Latvian Resistance Against the Nazi Occupation

The Leader of the Latvian National resistance Konstantīns Čakste

The Leader of the Latvian National resistance Konstantīns Čakste

When Nazi Germany  invaded the Soviet Union many greeted them as liberators and took arms against Soviets. There were many legitimate reasons to do so. However, soon many realized that the Germans are just another occupiers and foreign oppressors.  This made some Latvians to start resisting the Nazi occupation. There were many types of the anti-Nazi resistance. The nationally motivated resistance movements fought for full restoration of the Latvian independence and also regarded the Soviets as enemies. There were movements who tried to resist using peaceful means and tried to contact the Western allies. Other small groups took arms and engaged in battles against Germans. There is also another type of anti-Nazi resistance- the Red Partisans. Soviet propaganda exaggerated their importance. After the fall of the Soviet Union the Red Partisans have been viewed rather negatively in the Latvian historiography and are considered not as partisans, but as special commandos sent in from the Soviet side of the front. There are still discussions going on about the legitimacy about the actions of the Red Partisans and they cause for the Latvian people.

First underground resistance groups have appeared already against the first Soviet occupation in 1940-1941. The largest ones were the New Latvians, Latvian National Legion, The Combat organization for Latvian liberation”, The Guards of the Fatherland. Most members were schoolboys. Some tried to establish the contacts with the Nazi intelligence service. However, Soviet secret police were ready enough to combat them. The rise of the National partisans on Summer of 1941 is a different subject.

The Germans made a solid administration of the occupied territories of the Baltic states. During the active war phase whole power belonged to German military government lead by infantry general Francis von Roques, later to cavalry general lieutenant Walter Bramer. At first three days of the war the center of command was located in Kovno (Kaunas), Lithuania but after July 17 in Riga. In all cities and other vital military locations, a commandant’s office was established. In Courland and Lithuania at  July 25 1941, then in September 1 in whole Latvia military government was changed with civil government. Adolf Hitler issued an order on June 17 to appoint Alfred Rosenberg as minister of the east. Alfred Rosenberg was a Baltic German from Estonia. He was a German chauvinist and visible anti-Semite. He witnessed the Russian revolution in 1917–1918, which made him strongly against Jews and Communists. He also showed no sympathy to the Latvians and Estonians downgrading them at the same level as Jews. He is mostly known as the main Nazi ideologue and author of the famous book The Myth of 20, century (Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts) . Despite the fact that he was appointed on June 17, it was officially declared only in  November 17 1941, because German leaders hoped to announce the fact after some important event, like the capture of Moscow or Leningrad.

The Germans resisted all attempts of forming autonomous Latvian government, but allowed certain forms of self-rule formed by loyal Latvian politicians. Those were general–offices that helped the Germans to impose order in occupied Latvia. Ex–Latvian ministers like Alfeds Valdmanis headed them. General Oskars Dankers lead the “loyalty council” called General office of Latvia. On December Germans united all “self-rule” bodies and picked the main directors of the offices. O Dankers was in charge of the interior affairs, A Valdmanis administrated jurisdiction, Mārtiņš Prīmanis overlooked the education and culture, Jānis Skujevics took over finances, Voldemārs Zāgars worked with economy, Oskars Leimanis maintained transport and Pēteris Vanags was at control affairs. The Germans called the self-government the “Self-Government of the land”. The self-government had no real rights to impose laws on their own; they completely depend on Germans. General Oskars Dankers was known as most loyal collaborators who fulfilled almost every German order. His loyalty was crucial in the organization of the Latvian Waffen SS legion when he promoted mobilization and called to join the legion.

