Latvian Waffen SS Legion is one of the most complicated topics in the Latvian history. During the WW2 large numbers of the Latvian men fought in the ranks of the Nazi German army. Also large numbers of the Latvian men fought in the opposite side. Today 70 years after the end of the World War 2 the topic about the Legion remains controversial. Right wing nationalist parties tend to canonize the Latvian legionaries as the heroes of the Latvian nation and hosts annual commemorative event at March 16th. The Russian propaganda portrays this as a “Nazi SS march” and the “rebirth of Nazism”. The western media is often caught between these two conflicting sides. However, the truth is always somewhere in between. The Latvian social memory is divided and thus biased by the propaganda from the both conflicting sides. This article will try to explain what was the Latvian Waffen SS Legion and why its commemoration is so controversial and misunderstood.
Latvia gained its independence with war in 1920. It was war against two main enemies- the Russian Bolsheviks and German forces. Both sides were against the idea of Latvian state. Bolsheviks dreamed of world revolution, while Germans hoped for restoration of the German state within Latvia and Estonia. While Latvians fought the Bolsheviks with large patriotism, even more eagerly they fought the Germans. The army of Bermondt was assembled to crush the Latvian state. Their soldiers later wrote in their memoirs: “We killed Latvians like rabbits we chased them and burned their homes!”. Some historians say that German victory in the war of Independence will mean the genocide of the Latvian people. Luckily Germans were defeated and Latvia gained its independence. During the time of freedom Latvia feared both Germany and Soviet Union. Sympathizers in Germany were the minority. Even the hardcore antisemitic Latvian nationalists were against Germany. When in 1933 Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany it was met with backlash by a majority of Latvians. Latvian supporters of Nazi Germany were marginal. Even the radical organization Thundercross stated that they will battle Germans as much as the Jews. The Latvian government was also more suspicious to Germany more than the Soviet Union. The fact that military defense plans were made mainly against Germany not Soviet Union shows the point.
But the 1939 changed everything. The nightmare situation- the pact between Nazi Germany and Soviet Union made Soviet Union the main Latvian enemy. When in 1939 by Hitlers orders German minority of Latvia repatriated to Third Reich it was met with excitement by Latvians that the old enemies have left. A year later in June 17 Soviet Union occupied Latvia. Soviets removed Latvian president Kārlis Ulmanis from the office and established their puppet government. To “justify” the occupation an election with only one official communist list were made. All attempts to form another list were halted with repressions. After the that the new “Peoples parliament” “asked” comrade Stalin to allow Latvia to become a member of the Soviet Union.
The year 1940 was the hardest time for Latvia. Soviets disbanded the Latvian army, repressed the political elite and took Latvian land and property. Bloody outrages happened in the dark chambers of NKVD the Cheka. Patriots were killed and mutilated. On June 14 1941 massive deportation of Latvian citizens to Siberia took place. All this was a massive blow to Latvian youth, they were educated as patriots of Latvian country. The patriotic education in prewar Latvia was more common than now and made the majority the youngsters born in those times a fanatic supporters of Latvia.
The German invasion on June 22 1941 was met with excitement in all three Baltic states. Lithuanians started a massive national uprising against the Soviets and established national provisional government. The rise of national partisans started in Latvia also. Partisans attacked retreating Soviet army and helped the Germans to defeat the Soviets. In July 1 German army entered Riga. A large manifestations greeting Germans were a proof that Soviet occupation left a deep scar in Latvian minds. Many hoped that Nazi Germany would restore the Latvian independence. The Nazi German propaganda was fast to create the myth of the “Horrible Year” (Baigais Gads). Germans publicly reveled corpses of Soviet killed Latvians Riga prisons and other soviet atrocities. A book called “The Horrible Year” and movie “The Red Fog” was made by Germans to show the horrors of the soviet occupation and repression and portrayed Nazi Germans as saviors. However, both works exclusively blamed the Jewish Bolsheviks and the Jews as whole for the Soviet occupation therefore justifying the Holocaust that was already underway in Latvia. Because of this the therm “Horrible Year” is no more than a therm made by Nazi propaganda to justify the Nazi occupation of Latvia.
