Tag Archives: Latvian history

Great Myths of Latvian History

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As years, decades and centuries pass most important events like wars, regimes and cultural events are starting to lose their initial sharpness. In social memory these events are becoming either more dull, either romanticized or condemned and seen in black and white palette. There is no black and white in history, as events, past, present and future are created by various people regarding their interests that have various means and justifications for their actions. Events are also dictated by circumstances often beyond people’s control. Historical timeline is moved by perpetual rivalry within mankind, when various interests clash in personal, group, state or international scale.

In the process of interpreting these events no matter how old or new, people often create myths, falsehoods and outright lies. This can happen unintentionally as the knowledge about past events is often limited, this is especially relevant to prehistory and ancient ages, when there is lack of good archeological or written material. This also happens because over the decades, many events like wars or despotic regimes are becoming more romantic in people’s memory. Events like Crusades that was a harsh, controversial and bloody struggle, now is even a subject of comedy and the Crusader knights or their Muslim or Pagan foes are idolized. Similarly, many events are made darker than they were seen people at that time. For instance Russian history century long obsession with “Mongolian –Tatar yoke” and general idea about Dark Ages between 5th and 10th century.

Then again history is mythicized on purpose to gain important political goals in the past. “Who controls the past, controls the future, who controls the past, controls the present” a George Orwell quote from “1984” summarizes this need. Nationalist forces in 19th century on purpose idolized the ancient and medieval past, the Nazi and Communist regimes made great efforts to construct new historical understanding. It’s even present in democratic countries like British nostalgia for great imperial past and US American nostalgia for pre-1950s social order.

There words define historical myths. Nostalgia – for the past that was better than present and bringing it back would improve our present and future. Legendary – that makes events and historical personalities glorified. Condemnation – making events and people worse than they were, making these events and people as a warning from happening again. Also this reflects certain groups of people, like nations, religions and movements whose actions were made blacker then they were a warning from them in the present.

This article attempts to name and describe some of the myths in Latvian history, and seeks answers why they are wrong and what are the reasons for these myths.

Before 12th century ancient Latvians and Livonians had own countries, recognized by Christian countries and brutally uprooted by them.

It’s true that Catholic chronicles like the chronicle of Henry called some of the leaders of the early Latvian tribes kings – rex in Latin and some of their ruled territories –  kingdoms – regnum. Their micro states were set around their wooden fortresses. The civil societies were not as advanced as in other nearby lands like Lithuania and lands of Rus. Some historians compare the early Latvian statehood to Celtic society prior to Roman invasion. Also the Baltic tribes Latgalians, Curonians, Semigallians and Selonians had no common perception that they lived in Latvia and must unite to create such country. In Lithuania the unification of Lithuanian and Belarusian tribes was forceful event by strong warlord Mindaugas. In ancient Latvia there was no such leader. However, even if these rulers were called as Rex in Catholic chronicles does not mean they were fully acknowledged and regarded as sovereign rulers. They simply were not Christian. They had no recognition by Rome and even their conversion to Christianity placed them in vassal status rather than senior. The reason why Lithuanian Grand Duke Mindaugas was recognized was because he converted to Christianity and was strong enough to be accepted as senior. While in case of ruler of Jersika Visvaldis who was Orthodox his conversion was not respected by Catholic crusaders and he lost ownership of his land. So as pagan rulers the Latvian tribal warlords were certainly seen as second-hand rulers to Catholic crusaders, Holy Roman Empire and the Papal State. Their conversion was not enough as they could not be strong enough to hold their senior status. While there was early form of states in Latvian territory it was more a tribal microstate not recognized by Christian countries as weak Pagan states with no hope to gain recognition as senior kingdoms.

Latvian Pagan religion was brutally destroyed by Christian invaders and conversion was forceful

Archeological and written sources gives very light details about religion in Latvia prior to 12th century. There are examples of burial traditions, some items that were used in religion. Often the early Latvians used Christian regalia traded from Christian countries for their own needs. The chronicles give very light details about Latvian pagan beliefs. Apart from Baltic Prussians there is no evidence of ancient Latvian priesthood. The Latvian Mythology as it is known is based on writings, beliefs and folksongs from 15th to 19th century as gathered by folk song studies and observations. That means the pagan religion if such was, rather a tradition was kept for centuries and experienced transformation. And not always the conversion was enforced. In 11th-12th when Latvian territory was visited by traders from West and East many of the local rulers and their families converted to Christianity for benefits that came with it. While their subjects mostly did not or embraced Christian faith rather passively. That just shows how important were the traditional views as they could be easily replaced by another religion for material benefits. Also for many centuries most of Latvian ancestors has very light understanding of Christianity as all rites and writings were in Latin. The Reformation and Enlightenment in 15th -18th century started teaching Christian beliefs in Latvian and Bible and other Christian works were translated into Latvian. Also in many cases the true cause of resistance to Christian conversion or moving back to Pagan beliefs was because becoming Christian meant becoming vassal to Crusaders.

Some authors argue that initially the mostly Germanic traders and Bishop Meinard had no initial intention to baptize Livs and Baltic tribes by force. In 1170 from Segeberg Bishop Meinard first came to Liv land around Daugava and started peaceful mission. He also asked permission to Duke of Polotsk (knyaz) Vladimir who imposed Livs to pay tributes to him, to build small church in Ikšķile. In 1184 such was build and small congregation of freely converted Livs were made. However, Meinards was attacked by Lithuanian and Semigallian riders so he asked permission to Liv leaders to build stone castle in Ikšķile in exchange for baptism. It was done and one part of the Castle belonged to Meinards others to Livs. Livs soon broke the agreement and dropped Christianity and attacked Meinards. Meinards tried to leave Ikšķile, but received warnings of Liv attempt to kill him and remained in castle where he died. Then a monk Theoderich came to Ikšķile and assessed that small Christian congregation is in danger and called for military support igniting the Baltic crusades. The Crusades led by more ruthless Bishops as Berthold and Albert were violent, as Crusaders used force to baptize tribal Balts and Livs if there was no other option. Soon it turned out that the war was not about faith but about the land. Becoming Christian meant becoming Crusader vassal and subject and many resisted resulting permanent loss of land. While it did not mean that Crusaders managed to completely uproot ancient Baltic beliefs, they stayed within peasantry and Crusader seniors did very small effort to counter them. More efforts were done by Lutherans in 15th -18th century. First by educating Christianity in Latvian and second by exporting witch trials that were mostly carried out in Lutheran Swedish Vidzeme. Also Herrnhuter Brüdergemeine movement managed to fully convert Latvian peasants. In 19th century Pagan beliefs were weakened by Christian education. A revival was made by Latvian nationalists who as their commoners in Germany and elsewhere looked for symbols in the ancient times creating a legend of old peaceful Latvian pagan religion destroyed by while Crusaders. In reality the situation was far from simple and the religion, tradition, education and land ownership each played its part.

Battle of Saule was joint victory by the Baltic tribes over German invaders

Voldemārs Vimba created an epic painting to please nationalistic authoritarian ruler Kārlis Ulmanis. In the painting soldiers carrying Latvian and Lithuanian flags charge Crusaders in the Battle of Saule in 1236. While first mentions of flag similar to Latvian national state flag dates to 1279 when Latgalian soldiers came to assist Crusaders who were attacked by Semigallians, the Lithuanian flag as well as Latvian flag itself certainly could not be used in the Battle against Crusaders. Because Latgalians and Estonians fought together with Crusaders against Lithuanians and Semigallians. There was no Baltic unity in the battle, as such unity was not possible. Lithuanians regularly raided Latvian territory and even Estonia. Each tribal leader had their own interests and Semigallians were not always allied with Lithuanians. Lithuanians viewed Latgalians and Estonians allied with Crusaders as enemies and had no intention on liberating them from Crusaders. And the battle was mainly Lithuanian victory as it halted Crusader advance in Lithuania while it not do much for Latvian territory. However, nationalistic minded people has made September 22 as Baltic Unity Day. A day that is required, but September 22 is not Unity Day. Its Victory Day for Lithuania only.

Latvia is native Russian land. Before the arrival of Crusaders many ancient Latvian micro states were vassals of the Russian duchies and converted to Orthodox

It’s true that Russian and Belarusian duchies held influence on Latgalian, Liv and Selonian tribes. In return for protection and trade rights they made them pay tributes and some ruler families like Visvaldis of Jersika converted to Orthodox. Russian traders lived in Koknese and visited other small castles and Crusader Riga. Crusaders often had to deal with Duchy of Polotsk and Pskov because they recognized them as seniors over these tribal leaders. But, it seems hardly that these duchies recognized these micro states as their land. Other than tribute paying and building the church and sometimes hosting a war party, there was no limitations to their sovereignty. Latgalians, Livs and Selonians were simply a client that paid tributes and traded with them. A very limited effort were made to reclaim them from Crusaders and Duchies only cared for their own safety from Crusaders. As yet of 12th centuries the Duchies of formal Kyivean Rus had no Russian or Belarusian identity rather than Orthodox people of Rus. Also amount of people from present Russia and Belarus were very small to call Latvia a native Russian land. The duchies of Rus were in complicated situation as they were invaded by Mongol hordes and were vassals to Golden Horde themselves. There was no interest in conquering the Baltic lands. This interest showed up during the reign of Ivan IV The Terrible who first aspired to seize control over Catholic Livonia.

The Swedish rule in Vidzeme between 1629 to 1700 was generally better for Latvian peasant population

During the Crusader order rule in Vidzeme the Baltic Germans gradually seized all top positions in politics and economy and became the major land owners. Latvians had only few full titled senior land owners in Courland, most were subjects to lands belonging to Livonian Order and the Church. Gradually in 14th -16th century the changes in economic order and advances in agriculture forced the land owners to empower their rights over their peasant subjects and limit their rights of movement and land ownership. Land owners needed full control of the agricultural workforce and that created serfdom that sometimes were exceptionally harsh. This serfdom remained after fall of Livonian Confederation and became harsher under Polish rule. In the result of war between Poland and Sweden in 1621 the Northern Latvia and Riga was annexed by Sweden. What Sweden did in contrast to Duchy of Courland and Polish Latgale was the reduction of agricultural lands. 40 percent of land was given to Swedish nobles limiting the monopoly for Germans. About five-sixths of estates in Vidzeme were reclaimed by Swedish crown. This was done to increase the revenues for Sweden and it succeeded because tax incomes grow substantially. While Swedes tried to improve the life of peasants of building schools, allowed to translate Bible in Latvian, they did not fully abolish serfdom as in 1681 it was rejected by Livonian Knighthood that represented German interests. Swedes also imposed heavier tax and corvee burden and created harsh physical punishments for failing to pay them. Swedish Lutherans also increased witch hunts in Vidzeme. In the end the Sweden managed Vidzeme for their own interests that weakened German nobility, but kept the relations in balance. The serfdom was only abolished in Latvia by Russian Empire in 1817 and 1819 after very long and complicated negotiations with Livonian Knighthood while in Latgale it was only abolished in 1861 with rest of Russia as it was not considered part of Baltic provinces.

The Duchy of Courland is first form of Latvian statehood. 

The Duchy of Courland and Semigallia was outcome of collapse of Livonian Confederation and its subjection to Poland-Lithuania. The leadership of Livonian Order sought agreement with Poland and the last master of the Livonian Order Gotthard Kettler became Duke of Courland and Semigallia. It was a vassal state of Poland-Lithuania led by Baltic German nobility where Latvians had their secondary roles with no say in politics. In their rule the Duchy was quite independent and also could create their own fleet and colonize lands in Caribbean sea and Africa. While all these colonies were hopelessly lost some romantic inclined people want to claim them as Latvian property. The ownership of Tobago and Gambia may improve Latvian standings in Olympic Field Athletics and Football, but that is more a joke. The Germanic dukes of Courland while sending Latvians to their colonies never saw their Duchy as Latvian state, it was impossible in 15th-18th century. For them the Duchy was sovereign part of former Livonia associated with Polish throne. Even Poland cannot claim these colonies as Polish government did not care about Couronian efforts and did not gave any support and hardly noticed that Duchy had lost them.

The period between 1200 to 1918 was 700 years of slavery, afterwards Latvians won full political and economic freedom

In 1920 when Latvia become independent many noticed very grim appearance in economic and social statistics – while ethnic Latvians held 80% in agriculture, they were minority in finance and industry where major players were Germans, Jews and Poles. Obvious answer was to blame the 700 years of slavery. A time when foreign powers enslaved Latvians, took away their land and abused them in economy and politics. While in 12th -16th century the various peasants and small traders and craftsmen did not identity them as Latvians as whole and saw their subjection as unfortunate social reality that in many cases was not so grim as they still had lot of freedom in income gathering and movement, later in 19th century in result of nationalism a ethnocentric thinking emerged placing Latvians against other nations as victims. This victimhood was even boosted by some radical German thinkers as Garlieb Merkel who in 1796 wrote his epic work “Latvians” where he protested serfdom and accused Germans of gravely abusing poor dark Latvian peasants. As controversial book was it contributed to the abolishment of serfdom and greater German efforts to educate Latvian peasants.

While Latvians were never only a peasant nation. There was small Latvian nobility in Courland, there were Latvian traders, craftsmen and house owners. Latvian only congregations appeared only in 16th century in the result of reformation. Latvian traders had their own guilds and trader unions.

The hash times for Latvian peasants in 16th -18th centuries were favorite subject for nationalistic and Marxist authors while despite of all Latvian peasants had their own schools, churches and some peasants could also gain relative wealth. It’s because Germans cared that Latvians receive education and live in relative wellbeing so they can work better and live according to their standards of modernity. Before abolishment of serfdoms Germans viewed Latvians as their lower-class neighbors, workers and occasional rivals in commerce. In 19th century as Latvian nationalism and social democracy emerged Germans now felt threatened by the Latvians both politically and economically. And it was not because they suddenly became stronger after serfdom was abolished – it’s because they were rivals to Germans all the time and gradually became stronger as their economic and political situation improved.

The confrontation between Latvians, Germans and other nationalities were required for nationalists and Marxists for their own goals. For that the myth of 700 years slavery was essential. In 1905 when in many places Latvian peasants attacked German mansions the revenge for serfdom was called the main reason for these atrocities. That also boosted German hate towards Latvians and this mutual confrontation expressed itself in War for Independence in 1918-1920 while also some German units served for Latvian cause. Latvian fear of German knighthood continued in political battles with Baltic Germans in 1920-1939. Finally, in 1939 Nazi Germany called for repartition of Baltic Germans to Germany and it was greeted by nationalistic Latvians. Later the Soviet Latvia historiography continued to exploit the 700 years of slavery by showing serfdom as feudal atrocity in contrast to progressive communist society.

The idea of independent Latvian state was born even before 1905 and strengthened in the ranks of the Latvian Rifleman during First World War

The idea that four historical regions Courland (Kurzeme), Semigallia (Zemgale), Vidzeme and Latgale forms united land called Latvia formed in late 19th century. Before for most the land was known as Livonia that Estonia was part of. For Latgalians it was also not so clear as Latgale was part of Vitebsk province and only in 1917 they fully determined themselves to Latvia. Generally the first Latvian nationalists the New Latvian movement fought for Latvian education and culture, equal rights and some local political say within unified Russian Empire. Such demand was high enough for those times as independent small nation in the age of empires was unthinkable. Latvians first needed to improve education, fight against Russification and reluctant German nobility. Russian Empire as senior ruler was only as bad that it first secured the rights of Germans and later tried to impose Russian language. But, independent country was only some could dream off. The early 20th century was filled with Marxist ideas and the New Current movement demanded major reforms for workers and peasants and were one of the first who made claims for Latvian autonomy within reformed Russia. In 1905 the social democrats were the main fighters for autonomy together with anarchists while most nationalists actually demanded to keep current order or at least make Russia constitutional as promised by Tsar Nicholas II in his October manifesto. As revolution was crushed, many came to conclusion that only way for autonomous Latvia is the collapse of Tsar family rule.  The people creating first plans for autonomy were social democrats like Miķelis Valters, Linards Laicēns, ect.

1915 was crucial time as Imperial Germany invaded Latvia and took over Courland and Semigallia and were close to capture Riga. This was a time of nationalistic fervor to call for Latvian Regiment within Russian army to chase Germans away from Latvian lands. Now also nationalists started to call for national autonomy and hoped that Latvian rifleman will serve as example to the Russian throne. Among Latvian rifleman there was nationalistic enthusiasm, but it was as mainly aimed to defeat Germany and rest will follow. After the crushing defeat in 1916 many of them drifted towards Bolshevism as it called Tsar responsible for the great losses and no friend of Latvians and called for peace. In 1917 after the fall of Riga the most of them moved to Russia and fought for Soviet cause.

What happened in Latvia in 1917-1918 was confusion. In February 1917 Tsar was deposed and Russia became democratic republic. If so then Latvia can now ask for national autonomy, however Russian Provisional government never approved this. Future president Jānis Čakste claimed that while he and his commoners were against Tsar they were never against Russia and never wanted to secede and do not want their own parliament, but want to live in common western influenced democratic Russia.  While others like Latvian National Democrat Party called for fully established autonomous  state within democratic Russian federal republic. Social Democrats also called for autonomous Latvia within unified social democratic state of Russia. In 12 August (July 30) Vidzeme Peoples Land Council called for unified autonomous democratic Latvia.

All these calls for autonomy suddenly became obstructed when German army captured Riga on September 3 1917 and gradually took over all Vidzeme and Latgale. Russia had promised nothing and Germany was more willing to create Livonian Duchy. Then Bolsheviks took power in Petrograd. The Latvian right-wing bourgeoise politicians and social democrats had very few options now. In December 2 1917 Latvian National Provisional Council made declaration calling for creation of national autonomous state its important that this declaration no more talked about being together with Russia but Latvia as autonomous state not saying from whom. As such it was pre-declaration of independence. In November 11 1918 Germany had capitulated. Bolsheviks gathered forces to invade Baltic States. There was no more variants for autonomy – Estonia and Lithuania already had declared independence in February 1918. The right wing parties and social democrats gathered in November 18 1918 to declare independence.

