This year sees the 98th anniversary since the People’s Council of Latvia, at its session in the present-day National Theatre in Riga on 18 November 1918, officially proclaimed the Republic of Latvia, declaring that Latvia is a sovereign, independent and democratic republic.
At the time, many people in the war-devastated Latvia did not believe that independence is at all possible, and many had not yet returned to their homeland. However, in autumn 1918, members of the political parties of that time found it possible to embrace the idea of independence and proclaimed the Latvian state.
Since the largest part of Latvia’s territory was under occupation, it was not possible to immediately hold a referendum or general election. However, the establishment of a state on 18 November 1918 triggered the process of self- determination of the Latvian nation (1918-1920), which evolved through an increasing popular support for the idea of statehood in the War of Independence and was concluded with election of the Constitutional Assembly – Latvia’s first parliament – in spring 1920.
The idea of an independent Latvia did not emerge overnight. During World War I, in 1915, the high command of the Imperial Russian Army approved the formation of the Latvian riflemen units and their engagement against the German troops on the Riga Front. The formation of the Latvian Rifle battalions and their fighting on the frontline had a significant role to play in building the sense of national self-confidence among the Latvian people.
The idea of political autonomy was the first to emerge. In 1915–1916, Latvian civic political parties almost unanimously were in favour of Latvia’s autonomy within the Russian state (“free Latvia in a free Russia”) as a future political system for Latvia. Latvian politicians demanded self-rule, cultural and linguistic autonomy, and the unification of all areas inhabited by ethnic Latvians into a single administrative unit.
In the early 1917, the majority of the Latvian people still saw the idea of an independent state as an unrealistic dream. New dynamic Latvian organisations were created in 1917; they became increasingly strong advocates of the independence idea and promoted it actively. The falling of Riga into German hands (in September 1917) stimulated the creation of the first significant Latvian political coalition – the Democratic Bloc.
End of November 1917, the Latvian Provisional National Council (LPNC) was established in Valka. The Council comprised representatives from the major political parties and civic organisations, except social democrats. At its first session, the LPNC stood up for Latvia’s territorial integrity and autonomy and passed a decision that the future political system of Latvia is to be determined by a Constitutional Assembly. At its second session in Petrograd (St Petersburg) on 30 January 1918, the LPNC moved that “Latvia should be an independent democratic republic that would unite the regions of Kurzeme, Vidzeme and Latgale”.
The LPNC was actively working to achieve international recognition of Latvia’s independence. The Council sent Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics to London on a mission to seek support for the newly-conceived idea of a Latvian state. Great Britain announced – verbally on 23 October, and by an official note on 11 November 1918 – that the United Kingdom grants provisional recognition to the LPNC as “a de facto independent body” and “the Latvian Provisional Government”, until a decision on Latvia’s future is made at the Peace Conference. The LPNC politicians welcomed this as the recognition of Latvia’s statehood de facto.
In 1918, two most influential Latvian political parties – the Social Democrats and the Latvian Agrarian Union – defined the full independence of Latvia as their goal. The idea of independence began to attract increasing numbers of followers. At first, the members of the LPNC and the Democratic Bloc could not find consensus on how an independent Latvian state should be created. The Democratic Bloc believed that a new institution should be established on the basis of political party representation – a Latvian People’s Council, which would then decide on Latvia’s independence.
In the wake of the November Revolution in Germany in 1918 and the Armisticeof Compiègne signed on 11 November, ending World War I, the collapse of the three empires – Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia – led to the emergence of a number of new states in their territories. This had a profound impact in terms of aspirations to establish the Baltic States. An opportunity had arisen
to actually proclaim Latvia’s independence. For the first time in Latvia’s history, the issue of the establishment of a Latvian state came to the fore. In the uncertain and volatile political situation, Latvian politicians could no longer hesitate over proclaiming the state of Latvia.
The members of Latvian political parties were able to reach an agreement on a joint action. A new representational body – the People’s Council of Latvia – was established in Riga on 17 November. The Council brought together representatives from ethnic Latvian political parties, except Bolsheviks, and was later expanded to include representatives from national minorities and the population of liberated territories. At its constituent meeting, the People’s Council of Latvia unanimously adopted its political platform. The political programme provided for the Council’s work until a Constitutional Assembly, established through free universal and democratic elections, takes up office. The Council, at its first session, unanimously elected Kārlis Ulmanis as the first Prime Minister of Latvia. Jānis Čakste was elected Chairman of the People’s Council.
