Estonian Freedom Fighters

Author: Tauno Rahnu

The predecessor of the freedom fighters movement was the Association of the Veterans of the Estonian War of Independence, established in 1920, which had concentrated on supporting the veterans and helping them get the promised jobs, farmlands and free education. The membership of the union started to increase rapidly and that was probably one of the main reasons why they decided to enter politics. They took part in the elections of the II Riigikogu in 1923. But they were unsuccessful because of lack of experience and not understanding the system – only one member was elected to Riigikogu but he soon became a deserter. The veterans’ association broke up in 1925. Its former members formed the Tallinn’s Union of Participants in the Estonian War of Independence in May 1926. On July 23, 1929 the leaders of Tallinn’s, Tapa’s and Haapsalu’s unions established the Union of Participants in the Estonian War of Independence (also known as the Vaps Movement). What goals did they have? Mostly their goals were very patriotic – the outcome of the victorious fight should remain valid, and the country should be prepared for future battles. They paid much attention to preparing the youth for defending their land. The union’s statutes paragraph no 1 said: "Organizing freedom fighters and assembling all freedom fighters’ organisations who stand on the basis of democratic and independent countries, helping deepen and renew the thought of statehood in the people, maintaining conscientiousness and nationalism in freedom fighters and spreading the spirit that surrounded us during the days of the War of Independence, encouraging people to keep and cherish worthily the memories of those who died in the war, and being alert and helping to secure Estonia’s independence."

Their second important goal was protecting their members’ finances, and third one was establishing the organisation as such. Nothing indicated back then that their goals were actually political. Three local unions took part in forming the new one, but it is known that there were at least three other local unions at that time that were not supportive of the new union. Those were Krüüdner’s, Petser’s and Narva’s unions. It’s difficult to say now what could have caused their opposition.

There have been claims that one of the reasons why the freedom fighters movement began was the tough economic situation in Estonia, some have said that if the worldwide economic crisis had not hit Estonia, the movement would not have been established. This is misleading people. There was no economic crisis in Estonia in summer of 1929. The first signs of an economic downfall appeared in autumn of 1929 and the crisis reached its peak in Estonia in winter of 1932.

The economic crisis did, however, influence the popularity of the freedom fighters movement and their entering politics. Why? The economic crisis hit Estonia pretty bad. Export prices dropped by 2/3. Agricultural products lost their external markets and the prices decreased in the internal market. Thousands of farms were sold to new owners in auctions. The situation was just as bad in industry and in public sector. People needed quick solutions and turned to the state for help. But different groups of Riigikogu only fought among themselves and chatted, nobody actually worked. Officials were drowning in corruption. Crime rate increased. People demanded a strong leader, they wanted to elect a president who would solve all problems. But the current constitution of 1920 did not allow them to do so. The time was right for the freedom fighters to step in.

1st Congress

January 26, 1930 the first congress of the whole union took place in Tallinn. 60 delegates from 11 local unions arrived. The executive board of the union was elected – General Ernst Põdder (on the photo: second row, first one from left), General Johan Roska (later Orasmaa, the commander of the National Defence League), retired General Andres Larka (first row, first one from left), lawyer Artur Sirk, retired Colonel Eduard Kubbo, Captain Helmut Veem (the commander of the Security Police), J. Sepp and Kont. Andres Larka was elected as the chairman. They mostly discussed occupational questions – giving out farmlands, organising jobs for freedom fighters, free education, etc. First political discussions took place. They disapproved the huge spread of corruption and promised to eradicate Marxism from Estonia.

2nd Congress

The second congress of the union took place on March 22, 1931 in Tallinn. 113 delegates from 43 local unions took part. According to the union’s statutes (paragraph 15) every local union could send one delegate who represents 25 members of the union. This means that the 113 delegates of the second congress represented 2,825 union members. This shows that the number members had doubled within one year. About 65% of them were members of the Tallinn’s union. They were the ones who dominated in the congress. They discussed the fact that veterans of the war were not favoured in handing out jobs, despite the regulation issued in summer of 1919. It was also said that the problems involving getting and keeping jobs were not the results of the economic crisis, but also the results of corruption. They discussed the questions concerning war invalids, pensions, etc. The whole congress was taken in by some kind of special majestic feeling which at some point became a burst of admiration. Some speeches were interrupted by spontaneous singing breaks when everyone sang patriotic songs. During this congress the song "Eestimaa, mu isamaa" (Estonia, my fatherland) by F. Kuhlbars and P. Schultz, became the official song of the freedom fighters. As a remark it can be said that on the 2 CD collection "Eesti sõdurilaulik" (Estonian soldiers' songbook), issued in 2005, this song is marked as the official song of boy scouts and the Young Eagles.

The main focus was on political issues. Johan Pitka and Theodor Rõuk both made presentations. Pitka (on the photo) blamed the government for not working hard enough to protect Estonia from economic crisis. He also blamed the government in wasting too much money and in being corrupt. And he did it using a quite strict tone. Theodor Rõuk disagreed with Pitka a little. Rõuk believed that they cannot blame only individuals, but that the whole state structure is to blame. His opinion was that if the whole power is in the hands of Riigikogu and not the government, and if all Riigikogu does is fight, then nobody does any real work and they cannot hope for anything good to come out of it. To solve the problem he proposed to change the constitution. This is the first speech that is known from the history when freedom fighters mentioned changing the constitution. Rõuk demanded a president who would have strong authority and who would be elected democratically in a referendum. He said that the number of delegates in Riigikogu should be decreased (to 50), the party lists in Riigikogu’s elections should be abolished and the system should be switched to elections of persons.

The congress ended with a speech by Artur Sirk, who announced that the gauntlet had now been thrown to indifference and passivity and that a new war or independence had began! That was a clear sign that the freedom fighters had begun a political war. At the end of the congress a resolution was approved in which the freedom fighters gave the government 3 months to deal with current problems and to find solutions, or otherwise the freedom fighters will take action. This threat was meant for the government and for the socialists in Riigikogu, who had made announcements against the freedom fighters. This kind of ultimate statement was supposed to strengthen the position of those in the government and in Riigikogu who were in favour of changing the constitution. The first phase of changing the union into a political party had begun. The union had changed into a "pressure group".

To strengthen the position of the union and to bring their principles to wide audience, they began issuing a newspaper called "VÕITLUS Eesti parema tuleviku eest" (A FIGHT for Estonia’s better future), first one was issued on May 1, 1931. Later the paper was simply called "Võitlus" (A Fight). This decision had been approved in the second congress.

The first obstacle that the union had to face was to collect a large number of votes to change the constitution, a so-called quorum. The bill was approved only if at least a half of all members entitled to vote (not a half of those who went to vote) voted in favour of it. This kind of demand of a quorum made changing the constitution practically impossible. The matter of quorum had been discussed in Riigikogu already before the freedom fighters, but social democrats headed by August Rei and Estonian Labour Party headed by Otto Strandman had made sure these attempts failed. On April 24, 1931 Larka and Sirk handed the union’s draft named "The law of changing Riigikogu’s elections, referendum and people’s initiative" to Riigikogu’s board. According to this draft the votes of all those who went to vote were valid. While the freedom fighters negotiated with Riigikogu’s board, Riigikogu submitted its own draft bill that was more or less in accordance with the freedom fighters ideas and they decided to withdraw their original draft. This showed how politically inexperienced and blue-eyed the freedom fighters were. In June Riigikogu accepted a quorum draft with the votes 34 in favour and 22 against, and an order was added to it according to which everyone had to vote!!! With this the quorum remained as high as it was before.

Immediately after Riigikogu’s decision the union started to put pressure on every party of Riigikogu to make sure that the draft to change the constitution would be initiated. Despite stalling and working against it the pressure showed results and on March 24, 1932 Riigikogu accepted the bill to change the constitution and it was ready for referendum. But this was not the bill the freedom fighters had hoped for. The principle of switching to elections of persons had completely been taken out of the bill and the union could not agree with that. After going through Riigikogu’s bill, the freedom fighters decided at the beginning of February to compile their own bill and to explain to people why they should vote against Riigikogu’s bill.

March 4 the head of state, Jaan Teemant, announced at a government’s meeting that if some forces in Estonia should want to change the system of government violently, the government "will stop at nothing to protect the current system with the most severe measures". Teemant’s speech was probably inspired by the revolt taken place in Mäntsälä, Finland, and was foremost meant for the freedom fighters because they were in close relations with the Lapua Movement, which had organised the revolt. Only few weeks earlier General Wallenius (on the photo) from Finland had visited the freedom fighters in Estonia. Even if the freedom fighters understood the warning in Teemant’s speech, they did not show it in any way.

3rd Congress
The union’s third congress took place in Tallinn on March 20, 1932. 219 delegates from 51 local unions arrived. The number of members had again increased remarkably and the first foreign union had been established – the New York’s Union of Participants in the Estonian War of Independence. Two first topics in the congress were the economic matters of the union and members’ occupational work. One of the problems was getting jobs for the union’s members. Most presentations, however, concentrated on political issues. The question of the union’s membership reform arose. The board of the union and Tallinn’s union wished to involve other Estonian patriotic organisations and people in their movement, giving them the status of a supporting member. This would have increased the number of members even more and, what’s more, they hoped to secure that Estonian youth would not get influenced by Soviet forces.

During these arguments a conflict between Pitka and Sirk arose. Pitka was against increasing the number of members, Sirk was in favour of it. Sirk, who was known as a great and charismatic orator, won the support of the congress’ majority, and as a result Pitka and his supporters (less than ten people) left the congress. The reformation of the membership turned its back to the original vision of the freedom fighters movement as an apolitical organisation of the veterans of the War of Independence, and turned it into a somewhat radical people’s movement that operated on the basis of democracy. Slowly all features of a political party started to shape out, even though the freedom fighters did not consider their movement to be a political party.

The talk about the union being national socialistic, nazi or fascistic movement is an inaccurate afterthought. During the first Republic’s period the dictatorship of Päts and Laidoner took care of that to justify their own actions. During the Soviet occupation this lie was used to discredit the republic’s period, and now it was used by the governmental parties to suppress nationalism. The freedom fighters movement might have had some fascistic features, but first and foremost it was a national radical pressure group. Fascistic features could have been the handshake freedom fighters used and the fact that many members wore a uniform. But there is nothing surprising about veterans wearing a uniform. The union did not have any military units. Latter untrue talks could also have been produced by the fact that the chairman of the freedom fighters movement, Artur Sirk, refused to accept donations from Jewish entrepreneurs, as it turns out from the memoirs of Doctor Hjalmar Mäe. But there were exceptions.