Independence was won by solely Latvian efforts/Latvia gained independence only because of foreign countries

When in 1930 Latvia demonstrated historical epic Lāčplēsis on movie screens the Estonians complained that despite showing Estonian army at one episode the movie grossly downplayed Estonian assistance for Latvians. While this movie showed the support from British and French navy. Then in 2008 movie the Guards of Riga completely omitted both Estonians and Allies from the war effort.

Estonian army pushed away the Bolsheviks from their land and marched in Northern Latvia. There at Cēsis in June 22 1919 they together with Latvian forces defeated the renegade German Iron Division and Landeswehr that staged uprising against Latvian Provisional Government. Months before that these same units together with Latvians made advance against Bolsheviks and took back Riga. The Allied navy was stationed in Liepāja and contributed fighting Bolsheviks and later opened fire against rouge Bermondt forces. Then Lithuanian and Polish army helped in Latgale front. Latvia was never alone in the war and without allied forces it would have significantly harder time to gain independence.

Then again was it only because of allied support? The answer is that independence was gained in the chain of events and circumstances. Allied navy was sent to Baltic sea not to support Baltic independence but to stop the Bolshevik advance. Allied countries mainly wanted unified Russia free of Bolsheviks, the new Baltic States and Baltic German factions from there was only temporary allies and the question of Baltic independence should had been settled out with Russia.  Baltic States were only legally recognized in 1921 when it was clear that these countries will actually exist and not be thrown into oblivion like Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia. Estonian forces came deep in Northern Latvia and fought against Germans, because first they needed to completely destroy the Bolshevik threat and defeat hostile German forces. Polish leaders wanted restored Poland as big as possible to the extent of 1776 borders. But, Poland needed to completely defeat Bolsheviks so they agreed to take part in liberation of Latgale. So all parties involved had one major interest – defeat Bolsheviks. Latvia until 1920 was question mark – what if Bolsheviks would be defeated by White forces – would they approve such republic? The German forces in Latvia are quite strong – can weak Latvian army defeat them? But, Bolsheviks is a menace so as long this Latvia fights against it we help them – let’s see how long they will last. So in the end it was also up to Latvians themselves to prove their worth in combined battles in Cēsis, Rīga and Latgale. And with Latvians we must not forget Germans, Russians, Jews, Belarusians, Poles and other national minorities fighting in Latvian army.

The Kārlis Ulmanis regime was fascist

In 1960 Latvian soviet historian Aleksandrs Drīzulis published book called “Latvia under the helm of fascism” at first it may look as a book about Nazi occupation. When you began to read it’s actually about the authoritarian Kārlis Ulmanis regime. Kārlis Ulmanis regime was radical in the way that is fully self-centered. All parties including his own Latvian Green Farmers Union was banned. There was no parliament, constitution was stopped. All was in hands of Prime Minister then President Kārlis Ulmanis. There was no party made after the coup, there was no new constitution it was just Kārlis Ulmanis and his government and his bureaucracy. Along with that loyal army, police and National Guard. Was that enough to be called fascist? There were concentration camps for short time in 1934-1935 but the arrested were eventually released. Secret police fought political opponents among the real Latvian fascists and  Baltic German Nazis, but scale or repression was never severe. Press was censured, while one of the themes banned in media was anti-Semitism. While left-wing Jewish movements were banned the  Zionist movements were untouched. Ulmanis government severed rights of national school autonomy but most of national autonomy schools were kept.  While the economy became more controlled by the state the private sector was never fully abolished. In these terms Latvia resembled more an absolute monarchy.

Then there are plans and tendencies that shows Ulmanis Latvia could become fascist. In late 1930’s Ulmanis started planning of creating national party under his name. He also emulated some of the actions of Benito Mussolini like creating chamber (camera) system to control various sectors of economy and similar to Mussolini he made severe changes in Old Riga by destroying city street quarters to create new square around Dome Cathedral. Mussolini did the same when he destroyed whole city district in Rome to create a new grand entry street into Vatican City. Plus Ulmanis also planned to create new massive monumental buildings like Victory Arch similar to Adolf Hitler vision for Berlin. In the end in 1939 -1940 when economy was in shatters and unemployment was growing Ulmanis made steps to create labor duty that would engage large number of people in forced labor camps. His law specially targeted Jews who were less involved in agricultural labor and wanted to force them to work in the field. Ulmanis Latvia had potential to becoming fascist if it would last for another twenty years.

Before the Russian rule Latvia was undeveloped rural economy, most Latvians lived in farms. Russians brought industry and culture

This claim is sometimes seen in some of the Russian forums and comments. The Russian nationalists claim that Latvians before 1940 where low cultured poor people who lived in farmsteads (hutor) with almost no industry in the cities. This is one of the most absurd myths as Latvia had already well-developed mercantile industry in 17th-18th century and yes the industry gradually grew under the Russian empire which by the logic would grow under Sweden, Poland or any other country. Latvian industry suffered a massive blow when in 1914-1915 large portions of factory equipment even whole workers were evacuated to inner Russia. But in first ten years during independent Latvia the industry gradually recovered and it was not just owned by Germans, Russians and Jews – there was lot of successful Latvian owners. One of the most successful Latvian industrial company VEF made a variety of products from nails to airplanes. What is reality that many of the most successful Soviet Latvian enterprises was nationalized and kept by the Soviets in 1940. And about the hutor – the Latvian agriculture while facing issues in workforce fared no worse than later Soviet collective farms that were imposed on people and those who resisted were deported to Siberia.

Before 1940 all Jews in Latvia called themselves žīdi (yids) and not ebreji (Hebrews) and there was no problem with that. Ebrejs is word imposed by Soviets

There are three common names for Jews in Latvian. Biblical Jews are called jūds. Then there are two words. One is ebrejs that is close to word Hebrew and Russian word evrei. And then there is word žīds. Žīds was the most common way the Latvians called Jews, in Poland and Lithuania a similar word is Żydzi and Žydai. However, this word resembles word Yid that is considered offensive. It’s even more offensive in Russia where it’s also means cheapskate and niggard. During the times of pogroms  a popular slogan was “Spasai Rossiju! Bei židov!” (Save Russia! Beat the Yid!) n 1940 the Soviets banned the word žīds and made ebrejs as only word to describe Jew.  What happened a year later was a Pandora’s box. Invading Nazis on quest to exterminate all Jews used the ban of žīds in their propaganda to prove Soviet occupation main power was Jews. As this word was controversial as it was it now got a very dark tone in the light of the Holocaust. After the return of the Soviets the žīds dropped out of common vocabulary and ebrejs was and is common word in Latvian for Jews. While exiles in west still used žīds and for nationalists in underground it was the true word. Then independent Latvia these people came out and asked to restore the Latvian žīds and drop the soviet ebrejs as it was never used before Soviet occupation and Jews themselves did not used to call themselves. While others started to theorize that there is difference between žīds and ebrejs.

What was in reality that word ebrejs was quite common word among Jews themselves before the war. In most official documents written by Jews themselves the word ebrejs is used. While there was no protests against the žīds word, it seems that Jews really preferred neutral word ebrejs because žīds reminded them of Tsarist time anti-Semitic oppression.

Jews were mainly responsible for Soviet repressions of 1940-1941

There are comments in Latvian main internet news sites. And when a news item regarding Jewish issue is published there is nice bet that at least one of them will mention the word
Šustins. Semyon Shustin was Jewish national from Moscow who worked in NKVD was a ruthless soviet officer who took part mass deportations of June 14 1940. He was never from Latvia and during the repressions hundreds of Jews from Latvia were deported to Siberia. Soviet government closed all Jewish organizations and arrested most social and political activists.

In June 22 19141 Nazi Germany invaded and massive anti-Semitic campaign started. Nazi German propagandists many of them willingly Latvian activists like Ādolfs Šilde made countless accusations of Jews as main perpetrators of the soviet occupation. Year later when killing of the Latvian Jews was mostly finished to justify a propaganda book and movie was made to fully summarize Jewish guilt the occupation. The book the Horrible Year was so successful that still this day many including parliamentary speaker describes the 1940 as Baigais Gads  a name for book mainly about imagined Jewish atrocities in 1940.

In reality while many Jews saw Stalin as lesser evil compared to Hitler, if we start a detailed outlook on Jewish participation in Soviet occupation it shows that Jewish presence especially local was limited and marginal. Important people like Semyon Shustin was from Moscow. Majority of the party members, members of various municipalities and soviet organizations were Latvians. Jews were also prevented from reaching high ranks. Jews were involved in repressive structures, but not  in high percentage and are responsible as Latvians who took part in them. While these words may seem pointless for some people for whom seeing two or five Jewish surnames in the list means approval for their world of conspiracy.

During the WW2 large masses of Latvians actively took part in Holocaust without German orders in revenge for Soviet occupation

This claim was first created by Nazi propaganda who wished to portray mass killings as purely local initiative as revenge for Jewish Bolshevik atrocities. After the war some Jewish survivors continued this theme and published dramatic books fully accusing Latvians who killed Jews without German orders or took part in the shootings willingly. Soviets picked this up and published books directed towards Latvian exiles where they accused them of taking part in Nazi atrocities. Russian propaganda continues this narrative.

So far academic research has failed to prove that in time of so-called interregnum – the period between exchange from Soviet to Nazi power a Jewish killings have taken place. This interregnum happened because Soviets were quick to retreat and in many places Latvian national partisans took power. They regarded Germans as their allies and gradually returned authority to Germans. However, most cases show these partisans were involved in attacking retreating soviets while there were events attacking Jewish refugees from Lithuania, however most of these attacks took place after Germans had taken power and ordered Latvians to attack the refugees.

Holocaust in Latvia has been documented very well and shows that killings took place after the Germans had full installed power and taken control over Latvian national partisans or Self Defense groups. These groups and two main Security Police commandos Arājs and Valgulāns group did the most job of killing Jews while all these murders were directed and observed by Germans. As for the tragic events in July 4 1941 when Arājs men burned down the main synagogue that German propaganda portrayed as major pogrom; the official Nazi documents states that local participation was insignificant and unsatisfactory.

However, no light words are said for Latvian propagandists from Pērkonkrusts (Thundercross) movement who voluntary published hundreds of anti-Semitic articles in the press and before the war some of their publications state that they favored the removal of the Jews from Latvia. After the movement demanded Germans to create Latvian national forces, they were all arrested and sent to concentration camps.

Nazi occupation was far better than the Soviet occupation

The massive deportations of June 14 1940 and many other repressions were grave image of the soviet occupation. During the Nazi occupation the national flag of Latvia was flown only for few days and was banned as well as the national anthem and other symbols. In 1941-1942 there was no German intention for restoration of independent Latvia. Instead plan was drawn to colonize Latvia and integrate into Nazi Germany. Rhetoric changed after Stalingrad and Germans needed Latvian support for continuing war effort. Latvian Waffen SS Legion was formed and promises were made of Latvian national government. Never fulfilled.

As off repressions – Nazis killed 9000 Jews in Latvia and also sent Jews from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Nazis killed about 2000 Roma’s. Nazis killed people supporting soviet partisans. Nazis deported whole families from Belarus to Latvia, where many children died from sickness and starvation. Nazis repressed and killed people calling for independent Latvia. There is no need to compare.

Salaspils camp was a death camp

Germans had diverse classification list for their camps. For instance the Kaiservald (Mežaparks) was called a concentration camp while Salaspils was called simply a camp. They also had camps called extermination camps and death camps. Salaspils was simply called camp. It’s this just a guise? During the soviet occupation in sixties some people were inspired by the new memorials in Auschwitz and Dachau so they wanted similar in Latvia. Salaspils was chosen for a new memorial and thousands of people who died there deserved this. However, soviets published books where they called Salaspils a Death camp. Soviets made claims that there was gas machines in the camp. Another claim that camp served as blood repository, that children from Russia and Belarus were used to collect blood for German soldiers.

There are no proof that there was ever a gas machine used in Salaspils.  There was no logical reason for mass blood collecting without determining the blood type that would make blood transfer out of question. On 1943 because of issues the German medical authority canceled the use of blood doses in the Eastern Front instead preferring direct transfer. Also the blood transport to Western front from Latvia would be costly and unreliable process.  Blood collecting took place, but not in large-scale and mostly for medical reasons as doctors tried to limit the spread of diseases that would endanger not only children but also adult workers. The camp was for most as punishment camp for people of various sorts also soviet prisoners of war, anti-nazi resistance and unemployed. People died there because of harsh work conditions, sickness and starvation. It was a horrible place, but soviet claims and their given death toll is gravely exaggerated.

Latvian Waffen SS is responsible for war crimes

Latvian Waffen SS was formed in 1943 after most of Jewish killing took place. Its two divisions 15th and 19th division and smaller adjacent units  took part in combat from Leningrad to Berlin. The Police Battalions, Security Police commandos are not Latvian Waffen SS Legion. Some of the former members of the criminal units later were enlisted into Latvian Waffen SS legion. That is their individual responsibility. Similarly every Soviet soldier who made war crimes or allied soldier holds individual responsibility.

Latvian Waffen SS truly fought for independent national Latvia. The Latvians within Soviet army or Latvian soviet partisans were either just conscripts or trained saboteurs

Latvian Waffen SS carried out German orders. It fought hard battles and many times stopped great soviet offensives and allowed German units to escape onslaught. They never really had time and chance to fight for independent Latvia no matter how each of them wanted it. Only thing they achieved is that they helped many refuges to escape Latvia by halting and stopping advancing soviets.

Most of the Latvian Waffen SS Legion were conscripts. War was seen to each of his own eyes. So as the soldiers in the Latvian Rifleman divisions in the Red Army. Many of its members truly wanted to liberate Latvia from the Nazis. The Latvian Jews in the Latvian Rifleman division had a clear motivation. While there was practice of trained Soviet partisan drops in Latvia, some of them also did war crimes their motivation was either sense of duty or motivation to fight Nazi’s. Both of these sides had plenty of wrong; Latvians had to take part in both sides. There was no Latvian side in the Eastern front.

Latvian national partisans were bandits created by German secret service and then submitted to the allied secret services

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. After the end of world war hundreds of people did not accept the soviet occupation and went into woods. There was hope for allied war with soviets and these people hoped their guerilla will be short. Instead it resorted to hopeless battle until 1956. Soviets called them bandits and accused of atrocities, murders and looting. In some events it was true as partisans were vicious towards local soviets and attacked shops to get supplies. One could say that it was false to wait for allied war with Soviets, however the allied rhetoric made such hopes. In reality the US and UK leadership was always afraid of Soviet attack and feared to attack first. Soviets also made claim that these partisans were created by Nazis to work behind enemy lines. It’s true that Nazis really created such battalions like SS-Jagdverband-Ost that however was almost completely destroyed by the end of the war. Prior to Nazi invasion in 1941 Nazis made contacts with many members of Latvian anti-Soviet resistance and exiles and also direct Nazi supporters and then trained for operations. However, its doubtful that Nazis managed to train large partisan force as large it was during 1945-1956.

Allied secret services CIA and SIS both made efforts to assist the Latvian partisans. These efforts were soon uncovered by Soviets and used against the allies. People were lured in Latvia and captured. Soviets even created fake partisan units to lure allied agents mostly Latvians into the trap. Since the start the allied secret service operation in Latvia was controlled by Soviets. Did partisans regarded CIA and SIS as their superiors? In their desperate war against soviets they needed every help they can get, but since allied efforts were hindered by the KGB there was no significant way to help them.

Russification during Tsarist times were harsher then in Soviet times

Sometimes in mostly Ukrainian twitter shares an old exhibition piece – a pillory sign – “he spoke Latvian” as punishments in school for speaking Latvian during Tsarist times. In the late 19th century such pillory signs and really did exist and Ukrainians use this to their argument against Russian influence. While Russian would probably say that this shows that Russification in Tsar times was more harsh than in Soviet times when it was always nonexistent. During the harshest period of Russification the Latvians had answer – private Latvian schools that became popular. People tried to avoid official state schools where Russian language was imposed. Russification gradually weakened after 1905. During the soviet occupation, Latvian language was taught in schools, Latvian language was on TV and Radio and there was no fines for its usage outside official use. Officially all documents were in Russian, it was official language in army and police. But, was the most crucial – soviets did not forced thousands of immigrants from Soviet Union to learn Latvian. It seemed useless for them and that made heavy shoulder on Latvian language. It was regarded as a language only for Latvians, it was not needed for Russian speakers and Russian speakers did not speak with Latvians in their language. Of course not all of the new soviet residents were ignorant of the Latvian language, but that was long gradual diminishing of the Latvian language rather than brash suppression that only creates resistance.

During the soviet rule, the Soviet government invested millions in Latvian economy and received very less in return therefore its Latvia that owns debt to Russia

When Latvia speaks about large amount of losses created by Soviets and asks for large refund, Russia always reminds of their massive investment into Latvia. Until now such claim was let to pass however now studies conclude that from 1946 to 1991 Soviet Union spent 24,684 million rubles in Latvia while gained 40,645 revenue from Latvia. 15,961 million were spent less than gained. The money gained from Latvia was used for poor areas in Russia and support other soviet republics. Latvia had valuable agricultural and industrial products and was very valuable and profitable captive nation for Moscow. For this reason there is regret for loss of Latvia and plans always in place of how to return it.

During the Soviet times large part of Latvian intellectuals and cultural workers were involved with KGB

Soviet secret service KGB was the most powerful and biggest spy agency in world history. It both held responsibility of foreign and interior intelligence. And as of interior intelligence it was not just counter intelligence it was complete control of the society in every its aspect to counter anti-Soviet activity. That involved recruitment of people from cultural, academic and artistic circles. There are people who are known and who have confessed, then they rumors. The issue is that even partial list of agents is still classified. The KGB documents research commission has made demands to publish the database, however Latvian Constitutional Defense Bureau   is still against it. This claim will stay unverified as long as the lists of agents that is available in  Latvia remains classified. And people will say that there is a reason why it’s still classified.