Occupied Eastern territories were divided in reichskommissariat’s. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus were combined in reichskommissariat Ostland. Hinrich Lohse administrated it. Otto Heinrich Drechsler governed general region Latvia. The center of Ostland was Riga. The Latvian general region was divided into six districts (Gebietskommissariat’s) – Liepaja, Jelgava, Daugavpils, Riga and Riga rural area. Thus they were subdivided into counties and parishes. Gebietskommissar ruled districts. Riga was directly under Rosenberg’s jurisdictions and had special status. The administrator of Riga was oberburgomaster Hugo Vittrock, he was also a gebietskommissar of Riga district.

Germans dismayed any hopes for national independence. This made some brave men to start to form their national resistance movements. There were many small groups like The Latvian Nationalist Union, Latvian National Council, the Officer Union, organizations “The Latvian Guards”, “New Regiments, The Free Latvia”, The National Latvia Hawks of Daugava”, the Latvian Hawk organization” who called for independent Latvia. The radical nationalist organization “Thundercross” was allied with the Germans at the first months after the invasion, however then became repressed by the Germans and again started underground resistance.

The most senior movement was the Latvian Central Council founded on August 13 by the members of four biggest Latvian political parties- the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party, Democratic Center, Latvian Farmers Union and the Latgalian Christian Farmers party. These men survived the Soviet terror and now strived to restore the democratic Republic of Latvia.

The main leaders of the LCC were Konstantīns Čakste the son of the first president of Latvia Jānis Čakste and Captain Krišs Upelnieks. Already in 1941 they made contacts with the ant-Nazi resistance movements and looked for members of the parliament Saeima dissolved in 1934. They were joined by the Jānis Breikšs from the Democratic Center and the Social Democrats adding left wing of the resistance movement. On 1942 Voldemārs Salnais the envoy of the Republic of Latvia in Sweden was looking for ways to form a unified resistance organization. It was needed to prove the Western allies about Latvian intentions for freedom because of the noticeable existence of the Latvian collaborators. On March 29 1943 Salnais with the help of his mediator Edvards Skujenieks from Tallin to Riga sent a call to Latvians to form an organized resistance movement. There has been one already in Estonia. The resistance was based on a belief that the Nazi Germany will lose the war and the Great Britain and US will dictate the peace terms. First contact making with the West were discovered by Germans. However, the conspirators were released because of lack of evidence. On July 22 in a fisherman’s raft from Venstpils harbor to the island of Gotland Leonīds Siliņš entered Sweden. He sent valuable information to Stockholm about the Soviet and Nazi occupation. A complete report was sent to all Latvian diplomatic envoys.

On 1943 August 13 Čakste gathered  his colleagues in Riga. The main founders of LCC were social democrat Pauls Kalniņš, bishop Jāzeps Rancāns, Breikšs, social democrats Bruno Kalniņš, Voldemārs Bastjānis and farmers union member Ādolfs Klīve. Konstantīns Čakste was elected as the chairman with deputies Kalniņš and Ludvigs Sēja as general secretary. Seven commissions were made for most important sectors like defense, foreign affairs and finances. The LCC was made by members of all former Latvian top politicians and had high aims to be the governing body after the war.

LCC sent instructions to Latvian diplomats in exile and had contacts with the Higher Committee of the Lithuanian liberation and the Estonian Resistance center. The meetings with the resistance movements from both Baltic countries took place in Riga. A joint declaration to the UN was made and sent abroad. A foreign delegation was planned.

The LCC hoped that in the event of Nazi capitulation, Latvian Waffen SS Legion could raise arms for the Latvian state. So contacts with patriotic officers Mārtinš Peniķis and Eduards Kalniņš were made. The military commission with general Jānis Kurelis in charge was established.  After Kurelis established his armed resistance group the LCC provided the radio communications with the west for him.

The German intelligence service was aware of the actions of the LCC. The Germans arrested Lithuanian messenger in Estonia and learned about the main members of the resistance. On April 29 Čakste was arrested, on May 22 Sēja and in July Kalniņš was also taken. In mean time similar arrests were made in Estonia and Lithuania. The LCC members were sent to Salaspils Concentration Camp. On September 1 1944 they were transported to the Stuthoff Concentration Camp near Danzig. LCC continued its activities and elected Verner Tepfer, Breikšs, and Rudze as the new leaders.