Lithuanians and Latvians hoped that the Germans will give Latvia back its independence. In reality Germans had nothing of this in mind. All three Baltic states became the part of Reichcommisariat Ostland with local German authority. The Germans ordered Latvian partisans to return arms and disband. Surviving Latvian army officers such as Viktors Deglavs and Aleksandrs Plesners demanded Germans to restore Latvian national forces. Deglvavs was found shot in the stairway of his apartment soon after. The radicals of the Thundercross supported the Germans and helped to popularize the actions against the Jews, but also asked to create two divisions of Latvian volunteers to fight the Soviets. In result Thundercross was banned and their leader Gustavs Celmiņš sent to concentration camp. The Germans only allowed to make completely loyal Latvian self-government that will fulfill their every task. The Nazi German racial laws generally forbid non-Germans to serve in the Wehrmacht. Latvians could serve in armed units under the command of the Security Service (SD). They were called Self Defense (Selbstschutz) groups formed out of national partisans that showed up at first days of war. In many occasions these units were involved in killing the Jews in the Latvian cities. Two special SS Einzatscomando units the Arājs and Valgulāns unit were specially tasked to exterminate the Latvian Jews, n Most of them were disbanded in late 1941. One part of them were added to the Police Battalions (Schutzmannschaften) who took part in the various operations and tasks from guarding prisons and train stations to taking part in front line duties.
Such actions can be explained by the German beliefs of a quick victory over the Soviet Union. Plans were laid for the Germanization of Latvia and Latvian deportation to the Ural mountains. However after the failure at Stalingrad Germans started to speculate about non-Germans in the ranks of the Waffen SS. The Waffen SS was chosen because Germans did not want to formally include a non-German into the ranks of Wehrmacht. But Latvian Waffen SS Legion and other such national legions were completely under the command of Wehrmacht. Before that Latvians were allowed to fight in Police battalions that took action against Soviet partisans in the Eastern Front. Police battalions were badly equipped. Many were ashamed of the name of their formation. The order of establishing a Volunteer Waffen SS Legion came in 1943, from Hitler by the request of head of the SS Heinrich Himmler. Similar order was also in Estonia and Lithuania. Contrary to Latvians and Estonians, Lithuanian authorities resisted to form their legion. They demanded to give Lithuania its independence in order to form the Legion. Since Germans still resisted to do this Lithuanians did not encourage their people to join the legion and the scheme failed.
In Latvia, Latvian authorities were more willing to cooperate with the Germans and asked Latvians to join the legion. However, the size of volunteers was too small to please the Germans. Those who joined by their own will want to fight the Soviets and prevent the return of the Soviet occupation. They were patriotic minded people deeply affected by the soviet occupation and encouraged by the Nazi propaganda. The return of repressions and deportations was feared by them. And since German anti-Latvian plans now seemed impossible the will to fight the Soviet Union was high.
The formation of the Waffen SS Legion was a breach of the 1907 Hague Convention that restricted the invader to mobilize men within the occupied territories. Soviets did the same thing by conscripting the Latvian men in the Red Army.
Since only 15% of those who joined were volunteers Germans started the mobilization. Two formations were made the 15th and 19th division. Also Latvians took part in the German air force. Latvian Soldiers got Armshield showing the Latvian flag and name Latvia. People aged from 1908 to 1926 were conscripted in the Legion. In the very beginning the health checks ruled out people unfit for the war, but when situation begun to get worse in people with tuberculosis and other illness were conscripted. Also schoolboys were taken from their desks and sent to war. While first wave soldiers received proper training the last wave was often sent without any training at all resulting pointless deaths and capture.
Legion consisted of Latvian officers, many of them from the former Latvian Army. But the main orders were directed by Germans. SS Grupenfurhrer Rūdolfs Bangerskis was the general inspector of Latvian Legion but without former rights to direct his own orders.
The first battles of the Latvian Legion took place at the Leningrad front in 1943. Heavy battles took place near Novgord, Pskov. The Germans gave Latvians the impossible task to halt Soviet army that marched to the Latvian border. Latvian soldiers did this bravely and courageously. In August and September 1944, 15th division was sent to Prussia for replenishment of new units. It was in training near Danzig and ordered to fight in January 22 1945. It consisted 15, 000 soldiers. About 1, 000 were sent to Courland that was encircled by the Soviet Army. The rest was lost in fighting with the Soviets in Polish front. On April 11 remaining forces were told to be sent to Courland, seeing that all is lost they resisted and decided to surrender to Western allies.