Soviet times were generally worse than now

The most harshest years of the Soviet occupation was 1945-1953 during last years of Stalin. These years were characterized with another mass deportation in 1949, enforced collectivization, war with partisans and painful economic recovery. Level of living improved in sixties and level of repressions dropped. In sixties and seventies the soviet technical advancement was lacking in comparison of Western level of technology. However, in most part soviet production was still able provide people with good level of living and welfare. The cultural level despite censorship was reasonably high, advancements were made in arts, literature, cinema and music. Censorship even made artists, writers and musicians to be more creative to express themselves so hidden messages were shown. As of all even despite Nikita Khrushchev vulgar attack on modern arts (he later regretted and said he was just confused) and stagnate conservatism of Leonid Brezhnev the culture in Soviet Union was prosperous although it could not completely avoid the banality of the soviet propaganda. In similar way the education while plagued with obligatory soviet ideology managed to provide good level of knowledge.  Medicine was state funded, while it was often slow and not as technically advanced as in west it served its purpose. Also Soviet Union was not fully closed from the west and many of the western culture and education reached Latvia and influenced the people.

The most negative aspects of the post Stalin years was mass immigration, increased pollution created by industry and the military. Still fear from army and KGB was all the time present, the Latvian men were sent to Afghanistan and later Chornobyl. Latvians could not freely travel the world, the contacts with west was limited. In 80s the Soviet economy went into decline resulting deficit of products, increased corruption and technologic backwardness. It seems that if Soviet Union did not collapse in 1991 and never took any reforms it would go into deep recession and would not be able even to challenge the West. If Soviet Union would try to make approach similar to China, by keeping the state order but introduce free market things may turned out differently, but Soviet elite seemed to completely mismanage their reforms and the empire collapsed from the actions of their own rulers.

Comparing to our days while technology is way advanced, almost none of is made in Latvia. The state and private sector cannot provide jobs to all people in Latvia resulting emigration. Culture is almost free from any sign of censorship, but the main issue is state funding that is always lacking and privately funded culture is of many things. Same as education and medicine almost every sector lacks proper funding. Independent state cannot even fully funds its police and army. Cost of life has increased and issues in education and medicine has created discontent in society. Much of this was evident in 1920-1940 and that is a cost for being independent senior state rather part of large empire.

During the restoration of independence the old soviet communist elite made transition to democratic elite and still rules the country

This is claimed by the nationalists some of them members of Helsinki-86 and the Citizens Congress who wanted more radical way of restoration of independence rather than conventional way that was made by Popular Front that cooperated with Latvian communists who reverted to support the independence. That shows how weak and impotent the communist beliefs had become and most of the communist party members except hardliners steadily approved new reality and became capitalists and sometimes nationalists. This claim is partially true, however it seems that hardline nationalists were in no position to fulfil things their way and live on this accusation for rest of the two decades. What is unfortunate that no proper lustration was done and it was not done in any of the former Soviet Union. In Russia and Belarus it led to a rise of Soviet revisionism, in Ukraine and Georgia it lead to revolutions. In Latvia it simply created an unfortunate situation when some of the old elite tries to operate the country the old soviet way, some of not the best of their ability. Some of these people still tries to maintain good relations with Russia or are their agents. Larger issue is post soviet thinking that is characterized by fake nationalism and fake democratism and economic inability.

Majority of Russian speakers supported independent Latvia from USSR and were betrayed by Latvian government later by creating an apartheid state

In March 3 1991 a poll was made asking for supporting the independence from USSR. 1 227 562 voted for 411 374 against. In 1989 there was 1 387 757 Latvians, 905 515 Russians, 119 702 Belarusians, 92 101 Ukrainians, 60 416 Poles and 22 897 Jews. Surely it could mean that large part of Russian speakers were in favor. And Popular Front made posters asking Russian speakers to vote and try engage them. However, 24,69 of people voted against they were mostly ethnic Russians and military servicemen. Those who supported where mainly people who or their ancestors lived in pre war Latvia or who saw possibility of national cultural revival like some of the Jews.

Still  411 374 was large number and Latvian parties started to dwindle away from Russian speakers. After the independence the new ruling parties had a tough decision. Latvia could either start accession to  EU and NATO as difficult it seemed or try to stay close to Russia. And they feared that Russian speakers will not support course towards NATO and EU and vote for pro-Moscow parties. There already were such and wanted Latvia to stay ‘neutral’. Also in 1989 only of citizens were 52,0% were Latvians and it was obvious to try to preserve. So tough citizenship law was made to give Latvian citizenship to people who were born or had parents in pre war Latvia. Thousands of soviet immigrants became non-citizens.  Russia with its new support policy for Russian speakers abroad immediately condemned Latvia and called the situation in Latvia an apartheid.

Ironically the NATO and EU pressured Latvia to ease the citizenship law and it was gradually done. In result every year more non-citizens gained citizenship. In 2015 there was 262 030 non-citizens. Seems most of the Russian speakers do use their citizenship to support pro-Moscow parties as their support has increased since 2010 and in Riga there is ethnic Russian mayor. Was this support caused by staggering citizenship law? That is one of the reasons, while there some another referendum – in 2012 a referendum for two state languages were initiated. 273 347 people voted for. From 1 098 593 overall voters that is as much as opposition to independence in 1991 poll. It shows that for some people their views had still not changed since 1991 and the Latvian political forces were generally right about their weariness of the Russian speaking voters.

During 1990-1999 the government and ruling elite destroyed the Latvian industry and agriculture inherited from Soviet era on purpose

The first decade since regaining independence was hard one for thousands of workers. Large soviet inherited factories like VEF went into bankruptcy. Government in odds in being unable to maintain all post soviet industry decided to give away to privatization. In various cases the new owners were unable to maintain these factories, while others were simply looted. Many believed it was done on purpose for personal wealth of the new national elite. While some persons involved it was true, the collapse of the soviet industry can be explained for myriad of objective reasons. First soviet industry was all tied to Soviet marked that had collapsed, second the Soviet military had lot of grey orders from these factories that were now lost. Third that soviet industry was hopelessly backwards and foreign investors had no interests in them. A vile version that foreign companies saw new rival in Latvian industry and wanted to destroy it. However, it was so weak that they possibly could not rival Western companies for decades. It was far better to be bought by them for low price, but most like VEF old leadership refused. Fourth factor that new Latvian government that for two years was concentrated for almost impossible task of restoring independence now got in whirlwind of economic and social fallout that was caused by collapse of the soviet economy and rapid transition to free market. The government and new state intuitions were amateurs, often clueless of how to save the industry and made mistakes and fell for bates. Nevertheless it was a major social disaster that has not been fully recovered.

European Union continued to destroy Latvian economy, for instance it closed the Latvian sugar industry

When Latvia joined EU many hoped for immediate prosperity that did not come after 1992. However, many were disappointed by many regulations, directives and recommendations. Also EU investment was and is always under regalement and bigger countries still get the bigger cut. Not only that EU contributed to the closure of the Latvian sugar industry. This action however was not done because EU had vile intentions but because in 2004 it lost a case to World Trade Organization that allowed 49 poorest countries to export sugar into EU without fees and tariffs. To rescue EU sugar industry and compensate those who would be now dropped out of the market. EU offered the companies who can’t produce ton of  sugar for 404 euro were asked to leave the market and received compensations for their closure. And Latvian companies of centuries of experience were one of them. Now most sugar in Latvian stores are from Poland and is one of the most expensive in EU. It is rather unfortunate situation, but EU did that for many other countries because it was forced to.

As much of the EU positive and negative effect to Latvian economy there is many factors. EU has contributed to some sectors of economy and has hindered others. EU tries to work for common good and tries to keep balance and that balance is not always good for some countries. However, EU has no vile intention to sabotage Latvian economy if it had such it would let Latvia go bankrupt in 2008-2009, but obviously that would be against the common good and balance.

These were the some of the myths of the Latvian history. Every nation has its own historical myths and explaining them helps understanding the history better.

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Latvia and the Belarusian Peoples Republic

Fragment of the map showing new Baltic republics and Belarusian People's Republic. Note the purported Belarusian state includes Latgale, eastern part of Latvia as her territory. Latgale is also shown as territory in dispute for Poland.

Fragment of the map showing new Baltic republics and Belarusian People’s Republic. Note the purported Belarusian state includes Latgale, eastern part of Latvia as her territory. Latgale is also shown as territory in dispute for Poland.

On March 25 1918 national and democratic forces representing the Belarusian nation proclaimed Belarusian Peoples Republic (Bielaruskaja Narodnaja Respublika BNR)  It was done in the spirit of other nations proclaiming independence from the collapsed Russian Empire. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were example for Belarusians and Ukrainians who strived for their own unified state. However, during the crucial years of 1918-1920 the BNR did not survive the tides of war and ceased to exist. At the time of its short existence it had established relations with new Republic of Latvia and for a period of time BNR government was stationed in Riga. BNR had military and diplomatic mission working in Riga and its leaders placed hope on Latvian support. Latvia itself was caught in the tough battle for survival in war against Soviet Russia and pro-German forces and had complex relations with Poland so its relations with BNR at start were generally positive, but as BNR went into oblivion Latvia abandoned its support. Latvian main goals was to establish peace with Soviet Russia and settle issues with Poland so in the end BNR was more a obstacle for Latvian foreign policy and its diplomatic mission left Riga forever. This article marks the anniversary of Belarusian Peoples Republic and tells the story of short and forgotten Latvian and Belarusian relations between 1918 and 1921.

Belarusian nation has deep roots from medieval times when its territory was part of Lithuanian Grand Duchy. According to many historians mostly Belarusian ones, the leading elite of the Duchy was not Lithuanians but Belarusian ancestors. Later when Lithuania united with Poland Belarusian lands were influenced by Polish culture. Only after Polish partitions in 1772, 1793 and 1795 Belarus was integrated in spiral of Moscow. During these long years a distinct Belarusian language and culture evolved but it had to survive under heavy Russification policies and also Polonization. On 1918 Russian Empire had collapsed and was forced to cede Belarusian lands to Germany according to Brest-Litovsk peace agreement. An agreement that allowed nations within German occupied lands to decide their own fate. Similar to Baltic nations, there were people among Belarusians who saw chance to establish a national democratic state.

On December 5 – 17 1917 in Minsk (Mensk in Belarusian language) in All-Belarus congress a Central Belarusian Rada was formed however the Russian Soviet of Peoples Commissars in Petrograd rejected the rights of Belarusian autonomy. On January 1918 the All Russia 3th Congress declared the Rada an illegitimate. No repressions followed as on February 1918 Germans stared major offensive and took control over all Belarusian lands.  On February 20 a Belarusian Peoples Secretariat was formed with J. Varonka in the lead. On March 9 Belarusian Rada issued the creation of democratic Belarusian Peoples Republic. On March 25 the BNR proclaimed independence.

Germany did not recognize BNR as it regarded it as a Russian territory. Rada nevertheless created a War Affairs Committee with Kastus (Kanstancin) Jezavitau, in charge. In April Germans banned the Peoples Secretariat. Meanwhile Belarusian Rada fragmented in many leftist parties and with some difficulties created coalition government. Right wingers also joined pleasing the Germans and trade, industry and social welfare was transferred to Peoples Secretariat. BNR was recognized only by Ukrainian Peoples Republic so action was taken to get more diplomatic recognition from its neighbors. On October BNR made white-red-white flag as its official symbol and knight Pahonia the symbol of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was made as coat of arms.

Situation became crucial after Germany stepped out of war and BNR had real chances for independence. However, the Bolsheviks were boosting up offensive to retake lost lands. BNR made agreement with Lithuania. Many members of Rada joined Lithuanian Council (Tariba) and Belarusian Affairs Ministry was made within Lithuanian government with J. Varonka as minister. On December 3 1918 BNR moved to Vilnius while Bolsheviks were approaching Mensk. Soon Bolsheviks headed for Vilnius and BNR moved to Hrodno (Grodno). BNR was in conflict with Poland who had territorial claims on Belarus and after deepening tensions its government moved to Berlin.

On May 1919 Polish forces captured Mensk and BNR leadership moved there. Polish leader Pilsudsky urged Belarusians to join in common union with Poland and make Rada an autonomous body with jurisdiction only in education and culture. BNR rejected and asked for full independence. BNR Rada was weakened by breakup into BNR Supreme Rada and BNR Peoples Rada. Both Rada’s were lead by rivaling leftist parties and Polish government suppressed Peoples Rada.  After major issues BNR government moved to Riga. Poland did not recognized BNR while all three Baltic States, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Germany, Finland and Turkey had formally recognized.

BNR territorial claims were issue on its own as its included territories claimed by Russia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. BNR would include Smolensk (Smolinsk), some small portions of Latvian Latgale and Sēlija regions and parts claimed by Lithuania and Poland. There were some maps that included whole Latgale as BNR territory. The BNR borders were drawn according to Belarusian ethnic borders that conflicted with all neighboring states. Ethnically diverse Latgale was also under dispute by Poland and Lithuania, while Vilnius was major hotspot between Poland and Lithuania. The western Belarus main centers Hrodna and Brest had large Polish populations that wished to be under Warsaw. While neither Bolsheviks nor White forces of Russia did recognize any national independence at all. This created a problematic situation for Belarusian independence.

On autumn 1920 Polish and Soviet peace agreement talks were underway in Riga. BNR government observed that Poles and Soviets are taking part in partition of the Belarusian lands and were not successful in breaking up these actions. This finally made BNR conflicting sides the socialist revolutionaries and socialist federalists  agreed to form unified government. A government led by V Lastovskau became official representative of BNR and BNR Peoples Rada was renamed the BNR Rada. BNR left Riga on November 11 and made agreement on common military union against Poland and started work in Kaunas. On 1923 BNR government and Rada left Kaunas and moved to Prague where it remains until this day still coordinating opposition efforts against Alexander Lukashenko (Lukashenka) authoritarian government in Republic of Belarus.

BNR Diplomatic and military mission in Riga

BNR Diplomatic and military mission in Riga

BNR had high interests in Latvia. First contacts were made on summer of 1919 when BNR Minister of Interior Affairs K Tereshchenko arrived in Riga to establish relations with Latvia. He was interview by local Russian newspaper Rizhkoe Slovo where he issued his plans of creating unified front with Latvians and Lithuanians against the Bolsheviks. BNR had a small armed force incapable defeating Bolsheviks alone. On July 24 he met Kārlis Ulmanis the Prime Minister of Latvian Provisional Government who granted his plea to open BNR consulate in Riga. On August the consulate begun its work with B Shmikovich in charge later replaced by R Kazyachi. Consulate was located in Old Riga at Pils street. BNR flag was raised and consulate begun looking for potential BNR citizens issuing calls in press for Belarusian nationals to apply. BNR tried to level down its territorial claims on Daugavpils district until arrival of military – diplomatic mission to resolve the issue.

 The mission arrived on October 1 1919 with Kastus Jezavitau in charge. He was born in Daugavpils on 1893. On October 3 his delegation met the Latvian Foreign Minister Zigfrīds Anna Meirerovics, to whom he assured BNR support for Latvian independence and wished to join the planned Baltic Union. During the siege of Riga on October-November 1919 by pro-German Army of Bermondt BNR consulate remained in Riga. After Estonia made peace agreement with Soviet Russia BNR wanted to move the armed units led by general S Bulak-Balahovich or so called Belarusian corps to Latvia and use as BNR attack force. BNR stared talks with Latvian side to mobilize men within Latvia for BNR army however the talks failed. Only way to enlist people in Latvia into BNR forces was to make them BNR citizens.

During Battle of Riga and afterwards there was a brief positive period of relations between Latvia and BNR because of BNR representatives supported Latvians in many ways. However, soon many became aware of BNR claims on Latvian border areas most prominently the Ilūkste district (it was also disputed by Poland and Lithuania) and started to question the relations with BNR. As most part of Belarus was under Polish or Soviet rule with active combat actions these good relations were declarative that could change if BNR would gain control over Belarus. BNR could not convince Latvians to station Bulak-Balahovich forces in Latvia or include them into Latvian armed forces; Latvians only agreed them to transit to their homeland. A conflict emerged between BNR consulate and Latvian Army command. BNR consulate was on drive to recruit as much BNR citizens as possible without looking much into their motivation and ethnicity. In result some Latvians and Jews applied for BNR citizenship simply to avoid enlisting in Latvian Armed Forces.

On early 1920 Bulak-Balahovich forces of 800 men entered Latvia and stationed near Alūksne at Estonian border. Jezavitau tried to convince Latvians to include them in to offensive against Bolsheviks in Latgale but talks again failed. On January his unit was included in BNR but soon general broke ties with BNR and moved to Poland to join their army. When Latvian and Polish forces liberated Latgale from the Bolsheviks BNR wished to establish consulates in Daugavpils and Rēzekne. However, the talks with Latvian authorities failed. The Latvian military was skeptical about BNR citizenship registers for they served as tools to avoid army and as BNR only existed on paper there was great doubts. At this time much of Belarus was overrun by Bolsheviks and Polish armies on the Western side.

Latvian side became more reserved to BNR claims and requests. To sort out the Latvian and BNR border issues Latvian foreign ministry offered to create a Latvian-Belarusian commission.   Jezavitau requested secretary J Charpulka and consul B Shimkovich to work in commission, meanwhile Latvians did not rush to name their delegates and the commission never begun work. BNR most success in Latvia was laying foundations for national Belarusian minority by creating Belarusian culture and education society “Batjkovschina” (Fatherland) in Riga. Also a journal in Belarusian “Na Chuzije” (In foreign land) was issued, but only made single issue that contained information about Belarusians in Riga and BNR goals.

Latvian authorities started to feel colder towards BNR and Latvian police started to check BNR citizens to see how valid their citizenship is and even made arrests. BNR authorities protested and checks were stopped. Even some official BNR officials were arrested for instance secretary of BNR Rada J Mamonka was arrested at the Latvian border and 14 600 Russian Imperial Rubles he brought to Riga was confiscated. Border guards disregarded his BNR passport and also his diplomatic papers and only after protests he was released and money returned. BNR was not allowed to take part in Baltic States conference in Bulduri, Finland, Estonia, Lithuania voted against, while Latvia abstained. Only Poland this time because of partial loss of the Belarusian territory had nothing against the BNR participation. On August 11 1920 Latvia made Peace agreement with Soviet Union and relations with BNR was now seen as disadvantageous. The Polish – Soviet peace talks also took place in Riga and both sides were splitting Belarus in half. On October 20 after much Latvian pressure BNR started to gather its bags to leave Latvia. On October 27 BNR leader V Lastovsky pledged Baltic States to support BNR both politically and financially and wished that request for BNR war bases in Baltic States would be considered sometime in future.