The flag of Latvia in the crematory room of the Stuthoff concentration camp

The flag of Latvia in the crematory room of the Stuthoff concentration camp, commemorating the Latvians imprisoned there

Salnais and Siliņš convinced the Swedish government to make an escape route from Courland to Sweden. The distance between Courland and Gotland was good enough to escape unnoticed.   2141 people and 400 unregistered children managed to escape. The US state institutions also took part and hoped that LCC will save some Jews as well. Despite the fact that by 1944 the majority of the Latvian Jewish community was destroyed, LCC managed to transport many Jewish survivors to Sweden.

The last LCC meeting took place in September 8 1944 in Riga. The Soviets were approaching and the LCC decided to evacuate to Sweden. The LCC signed a Declaration of the Restoration of the Latvian Independence. Pauls Kalniņš became the President of Latvia until a new one is elected. The evacuation  to Sweden failed as not all made it trough. Kalniņš was halted by the Germans in the Baltic Sea and taken to Danzig. Others like Jānis Rancāns had to go to Germany or Austria. Remaining LCC members trapped in Courland fortress tried to escape to Sweden. Until the last day Germans tried to arrest them. After the war LCC divided in Swedish and German groups. Konstantīns Čakste and Pauls Kalniņš died in German captivity. Both groups still tried to affect the Western governments until the LCC ceased to exist in 1951.

General Kurelis

General Kurelis

The most famous Latvian national armed resistance movement was the Kurelis group. The group emerged from the German order of forming a battalion from remaining civil guards of the Riga region. Three battalions were made in Riga, Skriveri and Sloka. General Jānis Kurelis was installed as the commander of the group. Their main tasks were to support retreating German forces. Kurelis had close contacts with LCC and General Krišss Upelnieks. The Kurelis men were ex national partisans, fiercely patriotic and eager to fight both Germans and Soviets when the time comes. Even if the Germans tried to control the Kurelis group, they soon found out its anti-Nazi character.

When the German army retreated in Courland and became trapped the Kurelis group reached the highest level of activity. Many joined the group mostly the deserters from the Latvian Legion and people escaping from conscription. The Kurelians assisted the LCC “boat actions” to Sweden and established radio contacts with Sweden. Kurelis group even passed intelligence data to the Western allies who later passed them to the Soviets. That was met with great disappointment.

The Germans finally had enough of the two faced actions of the Kurelis group. On October 30 Kurelis was summoned to visit the head of the Ostland police SS Opergruppenfurher Freidrich Jeckeln on November 2.  On November 2 Jeckeln instructed Kurelis and Upelnieks to summon to him and SD (Security Police) and give full report the size and members of the group. Jeckeln asked Kurelis to write a call to all deserters to turn themselves in in return promising independence. Kurelis suggested that Jeckeln should first publish the promise of independence first. Jeckeln ignored that.  On November 5 the list was given not including the unofficial members. In last meeting Upelnieks urged the Germans to proclaim the Latvian independence and form the Latvian Army to stop the deserting. Germans replied that Germany has already made the positive decision for Latvian independence, but because of war situation it cannot be issued for it would like German weakness.   SS obberfuhrer Fuchs promised to inform the head of the SS Heinrich Himmler about Upelnieks suggestions, when he will arrive in Berlin.

On October 9 Upelnieks and Kurelis met at the headquarters. They decided not to provoke the Germans with violence. While they had no suspicion, the Germans secretly gathered forces around their positions. On November 14 Germans came to disarm the Kurelis men. Kurelis was instructed to disband his group and gave in the deserters. Kurelis agreed, but refused to give in the deserters. A firefight erupted  wounding three Kurelis men and killing two civilians. All officers were arrested, but Kurelis was told to go to his family. Then Jeckeln came and told that officers will be shot and others taken as POWS. On November 20 Kurelis was sent to Danzig. The main officers including Upelnieks were sentenced to death and executed the same night. Others were sent to Stutthof or to German formations.

