Hough, William J.H., III."The Annexation of the Baltic States and Its Effect on the Development of Law Prohibiting Forcible Seizure of Territory," New York Law School Journal of International and Comparative Law, 6, No. 2, Winter 1985, 301-33.
BALTIC STATES AND THE LEAGUE OF NATIONS 1940 — 1946: A TEST CASE FOR BRITISH DIPLOMACY
This article aims to point the special nature of Baltic issue in the international context of the World War II as far as the war and its outcomes in Europe can not be considered simply as a major conflict between Germany and its adversaries. It is equally true that Soviet penetration to Eastern Europe and Baltic states created a political, ideological and even economic problem which is still, after 56 years, strongly influencing the relations between Russia and the West. Therefore the research of the World War II should address both the nature and different aspects of the German aggression and the Allied, including Soviet, victory.
Article focuses on British politics toward the Baltic issue in the League of Nations. This is partly because of the nature of the sources used, partly because of the 'special relationship' that existed between the British Foreign Office and the League of Nations Secretariate during the considered period. In the course of the World War II and its immediate aftermath the Western European states generally accommodated themselves with the view that the disappearance of the Baltic states from the European political map was an acceptable event. The 'entente of reason' that came into existence in British-Soviet relations in 1941 due to the common German threat rapidly developed into a British foreign policy that continued the pre-war line of 'sympathy but no interference in the Baltics' that generally met the Soviet expectations.
The fact is that British diplomacy in Switzerland effectively blocked the attempts of the Baltic diplomats in exile to use the League of Nations as a forum for presenting demands for restoration of the independence of their countries. However, for the Baltic diplomats in exile the activities in the League of Nations before its dissolvement was the first experience in utilizing international organisations for their political goals.
Article is based on the source material from Public Record Office in London (PRO), League of Nations Archives in Geneva (LNA), Archives of Finnish Foreign Office in Helsinki (UM) and the Baltic Collection of the Swedish State Archives in Stockholm (RA).
Recovery Time 1940-1943
Occupied but still members. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined the League of Nations in 1921. Baltic states followed closely the activities of the world organisation although it did not become a guarantor of collective security and failed to grow into the center of political decision making in Europe. Latvia held the non-permanent seat of the League of Nations Council 1936-1939. When the Soviet Union was expelled from the League of Nations in December 1939 due to its attack on Finland the Baltic states abstained from voting. Although being occupied by the Soviet Union in June 1940 Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania nevertheless remained to be members of the League of Nations. This membership lasted until 1946 when the first world organisation dissolved itself.
Neither Estonia, Latvia nor Lithuania presented any applications to the League of Nations about their withdrawal from the organization's membership. The League of Nations membership lists from the years 1940-1946 confirming the Baltic States' ongoing member status in the League of Nations exist in the Public record Office among the materials of the Foreign Office1.
Since 1940 the Western Powers refused to recognize de jure the Baltic States as a part of the Soviet Union. This kind of policy was grounded on the doctrine worded in 1932 by State Secretary of the USA, Henry Stimson, according to which the USA did not recognize the lawfulness of territorial changes made by force and contrary to the will of a local nation. The doctrine-based political influence on the other Western Powers was rather diverse, on which depended also the destiny of the Baltic States legations after the year 1940.
The best status for the legations of the Baltic States was in the USA where they enjoyed continuously de jure recognition. In Great Britain the Baltic legations had also diplomatic status but on the insistence of the English they were forced to act reservedly. The Baltic legations in Switzerland held a so-called de facto ad hoc recognition. The members of the legations retained personal diplomatic status and they carried on rather energetic activity2.
In dealing with the present topic, it is of foremost importance to observe what kind of attitude was developing in the government of Great Britain towards the Baltic States as the League of Nations members after the occupation of 1940. Several reasons can be counted. First, the USA did not belong to the League of Nations where Great Britain constituted the leading power. For that reason the doctrine of Stimson could only indirectly influence the policy of the League of Nations regarding the occupied Baltic States.
