Address of Artis Pabriks, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Latvia, to the Conference "Coming to terms with history: Building mutual confidence and cooperation in the Baltic Sea Region", at the National Museum in Copenhagen, 28 April 2005

28.04.2005. 14:54

Ladies and Gentlemen,

On the 8th of May 1945, the Allies put an end to the most tragic war in the history of mankind.  Currently this event, which influenced directly the lives of every European during the past sixty years, is being remembered in the capitals of Europe.

On the 8th of May 1945, as the myth of the thousand-year Reich came crashing down, Europe – also the world – came to be divided into the winners and the losers. Though this observation is true, it is an oversimplification. 

Let us, therefore, ask ourselves the following questions:

From today's point of view, can the results of World War II be depicted only in black or white?

Are we able to identify clearly enough who was a winner and who was a loser in this war?

I believe that when Germany's National Socialism was crushed everyone was a winner – both those who produced the victory and those who were defeated. The most important benefit was that after May 1945 Europe underwent a fundamental change. Furthermore, this war ended the tradition begun by the Peace of Westphalia.

National Socialism was vanquished. Having liberated themselves from this ideology, the German people became beneficiaries. Germany could, henceforth, develop into a democratic state and earn the respect of its neighbours – in other words, to become the Germany that we know today. 

How did the USSR make use of its laurel wreath of victory? Looking at Germany and the Soviet Union in 1991, could anyone without knowing earlier history be able to identify correctly which country had won the war and which country had been beaten?

Countries and nations of Central and Eastern Europe, the three Baltic States, and also the captive nations of the Soviet Union had liberated themselves from the brutal and inhuman occupation by Nazi Germany.  They were on the winner's side.  And yet, the question arises: were the subsequent fifty years that these countries and peoples spent under the Soviet yoke a benefit or a loss?

What can we conclude from all this? From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, it is not possible to form an adequate impression of World War II and its results by using the "winner-loser" formula. We must also utilize the experience and insights that have been gained after the war.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Next week 60 years will have passed since the end of the Nazi German occupation of Denmark. Although the experience of war in Denmark and Latvia differed, we can also see some surprising similarities:

Both Denmark and Latvia had declared that they are neutral states.

Both countries had signed agreements promoting security with the countries that turned out be aggressors.

The governments of both Denmark and Latvia were confronted with the harrowing decision of whether to save one's face and honour by ordering military resistance against the occupation forces or to act prudently, with full awareness of the country's geography, its military capacity, and the eventual consequences; both governments took the second option.

Facing foreign aggression, both Denmark and Latvia made the painful discovery that their allies and partners showed no interest in their plight.

Denmark's policy of military neutrality probably is one of the reasons why Sir Winston Churchill is said to have depicted Denmark under foreign occupation as "the sadistic murderer's canary." Latvia might have been described similarly, in spite of the different breed of its sadistic murderer. [1]

How did we differ? 

The differences can best be appreciated when it is understood that the situations of both Denmark and Latvia could have been identical if before its occupation by Nazi Germany, Denmark had been a part of the USSR for one year.

When the Germans invaded, Latvia had already lost its statehood.

There was no government in Latvia which could decide whether to resist or collaborate with the occupation forces.

I say this because in my opinion the experience of the Danes makes it easier for them to understand the fate of the people of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. It is quite possible that precisely on account of this experience Denmark has been one of the most active supporters of the restoration of the independence of the three Baltic States.  

If there is anything that history teaches us, it is the following: in order to strengthen democracy and tolerance in Europe, every nation, large or small, must be capable of assessing honestly and without reservation the dark spots of its own history. This must become a part of the code of conduct of every European state. This is not a whim, but a question of Europe's security in the twenty-first century. It is the road to an integrated and democratic society. When we reassess our own history, we are able to hear better our neighbour's arguments and views. We try to understand each other. All this, in turn, serves to build confidence among states and nations.

Two years ago the European Union adopted its Security Strategy.  It was a necessary, but also a somewhat belated response to the acts of terrorism in the United States on September 11.

Security threats are a changing notion and quantity. As shown by the current developments in the Near East, there is interaction between various types of threats. International terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, organized crimes, failed states, and regional conflicts grow best in an undemocratic, closed setting. The reassessment of one's past is clearly a way to strengthen democracy and open up a society.

