Jaunā Gaita nr. 92, 1973
For the last fourteen issues J.G. has been carrying the first part of Uldis Ģērmanis’ monograph on the military and revolutionary career of Colonel Vācietis, whose fate it was to become the first commander of the Red Army in 1918. Due to the importance of this monograph J.G. publishes this brief abstract of Ģērmanis’ study for the use of those scholars who do not read Latvian. For the purposes of this abstract we shall concentrate on the more narrowly biographical aspects of the study, foregoing Ģērmanis’ broader analysis of Latvian society and intellectual and political currents during the war and revolution. In his study Ģērmanis devotes an especially great deal of space to the activities and issues raised by the Latvian Riflemen.
Colonel Vācietis and the Latvian Riflemen in World War I and the October Revolution
Jukums Vācietis’ birth place was Latvia’s Western region – Kurzeme (Courland). He was born on November 11, 1893 (Old style), in Jaunmuiža of Lutriņi in a poor manor servant’s family with many children. His mother taught him reading, but after that he attended the elementary school of Lutriņi, where lessons were given in Latvian. In the eighties the Russian Government began a crude Russification of the Baltic administration and schools. In Kuldīga ministry school (the two highest grades of elementary school) where Vācietis studied from 1889 to 1891, all subjects, except religious instruction were already taught in Russian. At this time he also participated as a volunteer in the collection of Latvian folklore, which at that time was taking place in Latvia on a large scope. The door to higher education was closed to him because his family lacked the means for that. Therefore, at the age of 18, he chose a career in the military.
In 1891 Vācietis voluntarily joined the Rīga training battalion for petty officers and in 1893 he successfully completed his training. Through self education he prepared for the entrance examination of the Vilnius Military School which he entered in 1895, graduating from it in 1897 with a diploma first class. He spent the next four years in the 3rd Infantry regiment in Kaunas fortress. In 1902 he was promoted to the rank of Second Lieutenant and transferred as a commander of a squad to the Rīga battalion of petty officers. In 1904 he married Margrethe, the daughter of a well to do Rīga landlord Fridrich Leopold Kaerger. His father had emigrated to Baltia from Germany. Three children were born in this marriage: the daughters Irene and Vera and a son, Jukums.
The Revolution of 1905, which shook Russia, became in Latvia a general insurrection against autocratic Tsarism and the privileges of the Baltic German barons. Vācietis, like other Latvian officers at the time, did not participate in the revolutionary activities. In 1907 he was promoted to the rank of Staff Captain.
The goal of Vācietis was the obtainment of the highest military training. After rigorous competition in 1906 he was admitted to the War Academy of St. Petersburg from which he graduated in 1909 with a first class diploma.
Vācietis, however, in spite of his remarkable attainments, did not get a permanent position as an officer in headquarters, which might have filled this son of a servant with some bitterness towards his superiors. Since he was interested in social and historical questions, he continued to read and study and he had in mind to write a large treatise in the area of military philosophy. This project was interrupted by World War I. At the outbreak of the war he held the rank of lieutenant colonel and was the commander of the 102nd Viatka Infantry Battalion. Vācietis, as a commander of the battalion, participated in the Russian invasion of East Prussia during the early months of the war. He was wounded in November 1914, but after convalescence he taught tactics for a half a year in the Vilnius military school.
A significant part of Ģērmanis’ study concerns the events associated with the formation of the Latvian Riflemen’s battalions (later to be renamed regiments) during the second part of 1915. In November 1915 Lieutenant Colonel Vācietis was appointed as the Commander of the 5th Zemgale Latvian Riflemen’s Battalion. A year later he was promoted to the rank of Colonel. Vācietis continued as the chief of the Zemgallians up through the October insurrection in 1917, obtaining great popularity and authority among the troops. Historical sources and the evidence of contemporaries characterize Vācietis as helpful, considerate, ambitious and patriotic officer, gifted with a vivid imagination, sense of humor and a large vision of the future. Already in 1916 Vācietis was concerned with the idea of how to increase the military force of Latvians, that is the formation of a Latvian Corpus which could play a larger role in future events. The plans for the Christmas battles of 23 December, 1916, to 18 January 1917, which were accepted by the Russian command with a great deal of scepticism were also not to Vācietis’ liking. The disastrous consequences of these battles, the erroneous tactical and strategic plans and the number of casualties played an important part in preparing the groundwork for the radicalism of the Riflemen during the 1917 Revolution, according to Ģērmanis.
