Kārlis Ulmanis

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Kārlis Ulmanis
Karlis Ulmanis.jpg
1st Prime Minister of Latvia
In office
November 19, 1918 June 18, 1921
President Jānis Čakste
Preceded byPosition established
Succeeded by Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics
In office
December 24, 1925 May 6, 1926
President Jānis Čakste
Preceded by Hugo Celmiņš
Succeeded by Arturs Alberings
In office
March 27, 1931 December 5, 1931
President Alberts Kviesis
Preceded byHugo Celmiņš
Succeeded by Marģers Skujenieks
In office
March 17, 1934 June 17, 1940
PresidentAlberts Kviesis
Preceded by Ādolfs Bļodnieks
Succeeded by Augusts Kirhenšteins
4th President of Latvia*
In office
April 11, 1936 July 21, 1940
Prime MinisterHimself
Augusts Kirhenšteins
Preceded byAlberts Kviesis
Succeeded byAugusts Kirhenšteins as Prime minister
Foreign Minister of Latvia
In office
May 4, 1926 December 17, 1926
Prime Minister Arturs Alberings
Preceded by Hermanis Albats (Acting)
Succeeded by Felikss Cielēns
In office
March 24, 1931 December 4, 1931
Prime MinisterHimself
Preceded by Hugo Celmiņš
Succeeded by Kārlis Zariņš
In office
March 17, 1934 April 17, 1936
Prime MinisterHimself
Preceded by Voldemārs Salnais
Succeeded by Vilhelms Munters
Personal details
Born(1877-09-04)September 4, 1877
Bērze, Courland Governorate, Russian Empire
DiedSeptember 20, 1942(1942-09-20) (aged 65)
Krasnovodsk, Turkmen SSR, Soviet Union
Political party Latvian Farmers' Union (1917–1934)
Alma mater University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Signature Karlis Ulmanis signature.svg

Kārlis Augusts Vilhelms Ulmanis (September 4, 1877 in Bērze, Bērze Parish, Courland Governorate, Russian Empire – September 20, 1942 in Krasnovodsk prison, Soviet Union, now Türkmenbaşy, Turkmenistan) was one of the most prominent Latvian politicians of pre-World War II Latvia during the interwar period of independence from November 1918 to June 1940. He served four times as Prime Minister, the last time as the head of an authoritarian regime. The legacy of his dictatorship still divides public opinion in Latvia.

Bērze is a village in Bērze Parish and Dobele Municipality in the historical region of Zemgale, and the Zemgale Planning Region in Latvia.

Courland Governorate governorate of the Russian Empire

Courland Governorate, also known as the Province of Courland, Governorate of Kurland, and Government of Courland, was one of the Baltic governorates of the Russian Empire, that is now part of the Republic of Latvia.

Russian Empire former country, 1721–1917

The Russian Empire, also known as Imperial Russia or simply Russia, was an empire that existed across Eurasia and North America from 1721, following the end of the Great Northern War, until the Republic was proclaimed by the Provisional Government that took power after the February Revolution of 1917.


Education and early career

Born in a prosperous farming family, Ulmanis studied agriculture at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich and at Leipzig University. He then worked in Latvia as a writer, lecturer, and manager in agricultural positions. He was politically active during the 1905 Revolution, was briefly imprisoned in Pskov, and subsequently fled Latvia to avoid incarceration by the Russian authorities. During this period of exile, Ulmanis studied at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln in the United States, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in agriculture. After working briefly at that university as a lecturer, Ulmanis moved to Houston, Texas, where he had purchased a dairy business. [1]

Agriculture Cultivation of plants and animals to provide useful products

Agriculture is the science and art of cultivating plants and livestock. Agriculture was the key development in the rise of sedentary human civilization, whereby farming of domesticated species created food surpluses that enabled people to live in cities. The history of agriculture began thousands of years ago. After gathering wild grains beginning at least 105,000 years ago, nascent farmers began to plant them around 11,500 years ago. Pigs, sheep and cattle were domesticated over 10,000 years ago. Plants were independently cultivated in at least 11 regions of the world. Industrial agriculture based on large-scale monoculture in the twentieth century came to dominate agricultural output, though about 2 billion people still depended on subsistence agriculture into the twenty-first.

