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Estonia between a rock and a hard place: From Päts' coup d'état to Soviet occupation

Konstantin Päts speaking on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia, 1938.
Konstantin Päts speaking on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia, 1938. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

In the late 1930s Estonia was running out of options. Only few were left, and all were either unrealistic, or would mean occupation and the end of Estonian independence. State Elder and later President Konstantin Päts, together with a handful of political veterans, defined what became known as the Era of Silence.

Despite its assurances in the Treaty of Tartu that it recognized Estonian independence "for all times", the Soviet Union started planning to bring all of the Baltic states back under its control as early as in the 1920s.

Parliament accepts state of emergency out of fear of fascism

In the wake of events elsewhere in Europe, and facing the quick rise of a political movement with fascist tendencies and symbolism in Estonia, Päts led a coup d'état in 1934.

The Union of Participants in the Estonian War of Independence, also called the Vaps Movement, was a populist and strongly anti-communist movement that, ironically, demanded a more centralized authoritarian state focused on individuals rather than parliamentary parties. They used some of the symbolism of fascist parties elsewhere in Europe at the time (martial insignia and the Roman salute among them), but were reportedly critical of antisemitism, had no racial ideology, and didn't aim at expanding Estonia's territory.

Leading up to the elections in 1934, Päts served as state elder (Riigivanem) in Estonia's highest office. Candidates running against him included Vaps leader Andres Larka, and General Johan Laidoner. Both Larka and Laidoner's parties were expected to get better results than that of Päts.

Under the impression of events in Germany and Italy, the political establishment was afraid the Vaps Movement might make an attempt at grabbing power. Jaan Tõnisson, himself a legendary politician of the country's first independence era, called for the authorities to intervene and outlaw the movement.

Päts, supported by Laidoner, declared a state of emergency on Mar. 12, 1934. The Vaps Movement was disbanded, and many of its members arrested. Päts justified his actions in a speech to the Riigikogu on Mar. 15. Its members approved of the step a day later, following which Päts promptly postponed the next elections until the end of the state of emergency.

State of emergency, Era of Silence, and Estonia's first president

Päts appointed Johan Laidoner as commander of the army and Karl Einbund as minister of the interior, with the help of which he set about to establish an authoritarian state, a time that is now remembered as the Era of Silence (Vaikiv Ajastu). Päts continued to rule first as prime minister in duties of the state elder, and later on as president-regent.

In 1935 the circle of politicians now in power banned all opposition parties, and created Isamaaliit (the Patriotic League), a unity party. But despite Päts' authoritarian rule, the Era of Silence was never characterized by bloodshed. Facing conflict and unrest in Europe, and remembering the 1920s as a period of political upheaval, large parts of the Estonian population went along with it. Nearly all political prisoners were released after an amnesty law was passed in 1938.

In a referendum the same year, a specifically created political movement approved a constitution that introduced a second chamber of parliament as well as an electoral college.

The following parliamentary elections could only include candidates of the so-called National Front for the Implementation of the Constitution, which was firmly in the hands of the ruling circle around Päts. It won 64 out of 80 seats in the newly created lower house of the Estonian parliament.

The upper house, consisting of appointed representatives of different local councils, chambers of commerce, cultural organizations, minority representations, and the like, was solidly on the side of Päts and his government.

The new constitution dictated that presidential candidates be nominated by each of the chambers, as well as one more council made up of representatives of Estonia's municipalities. As all three nominated Päts for president, the presidential election was cancelled, and Päts swore his oath of office on Apr. 24, 1938.

Neutrality and occupation

After the beginning of what would become known as the Second World War, Estonia declared itself a neutral state, but was pressured by the Soviet Union into signing a mutual assistance treaty.

The Red Army invaded Poland on Sept. 17, 1939, 16 days after Germany had done the same. By Oct. 6, Poland was occupied.

While the Germans were advancing in Poland, a Polish submarine escaped to then-neutral Estonia, arriving in Tallinn on Sept. 14. When it left Tallinn again a day after the Soviet Union had begun its own invasion of Poland, the Soviets accused Estonia of having violated its neutrality, ultimately demanding military access to Estonia's territory on Sept. 24.

The government, without hope for help, agreed on Sept. 26, and the Soviet-Estonian Mutual Assistance Treaty was signed on Sept. 28. The Red Army crossed the border less than a month later, on Oct. 18, 1939. On the same day, German authorities began with the resettlement of Baltic Germans away from the Baltic states, and towards the center of the German-controlled territories.

On Jun. 14, 1940, the Soviet Baltic Fleet began a naval blockade of Estonia. On Jun. 16, the Soviet Union invaded Estonia, demanding that a government be installed they would approve of. On Jun. 17, the Red Army troops already on Estonian soil left their bases, and another 90,000 Soviet troops crossed the border.

Facing overwhelming enemy force inside as well as outside its borders, the Estonian government decided not to resist to avoid violence and bloodshed. A communist coup followed, and so did a staged parliamentary election, following which Estonia was proclaimed a socialist republic on Jul. 21, and acceptance into the Soviet Union requested.

Editor: Aili Vahtla

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