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“Universal Means of Governance”: the State of National Emergency in the Republic of Estonia in 1938–1940

As we know, a nationwide or partial state of emergency was continuously in effect in Estonia since 1918, when it was vigorously applied solely against communists. In the summer of 1933, the government headed by Jaan Tõnisson imposed a temporary state of emergency in the city and county of Tartu in reference to the danger posed by the Estonian War of Independence veterans’ movement. This state of emergency was later extended to cover the entire country but it was implemented with moderation. The nationwide state of emergency was lifted in October of 1933 after the constitutional amendments initiated by the War of Independence veterans’ movement were approved by referendum and the Tõnisson government resigned.

Estonia’s Premier Konstantin Päts imposed a nationwide state of emergency once again after leading the coup d’état that began on 12 March 1934. This state of emergency remained in effect until the occupation and annexation of Estonia by the Soviet Union in 1940. In 1934, the extensive means of repression that proceeded from state of emergency legislation were implemented against all parties represented in parliament and members of the War of Independence veterans’ movement: this means that all political organisations were shut down and political meetings were prohibited, many members of the War of Independence veterans’ movement were arrested, and the press was subjected to governmental control.

On 11 April 1938, or just before the new 6th composition of the Riigikogu convened, Päts enacted a new State of Emergency Act as a decree in which the grounds for imposing a state of emergency were broadened compared to the legislation that had been in effect since 1930. According to the 1st section of the new legislation: “The aim of the state of emergency is to expedite the implementation of national defence and the defence of the country’s domestic security and public order”. All references to war or any other existential danger threatening Estonia’s system of government were removed from the legislation. Thus the imposition of a state of emergency was to a great extent made dependent upon the discretion of the president. In fact, the Ministry of Internal Affairs viewed the state of emergency primarily as a means for preserving domestic security and not for safeguarding national defence.

In 1938, the country’s leadership also described the state of emergency as a universal means of governance, which was not meant only for emergency situations. Yet at the end of 1938 and over the first half of 1939, abandoning the state of emergency was hinted at if the possibilities for safeguarding national security without the state of emergency could be updated. The defeat of the Political Association Bill and the State Security and Public Order Bill in the Riigivolikogu (lower chamber of the Estonian Parliament), however, sent a clear signal that governance by way of the state of emergency would continue. President Päts extended the state of emergency again for another year in September of 1939.

The country’s leadership presented two political arguments against terminating the state of emergency: one connected to domestic policy and the other to foreign policy. It was repeatedly noted as the argument regarding domestic policy that the implementation of the constitution that had taken effect on 1 January 1938 was still in progress. The people had not been “cured” yet, and the struggle in domestic politics that had preceded the coup of 1934 could conceivably resume. Regarding foreign policy, the tense international situation was referred to in 1938, and the outbreak of the Second World War was pointed to in 1939. Due to these factors, the leadership claimed that the government needed all possible means for safeguarding national security. It is questionable whether the implementation of the state of emergency as it was carried out in Estonia at the end of the 1930s actually helped to safeguard Estonia’s security.

The authoritarian regime established by the coup d’état in 1934, which depended on the state of emergency to remain in power, was relatively mild in the European context because neither the opposition nor the masses put up any particularly active resistance. Both the so-called democratic opposition and the “red” opposition (consisting of socialists) demanded the abolition of the state of emergency and the restoration of democratic freedom. Yet at least the democratic opposition in the Riigivolikogu did not deny the need to impose a nationwide state of emergency in 1934 in order to exclude the members of the War of Independence veterans’ movement from the political arena. Now their goal was limited to the restoration of the situation preceding the coup d’état. Yet in October of 1939, after the government cabinet headed by J. Uluots took office and relinquished the portfolio of Minister of Foreign Affairs to A. Piip, one of the leaders of the democratic opposition, the democratic opposition also stopped actively demanding an end to the state of emergency, and the government did not issue a single promise concerning lifting the state of emergency.

Immediately upon taking power, the subsequent government headed by Johannes Vares, which was appointed to office under pressure from the Soviet Union in the summer of 1940, also started using the opportunities provided by the state of emergency that was already in force — now, in turn, to fortify its own power and to repress its political opponents, including both the prominent representatives of the former regime and the democratic opposition. Not one piece of direct evidence has been found that would indicate that an end to the state of emergency and the restoration of democracy were being planned in Estonia prior to 1940. This is because the state of emergency was not the last life buoy for the regime headed by Konstantin Päts to save it from the existential dangers that threatened Estonian statehood, but rather a “universal means of governance” to safeguard the power of that group.