June is one of the most tragic months for Latvian history. Three significant dates June 17 1940, June 14 1941 and June 22 1941 took place in short time span over two years and brought great losses. The country lost its independence, thousands of people were arrested, deported or executed. Then the Nazi German occupation brought another brutal occupation and genocide on Latvian Jews and Romas. The first Soviet occupation in many Latvian history books, memoirs and other news media has been described as the “Horrible Year” (Baigais Gads) The term has also been picked up by foreigners and has appeared in their publications. However, not always we comprehend the true meaning of the term and the problem that this term was created by the Nazis to justify the genocide against Jews in Latvia. For this reason the term “Horrible Year” has come under scrutiny for last few years. Historians question the correct usage of this nazi propaganda concept in popular and academic history texts and examines how much this nazi propaganda creation still affects the Latvian social memory and current political discourse. For Latvian Jewish minority the term “Horrible Year” serves as unjust accusation to them for soviet occupation and justification for the Holocaust. Yet for many especially the older generation it serves as symbol for 1940 occupation and sometimes people tend to ignore the fact that this term was created by Nazis. In word horrible they see all the horrors and repressions that took place from June 1940 to June 1941. While there is a group of people within Latvian society that openly exploits the antisemitic character of the term. One of the first scholars who openly called “Horrible Year” a myth was Dr. Hist. Kaspars Zellis who has written many publications on this subject. This article discusses was “Horrible Year” a myth a construct of Nazi propaganda and how it affects the Latvian society today. This article in no way denies or questions the soviet occupation or soviet repressions during 1940-1941. The facts are not deniable this article questions how facts and made out facts used for propaganda creates a powerful myth that stays powerful for many years to come.
The Latvian word baigs stands for “horrible”, “dreadful”, “fearful” or “terrible”. The term creates a strong emotions like fear, resentment and condemnation. It also stands a metaphor apocalyptic event the soviet occupation of Latvia that is caused by the satanic enemy – Jews and Bolsheviks. The 1940-1941 the Latvian Golgotha a horrific event with many victims and martyrs that ends with ultimate resurrection and liberation as Nazis tried to describe the invasion in 1941. The second coming is followed by judgement day for those who caused the apocalypse on the first place – the Jews and the Bolsheviks. As the events of history turned the myth evolved – the enemies are coming back, the Latvians must rise again to fight them in the ranks of Latvian Waffen SS Legion. After the battle was lost the myth stayed within minds as explanation for all the calamities of the 1940 and showed “who is the blame” for them. Ultimately the myth creates an idea of Latvian genocide, that must be avenged after the restoration of independence and everything must be done to prevent it from repeating again.
1940 was not the first year in Latvian history to be described as horrible. The Baltic Germans and their exiles in Germany in their publications called 1905 as the horrible year. During the 1905 revolution there were numerous events of violent confrontations between Latvians and the Baltic Germans. Germans accused Latvian nation of violent aggression against them. The fear from the repeat of 1905 was one of the reasons why many Baltic Germans stood against the Latvian independence during 1918-1919 with arms. On June 22 1941 Germans under Nazi banner returned to Latvia that was occupied by the Soviets since June 1941. First time the word horrible was used was July 4 in Nazi controlled newspaper Tēvija (Fatherland). The newspaper begun its text with “Horrible was the year of the red terror in our beutiful Riga”. The variation of baigs horrible was used in many other Nazi newspaper at the start of the occupation. However, the concept of the horrible year was taken from famous Latvian poet Edvarts Virza (1883-1940) who wrote a poem called “The Horrible Summer” on 1939. The poem describing a bad times ahead published year before the occupation was seen for many as prophecy. Edvarts Virza himself died on March 10 1940 and did not witness how his poem became symbol and was used by Nazi propaganda. The poem was re-published on August 9 1941 in Tēvija and became popular. Propaganda articles used the term horrible even more until pastor from Mazsalaca Alfrēds Skrodelis first used “Horrible Year” as term for all period of the soviet occupation. In his article “The benefits of the horrible year” he talked about the Bolshevik materialism unsuitable for Latvians that was changed by German “culture of soul” that Latvians have found as their savior.