On November 11 after making successful talks with Lithuania, BNR moved to Kaunas. Last BNR armed units stationed in Latvia left it after Polish takeover of Vilnius. Most of the Belarusian active community left Riga excluding   Kastus (Kanstancin) Jezavitau who became leader of the Latvian Belarusian minority. Belarusian minority received autonomy in education, had their own societies however on 1924 because of false accusation in separatism many of the Belarusian leaders including Jezavitau were placed on trial greatly straining Latvian-Belarusian relations.

The situation in Belarus between 1918 and 1920 was greatly disadvantageous to Belarusian national independence. It was against the interest of both Bolsheviks and Poland who regarded Belarus as their territory. Latvian relations with BNR were based on realpolitics placing Latvian relations with Soviet Union and Poland above BNR interests. BNR certainly had high hopes in Latvian support, but their powers to defend their homeland were too short and in the end BNR became a state on paper. We can only speculate what would happen if Poland would support independent Belarus and ally with it against Soviets. In the result a fourth Baltic State was lost. The Republic of Belarus that was formed after dissolution of the Soviet Union at first tried to relive the legacy of BNR by using its flag as its national symbol. A few years later Alexander Lukashenko dropped all references to BNR and switched back to Soviet symbolism and turned Belarus into authoritarian nation with Russian tanks marching on the streets on Belarusian independence day. But, BNR is not dead. Its Rada still works in Prague. The BNR flag and its coat of arms has become a symbol of the democratic opposition and praised by the Belarusian democratic youth. If democratic Belarus has any future then ideas of BNR will be its guideline for Belarus to become a full fourth Baltic State and member of Europe.

Flag of BNR in Riga in April 2014

Flag of BNR in Riga in April 2014

Selected sources:

Jēkabsons, Ēriks. (1996) Latvijas un Baltkrievijas Tautas Republikas attiecības. (1919-1920) Latvijas Arhīvi. 1-2. 

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Jews in Soviet Latvia. Assimilation, resistance and revival.

Jews in the Riga train station on the way to Israel

Jews in the Riga train station on the way to Israel

On May 14 1948, the State of Israel declared its independence. It was the realization of hopes and dreams of many of the Holocaust survivors. Large masses moved to the new country, others watched it from their homes at the Diaspora.  In Soviet Union it was pretty much different. Despite initially supporting the Israeli independence, Soviet Union maintained hostile policy towards Israel for next five decades. Despite Soviet Union having one of the largest numbers of Holocaust victims and survivors, its policy was anti-Semitic and unfriendly towards the Jews in Soviet Union. The Soviet Anti-Semitism was not genocidal as the Nazi was. It was more oriented towards full assimilation, oppressive atheism and anti-Zionism. Soviet ideology was generally against practicing Judaism and embracing the Jewish national identity. In such climate the Jews around the Soviet Union had to choose between assimilation into Russian speaking “Soviet nation” devoid of religion and national values or resist. The resistance was not always active and open. The resistance was trying to preserve and maintain their religious values, commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and protesting to gain rights to immigrate to Israel. The post-war Latvia was one of the active parts of this resistance. The survivors and the newcomers all had to through the same choices that others had in the Soviet Union. At the end on late eighties the Latvian Jewish community was again on path to revival and restoration of the independent Jewish community.

 The Holocaust in Latvia killed about 75 thousand Latvian Jews. Only 15 thousand people managed to escape Latvia to the depths of the Soviet Union. A large number of Latvian Jews were deported by the Soviets on June 14 1941 mass deportations. Those who survived the camps later returned to Latvia. Not all returned, but those who did, found their pre-war life’s completely destroyed. There were no synagogues, no Jewish organizations; most of the old Jewish community was destroyed. On 1959 in Soviet Latvia there were 36 600 Jewish nationals 1,75% of the population, 80% of them living in Riga. Only 100 000 of them were born in pre war Latvia as large numbers of soviet Jews moved to live and work in soviet Latvia. Just 48% of them had Yiddish as their native tongue, 50% of them spoke Russian. In next decades the newcomers from Russia and other places overcome the native Latvian Jews. However in many cases they were united in their struggles against the Soviet assimilation policies.

The Jewish struggle against assimilation can be divided in two major parts. First: the preservation of religion, maintaining the religious values in defiance of the official atheist policy. Judaism is the most important aspect of the Jewish identity so it was crucial to keep and maintain it. Officially the Soviet constitution allowed religious practice that is separated from the state and schools. However, the Soviet authorities always tried to interfere in the affairs of the countries many churches and cults. The main authority concerning religious groups was the Council for the Affairs of the Religious Cults. At first the CARC was unable to control the Jewish congregations because of their small size and lack of unified spiritual center. Also because of transport problems, the religious live in rural towns was left beyond observation. The CARC representative Voldemārs Šeškens had very scarce knowledge about the Jewish religion and how to control it. He did not even know if the Soviet Union has any chief rabbi.

Despite that he began registering the Jewish congregations across Latvia. To register a congregation at least 20 people were needed, who then had to found a place for prayer and submit registration papers to local executive committee. It also had to be approved by the KGB.  If all sides approved then: the registry application had to be sent to Moscow where the People’s Commissar Council (later the Council of the Soviet Ministers) approved in the last instance. On 1949 seven congregations with 6 “cult servicemen” were registered across Latvia. Two in Riga, one in Tukums, Ludza, Krāslava, Rēzekne and Daugavpils.  However, there were also unregistered congregations with people unofficially or approved only by local authorities like in Jēkabpils, Liepāja, Ventspils ect. Most of the synagogues in Latvia were destroyed or damaged during the Holocaust, so it was difficult or impossible for the 20 people congregations to restore them. The only fully working synagogue in Latvia was the Pietav street synagogue in Old Riga that was left completely unscarred. Many synagogues were turned into libraries, restaurants and even sport halls like in Tukums.

The state policy became more hostile on 1948 trying to exclude and limit the Jewish religion. Sanctions were made against the young people who attended synagogue; many new regulations prevented Jews from maintaining their traditions. The anti-religious campaign was boosted by official state hostility towards the new State of Israel and the anti-cosmopolite campaign. Many of the religious activists were arrested and accused for the national treason. On 1953 the anti-Jewish campaign reached climax when the so-called “Doctors Trial” in Moscow boosted great fear of massive repressions towards the Jews. When the Riga Jews asked the Pietav Synagogue chief why there was no matzo bought this year, he replied “How can I ask for matzo if the head of the state himself (Stalin) writes anti-Semitic sounding article in the newspaper? One of the dearest rumors was that Stalin is preparing a mass Jewish deportation to Siberia. So far, no compelling documentary evidence have been found, but as Russian archives remain closed for the most part, it’s possible that such deportation was planned. After Stalin’s death the repressions against the Jews were ceased.

State policy became more liberal towards religion excluding the arrests and repressions. However, the anti-religious propaganda was omnipresent and often ignited hate and misunderstanding from the locals. On sixties as the Jewish national movement became strong worldwide the restriction and suspicion against the Jewish congregations became more severe. The new CARC rules removed the juridical status of the congregations and became fully controlled by CARC representatives. Taxing was increased to maximum; the local authorities could close down the congregation without higher approval as in Tukums in 1961 when the congregation was closed down.

Maintaining religion to preserve national identity proved not was the only working answer to assimilation. Not only because of the state restriction, but also because religion was not favored by all the Jews as their mean of the self identity. On 20th century two new self identity factors appeared among Jews: Holocaust commemoration and the State of Israel. Both of these factors became a challenge as the Soviets viewed them with even more hostility.

Both in Europe and Soviet Union the Holocaust commemoration begun in full-scale in the beginning of the sixties, when the Eichmann trial and Israeli victories made to talk openly about the Jewish Genocide and ask retribution. In Soviet Union the Jewish genocide was overly not mentioned in state media and history books. Only right after the war until 1948 the state newspapers mentioned the Jewish victims killed by the Nazis. Some novels like the Vētra (The Storm) written by Vilis Lācis famous writer and soviet statesmen described the Jewish killings in Latvia. The KGB made Extraordinary Investigation Commission and punished most of culprits who took part in the killings. However, later the Jews killed in Soviet Union were just part of “soviet citizens killed by the fascists”. It was done to avoid mentioning one nation not to boost the much feared Jewish nationalism.

The Star of David made from barbed wire at Rumbula mass murder site removed by the soviets

The Star of David made from barbed wire at Rumbula mass murder site removed by the soviets

The Soviet approved Rumbula memorial sign with hammer and sickle

The Soviet approved Rumbula memorial sign with hammer and sickle

In answer to that on sixties the first commemorative events started to take place in Rumbula, the mass killing site where 25,000 Jews were killed on November 30 , and December 8 1941. On 1961 first Jewish youth’s came to the site and started to mark the killing sites. The soviets were quick to issue warnings not to gather there. On 1962 first commemorative wooden plate was placed there. On 1963 at least every week people gathered to build memorial site. Artist J Kuzkovskis placed a large poster of Jew with squeezed fist rising from the grave in protest to what’s have bee done to him and his family. It was placed roadside alarming the soviets who removed the poster. After much friction between the state and the activists on 1964 a memorial stone was placed, with hammer and sickle and writing in three languages “For the victims of fascism 1941-1944”. Similar sites were made elsewhere, but not mentioning word “Jew”. Also if one dared to place the Star of David on the monument, he would be punished and the star removed. Soviets considered gatherings and seminars at the killing sites as the Zionist anti-soviet activity. Most of them were illegal, but were not dispersed, because sometimes more than 200 people came to them especially at Rumbula.

Soviet Union was hostile towards Zionism as it was Jewish Nationalism, and communism is primary against any kind of nationalism. However, on 1948 Stalin hoped that Israel would be ruled by leftist forces that would join the Soviet Block. Instead as in result of Arab-Israeli war the main force in the Israeli politics turned out to be right-wing Zionists; many of them having roots in Russia, Ukraine and Latvia. Soviet Union invested great sums to arm and train the Israeli enemy states Egypt, Jordan and Syria. During the times of Khrushchev, Soviet Union was the champion of the anti-Zionist ideology. It became even more active after the Six Days War on 1967 and Yom Kipur war on 1973 when Israeli military disgraced the Soviet Union by defeating the Arab states armed to teeth with the best Soviet weapons. The Israeli advances became known for many across the Soviet Union and movement begun to immigrate to Israel. However, the Soviets were against this and the resistance movement started across the union to gain rights to leave.

Anti-Israeli cartoon in the Soviet Latvian satiric journal Dadzis. The Gamblers of Tel Aviv by Normunds Zvirbulis

Anti-Israeli cartoon in the Soviet Latvian satiric journal Dadzis. The Gamblers of Tel Aviv by Normunds Zvirbulis

Jews in Latvia were active in this movement writing petitions to the Soviet government and international organizations. During the seventies more than 40% such letters came from Riga. The petitioners were called “otkazniks” (in Russian refused). 24 Riga “otkaznik’s” wrote open letter to UN. Grigorijs Mincs member of the prominent pre war family even approached the British MP Piter Archer and the UK embassy to grant him rights to leave. Protests and sit-ins were made by the “otkazniks” at the soviet authorities like on 1970 in Riga at the Latvian Soviet Supreme Council. On 1971 March 56 Jews from Riga arrived at Soviet Supreme Council at Moscow and gave a signed petition to allow them to leave and also free arrested activists. Along with them, people from Lviv, Vilnius, Kaunas and other cities. After being rejected, new letter signed by 165 people was addressed starting hunger strike that lasted for 26 hours that in first time in USSR history took place in state rooms. When they were threatened by militsyia (soviet police) they left the building only to return to Ministry of Interior next day. The marching Jews confused the people on the streets of Moscow and brought western media attention. The action took place in the same time as the 24th congress of the Communist party. Embarrassed soviets finally gave in and granted all previously rejected appeals to immigrate to Israel.  Hunger strikes became frequent among many Latvian Jews who in such way protested to the denial of emigration or the arrest of their relatives.

One of the most radical methods to leave the Union was a plane hijack attempt by the Jews from Riga on 1970. A group of 16 people planned to hijack AN-26 passenger plane in Leningrad but, were arrested before doing so. Their trial caused protests both in Union and the west. Later four Jews were arrested in Riga for supporting the hijackers. One of the evidence for their guilt was illegal Jewish newspaper “Iton”. The Jewish illegal publishing was called “Samizdat” (Self Publishing). “Samizdat” was journals and books about the Jewish history and culture and religion. Soviets targeted this as anti-Soviet propaganda and often arrested the publisher. Getting in goods from Israel and making things with Jewish symbols also alarmed the soviets. Jews also organized private educative lectures, theatrical plays called “Purimshpīl” displaying stories from the Jewish cultural life. The Judaica lectures gathered people from all over the Union and abroad. Eventually rather large numbers of Jews managed to move to Israel. Not all stayed there however, and used legal rights to travel further to US or Western Europe to settle there.

Not all Jews choose to resist assimilation.  For many it was easier to adopt Russian name to hide their Jewish identity and live the lives of the ordinary soviet citizen. Some of them became too assimilated and became Russian nationalists after the fall of the Union. Some only after the fall of the Union re-discovered their Jewish identity. In early 90ies Israel became overflowed with Jewish immigrants from all over the Soviet Union. About 1.6 million Jews from Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and the Baltic States settled in Israel making rapid changes in the society.  Even the Arab tradesmen in the Old city of Jerusalem started to learn Russian.

Star of David along the Latvian flag at the Baltic independence protest

Star of David along the Latvian flag at the Baltic independence protest

Meanwhile those who stayed in Latvia at the late 80ies were on path on making legal Jewish organization as the state reforms finally allowed to create national minority organizations. The Jewish community was divided in two fractions. The “culture” fraction did not insist on leaving, but on maintaining the Jewish culture at home. The “political” fraction meanwhile maintained that in current circumstances the national revival is only possible in Israel. On 1988 the Latvian Jewish Cultural Society was founded in Skolas Street 6th the former Jewish theater later turned in to Communist party congress building. When the new Congress building was made, the Jews regained the old Jewish theater. The main stage was full of people witnessing the grand event the revival of the Latvian Jewish community.

Skolas Street 6th became the center of the modern day Jewish community in Latvia. On 1996 the unified Council of the Latvian Jewish communities and congregations becoming the main representative of the Jews in Latvia. The rather small minority of six thousand people are one of the most active national minorities in Latvia. On 1992 Latvia established diplomatic relations with Israel. The contacts between Latvian and Israeli Jews are dense and helping the local Jewish community. The Holocaust has finally received its place in Latvian history. It has been studied in depth. New monuments have been built across Latvia to commemorate the events. The Jewish nation has survived many attempts of assimilation and extermination. Their successful struggle against soviet assimilation is another proof of how the strong is the Jewish nation.

Selected Sources:

Barkane, Karīna. Valsts varas attieksme pret ebreju reliģiskajām draudzēm Latvijas PSR (1944-1964). Žurnāls Latvijas Vēsture. Jaunie un Jaunākie laiki. 2013. 3 (91)

Aļeksejeva, Olga. Ebreju pretošanās formas PSRS pastāvošajam režīmam (Latvijas PSR ebreju nacionālās kustības kontekstā) Žurnāls Latvijas Vēsture. Jaunie un Jaunākie Laiki. 2014. 1/2 (92/93)

Алексеева, Ольга. Радикальные формы сопротивления советскому режиму в среде евреев Латвии в начале 1970-х гг.: призма Ленинградского и Рижского процессов. Евреи в меняюшемшя мире VII. Рига 2015.  Латвийский университет

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Zionist movement in Latvia 1918-1940

The elected Jewish politicians in the middle the Latvian Zionist leader Mordehai Nurok

The elected Jewish politicians in the middle the Latvian Zionist leader Mordehai Nurok

On 18-19th century the nationalist movement became popular among many nations among Europe. Nationalist idea presented the unity by ethnic and cultural means and formation of a national state. For each nation the nationalism manifested in different ways. For French and British nationalism evolved into imperialism. For nations under foreign rule like Latvians the nationalism evolved into struggle for self determination. For the Jewish people their unique position in Europe made them create a specific type of nationalism – Zionism. For the nation left without homeland living in Diaspora among many places of the world the Zionism meant many things. First the rejection of assimilation and conversion to Christianity instead openly display their Jewish identity and demand equal rights in countries they lived. Second the ultimate goal – the creation of a Jewish state in their historical homeland in Middle East. Zionist movement appeared in late 19th century and reached Latvia that had significant Jewish population. At first it was rather weak, but after the foundation of the Republic of Latvia it became prominent even among other Jewish movements among Europe. This article is about these Zionist movements in Latvia, who were they and what they meant for Latvians and the Jews.

The Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook born in Grīva, Latvia

The Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook born in Grīva, Latvia

The term Zionism was first used by Nathan Birnbum on 1982 in Vienna. The roots of the idea were at least 20 years older and expressed by thinkers including Rabbi from Bauska Mordechai Eliasberg who said people is only possible in their homeland. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook who was born the Grīva present day Latvia on 1865. He is regarded as one of the most prominent religious thinkers who developed these ideas further. Ultimately this Latvia born scholar became the first Chief Rabbi of the Ashkenazi Jews in British Mandate of Palestine. But, the Zionist idea on the political level was raised by Jewish physician from Odessa Leo Pinsker. His book Auto-Emancipation published in Berlin on 1882 outlined the idea of the political Zionism. In his pamphlet he urged his fellow Jewish people to strive for independence and self-determination and reject assimilation and conversion that will not entirely remove anti-semitism. A state governed by Jews in the place of their own was further elaborated by Theodor Herzl in his Judenstaat – The Jewish State on 1896 and made the zionist idea widespread. There was a reason why one of the first proponents of Jewish national idea came from Russian Empire like Rabbi Cook and Leo Pinsker – the Jewish rights were in backwards state comparing to Western Europe. Thats why the ideas of Leo Pinsker where not generally accepted in Germany but praised in Russia.

