In the second part of a special three-part series dedicated to the pivotal events of Feb. 23-25, 1918, Piret Kriivan, host of Vikerraadio's "Estonia's Story," spoke with University of Tartu Associate Professor of Estonian History Ago Pajur about the events of Feb. 24, including how German troops marched on Tallinn and Tartu even as copies of the Estonian Declaration of Independence continued to spread across the country.
Feb. 24, 1918 was a Sunday. Estonian independence had been proclaimed the night before in Pärnu, still under Estonian rule, although the original plan, per the date and location noted at the bottom of the Manifesto to the Peoples of Estonia, had been to proclaim the independence of the Republic of Estonia in Tallinn on the 21st.
There was no typical front line cutting across the country, as the German Army moved along existing railroad and highway routes, but by Feb. 24, as Bolsheviks continued to retreat, German troops advancing from the south reached Tartu and Võru, and those who had reached the mainland via the western islands and were heading for Tallinn had reached as far as Pääsküla and set up their headquarters in Saue Manor.
On Feb. 24, Pärnu and Viljandi were under Estonian rule, and Estonians had taken control in Paide the night before as well. The Manifesto was proclaimed a second time in Pärnu that morning, by the pastor in church, and sometime that afternoon, around approximately 4 p.m., by mayor Gustav Talts in Viljandi. While there are some claims to the contrary, in all likelihood the Manifesto was not proclaimed in the capital of Tallinn itself that day.
Konstantin Päts, Jüri Vilms and Konstantin Konik, the three members of the Estonian Salvation Committee, the executive body of the Estonian Provincial Assembly that had issued the Manifesto, lay in hiding in an apartment located at the beginning of Tartu Highway in Central Tallinn — the same apartment where the Manifesto itself had been written.
Salvation Committee comes out of hiding
The committee members at the time had no overview of the events going on in other cities, and barely knew what was going on Tallinn, but on the afternoon of Feb. 24, they began relocating to the old Bank of Estonia building at what is now Estonia Avenue 13, where the Estonian Provisional Government would be assembled.
Vilms had gone to look for lawyer Jaan Poska, whom they wanted to appoint the Provisional Government's Minister of Foreign Affairs. Konik, meanwhile, left the secret apartment before noon that day, heading to the printing house of the daily Päevaleht to begin printing additional copies of the Manifesto.
That day, the Salvation Committee, which had been granted its powers by the Council of the Elders of the Estonian National Council, issued its first orders of the day.
The first five orders
The first order of the day reaffirmed what had been stated in the Manifesto, namely that Estonia had been declared an independent republic, whose sole governmental power was the Salvation Committee. Local governments were also ordered to resume operations, the national army was ordered to remain neutral, and ordinary citizens were ordered to stop assets from being destroyed or removed from the country.
The second order of the day included specifications for the proclaiming of Estonian independence in Tallinn on Monday the 25th, including orders to ring church bells to summon congregation members to church, where the Manifesto was to be read in a festive atmosphere and to read the Manifesto at specially arranged festive ceremonies in schools, after which children were to be sent home for the rest of the day in honor of the occasion.
The third order of the day canceled Bolshevik orders for the nationalization of assets, while the fourth, dated Feb. 25, ordered Estonian troops to report to their units by March. 1.
The Salvation Committee's fifth order of the day, which was dated Feb. 24 but likely drawn up on the 25th, announced the makeup of the Estonian Provisional government, making it the most important order in terms of the establishment of Estonian statehood.
The Provisional Government
The Provisional Government was led by Salvation Committee member Konstantin Päts, while fellow committee member Jüri Vilms was appointed Minister of Justice. Jaan Poska was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs; Juhan Kukk, Minister of Finance, Jaan Raamot, Minister of Food and Agriculture; Andres Larka, Minister of War; Villem Maasik, Minister of Labour and Welfare; Ferdinand Peterson, Minister of Roads; Peeter Põld, Minister of Education.