Second, the British Foreign Office had a very big influence on Acting Secretary General of the League of Nations in 1940-1946, who was the Irish journalist and politician Sean Lester. The latter stayed in Geneva during the entire World War II, trying to keep the institutions of the League of Nations functioning despite the war situation.
S.Lester received main political information through the British Consulate in Geneva and the Bern Embassy. Through these legations ran also his correspondence with Alexander Loveday who resided in Princeton, USA. A close friend of S. Lester and former chairman of the Board of Finance of the League of Nations Secretariat directed in 1940 the League of Nations sub-establishments exiled from Geneva to Princeton University, being at the same time unofficially in the authority of Deputy Secretary General and a representative of the League of Nations in the USA.
Thus the influence of Great Britain on S. Lester was very big. Therefore one has to seek right in London the influences that brought Deputy General Secretary to the decision not to allow the representatives of the Baltic States to participate in the session of the Assembly on April 16, 1946, which terminated the activity of the League of Nations. Also during World War II S. Lester avoided official communication with the Baltic representatives in Geneva. He did not attend the receptions nor other events of these legations.
Despite the fact that the government of Great Britain was favourable to the independence of the Baltic States, it was agreed in the world war situation to recognize de facto the occupation of these countries in order to avoid conflict with the Soviet Union. Before signing the alliance pact between the Soviet Union and Great Britain against Germany on May 26, 1942, there was also a strong opinion in the British Foreign Office to recognize de jure the occupation of the Baltic States3.
What was Selter doing? Karl Selter, the last Estonian representative to the League of Nations (appointed in 1939), stayed in Geneva during World War II and carried on his activities there, bearing the title of a permanent representative of Estonia. Unfortunately the war made his communication with other Estonian exile-diplomats rather random. In September 1941 August Torma, Estonian pre-war ambassador in London, complained in his letter to August Rei, former Estonian ambassador in Moscow who managed to escape Sweden in 1940, he had tried to establish contacts with "the colleagues on the continent" through K.Selter but had received no answer from the latter4.
K.Selter however gave some sign of life of himself and sent a letter to ambassador Aleksander Warma in Helsinki. The letter surprised A. Warma since it showed K. Selter's extremely optimistic attitude to Germany's winning chances on the eastern front. In his reply letter of October 7, 1942 A.Warma expressed the thought that "in one of your latest letters one could feel certain political fatigue, not to apply the word defeatism"5. After this correspondence K.Selter practically disappeared from the horizon of the Estonians of Sweden and the USA. His last letters made the impression on the Estonians in Sweden that after Estonia's occupation by Germans traces of "certain political fatigue" could be noticed in K.Selter. Rumours were spread that K.Selter wished to move from Geneva to the USA 6.
Tapio Voionmaa, Finnish representative at the League of Nations affirmed in November 1943 that K.Selter had been entirely passive in political activity in Geneva. When Latvian and Lithuanian representatives organized receptions on the independence days of their states and introduced their homeland situation in the press of Switzerland, K.Selter did nothing of the kind7.
When the last Assembly of the League of Nations started to approach in 1946 with the plan to dissolve the organization, Estonian diplomats started again to seek contact with K.Selter. A.Torma succeeded in it but the steps taken by K.Selter at the Assembly did not satisfy him. In August 1946 he wrote the following words to A.Warma: "I cannot say anything about Selter. I think I have received three letters from him within five years. I have heard indirectly that he does not approve of my and Kaiv's (Estonian Consul General in New York, Johannes Kaiv — V.M.) political direction. I wrote to him at length before the League of Nations Assembly and asked him to take necessary steps. He did do something but unfortunately not as I had asked him. I wrote to Selter again and asked an exact copy of his presentation since Kaiv was going to need it, also the resolutions of the League of Nations Assembly. It is difficult for me to express any firm opinion in that kind of situation. May-be he has acted totally right and appropriately. I simply do not have an overview of his activities"8.
A.Torma's hesitations in the rationality of the steps taken by K.Selter could be justified. During the events of 1946 K. Selter was the least active of the three Baltic representatives.
The League of Nations Dissolves
The wish of the Baltic representatives to pay membership fee to the League of Nations. In making up the budget for the year 1941, the League of Nations Supervisory Commission9 put the Baltic States into the category of "Member States which are in a special position" 10.