But it was not until the publication of book called “The Horrible Year”. Collections of images and documents about the time of the Bolsheviks in Latvia” The book was accompanied by documentary “Sarkanā Migla” “The Red Fog”. Both propaganda works were published in 1942 year after the Nazi occupation. The genocide against Jews in Latvia was over by then and powerful works of propaganda was needed to justify the extermination of thousands of people. Since then the term “Horrible Year” became central term for soviet occupation of 1940-1941 and after the war made his way into Latvian exile works and encyclopedias.
The needs for this myth can be explained for Nazi goals in Latvia on 1941-1942. Nazi political directives set by Adolf Hitler was clear Soviet Union out of Jews and Bolsheviks. However, the Nazi policy was to create the image that the extermination was done by the locals as revenge against the Soviets. Germans would only instigate the actions with propaganda and assist the locals. Such conception was realized in Baltic States, Belarus and Ukraine. However, despite the massive antisemitic propaganda Nazis failed to achieve their goals. While in separate cases in Lithuania or Ukraine there were events of violent pogroms made by Nazi influenced locals, all acts of exterminations were carried under German orders and supervision by local self-defense groups who were disbanded after the extermination was done. And major massacres like Babi Yar and Rumbula was carried out by German special units. In Latvia no pogroms carried out by simple Latvians themselves did not took place. The events of 4th July in Riga when main Choral Synagogue was burned to the ground was carried out by Arājs Commando adjacent to German Security Police. In all territory of Latvia holocaust was carried out in organized manner by German orders. The German propaganda filmed the execution of Liepāja Jews to make it look that the execution was done only Latvians excluding the Germans observing and controlling it. Of course the guilt of Latvians who took part in extermination are undeniable and condemned and their motivation for taking part in the crimes serves to one each individually.
Jews were killed in every each city and village of Latvia. Such action never been seen in Latvian history needed to be explained to Latvians. While violent actions against soldiers of Red Army, Latvian collaborators with communists needed less explanation the genocide against Jews required some effort. Many Latvians did not understand anti-Jewish actions, some tried to help others stood by and tried to ignore it. Antisemitism in Latvia before the war was present and widespread mainly caused by social rivalry between two ethnicities. There however, were no events of pogroms and only few violent excesses between the two. There were forces who accused Jews of supporting communists and people who called for Jewish expulsion from Latvian society based on economic social accusations. Nazi propaganda used all these factors to ignite antisemitic propaganda against the Jews. Jews were accused as the main supporters of the Soviet occupation, Jews were accused for planning and supporting the mass deportation of June 14 1941. Jews were accused of looting out Latvia during 1940-1941. While pinning all fault on real crimes, often fake crimes attributed towards Jews were widespread.
Nazis would have carried out Holocaust without this propaganda. However, it was needed spread the false view that it was demanded and carried out by Latvians themselves. The authors of the Nazi controlled newspapers often showed self initiative helped Nazis to pin all blame on Latvians. On winter of 1941-1942 Nazi General directory Interior Authority and personal cases issued order to start searching and assembling sources to write history of the Bolshevik rule. The order was for Latvian cities and parishes. The result was book called “Baigais Gads” published in summer 1942. The book contained selected or faked documents and images many of them highly graphic. The books narrative was that Republic of Latvia because of its weakness and mistakes lead itself to Soviet occupation that was carried by Jews according to their plan of world domination. All main repressions were carried out by Jewish Bolsheviks. Nazi Germany came as liberators and rescued Latvians from the danger of Jewish Bolshevism and now Latvians must do their part for creation of the New Europe. There was never a talk of restoration of Latvian independence – Latvian future only lies with Nazi Germany. As its have been noted Nazi propaganda was very against Latvian independent state before 1940.
To accompany the book a propaganda ‘documentary’ “The Red Fog” filled with powerful slogans, exalted narrator speech and mesmerizing images was released. Movie used false witnesses that accused Jews of burning the tower of St. Peters church that was actually destroyed by German artillery. Film so as the book heavily focused on victims of Riga Central Prison. During the Soviet retreat from Riga on June 27 1941 shot 78 inmates from June 27 to 29 99 more people were killed including citizens. After Riga was captured by Germans the bodies were discovered and buried large funerals filmed by German propaganda makers. The bodies had signs of horrible torture, many appeared mutilated. Crippled faces and bodies were shown in detail and described as atrocity of the Jewish Bolsheviks. There are critical accounts that state that because of rather hot summer and dry air these bodies suffered from heavy decomposition making them look worse than when they died. But, these images were so powerful that stayed in memory for generations to come. The movie also a featured rather disturbing scene a zoom in image of the face of the Jewish Bolshevik. In reality the face belonged to the Polish actor.
