Date of Award

8-2014

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Major

History

Major Professor

Vejas Liulevicius

Committee Members

Denise Phillips, Monica Black, Margaret Andersen, Tore Olsson, Daniel Magilow

Abstract

“The Dictator without a Uniform: Kārlis Ulmanis, Agrarian Nationalism, Transnational Fascism, and Interwar Latvia” tells for the first time the fascinating backstory of Latvia’s period of authoritarian rule (1934-1940) under Kārlis Ulmanis. The son of a former serf in the Russian Empire, Ulmanis rose to national prominence as an agronomist before becoming in 1918 the prime minister of the new Latvian republic. However, despite his earlier commitment to democracy, on May 15, 1934, Ulmanis led a coup d’état, proclaiming himself the Vadonis (Leader) of Latvia.

Based on previously unexamined archival materials in Nebraska and Latvia, this dissertation illustrates how many of Ulmanis’s programs and much of his legitimizing rhetoric were rooted in his experiences as a student in Switzerland and Germany and as a post-1905 Revolution political émigré in the American Midwest. Pointing to his earlier agricultural training and experiences abroad, this work highlights how Ulmanis used prairie populism-style agrarian nationalism, a Latvian adaption of American 4-H known as Mazpulki, a focus on modern agricultural science, and grand agricultural festivals and farming exhibitions to cultivate his image as the authoritarian and progress-bearing Vadonis (Leader) and Saimnieks (Husbandman) of Latvia. Thus, by contextualizing Ulmanis’s rhetoric and policies within a larger transnational and transatlantic narrative, this dissertation argues that rural/agricultural crises in the first decades of the twentieth century and the diffusion of ideas and models of agricultural modernization played a heretofore unrecognized yet substantial role in the sudden rise of authoritarian and fascist regimes during the interwar period, as the case of Latvia attests.

Finally, based on new archival discoveries, this dissertation contends that notwithstanding Ulmanis’s frequent celebration of his American ties, and despite the fact that previous historiography has labeled him as a conservative authoritarian leader, Ulmanis ultimately saw himself as belonging to the group of interwar fascist leaders in Europe. As a result, this work calls for a reexamination of interwar fascism, arguing that it should not be understood as a static, invariable ideology with a checklist of characteristics, but rather as a syncretic, transnational movement that was adapted at the national level to meet distinct socio-cultural conditions.

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