ON APRIL 23, 1908, Germany, Russia, Denmark and Sweden concluded the so-called "Baltic Agreement," by which those four states, all of them with Baltic littorals, mutually guaranteed the existing status of this sea and its coasts. The attitude of the two smaller states was purely defensive. Nor was that of the two larger ones aggressive, though owing to their extensive area and hinterland they were bringing forward all possible pressure to strengthen their respective Baltic coastlines. In the case of Germany this pressure was not of any great moment, for, in addition to her coastline extending from Flensburg to Memel, she had another outlet on the North Sea. But for Russia the Baltic was of much greater concern and importance. Her territory extended, it is true, from Libau as far north as Tornea and thus embraced a very considerable part of the entire Baltic coast. But it included two "bottle-necks," the Gulf of Finland and the Gulf of Bothnia. Indeed, for Russia the entire Baltic coast was in the nature of a bottle-neck, a fact which made itself felt in various ways. For the Baltic is nothing but an inland sea, very inadequately and indirectly connected with the ocean by a third bottle-neck, the Sound, between Denmark and Sweden. And behind this narrow coastline on a remote inland sea extended the vast territories of the Russian Empire.

These geographic considerations which were so important before the war hold good in every respect as far as concerns the states which today touch the Baltic. Due to the defeat and dissolution of the Russian Empire, together with the peace treaties of Brest-Litovsk and of Versailles, and due to the emergence of the theory of the right of national self-determination, there are now twice as many of them as when the Baltic agreement was signed: Finland, the Soviet Union, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania (with Memel), Poland (Danzig), Germany, Denmark and Sweden. The name "border states" which has come to be applied generally to Finland, Estonia, Latvia and also to Lithuania is very fitting, since it denotes not only their "geopolitical" character but also their problematic and precarious situation among the Baltic states in general. Thus some definite groupings become discernible: there are Denmark and Sweden, with their former situation hardly modified; there are the new "border states;" there is the new Polish state, now an ascendant Baltic Power; and finally there remain Germany and Russia, with their main tendencies and needs still the same and, in their nature as Great Powers, still bringing the same pressure to bear on the Baltic coast with its river-mouths and harbors.

The situation existing today is regulated by the Treaty of Versailles [i] and by Russia's peace treaties with Estonia (February 2, 1920), Lithuania (July 12, 1920), Latvia (August 11, 1920), Finland (October 14, 1920) and Poland (October 12, 1920, and March 18, 1921). To these treaties must further be added the settlement of the Aland question, with which the Council of the League of Nations had to deal. Sweden demanded a plebiscite regarding this group of islands, which is of great importance to her, but the Council awarded them to Finland, subject to certain guarantees.

It was at the expense of Germany and Russia, then, that the post-war reorganization was effected. It rested, so far as the victorious Western Powers were able to have their way, on the idea of the French barrière. In other words, the two great nations, the Germans and the Russians, were to be permanently separated by a chain of states which on account of their small size could be expected always to remain dependent on the Western Powers. The question remained as to whether England and France were to act as a unit in dealing with this situation, or whether there might perhaps be separate spheres of influence, so that England could exert her power along the coast, in Riga and Tallinn (Revel), and France hers mainly in Poland.

The new independent Baltic states established in this manner between 1917 and 1921 were threatened by Bolshevism; but they proved strong enough to hold their own against it. They have developed considerably and exist today as small or medium-sized democracies, largely agrarian and of a constitutional and parliamentary character. What are their individual traits? What is their attitude or "orientation" in foreign politics? And what is the attitude of Germany and Russia towards them and towards the new situation on the Baltic in general? First of all we must give some idea of their size and population:


    Population as    
  Area in estimated 1929   Density per
  square miles or 1930   square mile
Finland 149,926 3,634,047   24
Estonia 18,362 1,115,000   61
Latvia 25,000 1,900,045 (a) 76
Lithuania 21,489 2,340,038   109
  Memel 1,026 146,000   143
Poland 149,958 30,737,448   205
(a) 1930 census figure

Here we have, then, four small states and one that can be called medium-sized or even large, i. e., Poland, which protrudes into the Baltic area with a coastal strip barely forty miles long.

