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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Give them hell - Peteri !

Clearly, whoever wrote that snippet for the AP not only didnt do their homework - but wrote it specifically ignoring any contrary viewpoint or historical detail. I agree 100% this is bad journalism - I'll add incredibly irresponsible journalism to your sentiments.


06 December, 2006 20:17  
Blogger jams o donnell said...

It looks like some very sloppy journalism. If he or she hasnt been sacked I hope the journalist is now a political correspondet on Svalbard!

I can't speak for Latvian history of course but the idea thatthe Waffen SS was an elite force is not universally true. some of the divisions were elite and very effective (albeit utterly brutal) fighting units - Das Reich, Wiking etc, but most formations were unreliableor downright uselesseg the Dirlwanger unit , the Albanian Skanderborg division.

One small point. in 1943 the holocaust was still going very strong... Do you mean that the Latvian part of it was completed?

07 December, 2006 23:46  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

08 December, 2006 01:32  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Thanks for your comments, Wahabist and Jams!

Thanks much for pointing out the error, too, Jams -- yes, I meant in Latvia (corrected). There were in fact war criminals in the Legion; they had filtered in from the SD, however. Also, some of the police units (notorious in Belarus and Warsaw) were designated part of the Legion for a time. The bulk of the force consisted of combat troops, though.

08 December, 2006 01:36  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post Peteris. I hope you also emailed it to the editor of the IHT. In my experience editors generally do care about journalistic standards.

09 December, 2006 11:10  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Thank you, Martin! Nice to see you visiting here!

10 December, 2006 01:36  
Blogger Frank Partisan said...

Very interesting, well argued post.

20 December, 2006 02:19  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Jerusalem think tank complete comment is:

One of the worst cases of falsification of history concerns Latvia. The Letts played an important role in many of the anti-Jewish atrocities carried out there during the war. At the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust in 2000, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga rejected her country's responsibility for the fate of its Jewish citizens: "Latvia as a country having ceased to exist at the time, the Nazi German occupying powers bear the ultimate responsibility for the crimes they committed or instigated on Latvian soil." If Jews give up the battle for memory, Latvia will be able to get away with its lies forever.

Note that in the second sentence they make a blanket accusation about "the Letts." I expect they would be indignant, and justifiably so, if someone claimed that "the Jews" were Bolsheviks. VVF does not, and neither does anyone I know, deny that *some* Latvians were guilty of atrocities. What is denied is the accusation that the atrocities were spontaneous acts of Latvians, without German involvement. That is why VVF said "the Nazi German occupying powers bear the ultimate responsibility for the crimes they committed *or instigated* on Latvian soil"; her point was not to deny that crimes were committed by Latvians, but that they would not have been committed had not the Nazi occupiers *instigated* them. Neither the Jerusalem think tank nor AP seems to be able to grasp distinctions at this level.

It's bad journalism quoting bad historical analysis.


20 December, 2006 02:31  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Thanks for your comments, Renegade and Stephen.

With regard to your remarks, Stephen -- one of the sad paradoxes about the disinformation that this think tank is perpetuating is that it is essentially a continuation of Nazi propaganda; the Germans were persistently devoted to absolving themselves of responsibility by blaming the Latvians for the Holocaust here. Pamphlets like Baigais gads, for instance, published by professional propagandists, were explicitly designed to paint the Jews as responsible for Bolshevik atrocities and the Letts as desirous of spontaneous revenge.

22 December, 2006 11:05  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The vast majority of troops in the Latvian Legion consisted of conscripts. Avoiding conscription was punishable by death”. - This is typical example of brainwashing! In neighbouring Baltic state – Lithuania – Germans failed to form any Waffen-SS Legions. Because Germans didn’t trust Lithuaninans. Latvians were very reliable and very devoted to German Nazis. Now in every Latvian bookshop a special section is dedicated to Latvian Waffen-SS “heroic deeds”.

23 January, 2007 09:51  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

So, pray tell - how did the leading Lithuanians who refused to form a Legion fare, anonymous one?

When were you last in "every Latvian bookshop"? I haven't seen a single special section yet!

What language were most of the books in? Are you sure the books were glorifying, er... what deeds?

Lest you lack brainwashing -- may I ask you a question? Could you please explain why you disagree with my contention? Because even Soviet documents support it -- I can cite some for you.

