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Churchill and the Baltic, Part 4: From Dissolution to Rebirth
Featured Image: “Here we stir the embers of the past and light the beacons of the future. Old flags are raised anew; the passions of vanished generations awake.” —WSC, The Aftermath, 1929. Riga Castle (built 1330), today home to the President of Latvia. (Foto.sanne.lv)
Continued from Part 3….
“No doubt where the right lay” 1940-1995
Soviet Ambassador Ivan Maisky was a “Bollinger Bolshevik” who mixed support for Communism with a love of Western luxury. He was friendly to Churchill, whose views he recorded in his diary for October 1939. Churchill, wrote Maisky, expressed willingness to let Stalin have the Baltic States. (This was eight months before the Russians actually occupied those countries.) They were better off in the Soviet sphere than the German.59 There is no confirmation of this, except the context. Britain had just declared war on Germany, and Churchill was as anxious to separate Hitler and Stalin.
Characteristically, 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.”60 There was no such announcement. This must have been said very privately.
“The Russian danger is therefore our danger”
When Germany invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, Churchill broadcast: “the Russian danger is therefore our danger.”61 Many Britons now renewed the demand to recognize Soviet occupation of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. It came now, not only from soft-liners like Cripps and Halifax, but from close Churchill associates like Eden and Beaverbrook.62 Stalin was adamant on the point. But de jure recognition was one thing Stalin would never get get.
Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s emissary, visiting Churchill in the summer of 1941, suggested that the Russians were more interested in future borders and influence than military aid.63 But Churchill would agree only to a mutual assistance pact and a promise that neither ally would make a separate peace with Germany. He even promoted an agreement “that territorial frontiers would be settled in accordance with the wishes of the people who live there,” who would “be free to choose their own form of government.”64 Such a statement was struck by the War Cabinet on the grounds that it might complicate future relations. It is significant that Churchill drafted this over a month before the Atlantic Charter—which promised the same thing.
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. But Churchill was more influenced by American opinion, and the USA at that time remained opposed to recognizing a Soviet Baltic.65
While Eden was in Moscow, Churchill was in America. Eden urged him to consider with Roosevelt “immediate recognition” of the Soviet Baltic out of “stark realism.” The Anglo-Americans could not stop the Russians from getting their way, Eden said.66 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.67
“The Ireland of Russia”
Principles tend to fade in the face of mortal danger. By the spring 1942, Singapore had fallen, Tobruk was threatened, and Britain’s gains in North Africa had vanished. U-boats were exacting fearful tolls on Atlantic shipping. No significant military forces had materialized from America. In January Churchill called for a Parliamentary vote of confidence. He won handily, but discontent simmered. Would America slip back into isolation after the war? Defying most expectations, however, Russia was holding out against Hitler. If the allies prevailed, the USSR would play a major role in Europe’s future.68
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.69 Churchill opposed both. He was joined by his deputy prime minister, the Labour Party leader Clement Attlee, who said these actions might “stultify the causes for which we are fighting.”70 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.”71
British counsels were divided. Canada, New Zealand and South Africa were against recognition. Beaverbrook was adamantly for it: “The Baltic States are the Ireland of Russia,” he wrote. “Their strategic control by Moscow is as essential to the Russians as the possession of the Irish bases would be valuable to us.”72 This was curious analogy, since Churchill had refused to occupy Irish ports, which remained Irish throughout the war.
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?”73 Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians could offer some arguments.
Changing fortunes, changing views
The pressure of events wore on the Prime Minister. The Russians were holding down 185 German divisions on a thousand-mile front. They otherwise would have faced Britain. Privately, the Anglo-Americans feared that Stalin might yet again do a deal with Hitler. 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.74
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 in 1926, fled, ultimately to the USA, where he died in 1944. From June 1940, politicians, teachers and intelligentsia—any who seemed a threat to the Soviet occupation—were deported en masse.
