Prof. Andrew Ezergailis
Ithaca College

As the Nazi forces entered Latvia they carried along with them their own intentions and language of hatred and revenge. The most poisonous words were "pogrom", " Selbstverreiningung" and "Selbstschutz ". All of these words were euphemisms and they hid meanings that were not evident on the surface. The word "pogrom" originated in czarist Russia and it meant locally spontaneous attacks on Jewish communities. The Germans already in 1938 redefine the word as state directed actions against the Jews. The words "self-defense" and "self-cleansing" sound like defensive and peace-loving ones, but their real German meaning was aggressively criminal. "Self-defense" was a basic concept at the root of the Nazi ideology. It originated in the "stab-in-the back", which according to Hitler was performed by Jews and their associates.

The Nazis transmuted "self defense" into revenge. With the help or these words the Germans endeavored to induce the "natives" into murdering Jews and Communists.

Of the three words only "self-defense" has entered Latvian historical and memoir literature.

Military comandantures were established during the first moments of occupation, and next to them in the same towns Germans ordered the organization of auxiliary Latvian teams, that during the occupation's first six weeks they called "self-defense" comandantures. They were organized approximately on the pattern of pre-war Aizsargi or police. There exist written documents and notices that tell us how and who organized these self-defense teams. The organization occurred simultaneously in all of Latvia, and not only there but also in the other Baltic states and in Eastern Europe at large. In the District centers there were organized district comandantures, in towns town comandantures and in the pagasts, pagasts comandantures. Altogether in 1941 there existed approximately 700 Latvian comandantures. The self-defense men were ordered to wear the Latvian colors, red-white-red, an arm-band as a mark of identification . The Germans controlled the self-defense teams in two ways: directly through German local commandantures and through Latvian District commandants. About six weeks after the occupation, in mid August, the Germans closed the self-defense teams and forbade the wearing of the arm band. There was a reason why these units were ended: the first phase of "self-cleansing" was completed—the Jews from small towns had been killed.

There exists a view that the self-defense commandantures arose spontaneously even before the Germans had entered Latvia. A broad coalition of opinion consisting of ex-Soviets, Jews, Germans, Americans and Latvians believes that the self-defense units in Latvia were locally created. Even many Latvian eyewitnesses and participators in the self-defense units believe in the spontaneity story.

What gives me a right to question this universally accepted view about the self-defense?

1. The words, self-defense and commandanture, first of all are found in German not Latvian sources.

2. No such organization had ever existed Latvia before.

3. The idea of "self-defense", in its Teutonic definition, originated in Germany and had its own germanically dialectical, "stab-in-the-back" meaning, that did not have an equal in Latvia.

4. Upon entering Latvia the Germans had total control of the land.

5. In Latvia there was no native center of power that had an authority to initiate or organize a country-wide system of self-defense comandantures.

6. Upon entering Latvia the Germans had a low level of confidence in Latvians. They had not forgotten the burning of baronial estates in 1905, nor Latvian Bolshevism of 1917 and the Land reforms of 1920ties.

In the scheme of the "self-defense" organization there was one deceptive aspect. The pre-war Aizsargi organization frequently was used as the basis for organizing the self-defense units. It would be wrong to say that there were no Latvians who volunteered in the "self-defense", but it is also true that the German military and punitive organs upon entering Latvia in effect carried out a draft.

Among all of the war-crimes and crimes against humanity that Germans perpetrated during World War II, one must add the importation of their sense of revenge and entrapping the "self-defense" men into the murder of Jews. Stahlecker, the Commander of Einsatzgsruppa A, has left numerous documents in which he testifies that for the purpose of killing Jews he had proposed specially selected victims of Communism, like men whose relatives had been deported to Siberia.

What tasks did the "self-defense" forces perform? All those that their supervising German military commandants and SD men ordered them to perform. The pattern of their work varied from place to place. Most of the time in most of the places, the self-defense men performed police or quasi police duties. Their participation in the killing of Jews was not uniformly the same everywhere. In districts where there existed SD chapters the role of the self-defense units was minimal. In other districts they were in charge of arresting the Jews and keeping them imprisoned until a German or Latvian SD team arrived and carried out the killings. In some districts also the killings had to be locally organized.

In this paper I have tried to draw together the main strands of information about "self-defense" origins and work. Without understanding the role of the self-defense teams, the understanding of the Holocaust in Latvia will elude one. The discovery of the role of the self-defense comandantures will also lead one to a disclosure of the role of German military comandantures in the Holocaust.

Crimes Against Humanity The Holocaust