The first Zionist organization in Russia was BILU society on 1882. On 1884 it was replaced by Hovevei Zion society. They established branches in Liepāja, Daugavpils, Krustpils, Bauska and other cities within present day Latvia. They did not manage to start colonization of Palestine owned by the Ottoman Empire. The boost was given by more practical ideas of Theodor Herzl and formed in the First Zionist Congress in Basel Switzerland on 1897. Russia’s Jews faced pogroms as early as from 1880ies causing them to look for common political ideology of defiance. Herzl works were known in Latvia and evolved in different movements. Some called them Palestiophiles, among them V Kaplan, L Shalit,  Z Berman J Tron and others. They split up in political and spiritual Zionists. The third movement was Socialist Zionism organized in movement Poaley Zion and Ceire Zion who worked in Riga, Daugavpils, Ludza, Tukums and many other places. They were outscored by the Bund who were Jewish Marxists who played major role in the 1905 revolution and enjoyed greater popularity. As Marxists they rejected national and religious ideas instead focused on social issues and rights of the Jewish workers.

The First World War disrupted the lives of Jews in Latvia. Many were deported from combat areas in false accusations of spying, many took refuge by themselves. Large portion of them ended up in Russia. Together with Latvians, the Jews had the most organized refugee support societies. After the fall of the Russian monarchy on 1917 the Jewish movement split up in many ways. Many joined the Bolsheviks, others stayed true to the social-democracy regarded as Mensheviks. The Bund in Latvia rejected the communist party. Others in the light of the events in Palestine saw chance in revival of Zionism. The 1917 Balfour Declaration promising “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” however failed to match the Zionist expectations. The Zionist Leader Chaim Weizmann made agreement with Arab leader Emir Faisal for Jewish-Arab cooperation that would give Palestine to Jews, while Faisal receives a united Arab kingdom within Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Faisal’s logic was that Jews were wise and rich enough to turn Palestinian desert into garden while Arabs have the great kingdom in Baghdad and Damascus. However, the Allied powers failed his expectations by creating the Palestinian Mandate governed by British, giving Syria to France and Iraq to UK.  Such betrayal to the both to Arabs and Jews created a decades of war and hate still not solved until this day.

Meanwhile for Jews in Latvia there were three choices: support the Bolshevik Latvian Soviet Republic that was hostile to religion and national self-determination.  Support the Germanic Baltic Duchy that may give some rights to the Jewish minority or support the Republic of Latvia that promised equal rights for all nationalities in Latvia. At first the third choice did not seem obvious- the Latvian Provisional Government was weak and seemed short lived. However, some Jewish representatives joined the Latvian Peoples Council from the start. After the victories over Bolsheviks and Germans on the summer of 1919 the third choice was now the primary one. More than 1000 Jews took part in the ranks of the Latvian army. Some were decorated. After the independence was won it was time for Jews in Latvia to make out what is best for themselves.

The Republic of Latvia was a champion of the minority rights in the post war Europe. Jews finally had chance for their own schools supported by state, cultural movements and political parties to elect in parliament and local municipalities. The 93 479 Jews in Latvia (according to 1935 census) were different kind of people. Some of them were traders, shopkeepers, craftsmen, doctors, teachers, workers and poor. And different was their political and even religious views. In 20 years of independence the Jews in Latvia failed to create united organization to represent the entire Jewish community. The zionists were not united among themselves. The socialists and orthodox opposed them and each other. So the Jewish political climate in Latvia was diverse.

Zionism in Latvia had many wings. The Histadrut Chazionist party founded on 1919 represented the general right wing bourgeoisie Jews. They had sections in all Latvia, their idea was to create a national zionist center in Palestine and improve the lives of Jews within Diaspora. Other aspect of their ideology was to increase the Jewish involvement in the agricultural and industrial sector. Party was influential at first but failed to get elected in parliament only in some municipalities. Only the Constitutional Assembly from 1920  to 1922 had one elect Zh Thorn. The party contributed to the creation of the Palestine Bureau that was a center of communications between Zionists in Latvia and the settlers in Palestine. Also it organized the emigration from Latvia to Palestine. Party made many youth organizations Chatio (Hope), Bney Zion (the sons of Zion), and Herzlia. The youth organizations worked in cultural, sports and social fields.

An alternative Zionist movement was the religious Zionism movement Mizrachi. Judaism was the main force uniting Jews around the world. However, Judaism was not primary nationalistic and rejected political solution to the Jewish problems. As mentioned before the two Rabbis from Latvia Mordechai Eliasberg and Abraham Isaac Kook were the ones who promoted the middle way between secular and religious solution. The idea of combining both truths for the common good of the Jewish people created the religious Zionism that accepted secular state as part of the messianic way. The religious values can be kept in the Jewish state, thus for the religious Jew moving back to their ethnic homeland is a obligation and the Zionism is the will of G-d. Not all orthodox   Jews agreed on that, however the Mizrachi party in Latvia was quite influential.

Nuroks

Mordechai Nurock (left) speaks to the president of Latvia Alberts Kviesis (right)

 Mizrachi (the Religious Center) party was run by rabbi Mordechai Nurock was born in Tukums on November 7 1879. He served as rabbi in Jelgava, on 1903 he took part in the Zionist Congress. He moved to Russia during the war and played key role in refugee organizations. He also joined the All-Russian Jewish Committee and established a religious Jewish group known as “Tradition and Freedom”. On 1921 he returned to Latvia and was elected in the parliament. He was consequently elected in next three elections until 1934. Nurock was active man, both in Latvia and abroad. He cooperated with many organizations and contributed to their work. He was well recognized among the Latvian politicians, his main allies however were the Social-Democrats who were mostly in the oppositions. The anti-semitic Latvian press always pointed to Nurock as the main patron of the two short lived leftist coalitions. But, Nurock was just and tolerant towards his opponents and supported democracy. The coup by Kārlis Ulmanis on May 15 1934 came to his disappointment and created opposition. In result his movement was rejected by the regime. On 1940 the Soviets exiled him to Turkmenistan. His wife and two children were killed in the Holocaust, while he was freed on 1947 and moved to Palestine. After the creation of the State of Israel he was elected in the Israeli Knesset on 1952 he was elected as minister of Postal service, he was also a candidate for the President of Israel. He served in the Knesset until his death on 1962 November 8 becoming the most successful Zionist from Latvia who actually took part in creation of Israel.

However, there were people who rejected the both general secular way and the religious way.  They were the left wing Zionists or Socialist Zionists. Already mentioned  the Poalie Zion (The Workers of Zion) and Ceirei Zion were already known before WWI. In socially unequal Latvia the left wing Zionism was apparently popular. Their leader Max Laserson was elected in many elections and stood united with social democrat organization. One of his main ideas was the Jewish Political and Cultural autonomy in Latvia greatly extending the Jewish rights. Also Baltic Germans and Russians pushed for the same making the Latvian legislators fear the creation of “state within state”. His proposals were not entirely rejected but politely “delayed” in parliamentary commissions. His socialism was not radical but more moderate achieving unity and progress in both national and social means. The left wing Zionists opposed the idea employed by the right wing and religious Zionists that Hebrew language used only in Torah and religious rituals should be brought to life.  Instead they insisted on keeping Yiddish the mix of Hebrew and German that was main language for Jews in the Eastern Europe. Not all Jews in Latvia used Yiddish as primary language. In Courland and Riga some preferred German; in Latgale some spoke only Russian. The both parties argued over the teaching of Hebrew in schools and the common ground was not achieved; some schools taught only in Hebrew, some in Yiddish. But, Hebrew was never used in the daily lives of the Latvian Jews.

On 1931 the Ceirei Zion united with their counterpart Zionist-Socialist party and created the United Party of Zionists-Socialists of Latvia”. But, the new force never made it to elections on 1934 after the coup they were banned by the anti-left wing Ulmanis regime. Max Laserson survived the Holocaust and made it to Israel and was elected in Knesset.

Zeev_Jabotinsky

Zeev Jabotinsky

The Zionist movement was not complete without its far right wing. And Latvia played significant part in it. After the Zionist hopes to achieve statehood with the help of the Balfour declaration failed there was common sense of disappointment. The parties mentioned above continued to work on diplomatic solution and start colonization of Palestine. However, the hostility between Arabs and the new settlers resulted in violence. Palestine was not entirely devoid of Jews before the start of Zionist movement. The small Jewish population living there for centuries were generally tolerated by the Muslims who came there on 6th century. However, now the influx of the new settlers raised hostility boosted by the British inability to control situation in their mandate. This made some to come to conclusion that the only way to achieve Zionist goals is using radical force, by using self defense and armed response both to British and Arabs. This was a radical thinking for Jews in those times, as Jews living in other countries had no real militaristic tradition since the fall of Kingdom of Israel. The main leader of these people was Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Born in Odessa 1880 October 18 Jabotinsky started as moderate Zionist. He came to militarism during WWI when he pushed for the Jewish Legion within the British Army to fight the Ottomans. In 1915, together with Joseph Trumpeldor, a one-armed veteran of the Russo-Japanese War, he created the Zion Mule Corps, he saw action in Palestine as Lieutenant within the 38th Royal Fusiliers. After demobilized he started to train Jewish Self Defense corps. After his unit was repressed by the British he became even more radical. In 1920, Jabotinsky was elected to the first Assembly of Representatives in Palestine. The following year he was elected to the executive council of the Zionist Organization. He was also a founder of the newly registered Keren Hayesod and served as its director of propaganda But after having major disagreements with moderate leading Zionists he left the Zionist Organization.

Jabotinsky considered that his political carrier is over. Then he was invited to Latvia and Lithuania to hold lectures. On 1923 he arrived in Riga to speak in  front of student organization Hatiho. As he preached his radical views he was told that he has no rights to preach them if he is not intending to create a political movement. That made Jabotinsky think over his intention the local students of Riga inspired him to start a new political movement called Zionist Revisionism. It was to revise the Zionist policy that failed to achieve its goals on 1917.

The logo of the Jabotisky Betar

The logo of the Jabotisky Betar

As Riga was the cradle of the revisionist movement the first of its organization was established in Latvia. The Latvian Union of Zionists-Revisionists came to being on 1925. The main Jabotinsky organization Betar is claimed to be founded in Riga. Betar soon spread all around the Europe and made its way in US and even Australia. In Palestine the Betar was often viewed by the British as terrorist organization. Some more radical offspring’s as the so called Stern Gang  or Lehi and Irgun were responsible for terrorist acts against the British like the King David Hotel bombing and the murder of the UN negotiator Folk Bernadotte on 1948. But, Jabotinsky movement major achievement was the contribution of making strong Jewish military to defend the new state of Israel. The Israeli Defense Force was created from these Jewish self defense units. Also major political parties like Likud and Kadima are followers of the Zionist-Revisionist movement. Without the Zionist-Revisionists the creation of Israel would not be possible and the fact that Riga was the starting point of this movement puts Riga as important place in the history of Israel.

The other wing of Zionist Revisonism active also in Latvia was Joseph Trupeldor movement. Joseph Trupeldor was a charismatic war hero that became famous in the Battle of Tel Hai on March 1 1920 where died in battle. Already famous war leader he was recognized as the national hero. To his honor a youth organization “Brit Josef Trumpeldor” (The Union of Josef Trupeldor) was created and was active in Latvia. The organization employed a militaristic lifestyle, marched in uniforms and often were called the “Jewish Fascists” because of their brownish uniforms. The brown color was to resemble the Palestinian desert and brown British uniform Trumpeldor wore. The organization made major contribution to youth sport and education.

There were two major opponents of Zionists among Jews in Latvia. The Bund that was the oldest socialist party in Russian Empire was still true to their pre-1918 views and rejected nationalism. They also opposed the teaching of Hebrew. Other major opponent was Agudat Isroel lead by Rabbi Mordechai Dubin. Influential politician and businessman was a Orthodox Jew who opposed moving to Palestine and create a new state before the arrival of the Messiah. Instead he pushed for staying in Latvia and maintain the religious traditions. He supported the teaching of Hebrew but only for religious means. Dubin who once even visited the US president Herbert Hover, had great influence on the Latvian politicians even Kārlis Ulmanis. Dubin however broke his principals when he made major effort to save thousands of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany stranded in Latvia. One part of them was sent by him to Palestine because for Dubin the main prinicipal was to save help his common people regardless of his views.

Kārlis Ulmanis banned all the Zionist parties after his takeover. But, he banned every party regardless their nationality even his own Lavian Farmers Union. But, Ulmanis was not against Zionism in general as he saw nothing wrong of Jews moving away from Latvia and leaving more space for Latvians. Zionists except left wingers worked and non-political movements. The marching Trumpeldor’s were tolerated by Ulmanis. Then came the 1940 when the Soviet occupation closed all the Jewish societies and took over their property. Many of the Zionist leaders were arrested, sent to Siberia or shot. A year later Nazis destroyed the entire Jewish population in Latvia.

But the story of the Zionist movement in Latvia does not end with that. While the surviving Zionists worked in Israel, the Zionist movement, the Jewish national movement in Latvia appeared again in 1960ies as response to the anti-semitic Soviet policy. But that is another story to be told in future.

Selected Sources:

Волкович, Б. (2012) Сионистское движение в Латвии (1918-1940) 2-е изд., доп. Daugavpils

Sinkēviča, Eva (2014) Reliģiskā cionisma kustība Latvijā: vēsture,organizācija, ietekme. Promocijas darbs. Latvijas Universitātes Teoloģijas fakultāte.

Walter, Laquer (2003) A History of Zionism. From the French Revolution to establishment of the Sate of  Israel. Shocken Books. New York.

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Jews and Latvians in the 1905 Revolution

The Bloody Sunday on the January 22 (9 according to Julian calendar still used in Russian Empire) was a wakeup call for many nations across the Russian Empire. For Russians it was a fight for more political and social rights. For Latvians it was fight also for greater national rights. This was shared also by the Jewish people living across the Russian Empire. Their main strive was to defend themselves from the violent anti-Semitism and abolish all restrictions towards them. Together with Latvian revolutionaries they were united under one common goal – to bring down the oppressive absolute tsar Nicholas II monarchy. The revolution of 1905 was one of the interesting moments in history where despite cultural and ethnic differences the Latvian and Jewish revolutionaries fought together and even averted the anti-Jewish pogrom attempt in Riga.

Russia was stranger to Jews until the first partition of Poland on 1772 . After the final land grab on 1795 Russia gained enormous territories of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  For centuries Poland had large Jewish population. They were in large numbers in present day Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Latvia. The 1897 First All-Russia national census counted 142 315 Jews within modern borders of Latvia 7,4% of the population. To keep Jews from moving to Moscow or Petersburg Russia introduced the Pale of Settlement (Черта́ осе́длости) a territory for permanent Jewish settlement and it was forbidden to live outside it. Originally only the eastern Latvian part of Latgale was within the Pale of Settlement as it was part of the Province of Vitebsk. But, a sizable Jewish population already lived in Courland. Despite many restrictions Jews managed to settle or work in Riga. Northern Latvian part of Vidzeme renamed almost unreachable to Jews with very small population. Jewish youth faced hard conscription rules for 12 years to serve in army, taxes were higher for them.

During the reign of the liberal Tsar Alexander II the Jewish relations with the state eased but after his assassination the relations gotten again to worsen level. Reactionary forces blamed Jews in the murder first pogroms took place. Pogrom – a large scale violence soon became a synonym for major violent attacks directed towards Jews. A violence that led to a political response from the Jewish nation. One part of them joined the Zionist movement that called for unification of the Jewish people under national means. They rejected assimilation and conversion to Christianity as it would not completely erase anti-Semitism. As Jews will always be regarded as strangers no matter how emancipated in the society they are. There were Zionist movements in Latvia, but their part in the revolution of 1905 was insignificant. And it’s another story to be told in future. The main force of the 1905 revolution was the far left social democrats and within them the Jewish Bund.

The Bund represented the masses of the Jewish workers or the so called Proletariat. Although Jews were always stereotyped as wealthy traders, large masses of Jews worked for 14 hours in a day with low wages and lived in poor unsanitary conditions.  Plus the nationally based restrictions made then to unite under the Red Banner that promised equal rights for all nations. The Bund was founded in Vilnius on 1897 as the Universal Jewish Labor Union in Poland, Lithuania and Russia. Later it was commonly known as the Bund (alliance).Bund was the first major Jewish party in Russia and also the first social democratic party. As the Russian Social Democratic Workers party (RSDWP) was founded a year later. Bund joined them and took active part in the strikes and demonstrations. The Russian authorities persecuted them and arrested their leaders. Later because of the national differences on 1903 Bund left the RSDWP, but cooperated with them during the revolution. While the Bund rejected the nationalistic Zionist ideas, they agreed in need of having Jewish schools and keeping the national traditions. However, they were strongly against the role of the religion and insisted on secularity.

The industrialized Riga and other parts of the Baltic province was no stranger to the workers movement. Some Jews  like Jankel Epstein from Daugavpils were first to direct the movement. Bund was popular among the Jewish students within the Riga Polititechnical Institute some of them were ejected from it. Daugavpils with major Jewish population –  most of them workers was the main headquarters for the Bund. They took part in all strikes and protests including the major First May demonstration that took place in many cities of Russia. Because the demonstration in Vilnius caused rough government response by publicly whipping the organizers, that in response caused attack on the general governor, in Riga local Bund members created a armed resistance group. The external Bund bureau however asked to resort from violence.

The Russian defeat in the war with Japan led towards economical downfall. On January 9  (22) 1905 in Petersburg the large peaceful crowd marching towards the Tsars main palace asking him to listen to their petition was fired upon by the Tsars guard causing bloodbath known as the Bloody Sunday. The largest country in the world with modernizing society, but with decadent absolute monarchy went into rage. Nicholas II witnessed the murder of the Alexander II  who was killed by anarchists despite abolishing serfdom and intending to write a constitution. Because of this, Nicholas II was slow and reactionary to reforms. But, the people across the Russia had enough of this. So as the Latvian people.