On March 10th Maisky wrote in his diary that Roosevelt “agrees in essence, but is against any open or secret agreement because of public opinion…if the British Government were to conclude a secret agreement of which he was not informed, he would not object.” On the 16th, Churchill told Maisky he had “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 replied that “a broad democratic plebiscite” had been held in the Baltics. Churchill grinned knowingly: “Yes, of course there was a plebiscite, but all the same….”75
On 8 April 1942, the War Cabinet approved British recognition of the 1941 Soviet borders.76 But now Roosevelt objected. The USA, he said through Secretary of State Cordell Hull, “would not remain silent if territorial clauses were included in the [Anglo-Soviet] treaty.” If necessary Washington would “issue a separate American statement disavowing the whole business.” Eden conveyed this to Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov who, surprisingly, accepted. Averell Harriman, FDR’s envoy to Stalin, believed that with the Germans threatening the Crimea and Ukraine, the Russians deemed border arguments “a profitless squabble.”77
Thus it was that American, not British diplomacy forestalled de jure recognition of the Soviet Baltic in 1942. But Martin Gilbert maintained that this was actually “to Churchill’s relief.”78 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.”79
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. Others, including 45,000 Estonians, were conscripted into the German army. In hastily-built death camps, Jews were slaughtered: 200,000 in Lithuania, 60,000 in Latvia, 4000 in Estonia.80 As part of the Nazi colony “Ostland,” the Baltic was ruled by the Gestapo and a few quislings. When the Red Army returned in 1944, a third holocaust followed for “enemies of the Soviet state.”
An Estonian refugee remembered: “The Germans were brutal, but the Russians had been worse. People disappeared, and if you asked ‘Why?,’ you would be taken yourself.” After the war the cycle of arrests, executions and deportations continued: “In all, a stunning total of 350,000 were lost between 1939 and 1949, about a third of Estonia’s population. Gone.” For the three countries the figure was over 750,000. Clearances of Baltic citizens continued under Stalin’s successors; ethnic Russians moved in while natives were shuttled out.81
Teheran aftermath: Realpolitik?
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.82
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.”83
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.84
Churchill was a politician depending on the support of a majority, and no politician could remain blind to that reality. Any pronouncement on the Baltic, he added, “might have disastrous effects in the United States in the election year, and there is no doubt that we should ourselves be subject to embarrassing attack in the House of Commons if we decided the fate of these countries.”85 But in judging Churchill, we are obliged to consider his complete record. And for him, the subject wasn’t closed.
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.”86 Eden agreed, applying a positive and self-serving rationale:
The Russians contend that the Baltic States voted themselves into the Soviet Union in the summer of 1940, and thus formed an integral part of the USSR at the date of the German attack. There is not the smallest chance of the Russians abandoning any part of this claim…. [Soviet boundaries] fall short of the boundaries of Tsarist Russia [and] we should agree to all these claims. But in the case of the Baltic States, we should maintain our decision not formally and publicly to recognise them before the peace settlement, as otherwise we should certainly have a clamour here and abroad about violating the Atlantic Charter and have difficulties with the Americans.87
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?
Actually all this is done for the sake of Russia, which is resolved to seize the Baltic States and take what she wishes from Poland and Roumania. Nor do we know that a second series of demands may not follow her further military victories. Any division between Britain and the United States will make us powerless in this matter. Together we can probably control the situation.88
Control was a doubtful proposition. In Britain, Churchill told Eden, the Left was blaming “our weak departures from the Atlantic Charter.” The only reason for those departures was trying “to keep in step with Russian territorial demands—for the Baltic States, for part of East Prussia, for the Curzon Line [as Poland’s eastern border], for Bessarabia and there may be more.”89
Unreconciled and unhappy, Churchill had further thoughts about British policy of going along with Stalin. When Stalin sent a curt aide-mémoire on the administration of liberated French territory, he said it gave the Allies,
an opportunity to ask the Soviet Government whether they will agree to a tripartite Commission in respect of the occupied countries in the east of Europe, including particularly the Baltic States, the liberated districts of Poland and the conquered territories of Roumania and Bulgaria as they fall later.90
The March of Fate
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. Often they buried their dead with crosses underground, to prevent desecration by the communists. When Riga fell on 13 October 1944, guerilla remnants retreated to Courland, northeastern Latvia. Here these formidable soldiers fought Stalin to a standstill.
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. So too thought Hitler, who three times refused to evacuate Courland in 1945.91 But the West had no such intentions. Balts found themselves confronted by tanks bearing American white stars: Shermans supplied by America, thrown into battle before their new red stars could be painted on. They 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.92
In the end, the United States, along with Britain, Australia, Canada and a few other countries never recognized the Soviet incorporation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Baltic gold was safeguarded in London, and their embassies continued to function. 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
In hindsight, the fate of the Baltic States was sealed in 1939 when Britain’s weak overtures to Russia failed. An Anglo-Soviet understanding might have forestalled the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. But such a difficult diplomatic task was beyond Neville Chamberlain, who rejected cooperation with Moscow.