After the March Revolution Colonel Vācietis, like many other Latvian officers, accepted the political changes created by the Revolution, hoping that the Latvian nation would be able to consolidate their political freedoms. He, however, took exception to the democratizing and politicizing of the army, believing that the war against Germany must be continued. During 1917 he tried to maintain discipline within his own regiment and to keep the hostilities between the officers and the soldiers to a minimum. Even though Vācietis rejected peace propaganda and fraternization promoted by the Latvian SD Party, he was sufficiently elastic to avoid larger clashes with the revolutionary forces. During the summer of 1917, he was dissatisfied with the activities of Iskolastrel, but he continued to maneuver carefully in a complex situation. Around the middle of the summer he established a remarkable relationship with the XII Army Comissar Woytinsky, helping to even out the highly tense relationship between the command of the Army and Iskosol (the Executive Committee of the XII Army Soviet of Soldiers Deputies) on the one hand and the Iskolastrel (the Executive Committee of the Latvian Riflemen) on the other.
During the course of the October Revolution Colonel Vācietis decided to make common cause with the revolutionary Latvian Riflemen because by doing so he preserved the possibility of realizing his idea of a Latvian military Corpus, for which he foresaw a large role in the advancement of Latvian national goals as World War I was entering its final stages. He also emphasized that it was only the Russian Bolshevik Party which defended the rights of self-determination and independence of the non-Russian peoples. Soon after the October Revolution Vācietis became the Commander of the XII Army, but in December he was appointed head of the operative division of the Chief of Staff’s headquarters. In this period Vācietis also unhesitatingly strove for the establishment of a Latvian Riflemen’s Corpus, a plan which came to fulfillment in 1918.
In addition to this strictly biographical abstract of Vācietis’ career, very intrinsic to Ģērmanis’ work is the analysis of the process of radicalization of the Latvian Riflemen during the course of 1917. On May 17, 1917 the revolutionary leadership of the Riflemen took their first crucial step when the Second Congress of the Riflemen’s Soviet of Deputies accepted a Bolshevik resolution, condemning the Provisional Government and its war policy. During the October insurrection the Riflemen, cooperating with the Bolshevik leadership in Petrograd, assured Bolshevik victory in the area of the XII Army. The Riflemen’s task was to take control of railroad centers to prevent the shipment of troops to Petrograd. Due to the demoralized condition of the Russian troops the Riflemen accomplished their task with dispatch. In November the unstable government of Lenin requested the presence of the Riflemen for the protection of the Bolshevik headquarters in Petrograd (Smolney Institut). In the beginning of December a specially selected company (approximately 250 men) and the 6th Latvian Regiment (2500 men) arrived in the capital to take up their duties. Soon thereafter, as the Civil War began, there followed requests for the services of the Riflemen from Moscow and various locations in Southern Russia. The reasons for this massive Latvian radicalization and the Riflemen’s involvement in Russia’s Civil War Ģērmanis sees in various peculiar developments in Latvia:
1. the largest and most experienced political Party – Latvian SD – since 1914 had been under Bolshevik control;
2. the Bolshevik peace propaganda and their sociopolitical and national liberation slogans was highly effective;
3. the high literacy rate among the Latvian workers (during the war evacuated to Russia) made them susceptible to Bolshevik propaganda;
4. during the time of the Revolution there were some half a million Latvian refugees In Russia, many of whom lived in dire circumstances;
5. the Latvians at large had heavily experienced a double suppression – in a social and political sense from Russia’s old regime. One of the important themes of the work is to emphasize the significance of the non-Russian peoples’ role in the revolution.
October 12, 1972