Latvia in World War II

by Valdis O. Lūmans

Volume 11 of World War II, ISSN 1541-0293
Issue 11 of World War II—the global, human, and ethical dimension, ISSN 1541-0293
Fordham University Press, 2006.
ISBN 0823226271, 9780823226276

This is a condensed, unannotated version of myfull review

Scholars writing the history of their own peoples are routinely suspected of portraying prior generations and historical figures through rose-colored glasses, influenced as much by myth and legend as by fact. Lūmans’s journey to writing Latvia in World War II includes the dispelling of his parents’ idyllic vision of Latvia.

My own cultural initiation centered on weekend Latvian school—the heart of émigré life. I studied Latvian literature, geography, history; and participated in cultural events.

What I learned of the Latvian Legion was that Latvians had hoped to repeat the miracle of their still-fresh War of Independence, in which they drove out the Russians with German assistance, then the Germans, from their ancestral homeland. Indeed, against all odds, the Latvian Legion held out in Courland to the end of the war.

I acquired Lūmans’s text some years ago to fill in gaps in my knowledge of Latvia in WWII. My expectation was of history viewed through a lens of objectivity: meaning not originating in propaganda or blatantly apologist German scholars seeking to absolve Germans and blame the local population for the Holocaust. Regrettably, when the time came, I encountered a narrative of questionable objectivity and veracity in ascribing Latvian intentions, responsibilities, and culpabilities in the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Latvia.

Protagonists

My first quarrel with Lūmans is in his assessment of pre- and intra-war Latvia and the chief protagonists.

He denounces the Aizsargi (pre-war National Guard)—originally an execution of civic duty, and at the post-independence center of rural cultural life, as a band of “Latvian vigilantes” from the moment of their founding, no better than the Pērkonkrusts (Latvian fascist party). Lūmans also errs in describing the Aizsargi as the muscle behind Ulmanis’s coup. The reputed prominence of the Aizsargi grew out of subsequent propaganda, both on the part of the Ulmanis regime to emphasize popular support; later, on the part of the Soviet Union, labeling Ulmanis and all who supported him as fascists.

Lūmans does the same, word associating Ulmanis with Hitler: “In June 1936 Ulmanis decreed himself their highest leader, or Vadonis—a term that translates precisely as Führer.” Regardless of Ulmanis’s cult of personality, “vadonis” (Latvian for “leader” or “guide”) in “precise” meaning no more implies Hitlerite fascism than Illustrierter Führer durch Riga (1914) denotes an illustrated Nazi guide to Rīga. While Lūmans professes to eschew labels, he does not shy from name-calling himself.

Lūmans also contends Ulmanis and the Pēŗkonkrusts were mostly the same, other than in degree. He speculates Ulmanis outlawed them not for their extremism, but simply to eliminate competition for the sympathies of the political right.

In Lūmans’s narrative, the Pērkonkrusts rise again after the Nazi invasion, that their “bitterness over their persecution under the Soviets as well as their openly professed anti-Semitism converged in an orgy of violence” as Arājs Kommando. This is an utterly false Holocaust meme—Arājs’s own war crimes trial established that no more than three or four of his men were former Pērkonkrusts members.

Regarding the role of the Korporācijas—student and professional fraternities—in the killing of Jews, Holocaust scholar Andrew Ezergailis indicates the organization of Arājs Kommando proceeded more slowly than is typically portrayed, few Korporācijas members actually joined, and they were also the first to depart. Indeed, Ezergailis speculates that anti-Semitism aside, Korporācijas members were in no hurry to shoot Jews. As with Pērkonkrusts, Lūmans overstates the organizational role of Korporācijas in the Holocaust.