Finland's inhabitants are partly of Finnish (89 percent) and partly of Swedish (11 percent) descent. It is an agrarian democracy, the great majority of the farms being small or of medium size. Its industry is insignificant, the number of workers amounting to only about 150,000; but its commerce is important, the principal exports being butter and lumber. One of the essential problems with which it must cope is the question how far it can live by means of its own grain crops, which have to be raised on very poor soil, for on this depends in part how it is to maintain its independence. Finland's cultural achievements have been most remarkable: as far as civilization and culture are concerned it might be a nation of western Europe. Alike towards what is Swedish and what is Russian the Finnish people observe a consistently negative attitude. But that only serves to accentuate their isolation, unable as they are to build up a well-organized modern economic structure with an extensive industry and a large middle class, due to the fact that the enormous Russian hinterland is no longer open to them for lucrative economic exploitation as it used to be before the war.

To Finland foreign trade is a vital question. The greater part of her imports she receives from Germany; next come the imports from England, amounting to half the value of Germany's. Then follow those from the United States, Sweden, etc. Soviet Russia, Finland's nearest neighbor, is far down, in eighth place. In 1930 imports from Germany amounted in value to 1,935,000,000 Finnish marks, and imports from Russia to only 131,000,000 Finnish marks. As for exports, first place is held by England (2,103,000,000 Finnish marks), with Germany and the United States following in that order. Russia is sixth, taking Finnish goods to the value of only 243,000,000 Finnish marks.

These figures become intelligible only if viewed against the background of Finland's general social structure. Although the country has always been largely composed of small and medium-sized farms, the Social Democratic Party has been astonishingly large ever since universal suffrage was introduced. Out of 200 representatives in the present parliament there are 66 Social Democrats, as compared with 59 Agrarians, 42 Conservatives and 21 Swedes. This fact, that there is a large Social Democratic Party in a country almost wholly agrarian, indicates an insecure and even dangerous agrarian system. The agrarian reform carried out as far back as twenty years ago has resulted in the rise of a group of small farmers whose lot is far from satisfactory; nor has it decisively improved the condition of the numerous small tenant-farmers.

That is why the Finnish internal political situation is really less stable than it appears to be. A country depending so largely on commerce and shipping has of course been hit by the present economic crisis, and the uncertainty of the political situation has thereby been augmented. Simultaneously the prevalent antagonism towards communism has increased. The attitude of the farmers, born of economic distress and hatred of communism, has found its expression in the curious Lappo movement, a religious-agrarian movement of an ultra-conservative character. In 1930 it grew to large proportions and was on the verge of carrying out a Fascist coup d'état, but it has now been repressed under the influence of President Svinhufvud, a statesman of ability and moderation. Neither the economic nor the political tension, however, has definitely been eased. Indeed, Russia's agrarian policy and various aggressive movements on Finland's part have brought the antagonism of the two countries to a dangerous point. It is therefore quite natural that Finland should always emphasize the fact that she is a member of the League of Nations and turn it to profitable account, especially as an assurance of territorial integrity and of financial aid in case of war.

So far, Finland has not succeeded in strengthening her position in foreign affairs by association with other states. With the more southern Baltic states she has practically nothing in common. She feels herself barred from Sweden and the so-called "Scandinavian orientation" by the domestic opposition to the Swedish minority and by the Aland question, as well as by the fact that Sweden makes no overtures and prefers to play a passive rôle in European politics. The sentiments of the Finnish people as a whole are inclined to turn strongly in favor of Germany, which is natural as a result of the intimate and extensive commercial relations existing between the two countries. They admire England. But towards Soviet Russia their attitude is thoroughly hostile, nor is the general antagonism lessened by the fact that they have not relinquished their claim to the neighboring autonomous Soviet Republic of Karelia with 250,000 inhabitants, which though it is now part of Soviet Russia belongs racially to Finland. Russia means to keep it for the sake of access to the Arctic Ocean.

