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The Progress Report of Latvia's History Commission: Crimes against Humanity Committed in the Territory of Latvia from 1940 to 1956 during the Occupations of the Soviet Union and National Socialist Germany


After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it has become possible in Eastern Europe to address the crimes against humanity committed by both the German and Soviet occupying powers during and following World War II and to do so in an open, unbiased and differentiated manner. These crimes cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of citizens, indeed, oftentimes, the national elite of the occupied countries. In the past decade, local historians have made great efforts to document and clarify these crimes in all the states of East Central and South Eastern Europe.

In the course of these investigations, one of the central problems has been the difference in public perceptions and awareness in these countries and outside, especially in the West, concerning the severity of Nazi and Soviet crimes. In the West, where the Nazis had been the enemy in World War II, the Nazi-instigated Holocaust has been and is still at the center of public interest and attention as an extremely brutal and unprecedented crime against humanity. On the other hand, Soviet crimes against humanity - mass deportations, persecutions, imprisonment, executions, death by deprivation in the GULAG or in forced resettlement - were neither a part of direct experience in the West, nor were widely known while they happened and thus did not become imprinted into the public consciousness. In East European countries, however, many of which were either occupied or under Soviet domination until the late 1980s or early 1990s, the awareness of Soviet crimes, which in their extreme form continued into the 1950s, dominates in public consciousness as something directly experienced and more immediate. These differences in perceptions and awareness sometimes lead to unfortunate downgrading of either the crimes of the Nazis in the East or the crimes of the Soviet regimes in the West. Therefore it is incumbent upon the historians in Eastern Europe and in the West to make full use of recently available sources and the freedom to investigate them so that the entire picture of recent history can be revealed and understood. Eastern Europe needs to come to grips with the Nazi-instigated Holocaust as it affected their countries, including questions of forced or voluntary collaboration of the indigenous populations, such as the recent accusations of complicity in Poland and Rumania. On the other hand, the West needs to confront and process the crimes against humanity committed by the Soviet regime and other Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. 

Like all the countries concerned, Latvia sees herself confronted with this problem of different perceptions. Latvia, like the two other Baltic States, Estonia and Lithuania, were occupied threetimes within a short period of five years: by the Soviet Union in 1940, the National Socialist Germany 1941 and again by the Soviet Union in 1944­45. The forcible transformation of Latvia into a Soviet republic and the illegal annexation by the USSR in 1940 led, among other things, to a mass deportation of the political, economic, social and cultural elites (in 1941), farmers and members of national resistance (in 1949). It also led to an exodus of large numbers of the population in advance of the second Soviet occupation in 1944­45. The German occupation in the summer of 1941, which, after the terrible experience of the first Soviet occupation, had initially given rise to certain hopes of "normalization", quickly developed a scarcely less ruthless policy of suppression and exploitation. Nearly all of the Jews in Latvia were systematically murdered in the first six months of Nazi occupation.

Latvia's sudden loss of her hard-won independence, accompanied by two succeeding regimes of terror, presented the country's population with extraordinary and complex problems of ethical orientation. These were exacerbated by deliberate manipulation of public opinion and national sentiments, especially in terms of allegiances and enmities. It must be remembered that both occupying powers had conspired to rob Latvia's independence (the Hitler­Stalin Pact of 23 August 1939) and both worked toward total subjugation of the population as their long-term goal. 

The analysis and evaluation of these problems and manipulations place the highest demands on present-day historians. The accurate description and classification of events is rendered more difficult by the persistence of historical legends that can be partly ascribed to the occupiers. Thus, Nazi authorities tried to justify their crimes by referring to the crimes by the preceding Soviet occupying power, while, after 1944­45, the Communist rulers used the same approach to justify their terror. Thus false connections and stereotypes were constructed, which in part still inform public opinion. For example, German propaganda claimed that members of Soviet secret police engaged in political persecution and deportations were mainly Jews, an assertion that some Latvians still use to excuse the participation of some of their compatriots in the persecution and execution of Latvian Jews in the second half of 1941. Conversely, the Soviet authorities and some Western writers frequently insinuated that almost all Latvians had played a role in the murder of the Jews, an insinuation which still has repercussions today. Therefore, thorough knowledge of the objectives and methods of the occupying regimes is required in order to appraise in a sensitive and discerning manner the sufferings of individuals, of social and ethnic groups and the nation as a whole - the political persecutions, the Holocaust, the concentration camps, the deportations and the GULAG - as well as the long-term consequences for the survivors and the nation.

In order to promote research into these complex problems and to make the results known to both the populace of Latvia and the international public, the President of the Republic of Latvia, Guntis Ulmanis, convened an International Commission of Historians on 13 November 1998, patterned on the model of such commissions in other Central and East European countries. The present President of the Republic of Latvia, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, is continuing the policy of her predecessor and has extended the Commission's mandate. The Commission is charged with and committed to setting forth unequivocally and clearly the crimes against humanity during the rule of the occupation regimes. The Commission pursues its mission through international conferences and publications, the promotion of historical research and the development of appropriate historical curricula in schools and universities.

