The Volunteer SS Legion in Latvia. By Inesis Feldmanis and Kārlis Kangeris

02.12.2014. 19:09

The Russian Foreign Ministry's Department of Information and Press Relations, on February 13, 2004, disseminated a memorandum that was called "Involvement of the Lettish SS Legion in War Crimes in 1941-1945 and the Attempts to Revise the Verdict of the Nuremberg Tribunal in Latvia". This memorandum was nothing more than a fierce propaganda attack against the Latvian state, its institutions and the Latvian historians who have been researching history and teaching others about it. How pitiful it is that the Russian Federation, which is considered to be a modern and democratic country, has returned to the "traditions" of Soviet history. That was a time when the truth made no difference at all, but great emphasis was given to various claims that could never be checked by anyone else.

To the memorandum the ministry has attached ten different documents, four of which have supposedly been taken from the archives of the Federal Security Service (the archival numbers of the documents are not shown). The last document, the 10th, is one which is most familiar to historians. It has to do with the 1943 events in Warsaw, when the Jewish ghetto was liquidated. That was an event which had nothing whatsoever to do with Latvians. In the memorandum itself, too, the ministry makes false claims and makes reference to very questionable sources. One example - the ministry has presented an enormously exaggerated statement with respect to the number of people who fell victim to the German Nazis when they occupied Latvia. The memo says that 101,100 "Soviet citizens" were killed at a camp in Salaspils and that 313,798 civilians and 330,032 Soviet war captives were slaughtered in Latvia as such. These are absolutely ridiculous numbers which the ministry has plucked from the clear blue sky. They have nothing to do with serious historical research.

The ministry's memorandum is yet another attempt to describe the history of Latvia, and particularly of the Latvian Legion, as an issue of "national chauvinism" and "collaborationism". The document speaks to the emergence of pro-Fascist organisations which supposedly emerged after World War I. It says that the "Aizsargi" (Home Guard) organisation appeared and helped the leader of the Latvian Farmers Union, Kārlis Ulmanis, to stage his coup on May 15, 1934. In the late 1930s, according to the authors of this document, the Home Guard, members of the Pērkoņkrusts (Cross of Thunder) organisation and other nationalists began to collaborate with Germany, which in June 1941 led them to be active participants in the destruction of the Latvian Jewish community. Later, claims the Foreign Ministry, Latvian police battalions became involved in the slaughter of civilians, as did Waffen-SS units of Latvians.

These are claims that were made in the 1960s by Soviet propagandists, and today the Department of Information and Press Relations of the Russian Federation's Foreign Ministry is still trying to accuse the entire Latvian Legion of war crimes. The method that the ministry uses is absolutely unacceptable and absurd. The institution should instead be focusing on the need to improve the process of historical research in its own country. What about the millions of Soviet citizens who served in the so-called Eastern legions of the Nazi German military - the Ostlegionen? How about those who served in the "Russian liberation army" of General Andrei Vlasov and in other German military units? Latvia's residents are perfectly capable of understanding and evaluating their own history.

Latvian historians have researched the establishment of the volunteer Latvian SS legion and its operations, and they are able to produce an absolutely convincing rejection of the claims that are made in this process of disinformation about the participation of Latvians in the German military units during the Nazi occupation. There is absolutely no reason to claim that there were any direct links between the Latvian Legion, which was established only at the beginning of 1943, and the war crimes that were previously committed by military or paramilitary organisations. The propaganda that is being waged against Latvia seeks to establish links between self-defence units, police battalions and the Latvian Legion, but the bottom line is that these links are absolutely false. Latvian soldiers did not take part in any slaughter of civilians, they fought against the military of the Soviet Union and the Red Army which had only a few years earlier put an end to the country's independence, had killed and deported countless civilians and was threatening to re-occupy Latvia. There has never been a court case in which a member of the Latvian Legion has been accused of war crimes that have been committed in the context of the Legion.

The Latvian Legion was established approximately one year after the last mass murder of Jews in Latvia. At the very end of World War II, people who had committed war crimes joined the Nazi Party and the security services (Sicherheitsdienst) of the SS, but that does not mean that the entire Latvian Legion was a criminal organisation. No community can be judged on the basis of what individuals have done.