The Latvian Legion

However, Lūmans saves his deepest wrath for the Legion. He suggests at the outset of his discussion of the Legion that the Latvian military who returned to Latvia following the German occupation, including those who wound up in Legion command positions, were all committed “to the German cause.” As his own father, Olģerts, was a Legion member, I expected Lūmans to understand the Legionnaires’ sole objective was a free Latvia. They did not fight “with” or “for the Nazis.” Lūmans, however, depicts them as Hitlerite loyalists and indicts them in every way imaginable. Their defenders are “apologists.” He spuriously interjects Legionnaires were denied German citizenship in exchange for their service because they were not “genuine SS men”—as if Legionnaires were genuine allies of the Germans, denied their just reward. Regarding military court, Lūmans mocks the Latvians’ “dubious benefit” of pronouncing death sentences. (The Latvians instituted their own pre-war Latvian Army rules of military tribunal under their jurisdiction. This was crucial, as the “Legion Court” presided over cases including alleged criminal acts against conscription—an offense for which the Germans summarily shot individuals.)

Most tellingly, Lūmans invokes the overarching umbrella of Latvian guilt ostensibly nullifying any defense, regardless of facts, of the Legion: “Nevertheless, Latvians swore a personal oath to the Führer.” Lūmans invokes the swearing against the Legion as if it were a matter of choice. If someone is forcibly conscripted, their oath is offered under duress and irrelevant. If someone volunteers and swears an oath to obtain a rifle to exact revenge upon the power that murdered and ripped away to Siberia friends and family, their oath is irrelevant. Legionnaires wore their loyalty, a folded-up Latvian flag, under their uniforms.

Lūmans levels a litany of charges...

  1. German and Latvian Waffen-SS, their apologists all make the same excuse, that they were only “combat” units. Lūmans ignores that is a lie where the German Waffen-SS is concerned.
  2. The Latvian Legion was formed and consisted of Holocaust criminals. This is simply false. More than a few Latvians immediately volunteered to serve on the Eastern Front to pursue the Red Army, to insure the Soviets never returned. The Germans had disarmed the populace (under penalty of death) upon arrival—the only option for a rifle was a German one. It was these men already serving on the Eastern Front, not Holocaust perpetrators, who eventually formed the core of the Latvian Legion.
  3. Himmler defined all Latvian forces including collaborators as the “Latvian Legion.” In an earlier example, Himmler included concentration camp guards in the German Waffen-SS from the very start of Hitler’s extermination of the Jews. His “definition” is therefore not surprising. However, it is not reflective of the operational structure of Latvian SD collaborators versus Waffen-SS units. No one discussing the Latvian Legion today intends that term for anything other than the men serving in the Waffen-SS.
  4. Legionnaires were Soviet traitors. Lūmans correctly asserts that Soviet authorities considered all citizens of the pre-war Latvian Republic to be Soviet citizens (under Soviet law) following the annexation of Latvia. To fight against the USSR was treason in the eyes of the Kremlin. But for Lūmans to contemplate Legionnaires committed treason against the USSR is patently absurd. No special status was bestowed upon the USSR because it invaded first.
  5. Hitler’s mobilization of Latvians was illegal. True, but this has no bearing on whether the Legion or Legionnaires were criminal.

...culminating in a construct of guilt by convolution:

The fact that one could conceivably levy three separate indictments of criminality against the Legion and its members — association with the SS, treason against the Soviet Union, and violation of international law — impinges on yet another critical issue, the nature of service in the Legion. If on one hand its members were compelled to join, then one could argue that the charge of criminality against individual members cannot be sustained. If, on the other hand, the soldiers of the Legion joined on their own volition as volunteers, then the criminality charge could justifiably apply.

There is no criminality to be discerned here, only tendentious accusations of guilt by association, treason against the Soviet Union, and criminal volunteerism—if not conscripted—to insure Soviet occupiers never return.

Direct Citation of Propaganda

Lūmans’s treatment of Voldemārs Veiss is just one touchstone revealing a failure of scholarship.

Stahlecker, with the help of Rikards and others, also recruited local Latvians to do his bidding, some described as “savage Jew haters.” Among Stahlecker's local Latvian recruits were Lt.Col. Voldemars Veiss and Viktors Arajs. With Stahlecker's blessing, on July 1 Veiss quickly organized an auxiliary police unit of some 400 Latvians to seek out, apprehend and destroy the “enemy,” primarily communists and Jews. Although it is unclear whether he did so before or after his meeting with Stahlecker, on July 1 Veiss broadcast a call for Latvian volunteers over Riga radio to enlist with his “auxiliary police” and rid Latvia of traitors, including Soviet functionaries, communists, and Jews.