Estonia and Latvia can be dealt with more briefly. These two countries were fashioned out of the three Russian governments of Estonia, Livonia and Kurland, in which large landowners of ancient German lineage formed the ruling class, with the bulk of the population Latvian in the south and Estonian in the north. This class of landed proprietors used to furnish the Russian Government with countless officers and officials. The Latvians, or Letts, form part of the Lithuanian group, whereas the Estonians are Finno-Ugrians. When these territories were reorganized into two independent states the old economic and social structure went to pieces. The great German landowners were expropriated, and today Latvia and Estonia are agrarian democracies. The consequences of this agrarian revolution have been accentuated by the separation of the two countries from the vast Russian hinterland.

Estonia, which for the past two years has had the lowest living costs in Europe, is a country of small farms. Its industry (mainly paper) is insignificant, and its exports consist mainly of lumber and butter. Foreign trade, however, shows the influence of the economic depression, having decreased during the past year by almost fifty percent. Germany stands first on the list of countries exporting to Estonia, being followed by the United States, Russia and England. As far as exports are concerned, England is the best customer, though the figures for Germany are only slightly lower. Thus, we have here again the curious fact that Russia, the nearest neighbor, occupies only the third or an even lower place, whereas two more distant countries, Germany and England, are far more important and are in active competition with each other. Despite Estonia's small population the government has minorities to deal with, the Germans, numbering 18,000, being the most important. It must be conceded that the problem of minorities, which is of such great importance throughout Eastern Europe, has found a satisfactory and promising solution in Estonia in the form of cultural autonomy.

Latvia is another state in which there is a curious balance of power between Agrarians and Socialists. We find here, too, the results of an agrarian revolution, far-reaching social and national changes, a ruling class of small landowners struggling with a powerful social democracy, the loss of an artificially developed large-scale industry in Riga and Libau, some industry on a small or medium scale, also some commerce, for which Riga and the Gulf of Riga offer excellent export facilities. The economic crisis is felt very painfully in Latvia, although it must be added that the little state's stability is not in any way endangered. In the matter of imports, Germany stands first, followed by Poland, England, Russia and the United States. As far as exports and foreign markets are concerned, what has been said of Estonia holds good here, too. The separation from the Russian hinterland is felt here even more than elsewhere, particularly as a result of Russia's monopolization of foreign commerce, which seriously interferes with the development of Riga. In Latvia, too, there are minorities, including 73,000 Germans who play an important part in the Latvian Parliament and who are turning their cultural attainments to good use in a country which is still deficient in such matters.

Both countries have a scanty population, and the increase is slow; there is plenty of land, but natural resources are poor. The civilization of both is that of Western Europe, and the "orientation" of such culture as they possess is in the direction of the west. Whether they will prove able to maintain a complete existence of their own remains to be seen, which puts them in a different category from Finland where there can be no doubt on this point. It will naturally be asked whether they might not combine into a single stronger state. Differences in language and nationality stand in the way, and there is a further difference in the "orientation" of the foreign policies of the two countries. To Estonia, its relation to Russia is by far the most important factor; to Latvia, on the other hand, Lithuania and Poland are also important. It will be remembered that by the Peace of Riga, already mentioned, the district of Vilna was included in the Polish territory, bringing the Polish frontier up to the Dvina, so that three-quarters of Latvia's southern frontier borders on Lithuania, and the remaining quarter on Poland.

The importance of these two small countries bordering on the Baltic is self-evident for geographical reasons. This was impressively demonstrated on the occasion of the decennial jubilee of the Latvian navy -- which, by the way, is a real fleet -- by the presence of Estonian, Finnish, German, Danish and Polish warships, as well as by ones from Norway, England and France. No invitation was sent to the Russian navy to be represented.

In Lithuania the situation is more complicated. The Lithuanians are of the opinion that their state is still incomplete; they vigorously maintain their claim to the territory of Vilna, which was taken away from them by Poland with the final silent consent of the League of Nations. One of the most dangerous factors in the general situation of Eastern Europe is that the Vilna question has not been settled to this day -- neither by formal decision of the League, nor on the basis of national self-determination. For Vilna is at the root of Lithuania's generally hostile attitude towards Poland, which in turn exerts a decisive influence on the conditions and tendencies of the Baltic states in general.

