The Occupation of Latvia

Latvians in the Armed Forces of Germany in the Second World War

Latvia was an occupied country during Nazi German rule 1941–1945. There was no sovereign Latvian state authority at that time. The Directors of the so-called Self-Administration of the Land were subject to German civilian authorities in all matters of policy. Under the Hague Convention of 1907, Germans were not allowed to conscript the inhabitants of Latvia to serve in its military forces, but they circumvented the rule.

Background

A declared neutral country during the early phases of World War II, Latvia fell prey to the realpolitik of both Nazi Germany and Communist Soviet Union. They concluded a mutual Non-Aggression Treaty on 23 August 1939, known as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.  The Pact allowed Germany to invade Poland on 1 September 1939.  Among its secret provisions was the establishment of a Soviet Sphere of Influence in Eastern Europe, including Latvia.  It allowed the Soviet Union under various pretexts to invade Latvia on 17 June 1940 and annex the country on 5 August 1940.  The takeover was never recognized de jure by major Western powers.  Nazi Germany, in turn, never recognized Latvian sovereignty but treated Latvia as occupied Soviet territory.  The fate of Latvia and the reactions of its population must be viewed in the context of three successive foreign occupations and their cumulative destructive effect on the people: Soviet (1940–41), German (1941–44/45), Soviet (1944/45–91).

Early Volunteers, Auxiliary Police and Other Military Service

When the German Blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union started on 22 June 1941, the Nazis were hoping to win the war within a very short time on their own.  However, as the fighting became more and more difficult, German troops were illegally, under the guise of "volunteering", reinforced with inhabitants of the occupied countries, including Latvia.

Having experienced Soviet atrocities, which included mass arrests, deportations and executions, many Latvians at first viewed the new occupiers as liberators, and in the early days of the German occupation, some Latvians actually volunteered to fight the Communists. As early as 1942, however, "volunteering" became a cover for illegal conscription to avoid coming into direct conflict with the 1907 Hague Convention.  Conscription usually was carried out by using the cover of the Labour Service (Arbeitsdienst), which was established by German decree on 17 December 1941.

The first battalions, consisting of real volunteers, were formed for military duty in late 1941. The Germans did not consider them equal to their armed forces and called them "auxiliary police" (Schutzmannschaft).  Most of them, served as combat units, but some were used to carry out raids against Red guerrillas and to perform ghetto guard duties.  By 1944, the occupation power, with the collaboration of the Self-Administration, had formed a total of 33 auxiliary police battalions.

Many Latvians served in other capacities as well: in the paramilitary State Labour Service (Reichsarbeitsdienst), construction and other auxiliary services. Toward the end of the war, minors were recruited to serve as German Air Force auxiliaries (Luftwaffenhelfer).

The Latvian Legion

After the debacle at Stalingrad at the end of January 1943, Hitler announced "total war" and formed a number of foreign combat units under the aegis of Waffen SS.   On 10 February 1943 he ordered the formation of the "Latvian SS Volunteer Legion," "the size and kind of the unit to be determined by the number of Latvian men available."

Members of the Self-Administration saw in the Latvian Legion a chance for the formation of potentially autonomous military units that might become the core of a future independent Latvian army.  They submitted to the German authorities a set of preconditions, including a promise to restore the independence of Latvia. Despite a rejection, the Self-Administration proceeded with the mobilisation.

A propaganda campaign was unleashed shaming and condemning draft evaders and proclaiming that enlistment to fight Bolshevism was a Latvian patriotic duty.  Threats were made against draft evaders and their families. Actually, most men who were drafted were convinced that they were fighting to protect their homeland against the worst of their two historic enemies. Unlike those enlisting in German forces in countries where only Germany was the enemy, for Latvians the only alternatives to serving the Germans were potential enlistment into the army of the other enemy upon its return or joining the national partisans.  Some 60,000 were actually enlisted by the Red Army upon the return of Soviet occupation.

Despite its title, the Latvian Legion was neither real "SS" nor "volunteer". It had no connection with Hitler's purely Germanic elite guard unit, which the post-war International War Crimes Tribunal in Nuremberg declared, along with the SD (Sicherheitsdienst) and the Gestapo, to be a criminal organisation. The Nuremberg Tribunal recognised the Waffen SS to be military combat units. By 1943, threats and coercion had to be applied when it became clear that the numbers of draftees did not reach the "number of men available." It is estimated that only some 15% of the soldiers were true volunteers. Especially toward the end of the war, draft evasion and desertion became commonplace.

