Interwar Independence, 1918-40

Estonia Table of Contents

In contrast to its later peaceful return to independence in 1991, Estonia's first modern era of sovereignty began with a fifteen-month war (1918-20) against both Russian Bolshevik and Baltic German forces. In the end, the War of Independence took the lives of about 3,600 Estonians and left about 14,000 wounded. In the Tartu Peace Treaty, which was concluded with Russia in February 1920, Moscow relinquished all claims to Estonia in perpetuity. A year later, Estonia gained international recognition from the Western powers and became a member of the League of Nations. In June 1920, Estonia's first constitution was promulgated, establishing a parliamentary system.

With a political system in place, the new Estonian government immediately began the job of rebuilding. As one of its first major acts, the government carried out an extensive land reform, giving tracts to small farmers and veterans of the War of Independence. The large estates of the Baltic German nobility were expropriated, breaking its centuries-old power as a class.

Agriculture dominated the country's economy. Thanks to land reform, the number of small farms doubled to more than 125,000. Although many homesteads were small, the expansion of landownership helped stimulate new production after the war. Land reform, however, did not solve all of Estonia's early problems. Estonian agriculture and industry (mostly textiles and machine manufacturing) had depended heavily on the Russian market. Independence and Soviet communism closed that outlet by 1924, and the economy had to reorient itself quickly toward the West, to which the country also owed significant war debts. The economy began to grow again by the late 1920s but suffered another setback during the Great Depression, which hit Estonia during 1931-34. By the late 1930s, however, the industrial sector was expanding anew, at an average annual rate of 14 percent. Industry employed some 38,000 workers by 1938.

Independent Estonia's early political system was characterized by instability and frequent government turnovers. The political parties were fragmented and were about evenly divided between the left and right wings. The first Estonian constitution required parliamentary approval of all major acts taken by the prime minister and his government. The Riigikogu (State Assembly) could dismiss the government at any time, without incurring sanctions. Consequently, from 1918 to 1933 a total of twenty-three governments held office.

The country's first big political challenge came in 1924 during an attempted communist takeover. In the depths of a nationwide economic crisis, leaders of the Estonian Communist Party (Eestimaa Kommunistlik Partei--EKP), in close contact with Communist International (Comintern--see Glossary) leaders from Moscow, believed the time was ripe for a workers' revolution to mirror that of the Soviet Union. On the morning of December 1, some 300 party activists moved to take over key government outposts in Tallinn, while expecting workers in the capital to rise up behind them. The effort soon failed, however, and the government quickly regained control. In the aftermath, Estonian political unity got a strong boost, while the communists lost all credibility. Relations with the Soviet Union, which had helped to instigate the coup, deteriorated sharply.

By the early 1930s, Estonia's political system, still governed by the imbalanced constitution, again began to show signs of instability. As in many other European countries at the time, pressure was mounting for a stronger system of government. Several constitutional changes were proposed, the most radical being put forth by the protofascist League of Independence War Veterans. In a 1933 referendum, the league spearheaded replacement of the parliamentary system with a presidential form of government and laid the groundwork for an April 1934 presidential election, which it expected to win. Alarmed by the prospect of a league victory and possible fascist rule, the caretaker prime minister, Konstantin Päts, organized a pre-emptive coup d'état on March 12, 1934. In concert with the army, Päts began a rule by decree that endured virtually without interruption until 1940. He suspended the parliament and all political parties, and he disbanded the League of Independence War Veterans, arresting several hundred of its leaders. The subsequent "Era of Silence" initially was supported by most of Estonian political society. After the threat from the league was neutralized, however, calls for a return to parliamentary democracy resurfaced. In 1936 Päts initiated a tentative liberalization with the election of a constituent assembly and the adoption of a new constitution. During elections for a new parliament, however, political parties remained suspended, except for Päts's own National Front, and civil liberties were only slowly restored. Päts was elected president by the new parliament in 1938.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress