Eesti 1930. aastate ajaloo kirjutamisest paguluses
Abstract: On the writing in exile of the history of the Republic of Estonia in the 1930s
The 1930s were pivotal in Estonia. The faith that Estonians placed in parliamentary democracy diminished under the influence of the worldwide economic crisis (also known as the Great Depression). In a referendum held in October of 1933, draft legislation for amending the constitution won strong popular support. This amendment had been introduced by the right-wing radical League of Veterans movement, which had recently become politically active. It would have required a head of state with extensive power to be elected in April of 1934. This election was not held because Konstantin Päts, the Premier at that time, executed a coup on 12 March 1934 with the assistance of the country’s law enforcement agencies. Päts justified his actions by referring to an alleged threat posed by the League of Veterans. He suspended most civic rights and ruled the country in an authoritarian manner until the start of the Soviet occupation in 1940.
This article analyses the description of these events in the works written by authors of Estonian origin that were published in exile in the years of Soviet occupation (until 1991). Viewpoints concerning five problems are of interest here: how the situation in Estonia at the start of the 1930s was described, what was the assessment of the actions of the League of Veterans, how what took place on 12 March 1934 was explained, how the subsequent years of the undemocratic regime were described, and whether a course was set aimed at restoring democracy again in Estonia at the end of the 1930s.
After the restoration of Estonia’s independence, researchers of Estonian history have mentioned only a few works written in exile on the 1930s, mostly by professional historians. Actually, more written studies on Estonia in the 1930s, which were at different academic levels, were published in exile. In addition to historians, the authors of these works were also journalists, politicians and others. Many of them had been in the service of the Päts government in the past and thus were partial. The aim of the article is to develop a narrative of Estonia in the 1930s that takes into consideration the viewpoints of as many treatments published in exile as possible, and to compare this narrative to the current state of research on this theme.
Researchers of Estonian history faced several challenges in exile. Since the most important task of the expatriate community was considered to be the fight for the restoration of Estonia’s independence, the interests of this objective also had to be taken into consideration in writing history. Many believed that this meant keeping quiet about the undemocratic government of the latter half of the 1930s. Public opinion in exile raised independent Estonia’s most important statesmen, who were repressed by the Soviet regime, to the status of martyrs, thus making it more difficult to criticise their actions. Those who disagreed with these views, including professional historians of the younger generation who mostly received their education in the West, were accused in the expatriate press of betraying the interests of the fight for freedom, of not being rigorous in their academic research, and of unfamiliarity with conditions in the Estonian homeland. This last argument was important since most written historical sources were in Soviet Estonia and were thus inaccessible to researchers living in exile.
Our analysis shows that in the judgement of almost all of the works consulted, Estonia’s constitution of 1920 was too parliament-oriented and an expectation for amending the constitution emerged in society at the start of the 1930s. Since the political parties did not reach a consensus regarding this issue, the League of Veterans gained a great deal of popularity with its draft legislation for the constitutional amendment. The attitude of the overwhelming majority of authors towards the League of Veterans was negative, accusing them of copying the examples of foreign right-wing parties and of employing excessively aggressive propaganda methods. In the opinion of the overwhelming majority of authors, the League of Veterans had only themselves to blame for the banning of their movement – they either planned to overthrow the government in the spring of 1934 or were simply a threat to public order. The authors related reservedly to Konstantin Päts, who governed the country in an authoritarian manner after the coup of 12 March 1934. Although many of the steps that Päts took until 1940 were questionable in legal terms, and some overtly violated the constitution, several studies pointed to expediency as justification for his actions. The opinions of the authors diverged in their assessments of whether or not we can speak of the beginning of the restoration of democracy after the drafting of the new constitution and the holding of parliamentary elections in 1938. Many older works argue that this was exactly the case, adding that the Soviet occupation interrupted this process. Later works from the 1970s and 1980s tend not to agree with this assessment.
In summary, two approaches to the history of Estonia in the 1930s took shape in exile. First, an approach that favoured Konstantin Päts and the authoritarian regime that was in effect in 1934–40. The viewpoints of this approach prevailed in most popular academic works aimed at a broad readership, and in earlier general treatments of Estonian history, but also in the expatriate media. Mostly starting from the 1970s, younger professional researchers competed with this so-called mainstream. They were more critical of the authoritarian government of the country in the latter half of the 1930s. Yet they published the results of their research mostly in foreign languages and in academic publications, and their effect on the majority of the expatriate community was modest.
Most of the judgements provided by the so-called mainstream authors in exile, especially during the first decades of exile, have been refuted after the restoration of Estonia’s independence. This applies particularly to judgements regarding the League of Veterans, who were portrayed in exile as the main culprits of the political crisis that broke out at the start of the 1930s and in the abandonment of democracy. Expatriate authors too easily accused the League of Veterans of National Socialism or fascism because according to current assessments, the League did not correspond to those attributes. Not one researcher has hitherto been able to find evidence of plans on the part of the League of Veterans to overthrow the government, to which Päts appealed when he himself seized power in 1934. The opinion that steps started being taken in 1938 for restoring democracy in Estonia, which the Soviet occupation cut short, is also not borne out. There is similarly no basis for the argument expounded at that time by ideologists of expatriate politics that the way the history of the Republic of Estonia was depicted in exile could affect the outcome of the struggle that was being waged to restore Estonia’s independence.