Although the union did have some features of a political party, it was not one. They had no intentions to enter their members to the next Riigikogu’s elections. But they had turned into an organisation with a large number of supporters and every party, Riigikogu and the government had to take their opinions into consideration. Thus it was not a big surprise when the union managed to catch a break on February 21, 1933 in making valid the law which gave some privileges to those who had received the Cross of Liberty.

The expansion of the union continued after the third congress. Groups for young people were established and the freedom fighters hoped to raise descendants of those youngsters. Riigikogu was not pleased with this kind of action and they had already realised that the union is a serious threat. Pitka, who had left the third congress, turned to the Ministry of Interior and Court so that it would ban the union, because it was not "the right" freedom fighters movement anymore! Why Pitka really did it, whether he personally offended, because he was defeated by Sirk, who was younger than him, or was it something else, is not possible to say now.

In summer of 1932 the movement faced hardships when General Ernst Põdder died. The General’s official funeral took place in Tallinn on June 28. Many freedom fighters took part of the funeral ceremony, some of them wore black and white armbands in public for the first time. It is noteworthy that the freedom fighters column marched right in between the Defence Forces and the Defence League units in the funeral procession.

July 17, 1932 the North Estonian freedom fighters gathered together in Tapa, and their meeting turned out to be a real demonstration of power. About 3,000 men from Tallinn, Harju County, Narva, Paide, Järva County and Viljandi arrived. The procession heading towards the cemetery was more than 2 kilometres long and 6 orchestras marched in front of it. After placing wreaths to the cemetery, a parade was held in Tapa’s agora, after which the procession headed towards Männikumäe where an outdoor ceremonial public meeting took place. Sirk gave a speech there in which he threw a gauntlet to ALL Estonian parties and it was understandable from that speech that the board of the union was planning to change the freedom fighters’ organisation into a political party. Sirk criticised the draft that Riigikogu had put together and called upon everyone to participate actively in the propaganda against it.

An incident happened during Sirk’s speech. About 50 social democrats were in the crowd and disturbed the speech with whistling and loud remarks. One of them managed to get a hold of one black and white armband, spit on it, threw in on the ground and stepped on it. A fight broke out and the social democrats were sent away from the meeting, 2 of them were arrested by the police. On the next night the freedom fighters attacked the trade union’s headquarter in Narva and several social democrats were beaten up. People were afraid that violence would spread around the whole country, articles concerning this issue were published daily in newspapers. However, the freedom fighters managed to quickly restore the order and didn’t give their opponents a chance to call them violent or undisciplined, although they did show that it’s not reasonable to make fun of them.

While the black and white armband was taken into usage in Tallinn, another important accessory of the freedom fighters, a black beret, was taken into usage in Valga during the summer party of the South Estonian freedom fighters on July 31, 1932.

August 13 to 15, 1932 a referendum concerning changing the constitution took place. Since the draft was compiled in Riigikogu and the important points of the freedom fighters were left out of it, the freedom fighters had done an extensive propaganda against the draft during the months before the referendum. They used the media as much as they could in addition to their own newspapers, they also spread leaflets. Thanks to all that, the draft faced a huge failure. The freedom fighters had won.

August 18, right after the referendum, Konstantin Päts presented his plan to change the constitution to the union. The freedom fighters gave a negative answer, although the main features of Päts’ project were the same as the union’s. Their answer was negative because according to his plan Riigikogu would have been changed into a 2 chamber national assembly, but the freedom fighters saw it as turning back to the czar’s time and it was not in accordance with their plan to reduce the number of MPs. Also the rules of how to put together the national assembly were very confusing in Päts’ plan. In addition to all aforementioned, the freedom fighters were tired of the parties’ tricks and they decided to stick to their original draft and not listen to others.

The draft of changing the constitution compiled by the freedom fighters was approved at the union’s board meeting on November 7, 1932, and it was presented to Riigikogu’s board on November 10. According to the draft of the freedom fighters the president would get more power, the number of MPs would be reduced by a half and the election system would be changed to election of persons. The reason why the union wanted to give more power to the president was not because they wanted to establish dictatorship in Estonia, but because they thought that parties should be tamed more and someone should be able to call them to order.

October 2 another conflict took place between the social democrats and the freedom fighters in Antsla during the freedom fighters meeting. The reason was that the social democrats refused to remove their hats during the national anthem. As a result, the leader of Valga County’s freedom fighters, L. Pallon, hit a social democrat and small town leader, Tasso, in the face with a bludgeon. October 28 Pallon was acquitted during a trial in Võru.

4th Congress

The fourth congress of the union took place in Tallinn on November 27, 1932. 308 delegates arrived. The day began with a sermon at St Mary’s Cathedral, after which they visited the Defence Forces Cemetery. Then they marched in front of the Börsihoone where the board greeted the parade with a salute. Representatives of the Finnish Independence War Veterans (Vapaussodan Rintamamiesten Liito) had arrived as guests and a song named "Porilaste marss" was played in their honour.