The leading force of the Latvian revolutionaries was the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party, united with Bund on January 13 it hosted a demonstration march in Riga for the fallen comrades in Petersburg. The large demonstration of 10 000 people lead by LSDWP leader Ansis Bušēvičs marched from Moscow Street to the city center. Despite Buševičs calling to end the demonstration and lower the red flags , large parts of crowds did not listen and moved towards the armed cavalry of Cossacks.Police and Cossacks responded with fire killing more than 70 people. Many tried to cross the frozen river Daugava to escape the shooting and drowned. Among the killed were five Jews and 9 wounded. The fallen were young men 22 year old Eliass Epstein, Michael David Abramovich of the same age, 17 year old Izrail Jaschikov, Chaim Jankel Sperling 18 years old and 22 years old Michail Ucca. Two among them were from the Bund.

Revolution sparked out in Latvia. Bund started major activities. On 1905 and 1907 two general strikes were held in Daugavpils. An odd form of strike was held in Riga on 1905 May and June a strike of the producers and traders of the kosher meat that left the kosher eating Jews of Riga without kosher food for almost a month. It’s not known how significant was the kosher only population that suffered from this as not all Jews applied to the religious rules. On summer of 1905 the rural workers in Kurzeme (Courland) issued a general strike and Tsarist government issued a state of war within the Courland province. On September 16 the Jewish-Latvian students of the Riga Politechnical institute issued protest in support of the striking field workers.

When the protests resorted to arms Jews joined Latvians in armed assault against the Riga Central Prison to free their imprisoned comrades. In the night of September 6 to 7 47 Latvian and five Jewish fighters raided the prison and freed two main revolutionaries J Lācis and J  Šļesers. Also the famous LSDWP commando who became an anarchist Jānis Žāklis later known as the Peter the Painter whose mother was a Lutheran Jew. He took part in most of the armed actions against the Tsarist authorities. However, later he became too violent and was rejected by his social democrat comrades.

The use of violence was a great issue for the Latvian revolutionaries. At the end of the 1905 the revolution was close to failure. On December 9 armed uprising begun in Moscow. Some Latvian, Russian and the Bund called for armed uprising in Riga too. They even insisted on storming the Fortress of Daugavgrīva where the main Riga garrison was stationed. The majority of LSDWP was against such bloodshed, however the Bund did not back down and joined the radical Russian social democrats who wanted the uprising. In long frantic talks from December 11 to December 16 the LSDWP convinced the Bund not to start uprising and general strike. On December 18 the interim Baltic general governor general-lieutenant V Sologob arrived in Riga and started the punishment expeditions.

In one cause the Bund and LSDWP was united without question. Do not allow any pogroms in Riga and elsewhere around Latvia. LSDWP as marxist party was against anti-Semitism and called for general human rights regardless of nationality. Even the future Latvian nationalist leader Arveds Bergs called for full cooperation between Latvians and Jews and asked to give them full rights. On the other side the Latvian monarchist Fricis Veinbergs published anti-Semitic slogans supporting the pogroms.

The 1905 revolution again ignited the pogroms in Russian Empire. The last major pogrom took place in Kishinev modern day Moldova. While Tsar openly condemned this, in private he expressed support for anti-Semitism that could unite nation in support for his regime. The major radical supporters of the Tsar Nicholas II were the far right radicals often with ultra-orthodox views. These people were called the “Black Hundred” (Чёрная сотня). The ideals of the Black Hundred were mix of Russian imperialism, chauvinist nationalism, and religious fundamentalism. Together with violent anti-Semitism the Black Hundred was the first early fascists. Sadly this form of Russian far right is gaining prominence again in the modern day Russia.

It was not just Black Hundred that was responsible for waves of pogroms in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. On October 18-20 in Odessa 400 people were killed. The Tsarist police although condemning the attacks and trying to arrest the perpetrators, often did nothing on purpose as they believed the majority of the revolutionaries were Jews. Tsar and the Church condemned the attacks, but they also thought that they help them to quell the revolution. Such pogroms could take place in Latvia also but were stopped by the joint Latvian and the Jewish efforts.

First violent attacks against the Jews took place in city of Ludza. But, they were small scale attacks on shops and were stopped by locals. Daugavpils was filled with rumors about coming pogroms in April but did not happen. On August the Riga port workers turned violent and wanted to attack the Jews. This time the police and Cossacks stopped them. On October 17 Tsar was forced to issue his manifesto that gave some of his powers away. The reactionaries blamed the Jews and on October 18 a pogrom started in Kyiv. Then in Riga the local Russian workers who supported the Tsar became violent. They mostly lived in the Moscow district where many Jews lived too and were angry that they liked the new freedoms granted by the weakened Tsar. Riots started on October 22-23. However, these riots only were a attempt to start a pogrom.

On October 22 first clashes between the Russians, Jews and Latvians took place on Lielā Kalna Street near the Orthodox Church. The angry Russians were from the Kuznetsov porcelain factory who assaulted both Latvians and Jews. The fight was stopped only by the arrival of the Cossacks. After learning the news both the LSDWP and Bund decided to form the self defense groups to defend both Latvian and Jewish supporters.

On October 23 the workers of the Kuznetsov factory gathered for a patriotic march a small crowd of 100-150 men. Despite having support for the Black Hundred, there was no such working Black Hundred organization within Latvia at that time. The marchers holding the pictures of Tsar and holding icons marched along the streets of  the Moscow district. The marchers started to attack everyone who they disagreed with along the way even Russians. Bloodshed erupted between the marchers, Cossacks and the LSDWP and Bund armed units. Among them the future foreign minister Fēliks Ceilēns. Angry mob joined by homeless and scoundrels attacked the Jewish shops reached the Yaroslavl street 44/43 (now Ludza street) where the Jewish Social home was located and was ready to attack it.

Fortunately the Jewish defenders along with Latvian comrades had already taken the defensive positions. Attackers were held back by the fire, and the Cossacks rushed to the scene to stop both of them. The major pogrom attempt was stopped although later in separate incident one Jew named Jankel Poplak was killed. Also Jew Zalman Gurevich was killed before him. 4 Latvian self defenders were killed in the clashes. 2 Latvians were killed by the angry mob. 3 Russians died along. A total of 47 people were killed or hurt. Majority of them were Latvians. Meaning this was not just pogrom attack against Jews but also against Latvians. As the Russian monarchists regarded Latvian revolutionaries as enemies too.

On October 24 the governor of Vidzeme Nicholas Zvegincev banned all patriotic demonstrations with the pictures of the emperor and the Russian anthem. With Tsar still in place this was clearly attempt of preventing pogrom. Similar clashes on the same time took place in Daugavpils resulting the death of the Jewish combatant Aron Feldman.

The major pogrom was avoided in Riga, because there was no major support for it among Latvian population. Also the Riga Tsarist police and the Cossacks were on the active side of the law. And of course the Latvian-Jewish joint defense groups fought off the Russian radicals. This is a rare event when pogrom was prevented in the major city of the Russian Empire. Other cities were not so fortunate.

After the failure of the 1905 revolution both the LSDWP and Bund worked underground. The outbreak of the First World War caused many Latvians and Jews to take refuge in Russia. The Pale of Settlement was broken. The Revolution of 1917 again took Latvian and Jewish leftists on the streets. Some joined the Bolsheviks. Other sided with democratic Republic of Latvia. During the period of 1918-1934 both LSDWP and Bund took part in the Latvian politics and worked together.

Selected Sources:

Stranga, Aivars (2006) 1905-1906. gada revolūcijas lappuses. Žurnāls Latvijas Vēsture. Nr.2.

Stranga,Aivars. (2008) Ebreji Baltijā no ienākšanas pirmsākumiem līdz holokaustam 14. gadsimts-1945. gads. Rīga. LU Akadēmiskais Apgāds.

Mendels, Bobe (2006) Ebreji Latvijā. Rīga. Šamir.

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The Black Knights of 1919. The Baltic Freikorps and the Army of Bermondt

The uniforms of the Baltic  German Freikorps

The uniforms of the Baltic German Freikorps

The Latvian national epoch Lāčplēsis – The Bear Slayer tells the story of the Latvian mythological hero Lāčplēsis fighting against the Crusaders and their vile leader the Black Knight. The 1930 Latvian movie of the same name depicts the Black Knight being reborn in the vile German officer who leads the  war against the Latvian independence. The Black Knight personified the most strongest Latvian enemies – the Baltic German chauvinists, revisionists and imperialists.  95 years ago the new Republic of Latvia faced two strong enemies. The Bolsheviks from Russia and the German chauvinist reactionary forces. While Bolsheviks striven for breaking up the old order, the Baltic Germans and their supporters from the Fatherland fought to restore the old German order and prevent from any major changes directed against them.  Both the Bolshevik Latvia, both the national state of Latvia was their enemy. This article is about these forces, their leaders and the fate of them.

Present day Estonia and Latvia had significant German population since the Middle Ages. The Livonian Confederation ruled by the Livonian Order and the Bishoprics was dominated by the German knights, merchants and nobles. The Confederation was destroyed by the Russian invasion in 1558 and to prevent it from being taken by the Ivan IV The Terrible, the Livonian Order ceded to Poland-Lithuania and Sweden. Despite becoming the Polish and Swedish subjects the Baltic Germans kept their rights and privileges. The Swedish administration in Vidzeme tried to reduce the power of the German nobility, but failed. The Polish leadership was more tolerant, the autonomous Duchy of Courland and Semigallia was lead by the Baltic German elite. In Riga the town leadership was in the hands of Germans. Yet German population in Latvia was around 3%. Yet Germans following the ideas of Enlightenment helped Latvians to gain education and knowledge. First Latvian schools and books were made by the German missionaries and pastors. They believed the peasants should have education to work better, but they never thought that the peasants one day could become strong enough to lead the uprising against their captors.

At the end of the 18th century all Latvian lands were included in the Russian Empire. At first the  Russia was friendly towards Germans – they entered the Royal Court, Administration and the Army. However, during the reign of the Tsar Alexander II the wave of Russian nationalism affected the Baltic Germans limiting their rights and enforcing Russian language and leadership. The Serfdom was abolished after the end of the Napoleonic Wars sparking the rise of the Latvian national movement. The new Latvian educated middle class started tensions with the disturbed Baltic Germans. At the beginning of the 20 century the rise of the Latvian Left movement was equally hostile to the Baltic Germans. On 1905 the Revolution came from Russia to Latvia. The revolutionaries both fought the Russian Tsarist government and the Baltic German nobility. The mansions in the rural areas were burned down, people killed sparking German fear from Latvians. The Russian punishment expeditions trying to stop the revolt made double hate towards Germans and the Russian authorities. Then on 1914 Russia came to war with Germany. On 1915 Germans entered the Latvian lands. Occupying Courland (Kurzeme) and Semigallia (Zemglale). It was a deciding point – while some local Germans greeted them in open arms – thousands of Latvians joined the Latvian Rifleman to fight the Germans under the Russian banner.

On February (March) 1917 the Russian Empire had crumbled. Courland and Semigallia was ruled by the German Eastern Front Chief Command Region (Ober-Ost) The territories were under the German Military Administration. Despite for calls to annex the occupied territories, the German leadership considered Poland and the Baltic States as a military buffer zone to keep Russia as far as possible. Germany first desired to sign a separate peace agreement with Russia that would be complicated because of the annexation. Second – Berlin was unsure of the reaction of the Baltic nations and the local Germans that would want to keep their local power. It was more preferable to either keep the Eastern occupied territories under military administration or form new loyal puppet states. The Ober-Ost was under the direct leadership of the commander in chief Paul von Hindenburg and his deputy Erich Ludendorff. The Courland Civil Authority was lead by reserve major A Gosler. Gosler believed that Latvians must be assimilated despite their intelligence and potential. Although he was forced to accept Latvians within the local rural administrative positions. The German propaganda expressed the ideas of the German superiority and Baltic lands as the ancient parts of the German world.

On September 1917 Riga was captured by the Germans. The city was visited by the Kaiser Wilhelm II  himself. On February 1918 all Latvia and Estonia was taken over by the Germans. After the peace between the Germany and the Bolsheviks a question was raised of what to do with the occupied Baltic States. On February Lithuanian and Estonian national councils already had declared independence. The Latvian Provisional National Council (LPNC) and the Democratic Block was pinned down both by Germans and the Bolsheviks were unable to form a national government. Now was the moment to realize the German dream of restoring the Livonian confederation.

The map of the proposed United Baltic Duchy

The map of the proposed United Baltic Duchy

On March 8 1918  the Courland Land Council (Kurländischer Landesrat) proclaimed the restoration of the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia. The throne was presented to Kaiser Wilhelm II. The response from Kaiser was positive and on March 15 he recognized the “Duchy” as sovereign state and was ready to sign agreements with it. But that was not enough. With German Military still in charge the Provincial Assembly was formed of the local Germans and loyal Latvians and Estonians. On April 12 the Provincial Assembly (Der Vereinigte Landesrat für Livland, Estland, Ösel und Riga) issued decision to form the United Baltic Duchy and asked Germany to take it under their protectorate. On September 22 Kaiser recognized the sovereignty of the United Duchy. The leadership was presented to the Duke Adolf Friedrich of Mecklenburg. Known as explorer of Africa and governor of the German African colony Togoland until 1914 he was noble candidate for head of the new state. On November 5 1918 the United Baltic Duchy was proclaimed. Until his arrival the Regency Council head by the Vidzeme Land Marshall Adolf Pilar von Pilchau was the acting government. The duchy was to include Courland, Semigallia, Vidzeme and Estonia. Latgale as region with less German influence was left out. The main pillars of the state was the individual freedom of political beliefs, rights of movement, private property and the national equality. That however, did not meant the full equal rights for the Latvian ethnic majority. The Latvians and Estonians would gain proportional part in the parliament.  The Latvians would be represented by loyalists lead by Fricis Veinbergs who was fro pro-German since 1905. From November 5 to November 9 the councils worked on the new state constitution, formed Land Council, elected local governors, some of them Latvians and Estonians.

However, despite official recognition’s Berlin was slow and unwilling to fully realize the Baltic Duchy project. One of the reasons was the ongoing war in the West, lack of resources and hope that after the victory the Baltic question would be fully solved.  The victory never came. After the capitulation on November 11 1918 the United Baltic Duchy project was abandoned. There was no common idea what will happen next. On November 18 1918 the Latvian National Provisional Council and the Democratic Block declared independence. The new state was based on the will of the Latvian majority, it presented equal rights for all national minorities, but they were based on aproportionality. That was not what the Baltic Germans wanted.

German military authority was turned into civil. The LPNC was recognized by the Great Britain as de facto representative of Latvia. Berlin despite abandoning the Baltic Duchy project still tried to support the local German population. But, the main question was when the defeated German 8th army will be moved back to Germany. The question was answered by the Bolsheviks. They annulled the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty and declared the start of the Worldwide Socialist Revolution. With communist uprisings in Germany itself and the Bolshevik threats to march to Europe it was vital for both Allies and Germans to keep the 8th army in the Baltics. For Latvians it was unfortunate, but there was no other choice as Bolsheviks were marching towards Riga on December. Latvian Provisional Government signed provisional agreement with Germany for temporary alliance that would include forming German troops within the Latvian national forces.

The Honorary Badge and Medal of the Baltische Landeswehr

The Honorary Badge and Medal of the Baltische Landeswehr

This leads us to the main part. The 8th army of 75 thousand man was breaking up. The commander general Hugo von der Kathen  had start evacuation, the army withdraw it forces to Istenburg East Prussia. Before leaving von Kathen signed the order to form a Baltic Landguard die Baltische Landeswerh. It was intended to have 18 Latvian, 5 German and 1 Russian company and 5 artillery batteries with the force of 7050 man. The commanding officer was to be Swede. Both local Germans and the Germans citizens could join. The main units were the Baltic German battalion, Stormtroopers, the prince Lieven Russian company lead by Anatol Lieven a member of the historic German noble family, said to be originated from the Livonian (Liv) ruler Kaupo on 12th century. The Latvian units under command of colonel Oskarts Kalpaks and general Balodis was also under this army formation. The first commander was major Sheibert from December 1918 . On February 1919 the command was taken over by major Alfred Fletcher. Born in Germany, fought on many front lines he found himself in Latvia. As imperial officer his main allegiance was the German interests. Many Baltic Germans feared the Red terror and wowed to protect themselves.

The Flag of the Iron Division

The Flag of the Iron Division

Another German formation was the Iron Brigade later the Iron Division. It was formed from the German volunteers or the German Freikorps. The paramilitary German movements spring up from the returning German soldiers taking stand against the Bolsheviks. Adolf Hitler was one of them, as they were instrumental of crushing the communist rebellions in Germany. Freikorpers also moved to Baltic States as they were the main frontier in the war against Bolshevism. The Iron Brigade was  first made to cover the retreating German 8th army. For these men with no connection to Latvia, it was war of loot and adventure. Many hoped to gain land and riches here.

On December 3 1918 Bolsheviks invaded Latvia. They took over Valka, Valmiera, Rēzekne and Daugavpils. Latvian Provisional Government was forced to sing agreement with the Berlin representative August Vinning to give Latvian citizenship to all German volunteers who fought in the Latvian lines for at least 4 weeks. It was viewed as disgrace by many, leading to support the Bolsheviks rather than the Latvian “German puppets”. Latvian ethic units given order to face the Latvian Red Riflemen started uprising and were disarmed by the Landeswerh. On January 1 the German Iron Brigade and Landeswerh faced the Latvian Red Rifleman at Inčukalns and were defeated. Germans tried to stop their advance to Riga and took the old WWI positions. However, they were attacked from behind and were forced to retreat leaving all the cannons and machine guns. The route to Riga was open. Germans evacuated it along with the allied warships and the Latvian government. Bolsheviks chased Latvians and Germans to Courland and stopped along the river Venta. The German forces were broken and needed leadership and reinforcements. The remaining Latvian forces gained experience and strength in battles with Bolsheviks. Berlin needed the right the card for the Baltic gamble. They choose the King of Spades – Rüdiger von der Goltz.

