Russian Rule
Latvia 1918-1920

Livonia during World War I, 1914-1918

When World War I broke out in 1914, the inhabitants of Livonia, as subjects of the Russian Empire, were expected to join the Russian war effort; several 10,000, mostly ethnic Latvians and Russians, were enlisted. The country's ethnically German minority, however, was in an awkward position, as Russia waged war against both Germany and (ethnically German-dominated ) Austria. Furthermore, the Courland Germans over the last decades had learned to suspect the Russian administration which had taken away many of their privileges, and the Russification policy of which had threatened their political and economical domination of the country.
By September 1915 German forces had occupied much of neighbouring Courland; the ethnically German Courlanders collaborated with the Germans.
Livonia was greatly affected by the war, as a significant segment of her population was displaced, partially living as refugees within the Latvian regions, partially in other regions of the Russian Empire, the number of the ethnic Latvians among the refugees given as between 500,000 and 750,000. Latvian cultural and political organizations regarded Germany the enemy, as a German victory was to bring the reinforcement of the Baltiv German domination. After a series of Russian defeats, Latvian organizations succeeded in convincing the Russian Army Command to permit the establishment of separate Latvian military infantry units, 130,000 men strong (early 1916). They suffered significant losses and could not prevent the Germans from taking Riga.
In 1917 the Russian Revolution broke out. The regiment of LATVIAN RIFLEMEN played a decisive role in the early stage of the October Revolution, securing the capital from a white counterattack. The German occupation of Riga and the revolutions in St. Petersburg caused Latvians to reconsider their support for Czarist Russia; Latvia's Bolzheviks supported the Russian Revolution, influential moderates a policy of compromise with the Germans who at that time were regarded likely victors. In Nov. 1917 a LATVIAN NATIONAL ASSEMBLY met in the city of Valka (Walk), proclaiming all of Latvia, including German-occupied Kurzeme (Courland) and the capital Riga, and LATGALE (Lettgallen), hitherto part of the Gouvernement (admin. district) of Vitebsk, to be an autonomous region within Russia, and foresaw a CONSTITUTIONAL ASSEMBLY to determine a Latvian costitution.
In March 1918 Russia signed the PEACE OF BREST-LITOVSK, ceding, among others, Livonia (Par.6). In November 1918, Germany asked the Entente for a truce; the Entente demanded that all German troops were recalled from foreign soil and Germany's armed forces to be reduced to 100,000 men; the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was cancelled.

On May 28th 1918, the INDEPENDENCE OF LATVIA was proclaimed in Riga, by a bourgeois government. Latvia was to incorporate all of Courland and the larger part of Livonia (the Estonian-speaking regions of northern Livonia were to join Estonia).

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Courland, Livonia and Estonia. Confidential Handbooks No.57, 1919, from the British Foreign Office, posted on the Web by
History of Latvia, from
Tartu History Timeline, from (Dorpat)
Riga, History of, from vest_ang
Latvian Soldiers in World War I, from Latvian War Museum
DOCUMENTS The Conclusion with the Central Powers of the Peace of Brest Litovsk, March 3, 1918, from Avalon Project at Yale Law School
REFERENCE David G. Kirby, The Baltic World 1772-1993, London : Longman 1995
Andrejs Plakans, The Latvians, a Short History, Stanford : Hoover Institution Press 1995, 257 pp.

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted in 2000, last revised on November 11th 2004

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