The 19th Division stayed in Latvia all the way and fought the entering Soviet army. Legion fought a heavy battle at More to halt the Soviet advance and allow other German formations to retreat. At the end the Legion was trapped in Courland surrounded by Soviets from all sides. Despite the fact that the Courland pocket was not strategically important Soviets sent six massive attacks from 1944 to 1945. All of them were beaten off by Germans and the Legion. Soviet armies perished in the fields of Courland and it was never captured by Soviets. Because of that the Courland was called a fortress.
Courland only surrendered on May 9 1945. All who became POWS of the Soviets, spent years in concentration camps and prisons. Those who managed to get to the western side escaped the Soviet repressions. Allied forces refused to handle Latvian soldiers to the Soviet Union. Only Sweden give up to the Soviet demands and handled the escaped Latvian soldiers.
Latvian Waffen SS Legion was a pure battle formation. It did not take any part in Holocaust since the Jewish killings in Latvia ended a year before the legion was formed. It should be seen as different from the other SS formation, because the their attachment to SS was a strict formality. The American Displaced Persons Commission stated very clearly that “the Waffen-SS units of the Baltic States (the Baltic Legions) are to be seen as units that stood apart and were different from the German SS in terms of goals, ideologies, operations and constitution, and the Commission does not, therefore, consider them to be a movement that is hostile to the government of the United States. When German officers asked Latvian officers who wants to fight Allied forces none rise up.
The Arajs and Valgulāns commando that played important role in the Holocaust where never part of Waffen SS. Its true, that at the end of the war some of men from this formation were sent to Waffen SS. But, that cannot make the whole battlefield formation criminal. Same goes for the soldiers of the Red Army who made crimes against the civilians, but they cannot put the blame on whole Red Army. Every man must take individual responsibility for his bad deeds and not pass to innocent ones. The Latvian Police Battalions who guarded ghettos at Riga and Warsaw or took part in anti-partisan activities also cannot be added to the guilt of the Latvian Waffen SS Legion. None of the members of the Latvian Waffen SS Legion was ever sentenced for war crimes. The main “crime” of the Latvian Waffen SS Legion was they were forced to fight in the loosing side. If Germany had won the war the Latvian formations in the Red Army would have faced controversy in the same way.
The Latvian Waffen SS Legion was the victims of the World war II and Nazi regime. The absolute majority of Latvian soldiers, believed that are fighting for Latvia and Latvian people. Many believed that the Legion will be the foundation of the Latvian army and the Allies will support Latvian independence. The allies gave Latvia away to the Soviets and this dream was not fulfilled. For Nazis they were a just a another formation to halt the Soviet advance. Many other nations fought in German SS legions. Bosnian Muslims, Turks, Norwegians, Ukrainians. About 1 million Russians served in the German army.
After the restoration of the Latvian independence the surviving Latvian Legion veterans and their relatives wanted to be officially commemorated and accepted. At first the Latvian government was supportive and even hosted the March 16th and issued an official declaration explaining the Waffen SS Legion, later because of the outrage in the Russian and Western media started to distance itself from the March 16th event. However, the nationalist parties some of them in government continued to mark the March 16th with commemorative march to the Monument of Freedom and hosting the event in Lestene war cemetery. The Russian propaganda since the rise of Vladimir Putin employed the March 16th event for their “rebirth of Nazism” discourse. A discourse needed to justify the Russian aggressive policy towards Latvia. By producing biased movies, issuing works by the “academic historians” with distorted often made up facts, the Russian propaganda convinced many in Russia and the West, that there is a genuine SS Nazi marching in Riga, Latvian Legion were war criminals and Latvia is officially recognizing them as heroes. That is all very far from the truth. However, the attempts of canonizing the Latvian Legion veterans as some nationalist movements to do so is also a fruitless Nazi propaganda affected effort. Latvian Legion, same as the Latvian formations within the Red Army all were victims of the occupations, two totalitarian propaganda’s. Propaganda’s that are still very powerful in Latvia poising the minds of the people and fueling the new war. Both veterans deserve their commemoration and support, but not in the political level. The World War 2 must end within our minds to avoid new World War 3.
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