Rüdiger von der Goltz.

Rüdiger von der Goltz.

Von der Goltz was born in December 4 1865 in Züllichau, Brandenburg. He graduated War Academy, served the German General Staff  for 13 years. On WWI he commanded the German army 12th Landeswerh division. On 1918 he was appointed as the commander of the German voluntary Ostsee division to fight the Bolsheviks in Finland. Together with the Finnish leader Karl Gustav Mannerheim he directed the operations against  the Bolsheviks. The victory was reached, however ethnic German Mannerheim served the Finland’s needs. Von der Goltz was appointed to Liepāja to lead the fight against the Bolsheviks. As the commander of the 6th German reserve corps and the Governor of Liepāja he soon accumulated great power he wanted to keep after the war. He had no respect for the Latvian Provisional Government and was playing tricks with the British Military Mission, for he once served in the English department of the German General Staff.

The stabilization of the Courland front on January 1919 was not just Goltz achievement. Latvian forces under colonel Kapaks stopped Bolsheviks at the Battle of Skrunda, but the city of Venstpils was lost. The worst case scenario was to evacuate to Lithuania and Northern Estonia. But, in the same time Estonian forces secured victory and pushed Bolsheviks downwards to Vidzeme. The Latvian Soviet Army was forced to send many regiments there. As Estonians were defeating the Latvian Red Rifleman, on February the Germans became active. The 6th German reserve corpus subordinated to the Northern Border Defense Staff were filled with men hostile towards the Latvian independence. They were young well equipped men akin to burn the Baltic States with fire and sword for a reward. Many of them later became members of the Nazi movement and served as the Third Reich as generals.

The 6th reserve corpus gained success in offensive of taking Kūldīga and Ventspils. Latvians moved along only to be caught in the friendly fire exchange at Airītes that caused the loss of the colonel Oskars Kalpaks. Latvians and Germans tried to encircle Bolsheviks, but unexpectedly they retreated by side and both Latvians and Germans fired on one other. As Germans were not keeping communications with Latvians, but just relied on the information from the Bolshevik POW, it could be a possible  German political conspiracy.

As mentioned A Vinning, Goltz and their henchmen had no positive regards towards Latvians. A scandal erupted when documents were uncovered about the plot to overthrow the Latvian government. The “von der Stryk affair” caused strife between Latvians and Germans, however the Goltz involvement was not proven.  Was the Stryk plot a unrelated to Goltz or a diverting move from the Goltz planned coup remains a question.

The April 16 coup was opened by the landeswerh unit lead by baron von Manteifel who disarmed the Latvian garrison. With silent accept by Berlin the Fatherland front force security committee lead by Manteifel, von Rekke, A, Maidel was established. Next day they declared that the Latvian Provisional Government was dissolved. However, it was still functional as it escaped on board the steamship Saratov that was guarded by the British ships. Goltz plan backfired because of the allied involvement.   The Military Directory was not accepted by the Latvian commander Balodis who replaced Kalpaks and Prince Lieven. In attempt to gain some legitimacy a new government was formed by pastor Andrievs Niedra that was formed from Baltic Germans and pro-German Latvians. O Borovskis was the nominal leader acting as Interior Affairs Minister. War minister Juris Seskovs, Minister of Justice Baltic German P. Sokolovskis, foreign Minister von Brimmer, minister of Agriculture K Slienis, and minister of national enlightenment pastor J.Kupčs. Niedra at first did not participate in the government meetings hoping to reach compromise with Ulmanis and the allies. After that failed Niedra issued order to fire the Ulmanis provisional government. On May 13 in the Liepāja war port he was kidnapped by the loyal Latvian officers and was forced to sign the resignation documents.  He soon escaped and rejoined his government. With no support and recognition both from Latvian nation and the allies the Niedra government was only the Goltz puppet.

On May 22 after pushing off the Bolshevik counter attacks Goltz ordered the landeswerh to capture Riga. City was captured without a fight and the “liberators” started to terrorize citizens. Bolshevik supporters and everyone suspected to be such was arrested or killed. Streets were filled with dead bodies. Shot people were dropped in the city canal. Germans established their own court or the Standrecht (the neck court) that routinely executed people without trial. 2-4 thousand people were killed during the white terror. However, its worth to note that during the Soviet rule even more thousands of Germans and Latvians were killed.

The Goltz reign of terror was stopped at Cēsis on June 22. The landeswerh and the Iron Division marched towards the united Estonian and Latvian forces in Vidzeme. That proved to be fatal mistake. Niedra government gathered the Iron Brigade and the Landeswerh under the “Latvian Forces”. On June 4 Estonian and Latvia  command demanded the major Alfred Fletcher to move away from their lines. Niedra ordered Fletcher to attack and defeat the Estonian forces. On May 6 his forces attacked the Cēsis 2th battalion forcing it leave the city. On June 10 allies forced to sign ceasefire. Allies made decision to order Germans to withdraw from Cēsis, but Germans ordered Estonians to do the same. After reaching no common ground battle started again. The reinforced Latvian and Estonian forces held off the attack and struck back, defeating the Goltz forces.

It was possible for Estonians and Latvians to wipe out the Iron Division and the Landewerh once and for all. However, they were spared by the allies who insisted to sign ceasfire on July 3 at Strazdumuiža. Germans retreated to Jelgava. The Landeswerh was brought under control by the British colonel Harold Alexander. Prince Lieven forces did not joined the Goltz side. His company was moved to Jelgava and Liepāja. As Russianized  German prince Lieven did not want to fight against the Latvians and Estonians, he wanted to fight Bolsheviks.

Pavel Bermondt Avalov in the center

Pavel Bermondt Avalov in the center

The Black Knight struggle reached the final phase. A new plan was devised to restore the dream of the United Baltic Duchy. This time more evil and vicious. Germany was holding thousands of Russian WWI POW’S. They were unable to return to Civil war raged Russia. So Berlin devised a plan to gather them in the anti-Bolshevik White Guard forces.  The chosen commander was peculiar individual named Pavel Bermondt-Avalov. His origins were a mystery. Born as Pavel Berman on 1877 in Tbilisi Georgia, he was rumored to have Karaite Judaist farther and Georgian mother. He gained the surname Avalov from his adoptive father Georgian prince Mikhail Avalishvili. His military carrier started with the Ussurian Cossacks  as musical conductor. He took part in the Russian wars against China and Japan. During WWI served in Caucasus. He made contacts with Germans in Southern Russia, but was arrested by Ukrainian nationalists. Germans recommended to release him. He moved to Saltzwedel POW camp. There he gathered forces to fight the Bolsheviks. With  his men he moved to Jelgava on August 12 1919. The White Guard Leader general Yudenitch appointed him as commander of the Western Voluntary Russian Army. General hoped that self declared count and major general will aid his forces to capture Petrograd.

The West Russian Volunteer Army badges

The West Russian Volunteer Army badges

Instead he joined with the remaining Iron Division and other Germans to lead march against Latvians in Riga. His army was formed from the Count Keller Corpus named after the fallen Russian general was mainly devised from the Russians in Germany. The Vigolitch corps were also Russian mainly. The Dibitch Corps were mainly from German volunteers. The Pleve group also and so as the German Legion. The defeated Iron Division joined the Bermondt. Only 1/6 of the “Russian” army were Russians. The German soldiers had to wear Black Uniforms with Russian Imperial symbols. As some Germans did not know how the Russian Orthodox Cross looks like they placed it on their uniforms the wrong way. Their symbolism included the Iron Cross and skull and bones. Many of their members were future Nazi party members.

On August 26 in Riga allies called a meeting and issued goal for a common attack on September 9 towards the East. Yudenitch ordered Bermondt to send his forces to Narva. Prince Lieven forces loyal to the White Guard did so. The rest of the Bermondt army instead marched to Riga on October. His adviser was Andrievs Niedra while Goltz was pulling the strings from behind. The goal was to destroy Latvian government and make Latvia a Germanic Russian province and assured the White Guard commanders that after capture of Riga he would move towards Russia. Yudenitch and Denikin mistrusted the pro-German cossack and turned him down. Traitor Bermondt issued operation “Thunderstrike” Bliztschlag. A force of 45 thousand men started attack on October 8.

Goltz-Bermondt venture ended in disaster. After getting stuck at the left bank of Riga, unable to capture Liepāja they were pushed away from Riga on November 9-11. On December all of the broken army of rouge terrorists who later claimed they “killed Latvians like rabbits”, burning down Jelgava on their way back. The German high command sent statement on November 25 that Bermondt army is under their command now. Latvia in return concluded that its in the state of war with Germany. Germany replied that its in no means in the state of war with Latvia. Later when a agreement with Berlin was signed to normalize the relations between two states, Germans refused to call it a Peace agreement since there was no war between Germany and Latvia.

Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter right from Hitler planning the Beer Hall Putsch

Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter right from Hitler planning the Beer Hall Putsch

Various were the fates of the Baltic Freikorps. One of its members Ernst von Salomon later remembered: “We killed what fell into our hands, . . . We saw red, we had nothing in the heart of human emotions. . . what were earlier houses, were rubble, ash and smoldering beams, like festering sores in the bare field . . . We had lit a bonfire, there was burning more than dead material, there also was burning our hopes, our desires, . . . the laws and values of the civilized world. . . We retreated, bragging, intoxicated, loaded with booty”. It was no wonder many of them became radical Nazis. One of the most well known was Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter. Born in Riga on 1884, he first took action on 1905 commanding German noble self defense units. He moved to Germany after the revolution. During the WWI he was German vice councilor in Turkey. After Riga was taken by Germans he returned to work in the press center. For his service in Estonia he was awarded with the First Class Iron Cross. After German defeat in WWI he joined the Landeswerh and then the Bermondt army. After the defeat he moved back to Germany were together with Alfred Roznenberg another Baltic German from Estonia organized a secret German emigrant society from Russia.  Then he joined the Nazi Party and became one of the early prominent members. He made the plan for Hitler  for the infamous  Beer Hall Putsch on 1923. On November 9 1923 during the final phase of the coup attempt in Munichh he was walking arm-in-arm with Hitler, and was shot in the lungs and died instantly as Hitler and others marched toward armed guards.He had brought Hitler down and dislocated Hitler’s right shoulder when he fell. He was the only first-tier Nazi leader to die during the Putsch. Of all the early party members who died in the Putsch, Adolf Hitler had claimed Scheubner-Richter to be the only “irreplaceable loss”. Hitler dedicated his first part of the Mein Kampf to him and other fallen revolutionaries.

The fates of two main Black Knights Goltz and Bermondt were more humble. Bermondt moved to Germany and wrote memoirs of his adventures on 1925. As others he was involved in right wing movements. On 1936 he was exiled by the Nazi government and  then moved to Yugoslavia. When WW2 reached Belgrade he moved to US and died in New York on 1973. His satiric appearance as eccentric incompetent army musician wanting to lead the army, but defeated by the smaller Latvian forces haunted him his entire life.   Goltz moved to Germany also wrote memoirs of explaining his motives and actions. From 1924 to 1930, he headed the German government department on the military education of young German youth. On 17 July 1931 he handed over the command of the Economic Policy Association Frankfurt am Main to the Reich President Paul von Hindenburg. In the age of 80 he died on November 4 1946 after witnessing another major German defeat.

Selected Sources:

Juris, Ciganovs. (2013) Latvijas Neatkarības Karš 1918-1920. Rīga. Zvaignze ABC.

Latvijas Brīvības Cīņas. Enciklopēdija (1999) Riga. Preses Nams

Zariņš, Klāvs (2014) Vācu Okupācijas režīms Kurzemes Guberņā (1915-1917) Militārā Pārvalde un civiliedzīvotāji. Rīga. Drukātava.

Cerūzis Raimonds. Vācu faktors Latvijā (1918-1939). Politiskie un starpnacionālie aspekti. – LU Akadēmiskais apgāds: Rīga, 2004.

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British Royal Navy in the Baltic Sea 1918-1920 Supporting the Latvian Independence

British sailors on board during the Battle of Riga 1919

British sailors on board during the Battle of Riga 1919

On November 1919 Latvian army faced attack from the much superior enemy – superior both in size and weapons. However, Latvian army withstood the attack and chased away the enemy from Riga for the final time. This would not have been done without the support of the British Royal Army, the French Navy and also Italian Navy. The British Royal Navy mission to Baltic Sea to assist Latvia and Estonia in the fight against the Bolsheviks made a great deal in winning the War for Freedom. The British Naval forces not only fought the Bolshevik navy, but also acted as artillery assistance against the pro-German forces that besieged Riga on October-November 1919.  This is a story of the British Royal Navy Mission in the Baltic Sea and how it assisted the Latvian fight for freedom.

The Russian Empire was the British and French most important ally. However, since 1915 when Germans marched deep within the Russian territories it was also the most vulnerable ally. German forces split Latvian lands in half across the river Daugava, but failed to capture Riga. Latvians formed the Riflemen regiments within the Russian Army to defend rest of Latvian territory and liberate the German occupied territories. The front stayed mostly intact until 1917 when the February revolution caused the breakdown of the Russian army. Germans captured Riga and later took over Vidzeme and Latgale. On March 8 1918 the new Bolshevik government signed peace agreement with the Germany and ceded Baltic States to Germany. Allies were shaken by this because now Germans could send their forces from the Eastern front to the Western Front. Their sent naval expeditions to  Murmansk, Arkhangelsk and Vladivostok to secure the large stockpiles of resources and armament both from Bolsheviks and Germans. Meanwhile the German government was reluctant to completely annex the Baltic States. Instead a plan was made to create a United Baltic Duchy that would be a German puppet state. It would be a constitutional monarchy based on the Baltic German political dominance. Its borders would include Estonia and all Latvia except Latgale. As it was part of the Russian province of Vitebsk with small German population. Lithuania as country with less German influence was allowed to proclaim independence on February 16 1918. Germans hoped to keep it under their protection, but Lithuanians projected a very nationalistic policy from the early start. On February 24 1918 Estonia declared independence, but day later Germans captured Reval (Tallinn) and chased away the German provisional government.  Finland meanwhile as autonomous part of the Russian army chased away the Bolsheviks and declared independence. Germans also considered it as ally state.

If Germany had won the Great War the Baltic States would become a formal parts of the German Empire. Supposedly sovereign but as puppet states. That did not happen as on November 11 1918 Germany was forced to sign ceasefire. The United Baltic Duchy proclaimed on November 5 1918 failed to establish a strong administration and after the German defeat lost its way. On November 18 Latvia proclaimed it independence. In Reval German troops started revolt and the Estonian government released from prison immediately started to work. The First Armistice at Compiègne included Article XII that demanded Germans to evacuate the troops from the occupied Russian lands as soon as the Allies would find an appropriate moment to do this knowing the local circumstances. Allies knew about the Bolshevik ambitions and wanted to have the German forces to keep Bolsheviks away from Western Europe. But, Germans in Latvia and Estonia had other plans as they still wanted a United Baltic Duchy. The revolutionary German provisional government was complimentary to this and supported them as discretely as possible.

Soon after the Germany had given up the war in the west, the Bolsheviks broke the peace agreement and wowed to gain back the lost lands of Baltic, Belarus and Ukraine. German army in the eastern front was broken and demoralized. The Britain and France had to make a hectic choice between German interests, the Russian Royalist White Guards and the new national republics in their struggle against the Bolsheviks. The ceasefire also allowed the allied fleet to enter the Baltic Sea first time since 1914. British government was not confident of the new Baltic States, but considered that they need to be supported from the Bolsheviks. Week after the ceasefire Estonian delegation arrived in London and asked to send troops and warships to support them The Foreign Ministry rejected sending troops, but promised to send navy and resources. British however were weary of the minefields set up all across the Baltic Sea. Bolsheviks also gathered their own Soviet Baltic Navy.

On November 21 1918 the first British Naval Squad set sail to the Baltic Sea. Under the leadership of the Counter Admiral Sir Edwyn Alexander Sinlcair the cruiser Cardiff, Cassandra,Caradoc,Ceres,Calypso, 9 squadron minehunters and 7 mine trawlers set sail to the Baltic Sea. Sailors were reluctant because they thought the war is over and wanted a long-awaited vacation. After encountering issues in Copenhagen when the coal transport ship became stranded leaving the mine trawlers without coal Sinclair  was forced to set sail to Tallinn because of the Bolshevik attack. The squadron passed the cold and stranded Liepāja and sailed towards Estonia. On December 4 across the Saaremaa island the cruiser Cassandra struck the mine. Broken in half the ship sank. 10 men died in explosion the remaining 450 were rescued by the mine hunters Westminster and Wendetta. Loosing cruiser at start of the campaign was a heavy blow. The light cruiser Calypso also had to be repaired because it collided with shipwreck in the Liepāja harbor. It took the rescued Cassadra sailors back home along with two damaged mine hunters. Despite the odds Sinclair entered troubled Tallinn. City was harmed by the food shortage, lack of coal and money. In the December cold the Red Army commanded by the Latvian colonel Jukums Vācietis captured Narva on the Russian border. Valka and Tartu also were captured.  Estonians asked British to make Estonia their protectorate and send military mission that would train the Estonian army and the small navy. The Russian Whiteguard North-west army was also in Estonia and asked British help. Sinclair rejected the white Russians because Estonians mistrusted them. Sinclair said that his navy can only stay in the Strait of Finland until it becomes frozen and the weapon transports are on the way.

Despite being asked to only make reconnaissance operations, Sinclair  understood the dangers of loosing Tallinn and started to shell the advancing Bolshevik forces. The only bridge across the Estonian border was destroyed cutting off the Bolshevik supplies from Petrograd (St. Petersburg). On December 24 Estonians begun successful counter offensive with sea landing operation at the Kunda cutting the Bolshevik lines from behind. While Bolshevik fleet stuck in Kronstadt Sinclair set sail to Liepāja to understand the Latvian needs. Bolsheviks had battleship Petropalvosk, smaller Andrej Pervozvannij and cruiser Oleg. And three submarines along with smaller ships. Their naval command was weak and the sailors were poorly trained. Most Tsarist officers were shot. Their commander was Fyodor Raskolnikov. His attempts to attack Tallinn resulted in capture of the mine hunter Spartak.