ETH Zurich Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich

ETH Zurich is a science, technology, engineering and mathematics university in the city of Zürich, Switzerland. Like its sister institution EPFL, it is an integral part of the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology Domain that is directly subordinate to Switzerland's Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research. The school was founded by the Swiss Federal Government in 1854 with the stated mission to educate engineers and scientists, serve as a national center of excellence in science and technology and provide a hub for interaction between the scientific community and industry.

Leipzig University university in Germany

Leipzig University, in Leipzig in the Free State of Saxony, Germany, is one of the world's oldest universities and the second-oldest university in Germany. The university was founded on December 2, 1409 by Frederick I, Elector of Saxony and his brother William II, Margrave of Meissen, and originally comprised the four scholastic faculties. Since its inception, the university has engaged in teaching and research for over 600 years without interruption.

Ulmanis returned to Latvia from American exile in 1913, after being informed that it was now safe for political exiles to return due to the declaration of a general amnesty by Nicholas II of Russia. This safety was short-lived as World War I broke out one year later and Courland Governorate was partially occupied by Germany in 1915.

Latvia republic in Northeastern Europe

Latvia, officially the Republic of Latvia, is a country in the Baltic region of Northern Europe. Since its independence, Latvia has been referred to as one of the Baltic states. It is bordered by Estonia to the north, Lithuania to the south, Russia to the east, and Belarus to the southeast, and shares a maritime border with Sweden to the west. Latvia has 1,957,200 inhabitants and a territory of 64,589 km2 (24,938 sq mi). The country has a temperate seasonal climate.

Nicholas II of Russia last Emperor of Russia, Grand Duke of Finland, and titular King of Poland

Nicholas II or Nikolai II, known as Saint Nicholas the Passion-Bearer in the Russian Orthodox Church, was the last Emperor of Russia, ruling from 1 November 1894 until his forced abdication on 15 March 1917. His reign saw the fall of the Russian Empire from one of the foremost great powers of the world to economic and military collapse. He was given the nickname Nicholas the Bloody or Vile Nicholas by his political adversaries due to the Khodynka Tragedy, anti-Semitic pogroms, Bloody Sunday, the violent suppression of the 1905 Russian Revolution, the execution of political opponents, and his perceived responsibility for the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905). Soviet historians portrayed Nicholas as a weak and incompetent leader whose decisions led to military defeats and the deaths of millions of his subjects.

World War I 1914–1918 global war originating in Europe

World War I, also known as the First World War or the Great War, was a global war originating in Europe that lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918. Contemporaneously described as "the war to end all wars", it led to the mobilisation of more than 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans, making it one of the largest wars in history. It is also one of the deadliest conflicts in history, with an estimated nine million combatants and seven million civilian deaths as a direct result of the war, while resulting genocides and the 1918 influenza pandemic caused another 50 to 100 million deaths worldwide.

Political career in independent Latvia

In the last stages of World War I, he founded the Latvian Farmers' Union, one of the two most prominent political parties in Latvia at that time. Ulmanis was one of the principal founders of the Latvian People's Council (Tautas Padome), which proclaimed Latvia's independence on November 18, 1918 with Ulmanis as the Prime Minister of the first Provisional government of Latvia. After the Latvian War of Independence of 1919 - 1920, a constitutional convention established Latvia as a parliamentary democracy in 1920. Ulmanis served as Prime Minister in several subsequent Latvian government administrations from 1918 to 1934.

Latvian Farmers Union political party

The Latvian Farmers' Union is a centrist, agrarian political party in Latvia.

The Latvian Provisional Government was formed on November 18, 1918 by the People's Council of Latvia.