On the following day, 18 November, at its second session in the hall of the Opera House (the present-day National Theatre) in Riga, the People’s Council proclaimed Latvia an independent state. Delegates from eight political parties attended the session. The Chair of the meeting, Gustavs Zemgals, announced that the sovereign power has been transferred to the People’s Council of Latvia. Latvian Prime Minister Kārlis Ulmanis, on behalf of the government, proclaimed the establishment of the Latvian Democratic Republic; he also outlined the issues of immediate concern and expressed certainty that Latvia is to become a country of democratic justice.
The Prime Minister declared: “Let us recall at this moment that for many years numerous members of our nation have cherished this hope of ours, have been working towards it covertly or openly and have carried the idea of a free Latvia in their hearts. (..) All citizens, without distinguishing between nationalities, are invited to assist, because the rights of all nationalities in Latvia will be ensured. It will be a country of democratic justice, where there can be no place for suppression or injustice.” After the Latvian state had been proclaimed, the national anthem Dievs, svētī Latviju (God, Bless Latvia) was sung three times.
On 18 November 1918, the People’s Council of Latvia launched an appeal “To the Citizens of Latvia!” whereby the Council, recognizing itself as the holder of sovereign power in the Latvian state, declared that:
- Latvia, united within its ethnographic borders (Kurzeme, Vidzeme and Latgale) is an independent, sovereign, democratic republic, the constitution of which and relationships with foreign countries will be determined in the near future by the Constitutional Assembly, convened on the basis of equal, fair, proportional election by secret ballot and by direct universal suffrage irrespective of gender.
2) The People’s Council of Latvia has established the Latvian Provisional Government as the highest executive authority in the country;
3) The People’s Council of Latvia calls on Latvian citizens to maintain peace and order and make every effort to support the Provisional Government in their challenging and responsible work.
In conclusion, the chairman of the meeting, Gustavs Zemgals, called on all Latvian people to lend a hand in the efforts of building the Latvian state: “Our only wish is – may Latvia live forever. Long live democratic Latvia!” The national anthem Dievs, svētī Latviju (God, Bless Latvia) was again sung three times.
For the proclamation of statehood, Latvian politicians had seized the most opportune moment, when one of the great powers (Russia) was unable to, but the other (Germany) was not interested in interfering with the course of events, and eventually was unable to do so either. If not adopted at the time, the Declaration of Independence might not be adopted at all at a later date.
Immediately following 18 November, the People’s Council established the Latvian Provisional Government. The first task of the new government was to achieve that Germany recognizes the new state and to take over administrative functions from German civilian institutions.
Everything had to be built from scratch in the country laid waste by the war; nevertheless, strong determination to do so sparked support for the Latvian state. At the end of 1918, the territory of Latvia was still under German control. National forces faced a difficult situation. The new Latvian government had no funds, no weapons, no armed forces; it lacked influence among the people, did not enjoy their support and had no real power.
However, the desire to rebuild their country and to gradually drive foreign troops off the Latvian land proved to be a major motivation, and increasingly more people in Latvia were convinced of the need to have their own independent state. In the period from 1918 to 1920, the numbers of people supporting and defending the Latvian state rose dramatically: this is vividly demonstrated by the War of Independence and high turnout at the election of the Constitutional Assembly in spring 1920.
The Baltijas Vēstnesis newspaper wrote an emotionally charged report of the meeting when Latvia was declared an independent country: “Latvians – remember this date and keep it etched indelibly in your memory. On 18 November 1918 your sons openly recognised their self-determination – proclaimed a free state of Latvia. (..) Whatever the future flow of time might bring, and even if contrary to our faith the political storms may occasionally obscure this achievement – let this date remain indelibly recorded in history. Even if hostile powers brought you again to your knees for generations on end, parents would still tell their children and grandchildren: remember the 18th of November in 1918, when dreams and aspirations came true. (..) And now, may you thrive and live forever, new Latvia. Take of your hat, free citizen, and join in a common prayer, the entire nation: “God, bless Latvia!””
The Republic of Latvia has existed de iure without interruption ever since its proclamation on 18 November 1918, because the Soviet and Nazi occupation did not interrupt the continuity of the Republic of Latvia as a legal entity under international law from 1940 to 1991. Thus there was no need to proclaim the state anew in 1991, and Latvia regained its independence in accordance with the doctrine of state continuity. The state of Latvia was established because Latvian people exercised their rights for self-determination in their homeland from 1918 to 1920. Latvia’s statehood is the most significant historical gain by the Latvian people.
Author: Support Foundation of the Pocket Books in Latvia`s History