The Lithuanians, too, like the other peoples described, have gone through an agrarian revolution. Agriculture is the dominating interest. They cultivate grain and flax, raise cattle and export lumber. Industry is practically non-existent. As far as foreign trade is concerned, Germany is most important to Lithuania in every respect, furnishing nearly one-half of all imports and taking three-fifths of the exports; other countries follow a long way behind. Russia (which, of course, does not directly adjoin Lithuania, being separated from it by the Polish territory of Vilna) figures on the list with only a very minute percentage.

The political situation of Lithuania has not yet quieted down and is still far from stable. The strong anti-Bolshevist tendencies of the agricultural democracies of the other border states here assumes a half-Fascist character; it was most pronounced under Valdemaras's dictatorship, but has not really changed much even since the fall of that undoubtedly able statesman. In a word, the political régime is similar to Poland's pseudo-Fascism under Marshal Pilsudski.

The internal political situation is further complicated by the fact that the country is Roman Catholic (90 percent), and that the Christian Democrats who comprise the clerical party are very strong. It was really the clergy who brought about Lithuania's national regeneration, yet their attitude towards the prevailing Fascist régime is hostile; moreover, the government has not as yet succeeded in arriving at a complete agreement with the Vatican. To the disturbed situation in general must therefore be added an incessant strife between government and clergy, and between Lithuania and the Vatican. This conflict is of great importance, because the Christian Democrats incline to seek an understanding with Poland over the Vilna question, with a view to creating a united front against Russia. On the other hand the Fascist Government and the parties supporting it have entered into ties with Russia to a degree unknown in any other of the border states. The Soviet peace treaty with Lithuania was followed on September 28, 1926 by a pact of non-aggression and neutrality which was renewed May 6, 1931. Indeed, Lithuania might almost be regarded as Russia's ally.

The inclination to come into close relations with Russia are, however, adversely affected by two circumstances. First, as already mentioned, Lithuania is not contiguous to Russia, being separated from it by a broad strip of Latvian and Polish territory; secondly, Lithuania's access to the Baltic Sea is too inconsiderable to serve the Russian hinterland. Lithuania's own share of that coast is really restricted to the district of Polangen, but this has been increased toward the south by the separation of the district of Memel from Germany, with the result that the length of the Lithuanian coastline has been doubled. It will be remembered that when this was done there was a proviso and guarantee that the district should be under autonomous (i. e., German) administration, as stipulated in the Memel Statute dated March 14, 1924, and as finally sanctioned by the Council of Ambassadors on May 8, 1924. We shall not enter into details regarding the complicated form of government bestowed upon the district of Memel at that time. Suffice it to say that it is of so intricate a nature, and Lithuania pays so little regard to the provisions for autonomous rights, that, just as in the case of the Vilna question between Lithuania and Poland, the Memel question has remained to this day the subject of endless quarrels between Germany and Lithuania, as the League of Nations well remembers. There can be no doubt that this Memel question, affecting as it does the status of the river's mouth and the port of Memel, is a highly important factor in the general Baltic situation, so much so that there has been considerable discussion of ways and means to bring about a definitive agreement between Germany and Lithuania. Such projects do not exclude consideration of the questions of the Corridor and Danzig.

At this point we are brought face to face with the powerful rôle which Poland plays in the Baltic question. It would be out of place to describe Poland at as much length as the other countries, for she is not really a Baltic state. Her seacoast measures only forty miles, and even this meager access to the sea she owes to the peace treaty, which created the anomalous entity of Danzig -- a state which is to belong and then again is not to belong to Poland, which is to be united to Poland and nevertheless is to remain intrinsically independent and autonomous. Such a solution could have permanence only if Poland showed the utmost good will; it is intolerable to Germany, because it involves the loss of territory that is unquestionably German.