Aware of Plensners's and Deglavs's ties with the Wehrmacht, and probably suspicious of their intention to use the self-defense units as a step toward resurrecting a Latvian military, Stahlecker preempted their efforts on July 7 by placing [Voldemārs] Veiss in charge of organizing self-defense forces around Riga — under SS authority. Veiss and his sidekick, Lt. Col. Roberts Osis, formed these units as auxiliary police, similar to Arajs’s group. ... On [July 20] Stahlecker also ordered Veiss to create an additional armed formation of 500 men, named the Recruiting Reserve, divided into five companies that became the first Latvian “military” units in the war.

...

But before Veiss and his men commenced military activities, they participated in the "cleansing" operations in and around Riga, which included the shooting of communists, political enemies, and Jews. Veiss's subsequent accomplishments as an undeniably courageous, skillful, and popular combat officer cannot erase his earlier record as a killer working for the SS.

Addressing the facts:

  1. Veiss’s unit had no similarity to Arājs’s. As the Russians were still retreating, Veiss organized volunteers to pursue and intercept retreating Red Army. Veiss was appointed to head up an Ordnungs–Hilfspolizei Riga unit; the Hilfspolizei reported to Voldemārs Skaistlauks, a Latvian, under Rīga Commandant Wilhelm Ullersperger of the Wehrmacht. As Lūmans documents, Veiss’s unit shortly thereafter transitioned to act as a recruiting reserve, Rekrutierungsreserve, of some 500 men in five separate companies serving at the Eastern Front. Organizationally, Veiss’s unit transitioned to the Selbstschutz, later Schutzmannschaften—but was never involved in the Holocaust. At Vilis Hāzners’s deportation trial, a since-retired U.S. intelligence expert testified that Veiss’s “Annas Street headquarters had not been involved in any atrocities and was not connected with the Riga police headquarters.”
  2. Veiss had no mission to seek out, apprehend and destroy the “enemy,” primarily communists and Jews. Vilis Hāzners recounts his experience under Veiss in his memoir. Having just recovered from escaping Soviet incarceration as a result of the Soviet retreat, Hāzners went to find out in what manner he could assist in apprehending the retreating Red Army. He quickly tracked down his old army friend, Veiss, who was organizing volunteers. Veiss dispatched Hāzners, leading a group of about 200 men, to Mangaļsala, a suburb downriver from Rīga where the Red Army were attempting to escape west to east from Bolderāja across the Daugava river in small boats. Hāzners and his men simply waited until the Russians got close to the river bank, then surprised them, shouting “Hands up!”, had them toss their weapons into the river, and arrested them. Hāzners felt sorry for them, most were still teenagers—and he was thankful that not a single life was lost on either side. The “enemy” Veiss’s officers and men sought to apprehend were Soviet forces, not their fellow Latvian citizens.
  3. On July 1 Veiss did not broadcast a call for Latvian volunteers. Veiss’s alleged broadcast over Rīga radio calling for volunteers to “rid Latvia of traitors, including Soviet functionaries, communists, and Jews” took place only in Soviet propaganda. For his own instantiation of the bogus radio address accusation, Lūmans cites multiple sources, however, on further investigation, they consist of Soviet propaganda (Latviešu tautas cīņa Lielajā Tēvijas Karā (1941 -1945)—”The Struggle of the Latvian People in the Great Patriotic War”) which cites further Soviet propaganda as its source; Max Kaufmann—a survivor account but not accurate on general events; and two sources which make no mention of Veiss.
  4. “Subsequent accomplishments cannot erase Veiss’s record as a killer.” Lūmans’s erroneous condemnation of Veiss echoes the baseless accusation anti-Nazism activists invoke to denounce the annual Latvian Legion procession (“march”) and commemoration, that Latvians turn a blind eye to the war crimes of “so-called freedom fighters” because they battled against the Bolsheviks. No Latvian excuses war crimes.

