by Roland Binet (Braine-l’Alleud/Belgium)
Next month, the European Union and NATO will again be faced with the annual city-center march in Riga, the Latvian capital, glorifying the country’s Hitlerist Waffen SS. I had of course for years heard about the infamous March 16th marches in Riga when old members of the Latvian Waffen SS, their sympathizers and those who feel nostalgic about the good old time under Nazi rule proudly parade through the central streets of the beautiful capital of Latvia, ending their solemn march in front of the Freedom Monument, where they – solemnly and hierarchically – lay bundles of flowers at the foot of the monument and sing the national anthem.
In 2012, I went to Riga in order to see for myself that exceptional display of nostalgia for values that I hate and abhor from the inner and deepest core of my being. I remember passing in a street just before the event and hearing a Latvian woman talking with a foreign visitor, telling her that “Today is a very special day for Latvia…”
I must say that I was mesmerized by what I saw that day in the very center of Riga in Latvia. The immense popularity, the open admiration by the numerous revelers, alongside the streets and near the Freedom Monument, the deep respect shown towards these ex-Waffen SS soldiers, the abundance of national flags, the singing by these old men of the national anthem, this was truly astounding.
And frankly repulsive to someone like me, born and bred in Belgium, for whom the very idea of men – whatever their nationality, including Belgians, of course – having served under the Wehrmacht or in Waffen SS uniforms was despicable. Men – whatever their true and initial motives – who took it upon themselves to defend the paranoid, anal-retentive, social-darwinist concepts of Hitler, the Nazis, the Third Reich: these immoral and inhuman theories and racial concepts dividing the supposed German Masters from the supposed Untermenschen, these brutal strategies of enslavement and killing of Jewish populations, these series of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, this war of extermination in the East. If ever there had been in the history of humanity a symbol of inhumanity, Hitler, his cohorts of supporters, adorers and henchmen, had been the evil personification of what is abominable in the development of modern man.
Why Do I Come Back to This Now?
Recently, a Latvian woman contacted me to say that she disagreed with an article published in Defending History on 25 October 2010 entitled “An Open Letter to the President of the European Commission” where I stated quite clearly that I did not consider these Latvian ex-Waffen SS soldiers to be heroes. Far from it. The lady in question told me that her father had been conscripted and forced into the Latvian Waffen SS and that he did not participate in the killing of Jews. She said that prior to his imprisonment between September 1944 and December 1946, “he was in the Latvian Legion fighting the Russians at Stalingrad” [I suppose she meant Leningrad as I never heard of Latvian troops in Stalingrad, and had he been there he would have been killed, wounded or taken prisoner]. She added that her father did not like the Germans, spoke no German and was ill-treated by the German officers. He had been detained in Belgium for a time, where he suffered from hunger.
The implication of that message was clear: that we had no understanding of the fact that these men from Latvia only fought against the Russians and had nothing to do with the Holocaust. They were supposedly therefore pure victims.
Hence, why could we not consider these men as heroes as they were in fact no Nazi-lovers, they only fought against the Russians to protect and defend their fatherland?
And then, imagining the chasm dividing the Latvians’ opinion about their heroes, and our own democratic and historical repulsion toward anything smacking of Nazism or collaborationism, I came to the idea not only to refute their arguments, but to let these Waffen SS heroes-worshipping people understand how we in Western Europe feel about Germany, Nazism, collaboration and the Holocaust.
Belgium was invaded by the Germans on 4 August 1914. Immediately, the German troops behaved in a barbaric manner, killing civilians, burning and destroying houses and properties, taking hostages, forcing men and women to do labor in war zones or deporting them to Germany. The German army lived from the land it occupied, imposed horrendous taxes on the cities and villages, and availed itself of the rich agricultural zones, confiscating, stealing, while the Belgians sometimes starved. My own grandfather and my wife’s grandfather fought during four years in the trenches in Flanders. The story of that tragedy was not the only one that I grew up with. From time to time, we still call some Germans who displease us “Boches,” the word commonly used to describe them during the First World War.
Then, on 10 May 1940, hello, the Germans were back! Hitler’s army this time instead of the Emperor’s. But the methods were identical: the taking of hostages, the killing of civilians, living off the land, etc. Except that this time alongside the German army, there were vastly more sinister organizations such as the SS, SD and Gestapo. And, contrary to WWI, there were now collaborators both in Flanders and Wallonia. The word Boche was still commonly used to qualify these occupation troops and their helpers.