The Nuremberg military tribunal issued a ruling on October 1, 1946, in which it produced quite a precise list of those people who could be seen as members of the criminal SS organisation. The tribunal said that exceptions could be made with respect to those who were mobilised through force (as was the case of a majority of Latvians - authors), provided that these people had not committed any war crimes (see Document 1).

If we were to accept the "logic" of the Russian Federation's Foreign Ministry and the propagandists of the Soviet period, then we could certainly say that the Red Army participated in the mass murder of Jews during World War II, because in 1944 and 1945 the Red Army included thousands of Latvian Legionnaires who had been captured.

At the beginning of World War II, for nearly 22 months, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was an ally of Nazi Germany. Together with it and individually, the Soviet Union committed massive war crimes and fought against peace and humanity. Still, it became the ally of the democratic powers of the world - Great Britain and the United States. The Latvian Legion fought against the Soviet Union not because it was fighting against the whole anti-Hitler coalition. Legionnaires were positive about the big powers of the West and hoped that they would help in restoring Latvia's independence. That was an historical illusion, however. The western powers bowed before Stalin's pressure and did not object to the fact that the Baltic States were left under the occupation of the Soviet Union. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, it turned out, were the only occupied European countries which did not see a restoration of their independence after the war.

The history of the Latvian Legion simply has to be evaluated in the context of what happened in the countries which the Nazis occupied and governed when military structures were set up and put to work. An historically justified view allows us to emphasise the specific situation which Latvia had to face, and there are extensive opportunities for comparison. The Latvian Legion was absolutely no exception in Europe. At the very beginning of World War II, volunteers from "Germanic" countries such as Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden and Belgium joined the Waffen-SS of the Nazis. In the latter years of the war, the SS gradually lost its elite nature and instead of being the "guards of the Führer", it became a multi-ethnic army instead. As Germany's military situation began to deteriorate, as massive numbers of people died and as a crisis emerged in the "Germanic" volunteer movement, the SS leadership were forced to reject racist ideas and criteria so that they could also involve "non-Germanic" people in their units. French, Valonian, Ukrainian, Russian, Italian, Belarusian, Kazakh, Hungarian, Romanian, Croatian, Latvian, Estonian and other divisions or smaller military units began to appear.

A special phenomenon in the Waffen-SS was the fact that Islamic units began to appear - a unit from Eastern Turkey, a brigade from the Tatar mountains, companies and divisions from the Balkans, etc. In 1944, the Waffen-SS had more than 910,000 soldiers, among whom approximately 57% were not "proper Germans" from Germany. Of the 38 divisions that formed the SS army at the end of the war, none had exclusively German membership, and 19 were made up mostly of foreigners. Nearly every nation in Europe found its men involved.

In Latvia (and Estonia), the Legion was basically established because of direct mobilisation. Countless documents from the time make it clear (see Documents 2 and 3), as does a letter which, on July 24, 1943, the Soviet commissar for state security, Vsevolod Merkulov, wrote to the first secretary of the Latvian Communist (Bolshevik) Party, Jānis Kalnbērziņš.

We know that very few Latvians volunteered for the Latvian Legion, although we cannot state a specific number. The Nazis used the word "volunteer" very extensively so as to hide what they were actually doing. The fact is that the establishment of the Latvian Legion was a process during which the Germans frequently ignored international law and the Hague rules of land-based military activities. It was also important for the Nazis to engage in propaganda which suggested that in Latvia and the other countries of Eastern Europe, non-German military units were emerging "lawfully" and in a fully voluntary process. This allowed Hitler's men to uphold the myth that the Waffen-SS was a truly pan-European army, one in which half a million non-Germans were fighting to protect western culture against the attack of "Asian Bolshevism".

The nucleus of the Latvian Legion was made up of the 15th and 19th Division of the Waffen-SS. In order to find men for these divisions, the Germans ran five different mobilisation campaigns in Latvia between March 1943 and September 1944. The first, which lasted from March until August in 1943, provided 17,971 men for the Legion. The second (October and November 1943) and the third (December 1943 and January 1944) produced another 12,000 soldiers or so. In February 1944, the Baltic territories were "assigned" to Heinrich Himmler as a "reserve supply of men for the SS legions", and only he had the right to inspect men and to draft them into the military units.