The Legion at first incorporated several auxiliary police battalions, eventually augmented by conscripts. Its core consisted of two divisions, the 15th and the 19th, but they did not fight as a unit, and their top commanders were Germans. Only unit commanders were Latvians. The highest Legion military post was that of the Inspector General, but it was not part of the German command structure and thus had only limited functions. General Rūdolfs Bangerskis was appointed to fill this post, and he was the only Latvian officer who was given an official SS rank, though it is clear that the Germans only intended this as a temporary measure for the duration of the war.

According to most recent calculations, approximately 115,000 inhabitants of Latvia served in various units and capacities in German military service in World War II.  Casualties were high, especially in latter stages of the war when ill-equipped and purely trained young conscripts were sent to the front.  Most legionnaires and other Latvian military units ended up fighting the Red Army on the eastern front in Poland and Germany in 1945.

At the time of Germany's capitulation, approximately 30,000 Latvian soldiers became prisoners of war of the Western Allies.  Documentation provided by Latvian organisations convinced the Allies that Latvian legionnaires had to be considered citizens of independent Latvia and illegally conscripted military personnel.  Therefore, despite Soviet protests, they were released and eventually allowed to emigrate to Great Britain, the USA and other Western countries.  Many served as labour and guard auxiliaries for the U.S. and British forces in Germany.   Legionnaires captured by the Soviets were sent to hard labour camps before their release and were discriminated against after their return to Latvia throughout Soviet rule.

Recent Accusations

"Latvians were willing collaborators of the Nazis".  This is an old Soviet accusation in the wake of World War II when the Soviet Union reoccupied Latvia.  Though there were Latvians who collaborated with the Nazi German rulers, most of the people were placing their hopes on the Western Allies and a fair post-war settlement that would restore Latvia's sovereignty. Historically, Latvians considered the Germans as their enemies, and only the brutal first Soviet occupation changed that view for a while.  For good reasons the Nazis distrusted the Latvians and eventually planned to colonise the country.

"Latvians are honouring the SS".  Latvians are honouring soldiers who fought against the Soviet Union in World War II.  Most of them were illegal recruits under German occupation.  Under occupation, they had no choice to serve in the armed forces of their own sovereign state. Members of the Latvian Legion, though carrying the German-imposed designation "SS", served as combat soldiers and did not engage in crimes against the humanity. There never was and could not be a Latvian branch of Hitler's criminal, Germans-only SS.  Crimes against the humanity on the German side, including crimes of the Holocaust, were carried out by Latvian auxiliaries of the Nazi SD (Sicherheitsdienst) and some auxiliary police units. Some of them later became legionnaires, but that does not make all legionnaires guilty by association.  Many of these individuals have been prosecuted and brought to justice. Many have died. The Latvian government condemns such crimes and will bring charges against surviving perpetrators.

Sources in English and German:

  • Baltais Mirdza Kate, ed. The Latvian Legion: Selected Documents. Toronto: Amber Printers and Publishers, 1999.
  • Ezergailis, Andrew, ed.  The Latvian Legion: Heroes, Nazis or Victims?  A collection of documents From OSS War-Crimes investigation files 1945-1950. Rīga: Institute of the History of Latvia, 1997.
  • Nazi/Soviet Disinformation about the Holocaust in Nazi-Occupied Latvia. Daugavas Vanagi:Who are They? Revisited. Rīga: OMF, 2005.
  • Kolmane, Ināra, dir.; Uldis Neiburgs, screenwriter.  The Latvian Legion.  Rīga: Film studio "DEVIŅI", 2000. [Latvian documentary film with English subtitles.]
  • Nollendorfs, Valters, ed.  Latvijas Okupācijas muzejs: Latvija zem Padomju Savienības un nacionālsociālistiskās Vācijas varas 1940–1991 Latvia under the Rule of the Soviet Union and National Socialist Germany. 2nd ed. Rīga: OMF, 2005. [A bilingual history of the occupation.]
  • Nollendorfs, Valters and Erwin Oberländer, eds. The Hidden and Forbidden History of Latvia under the Soviet and Nazi Occupations 1940–1991. Symposium of the Commission of the Historians of Latvia 14. Rīga: Institute of the History of Latvia, 2005.
  • Nollendorfs, Valters and Erwin Oberländer, eds. The Hidden and Forbidden History of Latvia under the Soviet and Nazi Occupations 1940–1991. Symposium of the Commission of the Historians of Latvia 14. Rīga: Institute of the History of Latvia, 2005.
  • Silgailis Arthur. Latvian Legion.  San Jose, Calif.: R.James Bender Publishing, 1986.
  • Stöber Hans. Die lettischen Divisionen im VI. SS-Armeekorps. Osnabrück: Munin-Verlag, 1981.

