and feared they were trying to use Russia as a cat’s paw, and would leave her to fight Germany alone.43
In his diary for the same date Davies reflected that “the only man who really appreciates the real imminence of disaster over here is Winston Churchill.”
What the Balts Really Wanted
The governments in Kaunas, Tallinn and Riga were officially opposed to a Russo-British “understanding,” which many historians believe would have been an open invitation for the USSR to invade.44 But official attitudes were contradicted by important diplomats, notably Ambassador Mikelis Valters, a distinguished statesman with close links to his government. On 23 June 1939, Valters told British minister to Brussels Sir Robert Clive that “a very dangerous situation would arise” if the Allied-Soviet negotiations collapsed. Latvia’s “opposition,” Valters explained, was in fear of Hitler. In truth, a Russo-British agreement to assure its territorial integrity “would be welcomed in Latvia even though there might be, for the sake of form, an official protest.”45 Valters believed “that a declaration of neutrality meant renouncing the principle of collective security of the League of Nations.”46 Valters’ remarks stunned the British Foreign Office, which had been reporting only the official line of the Latvian government; and like state departments everywhere, the F.O. insisted its interpretation was the only correct one.
In July, Russo-German negotiations were well advanced, while Allied negotiations had continued to falter. Molotov then made a new demand: no agreement with Britain unless it covered “indirect aggression” against the Baltic States, this being defined as any policy hostile to the Soviets. (“Indirect aggression” was the excuse Stalin would use for his Baltic invasions a year later.) That was too much for the Foreign Office, wrote David Crowe: It “would have been an immediate and open invitation to Soviet intervention in the Baltic States.” Crowe also notes a poignant truth, not widely understood: “For all practical purposes, the Baltic question ended any hope of a strong British-Soviet front against Hitler.”47
“Into Hitler’s Arms”
On August 23rd, the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact broke like a bombshell on the world. Secret protocols of agreement placed Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania “in the Soviet sphere” should “any changes” occur in each. The implications were clear. After the fall of Poland, Hitler obligingly removed German nationals from the Baltic States, while Stalin demanded they accept Soviet military bases for “mutual security.” Maisky, his ambassador in London, knew what that meant: “If the Baltic countries have to lose their independence, it is better for them to be brought into the Soviet state system rather than the German one.” A fortnight later Maisky noted that the Chamberlain government would “recognize ‘de facto’ the changes in the Baltics so as to settle ‘de jure’ the whole issue later, probably after the war.” Blithely overlooking that his government was aligned with Hitler, Maisky told Eden in December that British recognition of Soviet absorption of the Baltics “could lead to an improvement in relations.”48
The inevitable action came in June 1940. While Hitler was sweeping across France, Stalin manufactured flimsy pretexts to occupy Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. After “elections” in which only pro-Soviet parties were allowed to participate, the three republics “requested admission” to the USSR, which was graciously granted in August.
The year following occupation saw the first of three Baltic holocausts. In July 1940, 150,000 Balts were shipped to the Urals. Men were separated from their families; people were packed forty to a cattle car; infants who died en route were thrown out beside the tracks. At Vorkuta, Potma, Kolyma, Kengir, Solikamsk and Norisk, arrivals were shot or drowned in toilets. Others were stripped, or bullied into selling a coat for a few potatoes. Sent to work in labor camps, few ever returned. In June 1941, the Germans invaded the USSR. We should not find it shocking that the first Wehrmacht hordes entering Riga were garlanded with flowers, while people waved the maroon and white flag of the Republic and thanked God they were still alive.49
Even after Churchill became prime minister, British reaction to Stalin’s takeover was muted. When Halifax heard about the invasion of Lithuania on 15 June he said, “It leaves me quite cold!” 50 A month later Halifax suggested that the annexation had taken place in the “course of the war and there was no certainty that it would be permanent.”51 His naïveté was matched by Roosevelt, speaking to American Lithuanians in October: “Even the smallest nation has the same right to enjoy independence as the largest ones….Time will come and Lithuania will be free again.”52
Roosevelt’s and Halifax’s true beliefs were more cynical. In 1941 FDR would astonish his Undersecretary of State, Sumner Welles, by saying he did not think the Baltic peoples “demanded very much respect or consideration,” given that the main objective was Hitler’s defeat.” Welles asked Halifax how Stalin’s brutal conquest of the Baltics was any different than that of Hitler’s in Holland and Belgium. Halifax replied, “the Baltic states for over a century had been under the domination of Russia.” The same might be said of the Finns, Welles retorted. Halifax echoed Roosevelt: “he did not have the same respect for and regard for the Baltic peoples that he did for the Finnish people.”53
Churchill and the Baltic Conquest
Prior to the Soviet occupation, Churchill seemed to lean in Halifax’s direction. “No doubt it seems reasonable to the Soviet Union,” he had said in 1939, to use events to regain some of its territory lost after World War I: “It is in our interests that the USSR should increase their strength in the Baltic, thereby limiting the risk of German domination in that area.”54
This statement has been enough for some to conclude that Churchill accepted Soviet control of the Baltic states. But that ignores Churchill’s reaction to the Baltic holocaust in summer 1940, and his mental turmoil—on the one hand desperately needing an ally, on the other hand cognizant of peoples whose liberty he had been among the first to champion.
