Latvians in the Western Exile 1944-1991

Latvian Song Festival parade in exile

Latvian Song Festival parade in exile

Latvians have always been proud of their homeland. However, the calamity of WW2 and second Soviet occupation forced many to seek refuge in the Western world. It was a political exile. Exiles where middle class citizens, politicians, intellectuals and patriots. Together with the support of the exiled Latvian diplomats, Western Latvians made organized societies and campaigned for the restoration of independence. For nearly 50 years they actively waited for Latvia to be free again. When the dream was finally realized, many of them were unable to return home and were disappointed about the politics in Latvia. As a new wave of emigration to west dictated by economic means became more important, these people became forgotten. But, the western exiles were the ones who deserve praise for their unity and active struggle for Latvian freedom. A new generation of the Latvian economic exiles needs to learn from these people. Never forget your nationality, language and will to return to Latvia. And make Latvia a better place even being a million miles away.

Before the WW2 about 45 thousand Latvians lived in the west. Most of them in US and Brazil. Their exile was dictated either by political and social reasons. Most of them assimilated, some 15-20 thousand people kept their Latvian identity. The WW2 was a demographic disaster: Latvia lost about 0,4 million people. Many perished in Soviet repressions or sent to Siberia. Latvia also lost its Baltic German and Jewish minority. Large  numbers of Latvians died at the war front. The approaching Soviet army in 1944-1945 made many Latvians find escape routes to allied countries. About 250 thousand people became refugees. Many got stuck in Courland, some 50-60 thousand were murdered by the Soviet troops in Poland and Germany. After the war 6 thousand Latvians found refuge in Sweden, West Germany 120 thousand, Austria 3 thousand and Denmark 2 thousand.  In later years Latvians spread out to US, Canada, Australia and other places. First years were harsh: from refugee camps in the Western Germany to countries without any proper language skills.  However, after many years of adjustment Latvians were able preserve themselves and be socially and politically active. It’s not exactly known how many Latvians were in the numerous western countries. 165 -180 thousand or even 200 thousand. Many were not counted as Latvians, some countries also included Latvian born Jews and Germans as Latvians. Latvians gathered in global organization – Worlds Free Latvian Alliance (WFLA- PBLA in Latvian) founded in 1955. Also The Hawks of Daugava is an international support organization for Latvian war veterans. In every country with a large Latvian population, active organizations, schools, newspapers and even radio stations were active. Latvian exiled diplomats were officially recognized by most countries and supported the cause.

United States of America

First Latvians came to North America already on 17 century when Latvian colonists together with Swedes entered the shores of river Delaware. Some Latvians moved to the island of Tobago a colony owned by the Duchy of Courland. In 1780 in the state of Connecticut immigrant iron forgers founded a colony and named mountain and lake after Riga. The so-called Reggies could be the same colonists from Tobago, who moved to US after the Courland duchy was dissolved. Latvian missionaries also moved to US. However, first dedicated emigration occurred in 19th century eighties. So called Old Latvians were people who pursued more freedom and wealth. Some of them made it good and opened farms, workshops and factories. Augusts Krastins was about to outscore Henry Ford with his own cheap and fast automobile. He managed to release 10 such models in 1902, however his business was short-lived as his factory burned down. The future president of Latvia Kārlis Ulmanis also owned a farm in Texas. The main Latvian social center was Boston. On 1889 Jēkabs Zīlbergs founded the Latvian Society, on 1891 the first Latvian Lutheran congregation was made. First Latvian newspaper “Amerikas Vēstnesis” (American Herald) was released from 1896 to 1920. On 1918-1921 active Old Latvians assisted the Latvian War for Freedom and founded the American Latvian National Union. The movement campaigned for US to acknowledge Latvian sovereignty which was achieved in 1922.

The Revolution of 1905 brought many political exiles to US. Four thousand exiled revolutionaries found refuge. Many of them started a leftist movement. American Latvian Socialist Workers Federation and American Social Democrat united organization had constant quarrels over ideology and goals. After 1917 3,5 thousand of these emigres left US for Latvia or Russia. Those who stayed joined the American Socialist Party that became part of the American Communist Party. On 1935 the Latvian group separated from the American Communist Party and made American Latvian Workers Unity. They were the main Latvian exiles sparking soviet propaganda until ALWU disbanded. There were other types of 1905 exiles like Kārlis Ulmanis, who was right-winger and later went back to Latvia. Other famous Old Latvia exile was Edward Leedskalnin who came to US in 1912. He took part in the revolution, but his official reason for leaving Latvia was being heartbroken after his “sweet sixteen” Hermīne Lūse abandoned him in the wedding. He then moved to Miami, Florida where for the rest of his life he built a castle made of the coral blocks. The symbolic stone structure with many mythic themes still lies a mystery to many. Nobody knows how exactly he made this castle and his love story laid for inspiration for the Billy Idol song “Sweet Sixteen”.

