26 December 2006

The Christmas Battles

On the night before Christmas Eve, 5 January 1917 (23 December 1916 O.S.), the Latvian Riflemen began a ferocious surprise attack on German positions in the Tīrelis swamp west of Rīga (map). In the most recent history of Latvia in the 20th C (available in English, French, and Russian as well as Latvian, from Jumava), Ilgvars Butulis notes that the Russian Army mobilized 120 000 -- 140 000 men from Latvia in the First World War; the most famous units were of course the Riflemen, but tens of thousands of Letts also served in the Home Guard and other formations. In the Augustów marshes of Poland (then East Prussia) in February 1915, for example, the First Army's 20th Corps (composed primarily of Latvian officers and enlisted men), lost ca. 20 000 soldiers whilst enabling the retreat of the Russian Tenth Army. Butulis: "The German High Command compared the Latvian soldiers to Napoleon's guard, which 'dies, but does not surrender.'"

In the distortions of Latvian history emanating from Moscow (see my three previous posts), the ferocity of the Red Riflemen (some of whom formed Lenin's Praetorian guard) is often mixed with allegations regarding our supposed pro-German sympathies prior to World War Two -- to blacken the shallows, or carefully select shadows. My favorite sentence in Edward Lucas' trenchant analysis of the recent Amnesty International report on Estonia is: "It is a bad piece of work, ahistorical and unbalanced." The key word would be ahistorical -- much of the propaganda the Kremlin and certain "useful idiots" in the West try to pass off as history is really image-making and demonization, and it is essentially ahistorical. The historical enemy of Latvia was Germany until relatively recently -- the nature of the Dark Knight did not change; the empires and their effects on Latvia and Latvians did, and thus the relations to the two Great Powers behaving as grindstones did. Certain persons acting as spokesmen for the defiantly ahistorical see no changes and observe no differences -- the current Ambassador of Russia to Rīga, Viktor Kalyuzhny, for instance, recently reiterated his belief that there is no difference whatsoever between the EU and the USSR (he was, however, very disturbed when he saw portraits of Hitler and Stalin on the same wall in the Occupation Museum... some differences seem to matter more than others).

The Latvian Riflemen fought so very hard in World War One because they were finally able to fight under their own flag (circumscribed -- their main slogan became "a free Latvia in a free Russia"), because of their hatred for Germany (born of centuries of oppression by Germans), and because they were often fighting on their own land, much of which was brutally occupied by German forces for a prolonged period. Ninety years ago this Christmas, at -35 degrees centigrade, they lost a third of their comrades in arms. Fighting valiantly for the liberation of Jelgava and Semigallia, they awaited reinforcements that never came. They did this in the service of a Czar who extolled their bravery -- and who led an autocratic regime that sent them on suicide missions, renamed their farmsteads in Russian, and attempted to ban the use of Latvian in their correspondence with their families.

The photograph is from the Latvian State Forest Service. The plaque marks the "road to Golgotha" in the Christmas Battles, planted as a park by students and former Riflemen under the supervision of the Forest Service and their Workers' Association between 1932 and 1935.

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06 December 2006

Latvian Nazis?

During the NATO summit in Rīga last week, The International Herald Tribune ran an AP piece that concluded with a section entitled "Latvian Nazis" in bold type. Their text is in italics, interspersed with my comments.

Although Latvia is considered a strong and vibrant democracy, historically its democratic credentials are more ambiguous.

After Latvia gained independence from the Russian Empire following World War I, a coup established a nationalistic dictatorship. This lasted until the country was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940.

Is this how one condenses a country's history? What are the "democratic credentials," historically, of Russia or Germany, say? Unambiguous?

Latvia's democratic aspirations preceded the Latvians' strivings for a nation-state, actually; the Baltic Provinces, oppressed by tsarist autocracy and Baltic German barons, had the second largest Social Democratic organization in the Russian Empire at the beginning of the last century (after Finland). The demands made during the 1905 Revolution were unambiguously democratic, but stopped short of demanding a state. That revolution (which, like many a revolution in a country long ruled by force, included horrible excesses) was brutally crushed and was followed by an exodus of intellectuals and revolutionaries, some of whom would later return to lay the groundwork for an independent, democratic state. Even prior to 1905, the Latvian Social Democratic Union had called for autonomy and democratic elections. The Latvian Riflemen fought for "a free Latvia in a free Russia" in World War One -- many were shortly to be poisoned by Bolshevik ideology, but many joined the Latvian National Army.

The proclamation of Latvian statehood on 18 November 1918 was as inclusive as possible in a land that had suffered more than any other (with the possible exception of Belgium) in what was then the Great War -- it would take almost two more years of fighting to achieve independence, including a Red Terror, a White Terror, a pro-German pastor leading a puppet government, a Bolshevik "republic" that promised to "erect barricades out of bourgeois bodies," a self-styled Cossack prince leading an attack supported by the Black Hundred and fed with Russian prisoners of war and Germans seeking land in what was to be a feudal duchy...

