The Takeover of Estonia from the German Occupying Authorities in November of 1918
Although the independent Republic of Estonia was declared on 24 February 1918, the German occupation that followed prevented the actual establishment of statehood. The chance for this did not come until November of that same year, when Germany’s defeats on the Western Front and the November Revolution brought an end to the First World War and German domination in Eastern Europe.
The policy of the occupying authorities in Estonia was aimed at neutralising society, and in this way the Germans succeeded in preventing active resistance. Nevertheless, news of Germany’s military setbacks also reached Estonia and aroused some measure of hope for a better future. The way subsequent events took shape was nevertheless a surprise for both the German authorities and Estonian politicians.
The breakthrough started with spontaneous riots that broke out in Tallinn on 7 November 1917 arising from food shortages. These rapidly snowballed into a city-wide strike. Political demands emerged alongside demands for improving the supply of food: demands for the withdrawal of German troops from Estonia and for transferring power to the institutions of local government that had been democratically elected in 1917. News of the November Revolution in Germany reached Tallinn at the same time, triggering unrest in the city garrison. Lieutenant General Adolf von Seckendorff, the highest ranking local administrator, was forced to seek support from Estonian politicians. As a result of these events, the Estonian Provisional Government convened on 11 November.
The Provisional Government first had to take the reins of power into its own hands. This was accomplished quickly and smoothly in Tallinn and Northern Estonia. General Seckendorff recognised the Estonian Provisional Government on 13 November. At the same time, Estonians took over the Provincial Government of Estonia, the Food Office, the judicial systems, post offices, ports, etc. The Provisional Government appointed its deputies in the counties and ordered the reconvening of the local municipal governments. The municipal police force (militia) that had been formed in 1917 was restored, to which the newly formed voluntary armed organisation known as the Kaitseliit (Defence League) was added.
Yet in Southern Estonia, the Germans refused to relinquish power, referring to the fact that they had not received orders to this effect. The Provisional Government sent representatives to Riga, where August Winnig, Germany’s Minister Plenipotentiary to the Baltic Provinces, resided, to resolve the situation that had developed. According to the agreements concluded with him, the Germans committed themselves to relinquishing power to Estonians throughout Estonian territory starting on 21 November. Even though further attempts to delay this were made in some places, from that point on, power in Southern Estonia as well was transferred into the hands of the Provisional Government’s deputies and the local governments. Only the future Petseri County was not taken over and shortly thereafter was subjected to the control of the armed forces of Soviet Russia.