It was apparent, however, that each of these individuals had not necessarily agreed beforehand to their appointments, as Maasik, appointed Minister of Labour and Welfare, ended up in a heated exchange with Konik, protesting against the Salvation Committee and its orders and asserting that the committee had usurped power from the rightful Council of the Elders of the Estonian National Council. A few days later, a letter from the Estonian Social Democratic Workers' Party signed by Maasik arrived stating that the party officially did not recognized the would-be Salvation Committee or the Provincial Government assembled by it, and so Maasik was resigning from his post as minister.
That day, the Salvation Committee's orders were also printed at the Päevaleht printing house, following the printing of the Manifesto. Following delays caused by the fact that much of the initial printing that day had to be done on a smaller press operated by a hand crank, copies of the Manifesto only began to be posted around town by dusk, which meant that copies of the committee's orders were distributed even later that night.
As Aleksander Hellat, the Salvation Committee-appointed Tallinn city militia chief, had extended curfew orders given the night before, restricting travel on the city streets between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., it is likely that many city residents did not see these documents posted until the morning of the 25th.
German Army welcomed by Baltic Germans in Tartu
Meanwhile, in Southern Estonia, Feb. 24 saw the city of Tartu decked out not in blue, black and white, but with different flags altogether.
Minister of Education Peeter Põld traveled to Tartu carrying a copy of the Manifesto with him, in hopes that Estonian independence could be proclaimed there as well that day. Copies of the Manifesto made at the end of February or beginning of March and distributed to area schools and churches could later be found in archives, but by the time Põld arrived in town that day, the German Army had already seized power.
The city's Baltic German population, overjoyed at the arrival of the German Army, had decked out the city, particularly the city center, with Imperial German flags. They sent representatives to meet the German convoy on Riia Highway, which they escorted into town. The German unit assembled in Town Hall Square, where representatives of the city's Baltic German residents greeted them and thanked them for liberating the city from the Bolsheviks.
The Tartu city government, which had begun operating the day before, was also present, and Mayor Jaan Kriisa announced to the German Army that Tartu was under Estonian rule. The German troops, who were generally uninterested in getting involved in political matters, took note, but would await and defer to orders from Berlin.
On Feb. 24, and in general following the battle at Keila, there were no more significant clashes between the Germans and the Bolsheviks. A minor exchange of fire took place that day on the edge of town in Võru, where local Bolsheviks and Red Guards fired in self-defense as they had not been able to retreat ahead of the advancing German Army fast enough, but no casualties were recorded.
First flags in Tallinn as Bolsheviks retreat
According to Pajur, as the most important event, the first public proclamation of Estonian independence, had already taken place in Pärnu on the 23rd, Feb. 24 was significant not so much due to the fact that the Manifeso was being published, but because the Salvation Committee-appointed Provisional Government entered into operation.
That day, the blue, black and white Estonian tricolor was hoisted on top of the Bank of Estonia building. The flag only made it to the top of Tall Hermann, the tallest tower of Toompea Castle, the morning after, and even then only to half mast, as the flagpole's pulley system was broken and the officers raising the flag could not reach any higher, even standing on one another's shoulders.
Few other flags were seen around town that day, as most of the city was still under Bolshevik rule and the latter only retreated to the port area by that evening. City residents could not rule out, however, that they would not return to town from there, and many found it wiser not to display the Estonian tricolor.
Accounts of the following day were conflicting, as some recalled that the city of Tallinn was filled with blue, black and white flags on the 25th, while others recalled that there were indeed many flags on display, but the majority were Imperial German flags, as seen in Tartu. The latter seems more plausible, found Pajur, as most of the city center and Old Town were inhabited by Baltic Germans who eagerly awaited the arrival of the German Army and didn't want to hear anything about an independent Estonia.
