March 22, 2010

“There Was No Doubt Where The Right Lay”

Finest Hour 54, Winter 1986-1987


BALTIC historians, in their partisanship, have tended to see Britain’s prewar policy toward Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the worst light. “Great Britain generally supported the Baltic States morally but did not commit herself economically,” wrote one of these in 1980. How may we reconcile that with a statement in the same article: “The British had made considerable investments in the Baltic countries?”1 In fact, Britain was the largest or second-largest Baltic trading partner throughout the inter-war period, and British trade agreements with Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia offered tariff concessions on many British exports.2

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It is fair to say, however, that the Baldwin-Chamberlain policies made Britain an unreliable ally, and squandered the only prewar chance for Baltic security by failing to reach an understanding with Russia, as Winston Churchill urged.3

Churchill’s view during the 1930s varied inversely with that of Britain’s prime ministers: whereas they looked to Germany as a bulwark against Bolshevism, Churchill saw Germany, not Russia, as the main threat to peace. With his vast grasp of strategic reality, the Member for Epping became increasingly disposed to an Anglo-Soviet accord.

The story of Britain’s and France’s long but failed negotiations with the Soviet Union is one of missed opportunity not because the Soviets could be trusted to keep treaties, not because an understanding with the Allies was in their interests and stood a chance to succeed. Ivan Maisky, Soviet Ambassador to Britain in 1932-43, imprisoned during one of Stalin’s Jewish purges in 1949-53, later a remarkably unbiased memoir-writer, always blamed the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 on Chamberlain and Daladier – and not without reason.4

When British foreign secretary Anthony Eden visited Moscow in 1935, Soviet foreign minister Maxim Litvinov asked if there was any chance that Britain would join Russia in guaranteeing Baltic security. “In my view there is not,” Eden replied. Litvinov then asked, was the security of the Baltic States a British interest? Eden said that

it would be short-sighted of anyone to think it better to have a war in the east than to avoid war in the west. The interest of His Majesty’s Government in the Baltic States is not like their interest in Belgium and the Low Countries.5

Litvinov replied that Britain’s reluctance to involve itself in a “Baltic Pact” was not conducive to peace in Europe: “On the one hand there is Germany with obviously aggressive designs. On the other hand, there are a number of states trying to check Germany. Great Britain, by failing to support these attempts, appears to be going to the aid of Germany.” Eden said that this “was a misreading of British policy.’ Later, visiting Poland’s Col. Beck, he supported the idea of an “Eastern Locarno” – but not one involving Britain.7

Only Churchill among Britons seemed able to comprehend that pacts of mutual security without the participation of Britain were as meaningless as the Estonia-Latvia pact without Lithuania, Finland and Poland. British disdain for collective security was heightened in June 1935 with the signing of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement. Now, Churchill wrote,

Europe was astonished to learn that the British Government had made a private bargain for themselves about naval strength with Nazi Germany [which] condoned the breaking of treaties about naval strength at the very moment when they were urging the smaller powers of Europe to make a combined protest against the breaking of the military clauses. This was a heavy blow at all international cooperation in support of public law. They now found themselves left high and dry, and the interests of Scandinavia and the Baltic were profoundly affected.8


Nor could Anglo-French diplomacy prevent Nazi-Soviet rapprochement for years later, even after Chamberlain’s “hardening” toward Hitler following the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. The most notable event during the last months of peace was a Soviet offer, on 18 April 1939, of a formal alliance between Britain, France and the USSR, pledging all three to “act together” in case of aggression against any one of them, or against all countries “situated between the Baltic and Black Sea and bordering on the USSR. “9 Chamberlain refused this offer on 1 May – because, as The Times explained, “a hard and fast alliance with Russia might hamper other negotiations and approaches.”10 “In other words,” Erick Estorick wrote, “it would rule out a continuation of the Munich policy.”11

Chamberlain’s answer was: not at all – it would have resulted in “an immediate declaration of war on the part of Germany.”12 This he seems to have gleaned from the Poles, who opposed any deals with the Russians, though it had no basis in fact: scores of German sources indicate that Hitler had no desire for a two-front war in 1939.