I should mention Lūmans cites Latviešu tautas cīņa one hundred and seventy nine (179!) times.

Indirect Citation of Propaganda

An often-repeated theme of the Holocaust in occupied Latvia is that the Latvians were, as a people, passionately anti-Semitic, and thus among the most brutal, most enthusiastic, of Hitler’s executioners. This “portrait” is drawn in part from the “three truths” Freidrich Jeckeln is alleged to have uttered at his trial:

  • that Latvians killed a large, indeterminable number of Jews before the Germans arrived in Latvia;
  • that Latvians had more nerve for killing Jews than the Germans; and
  • that Jews were brought to Latvia from the West “because the Latvians had created the proper conditions for it.”

Trial records prove Jeckeln said not a word about the Latvians—his “statements” all originated in Daugavas Vanagi—Who Are They? Lūmans, however, perpetuates Jeckeln’s alleged characterizations via his sources:

Contrary to Stahlecker's laments that Latvians declined the roles of “willing executioners,”... [m]any contemporary witnesses as well as subsequent commentators confirm that Latvians did not wait for the Germans to appear before dealing with the Jews, but began their reprisals as soon as the Soviets withdrew. According to these testimonies vigilante-like bands, organized by the Latvians themselves, not by the Germans, had the bloody process well underway when the Germans arrived.

Jeckeln, who believed in leading by example, supervised the entire [Rumbula massacre] operation in person. He later applauded the participating Latvians for having “strong nerves for executions of this sort.”

“Latvia was a suitable place for murder.”

Rather than accept the report of the Nazi officer in charge, Lūmans prefers accounts which ultimately trace their origin to propaganda and hearsay.

Lūmans’s reliance on Gertrude Schneider is particularly problematic. Schneider's 1971 trip to Latvia marked the penetration of “Latvians are Nazis” propaganda into the mainstream. Showered by the KGB with Soviet-manufactured materials—books, brochures, and transcripts of fabricated show trials—purporting the U.S. had become a den of Latvian Nazi collaborators and Holocaust perpetrators, Schneider, herself a Holocaust survivor of the Rīga ghetto, returned home appalled and energized to root out the war criminals Soviet authorities had identified to her.

Schneider's gathering of Rīga ghetto memories formed the basis of her 1973 doctoral thesis: The Riga Ghetto, 1941–1943, in which she relied heavily upon on the propaganda she had received for accounts of the Holocaust at the ghetto gates and beyond. Daugavas Vanagi—Who Are They? featured prominently. Her subsequent Journey into Terror (1979) retained, even amplified, Ducmanis’s fabricated allegations present in her thesis; meanwhile, all but one of her citations to Daugavas Vanagi—Who Are They? were removed.

Ultimately, reliance on sources with an “agenda”

If an account paints Latvians in the worst possible light, it must be true:

Latvians assisted in the German effort to incite other Latvians to anti-Jewish action without much if any prodding from the Germans. As early as July 1941 the Riga press, controlled by Perkonkrusts members and sympathizers from the ultranationalistic camp, promoted hatred toward Jews in articles such as, “The Jew — Source of Our Destruction.” This and other equally vitriolic anti-Semitic diatribes associated the Jews with the Soviet reign of terror: “Because Jews had sought to destroy the Latvian nation, they could not be permitted to survive as a national or a cultural entity, and therefore all Jews would have to die.

The alleged quoted text, in Tēvija, the Nazi propaganda newspaper, actually reads:

“He [the Jew] will earn [his] bread in the same manner as have our laborers. The sins of the Jews are overly grievous: they wished to annihilate our nation, therefore they must die as a cultural nation.”

That is, Judaism can no longer exist as a culture; Jews must be assimilated into the secular working class. While grossly anti-Semitic, the passage does not call for their extermination. The text Lūmans presents as a quotation from the article is, instead, Gertrude Schneider’s falsified representation.