The fact that the membership status of the Baltic States will sooner or later come up on the agenda became clear in the autumn of 1942. On September 23, 1942 S.Lester sent a letter to the British Foreign Ministry in which he announced that the Czechoslovakian exile-government located in London, which had been officially recognized both by Great Britain and several other countries, had paid a symbolic sum into the budget of the League of Nations for the years 1941 and 194211.
S.Lester stated that the receipt of these payments would on the one hand mean a recognition to the Czechoslovakian exile-government and on the other hand a precedent for the Baltic States. S. Lester was concerned at the fact that Julijs Feldmanis, permanent representative of Latvia at the League of Nations was still in Geneva and kept good touch with the Latvian diplomats who had stayed in London and Washington. In the opinion of S.Lester an unpleasant situation could occur if those representatives would make payments into the budget of the League of Nations "in political or propagandistic purposes".
In contemplating over S.Lester's letter and answering it, Great Britain formed its standpoint in the problems concerning the Baltic States and the League of Nations. Michael Williams, Second Secretary of the British Foreign Ministry who had got acquainted with S. Lester's letter as the first official of the British Foreign Service, wished that the League of Nations would take the main responsibility in solving the Baltic issue. According to his words, the Baltic States were still members of the League of Nations and thus it was only up to the League of Nations to decide whether to recognize Baltic diplomats as official representatives of their states or not. The other officials of the Foreign Ministry did not share M.Williams' favourable position regarding the Baltic States. In their opinion Great Britain had to exert all her influence on the League of Nations that it would not recognize the continuity of the Baltic States' independence.
In the reply sent to S.Lester, Great Britain expressed an approval that the Czechoslovakian exile-government had made payments into the budget of the League of Nations and asserted that London did not intend to make any hindrances to the League of Nations in receiving the money.
London's attitude to the Baltic States was reverse. Great Britain did not wish that Baltic diplomats would co-operate with the League of Nations in any way and S.Lester was suggested to find a suitable way how to ward off the Balts. The proposal of the Foreign Ministry sounded as follows: The initiatives of Baltic diplomats can always be repelled with the assertion that these people do not represent any legitimately recognized government12. London proceeded from the principle that the Soviet Union had eliminated the pre-war goverments from power and their members had either left their homeland, perished or were kept in the prison camps of the Soviet Union.
In November 1942 the Danish Council (Danish exile-organization that did not have Great Britain's official recognition) located in London announced that it was going to pay 18,605 Swiss gold francs into the treasury of the League of Nations. In the opinion of M.Williams the League of Nations could receive the money only in case it could refrain from recognizing officially the Danish organization. Based on his standpoint, S.Lester made a decision which due to its legal refinement requires a special attention. He determined that Albania, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania would indeed remain in the membership list of the League of Nations with the obligation to pay annual membership fee in the amount of one budget unit, but at the same time this money should not be included in the budget of the League of Nations. In this way there arose a possibility to pay the money being received from the Balts back to them13.
The prediction made by S.Lester in September 1942 was fulfilled in the February of 1943. By the example of the Czechoslovakian exile-government and the Danish Council, Latvians decided to pay a symbolic sum into the budget of the League of Nations. The money was planned to be sent from the Latvian Embassy in Washington. J.Feldmanis informed S.Lester of it, who in his turn asked advice from London14.
The reply that came from there was clear and unambiguous. Great Britain does not recognize the right of the Latvians of Washington to represent the Latvian government. Second Secretary of the British Foreign Ministry, F.Roberts telegraphed to Bern: "From the standpoint of the League of Nations, the receipt of financial support from independence movements that are not recognized in government status can be connected with some obstacles, since it can create a rather unpleasant situation!" F.Roberts directed S.Lester's attention also to the fact that though Baltic diplomats had individual diplomatic status in London, they were not considered as representatives of their governments15.
At the same time Danish and Baltic representatives turned to the Norwegian Carl Hambro, Chairman of the League of Nations Supervisory Commission located in Washington, with the request to make payments into the treasury of the League of Nations16. Having heard about the appeal of Danes and Balts, S.Lester prohibited the Supervisory Commission to receive any payment from Baltic representatives 17.