A prescript was approved at the congress according to which people who were members of some political party were not allowed to be a member of the executive boards of the union or local unions. An application was read from the Tallinn’s and Tartu’s Nationalists Club, who turned to the union in order to cooperate with them in compiling a new draft to change the constitution. But the freedom fighters had already began working on the new draft so they refused to cooperate with other organisations.

The freedom fighters union had only 2 main goals in their beginning years – to fight against corruption and to change the constitution, but by the fourth congress the list of goals had become much longer. Estonian people and their future was at the first place of the union’s list. The freedom fighters announced that their fight will not end with fulfilling few small goals. People didn’t only need a good country, they needed a good national country. The freedom fighters declared that "the concept of nationality is higher than the concept of state. A state is only one form of a nations self-assertion. But being this kind of a high form it has to be completely subordinate to and in the employ of the concept of nationality" ("Päevaleht" January 15, 1932). They demanded the restoration of the national economy and its protection. They thought its highly important to get Estonian market back from external funds. They criticised the actions of social democrats because socialists were only weakening Estonia’s statehood. But coming back to accusing the freedom fighters in being too fascistic, it has to be said that these accusations are by far too overstated. There were no speeches or pieces of writing by the freedom fighters where Adolf Hitler’s "Mein Kampf" would have been mentioned. There also were no similarities with Benito Mussolini’s movement, which was the one and only fascistic movement at that time. Mussolini announced in 1920: "Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State!" Fascism was all about putting the state before individuals, but the freedom fighters believed that an individual has to come before the state. Hitler, on the other hand, had intertwined the meaning of nationality and race, an Aryan race. The freedom fighters did not mention race in their writings at all. We must also remember that the Germans were not very popular in Estonia, so the freedom fighters were not too fond of them either. People still remembered the Landeswehr War, and the freedom fighters were very much against paying compensations to Germans for dispossessed manors. In 1932 "Võitlus" published several articles on Italian fascism, but these were only to introduce this political movement to people. Similar articles were published in national newspapers and some even favoured the movement because in October of 1932 fascism celebrated its tenth year of ruling in Italy.

After the union had presented its draft to Riigikogu on November 10, 1932, Riigikogu started prolonging the process again. Only after June 29, 1933 Riigikogu decided when the referendum would take place – October 14 to 16, 1933. The reason behind the prolonging was probably that Riigikogu needed enough time to put together their own draft again, in which the president was less powerful and the number of MPs remained 100. A referendum for Riigikogu’s draft took place on June 10 to 12, 1933. However, now they faced a critical question – what if people vote in favour of both drafts? Which one should be valid then? To avoid this kind of situation and to strengthen its draft, Riigikogu decided to renew the law of referendum. They approved the idea that once one draft was already adopted, there could not be another referendum within one year. Riigikogu prolonged the process of dealing with the union’s draft because they needed to put their own draft into referendum first.

Nevertheless, Riigikogu had to face one other unpleasant problem. Since voting was compulsory, they were afraid that people could vote against Riigikogu’s draft as a protest. That’s why voting was changed voluntary at the beginning of 1933. Despite that people still voted against Riigikogu’s draft. According to current constitution’s paragraph 32 Riigikogu should have dismissed its membership already after the first failed referendum and organise extraordinary elections. But like after the first referendum, Riigikogu avoided the constitution. This kind of behaviour shows how politicians acted back then and in how deep crisis the society actually was.

Surprisingly Konstantin Päts and his farmers started to support the freedom fighters draft in June!! It was in March 1932 when Päts had warned people for attempts to change the constitution, saying that if anyone would ever try to do that there will be serious consequences. After that he had contacted the freedom fighters so that they could support his draft. Then he had supported Riigikogu’s draft. And when Riigikogu’s draft had failed, Päts decided to support the freedom fighters without feeling embarrassed. Päts was a very good example of those who had the power in Riigikogu – pure opportunism and political spinelessness. In August Laidoner joined Päts and invited others to vote in favour of the union’s draft.

In the meantime MPs in Riigikogu were discussing the issue of how to tame the freedom fighters. Most active speeches came from socialists.

May 1, 1933 a huge fight between the freedom fighters and the socialists took place in Pärnu. After this incident all public parades were banned. June 1 the head of state, Jaan Tõnisson, organised a meeting in Tartu. The freedom fighters who took part of it whistled during his speech and ruined the meeting. Surprisingly the government took it as an attack against legitimate power and on June 3 Tartu’s freedom fighters’ movement was banned and its assets were arrested!!!

The head of state, Jaan Tõnisson, claimed that the "state was in danger" and enforced an overall state of defence on August 11, 1933. Several organisations were banned – the Union of Participants in the Estonian War of Independence, the Estonian Young Socialist Union, the gymnastics groups of the Estonian Labour Party, the legions of "Põhja Kütid" (settlers) and the Democratic Front-Line Soldiers Association (socialists).

To ban the freedom fighters movement, the government started to twist the laws. Since the current "State of defence law" did not allow banning, the government enforced a "Internal Defence Chief’s ordinance no 9" on August 11 according to which all aforementioned organisations were banned. But this banning lacked impartiality. Since settlers and socialists only lost their militarily organised groups, the freedom fighters should have only closed their duty officers groups in bigger towns. But this was not what happened. The whole union was closed. At the same time a censorship was put into practise to stop the media investigating the illegal selling of military warships "Lennuk" and "Vambola" to Peru.