On the night before the 25th, a Salvation Committee delegation, including Konik, Minister of War Andres Larka and a number of officers, took a train from Baltic Station to Pääsküla to meet with the German Army there. The delegation had along a machine gun for self-defense and a white flag to indicate peace, but were delayed in Nõmme, then a separate suburb of the capital city with a large Baltic German population, by local firemen. The firemen began interrogating the delegation as to who they were and where they were heading, but retreated after seeing the machine gun they had along.
Upon their arrival in Pääsküla, the delegation was met more peacefully and were taken to Saue Manor, where the German Army had set up their headquarters, by horse-drawn carriage. There, the Estonian delegation managed to reach an agreement with the Germans that the latter would delay their marching on Tallinn until no earlier than noon on the 25th, as there were still Russian warships in port which could spook upon seeing the advancing army and attack the city with artillery fire, damaging buildings and killing people, including German troops.
In reality, of course, the delegation was buying the Estonian Provisional Government more time to officially take power and continue organizing the newly proclaimed republic. This way, they reasoned, when the Germans arrived, the latter would be marching on the capital of a neutral republic, not a Russian city.
The German Army's arrival in Tallinn would be peaceful in any case, as Tallinn's sea fortress had been disarmed, much had been bombed, Russian sailors had retreated to their ships in the harbor, and soldiers had fled altogether. Estonia's own militia was in no position to resist either.
Baltic Fleet evacuates
That same night, tensions were high in the port area of Tallinn, where Russian sailors had been given orders to empty the area's many warehouses and not leave any military equipment to the advancing Germans. It has been speculated that some sailors, on their own initiative, had wanted to bomb the power plant near the port. In any case, an exchange of fire took place overnight, and the area quieted down after
2nd Lt. Konrad Rotschild, who had been appointed city superintendent by the Salvation Committee, organized troops, patrols and militia squads and established radio telegraph contact with the Baltic Fleet Committee on the ships in the city's port. The two sides agreed to a ceasefire, with the telegram even indicating a line of demarcation denoted with street-level precision.
After the Russian sailors had retreated to their ships in the city's port, the Ice Cruise of the Baltic Fleet, an operation which saw the evacuation of the ships of the Imperial Russian Navy's Baltic Fleet first from Tallinn to Helsinki, and later from Helsinki to Kronstadt and St. Petersburg, began under the direction of Capt. Alexey Schastny.
Although the first few vessels departed on the morning of Feb. 21 already, the large-scale evacuation of the Russian ships did not begin until the morning of the 25th. On the 24th, preparations were underway for their departure, and goods and sailors were brought on board. That evening, a group of Russian sailors who had been on leave were returning to Tallinn from the direction of Narva. The Salvation Committee and Rotschild were concerned about who they were and what they wanted, but after being promised that they simply wanted to return to their ships, the sailors were let off the train at Ülemiste and marched straight to the harbor.
When the first German troops arrived in Tallinn around midday on the 25th, they saw hundreds of Russian ships still docked in port and not far offshore. A firefight ensued, during which even a German military plane appeared to drop bombs on the Russian vessels; reportedly, a Russian cruiser was hit, but as Pajur noted, military planes at the time were relatively primitive.
On the afternoon of the 25th, part of the fleet began making its way to Helsinki, while some vessels remained near the islands of Naissaare and Aegna for an extra few days in order to take on demolition crews still working on destroying what supplies were left on the offshore islands.
Manifesto reaches Central Estonia
On the night of Feb. 24, a copy of the Manifesto arrived in the Central Estonian town of Paide, which Estonians had retaken the night before. Jaan Lintrop, who had the Manifesto with him, had traveled to his home in Kärevere on the 23rd, and initially had trouble making the trip into Paide, as locals were unsure who was in power in town at the time.
Unable to recruit anyone to accompany him, Lintrop finally worked up the courage to head to Paide on the 24th, where it turned out that the Estonians were in power, and the Manifesto could begin to be copied and distributed. Paide became the third-largest source of printed copies of the pivotal document, behind Pärnu and Tallinn.
Editor: Aili Vahtla