What it is most important to point out in the present connection, however, is that Poland, as a glance at the map will show, extends to the west around part of the territory of Danzig, up to the Baltic, and that in this outlying part of her territory Poland has developed a port of her own, which she is determined to make, by hook or crook, her principal port on the Baltic. Not more than three years ago, Gdynia, which has since acquired such notoriety, was a miserable fishing village with a few hundred inhabitants. Today, it is a rapidly growing town with all modern improvements and an ultra-modern port. This port, in itself a dangerous competitor of Danzig, is destined by Poland to be a permanent and integral part of her economic life. Evidence of this is found in the important railroad now under construction from Kattowitz northwards to Gdynia, of which only a short section is still unfinished. In the spring of 1931 this whole railroad was taken over by a French company, a railway loan being floated in France for the purpose. The crux of the matter is that this south-to-north pressure, by means of which Poland, aided by France, tends to establish direct connections with the nations of the west and to figure as a Great Power, breaks the east-and-west connection of Germany proper with East Prussia, beyond the Vistula. Furthermore, Poland is brought into conflict with Germany through Gdynia's competition with Königsberg, formerly the Baltic terminus of the German line of communication southward to Odessa, via Prostken, Bialystok, Brest-Litovsk, Rovno, Kasatyn and Shmerinka. The strategic advantages of the Kattowitz-Gdynia line are self-evident, as regards the supply of war materials by France both to Poland and to Rumania. And on the sea, from Cherbourg, Le Havre and Calais, through the North Sea, and around the Skagerrack into the Baltic and to Gdynia, France, Poland's ally, is not confronted by any naval Power which is her equal. The French navy is superior to the navies of all the other countries along that coast, and the Polish navy, small as it is in itself, means something in combination with it.

Thus the picture today is totally different from that of 1914. Several new Baltic states have been called into being at the expense of Russia and Germany, and although they are independent they cannot do without those two Great Powers. Russia has lost almost all her former coast on the Baltic, retaining merely the small bit extending from Narva to Leningrad and thence a short distance towards the northwest, on the innermost recess of the Gulf of Finland. Germany's Baltic coastline has been broken in two by the Polish wedge, and she has also lost the district of Memel. Poland is taking her place as one of the principal Baltic Powers. The position of Sweden and Denmark remains the same, but they are pondering over these changes and wondering about the final outcome.

This new situation has been created by the policy of England and France since the war. It was generally believed, as already stated, that England would establish permanent bases in the north, and France in Poland. England, however, has shown an increasing lack of interest in the Baltic. So long as Russia remains as weak as she is today these borderland territories are not of so much importance to England. Under present conditions her principal interest in them is commercial: Finnish, Estonian and Latvian exports, especially dairy products, are the very things England needs to import. The ties between France and Poland are stronger. On the whole, however, France has been less active politically in the Baltic countries than is usually supposed.

One need only recall the discussions before the League of Nations to realize that there has been no permanent and satisfactory solution of the Baltic problem, especially at its most sensitive points -- Vilna, Memel and Danzig. The future depends almost entirely on what becomes of Russia. This has an important bearing on the pertinent question whether the Baltic states, after having been atomized and endowed with independent organizations of their own, ought not somehow to come together again, so that -- in the language of Herbert Spencer -- differentiation could be followed once more by integration. Signs may be seen pointing in that direction both in the field of commercial policy and in the narrower field of foreign politics. A customs union exists between Estonia and Latvia, even though so far it has not borne any practical results. Commercial agreements are in force between Latvia and Lithuania, between Estonia and Lithuania, and between Finland and Estonia. In addition to the so-called "Baltic Clause," some of these agreements contain also the so-called "Finnish Clause," i. e., the stipulation that Russia shall not be entitled to demand any special favors which the Baltic states may concede to one another. The same applies to the commercial treaties of these states with Germany and with Poland, and this so-called "Baltic Clause" keeps the way open for a customs union or -- if that is unattainable -- for trade preference in the sense of the Geneva discussions and a regional agreement at least between Latvia and Estonia, with the possible inclusion of Finland.