Latvia had official diplomatic envoys in Washington DC. Alfreds Bilmanis was the official envoy from Latvia. When Latvia was occupied by the Soviets he officially condemned and  defied the aggression. With his efforts the US Foreign Department officially condemned the Soviet occupation and kept the Latvian gold reserves from the Soviet hands. US never accepted Latvia as juridical part of the Soviet Union. So the Latvian diplomats in exile could act officially. The Latvian Embassy worked in the Washington trough out the Cold War and was an official support center for exiles. Alfrēds Bilmanis was the ambassador until 1948, when he was replaced by Jūlijs Feldmanis who acted until 1953, then replaced by Arnorlds Spekke to 1970, and then Anatols Dinsbergs took the office. Old Latvian from New York made Latvian Relief Fund in 1941 and helped 17 thousand people to get immigration visas.  Some other 40 thousand entered in illegal means. The US Congress in 1948 allowed to welcome war refugees without immigration quota. From 1947 to 1952 some 40 thousand Latvians from West Germany, Austria, Sweden and other parts entered the US.

Latvian ambassador to US in exile Anatols Dinsbergs

Latvian ambassador to US in exile Anatols Dinsbergs

Latvians moved to New York, California and Florida. Every year 200-300 Latvians entered the US from South America and Western Europe. In 1951 the main American Latvian Alliance was founded. Its main newspaper is “Laiks” (“Time”) Latvians united in student, educational, press and economical sectors. ALA opened schools to teach Latvian. Latvians gathered in their own churches Lutheran and Catholic. Song and Dance festivals in exile were occasional. American Latvians were supported both by Democrats and Republicans who were against the occupation. Most Latvians however were supportive of the Republicans. Usually during the election campaign both presidential candidates approached Latvian exiles and even invited them to the White House. Latvian exiles made constant pressure on the US politicians to do more for Latvia and be tougher against USSR. So both US leading parties regarded the Baltic exiles as an important part of their electorate.  During the awakening from 1987 to 1991 the American Latvians became the most active and made contacts with Latvian freedom fighters in Latvia and helped them to talk to the US leaders. In 1991 US finally fully supported the restoration of Latvian independence.

Latvian leaders in exile D Rudzītis and A Deksnis with President George Bush Senior

Latvian leaders in exile D Rudzītis and A Deksnis with President George Bush Senior


Canada a vast and rich country was the ideal second choice for many Latvian exiles. First Latvians already came in the 19th century. There were 1 thousand of them before the WW2. On 1932 Latvian consulate was established in Toronto and Montreal. Canada was also against the Soviet occupation and allowed consulates to work. Canadian lawyer Rey Braison was the Latvian consul who made great effort to support the Latvian exiles. Latvian exiles in Canada were well established and strong fighters for independence. On 1947 Canadian government recruited German refugee camp people for work in forestry, building and mining. Many Latvians took this chance. In 1961 the Canadian national census counted 18, 1 thousand Latvians. The main organization is the Latvian National Alliance in Canada (LNAK). At the end of the eighties there were 20 thousand Latvians in Canada. The main newspaper is “Latvija Amerikā” (Latvia in America”). Important intellectual magazine is “Jaunā Gaita” (The New Path). Canadian Latvians and American Latvians had active cooperation.


It’s been reported that the duke of Courland Jakob also intended to send colonists from Courland to Australia. The plan failed because the possible investor Pope Innocent X died too early. Latvians came to Australia in the 19th century. 250-300 Latvians escaped from the 1905 revolution as far as possible. On 1933 430 people from Latvia with 230 children lived there. Most Latvians came to Australia from 1947 when Australia signed the International Refugee treaty.  Australian government placed them in transit camps, teach English and then sent them to license work for two years. After that people had to find a place for their own. Since apartments were scarce they had to build house. Some 25 thousand people lived in main cities. The main organization was the Latvian Alliance in Australia (LAA). The main newspaper “Austrālijas Latvietis” (Australian Latvian). The Latvian political activity reached a peak when on a 1974 Labor party Prime Minister Edward Gough Whitlam decided to accept the occupation of the Baltic States to improve relations with USSR. Large scale protests supported by local Australians wrecked the Labor government. After it was replaced with Liberal government the occupation of the Baltic States was not recognized once again. It was a clear signal for other real-politicians in other countries. In 1991 the Australia officially recognized Latvia.