If Estonian state was really in danger, it is hard to understand the further actions of Jaan Tõnisson. Tõnisson left the state the next day because of a formal call to Finland! The state was in danger but its leader decides to go to Finland to eat pâté?

Banning the organisation did not stop the freedom fighters. They were even more active to introduce the changing of the constitution to people. However, the popularity of Tõnisson was decreasing and most parties of Riigikogu had turned against Tõnisson and his government. Artur Sirk had become very popular. He had won the public’s hearts with his charismatic personality and clear and compelling speeches. Thousands of people always gathered together to hear his speeches.

The freedom fighters draft received a huge amount of votes during the referendum in October. 416,878 people were in favour of it and 156,894 against. After the results were revealed, spontaneous demonstrations took place in Tallinn, people gathered to the Town Hall Square, they sang, everyone was joyous, the leaders of the freedom fighters were carried on people’s shoulders like they were the winners of the Olympic games. Since public demonstrations were not allowed because of the state of defence, the police tried to send people away, but this was hopeless – there simply were too many people. This demonstration showed that the state of defence meant to tame the freedom fighters had failed. The government probably realised it itself, because on October 17 Tõnisson’s government withdrew and the state of defence was put to an end on October 20. A new government was formed of socialists and farmers and Päts became its leader. Päts, however, again turned against the freedom fighters and promised socialists that "the vaps’ will be tamed". The freedom fighters had their chance to be in the government too, but this would have meant cooperating with socialists. Principled Sirk and Larka (on the photo third from left and first from right) refused the offer.

Instead of reopening the union, its former members decided to form a new organisation, which had the same name as the former union and was registered in the Ministry of Interior and Court on October 28, 1933. This new organisation became even bigger than its predecessor. A month after its registration the union had 250 local departments (former union had 110 when it was closed) and by March 1934 the number of departments had passed 500. The membership increased notably too. While the old union had around 10,000 members during the fourth congress, the new one had 60,000 members by November 1933.

November 12, 1933 a meeting of the union took place in Võru, where the members decided that the time was right to enter politics – they wanted to participate in the elections of local governments, Riigikogu and president. They decided to nominate Andres Larka (on the photo) as their candidate for the head of state’s position. Now the organisation of the freedom fighters had become a political party.

The first and the last congress of the new union was held in Tallinn on December 17, 1933. 1019 delegates of 300 departments arrived at concert hall "Estonia". 5,000 people participated in the public ceremony held before the congress.

What kind of goals did the union have? First of all they wanted to become a wide people’s movement, that will end political arguing and corruption with democratic power, unite people into one powerful and national whole, and will dedicate itself to serve the Republic of Estonia and its nation. They were convinced that those parties that fail to give up on partisan narrow-mindedness have to disappear.

The organisation was again accused in wanting dictatorship and being too fascistic. Sirk responded heatedly: "This is incorrect! You have to know the mental life of Estonians to understand the pointlessness of fascism here. Estonian people love freedom. They will not submit to dictatorship. This is where Tõnisson made a mistake: with his dictator-like actions he helped us greatly. We fight against parties who want to play masters. We are not fascists. We do not approve the principle of a leader. We demand a people’s government. Therefore we will remain democratic, but in our own way. We acknowledge the presence of parties in state’s legislative institutions. We are not in favour of censorship. We don’t need Hitler or Mussolini. We need honest political leaders. The people must have their full freedom." ("Päevaleht" December 5, 1933).

Several decisions were adopted during this congress, the whole of these decisions could be called a party platform. The main focus was on the following: to support national agriculture, to increase the protection of farmers from the effects of the economic decline, to protect the agricultural internal market, to increase the rights of workers, to approve the work organisation law and to establish work courts, to stop importing goods that can be produced in Estonia, to stop selling Estonian national companies to external funds and to buy back companies that have already been sold, to stop paying for the lands that were dispossessed from Baltic Germans, to make accountable all those people who have made bad economic decisions for Estonia, to approve the law to fight against Marxism.

December 7, 1933 the union presented the draft of "The Law of Fighting Against Marxism" to Riigikogu. With this draft the freedom fighters demanded the banning of the Estonian Socialist Workers Party and other similar organisations, because this party was in favour of abolishing private ownership, which was contrary to the constitution. A week later the board of Riigikogu rejected the draft, implying to the freedom of speech.

January 1934 local government elections took place. It was predictable that the freedom fighters collected the most votes in towns. All in all they received 41,2% of the votes given in towns. The best results came from Tallinn, Tartu, Narva, Viljandi, Rakvere, Võru, Tapa, Valga and Nõmme, where they won the elections. Negotiations to form town councils began.

At the same time they were preparing for the presidential elections. Socialists presented August Rei as their candidate, freedom fighters presented Andres Larka, settlers presented Laidoner and farmers Konstantin Päts. To make the candidacy of each person official, they needed to collect at least 10,000 signatures. The freedom fighters propaganda leader doctor Hjalmar Mäe began collecting information about Laidoner and Päts, Rei was not considered to be a serious candidate and Mäe didn’t bother to check his background. March 20 an article was issued in "Võitlus", which was titled "Johan Laidoner as an economist". Article consisted of descriptions of Laidoner’s shady business deals in Harju Bank, Scheeli Bank and in other companies. A similar article was put together about Konstantin Päts, but they decided to issue this one later, during the final elections period. But only if it turned out to be necessary. It was not known yet whether Päts is capable to collect enough signatures to support his candidacy.

