On August 23 1991 after failure of Soviet coup attempt Latvia fully restored independence and yet to had begun the restoration of the national armed forces. It was the same situation as in 1918 when the Republic of Latvia was founded – the new nation needed auxiliary paramilitary organization to create order in the new state and defend it against any threat possible. It had serve in every district to preserve state order and help in case of emergency. So Latvia had to create National Guard. August 23 known in Latvian history for the Molotov – Ribbentrop pact in 1939 and Baltic Way demonstration in 1989 also became known as the founding day of National Guard in Latvian Zemessardze – “the Landguard”. In many ways they were predecessors of first Latvian National guard the Aizsargi in Latvian “defenders”, “guardians”. Here is a short survey about both paramilitary organizations, one that played crucial role during first independence and one that is having crucial role in our national defense.
Latvijas Aizsargu Organizācija – The Latvian Guards Organization 1918-1940
The collapse of Russian Empire sparked the rise on national independence movements in all Northern and Western parts of former empire. First who founded a paramilitary forces similar to Aizsargi where Fins in 1917. Finland had made tradition of partisan warfare against Russians during Swedish-Russian war when Finland became part of Russia. Large numbers of Fins before 1917 Russian revolution served in imperial German army and afterwards returned to Finland to form guard units to fight for independence, they became part of the new Finland army commanded by general Gustav Mannerheim. The organization was called Suojeluskunnat – (Protection/Defense corps) known in English as White Guard. In Poland the organization was called Riflemen’s Association (Związek Strzelecki) based on roots of Jozef Pilsudsky Union of Active Struggle and made from Polish rifleman within Austro-Hungarian army they also made the core for the new Polish army, created a system of military schools and supported the Pilsudsky authoritarian regime. In Estonia the organization was called Kaitseliit, similar organization was also made in Lithuania.
In Latvia the idea of forming paramilitary organization was made in 1918 by Latvian Minister of Interior Affairs Miķelis Valters in December 16 when he asked all local municipalities to create communal guard squads that would be loyal to the Provisional government. It was needed action however as Bolshevik invasion took and Provisional government abandoned Riga no quick steps were made. On March 20 1919 Provisional government issued “Rules about guardian units in parishes” to create auxiliary police in the country side. At first the enlistment was based on old social class rules and objectives for each member was accustomed to his social level. However, as more territories were liberated from the enemy and were affected by the mobilization all was left in them was old men and very young lads. Interior affairs ministry then removed the social class limitations and made requirements that all men from 18 to 60 years must join the local guard. At first local guard was not entirely auxiliary, but was rather a state imposed practice to install order in rural areas.
The state of war was canceled on February 7 1921, but in border areas was not canceled until October 15 1932. There was no reason now for a compulsory guards organization. The early guards mainly did the police function in areas and did not took part in military actions and did not made the core for Latvian army. During the War for Independence there was other semi-Auxiliary Military unit the Landeswehr (landguard) that was made mainly from Baltic German volunteers and during war switched sides three times, first served with Latvian army, then fought against it and then was again taken under Latvian control. However, this military unit that took direct part in frontlines is not considered as root for Latvian national guards. It was disbanded soon after war ended. Latvia needed to form new guard organization that would be based on auxiliary principles.
Latvian Guards Organization or Aizsargi was based on Finnish White Guard. Also the name Aizsargs – defender, guardian was inspired by Fins. Latvians before WW2 viewed Finland as example for Latvia. Finland and Estonia had largest National guard with highest member count. Finland guards had 100 000 members 6,7 % of population, while Estonia 60 000 – 11% of population. Latvian Aizsargi had 45 000 members 3,6 % of population. Contrary to modern national guards, the Aizsargi besides defense and law function also had social and cultural function. Aizsargi had own private property the Aizsargi house where social and cultural gatherings and military courses took place. Such houses were built-in many parts of Latvia. Aizsargi had own libraries and many other extras. Aizsargi was not just paramilitary unit it was mass organization playing high social role in the region. The most members of Aizsargi where from country side and small towns. As their prestige increased it was joined by more people from major cities and higher classes. The organization received funding from Interior Affairs ministry. For some time the state support in Estonia and Lithuania was significantly higher than in Latvia. After authoritarian coup in 1934 the state increased its support. On 1926 state gave 212 503 lats while in 1938 it was now 600 000 lats worth of state support.
Aizsargi also served as partners for Latvian army. During War for Independence around Madona and Jēkabpils the aizsargi served as the “green army” and engaged in partisan warfare against the Bolsheviks. Large numbers of Latvian army veterans after the war joined the Aizsargi. As 60-70% members had military experience the organization became increasingly militant. The new regulations allowed gun carry and keeping guns at home, single variant uniforms, berets and badges and later even medals were introduced. Aizsargi became a second army with rights to practice sport, host events, practice cultural work, organize courses and lectures and raise charity.