My own father was drafted for forced labor and hid during eighteen months. Had he been caught, he might have been executed or sent to a concentration camp such as Buchenwald, Dachau, or Mauthausen, where he might have died in atrocious circumstances. One of his uncles, a resistor, was caught by the Gestapo and beheaded. On my father’s side, there were many resistance members who chiefly helped downed plane crews to hide from the Boches. I have always been particularly proud of that fact. On my wife’s side, two brothers of my father-in-law were drafted for forced labor and sent to salt mines in Germany. One of them died there, he had been slightly retarded so he had had no chance to survive at all in such a hellish world. My own father-in-law, from a modest family, suffered hunger during the war. A mere adolescent at the time.
Thus, since my youth, I grew up with a healthy hatred of the soldiers of Germany as well as everything smacking of the SS or the Gestapo. And, later, when I met Jews who had survived the Holocaust I began to immerse myself in the topic. There was a time in the sixties when my feelings were so strong that I refused to travel to Germany, although I head learned the language and loved German literature. Finally, it had been through business that I came to meet and discuss with Germans and since then, I have often been in that country that I admire in some ways that it has recognized its participation in war crimes, crimes against humanity and the Holocaust, has passed laws forbidding all public displays or selling of Nazi or Third Reich paraphernalia, and, last but not least, has instituted education programs aimed at letting the students learn in theory and by visits to concentration camps about the magnitude of the crimes committed by Hitler and the Nazi state.
It seems, alas, that some at least in Latvia and the other two Baltic States have on the contrary opted for nostalgia and for the hero-worshipping of men who fought under Wehrmacht or SS uniforms supposedly because they only fought against Russia and defended their country.
Let us now look at Latvia and the Latvian Legion – the Waffen SS – but not from a nationalist Latvian perspective, but instead from a historical, Western, international, and moral perspective with the hindsight that seventy years in the course of history affords.
Invasion of Latvia by the Soviet Union
Latvia gained its independence very late, after World War I, almost as an afterthought to the Versailles treaties.
Then came the day of infamy as it is remembered in the Baltic States, 23 August 1939 when the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed.
Soviet troops crossed the border into Latvia and then occupied the country in 1940 after an ultimatum that could not have been refused by that small, weak neighboring state. This invasion and the destruction of the independence of Latvia had been the result of a Secret Additional Protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the first article reading “In the event of a territorial and political rearrangement in the areas belonging to the Baltic States (Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), the northern boundary of Lithuania shall represent the boundary of the sphere of influence of Germany and the U.S.S.R…”
During that Soviet occupation, the inhabitants of Latvia came to know the true antidemocratic and violent face of Communism. A way of life that was in fact not different from what the Soviet citizens had known since Stalin gained absolute power, a violence peaking with the voluntary famishing of Ukraine in the early thirties and the show-trials of 1937 and 1938, the mass arrests of civilians, the destruction of much of the leadership of the Red Army and much more.
On 14 June 1941, something occurred that marked forever the psyche of the people of Latvia. The NKVD resorted to mass arrests and exile to Siberia of a large number of civilians in Latvia: Latvians and Russians and Jews and others. Straume quotes the figure of 15,424 persons. Indija Dimanta and Indulis Zālīte quote interesting percentage figures “In 1941, the group suffering relatively the most deportations was the Jews – 1.9 % of all Jews living in Latvia were deported. For Latvians the figure is 0.8 %, and for Russians – 0.4 %. These figures disprove the common claim that the deportations affected all ethnic groups [equally].” (emphasis added). These figures are of course horrendous, as we read that “17.4% were under 10 years of age.” Thus, we may presume that whole families were deported to Siberia.
These figures from Latvian sources are also interesting because we know that contemporary Latvia claims that its people suffered a genocide at the hand of Soviet Russia, between June 1940 and June 1941, and again then after the second occupation of the country by the Soviet Union from 1944 to 1991.
Without in any way wishing to diminish the scope and effect of that totalitarian, brutal and illegal act by which the NKVD arrested innocent citizens of a formerly free country and deported them to the harsh regions of Siberia, if we take a retrospective look at what history has taught us, we realize that, for instance in the years 1937/1938, during these awful bloodthirsty purges fomented by a demented Stalin and his NKVD bloodhounds, 700,000 Soviet citizens (mostly Russians) had been executed, and a million and a half arrested.
Let us look at Latvia just prior to the 1941 Nazi war against the USSR, under the yoke of the Communist regime.