23 January, 2007 18:53  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To: Pēteris Cedriņš

I had a few questions for you.
I am not in any way accusing you of supporting any Nazi theory what so ever, but at the same time I have a question on the Latvian situation in particular. First of I know for a fact that the support of the Nazis in Latvia is not a majority, second one of the only reasons that they do have these freedoms to march is do to the government support. In your text you have stated that Nazis brainwashed them?????? So my question is dose that make mass killings and enslavement of people make it ok.

My view is that these people need to be prosecuted for crimes against humanity and executed no matter on the age, they where the scum of the earth then just like now.

Good Bless all the men and women who fought the Nazis during WW2.

May 9, 1945 real Victory Day

17 March, 2010 05:34  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...


The Legionnaires were not Nazis and the Legion is not guilty of any mass killings. Latvia was enslaved by both the USSR and Nazi Germany; it was occupied by the USSR in 1940, occupied by Germany in 1941, and re-occupied by the USSR in 1944/45.

As to May 9 being the "real" Victory Day, please see my post --


17 March, 2010 05:51  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting, so why then those your Countries government have such strong support for the "Legioners". And yes they did mass ethnic Russians and others, my grandfather fought during WW2 and I have a good amount of understanding of history.
That's funny that the only way that you can explain is that they where not Nazis. But cooperating with the enemy is just fine????? Well anyways I am against this bullshit sorry to say that is happening in your country and some of the other Baltic states this glory of the Nazis, and yes Nazis beacuse the Legioners are that.

Yea interesting they walk with the double lightning bolt flag from time to time, deface true heroes
the Soviet soldiers and get away with and ohhhhhhhh "they where not Nazis" try thinking before you try posting such controversial topics.

And as for the article Stalin was a heartless prick and allot of the things he did where wrong I agree, but defacing and trying to rewrite history to nake some small amount of peaces of shit Nazi fucks feel better is wrong. Buddy where the fuck do you get more Russians acknowledge the occupation I live in Krasnodar, Russia but travel very much and let me tell you this is some shit people do not in any way agree with the bullshit that is going on in the Baltic states, when you people became your own state you ran to fucking wild with this occupation shit, you should remember how your own people where getting murdered by Nazis and your own so called freedom fighters.

17 March, 2010 09:04  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Dear Anonymous,

I have never seen a single Legionnaire marking 16 March by waving a "double lightning bolt flag." The Legionnaires go to the cathedral to pray and then to the Freedom Monument, flanked by Latvian flags. I respect and honor them, as do most Latvians. That does not mean that I admire Nazis; I don't in the least. Germany was a murderous totalitarian occupier -- just as the Soviet Union was. You think of Nazi Germany as the enemy -- so do I. I also think of the USSR as the enemy, however -- on 9 May, many people mark the "liberation" that was not a liberation but re-occupation. Unlike the Legionnaires, who love Latvia and never display any Nazi symbols (because they never had any affection for Nazism, which was as inimical to Latvian nationalism as it was to the Soviets), I see people in Soviet uniform and even, now and then, a portrait of Stalin. Latvia was ground between two millstones in the war -- actually before the war as Russians tend to see it; before "the Great Patriotic War," when the USSR occupied us in 1940. I think it is very important for Latvians to know about the horrors of the German occupation, especially the Holocaust, and I freely admit that not a few Latvian nationalists are either ignorant or twisted in this regard. One aspect of this, however, is the Russian determination to cling to rancid Soviet distortions. People like Kononov, who burned a pregnant woman to death, were "heroes" during the occupation, whilst the Legionnaires were derided as "fascists" (or, as you so eloquently put it, "peaces [sic] of shit Nazi fucks." I've met many Legionnaires, and not one of them could be described in this way. My father was in the Legion, by the way. I have nothing against those who served on the Soviet side honoring their surviving veterans and war dead, sans triumphalism. Only 30 to 50 so-called "anti-fascists" showed up yesterday. I wasn't there (I mark the date quietly and solemnly, by choice), but friends who were tell me that it was quite nice -- the Legionnaires did their thing, and people on the sidelines engaged in sober debate. Every year, the media blows the event out of proportion, with the help of the Kremlin (or, this year, domestic politics in Britain). But if you think the whole planet buys stale Soviet propaganda lines about "the entire civilized world" being horrified, you are wrong. Here, for instance, is The Economist on the controversy --


17 March, 2010 09:41  

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