Aizsargi were organized in military system – regiments, battalions, companies, squadrons, platoons and detachments. Smaller units acted within the parish borders, while regiments along the districts. Latvian aizsargi 19 regiments. The commanders usually were police chief district with deputy for military matters that usually was officer from the army. The organization was led by experienced military officers like general Ludvigs Bolšteins (1925-1928) lieutenant colonel Augusts Tone 1928-1930 and general Kārlis Prauls (1930-1940). Independence war veteran general Jānis Balodis served as honorary chairman. While in other countries the guards were subordinated to defense ministry in Latvija aizsargi where subordinated to Ministry of Interior Affairs. Aizsargi had small air units made to educate and prepare pilots. The aizsargi had 28 aircraft mostly biplanes and 3 sea divisions. There was also railroad support units. Only during late thirties the government started to mechanize aizsargi by making bicycle and motorcycle units and gave heavy automobiles and tankette’s.
At first the society was still skeptical about aizsargi and their role and mission. They had to move from compulsory wartime country police units to organized paramilitary society that functions for the state and society. On 1926 the Latvian Aizsargi Organization gathered in their first congress to discuss the future of the organization and create charter to control and organize the movement. The congress and the new charter was positively regarded by the society and politicians. Organization started to grow attracting more members. During parliamentary period the aizsargi gained friends and enemies from the political parties. The leftist Social Democrats were always skeptical about giving state funding and fought against their politicization. Another factor that Latvian Social Democratic Workers party also had its own paramilitary organization The Defender and Sport of the Worker (Strādnieka, Sports un Sargs – SSS) nicknamed the locust’s this organization in strength of 1000 members and divided in five battalions and 24 companies were made to defend social democrat demonstrations against radical nationalists and communists and often engaged in street battles. They were armed with low caliber weapons and wore blue color uniforms and had raised right fist salute “Ready to be Free!” as opposed to “Ready to Fight” raised left hand salutes by their nationalist counterparts. The SSS and aizsargi obviously had a rivalry as majority of aizsargi were Latvian ethnic nationalists with only small share of Jewish, German, Russian or Polish members. Also its core members were countryside farmers opposed to social democrat workers and landless peasants therefore they became favorited by Latvian Farmers Union and other right-wing parties. Over the years the Farmers Union gained greater prominence over aizsargi gaining more friction from the social democrats. Meanwhile the SSS and aizsargi also had paramilitary rival organizations like the Zionist Betar and Baltic German youth organizations. While Zionists were loyal to the state, the German paramilitary groups became influenced by Nazism from Germany and became dangerous to the state. As democracy went into decay more radical Latvian nationalists took example and formed Thurdercross movement that tried to be paramilitary party and influence the aizsargi.
In situation of economic crisis and political rivalry the aizsargi chose to support Kārlis Ulmanis authoritarian coup in May 15 1934. Kārlis Ulmanis promised the aizsargi leadership increased state support, giving them special status above other citizens. Aizsargi who were present in every district were crucial for the coup to gain control over crucial buildings and arrest all who oppose. The rival social democrat SSS was caught off guard and arrested without a fight. German Nazis and Latvian radical nationalists were also unable to resist. As both Latvian army and Political (Secret) Police accepted or even supported the coup it was bloodless and took place without much interference.
Aizsargi became the new Kārlis Ulmanis Praetorian guard. Their role in civil control increased and they also served as role in ideological control and education. The organization became more bureaucratic and authoritarian and became submitted to the president that became the supreme leader of the organization. From 1936 the president title belonged to Ulmanis and so aizsargi were under his full control. The organization became privileged class as it became the only society in Latvia with right to bear arms and wear uniform. Aizargi members received social and financial benefits. Aizsargi received extended rights to acquire residential property. In next 5 years aizsargi build many clubs, stadiums and other buildings. It had its own major newspaper. The state propaganda regularly praised aizsargi and covered their work. From now on Aizsargi were special state elite much praised and appreciated within the society.