The inhabitants of Latvia invaded by Soviet troops in June 1940 did not know it at the time but Hitler sold out the Baltic States. He left them to the ogre Stalin. Deliberately. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had been a geopolitical deal between two horrific, cynical and bloodthirsty tyrants, heads of police and totalitarian states not very different in essence except perhaps that Hitler had been elected in a near democratic way at the start of his Nazi career, while Stalin gained power by brute force. But the prisons, the concentration camps, the methodology of arrests and interrogations in both countries were quite similar. The NKVD was parallel to the Gestapo. The NKVD troops could be as cruel and inhuman as the Totenkopfverbände from the SS. The Gulag equivalent was the KZ in Germany. Hitler and Stalin could have been brothers in arms in their deliberate ignorance and scorn of legality, the rights of imprisoned persons and basic human rights.
Yet, when we look at the figures of the first mass repression and deportation of citizens living in Latvia in June 1941, provided by Latvian sources, we can ascertain that if a specific ethnic group had been singled out, it was essentially the Jews who paid the largest “tribute,” double the percentage of ethnic Latvians and four times that of ethnic Russians! And these figures, although painful for all victims of these odious crimes, were unfortunately on a par with what the whole population of the USSR had had to suffer since the first purges in the thirties.
And by now, the Latvians, the Latvian historians covering World War II and the occupation of Latvia by Nazi Germany, should have been aware of what Hitler really thought of them.
Let us take a look at a few verbatim quotes from Hitler himself. The dates are interesting.
Sunday evening, 27 July 1941: “We have to be attentive to the fact that no new military power can form itself on this side of the Ural (…) It is in our interest that the people know just enough to be able to read the road signs.”
17-18 September 1941: “We were the ones who founded the Baltic States and the Ukraine in 1918. But now, we have no interest in maintaining them.”
12-13 July 1941: Last but not least, a jewel of a thought about the Balts, also uttered during a table conversation: “The Estonians have also German blood. The Estonians are the elite of the Baltic peoples. The Lithuanians come afterward and finally the Latvians. Stalin used the Latvians for the executions that the Russians found too repulsive. These were also the people who carried out the executioner’s tasks for the Tsar.”
The Nazi Occupation and the Mass Killing of Jewish Citizens
When the German military invaded the country, they were greeted in Riga by enthusiastic women, applause, and flowers. They were the liberators who came to free them from the Soviet yoke. The enthusiasm was not feigned. As Straume remarks: “The Soviet terror 1940-1941 had so shaken the Latvian population, that after one year, it had already forgotten a 700-year hostility towards the Germans. (…) With the beginning of the occupation, one dictatorship was exchanged for another.”
Spontaneously, “self-defense” paramilitary units were formed. And as Straume states: “Units of Forest Brothers started to act in order to cleanse part of Latvia from Soviet soldiers.”
Quickly after the beginning of the occupation of Latvia by the German army, the Jews – whom many associated with the Soviet regime and/or the NKVD – began to be killed, in isolated or mass slayings.
Janis Straume states: “The Jews were shot by the security arm of the SS, which was supplemented by a group of Latvian citizens with unstable psychotic and sadistic tendencies, who guarded the Jews, accompanied them to the killing places, conducted them to be executed, participated in the genocide.”
The historical facts of the mass massacres of the Jewish population of Latvia and the Jews deported into that country from other regions of Europe are well-known. Ian Kershaw quotes the figure of 229,052 Jews having been killed in the Baltic States at the end of 1941 mainly by the Einsatzgruppe A. In another of his works, he indicates “The situation was barely any different in Latvia, where the Germans with Latvian help had succeeded in murdering almost 70,000 of the 80,000 Jews.”
There had been a pogrom in Riga during the early days of the occupation of the city by the German army. There are of course differences of opinion between authors about the true spontaneity of such a barbarous act. Let us look at the report of 15 October 1941 from the leader of the Einsatzgruppe A: “It proved to be considerably more difficult to set in motion similar cleansing Aktionen and pogroms in Latvia. The main reason was that the entire national leadership, especially in Riga, had been killed or deported by the Soviets. Even in Riga it proved possible by means of appropriate suggestions to the Latvian auxiliary police to get an anti-Jewish pogrom going on, in the course of which all the synagogues were destroyed and about 400 Jews killed. As the population on the whole quietened down very quickly in Riga, it was not possible to arrange further pogroms.”
Raul Hilberg: “Finally, the greatest part of the recorded pogroms took place in the territories annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939-1940, that is in the regions where it seems that the latent hostility against the Jews was the most forceful…”
Arno Mayer: “A characteristic fact, the first acts of violence against the Jews – and for a time, the gravest – were not committed by these recent formations that were the Einsatzgruppen; they took the form of pogroms in the traditional way, perpetrated by local antisemites in the ‘liberated’ territories, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belorussia, Ukraine…”
But, it has to be clear that in Latvia, the murders, spontaneous or not, committed by the Einsatzgruppen and/or by Latvian henchmen, were not restricted to the large cities. Ezergailis: “The number of Jews killed in Latvia’s provinces were about 23,462.”
