As Estonians around the world are gathering to cheer for their homeland, and celebrate its birthday, it’s appropriate to recall how the independent country was born.
A quest for independence
Starting with the Northern Crusades, Estonia became a battleground of foreign powers from the 13th century onward. Denmark, Germany, Russia, Sweden and Poland fought their many wars over controlling the important geographical position as a gateway between East and West.
Being first conquered by Danes and Germans in 1227, Estonia was subsequently ruled by Denmark, by Baltic German ecclesiastical states of the Holy Roman Empire, and by Sweden. After Sweden lost to Russia in the Great Northern War in 1710, Russian rule was imposed to Estonia. However, the legal system, Lutheran church, local and town governments, and education remained mostly German-influenced until the late 19th century and partially until 1918.
The Estonian people didn’t stop dreaming of establishing a state free from foreign domination. The Estophile enlightenment period from 1750–1840, when Baltic German scholars began documenting and promoting Estonian culture and language, led to the Estonian national awakening in the middle of the 19th century when the Estonian arts, literature and a sense of identity started to flourish.
The 1917 Russian revolution and the generally unstable situation in Russia created the opportunity for Estonia to gain its independence. The impetus for independence was provided by the National Front, Estonia’s main ideological movement, which based its ideas on US President Woodrow Wilson’s principle of self-determination.
On 8 April 1917, 40,000 Estonians held a demonstration in St. Petersburg in support of Estonian self-government. The peaceful demonstration achieved its goal when, on 12 April, the Russian Provisional Government signed the Law on Estonian Autonomy, which united the Livonian counties of Tartu, Võru, Viljandi, Pärnu and Saaremaa with Estonia. For the first time an Estonian, Jaan Poska, was appointed as a provincial commissioner of Estonia.
A six-member Provisional National Council, the Maapäev, was formed. The Maapäev appointed a national executive that began to organise and modernise local government and educational institutions. Prior to its forceful dissolution by Bolshevik authorities and the impending invasion of Estonia by German forces (as the First World War was still in full force), the Maapäev took a decisive step toward sovereignty by declaring itself the supreme authority in Estonia on 15 November 1917.
In February 1918, after the collapse of the peace talks between Soviet Russia and the German Empire, mainland Estonia was occupied by the Germans. Bolshevik forces retreated to Russia. Between the Russian Red Army’s retreat and the arrival of advancing German troops, the Salvation Committee of the Estonian National Council Maapäev issued the Estonian Declaration of Independence on 23 February, 1918.
The manifesto of Estonian independence was first read to the people from the balcony of Endla Theatre in Pärnu at eight o’clock in the evening.
On 24 February 1918, Estonia was publicly proclaimed as an independent and democratic republic.
This was not yet a happy ending, however. On 25 February, the German troops entered Tallinn. The German authorities recognised neither the provisional government, nor its claim for Estonia’s independence, counting them as a self-styled group usurping sovereign rights of the German-Baltic nobility.
But with the First World War coming to its crushing end and forcing the Imperial Germany to capitulate in November 1918, Germany formally handed over political power of Estonia to the Estonian Provisional Government. The provisional government immediately called for voluntary mobilisation and began to organise the Estonian Army, which initially consisted of one division.
Russia attacks again
On 28 November 1918, the communist Red Army was back in attacking Estonia, when it went offensive against the units of the Estonian Defence League (consisting partly of secondary school students), deployed in the defence of the border town of Narva. This marked the beginning of the Estonian War of Independence.
The Red Army attack came in an extremely difficult time. The Estonian administration and defence forces had very little experience. The army lacked sufficient weapons and equipment. Food and money were scarce; the towns were in danger of starvation. Although the majority of population did not support the Soviet Russia, their faith in the survival of national statehood was not high. People did not believe that Estonia would be able to resist the attacks of the Red Army.
People’s fear was not unfounded. The Red Army captured Narva and opened a second front south of Lake Peipus. But the Estonian government nevertheless decided to oppose the Russian aggression.
The Estonian military forces at the time consisted of 2000 men with light weapons and about 14,500 poorly armed men in the Estonian Defence League. By the end of December, however, the young republic managed to reorganise its armed forces and recruited additional 11,000 volunteers.
Estonia’s Baltic German minority, fearful of the communist Red Army, also came to Estonia’s rescue, by providing a sizable troop of volunteer militia.
Estonia fights back
The country also managed to build three armoured trains and called for foreign assistance. In this hour of need, Estonia’s call for help was noted. When the Soviet army had advanced to 34 km outside of the Estonian capital in December 1918, a British Royal Navy squadron arrived in Tallinn, bringing guns, food and fuel.
The squadron also captured two Russian destroyers, Spartak and Avtroil, and turned those over to Estonia, which renamed them Vambola and Lennuk. The United Kingdom remained Estonia’s main supplier of arms and equipment during the war.
Furthermore, in January 1919, Finnish volunteer units with about 3,500 men arrived in Estonia. Danish and Swedish volunteers also participated on the Estonian side.
The strengthened Estonian Army, now totalling of 13,000 men, with 5,700 on the front facing 8,000 Soviet soldiers, stopped the 7th Red Army’s advance in early January 1919 and went on the counter-offensive.
When the country celebrated its first Independence Day in 24 February 1919, the Estonian forces consisted of 19,000 men and Estonia had become the first country to repel the westward offensive by Soviet Union.
Forcing the enemy out of the country increased faith in the authority of the young republic and enabled another mobilisation that was crucial in continuing to fight against much bigger Red Army – at some point during the war, it had committed about 80,000 soldiers against Estonia.
By May 1919, the Estonian troops contained already about 75,000 men. The Estonian government and army command were feeling so confident that they set an aim to push the front as far from Estonia’s borders as possible. In May, the Estonian troops started an offensive towards Petrograd (St. Petersburg) and conquered a large territory east of Lake Peipus. Later in the year, however, the troops retreated in order to protect Estonia’s borders.
The War of Independence continued with heavy battles throughout 1919, with the Soviet forces repeatedly attempting to regain the lost ground. By the end of the year the number of Estonian troops had increased to 90,000. With Estonia’s hard resolve defending its independence proven on one hand and the still relatively fragile Soviet Russian government attempting to ensure its Bolshevik revolution within the Russian borders on the other, Russia officially offered a peace agreement to Estonia.
Estonia emerged victorious, secured its borders and signed the Tartu Peace Treaty with Soviet Russia on 2 February 1920.
The country’s losses in the War of Independence were relatively small – about 2,300 killed and 14,000 wounded. Their sacrifice ensured that Estonia could freely celebrate its Independence Day on 24 February until 1940 and then again from 1991 onward.
Happy Independence Day from Estonian World!
Sources: Estonica, Estonia.eu, Estonian World. Pictures: Estonian World and Estonian War Museum. Cover image by Arne Ader. Please note that this article was originally published on 24 February 2015. Please consider making a donation for the continuous improvement of our publication.