The Republic of Estonia was declared independent on 24 February 1918. This was followed by the Estonian War of Independence, which was concluded by signing a peace treaty between the Republic of Estonia and Soviet Russia on 2 February 1920. Several decades later, on 17 June 1940, the Soviet Union occupied Estonia. This was possible due to a secret protocol included in the contract (the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact) that was signed between Hitler and Stalin on 23 August 1939. With this secret protocol, Finland, Estonia and other Baltic States were assigned to the Soviet sphere of interest. On 21 June 1940, emissary Andrei Zhdanov, who had just arrived to Tallinn from Moscow, gave directions to establish a new government with a left-wing poet and Doctor Johannes Vares-Barbarus acting as its Chairman. This new government took orders straight from Moscow. On 5 June, the Parliament was dissolved and new elections called. All opposing candidates to those set up by occupying authorities (the so-called candidates of the working people) were removed from electoral lists. This illegitimate State Council declared the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic on 21 July and asked for it to be incorporated into the Soviet Union, which was carried out on 6 August 1940.
The Swedish government, unlike most other western countries, recognized the annexation of Estonia by the Soviet Union and the Estonian Embassy in Stockholm had to suspend its activities as of 16 August 1940. Before this happened, the Ambassador Heinrich Laretei had voiced his protest against the occupation and annexation of Estonia to the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Furthermore, he refused to hand the embassy over to Soviet diplomats and gave the keys of the embassy to a representative of the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs instead. However, Laretei and other diplomats remained in Sweden. On 2 September 1940, Heinrich Laretei, Aleksander Warma (previously the Estonian Ambassador in Helsinki) and August Rei (previously the Estonian Ambassador in Moscow) formed an External Delegation in Stockholm, the aim of which was to keep Western countries from recognizing the occupation and incorporation of the Republic of Estonia into the Soviet Union.
Soviet authorities arrested most of the political elite in the occupied Estonia; some were shot, others sent to Siberia where they died in prison camps. President Konstantin Päts was also deported to Russia, where he was imprisoned until his death on 18 January 1956. Out of all the presidents who were in office during the 20 years of Estonian independence, 4 were executed by occupying authorities, 5 died in imprisonment, 1 had been sentenced to death beforehand, 1 committed suicide and only one managed to escape to Sweden.
When Germany occupied Estonia in the summer of 1941, during the II World War, Hitler’s Nazi State refused to acknowledge Estonia’s independence. Jüri Uluots, the Prime Minister of the last legitimate government of the Republic of Estonia, had proposed the aforementioned. He had succeeded in going into hiding during the Soviet occupation and therefore escaped arrest. During the German occupation, Jüri Uluots began to work as the Prime Minister carrying out the duties of the President in accordance with Article 46 of the Constitution, since the current president was imprisoned by Soviet authorities and could subsequently not fulfil his duties. On 18 September 1944, right before the next Soviet occupation, he appointed a new Estonian government with the Prime Minister Otto Tief as its Head. Two of the ten appointed government officials – August Rei and Rudolf Penno – were residing in Sweden. Uluots, who was gravely ill, managed to escape to Sweden in a motorboat with his family and Johannes Klesment, the Minister of Law in Tief’s government, before Soviet troops reached Tallinn. However, Uluots died of liver cancer on 9 January 1945, in a Stockholm hospital. Those government members appointed by Uluots who stayed in Tallinn (Prime Minister Otto Tief among them) were caught by the Soviets and either executed or imprisoned for a long time.
During the war, particularly before the Soviet occupation in 1944, approximately 25,000 Estonians fled to Sweden. During the following years, Estonian refugees in Sweden came together in order to continue the activities they had been forced to suspend back in Estonia. After the death of Jüri Uluots, the Acting Prime Minister, Otto Tief, should have been appointed the Prime Minister fulfilling the duties of the President. However, just like president Päts, he was being held captive in Russia. According to Article 52 of the Constitution, the oldest member of the government was to be appointed into office in this case. This was August Rei, the previous Minister of Foreign Affairs. August Rei appointed new members into office, but tried to learn about the fate of Tief’s government members beforehand. Divisive political differences began to surface among the Estonian refugees in Sweden. After several failed negotiations with opponents, August Rei decided to appoint into office a new, legally competent government in order to solve this political crisis. As political activity by refugees was banned in Sweden, the new government was appointed into office in Oslo. This took place on 12 January 1953, in a mission hotel Ansgar (Ansgar Misjonhotell), which was located at Møllergata 26; the building that currently houses Comfort Xpress Hotel. The inauguration location gave the government-in-exile its other name – the Oslo government.