© Text: Valters Nollendorfs and Uldis Neiburgs, The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, www.occupationmuseum.lv, 2006
This fact sheet can be freely printed from homepage of the Latvian Institute, distributed and cited, on condition that the Latvian Institute and the Museum of Occupation of Latvia is acknowledged as the source. The Latvian Institute promotes knowledge about Latvia abroad. It produces publications, in several languages, on many aspects of Latvia.

Soviet Occupation and Annexation of Latvia 1939-1940

After a prolonged War of Independence, Latvia and Soviet Russia (the predecessor of the Soviet Union) signed a Peace Treaty on 11 August 1920. In its Article 2 Soviet Russia "unreservedly recognises the independence and sovereignty of the Latvian State and voluntarily and forever renounces all sovereign rights... to the Latvian people and territory."

Historical Background

Latvia declared its independence on 18 November 1918.  The independence of Latvia was recognised de jure by the Allied Supreme Council (France, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Belgium) on 23 January 1921. Other states followed suit. On 22 September 1921, Latvia was admitted to membership in the League of Nations.  Latvia remained a member until the formal dissolution of the League of Nations in 1946. On 5 February 1932, a Non-Aggression Treaty with the Soviet Union was signed, based on the 11 August 1920 treaty whose basic agreements "inalterably and for all time form the firm basis" of the relationship of the two states.  On 1 September 1939, Latvia declared its neutrality.

Latvia fell prey to the collaborative realpolitik of Nazi Germany and Communist Soviet Union.  They concluded a Non-Aggression Treaty on 23 August 1939, known as the Hitler-Stalin or, after the signatories, Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.  The Pact allowed Germany to invade Poland on 1 September 1939.  Among the provisions in a secret protocol attached to the Treaty was the establishment of a Soviet Sphere of Influence in Eastern Europe, which included Latvia.  After the fall of Poland to the invading German and, from 17 September on, Soviet forces, the German-Soviet relationship was further cemented by a Friendship and Border Treaty signed on 28 September 1939.  At this time the final division of Poland was agreed on, further provisions were made concerning the division of "Spheres of Influence" in Eastern Europe and the emigration of ethnic Germans from areas claimed by the Soviet Union, including Latvia.  This collaboration of the two totalitarian powers allowed the Soviet Union by application of force and under various political pretexts to invade Latvia on 17 June 1940 and annex the country on 5 August 1940.  The take-over was never recognised de jure by the major Western powers.  Nazi Germany not only recognised the annexation but during its occupation 1941–45 treated Latvia as occupied Soviet territory – in accord with the secret protocols of the Treaties of 1939.

The Occupation and Annexation

Mutual Assistance Treaty of 5 October 1939 and Soviet Military Bases in Latvia.  The Soviet Union did not hesitate to establish its hegemony in its "Sphere of Influence."  Under threats of military intervention, the Baltic states were compelled to sign treaties of "mutual assistance," which for all intents and purposes meant that they had become military and political dependents of the USSR.  The treaty with Latvia provided for the establishment of Soviet Air Force, Naval and Army bases in Western Latvia and the stationing of up to 25,000 troops, more than the peacetime strength of the Army of Latvia.  The threat of force was meant seriously.  When Finland was called upon to sign a similar treaty and refused, the Red Army attacked Finland.  The Winter War with Finland lasted until March 1940.

A Bloody Soviet Provocation in Latvia 15 June 1940.  In the early morning hours of 15 June, Soviet operatives attacked three Latvia border posts in Eastern Latvia, killing three guards, the wife and the son of one guard.  They took 10 border guards and 27 civilians as hostages to the USSR.

Soviet Ultimatum of 16 June 1940.  Without factual basis, the Soviet ultimatum accused Latvia of breaching the Mutual Assistance Treaty and demanded within six hours time to admit an unlimited number of Soviet troops to Latvia and to form a new government.  Knowing that Lithuania had been invaded by the Red Army a day before, that its troops were massed along the eastern border and mindful of the Soviet military bases in Western Latvia, the government acceded to the demands.

The Military Occupation of Latvia 17 June 1940.  The Red army started the occupation operation in the early morning of 17. June.  About noon, Soviet tanks entered Riga.  The military take-over took place three days after Paris fell to the troops of Nazi Germany and the world's attention was directed to the collapse of France.