Latvian Education Center "Dzintari" in Australia

Latvian Education Center “Dzintari” in Australia

United Kingdom (Great Britain)

First Latvians entered UK during the 1905 revolution. Some 400-500 Latvians lived before 1940. The UK government was quite reluctant to give official condemnation of the soviet occupation, because it wished the Soviet support for the war against the Nazis. But, the UK was also quite reluctant to accept the occupation and for the rest of the Cold War kept this policy of non-recognition. In 1946 the UK labor government was first to welcome all war refugees. This was needed to attain more working force. On 1950 18 thousand Latvians lived in the UK. However, some restrictions  made many to move to the US and Canada. On eighties 9 thousand Latvians remained in Latvia. Latvian diplomats worked in London under constant British pressure who were joggling between the American and the Soviet demands. The most famous Latvian diplomat was Kārlis Zariņš. Latvian Society in Great Britain was the main organization with “Londonas Avīze” (London Newspaper). The Latvian exiles came in bitter conflict with the labor prime minister H V Vilson who spent the Baltic gold reserves to pay clearing debt to the USSR. Protests continued until 1969 when H V Vilson promised to reexamine the Baltic gold question when Latvia attains sovereignty. Even if Latvians were more supportive of the Conservative party their prime minister Margaret Thatcher was quite skeptical about the restoration of the Latvian independence until the end. It finally happened in 1991.

Latvian exiles in protest

Latvian exiles in protest

West Germany

Latvia had deep diplomatic and commercial ties with Germany before the war. About 300 Latvians, and more Latvian born Jews and Germans lived there. The Baltic Germans left Latvia in 1939 by the will of Hitler. 55 thousand Baltic Germans together 1 thousand Latvians came to Nazi Germany. Those Latvians who came along had family connections with Germans, or were pro-German. Others used this chance to escape the coming soviet occupation. Nazi Germany used the Latvian exiles for the invasion on the Soviet Union in 1941. During the Nazi occupation 20 thousand Latvians were sent to work duty in Germany. The Nazi German Workers Front had a special cultural section for the Latvians in Germany. When on 1944 Soviets came back to Latvia, large masses started to move to Germany. 35 thousand Latvian Waffen SS Legion members were caught up in the battles of the East Prussia and Pomerania. The survivors made it trough Berlin and reached the Western allies. 202 thousand civilians tried to reach Germany far from the Soviets as possible. 50 thousand Latvians were taken to Germany by force.

Many did not make it. Soviets either killed them or sent them back to occupied Latvia. Latvian Refugee Authority and Latvian Red Cross tried to help refugees. There were 400 Latvian refugee camps in Germany before the end of the war. After May 9 there were 135 thousand Latvians in the Western allied captured German part. 9 thousand came back to Latvia, because they were taken to Germany by force and wanted to reunite families. From 1946 to 1949 the West Germany turned into “Little Latvia” filled with refugee camps full of Latvians. Many believed that war will start again and the allies will chase away the Soviets. There were 1 million refugees from all Eastern Europe in sole Western Germany. Civilians could either try to make living in West Germany or live with others in the camps. 23 thousand war veterans from Latvia were placed into internment camps. Since the Allies disregarded the Latvian Waffen SS as criminal organization they were released in 1946. Veterans made social support organization “The Hawks of Daugava” that worked and works in every country with a significant Latvian population.

The Hawks of Daugava International meeting

The Hawks of Daugava International meeting

Latvians made many organizations in the refugee camps. German Latvian Central Council, Latvian National Council and exiled resistance movement Latvian Central Council. The Latvian Red Cross was restored. Western German occupiers formally did not recognize these movements, but did not make any steps against them. When the Western allies rejected the Soviet demands for repatriation, people felt more relaxed. Many now moved to another countries or crossed the ocean to US and Canada. In 1986 there were 9-10 thousand Latvians remaining in Western Germany. The main Latvian newspaper in Germany is “Brīvā Latvijā” (Free Latvia).