The Prime Minister fulfilling the duties of the President, August Rei, appointed into office a five-member government in Oslo, where each minister filled two posts:
Johannes Sikkar – Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Internal Affairs;
Gustav Suits – Minister of Education and Acting Minister of Social Affairs;
Mihkel Truusööt – Minister of Economic Affairs and Acting Minister of Roads and Transportation;
Tõnis Kint – Minister of Agriculture and Acting Minister of War;
Aleksander Warma – Minister of Foreign Affairs and Acting Minister for Law and Justice.
After returning from Oslo, August Rei got an official warning from Swedish authorities. Members of the Estonian government-in-exile were allowed live in Sweden, but not operate as a government. Therefore, the government was not particularly active in its work.
August Rei died in 1963 and Aleksander Warma became his successor in the position of the Prime Minister fulfilling the duties of the President. He appointed a new eight-member government. Tõnis Kint became the next Prime Minister fulfilling the duties of the President after Warma’s death in 1970. In the early 1970s, the government-in-exile became more active in its work. New government officials were appointed, participation in anti-communist events that were organized by East European refugees continued, memoranda were drafted and sent to the governments of Western countries and international organizations. The activities that had waned in the late 1970s intensified again in the 1980s, especially during the decade’s second half when major changes emerged in the Estonian society and the process of re-independence started gaining momentum. In 1990, Tõnis Kint resigned due to old age and health reasons and was succeeded by the next Prime Minister fulfilling the duties of the President, Heinrich Mark, who then appointed another new government:
Enno Penno – Deputy Prime Minister;
Peeter Luksep – Minister for Finance;
Johan Ungerson – Minister for Education;
Aino Lepik von Wirén – Minister for Law and Justice;
Mihkel Mathiesen – Minister for Economic Affairs;
Helmut Talts – Minister for Agriculture;
Aksel Mark – Minister of Internal Affairs;
Ivar Paljak – Minister of Social Affairs;
Jüri Toomepuu – Minister of War;
Jaan Timusk – Minister of Roads and Transportation;
Olev Olesk – Minister of Foreign Affairs;
Arvo Horm – Minister without Portfolio;
Ants Pallop – Minister without Portfolio.
Katrin Nyman-Metcalf was appointed Secretary of State.
The independence of the Republic of Estonia was restored on 20 August 1991. A referendum was held that led to the adoption of a new Constitution, which was also acknowledged by the Estonian government-in-exile. The government-in-exile officially ceased its activities on 7 October 1992, after the legally elected Parliament had gathered for its first session in Toompea Castle, Tallinn. On 8 October, Heinrich Mark, the Prime Minister fulfilling the duties of the President of the Republic in Exile, handed his credentials over to Lennart Meri, who had been elected the President of the Republic in accordance with the new Constitution.
Although the Estonian government-in-exile (or the Oslo government) was not officially acknowledged by any countries and even those Estonian diplomatic representatives who continued to work in Western countries kept a clear distance, the government-in-exile proved to be an integral part of the continuity of the Republic of Estonia.
Many members of the government-in-exile and public officials who were appointed by the Prime Minister fulfilling the duties of the President, continued to (and some still do) actively participate in Estonian politics, national administration and public life, as well as in the activities of the Estonian community in Sweden.
Taking into consideration the significance of the Estonian government-in-exile, the Government Office of the Republic of Estonia, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Estonian Heritage Conservation Society, in cooperation with the Norwegian-Estonian Association (Norsk-estisk forening) and the Comfort Xpress Hotel, put 2 October 2015 a commemorative plaque on the Møllergata 26 building, where the Estonian government-in-exile was appointed into office on 12 January 1953.