One-Party "Elections" of the Latvian Parliament Saeima 14/15 July 1941.  The election was democratic in name only.  Only one pre-approved list of candidates was allowed.  Alternate lists prepared in a hurry were turned down.  The instructions read: "Only the list of the Latvian Working People's Bloc must be deposited in the ballot box. The ballot must be deposited without any changes."  Newspapers praised the Red Army for ensuring a safe election.  The percentage voting for was 97.8%.

Creating a Soviet State and Renouncing Independence 21 July 1940.  The undemocratically elected Saeima voted unanimously to make Latvia a Soviet state and to ask for admission to the Soviet Union.  Although the Latvian Constitution prescribes a plebiscite in case of restricting sovereignty, a plebiscite never took place.

Soviet Latvia Incorporated as the 15th Republic of the Soviet Union 5 August 1940.  Unanimously, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR admitted the new Soviet Latvian Republic to the Soviet Union, and the act of annexation made possible through massive military intervention, illegal and undemocratic acts and collaborationism was complete.

Occupation and Annexation Directed by Moscow.  The take-over was directed by Andrei Y. Vyshinsky, Deputy Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars of the USSR and prosecutor of Stalin's infamous show trials in 1937–38.  The list of the new Cabinet of Ministers was pre-approved in Moscow and on 19 June presented to President Ulmanis for his signature.  At the same time, provocateurs, who had arrived with the Soviet troops, organised mass marches and meetings, thus creating the impression of popular unrest.  Even before the formal incorporation, the deportation of former government officials to the Soviet Union took place: President Kārlis Ulmanis on 21 July, former Minister of Defence Jānis Balodis and family on 31 July.

Non-Recognition of the Occupation and Annexation by the West.  Unlike Nazi Germany, whose acquiescence was guaranteed by the secret protocols of 23 August 1939, most Western governments considered the occupation and annexation as illegal and continued recognising the continued existence of the Republic of Latvia de jure.  As early as 23 July 1940, the US Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles condemned the "devious processes" by which "the political independence and territorial integrity of the three small Baltic republics ??? were to be deliberately annihilated by one of their more powerful neighbors".  The non-recognition of the annexation continued until Latvia regained its independence and full sovereignty in 1991.

Recent Misrepresentations

The Red Army protected a popular revolution in Latvia.  This is a claim of Soviet historiography, disingenuous at best, cynical at worst, still current in Russia, which has not recognized the fact of occupation..  The secret protocols amended to the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 23 August 1939, which made the occupation and annexation possible, were not acknowledged by the USSR until 1989.  They were not allowed to be introduced into evidence in the Nuremberg war crimes trials.  The Soviet ultimatum of 16 June 1940 does not mention an uprising.  The marches, meetings expressing "popular demands" were all organised and took place only after the occupation forces arrived.  Furthermore, it strains credibility that in three independent states simultaneous "revolutions" took place, which were all protected by the Red Army, followed by simultaneous "elections", requests to be admitted to the Soviet Union and incorporation within a few days of each other.

The change in regimes was legitimised by the previous government and presidential decrees.  It is true that acting under the threat of violence and bloodshed foreshadowed by Soviet actions in Finland and the attack on Latvian border posts the government agreed to the demands.  It is also true that President Ulmanis, while ostensibly in power, signed decrees dismantling many of the institutions the independent state had established.  But it is likewise true that he was kept virtually prisoner and acted under great duress.

The incorporation into the Soviet Union was legitimised by a parliamentary election.  The elections by which the parliament was chosen were undemocratic and anti-constitutional. The illegally elected parliament in turn committed anti-constitutional acts by usurping the sovereign right of the people of Latvia to determine their own form of government.  Two wrongs do not a right make.

Sources in English and Latvian:

  • Grava-Kreituse, Ilga, Inesis Feldmanis, Dietrich Andre Loeber and Juris Goldmanis.  The Occupation and Annexation of Latvia 1939–1940.  Documents and Materials.  Rīga, 1995.
  • Misiunas, Romuald J. and Rein Taagepera.  The Baltic States.  Years of Dependence 1940–1990. Berkeley, 1992.
  • Nollendorfs, Valters, ed.  Latvijas Okupācijas muzejs: Latvija zem Padomju Savienības un nacionālsociālistiskās Vācijas varas 1940–1991 Latvia under the Rule of the Soviet Union and National Socialist Germany. 2nd. ed. Rīga: OMF, 2005. [A bilingual history of the occupation.]
  • Nollendorfs, Valters and Erwin Oberländer, eds. The Hidden and Forbidden History of Latvia under the Soviet and Nazi Occupations 1940–1991. Symposium of the Commission of the Historians of Latvia 14. Rīga: Institute of the History of Latvia, 2005.