Until, finally, in 1920, a devastated Latvia held the first truly free elections it had ever experienced.
After Latvia gained independence from the Russian Empire following World War I, a coup established a nationalistic dictatorship?! In the sense that 34 comes after 20, yes -- but there were a full fourteen years of flourishing democracy in between. Latvia was actually the last country in the neighborhood to succumb to authoritarianism. In the fourteen years prior to Ulmanis' coup, Latvia constructed a liberal, multicultural society -- it had severe strains, yes, as any newborn country could be expected to have (perhaps especially after six centuries of enslavement). The constitution drafted then is still in use today -- after a suspension by Ulmanis and a lengthy interruption by Soviets and Nazis. The movement that led to the restoration of independence twenty years ago was also fundamentally democratic -- the current, restored state is its result, and these credentials have the imprimatur of every major international structure.

This AP squib passes over the democratic period without mention. It also passes over what happened during the first year of occupation by the Soviets,
prior to the Nazi invasion -- mass deportations, mass murder, the destruction of the social structure, and the confiscation of property. It might be noted, too, that Jews were deported by the Soviets in larger numbers than any other ethnic group in 1940, per capita. A site with many documents related to the period is located here -- please note that this is a collection of documents, views, and articles, of varying quality and with many a slant.

I have no desire to defend Ulmanis' dictatorship, which robbed individuals of their rights and destroyed Latvian democracy in 1934. There is, however, a significant difference between the red-brown (Soviet and Nazi) and Ulmanis' nationalist rule -- his coup was bloodless, and throughout his rule
he did not kill a single soul. It is by contrast to the horrors that followed that his leadership is remembered fondly by many.

When Nazi Germany invaded the USSR the following year, Latvia was quickly overrun and thousands of Latvian volunteers flocked to the Nazis. About 150,000 men saw service as concentration guards or as SS combat troops — the largest number of non-Germans to serve in the elite Nazi unit.

How many thousands, and at what level -- and did they really "flock"? The vast majority of troops in the Latvian Legion consisted of conscripts. Avoiding conscription was punishable by death. The Legion wasn't formed until 1943, after most of Latvia's Jews had been killed. Yes, not a few Latvians committed heinous crimes during the German phase of the occupation, under German direction -- just as not a few people (Russians, Latvians, Jews) committed crimes against humanity during the Soviet phases, under Russian direction [sic!]. In the most extensive study of the Holocaust in Latvia, Andrew Ezergailis writes: "There certainly were numerous Latvians who were criminally guilty. Those who participated directly in the murder of the Jews should be criminally condemned, even if to speak of punishment for most of them in 1996 is too late for this world. The criminally guilty, using the criteria of the war crimes trials in the West, would involve about 500 to 600 men, 1,000 at the most. That would include four dozen journalists who wrote, edited, and published Nazi propaganda about the Jews." (The introduction is available online here.)

Calling the Waffen-SS an
elite Nazi unit in the context of the Latvian divisions is rather deceptive -- almost all non-Germans who served the Reich in the military were in formations designated Waffen-SS; many foreign legions, not a few from nations now distorting Latvian history, were composed primarily of pro-Nazi volunteers, not conscripts. The most popular song among the Latvian soldiers contained the refrain "we'll beat the lice-ridden ones and then the gray-blue ones" (i.e., the Russians and then the Germans) -- what most wanted, in other words, was what their fathers had attained after World War One -- a free country. They were not Nazis. The Nazi Party was not open to non-Germans.

Since Latvia gained independence in 1991, the government has sought to explain the mass collaboration with the Nazis as a reaction to Soviet rule. But many have dismissed that as historic revisionism.

No, the government has not sought to do that -- this is a democracy, and we don't have "official histories" in this sense. There are many differing views. In fact, the Historical Commission convened by the President has reached an opposite conclusion so far -- according to the researcher Rudīte Vīksne, preliminary research into the motives of Sonderkommando Arajs shows that there is no direct connection between the motives of those who murdered Jews and the events of the "Year of Horror" that preceded the Nazi invasion.

On "collaboration," "mass" or otherwise, see Ezergailis -- "Collaboration in German Occupied Latvia: Offered and Rejected."

The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, an independent think tank, accused the government of President Vaira Vike-Freiberga of fostering "one of the worst cases of falsification in history."

In this parliamentary democracy, the president doesn't "have" a government, sorry. She is "merely" the head of state, and has seen more governments than most heads of state have in the last few years.

So AP bases its squibs on the opinion of one think tank, and doesn't bother making even a meager effort at offering an alternative view? This is bad journalism, and I'm surprised that a respected newspaper published it.