But all this taken together is only a very small step on the road leading to the consolidation and union of these small states. It has been frequently suggested in the press that if they united in a "Baltic Bloc" they would have greater power, e. g., at Geneva, than they can exercise separately. But the practical outcome of numerous talks, visits, newspaper articles and conferences between their representatives has been absolutely nil. Natural conditions have prevented the formation of a block of border states under Polish leadership, because Finland lies in a totally different sphere, while for Estonia and Latvia the Russian colossus is more important. These difficulties in the way of rapprochement have been rendered unsurmountable owing to the Polish-Lithuanian conflict over Vilna. There are influences at work, directed especially by political groups closely associated with the Roman Catholic Church, which aim at a reconciliation between Poland and Lithuania, but so far results have been negligible. The relations between Lithuania and Poland seem fixed on an unsatisfactory basis, and are a real danger to the peace of Europe. Poland herself is weakened, both politically and ethically, by the situation, notwithstanding the fact that she is in actual possession of Vilna: no one can take Vilna away from Poland by force.

Thus a would-be architect of a Baltic Bloc would have to choose between a Bloc without Poland, a Bloc under Polish hegemony and a Bloc including Russia and under her leadership. One need say nothing more to show the incompatibility of these political ideas. Nor has the so-called Litvinov Pact of February 9, 1929, in which, under Russia's leadership, the Baltic states of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, together with Rumania, mutually pledged themselves to the Kellogg Treaty, made a more intimate association any more likely.

The states described, after all, in no way form a homogeneous group. The natural groups are: Finland-Sweden-Denmark in the north; Estonia-Latvia-Lithuania in the south; Poland on the way to becoming a Great Power; and the two defeated Great Powers, Germany and Russia, each determined to retain their influence over the Baltic and the Baltic question. This division would be more apparent even today but for the fact that the Soviet monopoly of foreign commerce makes it very difficult to establish a really close association between Russia and other states and, on the other hand, because the interests of the Baltic states in agricultural exports are in violent conflict with the agrarian commercial policy of Germany.

It is a precarious situation. The Baltic states are endeavoring in every way to secure and consolidate their independence. Nowhere in Germany is there the slightest tendency to advocate the conquest of them by force, nor would this indeed be possible. The same holds good for Russia; she has no desire at the present moment to see the existing condition of things changed. Denmark and, above all, Sweden, are observing an essentially defensive attitude as spectators, although it must be added that Sweden is very much on her guard against Bolshevism and is worrying about it. We have already stated why it has not been possible so far to effect a Finnish-Swedish rapprochement, which on some counts would seem so natural.

Let us return now to our point of departure, the Baltic Agreement of 1908. Would it be possible, as things are today, to renew it, thus assuring the safety of the states adjoining the Baltic? One can raise the question but not answer it. However, it is enough to bring it forward in order to indicate the direction in which an accord must be sought. The old points of view remain the same. No one is going to assail the right of the smaller Baltic states to the independence which they have attained. But it also remains a fact of undiminished importance that Germany and Russia, the largest Baltic Powers, cannot do without coasts and harbors. There is, as already mentioned, this difference between the two: Germany suffers from smarting wounds (Danzig, Memel), while Russia has been cut off from the Baltic almost completely.

No one can say that either Germany or Russia has brought influence to bear on the Baltic states to change the existing situation during the ten years since the termination of the war. Germany's relations with Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are good, and quite satisfactory from the economic point of view. The fundamental opposition between democracy and Bolshevism separates these border states from Russia. But this has not prevented the establishment of political relations, especially (as already noted) between Russia and Lithuania, but also between Russia and Estonia and -- to a lesser degree -- Latvia. Between Finland and Russia, it is true, there is no mutual toleration or coöperation.

It really ought to be possible, no matter how deeply rooted all these differences and conflicts are, to stabilize the relations between the states adjoining the Baltic, even if they cannot be brought into harmonious collaboration. But, of course, more important than even the Finnish-Russian relations have been and must remain the relations between Poland and Germany. This German-Polish question is a problem by itself. The Powers of Western Europe, and especially France, can best promote general peace and security in northeastern Europe by refraining from using the countries involved as the wrestling-ground for their world rivalries. Until this happens it will be quite impossible to propose any constructive plan for the solution of the problem of the Baltic Sea and the Baltic coast.

[i] Articles 87--93, 99--108, in some respects also 109--114 and 116--117.

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  • OTTO HOETZSCH, Member of the Reichstag; Professor of History in the University of Berlin; Editor of Osteuropa
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