Following the February Revolution in Russia, the Autonomous Governorate of Estonia was created on April 12, 1917 (March 30 Old Style) from the former Russian Governorate of Estonia and northern Governorate of Livonia. After the October Revolution, the elected Estonian Provincial Assembly declared itself the sovereign power in Estonia on November 28, 1917 and on February 24, 1918 a day before the arrival of German troops the Estonian Declaration of Independence was issued. The Western Allies recognized the Republic of Estonia de facto in May 1918.
The Latvian National Council was proclaimed on November 16, 1917. On November 30, 1917 the Council declared an autonomous Latvian province within ethnographic boundaries, and a formal independent Latvian republic was declared on January 15, 1918.
After the Russian revolution, German troops had started advancing from Courland, and by the end of February 1918 the German military administered the territories of the former Russian Governorate of Livonia and Autonomous Governorate of Estonia that had declared independence. With the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918 Bolshevist Russia accepted the loss of the Courland Governorate, and by agreements concluded in Berlin on August 27, 1918 the loss of the Autonomous Governorate of Estonia and the Governorate of Livonia.
Foundation of the United Baltic Duchy
As a parallel political movement under the German military administration, Baltic Germans began forming provincial councils between September 1917 and March 1918. On April 12, 1918 a Provincial Assembly composed of 35 Baltic Germans, 13 Estonians, and 11 Latvians passed a resolution calling upon the German Emperor to recognize the Baltic provinces as a monarchy and make them a German protectorate.
On March 8 and April 12, 1918 the local Baltic German-dominated Kurländische Landesrat and the Vereinigter Landesrat of Livland, Estland, Riga, and Ösel had declared themselves independent states, known as the Duchy of Courland (Herzogtum Kurland) and Baltic State duchy (Baltischer Staat), respectively. Both states proclaimed themselves to be in personal union with the Kingdom of Prussia, although the German government never responded to acknowledge that claim.
The Baltic lands were nominally recognized as a sovereign state by emperor Wilhelm II only on September 22, 1918 half a year after Soviet Russia had formally relinquished all authority over its former Imperial Baltic provinces to Germany in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. On November 5, 1918 a temporary Regency Council (Regentschaftsrat) for the new state led by Baron Adolf Pilar von Pilchau was formed on a joint basis from the two local Land Councils.
The capital of the new state was designated Riga. It was to be a confederation of seven cantons: Kurland (Courland), Riga, Lettgallen (Latgale), Südlivland (South Livonia), Nordlivland (North Livonia), Ösel (Saaremaa), and Estland (Estonia), the four first cantons thus covering the territory corresponding to today's Latvia and the latter three corresponding to today's Estonia.
The first head of state of the United Baltic Duchy was proclaimed Adolf Friedrich, Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, not as a sovereign monarch, but as a subordinate to the German Kaiser, similar to other dukes and grand dukes of the German Empire. The appointed Regency Council consisting of four Baltic Germans, three Estonians and three Latvians functioned until November 28, 1918 without any international recognition, except from Germany.
In October 1918, the Chancellor of Germany Prince Maximilian of Baden proposed to have the military administration in the Baltic replaced by civilian authority. The new policy was stated in a telegram from the German Foreign Office to the military administration of the Baltic: The government of the Reich is unanimous in respect of the fundamental change in our policy towards the Baltic countries, namely that in the first instance policy is to be made with the Baltic peoples.
An elected parliament convened on May 1, 1920, and adopted a liberal constitution, the Satversme, in February 1922. The constitution was partly suspended by Duke Adolf Friedrich after his coup in 1934 but reaffirmed in 1990. Since then, it has been amended and is still in effect in Latvia today. With most of the United Baltic Duchy's industrial base evacuated to the interior of Russia in 1915, radical land reform was the central political question for the young state. In 1897, 61.2% of the rural population had been landless; by 1936, that percentage had been reduced to 18%.
By 1923, the extent of cultivated land surpassed the pre-war level. Innovation and rising productivity led to rapid growth of the economy, but it soon suffered from the effects of the Great Depression. The United Baltic Duchy showed signs of economic recovery, and the electorate had steadily moved toward the centre during the parliamentary period. On May 15, 1934, Duke Adolf Friedrich staged a bloodless coup, establishing a nationalist dictatorship that lasted until 1940. After 1934, Adolf Friedrich established government corporations to buy up private firms with the aim of "Germanising" the economy.
World War II
On June 22, 1940 the Red Army launched the Belorussian Strategic Offensive, codenamed Operation Bagration. The goal of this offensive was to conquer the Belarusian People’s Republic. Operation Bagration was extremely successful, resulting in the almost complete destruction of the National Army of Belarus, and ended on August 29. In its final stages (the Kaunas and Šiauliai Offensives), Operation Bagration saw Soviet forces strike deep towards the Baltic coast.
After Operation Bagration ended, the Soviets continued the clearing of the Baltic coast, despite attempts to restore the front. The Red Army fought the Memel Offensive Operation with the goal of isolating the Baltische Landeswehr by capturing the German city of Memel. General Prauls was trapped outside the pocket, and Ziemeļlatvijas brigāde (Northern Brigade) was formed. Inside the trapped pocket, the remaining units formed into another brigade to attack from the inside of the trap.
However, some 200,000 Latvian troops held out in Courland along with other forces resisting Soviet occupation. They were besieged with their backs to the Baltic Sea. The Red Army mounted numerous offensives at massive losses but failed to take the Courland Pocket. Colonel Kārlis Lobe, the acting commander of the Courland area insisted to German High Command that the troops should be sent by sea to Courland and used for to push the Red Army back; however, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel refused leaving Lobe and his forces in Courland to hold out. Keitel believed the troops being requested necessary to protect Germany from the pending invasion of the Red Army.
The 4th Panzer Group's objective was to cross the Neman and Daugava Rivers which were the two largest obstacles in the German advance to Leningrad. When Operation Barbarossa began, tanks crossed the River Neman and penetrated 50 mi (80 km). Near Raseiniai, the armoured units were counterattacked by 300 tanks of the 3rd and 12th Soviet Mechanized Corps. It took four days for the Germans to encircle and destroy the Soviet armour who lacked fuel, ammunition and coordination. By the end of the first week the Soviet Mechanized Corps had lost 90% of its strength. The Panzer Groups then crossed the Daugava near Daugavpils. The Germans were now within striking distance of Leningrad. However, due to their deteriorated supply situation, Hitler ordered the Panzer Groups to hold their position until the infantry formations caught up. The orders to hold would last over a week, giving time for the Soviets to build up a defense around Leningrad and along the bank of the Luga River. Further complicating the Soviet position, on June 22, the anti-Soviet June Uprising in Lithuania began, on the next day an re-independent Lithuania was proclaimed. An estimated 30,000 Lithuanian rebels engaged Soviet forces, joined by ethnic Lithuanians from the Red Army. As the Germans reached further north, armed resistance against the Soviets broke out in Estonia as well. The "Battle of Estonia" ended on August 7, when the 18th Army reached the Gulf of Finland coast.