This is a third of all Latvian Jews killed during the war.
And, let us remark that the historians who delved more deeply than Ezergailis in the matter of the killings in smaller dwellings (his account of that part of the Holocaust takes up pages 225-230 in the ISBN 9984-9054-3-8 Edition on a total of 376 pages of plain text) discovered that too many of these slayings of Jews were committed by Latvians who were not always part of the Arājs death squadrons or acting under the direct direction of the SD.
Let me take just two examples from two different but well-researched historical works on that matter of the killing of Jews in small communities of Latvia, because in fact each Latvian village, each Latvian town suffered the loss of all or most of their Jewish inhabitants.
(1) “Before the war, 1,518 Jews lived in Ludza, that is more than 27% of the total population. On 3 July 1941, the German troops invaded the town, where in addition to the local Jews, refugees coming from other cities of the Latgale region, as well as from Lithuania, were to be found. On the first day of the occupation, the German authorities instituted a local commandment. A ‘self-defense’ unit was formed, composed of volunteers – in the majority students from higher education, a teacher from a professional school, functionaries and policemen. On 4 July 1941, that ‘self-defense’ unit arrested and imprisoned all the Jews and the Soviet non-Jewish ‘activists.’ During three days, the prisoners were beaten and starved. On 10 and 11 July, a ‘commission’ arrived at the jail to begin with the questioning. Those consisted of beating up the prisoners. (…) A member of the ‘commission,’ the director of the local hospital, who chaired the reunion, declared that ‘Here in Lutzin (another name of Ludza), we have enough of our own Jews, we do not need those who arrive from everywhere.’ 150 persons were prisoners. In the night of July 15, a part of the prisoners was killed not far from the brickyard.”
(2) “In Kabile (Kabilen, 24 km from Kuldīga / Goldingen), Self-Defense men removed four Jews from the local jail. These were four members of the Gotschalk family, three brothers, Mozus, Aron and Hirsch, and their sister Esther. They were taken to a forest near the Karogi farm in the Kabile volost, shot and buried in a pit. This killing took place in July 1941. Several days after the murder of the Gotschalk family, the Self-Defense men dug a pit near the Buiki farm. Then they removed four Jewish children aged 8-14 (three boys and a girl) from the volost council building. They also arrested Itzik Yezefson, from the Buiki farm (he was a resident of Kuldīga, and worked as a traveling salesman in the Varma and Lutrine volostes). The children were shot first. Then, the Self-Defense men brought Yezefon to the pit and shot him in the head with a pistol. A group of eight Jews who were arrested in Kabile in early July 1941 were escorted to Kuldīga. Then 2-3 days after Itzik Yezefon’s murder, they were executed together with a group of Roma near Kulas in the Varma volost. The victims were buried in two pits near a country road.”
What is essential here is to keep in mind is that in the second example children were killed by a Latvian Self-Defense unit members. And, keep in mind too that this was done before Himmler had given his go-ahead for the killing of women and children of Jewish ancestry, a decision taken in August 1941, the so-called “chase them in the marshes” decision.
You don’t have to be a psychiatrist in order to understand that only a deep-rooted hatred of the Jews, a deeply anchored antisemitism could remove all the natural inhibitions (cf. the Superego) that people in civilized societies have against murder in the first place, and certainly against the murder of women and children.
For us, inhabitants of Western Europe, it is very difficult to understand why apparently normal men and citizens of a peaceful country could suddenly resort to such extreme measures and barbarous acts, killing other people, men, women, elderly and children who in fact had been their neighbors and their commercial partners. And had all these Latvian killers in small villages and towns “psychotic and sadistic tendencies” as Straume would lead us to believe, or were they normal people who availed themselves of the opportunity to lash out at people – the Jews – they were jealous of, despised because of their so-called association with the Soviet authorities and organs? Or had they suddenly been conquered by that Hitlerian idea of Jews being Untermenschen, people with whom everything was feasible, beating them, robbing them of their properties, killing them?
The issue of antisemitism in Latvia prior to World War II is still a matter of historical controversy and, perhaps, at the core of understanding of how such barbarous acts could be committed by mere civilian Latvians or men enrolled in Jew-killer units?
Most Latvian historians try to deny the fact that there had been any significant or noteworthy antisemitism in Latvia prior to the Holocaust.
