“Symposium of the Commission of the Historians of Latvia, Volume 14”
My co-editor Erwin Oberländer and I have given this collection of 20 scholarly essays the title The Hidden and Forbidden History of Latvia under Soviet and Nazi Occupations 1940–1991 because much of the history of the country and its people was indeed both hidden and forbidden. That is one side of the coin. The other could be named – “The Distortions and Myths about the History of Latvia as Written by Soviet and Nazi Ideologies.” There are references to these distortions and myths in the volume, but the it addresses documentable history that was hidden not only from the population, but even more – from the outside world. The population still had its memory, of course, and could find its way around; the outside world, however, was shown only the occupants' versions of history – twisted and distorted to their own ends, while the documents revealing reality were stamped “Top Secret” and hidden away. Neither of the occupying powers was interested in the Latvian nation's point of view; oftentimes they created their own historical interpretations as tools of intimidation and suppression. It was forbidden – and dangerous – to carry out research that would contradict the officially established historical point of view. This volume attempts to clear up the view.
The essays offer a small selection of the research supported by the Commission of the Historians of Latvia from 1998 to 2004. The Commission carries out its mission in four Sub-Commissions: the Soviet Occupation of 1940–41; the German Occupation 1941–44/45; the Holocaust in the Territory of Latvia 1941–45; the Soviet Occupation from 1944/45. Most of these articles, selected by the Sub-Commission chairs, have been published previously in some of the 13 volumes published so far, but are for the first time made available in English. The Sub-Commission chairs contributed summary articles. The editors want to stress that the opinions expressed and the conclusions reached by the individual authors are their own.
Although the book's arrangement by period is a logical one, there are several main concerns and topics that are reiterated in many of the contributions regardless of the exact period. These are in part determined by a perceived urgent need to respond to Western misconceptions and official Russian positions that are still based on Soviet ideological myths, as well as to reveal the extent of crimes against humanity perpetrated under both occupation regimes. These are primarily:
• The illegality or legality (as maintained by Soviet historiography) of the Soviet occupation in 1940 and its relationship to the 1939 Nazi–Soviet agreements.
• The Holocaust in occupied Latvia and the role of the local populations in it.
• The participation of Latvians in German repressive and military forces.
• The question of genocide, especially mass deportations, at the hands of the Soviet occupiers.
• The problem of resistance to and collaboration with both occupation regimes.
• The question of sovietization, Russification and colonization of the Baltic.
• The manipulation and falsification of historical facts to ideological ends by both occupying regimes.
Some important aspects of this volume must be noted. Because of the extended imposed isolation from the Western world and historical scholarship, most Latvian historians are only now starting to find their way about Western historical discourse. The difficulties of communication are not only linguistic and methodological; above all they have to do with perspective. The desire is paramount to set the historical record straight. The articles bring to light many previously unknown documents and formerly secret files and reveal the ways in which historical evidence was twisted to fit the end of the occupiers.
The lead article by the U.S. historian and member of the Commission, Alfred Erich Senn, "Baltic Battleground," written expressly for this volume, attempts to set the scene across the Baltic and to provide insight into the complex and cumulative effects of the three occupations on the three Baltic nations and their societies. Though he places his emphasis on the nature of Soviet rule and on the origins of the Holocaust, his essay does much more: it provides a credible explanation of the ways in which social psychology was affected and manipulated by the occupying powers.
Although the German–Soviet secret agreements 1939 addressed directly, they form a point of departure for the analysis of the Soviet takeover on 17 June 1940. It is provided by Irçne Đneidere. Arguments about the conspiratorial and illegal nature of the takeover are bolstered by the massive use of military force, the well-documented infiltration of Soviet secret agents, the undermining of Latvian institutions, the deception and intimidation of the population. Under these circumstances, Soviet historians' claims that Latvia and the other Baltic nations underwent a democratic "socialist revolution" and voluntarily joined the Soviet Union sound hollow.
Rudîte Vîksne's detailed analysis of the repressions carried out by the occupiers and their local collaborators throughout the year 1940–41 reveals the methods by which compliance with the occupation regime was enforced. Jânis Riekstiňđ describes, in bureaucratic detail, the preparation and execution of the 14 June 1941 mass deportation of over 15,000 people. The deportation in many ways became the decisive event that fixed hatred and fear of Communism and the Soviet regime in the minds of the people.
Early collaboration with the Nazi regime is perceived by Latvian historians basically as a shocked reaction to Soviet persecutions and crimes against humanity, rather than as Latvian proclivity for fascism, typical of Soviet propaganda. This view informs Inesis Feldmanis' introductory essay on the "German Times." He traces Nazi equivocation about Latvian independence and shows how early collaboration turned to both active and passive resistance in the hopes of Western intervention, but at the same time facing the threatening return of the Red Army.
The early collaboration with the German occupiers also led to the involvement of ethnic Latvians in the mass murder of Latvian Jews. The involvement is not at issue. What is at issue is the question about the initiation and the execution of the Holocaust: who did what, when and why. Aivars Stranga summarizes the latest Latvian findings about the Holocaust on Latvian soil, “the gravest crime in the modern history of Latvia.” He agrees with scholars who maintain that it was initiated and administered by the Germans, though they tried to make it appear as a local enterprise. An estimated 65–70,000 Latvian Jews were killed, most of them already in 1941, out of a pre-war population of about 92,000.