Nor was there a Latvian-controlled Rīga press. The notion Latvians were responsible for anything themselves was cornerstone of the Nazi narrative. A single-sided broadsheet, Brīvā zeme (Free Country) appeared July 1, 1941, the day the Germans occupied Rīga. Walter Stahlecker shut it down and published the four-page Tēvija (Fatherland)—that same day. The Nazis hired and fired Tēvija editors at will.

Finally, the Germans themselves documented, and Ezergailis corroborated in his seminal research, that their considerable efforts to stoke anti-Semitism among the Latvians failed. Yet, as with Lūmans, contradictory accounts persist that Latvians needed little to no stoking from the Germans to attack and murder their centuries-old Jewish neighbors.

Assessment

I commend Lūmans’s forthrightness in relating his path to this work and his effort to dispel the myths of his past. Nevertheless, Lūmans does a disservice to the reader on several counts.

First, Lūmans fails to discriminate Nazi and Soviet propaganda—even cites it. Each power, for its own purposes, put Latvians at the forefront of the Holocaust in Latvia: the Nazis to paint the myth of the “Germanless” Holocaust, the Soviets to smear Latvian émigré leadership as war criminals.

Lūmans himself has become part of this propaganda mill, viz. Richard Rashke in his Useful Enemies: John Demjanjuk and America’s Open-Door Policy for Nazi War Criminals (2013):

According to Lumans, two of the most rabid Latvian Nazi collaborators were Voldemars Veiss, a lieutenant colonel in the Latvian national army, and Viktors Arajs, a Latvian policeman. Veiss, who was probably an ethnic German (Volksdeutsche), organized an initial auxiliary police unit of about four hundred Latvian volunteers to find and execute communists and Jews. Arajs organized a similar unit of two to three hundred thugs known as “Arajs’ Boys.” Both leaders took out newspaper ads seeking volunteers “to participate in the cleansing of our country of destructive elements.”

Rashke presents Veiss as a “rabid” Volksdeutsche Holocaust collaborator—a German serving Germans, demonstrating how swiftly disinformation compounds and multiplies. He repeats Lūmans’s false allegations Veiss’s unit murdered Jews and that, as for Arājs, a notice appeared (in Tēvija) on behalf of Veiss seeking collaborators. The only such notice was for Arājs Kommando per the reporting address of 19 Valdemāra street.

Second, Lūmans fails to identify propaganda embedded in survivor accounts in their attempts to make sense of the horrors taking place beyond their personal space and experience. There is a widespread conviction that the Germans’ eradication of Eastern European Jewry could only have been so thorough with the overwhelming support if not direct participation of the local population, thereby proving said support. Such views tend to discount the meticulous planning that went into the Nazi organization and execution of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, particularly in its gruesomely efficient industrialization, and presentation to the outside world as local and spontaneous.

Last, and most corrosively, Lūmans de-objectifies his own narrative by indicting the Latvian Legion as criminal, and its advocates as apologists. In failing to apply due diligence to sources and testimonies that condemn Latvians, Lūmans is his own proof that accounts of the Holocaust in occupied Latvia are as likely to be rooted in partisanship and choices in belief as in objective pursuit of historical fact.

My parents’ generation had no illusions about the Latvia they fled; what they carried into exile and instilled in their progeny was an ideal. Whatever its faults, that ideal is less propagandistic than Lūmans’s conceptualization of Latvian criminality which he offers in its stead. Perhaps he intended Latvia in World War II as a collective mea culpa for Holocaust participation by Latvians both real and imagined. Unfortunately, most readers will assume that when a Latvian indicts his own, the allegations must all be true.

According to the Fordham Press web site, “Valdis Lumans provides an authoritative, balanced, and comprehensive account of one of the most complex, and conflicted, arenas of the Second World War.” Pulling back the covers, Lūmans cites and presents propaganda as fact, meaning Latvia in World War II fails to manifest those attributes.

review by Pēters Vecrumba

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