23/6/1919 Cēsis: Estonia and Latvia smash the Baltic Freikorps

German leaders are still struggling with the Allied peace terms. Meanwhile in the Baltic, German mercenaries are attempting to establish their own little empire. Initially these Baltic Freikorps were hired by the government of Latvia to help it against Soviet Russia’s Red Army, but the Freikorps have since then overthrown the Latvian government and replaced it with one headed by their puppet, Andreas Needra. Under Goltz, their commander, the Freikorps hope to turn all of the Baltic States into a German colony. Feeling themselves secure in Latvia after evicting the Red Army from Riga, they now prepare an invasion of Estonia, aimed not at further weakening the Soviets but at bringing Estonia under their rule.

Unfortunately the ambitions of the Freikorps prove greater than their ability. The Latvians and Estonians pool their resources and at Cēsis they soundly defeat the Germans. With the Freikorps in retreat, Needra’s government prepares to flee from its capital. With increasing Allied pressure on Germany to rein in the Baltic Freikorps, it looks like Goltz’s dream of empire is now doomed.

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Estonian commanders Karl Parts, Ernst Pödder, and Nikolai Reek (Wikipedia: Nikolai Reek)

22/5/1919 Riga falls to the Freikorps

German Freikorps volunteer units came to Latvia ostensibly to save the country from invasion by the Red Army. Since then however they have seized power in the country, with Freikorps commander Goltz ruling through a puppet government. The Germans have continued to push back the Soviets and today they evict them from Riga, Latvia’s capital.

Before the war Riga was an important industrial and commercial centre and had a substantial community of ethnic Germans. The intervening years have not been kind to it, with industrial activity having collapsed and the city having lost half its population. Nevertheless, to the Freikorps its capture is a triumph, calling to mind its previous seizure by the German army in 1917, when it still looked like Germany might win the wider war.

The fighting for Riga is however quite brutal. The Freikorps are incensed by the resistance they are offered by Soviet irregulars, particularly those they dub Flintenweiber: young rifle-armed women who snipe at the German troops. The Freikorps launch an orgy of violence against real or suspected Flintenweiber and communist sympathisers.

With Riga now secure the ambitions of the Freikorps are growing. Goltz begins preparations for an invasion of Estonia, intent on expanding his Baltic empire.

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Freikorps officers before the attack on Riga (Wikipedia)

Map of (confusing) Baltic situation following fall of Riga (Pygmy Wars: Latvia 1919)

16/4/1919 Revolt of the Freikorps: German mercenaries seize power in Latvia

Germany’s defeat allowed Latvia to gain its independence, but soon after it found itself being invaded by the Red Army. In desperation the Latvians began to recruit German volunteers to form a mercenary army. The German volunteer units are known as Freikorps, like the volunteer militias busily suppressing ultra-leftism in Germany itself. The Latvian Freikorps are led by Rüdiger von der Goltz, who previously commanded the German intervention force during the Finnish Civil War.

Recruiting the Freikorps proves something of a faustian pact for the Latvians. The Germans are openly contemptuous of the Latvians they have supposedly come to save and are casually brutal to any they suspect of Bolshevik sympathies. And now they break completely free of control of the Latvians, with Goltz deposing the Latvian government and instead appointing Andreas Needra, a Lutheran pastor, to head a puppet regime. Goltz and his supporters hope to turn Latvia into a de facto German colony and to then use it to dominate the eastern Baltic.

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Freikorps members in Latvia (Patrick Chovanec (@prchovanec) on Twitter)

Rüdiger von der Goltz (Wikipedia)

9/1/1919 As the Red Army advances, Latvia seeks German volunteers

Civil war rages in Russia. In Siberia the counter-revolutionary forces of Admiral Kolchak have stormed Perm and are threatening to advance westwards. Elsewhere though the tide may be turning in the Bolsheviks‘ favour, as the increasingly powerful Red Army exploits the disorganisation and lack of unity among the Bolsheviks’ enemies. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk obliged the Bolsheviks to abandon vast territories in the west of the former Russian Empire. That treaty has however been rendered null and void by the German armistice with the western Allies. Now the Red Army is expanding into Ukraine and the Baltic States, keen to bring them back into the Russian orbit and introduce them to the delights of socialism. The Bolsheviks have captured Riga, Latvia’s capital, and have also taken Vilna (or Vilnius), which is separately disputed between Poland and Lithuania.

Fearing that the Red Army is about to snuff out their recently achieved independence, the leaders of Latvia now take a desperate step: they advertise in Germany for volunteers to come and aid them in their struggle against the Red Army. The Latvians hope that there are enough demobilised soldiers in Germany who miss the comradeship and certainties of army life, and that these men will be keen to join their struggle against Bolshevism. Whether these German volunteers will be an easily controllable force is of course another matter, but Latvia’s desperate situation obliges its leaders to offer what may prove to be a faustian pact.

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Red Army propaganda poster (The Charnel-House: Плакаты СССР- Будь на страже! (Д. Моор) 1920)

18/11/1918 Meanwhile in Russia…

Peace is descending on Western Europe but in Russia the civil war between the Bolsheviks and their opponents continues. The terms of the Western Front armistice oblige the Germans to abandon the gains of the Brest-Litovsk treaty, so now German and Austro-Hungarian troops are withdrawing from Ukraine, forcing the client regime there to stand on its own two feet and face off a likely Red Army invasion. Meanwhile the Germans are also withdrawing from the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, where liberal nationalists are now establishing independent administrations.

The anti-Bolshevik forces within Russia itself hope that the armistice means that they will receive more assistance from the Allies, who have promised the Whites that Russian military stores captured by the Germans will be shipped to them; there is even talk of sending troops to occupy Ukraine. For now though the military situation remains confusing. Baron Wrangel is leading a White army in the northern Caucasus and is successfully clearing the Red Army and Bolsheviks from there. Elsewhere though the Red Army seems to be getting stronger and stronger and is no longer the ineffectual rabble it once was. The White are also suffering from the increased lack of interest by the Czechoslovak Legion in the Russian Civil War; the emerging independence of Czechoslovakia means that the Czechoslovaks do not see why they should remain in Russia any longer.

In southern Russia Denikin is the preeminent leader of White forces, particularly since the recent death by heart attack of Alexeev. In Siberia the situation is more complicated. The Komuch had attempted to establish a liberal and socialist regime but never attracted much popular support and increasingly became puppets of more reactionary military figures; the Komuch also finds itself consumed by infighting between different factions. Now the pretence of democracy is abandoned and a purely military regime is established under Alexander Kolchak, previously the commander of Russia’s Black Sea fleet.

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Pyotr Wrangel (Wikipedia)

Alexander Kolchak (Wikipedia)