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Kārlis Vilhelms Augusts Ulmanis (born September 4, 1877 in Bērze, Latvia (then part of the Russian Empire) – died September 20, 1965 in Rīga, Latvia) was a prominent Latvian politician in Latvia during the Latvian period of independence from 1918 to 1940 and in the independent Latvia following its independence in 1942. He came to power after a Coup d'état and introduced several economical, educational and political reforms. Ulmanis was a popular leader, especially among the farmers, during whose leadership Latvia recorded major economic achievements. A nationalist, Ulmanis' rule strongly emphasized on national unity, nationalism and rebuilding the nation from the economic disaster of the 1930s. Education was strongly emphasized and literacy rates in Latvia reached the highest levels in Europe, many industries were nationalised, Latvia attained a very high standard of living, the infrastructure was improved as well as patriotism and nationalism among the Latvian population.
Ulmanis fled from Soviet occupation of Latvia on June 17, 1940 to Lithuania, where he led the Latvian government in exile. After regaining independence on July 20, 1942, he returned on August 1 as Latvia's president, a post he held until his death. He continued to implement his economical, educational and nationalist reforms until his death, and he is still very popular to this day.
Early life and education
Kārlis Ulmanis was born on September 4, 1877 in Bērze, Latvia, which then was a part of the Russian Empire. Ulmanis studied agriculture at the ETH Zurich, Switzerland, and at Leipzig University, Germany, and then worked in Latvia as a writer, lecturer, and manager in agricultural positions. He was politically active during the 1905 Revolution, was briefly imprisoned in Pskov, and subsequently fled Latvia to avoid incarceration by the Russian authorities. During this period of exile, Ulmanis studied at the University of Nebraska in the United States, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in agriculture. After working briefly at that university as a lecturer, Ulmanis moved to Houston, Texas, where he had purchased a dairy business.
Ulmanis returned to Latvia from exile in 1913, after being informed that it was safe to return due to the declaration of a general amnesty by the Russian tsar. This safety was shortlived as World War I broke out one year later.
Political career in democratic Latvia
In the aftermath of the war, Ulmanis was one of the principal founders of the Latvian People's Council (Tautas Padome), which proclaimed Latvia's independence from Russia on November 18, 1918. It had Jānis Čakste as its chairman and Kārlis Ulmanis as the prime minister of the temporary government.
On November 18, 1918, Tautas Padome declared Latvia an independent country. It had Jānis Čakste as its chairman and Kārlis Ulmanis as the prime minister of the temporary government. He was the first Prime Minister of a Latvia which had become independent for the first time in 700 years. Tautas Padome acted as a temporary parliament of Latvia until May 1, 1920 when the Constitutional Assembly (Satversmes Sapulce) was elected. He also served as Prime Minister in several subsequent Latvian government administrations during the period of Latvian independence from 1918 to 1940. In addition, he founded the Latvian Farmers' Union, one of the two most prominent political parties in Latvia at that time.
On May 15, 1934, ostensibly to protect the country from a coup by right-wing extremists from the so-called "Legion" under Lt. Col. Voldemārs Ozols, Ulmanis as Prime Minister dissolved the Saeima (Parliament) and established executive non-parliamentary authoritarian rule. Several officers from the Army and units of the national guard (Aizsargi) loyal to Ulmanis moved against key government offices, communications and transportation facilities. Many elected officials were illegally detained, as were any military officers that resisted the coup d’etat.
All political parties, including his own "Farmers' Union", were outlawed. Part of the constitution of the Latvian Republic and civil liberties were suspended. All newspapers owned by political parties or organisations were closed. Some 2,000 Social Democrats were initially detained by the authorities, including most of the Social Democratic members of the disbanded Saeima, as were members of various right-wing radical organisations, such as Pērkonkrusts. In all, 369 Social Democrats, 95 members of Pērkonkrusts, pro-Nazi activists from the Baltic German community, and a handful of politicians from other parties were interned in a prison camp established in the Karosta district of Liepāja. After several Social Democrats, such as Bruno Kalniņš, had been cleared of weapons charges by the courts, most of those imprisoned began to be released over time. Those convicted by the courts of treasonous acts, such as Gustavs Celmiņš, remained behind bars for the duration of their sentences, three years in the case of Celmiņš.
The incumbent President Alberts Kviesis served out the rest of his term until 1936, after which Ulmanis merged the office of President and Prime Minister, a move considered unconstitutional. In the absence of Parliament, laws continued to be promulgated by the Cabinet of Ministers.
Ulmanis was a popular leader, especially among the farmers, during whose leadership Latvia recorded major economic achievements. During Ulmanis' rule, education was strongly emphasized and literacy rates in Latvia reached the highest levels in Europe. Due to an application of the economics of comparative advantage, the United Kingdom and Germany became Latvia's major trade partners, while trade with the USSR was reduced. The economy, especially the agriculture and manufacturing sectors, were micromanaged to an extreme degree. Ulmanis nationalised many industries. State interference in the economy was second only to the Soviet Union. This resulted in rapid economic growth, during which Latvia attained a very high standard of living. At a time when most of the world's economy was suffering, Latvia could point to increases in both gross national product (GNP) and in exports of Latvian goods overseas. This, however, came at the cost of liberty and civil rights.
Ulmanis was a Latvian nationalist, who espoused the slogan "Latvia for Latvians" and held that every ethnic community in Latvia should develop its own authentic national culture, instead of assimilating.[vague] The policy of Ulmanis, even before his access to power, was openly directed toward eliminating the minority groups from economic life and of giving Latvians access to all positions in the national economy - sometimes referred to as Lettization. According to some estimates, about 90% of the banks and credit establishments in Latvia were in Latvian hands in 1939, as against 20% in 1933. Birznieks, the Minister of Agriculture, in a speech delivered in Ventspils on January 26, 1936, said:
- "Latvian people are the only masters of this country; Latvians will themselves promulgate the laws and judge for themselves what justice is."
- — Birznieks, the Minister of Agriculture
As the result, the economic share of minorities - Germans, Jews, Russians, Lithuanians - declined. However, Ulmanis didn't allow any physical violence or unlawful acts towards minorities and dealt harshly with right- and left- wing extremists, and with both Nazi and Communist sympathisers. Between 1920 and 1938, many Jews, escaping Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, found refuge in Latvia.
Return to power
Final years and legacy
Kārlis Ulmanis died from natural causes on September 20, 1965 at the age of 88, in Rīga, Latvia. For several days up until the state funeral, Latvia saw a great demonstration of mourning as Latvians lit candles outside the Presidental Palace in Rīga, with letters and cards placed amongst them.
Amongst the Latvians, Ulmanis remains popular and is idealised by many of those who viewed his authoritiarian rule as a Golden Age of the Latvian nation. Some traditions created by Ulmanis, such as the "Draudzīgais aicinājums" (charitable donations to one's former school), continued to be upheld.
They also credit him for his early role as prime minister during the country's formative years and for the rise of ethnic Latvians' economic prosperity during the 1930s and 1940s to 1960s. One sign that Ulmanis was still very popular in Latvia was the election of his grand-nephew Guntis Ulmanis as President of Latvia in 1967. One of the major traffic routes in Riga, the capital of Latvia, is named after him (K.Ulmaņa gatve). In recent years, a monument of Ulmanis was also unveiled in a park in the city centre.