The only ones who defied the German orders of disarming were the men of the  General Rubenis. His battalion was surrounded by the Germans. From November 18 to December 8 Rubenis men fought against the Germans. They were even supported by the Red Partisan group “The Red Arrow” who attacked the Germans from behind. Rubenis men manage to break through the German encirclement. Some continued to fight the Soviets after the war. Some however joined the Red Partisans.

The restored bunker of the Rubenis battalion where the battle with Germans took place

The restored bunker of the Rubenis battalion where the battle with Germans took place

The Red Partisans are a complicated subject. The Red Partisans were mostly completed in Soviet side of the front out of Latvian Soviet activists, special commandos and Red Army regulars. At the first organization of the Soviet resistance was complicated. The Soviet partisan leaders Otomārs Oškalns and Vilis Samsons in 1941 reported that there is a great lack of support for the Soviet cause. First partisan or commando groups were destroyed. On 1942 special partisan schools were made. First partisan unit made out from the remains of the 201 Latvian Rifleman division tried to reach the Latvian border on July 1942. Despite the heavy German security the partisans entered Latvia but failed to set up strong positions there. On December 1942 first successful incursions were made by Samsons and Oškalns men. Red Partisans operated in the forests of Latgalia and Selonia. On 1944 Soviets entered Latvia. 200 special groups were sent behind the German lines. Some men from the Legion and the police battalions  joined them. At the end of the 1944 when the Germans were encircled in Courland a special unit called “The Red Arrow” was formed. They operated in the forests of Courland and hindered the German fighting force.

The leader of the Soviet Red Partisans Otomārs Oškalns

The leader of the Soviet Red Partisans Otomārs Oškalns

The very difference between the national partisans and the Red partisans was that they had different aims.  National partisans fought for full independence both from the Soviets and Germans. The Red partisans were under full command of the Soviet general staff. The partisan warfare was an important part of the Soviet strategy. Even if some members of the Red Partisans were genuinely from Latvia and wished freedom for it, they were fighting for the second Soviet occupation. The war crimes done by Vasilijs Kononovs partisan unit on May 27 1944 in the  Mazo Batu village are proven many times in all courts. There were many other outrageous crimes done by the Red Partisans in Latvia, Ukraine, Belarus and Poland.  All the units of the Red Partisans in Latvia were actually the special forces in the Red Army. Their behavior in many cases was just as bad the regular Soviet units who relentlessly raped and murdered women.

The hope of LCC for the western support for independent Latvia faded. However, until 1956 the woods of Latvia were filled with the national partisans fighting against the Soviets…

Selected Sources:

Neiburgs, Uldis. (2000) Nacionālās pretošanās kustības organizācijas Latvijā padomju un vācu okupācijas laikā (1940-1945). In book: Latvija Otrajā Pasaules karā. Starptautiskās konferences materiāli 1999. gada 14.-15. jūnijs. Rīga.

Strods, Heinrihs. (2006) Nacionālie un padomju partizāni Baltijā 1941.-1956. gadā: kopējais un atšķirīgais. In book: Nacionālā pretošanās komunistiskajiem režīmiem Austrumeiropā pēc Otrā pasaules kara. Starptautiskās konferences materiāli 2005. gada 7.-8. jūnijs, Rīga. Riga. Latvijas vēstures institūta apgāds.

Andersons, E., Siliņš, L. (1994) Latvijas Centrālā Padome – LCP. Latviešu nacionālā pretestības kustība 1943-1945. Upsala: LCP.

Biezais, Haralds. (1993) Kurelieši : Nacionālās pretestības liecinieki. Riga : Junda.

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