Kārlis Ulmanis

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Kārlis Ulmanis
Karlis Ulmanis.jpg
Prime Minister of Latvia
In office
November 19, 1918 – June 18, 1921
President Jānis Čakste
Preceded by Position 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 by Hugo Celmiņš
Succeeded by Marģers Skujenieks
In office
March 17, 1934 – June 17, 1940
President Alberts Kviesis
Preceded by Ādolfs Bļodnieks
Succeeded by Augusts Kirhenšteins
4th President of Latvia*
In office
April 11, 1936 – July 21, 1940
Prime Minister Himself
Augusts Kirhenšteins
Preceded by Alberts Kviesis
Succeeded by Augusts 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 Minister Himself
Preceded by Hugo Celmiņš
Succeeded by Kārlis Zariņš
In office
March 17, 1934 – April 17, 1936
Prime Minister Himself
Preceded by Voldemārs Salnais
Succeeded by Vilhelms Munters
Personal details
Born (1877-09-04)September 4, 1877
Bērze, Bērze Parish, Latvia
(part of the Russian Empire)
Died September 20, 1942(1942-09-20) (aged 65)
Krasnovodsk, Soviet Union
(now Türkmenbaşy, Turkmenistan)
Resting place Unknown
Nationality Latvian
Political party Latvian Farmers' Union (1917–1934)
Spouse(s) None
Alma mater University of Nebraska-Lincoln
  • Self-proclaimed
Karlis Ulmanis (1934)

Kārlis Augusts Vilhelms Ulmanis (September 4, 1877 in Bērze, Bērze Parish, Latvia – September 20, 1942 in Krasnovodsk prison, Soviet Union) was a prominent Latvian politician in pre-World War II Latvia during the Latvian period of independence from 1918 to 1940.

Education and early career[edit]

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.

Ulmanis returned to Latvia from exile in 1913, after being informed that it was safe to return due to the declaration of a general amnesty by the Russian tsar. This safety was short-lived as World War I broke out one year later.

Political career in independent Latvia[edit]

In the aftermath of the war, Ulmanis was one of the principal founders of the Latvian People's Council (Tautas Padome), which proclaimed Latvia's independence from Russia on November 18, 1918. A constitutional convention established Latvia as a parliamentary democracy in 1920. Ulmanis was the first Prime Minister of a Latvia which had become independent for the first time. He also served as Prime Minister in several subsequent Latvian government administrations during the first period of Latvian independence, from 1918 to 1940. In addition, he founded the Latvian Farmers' Union, one of the two most prominent political parties in Latvia at that time.

Authoritarian regime[edit]

On May 15, 1934, Ulmanis as Prime Minister dissolved the Saeima (parliament) and established executive non-parliamentary authoritarian rule. Several officers from the Army and units of the national guard (Latvian: Aizsargi) loyal to Ulmanis moved against key government offices, communications and transportation facilities. Many elected officials were illegally detained, as were any military officers that resisted the coup d'etat.

All political parties, including his 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 were closed. 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. 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.[1] Those convicted by the courts of treasonous acts, such as Gustavs Celmiņš, remained behind bars for the duration of their sentences, three years in the case of Celmiņš.

The incumbent President Alberts Kviesis served out the rest of his term until 1936, after which Ulmanis merged the office of president and prime minister, a move considered unconstitutional. In the absence of parliament, laws continued to be promulgated by the cabinet of ministers.

Ulmanis is often believed to have been a popular leader especially among farmers and ethnic Latvians. This is debatable. Before his 1934 coup, his party gained only 12.2% of the popular vote in the Latvian parliamentary election, 1931, continuing a steady decline from the 1922 Constitutional convention, and an all-time low. From the time of his coup until his demise, for obvious reasons, no reliable voting or popularity statistics were available.

During his leadership Latvia recorded major economic achievements. 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. State interference in the economy was second only to the Soviet Union.[citation needed] 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 suffering, 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.

Ulmanis was a Latvian nationalist, who espoused the slogan "Latvia for Latvians". Officially, he held that every ethnic community in Latvia should develop its own authentic national culture, instead of assimilating.[vague] In practice however, 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".[2] According to some estimates, about 90% of the banks and credit establishments in Latvia were in Latvian hands 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.[2]

As a result, the economic share of minorities – Germans, Jews, Russians, Lithuanians – declined.

Similar Latvianisation policies were followed in the area of education. During Ulmanis' rule, education was strongly emphasized and literacy rates in Latvia reached high levels. Especially in eastern Latvia however, education was actively used as a tool of assimilation[3][4] of minorities.

It is important however that while an absolute ruler, Ulmanis did not allow any physical violence or unlawful acts towards minorities and dealt harshly with right- and left- wing extremists, and with both Nazi and Communist sympathisers.[5] Between 1920 and 1938, many Jews escaping Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, found refuge in Latvia.

Later life and death[edit]

In 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 1939, Ulmanis had to allow Soviet military bases in Latvia, and in June 1940, Latvia was completely occupied by the Soviet Union. Ulmanis ordered Latvians to show no resistance to the Soviet Army, saying in his radio speech "I will remain in my place and you remain in your places".

On July 21, 1940 Ulmanis was forced to resign and asked the Soviet government for a pension and to allow him to emigrate to Switzerland. Instead, he ended up in Stavropol in the present Russia, where he worked in his original profession for a year. In July 1941, he was imprisoned. 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. Ulmanis had no wife or children, as he used to say that he was married to Latvia.

Later assessments[edit]

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 the Latvian worker.[6] Ulmanis, in fact, had outlawed the fascist party and imprisoned its leader, Gustavs Celmiņš.

Amongst the postwar Latvian émigrés 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 characterised 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.[7]

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 recent years, a monument of Ulmanis was also unveiled in a park in the city centre.

Ulmanis is depicted in a very positive light in the 2007 Latvian film Rigas Sargi (Defenders of Riga), although this film is based on the defence of Riga against Russo-German forces in 1919.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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. 
  2. ^ a b The Jews of Latvia
  3. ^ Horváth, István (2003). Minority politics within the Europe of regions. Bucharest: Editura ISPMN. ISBN 9789731970837. 
  4. ^ Purs, Aldis (2002). "The Price of Free Lunches: Making the Frontier Latvian in the Interwar Years" (PDF). The Global Review of Ethnopolitics. 
  5. ^ Centropa
  6. ^ Concise Latvian SSR Encyclopedia
  7. ^ LETA (15 May 2009). "Aprit 75 gadi kopš Kārļa Ulmaņa rīkotā valsts apvērsuma Latvijā" (in Latvian). Diena. Retrieved 15 May 2009. 
  8. ^ Video on YouTube

External links[edit]


1Anatolijs Gorbunovs assumed presidential duties upon the restoration of Latvian independence in 1990.

Political offices
Preceded by
Position created
Prime Minister of Latvia
Succeeded by
Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics
Preceded by
Hugo Celmiņš
Prime Minister of Latvia
Succeeded by
Arturs Alberings
Preceded by
Alberts Kviesis
President of Latvia
Succeeded by
Augusts Kirhenšteins