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. If the demands were met, 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 demands. The perceptive Churchill once told Eden, “do not be disappointed if you are not able to bring home a joint public declaration.”93
Churchill also repeated the Boer expression, “All will come right,” and by 1992 the Baltic was free. With friends in 1995 I bicycled through Latvia, where the British ambassador had arranged for us to meet local officials. 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.”94
Featured Image: “Here we stir the embers of the past and light the beacons of the future. Old flags are raised anew; the passions of vanished generations awake.” —WSC, The Aftermath, 1929. Riga Castle (1330), today home to the President of Latvia. (Foto.sanne.lv)
59 Gabriel Gorodetsky, ed., The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St James’s, 1932-1943 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), entry for 6 October 1939, 232.
60 Ibid., 317.
61 Churchill, “The German Invasion of Russia,” broadcast, London 22 June 1941, in Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1897-1963, 8 vols. (New York: Borkwer, 1974), VI 6431.
62 A.J.P. Taylor, Beaverbrook (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), 474-76.
63 Robert Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins (New York: Harper 1948), 309-10.
64 Churchill to Eden, 9 July 1941, Foreign Office Papers N3607/3/78.
65 Cabinet Papers WM 67/41, in Llewellyn Woodward, British Foreign Policy in the Second World War, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1971) II 12-13.
66 Elisabeth Barker, Churchill and Eden at War (New York: St. Martin’s, 1979), 233-35.
67 Winston S. Churchill, The Grand Alliance (London: Cassell, 1950), 613-16.
68 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), 163.
69 Anthony Eden, The Eden Memoirs: The Reckoning (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), 320-21.
70 Cabinet Papers, WM 17(42), CAB 65/29.
71 Kirby, “Morality or Expediency,” 165.
72 Beaverbrook to Churchill, 7 February 1942, in Taylor, Beaverbrook, 510.
73 Beaverbrook to War Cabinet 26 February 1942, ibid., 511.
74 Winston S. Churchill, The Hinge of Fate (London: Cassell, 1951), 293.
75 Gorodotsky, Maisky Diaries, entries for 10 and 16 March 1942, 415, 418.
76 Ernest Llewelyn Woodward, British Foreign Policy in the Second World War, vol. IV (London: HMSO, 1975), 85.
77 Averell Harriman & Elie Abel, Special Envoy to Churchill and Stalin 1941-1946 (New York: Random House, 1975), 136.
78 Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. 7, Road to Victory 1941-1945 (Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 2013), 12.
79 Entry for 7 May 1942 in David Dilks, ed., The Diaries of Sir Alexander Cadogan OM 1938-1945 (London: Cassell, 1971), 450-51.
80 Arnolds Spekke, History of Latvia: An Outline (Stockholm: Goppers, 1957), 402.
81 Priit J. Vesilind, “Return to Estonia,” National Geographic, April 1980.
82 John Grigg. 1943: The War That Never Was (New York: Hill & Wang, 1980), 180.
83 Kirby, “Morality or Expediency,” 158.
84 Churchill to Eden, 16 January 1944, in The Churchill Documents, vol. 19, Fateful Questions, September 1943-April 1944 (Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 2017), 1423.
86 Confidential Annex, War Cabinet meeting, 25 January 1944, in Churchill Documents, vol. 19, 1505.
87 Eden to Churchill, 25 January 1944, ibid., 1497-98.
88 Churchill to Anthony Eden, 31 March 1944, ibid., 2251.
89 WSC to AE, 1 April 1944, ibid., 2266.
90 WSC to AE, 31 March 1944, ibid., 2252.
91 Visvaldis Mangulis, Latvia in the Wars of the 20th Century (Princeton, N.J.: Cognition Books, 1983, 136.
92 Churchill, Grand Alliance, 615.
93 Premier Papers 3 394/5, in Barker, Churchill and Eden at War, 235-36.
94 Mayor Teodors Eniņš to the author, Liepaja, Latvia, 10 May 1995.
About the Author
Richard Langworth visited the Baltic after liberation 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. 13-19 (Hillsdale College Press, 2009-2017) and the Maisky Diaries (2015).
This essay is dedicated to the memory of those Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians whose unmarked graves are scattered from Dresden to Kolyma, and to the memory of Max Edward Hertwig, 1886-1970.