© Text: Valters Nollendorfs and Uldis Neiburgs, The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, www.occupationmuseum.lv, 2006This fact sheet can be freely printed from homepage of the Latvian Institute, distributed and cited, on condition that the Latvian Institute and the Museum of Occupation of Latvia is acknowledged as the source. The Latvian Institute promotes knowledge about Latvia abroad. It produces publications, in several languages, on many aspects of Latvia.

The Holocaust in German-Occupied Latvia

The Holocaust of the Jews and the Roma instigated and carried out by German Nazis upon occupying Latvia in 1941 was a premeditated, deliberate and merciless act of annihilation for purely racial reasons. The murder of Latvian Jews began immediately after the occupation army had entered the territory of Latvia and was completed by the end of 1941. Individual Latvians were co-opted to participate in the killings, which were oftentimes manipulated to look like they were carried out without German participation.

Historical Background

Jewish history in the territory of Latvia dates back to the sixteenth century.  It can be viewed in all its variety in the Jewish Museum in Rīga.  Among the 2 million inhabitants in independent Latvia, according to the last census of 1935, about 94 000 (5%) were Jews.  Jews and other historical minorities in Latvia enjoyed liberal minorities rights.  There were neither pogroms nor ghettos.  Anti-semitic bias existed in the society, but anti-Semitic ideology and rhetoric was restricted to radical groups, among whom Pērkonkrusts (Thundercross) was the most notorious.  The autocratic Kārlis Ulmanis regime, which came to power in 1934, however, banned the organisation and persecuted some of its leading members.  Although the Ulmanis regime favoured Latvians in terms of economy and culture, it also carefully maintained minority rights, and in the late 1930s even gave refuge to several thousand Jews from the Reich and issued them Latvian passports.  As a result of secret agreements between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (Hitler–Stalin Pact of 23 August 1939), Latvia was occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940; and there was no sovereign Latvian state or local authority at the time of the German invasion in late June and early July 1941; the Nazis never re-instituted Latvian sovereignty during their occupation 1941–1945.

Holocaust Research in Latvia

There was no Holocaust research during Soviet rule in Latvia (1944–91).  The victims of the Holocaust were subsumed under the rubric "Nazi murder of peaceful Soviet citizens," usually with unsubstantiated and highly inflated numbers.  Research in the West was mainly based on accounts of survivors and court cases against Nazi criminals.  Only after regaining independence in 1991, could Latvian historians begin to assess the situation and make use of documentation available locally.  Detailed Holocaust research was given a major boost with the establishment of the Historians' Commission of Latvia under the aegis of the President's office in 1998.  Its first task was the investigation of crimes against humanity committed during the Soviet and Nazi occupations in the limited time span from 1940 to 1956.  A sub-commission was established to deal specifically with the Holocaust.  In the years since it began its work, a great amount of basic research has been carried out and consensus has been reached on many aspects previously distorted by both Nazi and Soviet misinformation and propaganda.

The Holocaust in German-Occupied Latvia

Einsatzgruppe A Organises the Holocaust.  In the Baltic region, the Holocaust was organised and supervised by a special Operational Unit of the Nazi Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst—SD) commanded by Major General (Brigadeführer) Walter Stahlecker.  This unit arrived with the advance troops of the occupying army.  From November 1941 on the command was assumed by SS and Police General Friedrich Jeckeln, the Supreme Commander of the SS and Police in Northern Russia and Ostland.

Co-optation of Local Auxiliaries.  According to documented sources, the Stahlecker Operational Unit A was directed to initiate spontaneous pogroms by the local population in the occupied Baltic territory. The attempts to do so were not successful.  However, individual Latvians were co-opted to become accomplices in furthering the Nazi aims.  Several SD auxiliary units were formed.  The unit commanded by Viktors Arājs (the "Arājs Commando") existed the longest and gained the greatest notoriety.  In 1941 it numbered some 300 men and participated in the Holocaust in Latvian territory; additional men were recruited in 1942 when the unit was involved in punitive actions and Nazi crimes along the eastern border in Russia and Belarus.

Anti-Semitic Propaganda.  Racist and dehumanising German propaganda justifying the annihilation of Jews was unleashed already in the first days of the occupation: posters, exhibitions and articles in newspapers.  Jews were accused of Communist atrocities and murders during their one-year rule in 1940–41.  Victims found in mass graves were used to incite anti-Jewish sentiments.  Propaganda was organised by a special propaganda unit from Germany.  The Jews were publicly ostracised, humiliated and discriminated against administratively: they were ordered to wear the Star of David, ordered to clear rubble and to exhume the victims of Communist atrocities, forbidden to walk on sidewalks, to frequent public places, to shop, etc.

