Lenin, Wilson, and ‘self-determination’ of the Baltic states after the Great War
Donatas Kupčiūnas is a Research Associate at the Centre for Geopolitics, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge.
Today, ‘self-determination’ is a well-established, but largely obsolete principle of public international law. It refers to the wave of decolonization in the 1960s, and means the right of colonial territories to determine their own fate, including the right to independence. Outside of this very specific context, there is no right to self-determination that would allow for unilateral secession of a territory from its rump state. This is because the international community has so far preferred the principles of territorial integrity and non-interference into domestic affairs, to the potentially destabilizing ‘self-determination’.
A much further-reaching idea of self-determination had been invoked extensively in international relations both before and immediately after the First World War, but it had little to do with extending democratic principles to world politics. First and foremost, it was used as a weapon of propaganda, aimed at encouraging separatism within enemy empires. The first to use it were the socialists of the Russian empire. In the program of the Russian Social Democratic Party of 1902, Lenin argued for ‘the right to self-determination for all nations entering into the composition of the state’. For Lenin, this would also include the complete political secession of nations from the Russian empire. The subject of such self-determination, however, could only be the proletariat of a nation, and the making of a new bourgeois state could only be encouraged in exceptional cases. The aim of such proclamations of the Russian Bolsheviks was to dismantle the Russian empire, stage a world revolution, and to bring the class of international proletariat to the front stage of world politics.
However, even for the proletariat, ‘self-determination’ meant the right to choose the right thing, that is, the right to join the new Soviet state. Lenin’s approach to small states was as negative as that of the imperial powers which he criticized. Class-conscious workers, argued Lenin, should not propagate secession, as they must be aware of the advantages of large states which offered better prospects for the command economy and for the revolutionary organization of labour. Self-determination thus was only as good as it helped to transform the Russian empire into the Soviet empire.
While nationalists of what was to become the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia took Wilson’s proclamation as a gospel, they soon realized that this gospel was not about them.
When the First World War broke out, both the Allied and the Central Powers – and, after 1917, the Bolsheviks – were liberally using propaganda of self-determination against their enemies. US president Wilson taught the Germans that ‘national aspirations must be respected; peoples may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. “Self-determination” is not a mere phrase. It is an imperative principle of actions which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril’. Just as the Bolsheviks, Wilson aimed self-determination at the enemy empires.
While nationalists of what was to become the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia took Wilson’s proclamation as a gospel, they soon realized that this gospel was not about them. Wilson shared the views held by the Russian émigré whites on the ‘united and indivisible’ Russia and was dead set against the independence of the Baltic states. The Bolshevik propaganda of self-determination, on the other hand, charged in favour of their secession from both the German and the Russian empires, and squared this with the goal of their eventual Sovietisation. The Germans, who were occupying the eastern Baltic until the end of the war, could not avoid ‘self-determination’ either. Discussions of self-determination in the Baltic permeated the Reichstag, so much that German annexationists thought it necessary to package their designs in that same principle. In the beginning of 1918, German and Soviet delegations in Brest-Litovsk negotiations were blasting each other with propaganda of self-determination. The Germans were waving in front of the Soviets the declarations of ‘self-determination’ made by the puppet national councils in the occupied regions, while the Soviets begrudgingly contested their validity.
At the moment when Wilson’s secretary was trying to prove to the Lithuanians that the President was too busy to ever see them in his Paris flat, the pope of self-determination and his wife passed through on their way to a horse race.
The surrender of the Central Powers in the end of 1918, as well as the continuing civil war in Russia, left the Baltic states in the silence of a power vacuum, but in the noise of self-determination. Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian delegations came uninvited to the Paris Peace Conference and attempted to base their claims on the principle which, even if it ever was something more than a tool of wartime propaganda, was clearly not meant for them. At the moment when Wilson’s secretary was trying to prove to the Lithuanians that the President was too busy to ever see them in his Paris flat, the pope of self-determination and his wife passed through on their way to a horse race. Not all Americans in Paris liked this. One of them went public and wrote an article in the leftist Daily Herald, protesting against the lack of love for the ‘small nations, self-determination, and all that sort of thing’. While the Paris Peace Conference sorted out the Germans, it left the Russian and the Baltic questions open.
At the time when Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians were organizing resistance against the Bolshevik onslaught and quelling communist agitation from within, the continued reign of the Bolsheviks, as well as their propaganda of self-determination, still offered better prospects of Baltic statehood than the alternatives. The Russian whites, including their authoritarian strongmen on the battlefield, opposed even the mentioning of the Baltic states’ independence. The western powers, hoping for the return of a reconstituted non-Bolshevik Russia, were careful not to cross Russian interests in the Baltic. At the same time, the Allies favoured Baltic states’ independence against the Russian Reds. Thus while most newborn Central-Eastern European states celebrated the ‘Wilsonian moment’, the Baltic states could only count on making the best out of the ‘Leninist moment’.
At the end of the day, the Baltic states had the best of both worlds: they reaped the benefits of Leninist ‘self-determination’, but avoided being self-determined by Lenin.
By 1920, the Bolsheviks realised that they could conquer neither the world, nor Germany, nor even the Baltic states, and sued for peace. The Estonians signed their peace treaty in February 1920, followed by Lithuanians and Latvians in the summer of the same year. Finally, the Poles pushed the Red Army back to Russia in September 1920, laying the foundations for peaceful coexistence, if only for two decades. At the end of the day, the Baltic states had the best of both worlds: they reaped the benefits of Leninist ‘self-determination’, but avoided being self-determined by Lenin.