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The Era of Silence (Estonian: vaikiv ajastu) was the period between 1934 and 1938 or 1940 in Estonian history. The period began with the preemptive coup of 12 March 1934, which Prime Minister Konstantin Päts carried out to avert a feared takeover of the state apparatus by the Vaps Movement (League of Veterans). The term "Era of Silence" was introduced by Kaarel Eenpalu, Prime Minister in 1938–39 and a strong supporter of Päts, Estonia's President during that period.
In the charged atmosphere that pervaded Europe in 1934, when Adolf Hitler had become a widely admired populist model for authoritarian nationalists, the Estonian elites viewed the threat of takeover by similar groups such as the Vaps movement as credible and imminent. Päts, using the authority of the newly adopted Constitution of 1933, proclaimed martial law on March 12. He appointed his trusted colleague Johan Laidoner, hero of the War of Independence but an opponent of the Vaps' leadership, as commander of the armed forces.
Veterans' organisations were shut down, over 400 of the organisations' members were arrested, and all organised political activity in the country was outlawed. All Vaps members were also purged from local governments, the civil service, and the Defence League. These actions were immediately approved by the lame-duck parliament.
However, when Päts decreed postponement of the elections for both State Elder and Parliament, scheduled to be held in spring 1934 according to the new constitution, opposition arose in a special session convened by the existing parliament, since the constitution did not allow postponement of elections by decree. In response, he permanently postponed the session and ruled by decree until a new constitution could be drawn up and adopted. Thus, Päts' takeover of the government was a coup de facto but also de jure, since the entire process was illegal under the constitution in effect in 1934.
Other uses of term
The phrase "Era of Silence" describes the silencing of all opposition to Päts' governing circle. However, it also reflects an apparent "national conspiracy" to go along with the suppression of civil and political rights in the interests of "order" after a decade of political turmoil. His rule was not an unduly harsh one: nearly all of those jailed in 1934 were released in 1938, and none of the former heads of state (Ants Piip, Juhan Kukk, Jaan Teemant and Jaan Tõnisson) who issued the Four State Elders' Memorandum in a Finnish newspaper in October 1936, calling on Päts to immediately end the curtailment of civil and political rights and to reinstitute democratic government, were ever harassed by the government. When elections were held in 1938 under the new constitution of 1937, the opposition gathered more votes than the government, but only managed to secure 16 seats to the government's 64.
End of era
The era ended either with the elections of 1938, or with the Soviet occupation in 1940.