Andrew Ezergailis: “Before World War II Latvia was not a society saturated with antisemitism.”
Janis Straume: “However, the Ulmanis regime did not cultivate a national enmity and antisemitism…”
It is interesting to take a look at what some non-Latvian historians have to say on precisely the same question.
Ian Kershaw: “When the German army came through the Baltic states at the beginning of operation Barbarossa, it had absolutely no difficulty in finding willing collaborators among the nationalists in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, who considered the Germans as liberators who delivered them from the yoke of the Soviet domination. Tens of thousands citizens from these countries had been deported by the Soviets to the Gulag during the annexation. The repression by the Soviets had reached entire communities. Among the Soviet administrators and police there were relatively many Jews. Many in the Baltic states were ready to believe that the Jews and bolshevism were not to be differentiated, and that the Jews were responsible for the suffering that the Soviets had caused (…) The Germans and their collaborators could stir up Jew-hatred among extreme nationalists without too much difficulty.”
The author of one of the most important works on the Einsatzgruppen, Michaël Prazan, unfortunately only available in French, is also in full agreement with that opinion: “If the Balts threw themselves immediately in the most active collaboration with the German occupier, mainly by furnishing a repressive and police apparatus, as well as the core of killer battalions as far as the genocide of the Jews is concerned, it is because the dream of independence supported by the nationalist groups could be attained in that new partnership with the Third Reich (…) further because the Baltic elites had been eradicated by the Soviet occupation. (…) By systematically exterminating the local elites, the NKVD knew quite well what it did. By removing, in a few dozens of convoys, everything that the Balts – traditionally peasants and oppressed – had been able to produce of well-read persons, bearers of the ideology of the enlightenment (but contrary to what happened in Occident, staying in touch with the peasant masses), these peoples were sent back to square one and they were left disoriented. This tabula rasa could only – confronted by an entirely new and incomprehensible world for them – lead to the disappearance of values and the upsurge of barbarism.” And: “Thus, when the Germans came, they availed themselves of the anti-Jewish hatreds aroused by the deportations of the NKVD. Stahlecker, at the head of Einsatzgruppe A wrote on this matter: ‘When the Lithuanian and Latvian forces were incorporated to the executive units [the Einsatzgruppen units], the first to be chosen were those who had had members of their family or parents killed or deported to Russia.’”
It is perhaps interesting, as a pure historical comparison, to see how the peoples of Western Europe reacted to the German orders of eradication of the Jews in their countries. The Jews of Western Europe were arrested, detained and transported mainly to Auschwitz-Birkenau to be gassed or to be kept alive as slaves. There were no pogroms, nor public beatings of Jews, by any inhabitants of the Western European countries. One of the only known acts of violence against the Jews took place in Antwerp/Belgium on Good Friday, April 14, 1941, when about 200 Flemish collaborators took to the street, demolished dozens of Jewish-owned shops, then went to a synagogue which was desecrated and later put on fire.
The Belgian Queen Elisabeth intervened with the German military authorities [she was of German descent], begging them not to deport the “Belgian” Jews. A request that was not altogether kept by the local German authorities. In the Netherlands, there had been mass strikes by workers on February 25-26, 1941, in Amsterdam, Haarlem and other cities, to protest against the persecution of the Jews. These protests were brought down in a bloody manner with 9 dead and 24 wounded, the cities had to pay heavy fines and, later, the SD sought to identify the leaders of these strikes. In Denmark, there were also actions of protest and solidarity with the Jews when the SD authorities decided to track down and deport them from Denmark, in September 1943. We know that the largest part of the Jews from Denmark were sent and hidden in Sweden with the active help of Danish citizens.
Contrary to what happened in the Baltic states, in Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Poland and in the territories of USSR occupied by the German army, where the whole extermination and genocidal process was carried out in plain view of the local non-Jewish inhabitants, in Western Europe the Holocaust was veiled in secrecy, arrests and deportations being made in the night or remote from urban curiosity. And there were no ghettos and no public killings of Jews.
On the other hand, the war in the East was a war of ultimate extermination of the Slavs, and immediate annihilation of the Jews and the Communists. These territories were intended to become mere colonies led by the Germans and other especially selected nations. Was it not Hitler himself who during a table conversation in the evening of July 27, 1941, declared “In the Baltic states, we shall if possible let some Hollanders, Norwegians and – by means of individual agreements –, some Swedes, establish themselves as colonists.”