Nazis moved further by making June 14 the day of mourning marked in churches. July 1st when Nazis marched in Riga was marked as day of celebration. The NKVD (soviet secret police) “torture chambers” were placed for public visits. On 1942 a touring exhibit across Latvia was called the “Year of Red Power in Latvia” with openly antisemitic posters was introduced to the public. During 1943 when front was approaching Latvia, Latvian Waffen SS Legion was formed propaganda focused on danger of return of the Horrible Year. All men was called to participate. On 1944 when Soviets entered Latvia the Nazi controlled media spread the propaganda tales of new Horrible Year emerging and the return of Jewish killer squads. All was done to convince Latvians to resist Soviets and follow German orders.
The statistics of the “Horrible Year” speaks for itself. 15 424 people were deported. 6 081 of them died (%39,43%) The number of killed in Latvia during soviet occupation is said to be 1355. Number of repressed 20 000- 21 000 people. In comparison during first half of 1941 the amount of repressed people was around 20 000, 66 000 Latvian Jews were killed, 24 000 alone in Rumbula massacre. 2000 Roma in Latvia were killed. These numbers show that Nazis needed to justify their equally murderous actions and gain as much as Latvian support and obedience as possible. This all not to mention that Nazi Germany by signing Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on August 23 1939 with its secret protocols also shared responsibility for soviet occupation of Latvia.
After the defeat of Nazi Germany the “Horrible Year” lived on trough Latvian exiles. It was mentioned in their publications and often became part of their identity. During regain of independence the “Horrible Year” again returned in Latvian public discourse. However, it faced transformation as Jews were replaced with Russians as it was no longer convenient to blame the Jews for the occupations. “Horrible Year” as boogeyman and accusation against Russian speaking minority was used by some forces of the Latvian society. Still there are people who apply the core of the myth that Jews are the blame for occupation and repressions. Antisemitic politicians, anonymous commentators often use the term “Jewish Chekist” against Latvian Jewish community. The book “Horrible Year” was re published and spread trough internet. The movie “Red Fog” is available on youtube. On 2000 historic movie “Horrible Summer” depicting the events of June 1940 was released. Its name hints in “Horrible Year”, however it refrains from Nazi propaganda narrative and instead focused on other myths. Antisemitic commentators use “Horrible Year” as accusation against the Jews and counter arguments to Jewish related issues such as Jewish property restitution. One of the leftovers of the “Horrible Year” is a popular claim that most supporters of Kremlin in Latvia are Jews. While there are few such persons really supporting Russian its question if their self-identity is Jewish or Russian. The picking Jews out of large crowd is similar to recent attempts of Donald Trump supporters to place people criticizing Trump in brackets to outline their Jewish nationality or ethnicity. Outlining ones national belonging and then generalizing with whole nation was a method of Nazis and sadly still used today.
In conclusion to the question was “Horrible Year” a myth? Yes it was. It was a Nazi propaganda concept to justify their own occupation and crimes and gain Latvian support. The Soviet occupation of 1940-1941 was real, the deportations and repressions took place. But what was the myth it was Jewish collective blame for these events, it was myth and great lie that Nazis was the saviors of the Latvian people. To break the myth we must call things in their true names. During Soviet occupation not only Latvians were the victims of the Soviet occupation, Jews, Russians many others faced repressions and deportations. Nazis in 1941 came as conquerors and realized a genocide against Jews regardless of their age, gender and political convictions. There can no justifications for such actions. All rest is propaganda. Latvian nation is slowly moving away from effect of the Nazi lies and it needs to focus on current challenges of the dangerous XXI century.
Zellis, Kaspars. “Baigā gada” mīts un tā evolūcija. Mīti Latvijas Vēsturē. Rīga. 2006