The First Phase of Annihilation July–August 1941. The first mass murders of Latvian Jews started in July and continued until September.  Groups of Jews were ordered shot in Riga, Daugavpils and in many smaller towns.  Recent research shows that all these actions were organised by German authorities but usually carried out by Latvian auxiliaries without direct German involvement.  In September, the remaining Jews in Riga were herded into a fenced-in ghetto in the city's Moscow Suburb and forcibly kept there under guard.

The Second Phase of Annihilation November–December 1941.  From the Riga Ghetto, under the direct supervision of Friedrich Jeckeln, about 25,000 Jews were driven on foot to Rumbula, on the outskirts of Riga, and murdered there in two operations— on 30 November and 8 December 1941.  Latvians performed guard duties; Jeckeln's SS men shot the victims.  About 3000 Jews from Liepāja were murdered between 15 and 17 December.  This was practically the end of the mass annihilation of approximately 70,000 Latvian Jews.  In addition, some 25,000 Jews were brought from Germany, Austria and the present-day Czech Republic, of whom around 20,000 were killed.

The Fate of the Remaining Jews.  The Riga Ghetto was closed in 1943.  Those Jews still alive and able to work were transferred to nearby concentration camps, the largest of which were located in Rīga (Mežaparks/Kaiserwald) and Dundaga.  In 1944 most of the remaining Jews were transferred to Germany where some of them survived to the end of the war.

Latvians Saving the Jews.  The unprecedented, extensive and swift persecution and murder of Latvia's Jews evoked expressions of empathy.  Such reactions, however, were officially condemned.  Nevertheless, fellow citizens of Latvia saved more than 400 Jews.  Several of them were punished by the Nazi authorities for harbouring Jews.

Misrepresentations of Latvian Role in the Holocaust

The first myth goes that there was widespread killing of Jews by the local population without German involvement.  There is no record of virulent anti-Semitism before the arrival of Nazi Germans.  The Nazi German policy was to make it look like Latvians were spontaneously killing their own Jews; they co-opted and manipulated individual Latvians to do so in their stead.  Jewish survivors, not knowing the command mechanism, oftentimes assumed that the Latvian collaborators were acting on their own.  Soviet propaganda later found it convenient to continue the impression created by the Nazis as a means of intimidation and suppression.  Eventually, accusations of Latvian complicity with the Nazis, most but not all of them unfounded, were used against leading exile Latvian figures.

The second most widespread misconception is that the Latvian Auxiliary Police Battalions and the Latvian Legion were involved in the Holocaust.  The murder of Latvian Jews was basically completed by the end of 1941.  The Schutzmannschaften Battalions were formed by the German authorities in late 1941 and 1942.  There were two controversial Soviet trials against members of two of the battalions, which resulted in convictions.  It is also known that two battalions were involved in guard duties at the Warsaw Ghetto.  However, the "Latvian SS Volunteer Legion", as it was officially called despite the fact that most of the soldiers were conscripted, was founded by Hitler's decree of 10 February 1943.  It included some of the front-line police battalions and eventually some members of the Arājs Commando, but the Legion's two divisions, manned basically by conscripts, were only involved in military combat actions.  Latvian legionnaires taken prisoner in the West were considered illegal conscripts and not members of Hitler's criminal SS.

Sources in Latvian and English:

  • Anders, Edward and Juris Dubrovskis.  Jews in Liepāja, Latvia 1941–45: A Memorial Book.  Burlingame, CA., 2001.
  • Ezergailis, Andrew.  The Holocaust in Latvia 1941–1945: The Missing Center.  Rīga, Washington, DC. 1996.
  • Nazi/Soviet Disinformation about the Holocaust in Nazi-Occupied Latvia. Daugavas Vanagi:Who are They? Revisited. Rīga: OMF, 2005.
  • Ērglis, Dzintars et al., eds.  Holokausta izpētes problēmas Latvijā / The Issues of the Holocaust Research in Latvia. Symposium of the Commission of the Historians of Latvia 2.  Riga, 2001.[Conference materials mostly in English.]
  • Nollendorfs, Valters, ed.  Latvijas Okupācijas muzejs: Latvija zem Padomju Savienības un nacionālsociālistiskās Vācijas varas 1940–1991 Latvia under the Rule of the Soviet Union and National Socialist Germany. 2nd ed. Rīga: OMF, 2005. [A bilingual history of the occupation.]
  • Nollendorfs, Valters and Erwin Oberländer, eds. The Hidden and Forbidden History of Latvia under the Soviet and Nazi Occupations 1940–1991. Symposium of the Commission of the Historians of Latvia 14. Rīga: Institute of the History of Latvia, 2005.