Chamberlain’s inaction enraged Churchill, who knew that “to Germany the command of the Baltic is vital.”13 Repeatedly he urged the Government to embrace the “great identity of interests” between Britain and Northern Europe:

Take the countries of the Baltic, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which were once the occasion of the wars of Peter the Great. It is a vital major interest of Russia that these Powers should not fall into the hands of Nazi Germany . . I should have thought that this plan of a triple alliance is a preliminary step, and an invitation to other countries in danger on this front.14

But Chamberlain was unmoved and Churchill by then probably too late: On 3 May Maxim Litvinov, Jewish proponent of collective security, was replaced by Vyacheslav Molotov, a non-Jew chosen partly to please Hitler. On 23 August news of the Nazi-Soviet Pact broke like a bombshell on France and Britain.

The Americans were not known for diplomatic perspicacity, certainly not by Chamberlain, who had spurned Roosevelt’s offer to mediate with Hitler and Mussolini in 1938. Yet it was the American ambassador to Moscow, Joseph Davies, who predicted disaster a month before Chamberlain put it in motion, telling US Ambassador to Britain Joseph P. Kennedy

he could tell Chamberlain from me that if they are not careful they will drive Stalin into Hitler’s arms. Britain and France snubbed Russia by excluding the Soviet from Munich; the Soviets did not trust them anyway, and feared they were trying to use Russia as a cat’s paw, and would leave her to fight Germany alone.15

In his diary for the same date Davies reflected that “the only man who really appreciates the real imminence of disaster over here is Winston Churchill.”

The governments in Kaunas, Tallinn and Riga were officially opposed to a Russo-British “understanding,” from which many respected historians conclude that a pact would have been an open invitation for the USSR to invade the small republics.16 This may be a superficial opinion, lacking support from Baltic primary sources, notably Mikelis Valters, the Latvian ambassador to Belgium.

On 23 June 1939, Valters told British minister to Brussels Sir Robert Clive that “a very dangerous situation would arise” if the Allied-Soviet negotiations collapsed. Latvia’s official opposition, Valters continued, was voiced only in fear of Hitler. In truth, a Russo-British agreement to assure her territorial integrity “would be welcomed in Latvia even though there might be, for the sake of form, an official protest.”17

Valters also believed “that a declaration of neutrality meant renouncing the principle of collective security of the League of Nations.”18

Valters’ remark stunned the British foreign office, which had been reporting only the official line of the Ulmanis government in Riga – and like state departments everywhere, the F.O. insisted its interpretation was the only correct one.

Valters was a respected diplomat, but his startling declaration came too late: Russo-Nazi negotiations were now well advanced, while Allied negotiations faltered further in July, when Molotov made a new demand: no agreement with Britain unless it covered “indirect aggression” against the Baltic States – this being defined as any policy hostile to the Soviets. (This was the excuse Stalin would use for his Baltic invasion a year later.)

As David Crowe wrote, Britain realized that accepting this formula “would have been an immediate and open invitation to Soviet intervention in the Baltic States.” Crowe also notes a poignant truth, not widely understood: “For all practical purposes, the Baltic question ended any hope of a strong British-Soviet front against Hitler.”19


Secret protocols of the Nazi-Soviet pact placed Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania “in the Soviet sphere” should “any changes” occur in each. The implications were now clear. After the fall of Poland, Hitler obligingly removed his nationals from the Baltic States, while Stalin demanded they allow the establishment of Soviet military bases for “mutual security.” In June 1940, Stalin manufactured flimsy pretexts to fully occupy Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. After “elections” in which only pro-Soviet parties were allowed, the three republics “requested admission” to the USSR, which was “graciously granted” in early August.

From June to June 1940-41 occurred the first of three Baltic holocausts. In July alone, 150,000 Balts were shipped to the Urals. Men were separated from their families; people were packed 40 to a cattle car; infants who died enroute were thrown out beside the tracks. At Vorkuta, Potma, Kolyma, Kengir, Solikamsk and Norisk, many arrivals were shot or drowned in toilets. Others were stripped, or bullied into selling a coat for a few potatoes. Set to work in labor camps, few ever saw their Baltic shores again. In June 1941, the Germans invaded Russia. We should not find it too shocking that the first Nazi motorcyclist entering Riga was garlanded with flowers, while people waved the maroon and white flag of the Republic and thanked God they were still alive.20

Even with Churchill as Prime Minister, British reaction to Stalin’s Baltic takeover was mixed. When Halifax heard about the invasion of Lithuania on 15 June he said, “It leaves me quite cold!”21 A month later in Cabinet, Halifax said that the annexation had taken place in the “course of the war and there was no certainty that it would be permanent.”22 His naivete’ was matched by Roosevelt’s statement to an American Lithuanian delegation in October: “Even the smallest nation has the same right to enjoy independence as the largest ones.. . . Time will come and Lithuania will be free again.”23

