Gustavs Zemgals

The President of Latvia, 1927-1930




Gustavs Zemgals was born on 12 August 1871 in Džūkste small rural district. He studied at the Nickolas Grammar School in Riga; he graduated from the Faculty of Law of Moscow University in 1899.


After the graduation, he worked in Riga as attorney at law. In 1901, he was elected as Chairman of Latvian workers and craftsmen association “Jonatans” in Riga. He also actively worked in the associations of Latvian craftsmen assistance society and the performing art society “Jaunais teātris” (New Theatre). In 1905, he was the editor in chief of the newspaper “Jaunā Dienas Lapa” (New Daily Page). He took part in the foundation of the Latvian Democratic Party.


From 1919 to 1927, he performed the duties of Riga City Mayor. From 1918 to 1919, he was Vice-President of the Peoples’ Council. On 18 November 1918, he chaired the Latvia independence declaration solemn act at the National Theatre. From 1921 to 1923, he was a Member of the Latvian Parliament (Saeima). From 10 June 1921 to 26 January 1923, he was the Minister of Defence. On 16 November 1926, G.Zemgals was awarded the Order of Three Stars, class III.


From 8 April 1927 to 9 April 1930, he was the President of Latvia. On 9 November 1929, he received the Three Stars Order, class I. From 1931 to 1934, he was a Member of the Saeima. From 1931 to 1932, he was the Minister of Finance.


In 1933, he was elected as President of the Unijas Baltic cooperation union. He died on 6 January 1939 and was buried at Meža Cemetery in Riga.* Within a period of presidency, G.Zemgals had never convened a meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers in his chair and he sent a bill to the Saeima for reconsideration only once; moreover, not because of the content but rather than because of legal reasons. 



The inhabitant of Zemgale Gustavs Zemgals was born on 12 August 1871 in Džūkste small rural district. His father Jānis was a craftsman. He got the initial education in Riga, at the Nickolas Grammar School; he received further education at the Moscow University and he graduated from the Faculty of Law in 1899. Within a period of studies, he belonged to a small group, which then clustered around the liberal and social newspaper “Dienas Lapa”. After the graduation he returned to Riga, where he began working as attorney at law and took an active part in a small Latvian progressive public organization of the day – Latvian Craftsmen and Workers Association “Jonatāns”, “Ziemelis”, “Torņkalns”, Latvian craftsmen assistance society and the performing art society “Jaunais teātris” (New Theatre). 


In the beginning of the Russian-Japan war in 1904, Zemgals was mobilized and was sent as lieutenant of the reserve to the front in the Far East, where he spent a year and a half. After the demobilization at the end of 1905, Gustavs Zemgals returned to Riga, which had been pulled already into the 1905 revolution. Zemgals took part in the issue of a new, moderately liberal, and socialist newspaper “Jaunā Dienas Lapa” (“New Daily Page”) and became the managing editor of the newspaper. Jointly with Arvīds Bergs, Augusts Deglavs and a number of other political figures, he established a new political party, the Latvian Democratic Party. An active social democrat – attorney Ansis Bušēvics helped in the development of the Articles of Association and programme thereof. From 1912 to 1915, Zemgals worked at the editorial staff of “Domas” (“Thought”), the democratic citizenship monthly magazine of literature, science, and social life, officially holding the office of editor-in-chief, although literary critic Ērmanis Pīpiņš was the actual editor.


In the beginning of World War I, Zemgals retained in Riga. On 6 March 1917, the Riga City Mayor, a conservative political official Andrejs Krastkalns took the post of the Governor of Vidzeme province. On 23 April 1917, Gustavs Zemgals was designated as the Mayor of Riga City. Zemgals also was the Deputy Governor of Vidzeme province within a short term. Despite of the revolution intensity, the Temporary Riga City Council elected Zemgals as the Mayor of the city once again in the fall of 1917. During this time, Zemgals carried out activities at the Latvian radical-democratic party, where Dr. Kārlis Kasparsons, councillor Jānis Zālītis, Dāvis Rudzītis and others also took an active part.


During a period of the German occupation, Zemgals remained in Riga and operated at the Latvian democratic block. There were 8 Latvian political parties and Latgale representative, which established the Latvian People’s Council at 10 p.m. on 17 November 1918 at the Riga Latvian Craftsmen Society premises, with Marģers Skujenieks being in the chair, which proclaimed the Latvian Republic to be independent the next day.


Gustavs Zemgals as the second member of the Chairman of the People’s Council was the person in the absence of the Chairman Čakste, who had the honour to open officially the act of proclamation of independence of the Latvian State at 4.30 p.m. on 18 November 1918 at the premises of the National theatre. On 3 December 1918, he was elected as Chairman of the Riga City Council. 