When Sinclair arrived in Liepāja he saw even more misery then in Tallinn. While in Estonia Konstantin Pats government had the majority support, the Kārlis Ulmanis government was not well received by many. Poor peasants, workers and unemployed welcomed the invading Bolsheviks. The Baltic German nobility was reluctant to support Latvians and organized their own forces. The legendary Latvian Riflemen were converted to Bolshevism and now came to Latvia to install Soviet power. Latvian government managed to organize few ill-equipped companies of students and volunteers. Meanwhile Germans formed better equipped Land Guard the Landeswehr, from the defeated German 8th Army and the Freikorps volunteers from Germany an Iron Division was formed.

The Russian Newspaper reports The English Ships are in Riga and standing right in front the Anglican Church

The Russian Newspaper reports The English Ships are in Riga and standing right in front the Anglican Church

On December 19 the British mine hunters entered Riga. The situation was even more dire than in Tallinn. Sinclair was informed by Latvian Prime Minister Kārlis Ulmanis that 40 000 German troops are preparing to leave Latvia for Germany. Only what was left 700 men from the Baltic German Landeswehr that was made to strengthen the Latvian army. Brits convinced Germans that they must apply to paragraph XII and stay in Latvia to hold off the Bolsheviks. Latvians were weary of the German army, but were forced to cooperate with them. Despite that German army did nothing for next five days. Bolsheviks were just 46 km from Riga. British started to load up 350 British and allied citizens on board of Princess Margaret. Then on 29 December two Latvian regiments who took retreat in Riga has risen up against the Latvian government and wanted to join the Bolsheviks. On January 3 1919 another Latvian unit went rouge. On the same day Sinclair left the harbor and took more refugees and members and supporters of the Latvian government. As the German Iron Division was defeated in Inčukalns on December 30-31 the Latvian government abandoned Riga and moved to Jelgava and then to Liepāja. The British navy left the Baltic shores and reached Rosyth on 8 December. The first naval mission had ended. It had failed to stop the Bolshevik advance in Latvia, but the Estonia and Finland were not overran leaving hope.

Admiral Walter Cowan the commander of the Royal Navy in the Baltic Sea

Admiral Walter Cowan the commander of the Royal Navy in the Baltic Sea

British Navy and Military were concerned about the fate of the Baltic States. It reported to the British government that to fight off the Bolsheviks a significantly larger expedition of land troops were needed. The British government rejected sending land troops to the Baltic States and instead again ordered to send naval mission. The Admiralty was against this. But, it assembled new squadron under the command of the Counter Admiral Walter Cowan. Cowan was one of the most experienced naval commanders of the British navy. His first combat experience was in the British Africa on 1895-1897. He also joined the land forces under the command by the Lord Kitchener  in the Nile expedition. He was awarded with the Exceptional Service  Order and then moved to South Africa. However, the Royal Navy was unimpressed of him leaving the naval service without their consent. So they wanted to cross him out of the service list. He joined navy again, but was not promoted. After marriage and honeymoon he joined the battleship cruiser Prince George of the Channel Fleet. In the age of 30 he was promoted as the commanding captain. On 1914 he as the commanding officer took part in the WWI naval battles including the Battle of Jutland. Awarded with the Order of the Bath, he was however disappointed that the battle was not won. Promoted as commodore and later as counter admiral he was sad that the war was over. When he was called to command naval mission to the Baltic Sea he was again exited.

He was instructed by the Naval command to support the British interests in the region and attack the Bolsheviks from the shores. The Baltic States had to be defended at all costs, however the support had to be only in therms of the naval support and arms shipment. Puzzled by the complicated Baltic situation Cowan set sail to Liepāja while being noted to not visit Riga or Tallinn. When he arrived to Liepāja, the Bolsheviks were just 92 km from the city. Germans were not helping instead they trowed in to sea guns supplied by the British for the Latvian forces. There was also a White Russian corps commanded by the prince Anatoly Lieven  – a member of the old noble German family. He was supportive to the Latvian state but was under the vile German command. Cowan had come to conclusion: “Latvians are powerless to help themselves”. Meanwhile the Estonian forces had chased away the Bolsheviks from their capital and moved towards Tartu and Narva. On January 25 the British were informed that the Bolsheviks were stopped along the lines of the river Venta. Latvian forces gained first victories and the German forces also reached first success. However, on January 31 the port of Ventspils was lost and Liepāja was in danger again. Cowan was asked to bombard the Bolsheviks. Their artillery batteries were destroyed and Bolsheviks fled the city. Latvian forces under the command of the colonel Oskars Kalpaks grew to 3500. Estonians agreed to form a  common front with Latvians against the Bolsheviks. And the German Major General Rüdiger von der Goltz arrived to command the German forces.

A vicious and cunning Prussian officer von der Goltz was known for his action in Finland where he helped to re-capture Helsinki from the Bolsheviks. As devout Prussian officer and nationalist he was against the Baltic independence and started to plot against the Latvians and the British. British had no idea of what danger this man could bring. On the path back to Copenhagen Cowan’s ships intercepted German cargo ship transporting unlicensed supplies to Memel (Klaipeda). It was a sign that the seemingly peace wishing Berlin government was secretly aiding the Germans in the Baltic Sea.

On February the frontline in Courland was satisfactory the Goltz forces were ready to lead the counter offensive. Latvians voiced concern about the German real intentions and Cowan was aware of this. He reported to London not to aid the Germans, but support Latvians ass possible for their need the money and support as much as possible. On February 21 first Cowan mission ended and he left, awaiting to return on Spring when the Bolshevik fleet was ready to leave their ports. British, French and US leaders were busy conducting the Versailles Treaty and saw the Baltic States as a secondary objective. The Admiralty voiced concerns on the lack of decisions and concrete stance. France had given the Baltic States under the British sphere of interests. Allies were against the Bolsheviks, but were not ready to send troops. Instead a financial and naval aid was only possible to the White forces and the new republics. Meanwhile Germany defeated in the West hoped to use their forces in the East to re-install their power there. Social-democrat government also hoped to arrange alliance with the Bolsheviks to head against the West once more. Goltz the ex imperial officer who despised the German republic was sent as the envoy of the German Eastern interests. But, Goltz wanted the power for himself and took over the Baltic States.

Liepāja on 1919

Liepāja on 1919

On March 2 the Latvian government uncovered  the documents about the coup plotted by the Baltic Germans under the leadership of von der Stryk. There was no proof of the Goltz involvement. He however moved to Stettin  (Szczecin) to avoid arrest. But, his man tried to seize weapons and ammunition on board the  steamship Saratov. British were concerned and predicted a coup d’etat by the Germans who has a strong force of 8000 man. Berlin was sending more troops than necessary. On March 6 British informed  Goltz that all supply shipments for Germans are brought to halt and no German ship may enter the Baltic ports. Goltz replied with strong statement that in such case he cannot lead the assault on the Bolsheviks and leave Latvia to its own fate.

Royal Navy decided to send new squadron to Baltic Sea. As the Bolshevik fleet was soon to be active and the Baltic States needed supplies and gun fire. The British PM Loyd George sent military and diplomatic mission. But, he was against sending large squad of the naval forces there. So Cowan with his light cruisers and ten squadron mine hunters returned to Baltic Sea. Cowan commanded the cruiser Caledon. Meanwhile Goltz had moved towards Jelgava and to avoid  the British embargo took away the food supplies for Latvian civilians in Liepāja. Cowan arrived in Liepāja and met Goltz. Insulted by the German demands to show entry permit, because of the discovered Bolshevik cell within the Golzt forces, Cowan raised concerns about the dire situation in Riga. He asked when it will be taken back. Goltz replied that he is not sure if Berlin wants him to retake Riga and that he has enough forces. He asked if he captures Riga will British would cancel the embargo. Cowan made clear if Riga was to be taken it will be supplied with food. Few days later Admiral was informed that because of the thaw all military operations has been canceled.  The roads were to no use so Riga had to wait.

On April 14 Cowan informed Goltz that the British government is ready to cancel embargo for a short time if the Germans would stop obstructing the buildup of the Latvian forces. Goltz rejected this. And he had a reason for it. Sensing the danger Cowan stayed in Liepāja. That was a wise move. On April 16 Goltz forces started a coup against the Latvian provisional government. Germans took over the Latvian command center. British learning the danger reinforced the steam ship Saratov filled with supplies for the Latvians.   Germans besieged the Latvian government office, but arrested only two ministers. Saratov moved into trade port. Ulmanis and the rest of government found refuge in the British diplomatic mission. British mine hunters arrived and stopped Germans from taking over the Trade Port. Scared off by the warnings of cannon fire, Germans left off allowing the Latvian government to  get on board the Saratov. Brits rejected Germans demands to hand over the Latvian statesmen. On same day the US military mission arrived surprised by the events and prevented the arrest of the Latvian officer.

The steam ship Saratov where the Latvian government took refuge

The steam ship Saratov where the Latvian government took refuge

German coup had backfired thanks to British action. The Latvian government had avoided the arrest, the Latvian forces disobeyed the German directory government lead by Baron Manteifel. On April 19 French navy arrived in Liepāja with gun boat Dunois and  guard ship Meuse. French captain Brison wanted to sail to Tallinn, but was convinced to stay in Liepāja to guard the city. On April 21 Goltz informed the allies that he has nothing to do with the coup, however it was necessary action to  arrest the Latvian government. Cowan demanded to call of the officers involved in the coup and release the arrested Latvian officers and MP’s. Goltz rejected and accused Ulmanis of aiding the Bolsheviks. Prince Lieven proposed to organize a Latvian coalition government of Latvians and loyal Baltic Germans. Cowan said its not the right time and convinced him to stay true to his country and try to ease the Latvian and German issues. 24 hours later London ordered him to demand to restore the Ulmanis government at once.  However, April 25 Cowan set sail to the Strait of Finland to counter the Bolshevik fleet.

Meanwhile Goltz condemned by the Allies and refusing to admit his leading part in the coup installed a new “Latvian goverment” lead by pastor Andrievs Niedra on May 10. He was rejected by majority of Latvians and the allies who asked to remove Goltz from Latvia. Berlin was irresponive. On May 15 the pro-German government ordered to attack Riga. Berlin was forced to forbid Goltz to lead his Iron Divison to Riga. Instead the Baltic Landeswehr and Latvian forces lead by General Balodis headed towards Riga. Landeswehr entered Riga first and started to terrorize and punish the Bolshevik supporters. They had reason for it as for months the Latvian Bolshevik government had repressed the Baltic Germans killing many thousands of them. The Red Terror was replaced by the White Terror. Day later Latvians arrived trying to stop the Germans from terrorizing the city. Allies were afraid of the German government rejecting the Paris Peace Treaty and Goltz forces attacking their ships and representatives and allowed Goltz to stay, but demanded Berlin to order Goltz stop all actions against Latvians. Berlin replied that the evacuation of the Goltz troops is underway and Goltz has done nothing against Latvians. For Berlin has not instructed him to do so.

The British main naval force moved to Finnish Strait were it fought the Bolshevik navy destroying their ships and trapping them in Kronstadt harbor. As Estonians were already chasing  Bolsheviks to Northern Latvia, the Tallinn was no more in danger and so as Finland. Meanwhile on the beginning of June Goltz moved to north to Vidzeme instead East to Latgale where the Bolsheviks had retreated. Estonian forces commanded by general Laidoner and the Northern Latvian army lead by colonel  Zemitāns has reached Cēsis the central part of the Vidzeme region. From the Latvian refugees in Estonia and Bolshevik deserters a large fighting force was made. Stronger than those on the western part. As Goltz forces moved towards Cēsis he was confronted by Estonians and Latvians and was defeated. Goltz retreated from Riga leaving only garrison of prince Lieven Russian troops. On June 26 Andrievs Niedra government accused of betrayal resigned. The Kārlis Ulmanis government who  spent all this time on board of the ship Saratov arrived in Riga the next day and was greeted by the cheering crowds. After the Red and White Terror Latvian majority finally accepted the democratic government.

The Latvians and Estonians had enough troops to completely destroy the Iron Division. But, the allied powers still wanted them to be used against the Bolsheviks. On July 3 the Strazdumuiža ceasefire was signed. Estonians draw back. The landeswehr Baltic German commander was replaced by the Irish Guard Junior Colonel Harold Alexander the future field Marshall of the North African British forces on WW2. He however had no German knowledge so he was assisted by baron Taube. Goltz was demanded to evacuate all his forces from Latvia as soon as possible. And to leave Riga at end of the July 5. He did that and moved to Jelgava. Germans withdraw their forces also from Ventspils and Liepāja. But, few could imagine that Goltz will give up.

British warships again entered Riga. Goltz was defiant both to Berlin and the Allies and delayed the evacuation of his troops still concentrated in the large parts of the country. Cowan and main fleet was concentrated on battles with the Bolshevik fleet. He led the raid on the Bolshevik war port destroying three warships Petrapavlosk, Andrej Pervozvannij and Pamatj Azova. The Bolshevik Baltic Fleet was sunken, but the British government was unimpressed as  they secretly planned to remove their troops from Arhangelsk and gave up the intervention. But, the main Bolshevik attack force was no more danger to Finns and Estonians.

From July to October it was relative peace in Latvia. Moscow Bolsheviks endangered by the White offensives wanted to give up the Baltic States So there was stalemate on the Latvian Eastern front. Meanwhile in Jelgava Goltz had not evacuated his forces. Making many excuses he delayed the evacuation and accused Latvians of attacking his forces. On April 1919 a plot was born to assemble the Russian WWI POW’s from the camps in Germany to form a White Guard army under German leadership. One part of them were sent to Courland. Their leader was phony Russian colonel Pavel Bemondt- Avalov. A adoptive of the Georgian noble, he started as musical conductor for the Russian cossacks. On 1914 he was Lancer captain. After being captured by Ukrainian nationalists and when released he moved to Germany.

The eccentric  Georgian “count” was only the front of the Goltz plot to strike again. His Western Russian Volunteer Army included all the Goltz Iron Division and The German Freikorps. German soldiers had to wear Russian imperial insignia. His force was well equipped with armored vehicles and warplanes.  Bermondt declared that his objective is to head to Russia and assist General Yudenich. And then on October 8 his planes dropped few bombs on Riga. The attack had begun. 17 000 Bermontd troops with 65 cannons and 24 airplanes, two armored trains faced 11 300 Latvian men with 9 cannons, 23 heavy machine guns, 2 armored trains, 2 armored vehicles and few warplanes

Cowan was still in the Finnish Strait. Cruiser Phanteon led by captain Curtis along with ships Aisne and Abideil was stationed in Riga. Along them the French ships. British ships was instructed to hold fire, but were caught in the fire exchange. Latvians secured the bridges and prevented Germans from crossing them. Germans had problems using their artillery to not hit the British ships. Cowan did not sail to Riga himself. He sent cruisers Dragoon, Cleopatra and Princess Margaret. Germans asked Brits to leave for they are standing in front of their artillery range.  Brits showed the Yudenich proclamation condemning Bermont and excluding from the White Guards. On October 13 French captain asked Cowen to start shelling the Daugavgrīva fortress so the Latvians can regain them, for the Germans are firing their ships.

Allied ships in Daugava. From the movie Lāčplēsis 1919

Allied ships in Daugava. From the movie Lāčplēsis 1919

On October 15 the Allied ships opened fire on the Daugavgrīva fortress. Latvians started to cross river Daugava to chase away Germans from left side of the river. Bermontd expressed confusion about the White Guard army fighting the Bolsheviks are bombarded by the  allies. He was replied that he is no White Guard as the General Yudenich does not recognize him. From October 15 to November 11 the allied warships continued to bombard the Bermondt army greatly assisting Latvian army. On November 3 a counter attack begun and on November 11 the Battle of Riga was won. Estonians sent one armored train. So the main fighting was done by Latvians themselves. But, the artillery fire from the British ships was a major supporting factor.

British ships also helped Latvians to defend Liepāja. Bermontd forces were unable to capture the important war harbor. After the victory in Riga the Bermontd forces were chased away from Latvia. It took a month for them to leave Lithuania. On December the defeated Bolshevik Baltic Fleet was again ice kept in the harbor. On February 2 1920 Estonia signed Peace Agreement. Latvian and Polish forces chased Bolsheviks from Latgale on January 1920.  Later on August 11 peace agreement was reached. The Allied Naval mission in the Baltic Sea had reached its end. The Bolsheviks in the Baltic States were defeated, Germans pushed away, Latvia and Estonia had reached independence. Petrograd or now known as Leningrad was captured and their fleet despite greatly damaged was still alive. But, Cowan and his allied commanders had made a great deal with their limited resources. Great Britain and France recognized Latvia de iure on 1921 January 26.

Cemetery for the British sailors in Jelgava

Cemetery for the British sailors in Jelgava

Cowan continued his military carrier on 1921 he became the captain of the famous battleship Hood. On 1923 he was appointed as the commanding officer of the Scottish Coast guard.   He was promoted as admiral on 1926 and ended his carrier as the first adjutant of King George V. On 1929 he was retired on the age of 59. When WW2 begun 70-year-old Cowan rushed to ask Admiralty for the job. He ended up in North Africa front and took part in the combat actions. On 1944 he left the military for good as one of the oldest serving officer in the British Army. He was also promoted as honorary colonel. The old man was most happy of such decoration and moved back to England. He died on 1956. As valiant naval officer and a great commander Cowan expressed great sympathies for the Latvians and Estonians and his leadership was crucial for the success of the Allied naval mission in the Baltic Sea.

Selected Sources:

Geoffrey Bennett (2002) Freeing the Baltic. Birlinn Ltd. Latvian translation Atbrīvojot Baltiju 1919-1920. (2012) Rīga. Zvaignze ABC

Juris, Ciganovs. (2013) Latvijas Neatkarības Karš 1918-1920. Rīga. Zvaignze ABC.

Latvijas Brīvības Cīņas. Enciklopēdija (1999) Riga. Preses Nams

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