The real reason for the London opposition became obvious in June 1943, when the Supervisory Commission met in Washington to discuss the Baltic issue. The payments made by the Balts into the treasury of the League of Nations were not so much a legal than a political problem. Great Britain was concerned that the activeness of Balts in the League of Nations and a possible recognition received from that organization would irritate the Soviet Union18.
Even if the payments to the League of Nations would have come from Baltic diplomats as private persons and not as official representatives of their states, London was still afraid of Moscow's resentment. "This will only intensify the unpleasant political situation and will surely bring along a conflict with the Soviet government," was the anxiety of Edward Halifax, Ambassador of Great Britain in the USA. The League of Nations was advised to ward off the financial offers of the Baltic representatives19.
Clifford Norton, ambassador of Great Britain in Bern specified the London standpoint to C. Hambro. According to C. Norton, the Supervisory Commission was not competent to receive payments from the Baltic representatives since it would have meant an indirect recognition of the Baltic States. The opinion of the ambassador was that only the League of Nations Assembly could determine whether to receive such kind of payments or not20. The British Foreign Ministry instructed S.Lester that all the payments coming from the representatives of the Baltic States should be paid back, without counting them into the budget of the League of Nations 21.
On May 27, 1943 Latvian representative in Washington, Alfreds Bilmanis, transferred 21,644 dollars to the League of Nations account in Bankers' Trust Company (BTC)22. On June 9 the Supervisory Commission decided to pay the amount back to A. Bilmanis. A special account was opened in BTC, the League of Nations contributions suspense account and it was announced to A. Bilmanis that he could get his money back from there any time. At the same time the League of Nations Secretariat affirmed that this decision did not affect in any way the League of Nations attitude to Latvia's national status nor Latvia's belonging to the League of Nations membership list 23.
Lithuania made a payment on June 28 (P.Zadeikis, Lithuanian Ambassador in Washington paid 20,000 dollars) and Estonia on August 4 (J.Kaiv, Estonian Consul General in New York paid 15,574 dollars). As in the case of Latvia, these sums were also sent back to the payers24. The last repayment was made in April, 1946 25.
League of Nations last Assembly. In the April of 1945 the United Nations Organization was founded in the San Francisco Conference. The Western Powers were in the position that the League of Nations could not exist any longer alongside with the new world organization and on April 8 — 16, 1946 the last 21st League of Nations Assembly took place in Geneva, with the decision of which the League of Nations was dissolved. Representatives of the Baltic States were not allowed to participate in the Assembly.
For the first time S.Lester had a conversation concerning the participation of the Baltic representatives in the League of Nations Assembly in January 1945, when he met with A.Torma in London. The latter made known his wish to send a letter describing Estonian situation to the chairman of the Assembly. A.Torma intended to defend Estonia's rights to the proportional share of the League of Nations properties if these would be distributed among the membership states at the dissolution of the organization. S. Lester persuaded A.Torma not to make the Baltic issue in the League of Nations too burdensome for the governments of Great Britain and Switzerland and he adviced A.Torma to abandon the idea of sending the letter26.
On April 12, 1945 S.Lester sent a letter to the British Foreign Ministry where he directed attention to the problems connected with the Baltic States. "The Baltic States are in our membership list. [...] At the same time there is nobody to whom I could address the Assembly invitations that are meant for them. The Secretariat's practice during the last eight or ten years has been such that it recognizes a new regime only if the majority of the League of Nations members have done so. [...] The representatives of the former Baltic States governments are currently recognized in ambassador status probably by two states only." In their reply the authorities of Great Britain were in the position that Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian diplomatic representatives accredited to Switzerland before World War II could not be recognized, despite the semiofficial status extended to them by Switzerland. It was affirmed apropos that the League of Nations official documents, e.g. circular letters, would not be sent to the Baltic representatives any more. The Baltic diplomats residing in London were listed as persons who "do not belong to the list of embassies and legations any more but in whose case the government of Great Britain recognizes their personal diplomatic status as before."27
Great Britain was also in a negative position as to sending the representatives of Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian Soviet governments to the Assembly, since only the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic got the right in the San Francisco Conference to be members of the United Nations. It was apropos discussed in London whether to join the Baltic delegations with the delegation of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic in the United Nations. Thus the British Foreign Ministry was against inviting the Baltic States to the Assembly and ordered the delegation of Great Britain to support Lester if the issue of the absence of the Baltic representatives should come up in the Assembly28.