During the period of collecting signatures Larka was leading the race with a huge number of supporters. He managed to collect 20,000 signatures during the first day! By the end of the campaign Larka had 64,658 signatures, Laidoner 38,493, Päts 18,577 and Rei had only 5,071 signatures. But this was as far as this campaigning went. We must not forget that by the infamous March 12 Päts did not have 10,000 signatures yet!

At the beginning of March unexpected changes in the military and in police took place. People who were connected with the freedom fighters were either fired or retired. Rumours spread according to which the government leaded by Päts was planning to attack the freedom fighters somehow. Hjalmar Mäe received hints from the political police that a list of arrests was put together. Mäe forwarded this information to Sirk, but Sirk’s response was that he will not depart from the road he had chosen, come what may. He added that the freedom fighters had not done anything illegal and therefore they should not be afraid of the arrests, everyone will be acquitted. Sirk was probably sure that Päts will not have the courage to organise a coup right before the elections, especially when the freedom fighters had so many supporters. It is also possible that when Sirk heard this information came from the police, he thought it could have been a provocation to make the freedom fighters react in a way that the government would have a legal right to ban the union again.

Coup d’état

March 12 Päts enforced an overall state of defence and the leader of internal defence, Laidoner, approved a decision to ban the freedom fighters movement. The same day Laidoner banned all political meetings and processions. March 16 the work of Riigikogu was put to a hold and on March 19 both national elections that should have been at the end of April were postponed indefinitely. Political life came to a standstill and Laidoner and Päts had the power. All leaders of the freedom fighters were arrested, except Larka. Several units of the Defence Forces came to the streets to set an order. About 500 freedom fighters were arrested, but some of them were released shortly afterwards. 425 people remained under investigation. An illegal coup d’état took place. From a legal perspective a large number of lawbreaking cases occurred, but it would be too long and complicated to discuss them. A wide range of repressions against the freedom fighters and their families happened. They were fired from their jobs and hundreds of freedom fighters were sent away from their homes, in other words they were deported.

March 15 Päts delivered a speech in Riigikogu in which he accused the freedom fighters in pushing Estonia into anarchy, trying to violently take the power, triggering a civil war and saying that their actions could have put an end to the development of statehood. Laidoner’s speech was similar, he also mentioned some kind of external threat. It is unclear to what kind of threat he was referring to. If he meant the Soviet Union, it was the top of hypocrisy, because Laidoner and Päts were the ones who gave our statehood to Bolsheviks. Päts’ accusations of anarchy were totally groundless. There is no information that would confirm that the freedom fighters’ actions caused disobedience in the civil or military sectors. The fact that the government no longer trusted some units of the Defence Forces or the army is not the same as anarchy. March 12 also showed that the question of trust is no longer relevant – not a single unit started a rebellion. The accusation of a civil war was also a complete fabrication. Päts and Laidoner both referred to the attempt of rebellion on December 1, 1924. That was absurd. The events of December 1 were triggered by a group of underground communists behind the border. Putting these people in the same category with the veterans of the War of Independence was arbitrary and slightly idiotic. Accusations about trying to violently change the constitutional order were amusing. The freedom fighters worked for years to put together a new constitution, they organised a referendum for it and people were on their side. And now they want to destroy their own constitution violently in a situation where they have the people’s support and they would have won the elections of the president and of Riigikogu? Unlikely. Coup d’état is usually performed by those who are afraid that legal means are not enough.

What happened onwards showed that all these accusations were groundless. Investigation was dragging on and more prisoners had to be released each day. By the end of June only 70 people were still arrested and by November 11, when Sirk decided to escape, there were only 7 men arrested – Sirk, K-A. Jalakas, P. Laaman, K. Podrätsik, J. Holland, O. Mitt and L. Pallon. Gradually most accusations were dropped but one remained – the freedom fighters were a threat to national safety and peace. In the accusation presented on April 30, 1935 only one point was brought out – participating in the organisation, which goals could have been a threat to national safety and peace. In other words they were accused in nothing.

Before the freedom fighters’ trial another remarkable incident happened – Artur Sirk escaped from the prison on November 11, 1934. The prisonbreak was possible thanks to one guard who the freedom fighters favoured – J. Küttim. The main organiser of the escape was Captain H. Paris, but the original idea came from the freedom fighters Finnish friends. Sirk escaped from Tallinn to Ventspils, Latvia by car and then to Finland by ship. Finnish friends were a huge help in this whole operation. Finnish newspapers issued articles after Sirk’s escape, saying that he had already reached Finland which made it safer for Sirk to escape to Latvia first. For instance, newspaper "Vaasa" wrote that when their editor Koskela called to V. Helanen about the escape, Helanen was speaking to Sirk at the same time in Estonian. This kind of misinformation helped Sirk escape being arrested again because police believed the misleading news and those who helped Sirk to escape were not arrested.