Latvian War of Independence fought against Russian SFSR

The Latvian War of Independence, sometimes called the Latvia's freedom struggles or the Latvian War of Liberation, was a series of military conflicts in Latvia between 5 December 1918, after the newly proclaimed Republic of Latvia was invaded by Soviet Russia, and the signing of the Latvian-Soviet Riga Peace Treaty on 11 August 1920.

Coup of May 15, 1934

Ulmanis in 1934 Karlis Ulmanis 1934.jpg
Ulmanis in 1934

On the night from May 15-16, 1934, Ulmanis, with the support of Minister of War Jānis Balodis, proclaimed a state of war and dissolved all political parties and the Saeima (parliament). The bloodless coup was carried out by army and units of the national guard Aizsargi loyal to Ulmanis. They moved against key government offices, communications and transportation facilities. Many elected officials and politicians (almost exclusively Social Democrats, as well as figures from the extreme right and left) were detained, as were any military officers that resisted the coup d'etat. Some 2,000 Social Democrats were initially detained by the authorities, including most of the Social Democratic members of the disbanded Saeima, as were members of various right-wing radical organisations, such as Pērkonkrusts.

Jānis Balodis Latvian politician

Jānis Balodis was an army general, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Latvia (1919–1921), Minister of War (1931–1940) and politician who was one of the principal figures during the Latvian War of Independence and the dictatorship of Kārlis Ulmanis, when he officially was the number two of the regime as the Minister of War, Deputy Prime Minister and Vice President.

Saeima parliament of Latvia

The Saeima is the parliament of the Republic of Latvia. It is a unicameral parliament consisting of 100 members who are elected by proportional representation, with seats allocated to political parties which gain at least 5% of the popular vote. Elections are scheduled to be held once every four years, normally on the first Saturday of October. The most recent elections were held in October 2018.

Aizsargi was a paramilitary organization, or a militia, in Latvia during the interbellum period (1918–1939). The Aizsargi was created on March 30, 1919 by the Latvian Provisional Government as a self-defense force, a kind of National Guard, during the period of unrest and civil warfare following the Russian October Revolution, which enabled the independence of Latvia from Russia. In 1921 it was reorganized to follow the example of the Finnish Suojeluskunta.

In all, 369 Social Democrats, 95 members of Pērkonkrusts, pro-Nazi activists from the Baltic German community, and a handful of politicians from other parties were interned in a prison camp established in the Karosta district of Liepāja. After several Social Democrats, such as Bruno Kalniņš, had been cleared of weapons charges by the courts, most of those imprisoned began to be released over time. [2] Those convicted by the courts of treasonous acts, such as the leader of Pērkonkrusts Gustavs Celmiņš, remained behind bars for the duration of their sentences, three years in the case of Celmiņš. [3]

Baltic Germans ethnic Germans inhabitants of the eastern Baltic Sea

The Baltic Germans are ethnic German inhabitants of the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea, in what today are Estonia and Latvia. Since their expulsion from Estonia and Latvia and resettlement during the upheavals and aftermath of the Second World War, Baltic Germans have markedly declined as a geographically determined ethnic group. The largest groups of present-day descendants of the Baltic Germans are found in Germany and Canada. It is estimated that several thousand still reside in Latvia and Estonia.

Karosta human settlement

Karosta is a neighbourhood in the north of Liepāja in western Latvia by the Baltic sea.

Liepāja City in Latvia

Liepāja is a city in western Latvia, located on the Baltic Sea. It is the largest city in the Kurzeme Region and the third largest city in the country after Riga and Daugavpils. It is an important ice-free port. In 2017 population of Liepāja is 69,443 people.

For the next four years, Ulmanis ruled by decree, without a parliament. A decree vested the Saeima's functions in the cabinet until a new constitution could be drafted. [4] Incumbent State President Alberts Kviesis supported the coup and remained in office.