The Latvian Legion was established at a time when the Germans were no longer seen as "liberators". As the Latvian author Zigmunds Skujiņš, who was an eyewitness to the events, has put it picturesquely but quite precisely: "The time that was spent in the talons of the Reich's eagle had turned the honey of hope into dregs." The German who commanded the Latvian Security Police and other security services, SS Obersturmbahnführer Rudolf Lange, also reported that there was increasing hostility against the Germans among the Latvian public ("Bericht des Kommandeurs der Sicherheitspolizei un des SD Lettland, 1 August 1943, Bundesarchiv - Berlin, R90/115).

Despite this situation, many Latvians felt that the mobilisation of young men into the Legion was quite acceptable, given the specific historical circumstances which existed. Latvia was threatened by a second Soviet occupation, which would bring with it new terror and destruction of local residents. Others joined the Legion because they had made peace with their fate, and they were ready to subject themselves to the hypnosis that is created by any fierce power structure. In psychological terms, this is easily understandable. Anyone who rises up against fierce power faces immediate hopelessness, while subordination to the power structure seemingly allows one to survive and protect oneself, at least for a while (see Documents 4 and 5).

The fact that the Latvian Legion fought on the side of the Germans makes it clear that there was collaboration, that there was co-operation with the German occupying powers. The situation emerged largely, however, because of the aggressive and criminal policies of the Soviet Union in the Baltic States in 1940 and 1941 and because of the results and psychological consequences of those policies. Co-operation was also fostered by the fact that Latvians were seeking the restoration of Latvia's independence, which had been lost during the Soviet occupation. Germany was an ally which was forced upon Latvia. During World War II, no country in the world, even a major power, could freely select its allies on the basis of ideology or morals alone. Otherwise the democratic countries (America, Great Britain) would never have allied themselves with the totalitarian Soviet Union. Immediate interests and their coming together in a specific period of time - that is what determined the formation of coalitions.

Comparative historical research shows that an important motivation for Latvians, as well as other European peoples, in joining together with Germany was "the crusade against Bolshevism". Latvian Legionnaires, however, were dissimilar to German volunteers in that they never fought for the Nazi ideology or the "new Europe" that the Germans were promising. They were not the Führer's "political foot soldiers". They never believed that National Socialism could be the ideology of the future. The Latvian Legionnaires wanted nothing to do with Germany's ideological or military goals. The Germans were needed as allies in the fight against the detested Soviet Union.

It is difficult to imagine that the Latvian Legion would ever have been created had there not been the terrible year of Soviet occupation, a process which ensured bitter hatred against the USSR among may Latvians. The commander of the 15th Division, Oberführer Adolf Ax, noted this in one of his reports. On January 27, 1945, he wrote: "They are first and foremost Latvians. They want a sustainable Latvian nation state. Forced to choose between Germany and Russia, they have chosen Germany, because they seek co-operation with western civilization. The rule of the Germans seems to them to be the lesser two evils. Latvia's occupation deepened hatred of Russia. They consider the fight against Russia to be their national duty" (from Neulen, H.W. An deutscher Seite. Internationale Freiwillige von Wehrmacht und Waffen-SS. Munich, 1985, p. 294).

Many Latvian soldiers thought of the Latvian Legion as the nucleus for a future Latvian army, and they firmly believed that the battle against the Soviet Union was also a battle for the restoration of Latvia's independence. In letters to their loved ones, the Legionnaires made this very clear. Reports from postal censors make it clear that in letters that were sent by soldiers from the 15th Division, there was one thought that was expressed quite frequently - that the "negative goal" of the battle (protection against Bolshevism) had to be accompanied by a "positive goal" (Latvia's restored autonomy).