This recognition of the participation of Latvians in the genocide of the Jews of Latvia and other Jews who were deported in the country later on to be killed in the country, received a late official nod at the end of November 2015, for when, for the first time ever, officials of the Latvian Government went to the Rumbula Memorial in order to honor the victims of the Holocaust. In the addresses, mention was made of the involvement of Latvians in the slaying of the Jews: “At the end of November 2015, the new president of Latvia, Raimonds Vējonis, participated in a solemn meeting at Rumbula where he, unlike his predecessors, publicly admitted that the terrible actions during the Nazi occupation of Latvia were aided, in part, by the participation of Latvian collaborators.” Does this portend an important change in the official Latvian position about the participation of Latvians in the Holocaust?
But we have to keep in mind one important factor. Everyone in Latvia – and not only the henchmen, the Latvian killers – had been aware of what had happened to the Jewish population of Latvia as well as to what happened to the foreign Jews brought in the country to be imprisoned in ghettos or killed in front of the pits. Everything that happened to the Jews in Latvia had happened in full daylight, in view of the local inhabitants. No one during the war in Latvia, neither in the large cities, nor in the small towns of villages, could have said “Wir haben es nicht gewusst.” Everybody had known. Few had helped.
Formation of the Latvian SS Units
Even as late as the afternoon of 1 July 1942, Hitler retained his theory of the purity of blood and race as far as the soldiers of the Wehrmacht and the SS were concerned (on a strict operative viewpoint, the Waffen SS units depended logistically and strategically on the Wehrmacht): “Our people imposes only great damage to itself if it accepts half-breeds in the Wehrmacht, and then lets them reach a position of equality with the blood-pure Germans. We cannot accept the responsibility of putting more strain in our bloodstream with foreign elements …”
After the defeat of Stalingrad and the slow but steady attrition of the German troops on the Eastern front, Hitler decided that the time had come to relinquish his racial ideal of Waffen SS troops of pure Aryan descent.
“On 10 February 1943 the following directive was signed by Hitler: “I order the formation of a Latvian SS-Volunteer Legion. The size and kind of formation depends upon the number of available Latvian men.” (…) For political reasons, that is, to keep the population as calm as possible, the German authorities, under the direction of Reichskommissar Ostland, Hinrich Lohse, decided to conduct the call-up within the framework of the Reich’s compulsory labor service regulations.”
But, from a historical point of view it would be false to think that the active Latvian combat units fighting against the Soviet Army would have been restricted to the Waffen SS Legion now in formation. As the author points out in the same chapter there had been Latvian police combat battalions fighting on the Eastern front (for example the Zemgale Battalion left Riga on 22 October 1941). There had also been Schutzmannschaft units (the so-called Schuma, previously called Ordnungs Hilfspolizei) also active on the Eastern Front.
Of course, many young Latvians who joined the SS units on a voluntary basis as well as the ones who let themselves be drafted instead of joining the partisans’ units fighting against the Nazi troops inside Latvia, were led to believe that in doing so they would help preserving their country from reoccupation by the USSR. Because, after the defeat in Stalingrad in early 1943, the nightmare of the USSR finally winning the war became more plausible, all the more because the United states had become allied to Great Britain and the Soviet Union.
We know that there is a controversy to establish whether these young Latvians who became Waffen SS soldiers had or not been “volunteers.” M.K. Baltais, an unbiased Latvian source, writes “It is ironic that the Germans might have been able to obtain a legion entirely of volunteers had they been able to give the Latvians self-administration some political bait.”
But non-Latvian authors have sometimes a different view of the supposedly pure anti-Soviet ideal that led those young men to take up arms under the SS banner, as for example this German source in a book about the SS: “Furthermore, there was a widespread antisemitism in Latvia. Not a few Latvians – as well as Lithuanians and Ukrainians – had participated in the killing by bullets of the Jews or had had guard duties in extermination camps.”
Estimates vary but it is thought “that between 110,000 and 150,000 Latvians fought on the side of the Germans.” I may be wrong but I seem to remember from my previous visits in the Occupation Museum in Riga that I had read the figure of an equivalent number of Latvians who fought as partisans or in Soviet army units.
Thus the question may be asked, had there been a choice or had these Latvians been forced into these SS units?
All murders and killings of the Jews in Latvia took place in or near plain view or earshot of the local population be it in cities, towns or small rural villages. All adolescent and adult Latvians must have known that the German Army and the SS units, as well as the local Latvian collaborators, stood for the radical and complete extermination of the Jews, the Communists and the Roma. Most adult Latvians who did not collaborate were indifferent to the fate of the Jews. Straume quotes the figure of between 400 and 450 Jews having been helped by Latvians as well as the incredibly courageous Righteous of the Nations Jan Lipke, the well-known hero who, all by himself, helped and saved 57 Jews.