The Lithuanian representative in Rome and Prime Minister of the Lithuanian exile-government, Stasys Lozoraitis (also the oldest of the Baltic exile-diplomats of that time) turned to S. Lester in a memorandum on March 21, 1946 in which he explained the situation in the Baltic States after the year 1940 and insisted on the right to participate in the session of the Assembly. He referred to the decree given by Lithuanian President, Antanas Smetona, on the Lithuanian-German border in Kybartai on June 15, 1940 before the latter escaped from Lithuania. In the decree S.Lozoraitis was nominated for the leader of the Lithuanian exile-government after the death of the president (A.Smetona perished in a fire under obscure circumstances on January 9, 1944 in the USA). S.Lozoraitis' address to S.Lester remained without reply. Deputy General Secretary proceeded from the fact that the Baltic States must not be allowed to the League of Nations Assembly since it would irritate the Soviet Union29.
On March 28, 1946 the Supervisory Commission in Geneva discussed the issue of the Baltic States and their payments. S.Lester, The League of Nations treasurer Seymour Jacklin, the Supervisory Commission Chairman C.Hambro and Vice-Chairman Cecil Kisch participated in the discussion. It was decided that the diplomats of the Baltic States could not be recognized as official representatives of their states in the League of Nations.
According to C.Hambro, the parliaments of the three states had voted for their states' incorporation into the Soviet Union. Whether this kind of voting took place under outward pressure, would be difficult to settle. Also the fact that the continuity of the Baltic States' independence was recognized by the USA was not considered in the Supervisory Commission to be a sufficient argument for allowing the Baltic diplomats to the Assembly. According to C.Hambro, the State Department of the USA did not treat the Baltic diplomats on the equal basis with other countries, either. They were not invited to the official receptions of the White House and neither did US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt invite them to sign the United Nations Declaration in 1942.
The Supervisory Commission decided that membership fee would not be accepted from the Baltic States but the sums that were left unpaid by them during the war would be deducted from the League of Nations properties that should have proportionally belonged to the Baltic States30.
Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian representatives in Geneva who had also been accredited to the League of Nations by their governments in 1939 — Karl Selter, Julijs Feldmanis and Eduardas Turauskas respectively — turned to S. Lester on March 29, 1946 and presented to the latter their memoranda in regard to the approaching Assembly. It was recognized in the memoranda that the Baltic States were occupied in 1940 by the Soviet Union, as a result of which the Baltic governments could not function nor give their representatives necessary authorization for participating in the Assembly. In spite of it the Baltic diplomats demanded that the League of Nations would honour the right of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to participate in the Assembly.
S.Lester announced that he would treat the Baltic representatives' visit to himself merely as a private visit and would not recognize K.Selter, J.Feldmanis and E.Turauskas as official representatives. S.Lester said that he could only inform the chairman of the Assembly of their visit and neither would he guarantee the right of participation. After the conversation the Balts agreed that their visit to S.Lester was a private one and promised not to inform the press of it31.
On the 3rd of April Latvian representative J.Feldmanis went to Gerald Abraham, Chairman of the Accreditation Commission of the League of Nations Secretariat with the demand that he and other Baltic representatives would be allowed to the Assembly in the status of authorized representatives. J. Feldmanis also pointed to the validity of the accreditation received from the Secretariat in 1939. He indicated that the 20th Assembly had not been declared to have terminated in 1939, as a result of which before the 21st Assembly could start its activity, the former Assembly should be declared to be terminated. As long as his authority was in force in the 20th Assembly, J.Feldmanis as Latvian official representative wished to be in the council chamber.
