The parliamentary period of independent Latvia had two common things the vast ethnic diversity and great freedoms for press. Latvia with her many national minorities outlined in whole picture of Europe. For centuries in the small geographical area of Latvia Germans, Russians and Jews lived side by side. All of these minorities had its own culture and national elite that made Latvia a multi-ethnic nation. According to national census made in 1935 Latvia was inhabited by 75% Latvians, 10,59% Russians, 4,79% Jews, 3,19% Germans and 2,51% Poles.
The founding fathers of Latvia had to cope with these minorities and since the very start at November 18, 1918 Kārlis Ulmanis said these words: “All citizens, without no ethnic distinction are asked to help, for all nationality rights will be ensured in Latvia. It will be democratic country of justice where they cannot be any repression or injustice!” It was a strong promise that had to kept in order to gain support from non-Latvians who were skeptical about new Latvian state. The goal of founding Latvian right-wing politicians was to form a national democratic nation with emphasis on Latvian language and culture, but to give equal rights to all national minorities including them in the state political and social system.
Steps were made for this. The citizenship made in 1919, granted citizen rights to all who lived in Latvia before 1914 without any national restrictions. Already in 1925 96% people of Latvia held citizen rights. The main step towards the minorities was the Law about minority school autonomy issued in 1919, that granted minorities to get education in their maiden language and maintain their own schools. Also the election the law that did not require no 5% barrier and needed only 100 people to found a party made relative easy to be elected in to parliament.
As for unknowing observer this may seem that national relations in Latvia were quite good and there were no serious problems. However that was only on paper. The nationalistic calls in newspapers, anti-minority talks in parliament and even some national violent outbursts (that were still pretty rare) and rise of radical nationalist movements showed that there is something wrong within Latvians and the minorities.
The cause for this was cross national economical and ethnic rivalry. In every ethnically uneven country it’s not matters how sizable is the minority, but how much influence does it have in state level. And this was the main problem in Latvia. For centuries Latvians faced economical and political discrimination from foreign rulers. Latvians were mainly limited to agriculture sector, in finance and industry Latvians were minority. Still at the end of 19 century and the beginning of 20 century Latvian middle and upper class was still weak and unfolded.
After gaining independence Latvians were still behind the minorities in many sectors. In 1935, of all commercial companies 58% belonged to Jews, 24% to Germans and 5,4% to Russians. Jewish tradesman were present in Riga and the province and Germans owned the large industrial companies. This made many Latvians envious and unsure about their position in their own country. From saying: “Everything belongs to Germans and Jews, we Latvians still are not the masters of our land” a slogan came “Latvia for Latvians!”. And this were the caricatures come in that shows pretty much what Latvians thought about their national minorities.
Caricatures were integral part of every newspaper at those times. Satirical art was favored by the readers and there many caricaturists. In this article we only will take a look on caricatures published in satirical magazines, for almost all main newspapers had caricatures. Satirical magazines were usually a hobby contribution of many caricaturists who came to together. The magazines consisted from caricatures, anecdotes and funny stories.
From all 40 satirical magazines that came out between 1920-1934 some can be mentioned with distinction. “Svari” (Scales) was the biggest magazine that came out from 1920 to 1931. It first came out already in 1906 in Petersburg, and after short live of fame was banned by Czarist authorities. The main authors of the caricatures were Roberts Tilbergs, Rihards Zariņš and Jānis Zeberiņš. It is worth to note that first version of “Svari” was leftist minded, but after the 1920, the journal became more nationalistic and anti-Semitic. Caricatures were made in national realist style. A contrary to “Svari” was “Ho-Ho!” a magazine made by young generation artists – expressionists, Cubists and suprematists. Something that was strongly opposed from “Svari” artists. The main artists of “Ho-Ho!” was Romāns Suta, Sigusmunds Vidbergs, Otto Skulme and Aleksandra Belcova. It was extraordinary magazine in arts and style and leftist minded. However leftists were pretty anti-German at those times. The journal came out from 1922 to 1924 after went bankrupt. The third main journal was “Sikspārnis” (The Bat”) Journal came out with gaps from 1922 to 1940. A nationalist minded it was a big journal and was very found of satirizing Jews.
According to my calculations the most depicted minority in caricatures were Jews a satirized a total of 204 times, Germans were depicted 204 times, Russians 19, Gypsies 5 times, and Poles 3 times in a period between 1920 to 1934. Before the World war and the Holocaust there was no political correctness towards the minorities, nobody expected the tragic events that would happen with Jews and other minorities. And minorities themselves did not mind much about caricatures and there were no or less complaints registered from them. Today a anti-Semitic or anti-Islamic caricature would cause a large scandal or even violence. None of this was present before the world war.