There was no "Germanless Holocaust" in Latvia despite memoirs and scholarly literature to the contrary. Much depends on what happened during the so-called interregnum between the Soviet departure and German arrival in the last days of June and early days of July 1941. Juris Pavlovičs supports the view held by most Latvian historians that the – usually very brief – interregnum was not marked by mass retributions of ethnic Latvians against the Jews. On the other hand, the article also explains how the Germans could take advantage of the existing chains of command to carry out their intentions without the appearance of their own involvement.
One chilling detailed case history is provided by Dzintars Çrglis dealing with the murder of five Jewish youths by members of the Latvian police in the area of Krustpils. Rudîte Vîksne’s article on the notorious Arâjs Commando points out that the Soviet judicial system with its insistence on coerced confessions oftentimes makes finding out the truth difficult. Contrary to earlier assumptions, she concludes that, especially from 1942 on, recruits came from socially and morally marginalized groups with incomplete secondary education, oftentimes driven by selfish motives.
The Soviet Union viewed Latvian military involvement on the German side in the Great Patriotic War as treasonous. Two main questions are still debated. To what extent was the participation voluntary? And to what extent did the Latvian units perform crimes against humanity? The Latvian Schutzmannschaft battalions and the “Latvian SS Volunteer Legion” were both organized under the auspices of Heinrich Himmler’s SS organization. Kârlis Kangeris reveals the many oftentimes conflicting reasons and motivations for the formation of these battalions in late 1941 and in 1942. Although in propaganda ostensibly “voluntary,” various enticements and ruses were used in their formation, including monetary rewards. Both he and Inesis Feldmanis, in his article on the Latvian Legion, present these national units as part of a broader scheme. Himmler’s so-called Waffen SS subsumed soldiers of many nationalities with different motivations and goals. Feldmanis strictly rejects suggestions that soldiers of the Latvian Legion, committed war crimes and any notion that they fought for Hitler’s Germany or National Socialism.
For most of the population of Latvia, the Germans were at best inconvenient and expedient allies against the Soviet Union. Though for many they represented the lesser of two evils, the ultimate hope of much of the population for restoring independence lay with the Western Allies and their principles. Uldis Neiburgs describes just how widespread – and to some extent misguided – this hope was. This hope also inspired various resistance groups against the German occupation power. Antonijs Zunda surveys historical literature dealing with national resistance against the Germans, including the attitudes of Soviet historians, who in principle recognized only Soviet resistance as legitimate.
Heinrihs Strods deals with the broad issues of resistance during the second Soviet occupation, starting with armed resistance by the National Partisans, continuing with various forms of non-violent resistance and ending with the emergence of the so-called “singing revolution.” The other side of the coin is revealed by Aldis Bergmanis, Ritvars Jansons and Indulis Zâlîte in their article on the work of Soviet repressive agencies. They succeeded in their counterinsurgency actions against the National Partisans, though the ultimate blow was delivered by the 1949 mass deportation, which numerically by far exceeded the deportation of 1941.
The second Soviet occupation has been variously described by the terms “sovietization,” “Russification” and “colonization”. All three terms have a certain validity, for all describe the regime’s attempts – and eventual failure – to bring about complete radical social and ethnic change by force. Heinrihs Strods uses “sovietization” as the all-embracing concept, subsuming administrative, political, economic and cultural subjugation, as well as the establishment of military and communication control and colonization by immigration.
Jânis Riekstiňđ uses two terms – “colonization” and “”Russification” – to describe the massive demographic changes brought about by Soviet regime and its policies. He points out that throughout the second Soviet occupation mechanical increase – immigration from other parts of the USSR – outpaced natural increase and seriously unbalanced the ethnic composition of Latvia. The percentage population of the titular nation decreased from 75.5% in 1935, when the last pre-war census was taken, to 52% in 1989, the last census during the Soviet era.
While the cities became Russianized, the overwhelmingly Latvian countryside became an economically and socially depressed area. Daina Bleiere describes how this was achieved by the Soviet regime. Forcible measures, including the mass deportation of 1949, led to collectivization and proletarization of traditional rural society that had been the mainstay of Latvian national cohesion and economy during independence.
To eradicate vestiges of collective memory, Communist Party ideology imposed its historiographic model on Latvian history and subsumed it as part of Soviet and CPSU history. In the case of Latvian history, the “inevitable course of history” leading to socialism was complemented by the “historical inevitability” of integration into Russia. Aleksandrs Ivanovs details how this was achieved through institutional and personal changes, but he also points out the survival of traditional Latvian historiography of earlier historical periods even during the severest sovietization. The survival of such a tradition allowed Latvian historians to break the bonds to sovietized historiography as soon as the political bonds to the Soviet Union were loosening in the late 1980s.
The accession of Latvia and other former Soviet block nations to NATO and the European Union, has made it necessary to account for the role the Latvians and other East Europeans played during the Nazi occupation, especially in terms of the Holocaust and participation in German military forces, two of the topics that still haunt both historical and political thinking. Here, unavoidably, three radically different historical experiences and historical perspectives – those of Western Europe, the former Soviet Union and the newly independent East European countries – create a zone of disagreement and turbulence. This volume points to one of the basic causes of this disagreement and turbulence: the persistent presence of both Soviet and Nazi historical ideology, which treated Latvia and Latvians as historical objects and excluded any notion of Latvian independence or Latvians as sovereign subjects of history. Once these ideological causes are understood, it should be possible to start developing a historical discourse that accounts for the real victims and the actual perpetrators of both occupations. This, we hope, is only a beginning of such a discourse.
The editors want to thank the translator Eva Eihmane, the proofreader Dagnija Stađko, the Russian transcriber Ginta Zalcmane, the indexer Andris Justs, the artistic designer Inâra Jçgere and the computer typesetter Margarita Stoka for their significant contributions to this volume.