The men who volunteered or were conscripted into the Latvian SS divisions (the 15th and 19th) consciously accepted to fight under the military uniform of a military regime that exterminated human beings (their fellow citizens of many centuries’ standing) being considered not only as enemies but Untermenschen, to whom the death penalty was in every case applied without any due process. This was a choice in some sense, sometimes unconscious, to fight against the USSR. And, as a consequence, these men in German army uniforms became the enemies of the Allies of the USSR, that is in essence, of all democratic countries of Western Europe, all of them – with the exception of Great Britain – at that time under German occupation.
The occupation of Latvia by Germany was not lenient for the non-Jewish ethnic-majority Latvians either. Straume: “Already at the beginning of the war some 30,000 Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian workers were forcefully transported to Germany. Also, many young Latvian girls were transported but we don’t have much data about their fate. Later, some 60,000 more men were deported to Germany, for forced labor.”
As we have seen, one week prior to the invasion of Latvia by Germany about 15,000 men, women and children had been arrested by the NKVD and deported to unknown destinations in Siberia. The fact is that the Germans had been far more ferocious in pure arithmetic figures than the NKVD and the Soviet authorities. Now, with all the facts and figures on hand, would it still be – retrospectively – right to say that the Latvians who fought under German uniforms were right to do so? Had the German occupation of Latvia not been – between June 1941 and September 1944 – been harsher, more inhuman at that time than what the Soviets had done?
There had been a choice. The Latvians called up for service in the Waffen SS units could have fled, they could have joined partisans’ units and fought against German soldiers, against that army that had deported masses of their countrymen and women for forced labor, and against an occupying regime that had just committed genocide against their own fellow citizens of a certain ethnic background.
The first occupation of Latvia in 1940 in accordance with the secret clauses of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the subsequent mass deportations of 14 June 14 1941 by the Soviet Union, provoked a wave a hatred in the population towards everything smacking of Russia, that not only distorted their actual perspective at that time but also had a lasting perverting influence on the historical perspective. All the more because the second occupation of the country by the USSR was longer and had also a more dramatic impact on the national psyche. If at that time, in 1943 and 1944, it might have been thought morally arguable to join the enemy of one’s own enemy (the USSR), now 70 years after the end of World War II, we could perhaps expect from Latvia and the Latvians that they would have recognized that collaborating in the massacre of the Jewish citizens of their own country, that participating in a military alliance with the enemies of the United States, Great-Britain, France, China, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxemburg, Norway, Denmark, Canada, Australia, New-Zealand, was wrong, historically, humanely and morally.
This hatred of the USSR still lingers on and distorts the historical reality of what really happened during the war. It can be ascertained on two separate levels.
On 14 August 1998, the Russian-speaking Latvian resident V.M. Kononov was interrogated at the General Public Prosecution Office of the Republic of Latvia for crimes of war. His crime? On 27 May 27,1944, the group of partisans he led went to the village of Male Baty and killed 6 men and 3 women after a tribunal of his partisans’ unit had come to a sentence of death for these collaborators who, on 29 February 1944, had taken an active part in the killing of a group of Russian-led partisans resting in that village. Without going into details, let us remark that the accusation had been based on the fact that Kononov and his group of Communist partisans committed that crime as “a member of a foreign force” (the Soviet Armed Forces) that “had occupied Latvia.”The legal absurdity of such an accusation is that Latvia had been occupied by the Soviet Union “which at the time of the committing of the crimes was occupied by Germany!” This was based on the Declaration of the Latvian parliament of 22 August 1996 on the “Occupation of Latvia,” a purely Kafkaesque kind of accusation that one is likely to encounter only in the legal structures of today’s Baltic states!
We know that Latvia is not the only Baltic country that has accused Soviet-led and armed partisans of war crimes against innocent citizens. Lithuania has also proceeded in similar fashion against Jewish partisans and even against Holocaust survivors.
The Historical Level
The Latvians should now know that when the Soviet Union occupied Latvia for the first time in June 1940, this had been decided on the highest level between two bloodthirsty tyrants, Stalin and Hitler. Putting the blame on the occupier without blaming one of the architects of that military aggression is something that is known in psychology as a distortion of reality. But to occult reality is better for some ultranationalists’ view of their nation’s equilibrium than to recognize that one may have erred, that indeed all nations err in the course of their history.
