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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Blogger jams o donnell said...

Peteris this is anutterly fascinating post. Again you add to my limited knowledge of baltic history.

Why am I not surprised that the soviets would seek to tarnish the bravery and the loyalty of the latvian soldiers?

If I get my finger out I will put up more posts on Irish history. There is plenty to write about...

29 December, 2006 12:13  
Blogger Jens-Olaf said...

A closer look on history is needed. Especially on the history of the Baltic states. It's interesting to find a more comprehensive wiki article in English about this weird german dutchy founded in 1918 with the capital Riga than the German one offers. For me it seems that in Germany we can understand history only through the outcome of WWII and have forgotten the consequences of WWI.

29 December, 2006 16:26  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Thanks for your comments, Jens-Olaf and Jams!

Jams -- the Soviets actually exalted the Red Riflemen; Russian nationalists demonize them. There are grounds for that -- they were indeed a major force for the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War (there is a Russian saying, by the way: "Communism is Jewish brains and Latvian muscles"). More balanced histories neither exalt nor paint them as darkly as the propagandists east of us do (Russian writings tend to ignore the fact that very many Riflemen [and a majority of the surviving officers] joined the Latvian Army; the "Latvian" Riflemen that took the Crimea, for example, were minority Latvian ethnically by then... then there is the usual confusion of ethnicity with nationality -- the hardcore Reds were never Latvian citizens, and a line was drawn through that épopée by the Peace of Rīga, explicitly, in 1920 [the Treaty says that "Latvian Riflemen," etc., shall be construed as historical terms only, with no realation to the Latvian state]). Nonetheless, ethnic Latvians contributed to establishing Soviet power in Russia in incredible numbers, and in key positions. According to Donald Rayfield, 75% of the Cheka's central management was
ethnically Latvian in 1919. The commander of the Red Army was an ethnic Lett, Jukums Vācietis (he was a rarity in that he was not a member of the Party). There are, however, very clear reasons for the redness of these Letts -- looking at causes and effects is not what Soviet/Russian historiography is about, though, of course. Outside of Latvian history books, you won't hear much about the stranded regiments that returned to Latvia the long way, for instance (through Vladivostok and America), for instance. I'll have to work on some posts about the Lettish Bolsheviks -- and yes, I do hope you post more about Irish history! I enjoy your historical posts very much.

Jens-Olaf -- another bunch of oft-neglected topics, yes... and so much of it is truly riveting. The famous Alexander of Tunis, for example, liberator of Italy, etc., got his real start as the young commander of the Landeswehr here in Latgallia. WWII casts such a heavy shadow over everything that the major players of the post-WWI period are often barely mentioned in popular histories, at least in English. There are considerable quantities of worthwhile stuff about the Baltic Germans in that period in German -- from excellent histories of the Landeswehr to Wachtsmuth's Von deutscher Arbeit in Lettland, 1918-34, in three volumes, to Baltische Hefte. Lately everyone is recommending a recent book by John Hiden, Defender of Minorities, about Paul Schiemann -- I hope to get it soon...

29 December, 2006 21:21  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

A tantalizing review of the Hiden book can be found here --


30 December, 2006 03:00  
Blogger jams o donnell said...

Happy new year Peteris!

01 January, 2007 20:42  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice piece Pēteri. I always enjoy your writings. I should return to reading the History of Latvia: 20th Century.

Laimigu Jauno Gadu!


03 January, 2007 20:50  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Thanks, Jams and Pierre! Happy New Year to you, too -- and nice to see you here, Pierre!

11 January, 2007 22:42  

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