[by William S. Lacy]
Fascist organizations formed a significant part of the inter-war Baltic political scene. These organizations were born out of an increased national awareness beginning in the late 19th century, the economic downturn and ensuing great depression, as well a s influence from fascist movements during the interwar period on the Western European continent. They helped to influence the development of authoritarian rule in all three Baltic republics, as well as encouraging the rampant nationalism and increasing anti-Semitism that marked the independence period. This anti-Semitism culminated in pogroms in the early 1940’s during the invasion of Nazi Germany.
The most important factor leading to the development of these groups is probably the economic downturn of 1929 which, “culminated in the political disturbances of 1932-33, when f ascist regimes were set up” (Meiksins, 70). With authoritarianism already entrenched in Latvia and Estonia, the continuing economic decline was more than enough to encourage the emergence of far right-wing fascist groups. Interestingly enough however, the most successful fascist group arose in Lithuania before the emergence of an authoritarian regime. This group, Iron Wolf (the Iron Wolf is the symbol of Vilnius), led by Augustinas Voldemaras, also became the prototype for several Latvian-based groups who also “became vocal in the [economic] crisis years of 1930-3” (Hope, 61). The fascist groups included, but were not limited to, “Fire Cross” (Ugunkrusts) and “Swastika” (Perkonkrusts) in Latvia, both of which benefited from the right-wing policies of President of Latvia, Kārlis Ulmanis, between 1936 and 1940. “Freedom Fighters” was a similar group in Estonia. These groups borrowed much of their symbolism and rhetoric from the Nazis in Germany. Not only did they receive ideological support, some also received material support from the German fascists. Due in part to their efforts, democracy in the Baltic States ceased to exist during this period.
The most important legacy left by these groups for Baltic history is their contributions to anti-Semitism within the Baltics and the subsequent pogroms and genocide against the Jewish population. While some anti-Semitism had certainly been present before the advent of fascist organizations, these groups tied hatred of the Jews to their nationalist agenda. This propagation of hate by the Lithuanian Right, as Anatol Lieven points out, combined with “the effects of the Soviet occupation,…ensured that German influence fell on fertile ground” (Lieven, 151). This led to the characterization of the Jewish population as Soviet collaborators and their subsequent repression and killing upon Nazi invasion of the Baltic States. While at first these policies were disorganized and marked by individual acts of brutality, the rhetoric was institutionalized leading to more organized economic pogroms. This increasing organization culminated in large-scale massacres leading up to the Soviet invasion that were meant to turn back the tide of growing popular opposition to German occupation (Meiksins, 115). This was the end of the characterization of the Baltics as a safe haven for Europe’s Jewish population and the beginning of an enduring rift between these societies.
Many modern right-wing political groups trace their heritage back to the inter-war period. The neo-Pagan “Dievturi”, recently revived in Latvia, which enjoys high regard among modern right-wing organizations in Europe (Lieven, 115). The resurgence of these groups causes understandable apprehension within the remaining Baltic Jewish community. Not surprisingly, many of these groups call for a return to pre-war government and constitutions as their main political platform. Understanding these groups’ past will remain important in checking any anti-democratic tendencies that manifest themselves today, however their role within a democratic Baltic community in the future remains to be seen.
- Nicholas Hope, “Interwar Statehood: Symbol and Reality,” in The Baltic States, ed. Graham Smith (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994).
- Anatol Lieven, The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and the Path to Independence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).
- Gregory Meiksins, The Baltic Riddle (New York: L.B. Fischer, 1943).