The international conferences, mainly in cooperation with the Latvian Institute of History, define the framework for research and inform the general public about the historians' findings. Up to now, three such conferences have taken place: "Latvia in the Second World War" (1999), "Problems of Research into the Holocaust in Latvia" (2000) and "The Deportation of 14 June 1941" (2001). The papers of the first two conferences have been published in the series "Symposium of the Commission of Historians of Latvia"; the third conference proceedings are in preparation. 

The conferences have been useful for determining areas of agreement and disagreement with international scholars and need for comparative studies. Thus, on several occasions, extremely controversial discussions have taken place, especially concerning the Latvian participation in the Nazi-initiated Holocaust and the applicability of the term "genocide" to Soviet occupation policy, especially the deportations. These controversies indicate that Latvian historians have to be concerned not only with presenting and reviewing the facts but also with the status of current international research and the application of internationally accepted terminology.

International comparisons are also indispensable to evaluate several aspects of Latvian history and to place them into context. Such is the existence of an authoritarian regime in Latvia since 1934, whose political structures facilitated the Communist seizure of power in 1940 and whose emphasis on national and authoritarian education offered certain starting points for Nazi German propaganda after 1941. Such is the collaboration by Latvians with both the Soviet and the German side. These aspects are not in themselves exceptional and can be better understood if viewed in the context of other East Central and South Eastern European countries.

The Commission has paid special attention to the dissemination of appropriate historical knowledge and teaching methodology in the schools. For this purpose it has cooperated closely and successfully with the Ministry of Education and Science, the Latvian Association of History Teachers, the Museum Jews in Latvia, The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia (1940­1991) and other educational and cultural organizations. "The Teaching of Controversial Issues of World War II" was the title of a seminar for teachers in April 2000, followed by "Holocaust Education" in the autumn. A further seminar for history teachers in November 2001 dealt with "The Holocaust in Latvia". The Commission has formed four sub-commissions to promote research: 1. Crimes against Humanity Committed in the Territory of Latvia 1940­41, headed by Professor Dr. Valdis Berzins; 2. Holocaust in the Territory of Latvia 1944­44, headed by Professor Dr. Aivars Stranga; 3. Crimes against Humanity Committed in the Territory of Latvia during the German Occupation 1941­45, headed by Professor Dr. Inesis Feldmanis; 4. Crimes against Humanity Committed in the Territory of Latvia during the Second Soviet Occupation 1944­56, headed by Professor Dr. Heinrihs Strods. More than 30 Latvian historians are currently examining the most important aspects of crimes against humanity in Latvia. The aim is to compile a research record sufficiently complete and well documented to assure an accurate and undeniable portrayal of these crimes and their perpetrators.

The Holocaust and, in particular, the involvement of ethnic Latvians in the massacre actions in the summer and late fall of 1941, is the initial focus of research. The first findings indicate that there is no connection whatsoever between the events of the first Soviet occupation of 1940­41 and the participation of Latvian groups in the murder of the Jews. The motives for the participation are to be sought elsewhere (Rudite Viksne). It is also possible to name specific persons who were involved in the Jewish massacres in small towns (Dzintars Erglis), thus contradicting the cliché that the Latvians collectively were engaged in the atrocities. 

The research concerning crimes against humanity is only the beginning. Much work needs to be done analyzing the historical background, the respective oppression mechanisms, as well as the economic, demographic, cultural and ethnic impact and consequences of the entire occupation period 1940­1991. The sensitive questions of collaboration need to be addressed in much more detail. Comprehensive databases of murdered and persecuted persons must be created. All that takes time, especially since many sources have only recently become available. The work is further complicated by the fact that Latvian scholars a great deal of difficulty accessing many relevant archives in Russia. It is, however, well worth mentioning that many younger historians are engaged in this research. They are obtaining valuable experience and opportunities for academic advancement, thus assuring that Latvian historiography will have a new generation of scholars who will carry on the work. The following reports by the chairmen of the four sub-commissions provide information about the objectives, the current state, the problems and the early results of research in their areas as of summer 2001.

The Progress Report of Latvia's History Commission: Crimes against Humanity Committed in the Territory of Latvia from 1940 to 1956 during the Occupations of the Soviet Union and National Socialist Germany

Crimes against Humanity in the Territory of Latvia during the Soviet Occupation 1940–41

Holocaust in the Territory of Latvia during Nazi Occupation 1941-1945

Crimes against Humanity in the Territory of Latvia during Nazi Occupation 1941-1945

Crimes against Humanity in the Territory of Latvia during the Soviet Occupation 1944–1956

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