The relations between the Latvian exiles and the Swedish state has always been tense. Latvia placed high hopes on their neighbors. Sweden was the only country on 1940 who accepted the Soviet occupation and evicted the Latvian embassy. Despite that the exiled Latvian diplomat Voldemārs Salnais organized cooperation with the Latvian Central Council and helped about 5,2 thousand people to cross the Baltic sea to Sweden. About 2 thousand was lost because of the Nazi and Soviet counteractions. 150 deserting Latvian Legion members made it to Sweden. On January 1946 they were handed back to the Soviets. Latvian soldiers resisted by making hunger strike, when it did not help they self-injured themselves or even made suicides. Whole Swedish society including the archbishop, officers and the king himself were against the handover. However, the government was afraid of the Soviet Union and hand over the soldiers.

Latvians mistrusted the Swedish government. 2 thousand Latvians left Sweden for more friendlier country. 4, 5 thousand Latvians remained in Sweden. Latvian organizations helped them. Sweden soon became the center of the Latvian intellectual activity. However, there was a great split between leftists and nationalists. Swedish Latvian National Council rivaled with the Swedish Latvian Central Council. Exiled Latvian Social Democrats stood on their own. Their leader was Bruno Kalniņš, a chameleon personality social democrat, Soviet spy, soviet collaborator, anti-nazi resistance activist and the social democrat leader in the end. During the national awakening the colorful Swedish Latvian exile was the closest to support independence movements. As in 1990 even the Swedish social democrats stood up for Latvian independence, Latvia finally received support from Stockholm.  Official apology was given to deported Latvian legion members and the diplomatic relations were restored.

Latvians went all over Europe, in the Benelux countries, Spain, Portugal, Italy, France ect. In every country there was and are small societies to assist local exiles.


For Latvians the Brazil is rather unusual place to take refuge. But since the end of the 19th century many Latvians have started to go there. The first ones were Latvian Baptists who looked for free agricultural land. In the first wave 600-800 people emigrated from Russian owned Latvia to Brazil. In 1906 400-600 colonists came in and formed the Novu Odessa colony. From 1923-1924 2,3 thousand Baptists and Seventh Day Adventists came to Brazil. This was a part of the popular campaign among Baptists and other small Christian movements who believed that their mission is to go to Brazil and teach Christian values to locals and live with them. After WW2 1,5 thousand Latvians arrived. Most Latvians who came as Baptists and did missionary work mixed with locals and lost the Latvian identity. Most Latvians escaping war soon emigrated to US and Canada.  Latvians were also to be found in other South American countries like Bolivia, Venezuela and Argentina.

After Latvia regained independence, many did not knew what to do next. Some were too old and social and economic situation in Latvia was lot worse than in their place of exile. Some were disappointed about the national ethnic situation that was lot worse than expected. However, some found their new place. Vaira Vīķe Freiberga from Canada took the office of President of Latvia from 1999 to 2007. Many took part in the politics. Nils Muižnieks also from Canada serves as Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. Gunārs Birkerts is the architect of the National Library that will be finished this year. Jānis Kažocinš from UK was the head of the Latvian counterintelligence service SAB. Two notable media personalities Kārlis Streips and Juris Kaža has been around for years.

For years Latvian exile was the place for many Latvian historians. Egars Andersons, Ādolfs Šilde, Arnolds Spekke an Edgars Dunsdofs was written many great works about Latvian history. Their view of history is national conservative. Two rather radical historians Haralds Biezais and Andrievs Ezergailis has challenged the usual positive view on Nazi occupation within Latvian exiles.   Today the most prominent exile Latvian historian is Andrejs Plakans from US.

During the last two decades Latvia has witnessed a great wave of economical emigration to EU countries and US. This emigration is economic not politic. People are forced to leave Latvia because of financial problems and unemployment. The challenge for these people is even greater than WW2 exiles. While WW2 exiles had common cause to be united and keep their identity to return to free Latvia someday, the economic exiles main cause is to survive by  material means. They are waiting for Latvia to improve its economy and repay all the debts. It’s the responsibility of the Latvian government and its people to make at lest some part of them to come back. It’s also the responsibility for the new generation of Latvians not to lose their national identity so they don’t feel as strangers when they come back. The status of the new economical exiles are not the same as the WW2 exiles. They are not political refugees, they are just part of the multimillion immigrant workforce that is often viewed rather negative by the locals. The risk of alienation and assimilation is great. So the challenge for Latvian people and these new exiles is far more greater and will affect our future most greatly.


Selected Sources

Veigners, Ilgvars. (1993) Latvieši ārzemēs. Zinātniskā asociācija “Latvija un latvieši pasaulē”. Rīga : Latvijas enciklopēdija.

Veigners, Ilgvars. (2009) Latvieši Rietumzemēs : un vēl dažās zemēs. Rīga : Drukātava.


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