Which way to turn? There was little question for Churchill. At the height of the Blitz, he declared that “we do not propose to recognize any territorial changes which take place during the war, unless they take place with the free consent and good will of the parties involved.”55 Churchill maintained that principle in Britain’s darkest hours, reaffirming it in the Atlantic Charter. In March 1942 Maisky’s diaries record this exchange:
Churchill: “I have, since the very beginning, been reluctant to recognize the 1941 borders, but, as Stalin was so insistent, I eventually agreed to do so….Maybe it’s a prejudice, but I’m a great believer in the principle of the free self-determination of nations which was also included in the Atlantic Charter.” Maisky: “But a broad democratic plebiscite was held in the Baltics.” WSC grinned slyly: “Yes, of course there was a plebiscite, but all the same….”56
Some critics declare that Churchill was only acting in self-interest. Non-recognition of the Soviet conquest meant Britain would keep £4 million in frozen Baltic assets and twenty-four requisitioned Baltic merchant vessels. Others point to Stafford Cripps, British Ambassador to Moscow, who urged that Churchill send Russia those ships and assets and recognize Soviet occupation in return for “better relations with Stalin.”57These are empty criticisms: The ships and assets were insignificant—Britain often lost that many ships to U-boats in a few days. Eden and the Foreign Office backed Churchill by insisting that relations would not be improved by bowing to Stalin’s demands with nothing in return.58 Churchill would resist recognizing the Sovietized Baltic even when it was to his advantage to do so, in late 1941 and 1942.
Featured image: Germans in Latvia, June 1941. “We should not find it shocking that the first Wehrmacht hordes entering Riga were garlanded with flowers, while people waved the maroon and white flag of the Republic and thanked God they were still alive.”
29 Edgar Anderson, “British Policy Toward the Baltic States 1940-1941,” in the Journal of Baltic Studies, 1980, XI/4: 326-28.
30 J.P. Trant, Economic Conditions in Latvia (London: HMSO, 1935), 10-12.
31 Anderson, 325.
32 Ivan Maisky, Memoirs of a Soviet Ambassador (New York: Scribners, 1968). Gabriel Gorodetsky, ed., The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2015), passim.
33 Anthony Eden, The Eden Memoirs: Facing the Dictators 1923-1938 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962), 16.
34 Ibid., 169.
35 Ibid.. 186.
36 Winston S. Churchill, Step by Step (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1939), 310.
37 Soviet Documents, vol. 3 (London: HMSO, 1962), 329.
38 The Times, London. 2 May 1939.
39 Erick Estorick, Stafford Cripps: A Biography (London: Heinemann, 1949), 171-72.
40 Margaret George, The Warped Vision: British Foreign Policy 1933-39 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1965), 206-07.
41 Winston S. Churchill, “Memorandum on Sea Power,” 27 March 1939, in Martin Gilbert, The Churchill Documents, vol. 13, The Coming of War, 1936-1939 (Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 2009), 1414.
42 Churchill, House of Commons, 19 May 1939, in Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1897-1963), 8 vols., New York: Bowker, 1974), VI 6119.
43 Joseph Davies, Mission to Moscow (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1941), 440.
44 Estorick, 172.
45 David M. Crowe. Jr., “Great Britain and the Baltic States,” in Stanley Vardys and Romuald Misiunas, eds., The Baltic States in Peace and War 1917-1945 (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978), 177.
46 Edgars Dunsdorfs, Karlis Ulmanis Dzive (Stockholm: Daugavas Apgads 1978), English synopsis, 611.
47 Crowe, “Great Britain and the Baltic States,” 18.
48 Gorodetsky, ed., Maisky Diaries, entries on 6 and 22 October 1939, 232, 317; editor’s note, 326.
49 Visvaldis Mangulis, Latvia in the Wars of the 20th Century (Princeton N.J.: Cognition Books, 1983), 80-94.
50 Robert Rhodes James, ed., Chips: The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1967), 258.
51 Halifax to War Cabinet, 26 JuIy 1940, in Anderson, 328.
52 Waverly Root, The Secret History of the War, 3 vols. (New York: Scribners, 1946), III, Casablanca to Katyn, 316.
53 Sumner Welles, The Time for Decision (New York: Harper, 1944), conversations of 15 June and 10 July 1941, 182 and 759-61.
54 Roger Parkinson, Peace for Our Time: Munich to Dunkirk: The Inside Story (New York: MacKay 1972), War Cabinet meeting of 16 November 1939, 268.
55 . Winston S. Churchill, Blood Sweat and Tears (New York: Putnams, 1941), speech of 5 September 1940, 356.
56 Maisky Diaries, entry of 16 March 1942, 418.
57 David Kirby, “Morality or Expediency: The Baltic Question in British-Soviet Relations 1941-1942,” in World War II and the Baltic States (State College, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978), 159.
58 Anthony Eden, The Eden Memoirs: The Reckoning (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), 79.
About the Author
Richard Langworth visited the Baltic in 1992 and again in 1995, when he bicycled the Latvian coast from Lithuania to Estonia, and presented a Latvian translation of Churchill’s The Dream to then-President Guntis Ulmanis. This is an updated version of articles in Finest Hour (1986-87) and in National Review (1990), with new entries based on The Churchill Documents, Vol. 13 (Hillsdale College Press, 2009) and the Maisky Diaries (2015).