When the Bolsheviks were gaining power and approaching, the People’s Council authorized Čakste and Zemgals to go abroad to defend the interests of Latvia.  In the beginning of 1919, Zemgals returned to the Provisional Government quarters of those times in Liepaja. On 16 April, Zemgals opened the meeting of the Latvian People’s Council. After the Germans arrested a part of the members of the Latvian Government and the rest were under the English watch on the steamboat “Saratov”, the People’s Council formally was about to take over anew the political power on 13 May 1919 under the leadership of Zemgals, but Zemgals was taken into custody together with Erasts Bite, Ansis Bušēvics, Fricis Menders and Roberts Kroders by 1st German guards reserve component division commander Gen. Tīde incriminating them the kidnapping of the Prime Minister Andrievs Niedra appointed by Germans.



Upon the return of the Provisional Government in Riga on 8 July 1919, Zemgals was again appointed as the Riga City Mayor and was elected as Vice-president of the People’s Council. In 1920, he was elected as a Member of the Constitutional Assembly from Zemgale, but he resigned in order to practice law. He was elected as the Chairman of the Council of Sworn Advocates (Council of Attorneys-at-law). He also was the Chairman of the Latvian Craftsmen Building Society for 32 years.


On 15 June 1921, the Cabinet of Latvian agricultural policy founder and Prime Minister Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics started its work. Zemgals had to perform the duties the Minister of Defence at the Cabinet until 23 January 1923. Afterwards Zemgals returned to the private life operating as notary in Riga, although not to the full extent. He was elected to the first Saeima Democratic Centre and to the non-party public official’s fraction, where he was a member of the party to replace Jānis Čakste, when he was elected as the President of Latvia. 


President of Latvia Jānis Čakste died, who had been able to unite the various political deviations around him and there was not much statesmen of his kind at the political stage during a period of Marģers Skujenieks’ left government. Having examined various political figures, Minister for Foreign Affairs Fēlikss Cielēns at that time decided to put forward democratic Zemgals as the candidate. Zemgals gave the answer of consent only after several days of hesitation. On 8 April 1927, the Saeima elected Gustavs Zemgals as the President of Latvia after the recurrent voting with 73 against 23 votes.  


Gustavs Zemgals became the President of Latvia at the age of 56. Not being a representative of the major political parties, he as the head of the State managed to unite the different groups and the minority interests as well. In his policy, Zemgals followed the traditions established by his predecessor, although not so convincing and subtle as Jānis Čakste. However, he coped well with the national representation obligations. Having grown in difficult conditions, Gustavs Zemgals was actually a hard-working, shy and simple in his life style, his open dislike of the protocol was well-known probably troubled with weak knowledge of French. He deemed the involvement of all public layers in the state democratic agencies and the enhancement of the national prestige as one of the most important duties of a president. 


During a period of Gustavs Zemgals’ presidency, he paid the Latvian state visit to Sweden, which meant full recognition of the neighbouring state for Latvia and inclusion in the Northern European family of democratic nations at that time indirectly. On 28 May 1929, Gustavs Zemgals paid the state visit to Stockholm. The return visit of the Swedish King Gustav V to Latvia took place on 29 June 1929. 


The term of powers of Zemgals as the President expired on 9 April 1930. He flatly refused to run for the high office once again. Within a period of his activities, he had never interfered with the legislative activities, neither proposed any bill, nor convened any meeting of the Cabinet and he sent back a bill to the Saeima for revision only once; moreover, not because of the content but rather for legal reasons. 


Having left the post of the President of Latvia, Zemgals’ political activities continued at IV Saeima, where he was elected as the representative of the Democratic centre and the non-party public officials’ fraction. The parliamentarians elected Zemgals to be a member of the Foreign Affairs, Finance, Commerce, and Industry Committee. Gustavs Zemgals was invited to become the Minister of Finance on 11 December 1931, but he soon resigned by the reason of discrepancies on the budget and other financial issues with other members of the Cabinet and the parliamentary committee, continuing the activities as the rank and file MP. During the following two years, he reported for and on behalf of the committee for 17 times, covering the foreign policy issues mostly. Zemgals greatly contributed to the process of convergence of the Baltic nations, including the Scandinavian states. In 1933, he was elected as the President of Baltic Union. Throughout the life, he remained the convinced democrat; still he was in the opposition at the end of Ulmanis’ authoritarian regime period. 


Gustavs Zemgals died at the age of 65 in still free Latvia on 6 January 1939 and was buried at Meža Cemetery.