The way in which a state deals with the controversial aspects of its history demonstrates clearly the maturity of its society and the level of its democracy.  Thus, a less open and a less democratic state is less willing to publicly evaluate the tragic pages of its history.  As a rule, problem states or dictatorships do not re-evaluate their history. Usually they utilize propagandistic myths and methods to validate their own existence.

What should be the reaction of countries that have chosen the path of democracy? How should those countries react that are targeted with these myths and propaganda?

Latvia must frequently face lies and myths about history that were fabricated long ago by Soviet propaganda. 

One of the classics is the myth about the Baltic states, like an obedient herd of sheep, voluntarily joining the USSR before World War II.  Everyone with even a limited knowledge of history knows that the Baltic States came to be a part of the USSR as a consequence of the criminal pact, dividing Eastern Europe into spheres of influence, that the emissaries of Hitler and Stalin concluded on August 23, 1939. 

Another example of Soviet disinformation is the myth that the Baltic States helped Nazi Germany during World War II.  This tale was fabricated and maintained so as to hide the Soviet crimes against the peoples of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Precisely for this reason, in the best traditions of Soviet propaganda, every year in March attention of the international public is drawn to the procession in Riga of the veterans who served in the Latvian legion of the Nazi German army. There is no shortage of information available about this topic. The government of Latvia does not support this event.  It is therefore regrettable to see the modest procession of white-haired veterans being presented by the propaganda machinery as the rebirth of Nazis in Latvia.  

I would like to draw your attention to the fact that the people of Latvia, having faced both Soviet and Nazi German occupations, expressed consistently, whenever possible, and throughout the entire Second World War their critical attitude toward the occupation regime of Nazi Germany.

Here are a few examples:

The embassies and diplomats of independent Latvia continued to function abroad during the years of Soviet and Nazi German occupation. On June 25, 1941 the Latvian Ambassador in Washington, Alfreds Bilmanis and the Latvian Ambassador in London, Karlis Zarins, issued a protest against the Nazi German occupation of Latvia. Latvia's official representatives abroad always emphasized that Latvia cannot accept either a Soviet or a Nazi occupation. The Western Allies were asked repeatedly to restore Latvia's independence and sovereignty after the war in accordance with the principles of the Atlantic Charter. 

Two years before the end of World War II, the political parties represented in the parliament of independent Latvia created the Latvian Central Council. The council led the resistance movement and worked for the goal of renewing an independent Latvia.

With the support of the American, British and Swedish governments, this Latvian resistance organization arranged boat transport to Sweden for more than 5000 civilians living in occupied Latvia. By working together with the Western Allies and by providing them information about the activities of both occupation regimes in Latvia, the Latvian resistance demonstrated its allegiance to the West.  

Upon receiving news of Latvia's incorporation in the USSR in August 1940, Latvia's merchant marine abroad disobeyed the Soviet command to return to Latvia and continued to function under the flag of independent Latvia.  Like the majority of Danish transport ships, the Latvian ships also took an active part in the transportation of materiel for the Allies.  This was the free choice of Latvian citizens living in freedom.

Another classic Soviet myth that has been resuscitated recently is the one that emphasizes the tremendous investment of the Soviet Union into the growth of the living standard in Eastern and Central Europe after World War II.  We know very well what kind of a living standard that was. Even this claim was a lie and further humiliated those who had already lost their freedom.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Does the fact we are explaining the results of World War II have any bearing on contemporary international politics?  I would say, yes.  Another aspect of the discussion about those who won the war and those who were defeated shows the relevance: How a country sees itself against the backdrop of World War II largely explains also how that country perceives and accounts for the outcome of the Cold War.

The Cold War had no losers.

The beneficiaries were undoubtedly the Western democracies. Nonetheless, those who benefited the most were the captive nations of the Soviet Union and its satellite states. Latvians, Poles, Czechs, Russians, and other nations of the Soviet bloc – all of us gained the opportunity to shape our own lives and live in free, democratic and open states.  A different question, of course, is how each one of us has used the opportunities so far and how effectively the opportunities will be utilized in the future.  

The most tragic experiences of World War II have helped us to make the best use of the opportunities provided by the end of the Cold War.  One of the principal lessons that we have learned is that the democracy and the openness of a state ensure the support of partners and allies. This also applies to the reassessment of the dark spots of Latvian history.  

