The Republic of Estonia was established on the 24th of February 1918, when for the first time in the history of the state, Salvation Committee, Päästekomitee, declared independence of the Republic of Estonia. This day was celebrated as Independence Day until the Soviet occupation of Estonia in 1940. Later, during Soviet occupation it was solemnly celebrated in Estonian communities throughout the world. Each year the American Secretary of State sent whishes to the Estonian Ambassador in the United States, Mr. Ernst Jaakson. When hope for restoring independence increased in the end of the 80’s, people began to publicly celebrate Independence Day, still prior to the end of Soviet occupation.
On the 24th of February 1989, the red flag of Soviet Estonia, on Tompea, was replaced with blue-black-white Estonian national flag, and from that moment Independence Day is once again celebrated as a public holiday. Since the restoration of independence on the 21st of August 1991, Independence Day became not only a day of public celebration but also a day of reflection for Estonians. This year Estonia celebrated its 89th anniversary of the declaration of independence.
In search of independence. For centuries Estonians have dreamt of establishing a state, independent of foreign rule. The Russian Revolution in 1917, and the unstable situation in Russia, created a possibility of realizing these dreams. An impulse to strive for independence was given by the National Front, the main ideological movement of Estonia, whose principles were based on the idea of self-determination. This idea was also being preached by the president of the United States Woodrow Wilson.
On April 8th 1917, Estonian organizations, together with military personnel, 40,000 people in all demonstrated in St. Petersburg. The aim of this demonstration was to show support for the autonomy of Estonia. Such a goal was achieved when on the 12th of April when the Provisional Government of Russia signed the Estonian Autonomy Bill. Thanks to this bill the Livonian districts of Tartu, Vőru, Viljandi, Pärnu and Saaremaa became part of Estonia. Furthermore that day marked the first time, an Estonian, Jaan Poska became the District Commissar in Estonia. Temporary National Council, the Maapäev was also established, consisting of six people. The Maapäev appointed the executive branch, which began organizing and modernizing local government and educational institutions. Prior to its dissolution, due to orders by Bolshevik authority, the Maapäev took decisive steps towards sovereignty, by declaring itself the highest authority in Estonia on the 15th of December 1917.
Independence was declared. Elections to the Estonian Constituent Assembly were held on the 3rd and 4th of February 1918. Political parties which supported national independence received 2/3 of the popular vote. When Soviet forces started to quickly retreat, and German forces advanced into Estonia, the Maapäev chose the Salvation Committee, Päästekomitee, made up of three members. It also gave this Committee full decision-making authority to ensure the continuation of Maapäev activities. Taking advantage of the lack of government in Estonia, the Päästekomitee, drafted the declaration of independence.
On February 18th 1918, the Council of Elders in the Maapäev confirmed this manifesto and on the 24th of February the Päästekomitee publicly declared Estonia an independent and democratic state.
Independent Estonia finally became a reality but Estonians immediately had to take up arms in defense of their new found freedom. Ten days after the establishment of the Provisional Government in Estonia, Soviet Russia attacked and so The War of Independence began. Small and poorly armed Estonian defense forces were quickly pushed to the outskirts of Tallinn by the Red Army. However, soon Estonians under the orders of Commander and Chief Johan Laidoner carried out a successful counter-offensive. On the first anniversary of the Republic general Laidoner proclaimed that the whole territory of Estonia has been freed from enemy forces.
However another year of battle awaited the Estonian defense forces. Landeswehra, the armed forces of the Baltic Germans, together with the so-called Iron Division of the German army tried to annex all the Baltic countries in Germany’s name. After gathering forces, the Estonian army crushed German forces in northern Latvia on the 23rd of June 1919. In the meantime units of the Russian Red Army renewed their offensive. Only in December of 1919 were Estonian forces finally able to fight off the last Russian attack. On the 2nd of February 1920 the Russo – Estonian Peace Treaty was signed in Tartu. The Treaty of Tartu strengthened national borders between the two countries and also contained guarantees from Soviet Russia which acknowledged Estonian independence “for all eternity”. The Republic of Estonia was internationally recognized as an independent state and became a member of the League of Nations in 1921.
Building an independent state had already begun during times of war. In 1919 The Constituent Assembly was chosen, gathering soon thereafter. It passed a Constitution as well as a radical Land Bill, according to which enormous properties were enfranchised and given over to Estonians. Estonia became a democratic, parliamentary republic, where the highest legislative authority was in the hands of the people, through the institution of a referendum and the election of a unicameral Riigikogu, which consisted of 100 representatives.
During the first twenty years of independence Estonian economy was completely reformed and although agriculture was still the main sector of economy it was not favored above all the other sectors. The most popular Estonian export products were: butter, bacon, wood, cellulose, and textiles. The financial system was regulated and was based on a stable currency – the Estonian kroon. Very good results were achieved in the development of national culture and in Estonian-language educational and scientific works. There was visible improvement in the overall level of culture, Estonians proved their worth in sport, bringing medals from Olympics and from other international competitions. By the end of the 1930’s a new generation of Estonians, who grew up in an independent country, had their say. Their activity was apparent in all aspects of social life.
As a young, geopolitically susceptible nation, Estonia went through a number of crises which were unavoidable. On the 1st of December 1924, a communist coup took place. It was financed, armed, and supported by Soviet Russia. The coup was carried out by a few hundred of conspirators but it did not receive any wider public support. Later the international economic crisis of the 1920’s and 30’s turned out to be a painful shock for Estonia and worsened internal political tensions. Moreover, a very democratic system of government ceded a large part of its decision-making authority unto political parties. Their struggle for power brought internal chaos to the Estonian state. In 1937 a new Constitution was passed. According to this document the president, who was the head of state had considerable amount of power. Legislative branch was made up of the State Council, a representative body and the Chamber of Deputies which was chosen in a general election based on majority vote.
However a sudden stop was put to all these achievements when World War II turned Estonia into a victim of the ambitions of world superpowers once again forcing Soviet occupation upon the country. This occupation lasted half a century (between 1941-44 it was German occupation) and brought with it much damage and suffering. Estonians survived however, drawing hope from two main sources. One of these was their long history and the other was the short period of independence, which however was long enough to keep the faith hidden inside until the coming of the right moment. On the evening of August 20th 1991, this moment finally came, a decision was made, and the rebirth of the Republic of Estonia began.