As the front lies drew closer to Latvia's frontiers in the summer of 1944, however, these demands were pushed aside, because the main focus was on the immediate threat that was faced by the fatherland (15. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (lettische Nr. 1). Tätigkeitsbericht für die Zeit vom Aprill bis 18. Juli 1944, Bundesarchiv - Militärarchiv Freiburg, RS 3-15, S.22).

Several documents of German origin tell us that the Latvian Legion units which were trained in Latvia were quite distinctly anti-German in their mood (see Document 6). In some instances officers went so far as to discuss the possibility of having to protect Latvia against the Germans, too. This is information that was filed by Rudolf Lange on August 1, 1943. The director of the Reichskommisariat's "Ostland" Political Division, Friedrich Trampedach, on October 26 sent an extract from the Lange report to the minister for occupied eastern territories, Alfred Rosenberg, adding the question of whether the existence of the Latvian Legion provided sufficient grounds for making a decision on Latvia's autonomy (Reihskommissar für das Ostland. Abteilung I: Politik. An den Reichsminister für die besetzten Ostgebiete, 26. Oktober 1943, Bundesarchiv - Berlin, R 90 –2).

It must also be said that the Latvian and Estonian Waffen-SS divisions cannot be compared to the German Waffen-SS units. The Latvian Legion's attachment to the SS was strictly a formality. Latvian soldiers were not members of the Nazi party or of the SS organisation. On September 1, 1950, the American Displaced Persons Commission stated very clearly that "the Waffen-SS units of the Baltic States (the Baltic Legions) are to be seen as units that stood apart and were different from the German SS in terms of goals, ideologies, operations and constitution, and the Commission does not, therefore, consider them to be a movement that is hostile to the government of the United States (a letter from a member of the Displaced Persons Commission, Harry Rosenfield, to Latvia's authorised charge d'affaires in Washington, Jūlijs Feldmanis, 12 September 1950, quoted in Latviešu leģions. Varoņi, nacisti vai upuri? No Amerikas Savienoto Valstu Nacionālā arhīva kara noziegumu izmeklēšanas materiāliem 1945.-1950 (The Latvian Legion: Heroes, Nazis or Victims: War crime investigation materials from the National Archives of the United States of America, 1945-1950), Rīga, 1988, 103 pp.).

It is possible that the American government had taken a fundamental decision about the non-Nazi nature of the Latvian and Estonian SS divisions even earlier. This is suggested by an interesting episode in post-war European history. Between the summer of 1946 and 1949, Latvian soldiers from the Latvian Legion, along with Estonians, Lithuanians and men of other nationalities, served as guards, under American leadership, of the Nazi war crimes trials that have become known as the Nuremberg Trials.


Document 1

From a ruling of the International Military Tribunal, October 1, 1946 (unofficial translation): "The Tribunal declares as criminal (..) any group consisting of persons who were officially admitted as SS members and who (..) became or remained members of this organisation while knowing that the organisation was being used for purposes that are qualified as criminal in nature (..) or those individuals who, as members of this organisation, personally participated in the commission of crimes, excepting, however, those persons who were involved in the aforementioned organisation by state organs of power (..) in a manner that left them with no other opportunity, as well as those persons who have not participated (..) in crimes." (Приговор Международого Военного Трибунала //Нюрнбергский процесс .- Москва , 1961, Т.VII , c.427.)

Document 2

An extract from a letter which the People's Commissar for the State Security of the USSR, Vsevolod Merkulov, to the first secretary of the Latvian Communist (Bolshevik) Party, Jānis Kalnbērziņš, July 24 1943 (unofficial translation): "The Germans began to establish the "Legion" at the end of February 1943. It was formally announced that the Legion was being established on the principle of volunteers, but in fact the Legion was formed through forced mobilisation of men from certain age groups. In late February and early March 1943, men born between 1919 and 1924 received letters at their place of residents in which they were ordered to appear at police headquarters. There, they had to fill out information cards and be inspected by a medical commission. (..) Mobilised individuals were enlisted, according to their own wishes, either in the Latvian Legion or in the service divisions of the German armies, or they were sent to build defence constructions. The advantages of the "Legion" in terms of material supplies were the reason why the majority of the mobilised men decided to enlist in the "Legion", as opposed to the service divisions of the German armies and the work on defence constructions. On March 28 of this year, the "Legionnaires" took this oath in Rīga: "In the name of God I promise solemnly in the struggle against the Bolshevism an unlimited obedience to the supreme commander of the German military forces, Adolf Hitler; and as a brave soldier, I will always be ready to give my life for this oath." (Latviešu leģions. Varoņi, nacisti vai upuri? No Amerikas Savienoto Valstu Nacionālā arhīva kara noziegumu izmeklēšanas materiāliem 1945.-1950 (The Latvian Legion: Heroes, Nazis or Victims? War crime investigation materials from the National Archives of the United States of America, 1945-1950), Rīga, 1998, pp. 109, 110.).

