"The Latvian Legion: the Most Topical Research Problems" Lecture of Professor I. Feldmanis at the opening of the 7th volume of the Works of the International Committee of Historians

15.12.2015. 15:14

The Historians' Commission of Latvia, which was established in 1998, has considerably activated the research into the criminal policies of the German occupation rule in Latvia during the Second World War. Increased research efforts have been focused on the Holocaust and the repression system created by the Nazis; the scope of terror and repressions launched by the Nazis have been established with more accuracy. Historians of Latvia attribute particular attention to the issue of collaboration, emphasising that the collaboration of the Latvian population with the Nazi occupation rule was largely rooted in the first Soviet occupation of 1940-1941 and in the efforts to regain the national independence of Latvia that was lost during this occupation. The majority of the people of Latvia had remained loyal to the de facto annihilated State of Latvia.

A very important topic of research is the process of the transfer of authority in the territory of Latvia in the summer of 1941 after the German attack on the Soviet Union. One can come across different and controversial opinions on this topic in historical literature. Some historians consider that after the withdrawal of the Soviet troops in late June and early July 1941, a period of vacuum of authority ("interregnum") set in, during which Latvian self-defence men "executed Jews without Germans being present or knowing anything about it". Other historians on their turn believe that Germans were in control of the situation from the very outset and no lingering "interregnum" period ever existed. 

It is an important task for historians of Latvia to refute the rather widely spread misinformation regarding the participation of Latvians in units of the German troops during the Nazi occupation. There is no basis directly to connect the Latvian Legion (the voluntary Latvian SS legion) which began to develop in early 1943 with the crimes committed by the earlier established military or paramilitary units. The link: self-defence- police battalions- legion, created by propaganda unfriendly to Latvia, connect the blame with the membership and is not based on facts. Latvian soldiers did not take part in repressive operations. Not a single Latvian legionary has ever been tried in any court for war crimes committed in the context of the activities of the Legion. The Legion was formed a year after the last mass-scale murder of Jews in Latvia. If persons who had committed war crimes did filter into the legion from former structures subordinated to SD (Sicherheitsdienst, the security service of the Nazi Party and SS organisation) at the end of the war, it does not make the entire Legion a criminal unit. The sentence passed by Nuremberg War Tribunal on 1st October 1946, with sufficient precision has established the range of persons who qualify as members of the criminal SS organisation, making the exception for the forcibly mobilised (the absolute majority of Latvians fall into this category), provided they had not committed war crimes.

The formation and operation of the Latvian Legion should be viewed and assessed in the context of the existence and functioning of military formations in all Nazi-occupied and governed countries. Such approach is historically substantiated and opens vast possibilities for comparison.

It shows that the voluntary Latvian SS Legion was no exception in Europe. In the course of the Second World War the SS troops gradually lost their initially elite character and from "the Fuhrer's Guard" turned into "a multinational army". The aggravation of Germany's military position, heavy casualties as well as the crises in the volunteers' movement among the Germanic nations (Danes, Fleming, Dutch, Norwegians, Swedes, Swiss, etc,) forced the SS leadership to reject "the racist views and criteria" in the recruiting of the SS units and to accept also "non-Germanic" peoples. The SS troops took in divisions or smaller units of French, Valonians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Russians, Italians, Belarussians, Kazakhs, Serbs, Latvians, Estonians and other nations.

In Latvia (and Estonia) the formation of the Legion was largely a result of direct mobilisation. The real volunteers were relatively few. Their proportion did not exceed 15-20%. The consistent application of the adjective "voluntary" from the part of the German occupation rule, was a cunning manoeuvre intended to hide the fact that the mobilisation campaigns were illegal. The inclusion of Latvian military formations into the SS troops also was formal; the Latvian soldiers had no say in the matter. The Nazis simply decided that units to be recruited from the peoples of the occupied countries would become part of the Waffen SS. They needed "human resources" to delay the predictable and imminent military defeat.

The fighting of the Latvian Legion on the German side was related to collaboration. It contained an element of collaboration with the Nazi occupation rule. However, this collaboration was largely triggered by the aggressive and criminal policies of the Soviet Union in the Baltic in 1940-1941 and rooted in their results and socio-psychological consequences as well as in aspirations to regain the independence of Latvia lost as the result of the Soviet occupation. Germany was an ally dictated and forced upon Latvians by conditions. Nobody, not even the powers could choose their allies in the Second World War based on ideological considerations. Everything depended on interests of that or other party.

It is difficult to imagine how it would have been possible to establish the Latvian Legion had Latvia not been occupied and annexed in 1940 and its population subjected to ruthless terror and deportations.  The attitude of Latvian soldiers in the context of these events is well revealed in a report by the Commander of the 15th Division of the Waffen SS Ā.Akss. On 27th January 1945 he wrote: "They are Latvians above all! They want a sovereign nation state of Latvians. Forced to choose between Germany and Russia, they have chosen Germany [..], because they seek links with the Western civilisation. They find German over lordship the least evil of the two. The occupation of Latvia [..] deepened their hatred of Russia [..]. They regard fight against Russia their duty to the nation."

Latvian legionaries fought against the Soviet Union because they did not want to see it occupy the territory of Latvia again and terrorise and annihilate its people. Although the USSR was an ally of the United Kingdom and USA, it by no means was a fight against the entire anti-Hitler's coalition. Latvian soldiers were positively disposed towards the Western countries and laid on them great hopes regarding the restoration of Latvia's independence. However in the historical situation of that time it was merely an illusion. The Western countries yielded to the pressure of the USSR and did not object to Latvia and other Baltic States remaining part of the USSR. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia found themselves the only occupied states, whose independence was not restored after the Second World War. Only in 1991 it became possible to eliminate this historical injustice and the Baltic States regained their national independence.

Several documents of German origin attest to strong anti- German attitudes in the units of Latvian legionaries that were trained in Latvia. These attitudes went even so far that in officers' circles the need to defend Latvia against Germans as well, should the need to do so arise, was discussed. Many Latvian soldiers regarded the Legion as the kernel of the would-be national army of Latvia and linked their participation in the war against the USSR with the fight for the restoration of Latvia's independence. The views and attitudes of legionaries are clearly expressed in their letters home. As attested by reports of correspondence censors, letters of the soldiers of the 15th division often contained the idea that for them to go on fighting, besides "the negative goal: defence against Bolshevism", they needed a positive goal as well: the autonomy of Latvia.  In the summer of 1944 as the front approached the Latvian borders, this requirement, however has become of secondary importance as their primary concern was shifted to the direct threat posed to their fatherland. Latvian legionaries were forced to fight under very unfavourable conditions. The so-called  Latvian Self-Administration  had failed to achieve even autonomy for Latvia. Nevertheless, it took active part in the formation of the Legion. It was a grave political mistake. All power belonged to Germans. They were the ones that took all major decisions. No Latvian could really influence whether the recruitment in the Legion would or would not take place.

An important theme of the co-operation of Latvians and other European nations with Germany was "participation in the Crusade against Bolshevism". However, unlike the "German volunteers", Latvian legionaries did not fight for the National Socialist ideas and "the New Europe". They were not the Fuhrer's "political soldiers". The belief in National Socialism as the ideology of the future was complete alien to them.  Neither the ideological, nor the military goals of Germany appealed to the Latvian soldiers. Germany for them was an ally, needed to make the fight against Bolshevism possible.