January 10, 1935 a funeral of the union’s duty officers’ leader and a reserve captain Baldwin-Heinrich Dunkel took place in Tallinn. He had died in prison, waiting for his trial. About 5,000 people attended the funeral and in front of the funeral procession a wreath sent by Sirk was carried. Although public events were not allowed at that time, the government didn’t interfere. A memorial was also held in Finland the same day which was organised by the Finnish Patriotic People’s Movement.

The freedom fighters’ trials took place on June 12 to 20, 1935. It appeared that to declare all these men guilty, they had to come up with a special paragraph. September 19, 1934 an addition to paragraph no 112 was entered into the Penal Code according to which all accused ones could be declared guilty. The addition to the paragraph was especially compiled for this process. Since the freedom fighters were not actually guilty, they were on probation from 6 months to 1 year.

June 23, 1934 the anniversary of the Battle of Wenden (in Estonian: the Battle of Võnnu) was first celebrated as Victory Day. Nowadays we are so accustomed to it that we never seem to wonder what was so special about that battle. Why do we celebrate the end of the War of Independence with a battle that was fought during the Landerwehr War? Wasn’t this war between Estonia and the Soviet Russia? And who was a great friend of the communists, who worked for them and was a huge bootlicker? Good, the answer is correct. It was self-appointed half- Russian, half-Estonian Konstantin Päts whose idea June 23 was. To please his masters… So, my dear friends, do not forget the date of the Paju Battle – January 31, 1919 – because that should be our Victory Day. Or another date could have been May 25, 1919 when Estonian troops conquered Pihkva.

But let’s get back to our subject. The "silent era" began. At first people took the state of defence as something temporary. But in autumn of 1934 the status was lengthened one year. This showed that Päts and Laidoner had no intentions to give the power away. In advance it can be said that the state of defence lasted until the last days of the Republic of Estonia in summer of 1940. Although all political parties were banned, a new political group was established in March 7, 1935 – the Pro Patria Union. The group was established by the Interior Minister’s assistant, H. Kukke, and the chairman of the government’s Propaganda Division, H. Oidermaa, and it was formed only to show that Estonia is not ruled by dictatorship.

The government went also through some changes. The second important man after Päts was now Kaarel Eenpalu (Einbund), who took Laidoner’s position as the leader of the Internal Defence. Eenpalu also took the position of the Prime Minister. His signature was on a prescript that banned using the name of the War of Independence or the freedom fighters (sic!).

The freedom fighters were suppressed underground. But they didn’t just sit and wait for something to happen. Secretly they started to restore the structure of duty officers. By the end of September 1935 they had formed seven groups, each group consisting of 30 men, and seven "ordinary companies", which consisted of 80-150 men. They hoped that the state of defence will end soon and then the freedom fighters would have been ready to enter politics once again. The main organizational work was done in Tallinn and some in Tartu. In other places the ties between the freedom fighters had been broken with repressions and deportation. Obstinately they still wore black berets, although these were not allowed. At the end of April 1935 leaflets by William Tomingas were spread in Estonia. These leaflets encouraged people to show passive resistance and accused Päts in taking the power and breaking the law. Tomingas was sentenced to prison for 2 years and 3 months because he spread 10,000 leaflets. Also a number of those who helped this operation were sent to prison.

People started to get the impression that to change the situation they needed to turn to weaponry. However, it was clear that even though Sirk was in exile, he still preferred to solve problems peacefully. August 19, 1935 Konstantin Päts visited Finland. Finnish young "Blueblacks" were planning to organise a demonstration against Päts, there were even rumours that Päts should be "deported", like the lapuans had once done with Russians (Päts was half Russian, in Estonian he was called poluvernik). When Sirk heard this rumour, he strictly forbade it.

September 20, 1935 Larka presented a draft on people’s initiative to the government where he demanded the restoration of the government that ruled before March 12. He also demanded the dismissal of the government who organised the coup, he claimed that it should be replaced by a new one and new laws should be approved so that similar incidents would never happen again. So, the freedom fighters who "wished dictatorship" wanted to adopt a law which would rule out dictatorship!!! But Päts issued an ordinance the same day which allowed him to ban Larka’s draft from going to referendum.

Coming out with Larka’s draft was the last legal action of the freedom fighters. They had tried to turn to the people but this was made impossible too. It was clear that they had run out of all legal options.

Preparations for a coup d’état began. They prepared leaflets where the freedom fighters’ intentions after the coup were clearly stated. At the same time they let the people know that the only aim of the coup was to restore constitutional and legal order in Estonia. They never mentioned some kind of a new dictatorship. The date of the coup was supposed to be December 8, 1935. The Pro Patria Union had organised a congress in "Estonia" concert hall the same day. The freedom fighters planned to occupy the whole theatre house and arrest all top names of the government.

Modern historians often refer to the freedom fighters’ coup attempt as something bad – in the style that, see, the freedom fighters finally showed their true colours and proved that they wanted to bring down the state with violence! This is incorrect and people usually "forget" that Päts had organised an illegal coup and every honest and loyal Estonian had the constitutional right to fight against it!!!