However, as the strategical and political situation of Latvia worsened the role of aizsargi became crucial and sadly was wasted. Aizsargi were forced to accept the Latvian – Soviet mutual assistance pact in October 1939 that allowed Soviet garrison in Latvia. Unable to question the Kārlis Ulmanis government’s decisions they were forced to accept the new situation and try to convince the fellow countrymen there is no danger to the independence. Officially the regime pretendent that Latvia is neutral and there is no danger of war, however in case of war the army and aizsargi will still be able to defend Latvian people. On 1940 the Latvian Aizsargi organization had 31 776 members – it was sharp decrease caused by disappointment over governmental actions. The state mobilization plan now just made aizsargi as part of Latvian army only with its own weapons. On June 17 1940 Latvia was in danger of Soviet invasion. The Latvian Aizsargi Organization was still in larger numbers than Latvian army, it was made of patriotic men ready to defend their country. In theory they might produce a prolonged military struggle and partisan warfare against the Soviets. But, their weak point was their leader. Aizsargi were taught to obey the orders of leader Kārlis Ulmanis without question. Kārlis Ulmanis ordered not to resist and signed death sentence to aizsargi, to Latvian Army and to his country. Aizsargi showed no resistance. On June 23 1940 the new Soviet power disbanded the organization. The commander of aizsargi general Kārlis Prauls was sentenced to death and shot in January 30 1941. Many of the senior members and all commanders were deported to Siberia. The story of aizsargi came to sad ugly end during the German invasion in 1941 when Germans assigned the ex aizsargi members to Latvian Auxiliary Police battalions that took part in defense operations, front line battles and punishment expeditions. On 1944 July 22 when Germans needed all the Latvian support to defend the Eastern front the Latvian Aizsargi organization was officially restored. However on January 1 1945 it formally ceased to exist. Germans were encircled in western Latvia, there was no hope for restoration of independence. Aizsargi had made their role as preservers of state order and national symbol, but failed to defend their country.
Latvijas Republikas Zemessardze – Latvian National Guard
In 1991 the Latvian government seeking to separate from Soviet Union again had the same issue as of 1918. There was no Latvian Armed Forces, there was major presence of Soviet Armed forces, attacks by the Soviet special force OMON causing victims. The government again needed paramilitary force. First seeds of new national guard was January 1991 when Riga was under threat from Soviet reactionary forces. Barricades were built do defend the main governmental buildings and among the barricade guards many civilians were armed with guns. In case of Soviet attack they were ready to resist with they had. Fortunately the January 1991 turned out less bloody than in Lithuania, however as the threat still stayed the need for new national guard was being discussed.
Only after the failure of the soviet coup attempt on August 21 1991 when Latvia became fully independent and recognized by Russia itself the order for new national guard was issued. On August 23 1991 the new law about Latvian National Guard the Zemessardze was issued. Zemessardze means landguard. The law stated that national guard is auxiliary military civilian self-defense unit. In few months 17 000 volunteers gathered creating 35 territorial battalions. It was crucial time as police, army, border and rescue services were under restoration. Every each of them required assistance. Criminality skyrocketed, bandits gained weapons from abandoned Soviet military bases, contraband was on the rise. The new national guard was again crucial to create civil and state order. The early national guard was poorly equipped, had no single uniform. As time went buy the national guard became more organized. Contrary to their predecessors the national guard is part of Latvian Armed Forces and subordinated to the ministry of defense. They don’t have the same rights for property as aizsargi did, nor they can keep weapons at home. This limitation is seen for many as obstacle and was introduced do accustom National guard to the NATO standarts. Also modern-day Latvia has strict gun control laws. On 1992 the youth organization – The Youth Guard or Jaunsargi was established.
Currently the National Guard has 8000 members, in 2015 1210 people joined voluntary. National Guard is divided in 3 regions that each holds at least five battalions. National Guard also have cyber warfare unit, special unit against weapons of mass destruction. National guard uses Carl Gustav m/45 SMG rifles, Heckler & Koch G36, Heckler & Koch G3, FN MAG G3, RPK, rifles. It has anti air artillery and low caliber field artillery. National Guard has its own distinct insignia and badges and uniforms. The commander-in-chief is brigadier general Leonīds Kalniņš. The goals of the national guard is defend the country, take part in international operations, assist guest military units, preform sapper duties, take part in disaster relief and fire emergencies, and take part in cyber defense.
Today’s National Guards suffer from issues of state funding, recruitment problems, also the support from society is not as high as it was before WW2. However, the Latvian Aizsargi organization before the WW2 was different unit. It was a large organization with private property and self funding, while National Guard is part of Latvian Armed Forces and serves as crucial support unit. One thing remains that the main goal of both organizations is to defend the country and its people. On August 20 during National Guard parade the president of Latvia Raimonds Vējonis said crucial words – during foreign invasion every national guard, soldier and common must defend his country without waiting for orders from commanders in chief. This is in contrary of 1940 when Latvian Army and Aizsargi was in trusting subordination of inept, passive dictator unable to issue orders for resistance. Today Latvia again feels the danger from the same neighbor in the east. Now Latvia has strong allies, but still the ultimate power lays in hands of the Latvian people and their military.
Butulis. Ilgvars. (2011) Sveiki Aizsargi. Rīga. Jumava