© Text: Valters Nollendorfs and Uldis Neiburgs, The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, www.occupationmuseum.lv, 2006This fact sheet can be freely printed from homepage of the Latvian Institute, distributed and cited, on condition that the Latvian Institute and the Museum of Occupation of Latvia is acknowledged as the source. The Latvian Institute promotes knowledge about Latvia abroad. It produces publications, in several languages, on many aspects of Latvia.

Soviet Mass Deportations From Latvia

Among its secret provisions was the establishment of a Soviet Sphere of Influence in Eastern Europe, which included Latvia and allowed the Soviet Union under various pretexts to invade Latvia on 17 June 1940 and annex the country on 5 August 1940. The illegal takeover was never recognized de jure by major Western powers. Immediately after establishing its rule through its collaborators and proxies, the Soviets began deporting the elites to the Soviet Union, culminating in the mass deportation on 14 June 1941 of more than 15,000 people.

Historical Background

A declared neutral country during the early phases of World War II, Latvia fell prey to the realpolitik of both Nazi Germany and Communist Soviet Union, who concluded a Non-Aggression Treaty on 23 August 1939, known as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.  The Pact allowed Germany to invade Poland on 1 September 1939.  After the Nazi German occupation from 1941 to 1944/45, the USSR reoccupied Latvia and applied harsh measures to punish the people for alleged collaboration with the enemy and resisting Soviet occupation.  A second mass deportation on 25 March 1949 effectively ended armed resistance against the occupation regime.

Deportations As a Crime Against Humanity

Because of the deportations deprived people of their civil and human rights and were carried out in an inhumane manner, the deportations are to be classified as crimes against humanity.  The Communist regime in the Soviet Union engaged in mass relocations to enforce its political, social and nationalities policies and to persecute and silence its critics and opponents.  Stalin perfected the policies of Lenin and established a vast system of hard labour prison camps known as the GULAG.  Stalin's regime was also marked by mass deportations and forced resettlement of entire peoples and social groups to Siberia and other areas of the vast country.  At the end of the 1920s and the early 1930s, the regime rid the country of well-to-do farmers (kulaks) who had survived the regime-induced famine in Belarus and Ukraine and did not wish to collectivise.  In the "Great Purge" of the 1930s, former Bolshevik cadres who had served Lenin were deported or murdered as "traitors." Ethnic groups who were suspected of being disloyal, including Latvians, were also deported - of the 126,000 Latvians in the USSR, 75,000 were arrested, and 20,000 were shot. After World War II, Stalin ordered the deportation of many people who had lived in German-occupied regions because he suspected them of having collaborated with the enemy.  The deportees were deprived of their civil and human rights and oftentimes life because of the harsh and inhuman conditions in prison camps and exile.

 
Two mass deportations were carried out in Latvia: during the first Soviet occupation in 1941, and in 1949, during the second occupation.  It must be noted, however, that the deportation to GULAG prison camps and forced settlement areas took place at other times as well.  Many Latvians were sent to the so-called "filtration" and POW camps" after World II, imprisoned or re-deported after they had been allowed to return to Latvia.  The total number of inhabitants of Latvia subjected to deportation exceeds that of the two official mass deportations.

The deportations deprived Latvia of its national elites and people with the closest bonds to the land.  They created shortages in the labour force, which were made up by immigrants from non-Latvian areas of the Soviet Union.  Thus the deportations also fulfilled the function of colonising and russifying the country.  Though not outright genocide, the deportations created conditions that set Latvia and its people on a course of losing its cultural heritage and eventually its national identity as well.

Mass Deportation 14 June 1941

Instructions on how to carry out mass deportations were prepared in the autumn of 1939 for the newly-annexed regions of western Ukraine by the head of the Ukrainian SSR NKVD (later known as KGB), General Ivan Serov.  They were approved in Moscow and later used in the Baltic States as well.  As the USSR Commissar for State Security, Serov signed the orders on 21 January 1941.

In the night between 13 and 14 June, about 15,500 Latvian residents - among them 2400 children younger than ten - were arrested without a court order to be deported to distant regions in the Soviet Union.  Targeted were mainly families who had members in leading positions in state and local governments, economy and culture.