The inner feelings of Halifax, if not Roosevelt, were more cynical. In 1941 the former would astonish America’s Sumner Welles by saying

He did not think the Baltic peoples were peoples who demanded very much respect or consideration, in the situation in which Great Britain now found herself, concentrating as her sole objective upon the defeat of Hitler. . . . What logical distinction, Welles said, could be drawn between the recognition of the brutal conquest by Russia of the Baltic states and the brutal conquest by Hitler of the Dutch and Belgians? Halifax’s reply was that “the Baltic states for over a century had been under the domination of Russia.” The same might be said of the Finns, Welles retorted. “Halifax replied to this by saying he did not have the same respect for and regard for the Baltic peoples that he did for the Finnish people.’

Prior to the Soviet occupation, Churchill seemed to lean in Halifax’s direction. “No doubt it seems reasonable to the Soviet Union,” he said in 1939,

to take advantage of the present situation to regain some of the territory which Russia lost as a result of the last war. It is in our interests that the USSR should increase their strength in the Baltic, thereby limiting the risk of German domination in that area.’

This statement has been enough for many to conclude, as did Warren Kimball, that WSC “never recanted his acceptance of Soviet control over the Baltic states.”26 But that is a simplistic conclusion, ignoring Churchill’s reaction to the Baltic holocaust in 1940, and his mental turmoil – on the one hand desperately needing an ally, on the other hand cognizant of those Baltic peoples whose liberty he had been among the first to champion.

Which way to turn? No question: At the height of the Blitz, WSC declared that “we do not propose to recognize any territorial changes which take place during the war, unless they take place with the free consent and good will of the parties involved.”27 This high principle Churchill maintained in Britain’s darkest hour, and on into 1941, reaffirming it in the Atlantic Charter in August that year.

His critics say Churchill was only acting in self-interest. Non-recognition of the Soviet conquest meant Britain would keep £4 million in frozen Baltic assets and 24 requisitioned Baltic merchant vessels in British harbors. They point to Stafford Cripps, Ambassador to Moscow, who urged that Churchill return the ships and assets and recognize the Soviet occupation in return for “better relations with Stalin. “28

The bankruptcy of these criticisms is obvious: (1) the ships and assets were relatively paltry – Britain often lost that many ships to the U-boats in a few days. (2) Eden and the Foreign Office insisted that relations would not be improved by bowing to Stalin’s demands with nothing in return.28 (3) Churchill subsequently resisted recognizing the Sovietized Baltic even when it was to his advantage to do so, in late 1941 and 1942.


After Hitler had attacked and invaded Russia on 22 June 1941, and Churchill had proclaimed that “the Russian danger is therefore our danger,”30 the demand that Britain recognize Soviet Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia increased – not now from appeasers like Cripps and Halifax, but by close associates like Eden and Beaverbrook.31 Stalin was adamant on the point. Indeed it seemed to Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s emissary, who was with Churchill in July, that even with its very life in peril the Soviet Government appeared to be more anxious to discuss future frontiers and spheres of influence than to negotiate for military supplies Churchill strongly resisted these “pragmatist” urgings, being agreeable only to a mutual assistance pact, and the promise that neither the UK nor USSR would make a separate peace with Germany. He even tried to include a statement in this agreement that territorial frontiers will have to be settled in accordance with the wishes of the people who live there and. . . that these units, when established, must be free to choose their own form of government.”33

This paragraph was struck by the War Cabinet on the grounds that it might complicate future Russo-Polish negotiations. But it is significant that Churchill drafted it over a month before the Atlantic Charter.

After the PM sent Eden to Moscow in December 1941, to broaden and extend the war alliance, the pressure on Churchill to modify his stance reached a crescendo. It was Eden’s first major foreign policy assignment: temperament, ambition, anxiety for his country’s security all influenced him. But Churchill was clearly more influenced by American than Soviet opinion, and the USA remained adamantly opposed to recognizing the Sovietized Baltic.34