G.Abraham turned down the demands of J.Feldmanis, affirming that the termination of the previous Assembly would take only a couple of minutes and the accreditations given out in 1939 had to be renewed for the beginning Assembly at the request of the Latvian government. But as there existed no internationally-recognized Latvian government, according to the words of G.Abraham, he offered J.Feldmanis a possibility to follow the session of the Assembly in the lodge of diplomats. J. Feldmanis who was very irritated, according to the words of G.Abraham, refused to go anywhere else but the council chamber and said in departing that he considered S.Lester's standpoint as an offence from the Secretariat32.
As asserted by T.Voionmaa, J.Feldmanis got also support from E. Turauskas, whereas K.Selter had not stayed in Geneva at all during the whole Assembly33.
Later J.Feldmanis presented to S.Lester the authorization that he had received from Karlis Zarins, Latvian Ambassador in London who in his turn referred to the special authorization given to him by the Latvian government on May 17, 194034. The Secretariat did not recognize the authorization.
In the February of 1946 people's commissars of the Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union occupation governments from Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republics turned to the Secretariat, requesting in their memoranda that the United Nations Commission that was created for the League of Nations' dissolution and the distribution of its property would hand over to the Soviet Union the share of the League of Nations property that belonged to the Baltic States. All the three telegrams had identical text and were written in the Russian language. G.Jebb in London, Deputy Chairman of the United Nations Main Assembly, was designated as the addressee35. London was also against such distribution of property. In the opinion of Great Britain the Soviet Union had no right to the share of the Baltic States property since it had been expelled from the League of Nations before the Baltic States were incorporated into it. Great Britain suggested to the League of Nations to subtract the unpaid membership fees of the war time from the share belonging to the Baltic States and put the rest of the money into some Swiss bank. The delegation of Great Britain who came to the Assembly received instruction according to which it had to oppose possible property demands of the Soviet Union since the World Powers had not generally recognized the Baltic States' incorporation into the Soviet Union. But at the same time Great Britain did not rule out the option that the Soviet Union could become the owner of the League of Nations properties that belonged to the Baltic States if it was decided so by the majority of the League of Nations members who were represented at the Assembly 36. However, in the 21st of Assembly the issues of the Baltic States membership status and their properties did not come up 37.
The distribution of the properties that were left over from the League of Nations took place according to the decision of the League of Nations Board of Liquidation of April 18, 1946. By June 30, 1947 the Baltic States had made payments to the League of Nations in the following amount (in Swiss gold francs): Estonia 1,497,010.29; Latvia 1,587,904.55; Lithuania 1,871,967.93.
The share of the League of Nations properties for these states: Estonia — 240,976.31 francs, 0,391109%; Latvia — 255,607.68 francs, 0,414856%; Lithuania — 301,333.60 francs, 0,489070%. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were withdrawn from among the states who got their shares from the League of Nations properties, with the reasoning that their payments had remained unpaid in full amount when the account was closed. Albania, Bulgaria, Ethiopia and Liberia were treated in the same way38.
The efforts of the Baltic States to apply their formal membership status in the League of Nations after the occupation of 1940 was one part of the fight of the Baltic exile-diplomats for retaining the continuity of Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian independence. Great Britain's policy in communication with the Soviet Union became the biggest obstacle for the Baltic efforts. London did not want to irritate Moscow with raising the Baltic issue clearly and sharply, as it would have been the case with the recognition of the rights of the Baltic representatives in the League of Nations and their invitation to the last Assembly in 1946. Moreover, an expectation prevailed among the members of the League of Nations about bringing the Soviet Union back into the League of Nations, forgiving (more exactly "forgetting") its aggression against Finland in 1939. The hopes were the same and similarly ungrounded as in the case of Japan, Germany and Italy earlier.
In such international atmosphere it was very difficult for the Baltic representatives to explain and carry out their standpoints but they tried it still and in that way achieved international attention to their cause. The Baltic issue was discussed both by the structures of the League of Nations and the structures of the United Nations to be established, also by the British Foreign Office.
Persistent steps under difficult circumstances, as during the years 1940 — 1946, led finally to Estonia's, Latvia's and Lithuania's admission into the United Nations membership in 1991.