December 7 Sirk headed towards Tallinn with a motorboat from Helsinki. Unfortunately he had to turn back because of a stormy weather. Other conspirators gathered together by 6 P.M. in the apartment of M. Kalm, address Kadaka road 20. Among others there were A. Larka (on the photo), A. Seiman, J. Holland, P. Laaman, A. Pedak, H. Mäe, L. Pallon, K. Podrätsik, A. Klaasmann, A. Allik and A. Liivak. They were waiting for Sirk and weapons from Finland to arrive. Soon E. Kubbo, V. Puskar and H. Paris arrived from Tartu. When it appeared that nor Sirk or the weapons will arrive that night, they decided that the coup will be postponed and they went home. Suddenly the house was raided. Everyone inside was arrested. Turned out that one of the men who had been on watch outside was a traitor and informed the police of the meeting. This man was Anton Burmeister.

But what were the chances that the freedom fighters could have pulled this whole thing off? It seems that pretty good. All signs show that if they really would have occupied the concert hall, the army would have stayed in their barracks and the freedom fighters could have acted as they pleased. It was also clear that the opposition of Riigikogu accepted the already happened coup and did nothing against it. But these are only guesses. The fact that Sirk and the weapons failed to arrive destroyed all chances for a successful coup. This was the end of the freedom fighters.

After December 8 Sirk faced some difficulties in staying in Finland. He went from Finland to Sweden and asked for asylum. Sweden was a typically neutral country and tried to avoid all problems, so Sirk was not given asylum. In January 1936 Sirk went to London and then to Holland in February. He was arrested in Holland and Estonia demanded him back. Georg Meri, Estonian Embassy’s adviser in Rotterdam, dealt with this issue. However, Holland refused to give Sirk away and treated him like a political escapee.

The trials over the organisers of the coup took place in Estonia on May 6 to 25, 1936. 155 freedom fighters were under trial. 8 of them were acquitted. Others received different punishments, the easiest was 6 months on probation. The leaders of the freedom fighters got 20 years of forced labour. Some Finnish friends of Sirk were also sentenced to prison. V. Helanen and J. Virkkunen were sentenced to prison for 14 months in Helsinki’s city court, they were accused in "overturning the government in a country that was in good relations with the Republic of Finland."

After spending one year in Holland, Sirk left and went to Luxembourg on May 10, 1937 to live in a small town named Echternach. From there he kept keeping contact with people with the same views as him in Estonia and in Finland. At the same time he was writing a book about how Päts and Laidoner had taken the power. By the time he reached Luxembourg the book was almost finished.

Then came the fatal July 31, 1937. Witnesses said that Sirk had been very restless that day. He had mentioned that he had seen some Estonians in town the day before. He didn’t say whom exactly. But it was clear that he was disturbed and unsettled because of that meeting. He was out of the hotel the whole afternoon and when he returned, he was wet, muddy and ragged. He ate and went to his room. That was the last when he was seen alive. The same evening he was found lying in the hotel’s yard, under his room’s window on the second floor, his head in a puddle of blood.

When the crime scene was investigated, it turned out that anyone could have entered Sirk’s room unnoticed, through the backdoor of the house. The backdoor, which usually was locked, was unlocked that evening. If Sirk would have fallen out of his window by accident, he would have been lying right under his window, not 3 meters away from the building’s wall. The book’s manuscript was missing from his room. The Dutch authorities offered a version according to which Sirk’s death was an accident – he had been trying to escape from someone through the window (if this version would have been true, it would have still been a murder case). They claimed that Sirk had unfortunately landed on his feet, then had leaned forward, injured his left knee, and then fell on his forehead, which resulted in breaking his skull right above his left eye. But this turned out to be incorrect. Sirk was brought to Helsinki on October 3, 1937. His dust was thoroughly investigated and there were no knee or skull injuries found, but there was some arsenic in his stomach!

According to one version he committed suicide, but this is very unlikely. 5 days before his death, Sirk had sent a letter to his wife, saying that their situation will hopefully get better soon. Also no suicidal person chooses to jump out of the window on the SECOND floor. So only one possibility remained – murder. It is quite clear who ordered the murder – the current Estonian government to whom Sirk’s return or the issuing of his book would have been unpleasant and even dangerous. It is also interesting that 2 weeks after Sirk’s death, on August 17, Päts declared amnesty to all freedom fighters.

Artur Sirk’s funeral was held in Helsinki on October 9, 1937. It was organised by the secretary of the Academic Karjala Association, A. Kokkonen, and the funeral expenses were covered by a young Finnish student and Sirk’s friend, Outi Hämäläinen. The funeral ceremony was carried through by vicars E. Simojoki and E. W. Pakkala. Some freedom fighters who had escaped to Finland took part of the ceremony. V. Helanen gave a warmhearted eulogy. Artur Sirk was buried in Hietaniemi cemetery in Helsinki.

Artur Sirk’s death was the end of the freedom fighters. The "silent era" had reached its peak in Estonia and Päts’ power was unshakable. It is also clear that Päts’ and Laidoner’s coup was the beginning of the end of independent Estonia. March 12, 1934 is a far more tragic and important date in our history than we’d like to acknowledge – Estonia was internally torn into pieces and the silent era had affected people’s mood, all this made conquering Estonia in 1940 very easy.

WORKS CITED

Ilmjärv, M. (2004). Hääletu alistumine.
Marandi, R. (1997). Must-valge lipu all.
Mäe, H. (2005). Kuidas kõik teostus. Minu mälestusi.
Tomingas, W. (1992). Mälestused. Vaikiv ajastu Eestis.