On March 19, 1936, Ulmanis' cabinet drafted a law that provided for Ulmanis to become State President as well as Prime Minister upon the expiration of Kviesis' term. This clearly violated the Constitution, which stipulated that the chairman of the Saeima would become acting president pending new elections. However, no one dared object. When Kviesis left office on April 11, 1936, Ulmanis combined the offices of president and prime minister.

Authoritarian regime

The Ulmanis regime was unique among other European dictatorships of the interwar period. Ulmanis did not create a ruling party, rubber-stamp parliament or a new ideology. It was a personal, paternalistic dictatorship in which Ulmanis–who called himself "the leader of the people"–claimed to do what he thought was best for Latvians. All political life was proscribed, culture and economy was eventually organized into a type of corporate statism made popular during those years by Mussolini. Chambers of Professions were created, similar to Chambers of Corporations in other dictatorships.

All political parties, including Ulmanis' own Farmers' Union, were outlawed. Part of the constitution of the Latvian Republic and civil liberties were suspended. All newspapers owned by political parties or organisations and all Jewish newspapers were closed [5] and all publications were subjected to censorship and government oversight by the Ministry of Public Affairs led by Alfrēds Bērziņš. The army and the Aizsargi paramilitary were lavished with privileges.

Ulmanis is often believed to have been a popular leader especially among farmers and ethnic Latvians. This is debatable. His party had never won more than 17 percent of the vote in any election, and had seen its support steadily decline in the years since the 1922 constitutional convention. In the 1931 election, the Farmers' Union only won 12.2 percent of the vote, an all-time low. Some historians believe that one of the chief motives for the coup was his fear of losing even more votes in the upcoming elections. From the time of his coup until his demise, for obvious reasons, no reliable voting or popularity statistics were available.


Ulmanis was a Latvian nationalist, who espoused the slogan "Latvia for Latvians" which meant that Latvia was to be a Latvian nation state, not a multinational state with traditional Baltic German elites and Jewish entrepreneurial class. At the same time, the slogan "Latvia's sun shines equally over everyone" was used and no ethnicity was subjected to repressions. German, Jewish and other minority newspapers and organizations continued to exist as far as the limitations of authoritarian dictatorship permitted. Officially Ulmanis held that every ethnic community in Latvia should develop its own authentic national culture, instead of assimilating into Latvians, but the state's primary purpose is to help Latvians to become masters in their homeland. This was to be achieved by active state involvement in economy and greater emphasis on Latvian culture. Statistics were produced showing that the German, Jewish and Polish (in Latgale) minorities had too much power in economy and certain professions, thus preventing Latvians from achieving their full potential.

Latvianisation policies were followed in the area of education, cutting and removing subsidies for minority education. [6] During Ulmanis' rule, education was strongly emphasized and literacy rates in Latvia reached high levels. Especially in eastern Latvia Latgale region however, education was actively used as a tool of assimilation [7] [8] of minorities. Many new schools were built, but they were Latvian schools and minority children were thus assimilated.

It is important to notice that while an absolute ruler, Ulmanis did not allow any physical violence towards minorities and dealt harshly with right- and left-wing extremists, and with both Nazi and Communist sympathizers. [9] Between 1920 and 1939, many Jews escaping Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany found refuge in Latvia.


During his leadership Latvia recorded major economic achievements. The state assumed a larger role in the economy and state capitalism was introduced by purchasing and uniting smaller competing private companies into larger state enterprises. This process was controlled by Latvijas Kredītbanka, a state bank established in 1935. Many large-scale building projects were undertaken - new schools, administrative buildings, Ķegums Hydroelectric Power Station. Due to an application of the economics of comparative advantage, the United Kingdom and Germany became Latvia's major trade partners, while trade with the USSR was reduced. The economy, especially the agriculture and manufacturing sectors, were micromanaged to an extreme degree. Ulmanis nationalised many industries. This resulted in rapid economic growth, during which Latvia attained a very high standard of living.[ citation needed ] At a time when most of the world's economy was still suffering from the effects of the Great Depression, Latvia could point to increases in both gross national product (GNP) and in exports of Latvian goods overseas.[ citation needed ] This, however, came at the cost of liberty and civil rights.