While Eden was in Moscow Churchill was in America. There Eden wired the PM, urging him to take up with Roosevelt the case for “immediate recognition” of the Soviet 1941 frontiers on the basis of “stark realism:”35 nothing the British or Americans could do would stop the Russians getting their way at the end of the war. Churchill, furious, replied that the 1941 Soviet frontiers were acquired by acts of aggression in shameful collusion with Hitler. The transfer of the peoples of the Baltic States to Soviet Russia against their will would be contrary to all the principles for which we are fighting this war and would dishonour our cause . there must be no mistake about the opinion of any British Government of which I am the head, namely, that it adheres to those principles of freedom and democracy set forth in the Atlantic Charter.36


Principles have a way of fading when a government is faced with mortal danger. By the spring of 1942, Singapore had fallen; Tobruk was threatened, and all of Britain’s gains in North Africa with it; U-boats were extracting fearful tolls on the Atlantic life-lifeline; no significant military forces had yet materialized from America. In January Churchill had called for a vote of confidence in the Commons; he won handily, but discontent remained.

Nor was there any guarantee that America, with all her principles, might not slip back into isolation after the war, as she had done in 1919. Russia meanwhile was holding out against Hitler – the USSR would play a definite role in future Europe.37 Soviet frontier claims began to seem more palatable.

In February the War Cabinet discussed alternatives to full recognition of Soviet demands: a grant of bases to the USSR in the Baltic States (Eden), or Soviet control of Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian defense and foreign policy (Halifax).38 But Churchill opposed any weakening of Britain’s position. He was joined now by Attlee, who said these actions “might, indeed, stultify the causes for which we are fighting.”39 When Halifax voiced his scheme to Roosevelt it interested the President, until Sumner Welles told FDR it epitomized “the worst phase of the spirit of Munich.”40

British counsels were deeply divided. Canada, New Zealand and South Africa were against recognition; Beaverbrook was adamantly for it. “The Baltic States are the Ireland of Russia,” he wrote Churchill.41 “Their strategic control by Moscow is as essential to the Russians as the possession of the Irish bases would be valuable to us” – a curious analogy, since Churchill had refused forcibly to occupy Irish bases. In a yet more naive thrust, Beaverbrook said, “How can it be argued now that territory occupied then by the Russians – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – is not the native soil of the Russians?”42 One supposes the Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians could provide a few arguments.

The pressure of events, however, finally affected Churchill. The Russians were holding down 185 German divisions on a 1000-mile front who might otherwise be facing Britain, which dare not endanger its USSR relations by doctrinaire acceptance of American idealism. Could Roosevelt be budged? Churchill tried in a telegram on 7 March:

the increasing gravity of the war has led me to feel that the principles of the Atlantic Charter ought not to be construed so as to deny Russia the frontiers she occupied when Germany attacked her. This was the basis on which Russia acceded to the Charter, and I expect that a severe process of liquidating hostile elements in the Baltic States, etc. was employed by the Russians when they took those regions at the beginning of the war. I hope therefore that you will be able to give us a free hand to sign the treaty which Stalin desires as soon as possible.45

The War Cabinet approved a declaration including British recognition of the Soviet frontiers on 8 April 1942. Immediately this proposal was copied to the White House, Hull drafted for Roosevelt’s signature a stiff message: the United States

could not be counted upon to remain silent if territorial clauses were included in the [Anglo-Soviet] treaty [and] threatened to issue a separate American statement disavowing the whole business. . . At first opportunity Eden told [this to] Molotov, and surprisingly, after a brief delay to consult the Kremlin, Molotov agreed.47

So it was that American diplomacy stayed Churchill’s hand over what amounted to dejure recognition of the Sovietized Baltic – but much, as Martin Gilbert has written, “to Churchill’s relief. “48 Alex Cadogan, who shared Churchill’s views on the Baltic, wrote, “We must remember that [recognition] is a bad thing. We oughtn’t to do it, and I shan’t be sorry if we don’t.”47

There matters rested while the Germans, first hailed as liberators, conducted the second Baltic holocaust. Over 300,000 Balts – one out of ten – were murdered. Others, including 45,000 Estonians, were conscripted into the German army. In hastily-built death camps, Jews were murdered: 200,000 in Lithuania, 60,000 in Latvia, 4000 in Estonia.48 As part of the Nazi slave colony “Ostland,” the Baltic was ruled by the Gestapo and a few quislings. Then the Red Army returned, and a third holocaust ensued.