People to be deported were awakened in the night and given less than one hour to prepare for the journey.  They were allowed to take with them only what they could carry, and everything left behind was confiscated by the state.  The unfortunate were herded into already prepared cattle or freight railroad cars, in which they spent weeks and months.  Many died on the way, especially infants, the sick, and the elderly.  Men, totalling some 8250, were separated from their families, arrested, and sent to GULAG hard labour camps.  Women and children were taken to so-called "administrative settlements" as family members of "enemies of the people".

No word of these events was mentioned in Latvia's Soviet-censored newspapers.  Loved ones had no way of knowing what had become of those deported.  None of the institutions, including the militia, provided information or help.  Scattered along the railroad tracks were farewell notes written by the deported to their families - few of them ever reached their intended recipients.

Conditions in the hard labour camps were inhumane.  The inmates lost their identities, and were terrorised by the guards and criminal prisoners.  Food rations were meagre, and did not replace the calories expended through work.  People grew weak, and were crippled by diarrhoea, scurvy, and other illnesses. Winters were marked by unbearable cold, and many did not survive the first one.  Only a small part of those deported in 1941 later returned to Latvia.  The families in forced settlement had to fend for themselves in harsh conditions; the death rate among the very young and the elderly was likewise high.

The Mass Deportation of 25 March 1949

This deportation of more than 42,000 people was carried out to end the resistance to collectivisation of the farms and at the same time to get rid of the supporters of national partisans.  This deportation was mainly directed against the farming population and entire families were sent to forced settlement areas for life.  After Stalin's death, many were eventually allowed to return, but they could not resume their previous lives and were treated as unreliables.

The "legal" basis of the deportation was contained in the top secret decision by the Council of Ministers of the USSR of 29 January 1949 and the instruction, issued by the Ministry of State Security in February, "Concerning the Procedure for Deporting Several Categories of Inhabitants from the Latvian SSR, Lithuanian SSR and Estonian SSR."  On 17 March 1949, Vilis Lācis as the Chairman signed the decision of the Council of Ministers of the Latvian SSR.  The military forces of the State Security and Interior ministries received the top-secret order No. 0068 to carry out deportations in the Baltic states under the code name "Priboi" ("coastal surf").

The deportation began in the night of 24 March.  At night, people were arrested at home, during the day at their places of employment.  Schoolchildren were sometimes taken to the trains directly from school.

Between 25 March and 28 March 42,133 people, or more than 2% of the pre-war population of Latvia, were deported from Latvia to places of "special settlement" (mainly in the districts of Krasnoyarsk, Amur, Irkustsk, Omsk, Tomsk and Novosibirsk).  Among these were more than 10,990 children and youths under 16.  Women and children under 16 constituted 73% of the deportees.  Altogether 30,620 families and 94,799 people were deported from the three Baltic States.

Sources in English and Latvian:

  • Brence, Māra, Dzintars Ērglis et al., eds. 1941. gada 14. jūnija deportācija – noziegums pret cilvēci / Deportation of 14 June 1941: Crime Against Humanity. Symposium of the Commission of the Historians of Latvia 6.  Riga: 2002. 416 pages. [Materials of an international Conference in Riga 12–13 June 2001. English summaries.]
  • Nollendorfs, Valters, ed. Latvijas Okupācijas muzejs: Latvija zem Padomju Savienības un nacionālsociālistiskās Vācijas varas 1940–1991 Latvia under the Rule of the Soviet Union and National Socialist Germany. 2nd ed. Rīga: OMF, 2005. [A bilingual history of the occupation.]
  • Nollendorfs, Valters and Erwin Oberländer, eds. The Hidden and Forbidden History of Latvia under the Soviet and Nazi Occupations 1940–1991. Symposium of the Commission of the Historians of Latvia 14. Rīga: Institute of the History of Latvia, 2005.
  • Pelkaus, Elmārs et al., eds. Aizvestie: 1941. gada 14. jūnijs [The Deported: 14 June 1941].  Rīga, 2001. 804 pages. [English summary.]
  • Strods, Heinrihs and Matthew Kott "The File on Operation 'Priboi': A Reassessment of the Mass Deportations of 1949." Journal of Baltic Studies 33.1 (2002): 1–31.
  • Vīksne, Rudīte and Kārlis Kangeris, eds.  Politiskās prāvas Latvijā 1940–1986: Noziegumos pret padomju valsti apsūdzēto Latvijas iedzīvotāju rādītājs [Political Trials in Latvia: Index of Inhabitants of Latvia Accused in Crimes against the Soviet State 1940–1986].  Rīga, 1999. [Contains ca. 49,000 names and case numbers.]


    © Text: Valters Nollendorfs and Uldis Neiburgs, The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, www.occupationmuseum.lv, 2006


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