Latvia, the Latvian historians and pseudo-historians (and very often the two combine in and the same person) explain or try to explain that these Latvian men who fought under the German uniforms only fought against the USSR and the Red Army. This is utter historical hogwash. We know from numerous accounts of war that the war in the East had been a war of extermination, a war of destruction of Slav inhabitants and culture, a savage, violent and inhuman war the like had only been known at the time of Genghis Kahn. The Waffen SS men, chiefly, fought as beasts without any moral inhibitions, without any moral or religious prohibitions or scruples. They killed men in uniform, civilians; men, women, children, elderly.They were mere human robots of Hitler and his demented racist ideas. The Nuremberg Trials of 1945/1946 judged that all branches of the SS, including the men fighting under the Waffen SS banner, had been members of a criminal organization. And rightly so, despite what the US Senate Commission later declared, exempting some units from the Baltic States from that accusation of criminal activity, and this, during the cold war with the shadow of McCarthy dominating official US policy in the spirit of “The enemies of our enemies are our friends, even if they were former SS men.” The mute silent victims – Jews and Russian civilians as well as murdered Soviet prisoners of war – have known what these SS men really were: barbaric purveyors of genocide.
A Personal Reflection
Yes there was a choice. One of my father’s uncles was beheaded by the Nazi thugs for having been a member of a partisan unit. He made the right choice according to principles of decency and morals. My own father hid for 18 months after having refused to go to Germany as a forced laborer and thus de facto supporter this hateful regime. He made the right choice. One of his cousins helped downed allied aviators to get back to Great Britain. He too made the right choice.
They are heroes. Not these despicable men who chose or accepted to fight for a Germany that had killed close to 100% of their Jewish neighbors and deported about 80,000 non-Jewish civilians for slave labor in Germany.
Forever shame on you, Latvian Waffen SS men!
- Unpunished Crimes – Latvia Under Three Occupations by the Latvian Relief Society Daugavas Vanagi Inc., published by Memento Daugavas Vanagi 2003 (Chapters: ‘Documents and Testimonies’, page 240/‘Structural Analysis of the Deportations of the 1940’s’, pages 97-104 written by Sindija Dimanta and Indulis Zālīte/‘Baltic Conscripts, Labourers and Refugees in Germany’, page 124-125 written by Mirdza Kate Baltais).
- 2. Латвия – Земля и Страна – Краткий обзор истории by Janis Straume, published by Nacionālais Apgāds 2007 (page 59/61-62, 61, 48).
- ‘Fateful Choices – Ten Decisions that Changed the World 1940-1941, by Ian Kershaw (French version).
- Hitlers Tafelgesprekken 1941-1944 (in Dutch, ‘Hitler’s Table Conversations’), originally by Gerhard Schreiber. All table conversations of Hitler during the war were noted and transcribed. This book is a fountain of information, almost as important as ‘Mein Kampf’ as it reflects what the Führer had to say on a matter of wide-ranging topics, including cultural topics (e.g. pp. 10, 25, 5).
- To Hell and Back by Ian Kershaw (version in Dutch).
- Report by Einsatzgruppe A in the Baltic Countries – October 15, 1941: Source Internet.
- La Destruction des Juifs d’Europe (The Destruction of the Jews in Europe) by Raul Hilberg, French version (Chapter ‘Mobile killing operations’).
- La Solution Finale dans l’Histoire’ (The Final Solution in History), by Arno Meyer, a native of Luxemburg, professor of European History at Princetown University.
- L’Extermination des Juifs en Lettonie 1941-1945 (‘The Extermination of the Jews in Latvia 1941-1945’), conferences’ cycle, director of publication Rabbi Menachem Barkahan, in the chapter entitled ‘The Holocaust in Latgale’ by Iossif Rotchko
- Jewish Latvia : Sites to Remember – Latvian Jewish Communities Destroyed in the Holocaust by Meyer Meler, published by the Association of Latvian and Estonian Jews in Israel, Tel-Aviv 2013.
- The Holocaust in Latvia 1941 – 1944 by Andrew Ezergailis.
- Einsatzgruppen by Michaël Prazan, in French, (pp. 48/49, 48).
- Die SS – Eine Warnung der Geschichte (The SS – A Warning of History) by Guido Knopp (Chapter : Die Waffen-SS).
- Политика против истории – Дело партизана Кононов (‘Politics against History – the Case of Partisan Kononov’, published by Вече, Moscow in 2011 with a collective of writers and historians
- DefendingHistory.com. Numerous articles in the past on the repression by State judiciary and police authorities of mainly Jewish partisans accused in some Baltic States of crimes against civilians during WWII (see esp. the page Blaming the Victims). Only in the Baltic states were such accusations pursued by authorities.