“The Germans were brutal,” remembers an Estonian refugee, “but the Russians had been worse. People disappeared, and if you asked ‘Why?,’ you would be taken yourself.” After the war the cycle of arrests, executions and deportations continued. “In all, a stunning total of 350,000 people were lost between 1939 and 1949, about a third of Estonia’s population. Gone.” For the three countries the figure was over 750,000. The genocide continued under the “reformers” who followed Stalin, through mass-movement of non-Baits into the three republics and the transference of natives out.49

At the Teheran conference in late 1943, Roosevelt abandoned the policy on which he had been so firm a year before. Meeting privately with Stalin the President explained, with remarkable cynicism, why he had to show some solicitude for the people of Poland and the Baltic states, in that he would not wish to lose the votes of the six or seven million Polish-Americans, or of the smaller, though not negligible, number of voters of Lithuanian, Latvian. and Estonian origin.50

How easily Roosevelt surrendered to Stalin those moral postures he had so pugnaciously defended to Churchill. “Moral postures in the harsh world of power politics may acquire a certain nobility in their very futility,” wrote David Kirby. “But when tainted by a history of compromise and failed bargains, they tend to appear somewhat shabby. “51


As the Red Army swarmed west in 1944, Balts had the unpalatable choice of siding with one barbarian or the other. Most fought with the Germans, burying their dead with crosses underground, to prevent desecration by the Bolsheviks. When Riga fell on 13 October 1944, the Balts retreated to Courland, eastern Latvia. Here these formidable soldiers fought Stalin to a standstill.

Stalin expended half a million men, vainly trying to storm the “Courland Redoubt,” telling them the imperialists would certainly try to stop the reestablishment of Soviet authority. So too thought Hitler, who three times refused to evacuate Courland in 1945.52 Not so. Instead the Balts were confronted by tanks bearing American white stars – Shermans supplied by the USA, thrown into battle before their new red stars could be painted on. They gave up only with the German surrender.

In 1950, Churchill sadly summarized the tragedy of the Baltic States:

Hitler had cast them away like pawns in 1939. There had been a severe Russian and Communist purge. All the dominant personalities had been liquidated in one way or another. The life of these strong peoples was henceforward underground. Presently Hitler came back with a Nazi counter-purge. Finally, in the general victory the Soviets had control again. Thus the deadly comb ran back and forth, and back again, through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. There was no doubt however where the right lay. The Baltic States should be sovereign independent peoples.53

Great Britain, the United States, Australia, Canada and a few other countries have to this day refused to recognize the Soviet incorporation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. But those Balts fortunate enough to escape – and their children – have long memories. They do not look kindly on Roosevelt – nor, one has to say, on Winston Churchill.

Hindsight suggests that the fate of the Baltic States was sealed once Molotov and Ribbentrop signed their infamous pact. An Anglo-Soviet understanding would have precluded the pact, possibly have secured the Baltic, and much else besides. Winston Churchill was not in charge in those days, and the task was beyond Neville Chamberlain.

With pure conjecture we may wonder what might have happened had the Allies, at Teheran, insisted on reestablishment of Baltic sovereignty; and then after the Normandy invasion “joined hands” with Stalin by a secondary landing in the Baltic (instead of the meaningless French Riviera) – making aid to Russia contingent on Soviet acceptance? For certain, Stalin always respected force.

But hindsight is cheap. It is fairer and more profitable to study Churchill and the Baltic for what it can teach us today about dealing with the Soviet Union.

From Lenin’s negotiations with the Baltic republics in 1920 to Stalin’s encounters with the Allies, consistency marked every Soviet position. One has to admire this. Invariably they made the most extreme demands, offered little in exchange; if the demands were met, more followed. Whenever the other side said (as in 1942) they absolutely could not agree, an eleventh-hour shift by Moscow would almost always result. Even that was not a defeat, since the democracies were often so grateful for this “evidence of good will” that they would struggle to meet the next round of Soviet demands. The perceptive Churchill once told Eden, “do not be disappointed if you are not able to bring home a joint public declaration.”54

It is all very familiar. Today we are urged to give up the idea of Strategic Defense – not in exchange for anything concrete, but as a prerequisite to arms control, or as a gesture of good will. They are people like us, we are told; we have only to recognize their problems and go the extra mile. And we hear in such advice the echoes of Chamberlain and Halifax, arguing that the same approach toward Hitler and Stalin was safeguarding the peace of the world.

For Footnotes, click here.

Dedicated to the memory
of those Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians
Whose unmarked graves are scattered from Dresden to Kolyma
and to the memory of Max Edward Hertwig, 1886-1970

A tribute, join us




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