The policy of Ulmanis, even before his accession to power, was openly directed toward eliminating the minority groups from economic life and of giving Latvians of Latvian ethnicity access to all positions in the national economy. This was sometimes referred to as "Lettisation". [10] According to some estimates, about 90% of the banks and credit establishments in Latvia were state owned or under Latvian management in 1939, against 20% in 1933.[ citation needed ] Alfrēds Birznieks  [ lv ], the minister of agriculture, in a speech delivered in Ventspils on January 26, 1936, said:

Latvian people are the only masters of this country; Latvians will themselves promulgate the laws and judge for themselves what justice is. [10]

As a result, the economic and cultural influence of minorities – Germans, Jews, Russians, Poles – declined.

Latvia's first full-length sound movie "Zvejnieka dēls" (Fishermans' Son) was a tale of young fisherman who tries to free other local fishermen from the power of a middleman and shows them that the future lies in cooperative work. [11] The movie was based on a widely popular novel written by Vilis Lācis who in 1940 became the Prime Minister of the Soviet occupied Latvian SSR.

Later life and death

On August 23, 1939, Adolf Hitler's Germany and Joseph Stalin's USSR signed a non-aggression agreement, known as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, which contained a secret addendum (revealed only in 1945), dividing Eastern Europe into spheres of influence. Latvia was thereby assigned to the Soviet sphere. Following a Soviet ultimatum in October 1939, Ulmanis signed the Soviet–Latvian Mutual Assistance Treaty and allow Soviet military bases in Latvia. In June 17, 1940, Latvia was completely occupied by the Soviet Union. Rather than risk an unwinnable war, Ulmanis gave a nationwide radio address ordering no resistance to the Red Army, saying "I will remain in my place and you remain in yours".

For the next month Ulmanis cooperated with the Soviets. He resigned as prime minister three days after the coup, and appointed a left-wing government headed by Augusts Kirhenšteins—which, in truth, had been chosen by the Soviet embassy. Soviet-controlled elections for a "People's Saeima" were held on July 14-15, in which voters were presented with a single list from a Communist-dominated alliance. The new "People's Saeima" met on July 21 with only one order of business—a resolution proclaiming Latvia a Soviet republic and seeking admission to the Soviet Union, which carried unanimously. This move was illegal under the Latvian Constitution, which stipulated that a major change to the basic constitutional order could only be enacted after two-thirds of the electorate approved it via a plebiscite.

Also on July 21, Ulmanis was forced to resign and asked the Soviet government for a pension and permission to emigrate to Switzerland. Instead, he was arrested and sent to Stavropol in Russia, where he worked in his original profession as Kolkhoz agronom for a year. After the start of German-Soviet war he was imprisoned in July 1941. A year later, as German armies were closing in on Stavropol, he and other inmates were evacuated to a prison in Krasnovodsk in present-day Turkmenistan. On the way there, he contracted dysentery and soon died on 20 September 1942. His grave site is unknown, but a small memorial site was built in Turkmenbashi cemetery. [12] Ulmanis had no wife or children, as he used to say that he was married to Latvia.

Later assessments

Commemorative plaque at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln from 1954 Karlisulmanis plaque.jpg
Commemorative plaque at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln from 1954

Kārlis Ulmanis's legacy for Latvia and Latvians is a complex one. In the postwar Latvian SSR the Soviet régime labeled Ulmanis a fascist, indistinguishable from the Nazis, accusing him of corruption and of bloody repressions against Latvian workers. [13] Ulmanis, in fact, had outlawed the fascist party and imprisoned its leader, Gustavs Celmiņš.