As the biggest minority in Latvia the Russians were often associated with old Czarist past. The past Russifaction policies made a large resentment towards Russian language and Russian culture. Caricatures showed antipathies towards Russian monarchists who wanted to restore Russian Empire. “Sikspārnis” suggested to kick them out of Latvia back to Russia. Satirical press praised the removal of Orthodox chapel in Riga Railroad station square in 1925 (it was done to extend the square and chapel was intended to be moved to Pokrov Russian cemetery, but Orthodox church wasted the money and chapel was lost forever). But, that was not enough as “Svari” even wanted to remove the Orthodox cathedral in city center and place a Monument of Liberty there. The church was a symbol for Czarist past for many. Interestingly enough Russians were not associated with Soviet Union at those times.
Germans were lesser than Russians and Jews but held a large influence. They still played a great role in national politics and economy. The past experience the myth of 700 years of slavery made Germans as the main Latvian enemy. Germans were shown constantly plotting against Latvia and Latvians. Great anger was made against Germans that still held large influence and took important governmental posts. The political demands by German parties that were constant were depicted as a threat to Latvian nation. Satirical magazines praised the controversial took away of St. Jacobs and Riga Dome cathedral from German congregations. The most noted German politician Paul Schiemann know for his liberal policies and progressive national ideas was shown as a German nationalist and chauvinist. While Scheimann really had a progressive liberal views he still played the role of German national right defender.
The main satirical slur was headed towards the Jews. While Jews had no political claims against Latvian state and no past as a Latvian oppressor, their influence in trade and finance was so clearly seen that they got themselves many enemies. There were many myths about Jews in Latvia that were present in caricatures. Satirical magazines outlined the uneven Jewish role in Latvian society; while being overly present in economy and education almost no role in state sector and army. The magazine “Lapsene” (The Wasp) called Jews the artificial insects and asked how to destroy them. Jews were accused of speculating the new Latvian currency and later even taking over all Latvian money capital.
Another paranoid view since gaining independence was that the many Jews from Russia that never lived in Latvia before, came in large masses along with Latvian refugees. That was partly true, but it should noted that the Soviet government and the Checka simply loaded many undesired people on the refugee trains to get rid of them. Another thing is that many of the Jews really lived in Latvia before the war. But satirical magazines were talking about the “new Palestine” in Latvia and influx of swindlers. It all came to climax at 1927, when the changes in citizenship that extended the list of people eligible for citizen rights were made. Nationalist parties initiated a referendum to turn down the changes. The nationalists insisted that even more Jews will gain citizen rights. For whole year till December that was the main theme in satirical press. The referendum failed to reach its purpose as the quorum was not reached.
Jews were also accused of being communists and plotting against Latvia. While there were really some underground Jewish communists and Soviet agents their role and size was not significant as depicted in caricatures. Latvian communists were more a threat and larger in size.
One of the most remarkable Jewish personality was rabbi Mordehajs Dubins who was also a Orthodox Jewish politician. He was elected in all parliaments was a personal friend of Kārlis Ulmanis and talented businessman. He even gained audience to US President Herbert Hoover office a something that could not be done by many Latvian politician. He was true leader of Latvian Jewry. In so the Latvian satire depicted him as oligarch and real mover of many governments. Sometimes he even was show as a President or Prime Minister. He really had a large influence on governmental decisions, but his power was overestimated by Latvian satires.
One interesting siting in Latvian satirical press was a journal “Intīmās poltiskās aizkulises, jeb mazas piezīmes par “lieliem” vīriem” (Intimate political back scenes, or a small notes on “great” men”) with such peculiar name you could not guess that this journal was published by United Latvian Nationalsocialist Party a small political party inspired by Nazi Germany. This was one of the most anti-Semitic publisher of caricatures calling for complete “disinfection of Earth parasites” and removal of “council of Elders of Zion”. Jews were accused of selling cocaine, seducing Latvian women and harming the Latvian state. Party was short-lived from 1933 to 1934 and did not gain any significant popularity but its journal its example of the limits of Latvian anti-Semitism.
The caricatures showed that national question in Latvia was actual and hardly addressable. A Latvian desire for “being masters in their own land” and the presence of nationalism was clearly seen. Despite the fact that caricatures could be accused of spreading the hate not always they called for violence. In place of that a notion was seen that these problems could not be solved by democratic meas. But without democracy no political satire was possible. After Kārlis Ulmanis took power by coup all political satire and anti-Semitic remarks were banned. A national problems were solved simply by not talking about them. That was a proof that Latvia between 1920 to 1934 was very democratic country that allowed freely talk about the national issues.