The international Commission of the Historians of Latvia was established on November 13, 1998 following the initiative of the President of Latvia at that time, Guntis Ulmanis. The Commission is tasked to promote research about Latvia during the Soviet and Nazi German occupations, make an impartial assessment and foster an understanding of these tragic years of the country's history. The analysis of historical processes, including the Holocaust on the territory of occupied Latvia, has been extremely complicated. In return, Latvia has received understanding, recognition and support not only from among Latvians, but also from international specialists and the society in general.

There are events in every country's past which one likes to recall over and over again. Such events help a nation feel its own identity and significance. One of the events that belongs in this category is the defeat of Nazi Germany at Stalingrad.  But there are other events about which it would be easier to keep silent. In the case of Latvia after it regained its independence one such topic was the Holocaust. Finding out what exactly had happened in Latvia was both painful and difficult.  Regrettably, there were also Latvians who were involved in the crimes.  In this category of events also belongs the Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 23, 1939, the division of Eastern Europe, the mass deportations of people from the Baltic States to Siberia, as well as the murder of Polish officers at Katyn and the Latvian officers in Latvia. 

I urge everyone to heed our example.  This is the way that European states, whether large or small, can promote the security of Europe in the twenty-first century and gain true respect. A country only shows its weakness if it cannot deal with the problems of its history in a civilized manner.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In less than a fortnight the people of Europe will be commemorating the victory in Europe over Nazi Germany and National Socialism.  Denmark will remember its liberation of May 5.  In Latvia and elsewhere in Europe, there will be observances on May 8.  Russia will mark the anniversary on May 9.

It does not really matter when this historic event is remembered.  What counts is that the people of Europe pay adequate homage to those who helped destroy National Socialism.  It is also important at these ceremonial events to separate the honouring of those who perished in the war from the attempts to preserve the ideological legacy of totalitarian regimes.

At the end of World War II, the Baltic States were in a peculiar situation: de facto, they simply did not exist.  Therefore, I must raise an issue that still attracts heightened attention among the media and society: the attitude of the Baltic States toward the commemorations in Moscow on May 9.  For obvious reasons, I shall only speak about Latvia.

The President of Latvia accepted the invitation of the President of the Russian Federation to participate in the festivities in Moscow.  This is very significant.  First of all, it is a gesture of goodwill toward Russia. Secondly, it shows clearly that Latvia is looking toward the future and wants good relations with Russia. Thirdly, it demonstrates that irreversible strategic changes have taken place since Latvia regained its independence.  Fourthly, Latvia is sufficiently strong and confident to retain its own views and be heard by others.

Latvia wants to develop new and dynamic relations with Russia that are based on trust and confidence. Working against the development of such relations is the persistent reappearance of Stalinist myths and Soviet propaganda methods.

Looking toward the future, we must realize that it is the task of every European nation to make its own special contribution to a safer and better Europe.  This contribution also comprises a reassessment of the nation's recent history.  This applies also to Russia.  Every partnership, every strategic partnership between the EU and a third country, is based on shared values and common interests. The reassessment of history leads to the securing of common values.  This is so, only if countries wish to live in harmony with the prevailing perception of Europe of the twenty-first century and with their own values.  

Today's view of what happened during and what resulted from World War II cannot be depicted only in black and white. The winners, who did not take advantage of the chances presented by the defeat of Nazi Germany, tended to be assigned the roles of losers, and vice versa.  Hitlerism was crushed.  But Stalinism, which is equally responsible for the beginning of World War II and the division of Poland, could continue to carry out its wicked policies unimpeded. History needs an impartial reassessment. It must be cleansed of myths, lies and propaganda fabricated by totalitarianism.  This is an issue of European security.  The re-evaluation of the dark spots of history builds confidence and promotes cooperation among states.   Every country, by following this path, can take full advantage of the opportunities emanating from the end of the Cold War.  A country demonstrates its weakness when it cannot deal with its own problems of history.  Let us keep this in mind when we honour those who fell in the war against the Nazi scourge.

 Thank you for your attention.

[1] These observations were made by Robin Reilly, The Sixth Floor, London: Cassell & Co., 2002, p. 16.