Among the postwar Latvian émigrés of Latvian cultural background in exile, Ulmanis was idealised by many of those who viewed his 6-year authoritarian rule as a Golden Age of the Latvian nation. Some traditions created by Ulmanis, such as the Draudzīgais aicinājums (charitable donations to one's former school), continued to be upheld.

In independent Latvia today, Ulmanis remains a popular, if also controversial figure. Many Latvians view him as a symbol of Latvia's independence in pre-World War II Latvia, and historians are generally in agreement about his positive early role as prime minister during the country's formative years. With regard to the authoritarian period, opinions diverge, however. On the one hand, it is possible to credit Ulmanis for the rise of ethnic Latvians' economic prosperity during the 1930s, and stress that under his rule there was not the same level of militarism or mass political oppression that characterized other dictatorships of the day. On the other hand, historians such as Ulmanis biographer Edgars Dunsdorfs are of the view that someone who disbanded Parliament and adopted authoritarian rule cannot be regarded as a positive figure, even if that rule was in some terms a prosperous one. [14]

One sign that Ulmanis was still very popular in Latvia during the first years of regained independence was the election of his grand-nephew Guntis Ulmanis as President of Latvia in 1993.

One of the major traffic routes in Riga, the capital of Latvia, is named after him (Kārļa Ulmaņa gatve, previously named after Ernst Thälmann). In 2003, a monument of Ulmanis was unveiled in a park in Riga centre. [15]

See also

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  1. "Nebraska State Historical Society" (PDF). Nebraska State Historical Society. Retrieved 3 April 2018.
  2. Bērziņš, Valdis (ed.) (2003). 20. gadsimta Latvijas vēsture II: Neatkarīgā valsts 1918–1940 (in Latvian). Riga: Latvijas Vēstures institūta apgāds. ISBN   9984-601-18-8. OCLC   45570948.CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
  3. "latvianhistory.com". latvianhistory.com. Retrieved 3 April 2018.
  4. (in Latvian) Resolution of Five senators of Senate of Latvia on validity of Constitution of Latvia and authority of Saeima in conditions of occupation Archived 2007-02-24 at the Wayback Machine (Retrieved on 24 December 2006)
  5. https://periodika.lndb.lv/periodika2-viewer/view/index-dev.html?lang=en#panel:pp%7Cissue:/p_001_lkar1934n107%7Carticle:DIVL126%7Cquery:Frimorgn%7CissueType:P
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  7. Horváth, István (2003). Minority politics within the Europe of regions. Bucharest: Editura ISPMN. ISBN   9789731970837.
  8. Purs, Aldis (2002). "The Price of Free Lunches: Making the Frontier Latvian in the Interwar Years" (PDF). The Global Review of Ethnopolitics. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-03-04.
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  10. 1 2 "The Jews of Latvia". www.jewishgen.org. Retrieved 3 April 2018.
  11. Andrejs (25 October 2008). "Not Really a Blog: Zvejnieka Dels (The Fisherman's Son)" . Retrieved 3 April 2018.
  12. "Photo - LETA". www.leta.lv. Retrieved 3 April 2018.
  13. Concise Latvian SSR Encyclopedia
  14. LETA (15 May 2009). "Aprit 75 gadi kopš Kārļa Ulmaņa rīkotā valsts apvērsuma Latvijā" (in Latvian). Diena . Retrieved 15 May 2009.
  15. "Monument to former Latvian President Kārlis Ulmanis". www.liveriga.com. Retrieved 3 April 2018.
Political offices
Preceded by
Position established
Prime Minister of Latvia
Succeeded by
Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics
Preceded by
Hugo Celmiņš
Prime Minister of Latvia
Succeeded by
Arturs Alberings
Preceded by
Hugo Celmiņš
Prime Minister of Latvia
Succeeded by
Marģers Skujenieks
Preceded by
Ādolfs Bļodnieks
Prime Minister of Latvia
Succeeded by
Augusts Kirhenšteins
Preceded by
Alberts Kviesis
President of Latvia
Succeeded by
Augusts Kirhenšteins