Document 3

An excerpt from an interoffice memorandum written by the Coordinator for Europe, US Displaced Persons Commission, Robert J. Corkern, on November 28, 1950: "Policy of the Commission has been to consider either voluntary or involuntary membership in the Waffen SS, except in the Baltic Waffen-SS, as a bar per se under Section 13. In the case of the Baltic Waffen-SS units, it received evidence showing membership in these units was due to conscription, a method by the Hitler regime, and that members of the Baltic SS were impressed for the most part for actual fighting on the eastern front. After very careful consideration, the Commission finally decided that the Baltic Waffen-SS units were not a hostile movement within Section 13 of the Act, and membership in these units was not a bar per se." (In "The Latvian Legion: Heroes, Nazis or Victims? A collection of documents from OSS War-Crimes investigation files, 1945-1950", Riga, 1997, 95 pp.).

Document 4

The punishment for draft evasion: "At a time when each true Latvian man who can carry a weapon is standing guard over his fatherland, three strong young men have chosen a different route, and they have finally ended up in the dock. Last week the Special War Tribunal of the General Inspectorate of the Latvian SS Volunteer Legion heard evidence against Edgars Vilciņš, Osvalds Streļķis and Jānis Vilciņš. All three of them agreed together on avoiding military service, and from 1943 they had lived in hiding until August 22 of this year, when they were detained. (..) The Special War Tribunal sentenced 26 year old Edgars Vilciņš and 23 year old Osvalds Streļķis to 15 years of hard labour with all of the consequences that are set out in the law. Jānis Vilciņš, who is less than 18 years old, was sentenced to one year of imprisonment. In announcing the sentence, the presiding justice said that the defendants had committed a very serious crime against their fatherland but that they received such light sentences because they had a faultless history and had openly admitted to their crimes. Jānis Vilciņš is not even 18 years old and bitterly regrets his crime. This time the court took mitigating circumstances into account, but that is the only reason why the defendants have not been punished more severely. We must seriously warn our young men, those who do not want to be real men and respect their honour as Latvians during this time of severe difficulty for the fatherland. The fiercest laws of the time of war will always be turned against them" (Tēvija, 20 September 1944).

Document 5

An excerpt that was sent by the SS Gruppenführer Gottlob Berger to the SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler on June 13, 1944: "A discussion with SS Gruppenführer Bangerskis (the inspector general of the Latvian Legion - authors). Agreement was reached that the new mobilisation programme must be well prepared and that any desertion or failure to appear is to be treated most strictly, arresting deserters and shooting them within 48 hours' time". (Schreiben des Chefs des SS Hauptamtees an Reichfürer SS vom 13. Juni 1944 , Bundesarchiv - Berlin, NS19/1506).

Document 6

An excerpt from a report issued by the commander of the Latvian Security Police and security services, SS Obersturmbahnführer Rudolf Lange on 1 August 1943: "It is very obvious that the members of the Latvian brigade who are on the front lines are more supportive of co-operation with the Germans, because of their common experiences on the front lines, but those Latvian military units that are still being trained at home, particularly in terms of the officer corps, increasingly are demonstrating a crassly nationalist mood and a denial of all that is German. The officer corps apparently is under the increasing influence of chauvinistic circles. This is manifested through an increasing lack of discipline and expressions that are hostile to Germans in the armed forces". (Bericht des Kommandeurs der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD Lettland, 1.August 1943, Bundesarchiv - Berlin, R90/115.)