Monthly Archives: June 2013

Latvian National Resistance Against the Soviet Occupation 1944-1956

Latvian National Partisan

Latvian National Partisan

On May 9 Latvia once again fell in the Soviet captivity. This time the Soviet power was intending to stay here forever. However, there were people who did not give up their fight for national independent Latvia and continued to resist occupiers in the forests. So called “forest brothers” or national partisans fought local Soviet government from 1945 to 1956 when most of them were defeated. Soviet government called them “bandits” and used NKVD death squads against them. The national partisans were hoping in the coming war between Western powers and the Soviets. The western spy agencies even sent assistance and special agents to help them. They all were uncovered by the Soviet secret service. After the all hopes for outside support and victory were lost these men left the woods. This is a story about them.

Latvian partisans had not prepared for resistance. There was no support bases, communications and no Latvian government in exile to direct them. The first battle was fought on 27 August 1944 in the Abrene region (now in Russia) 4 NKVD men were missing in action. In whole 1944 NKVD lost 12 men. Most action took place in the eastern regions. In Vidzeme first groups showed up in May 1945 after the ice melted and the warm weather allowed people to gather. Usually a group of 5-7 men assaulted local Soviet activists, beat them up or even killed them. On April 17 Kārlis Krēmers murdered local Dzelzava party organizer (partorg) Mihial Kodalev on his wedding day and wounded many other Soviets.

The organization of the partisan movement started in Latgalia on the winter 1944-1945. In Courland after the end of the war partisans were mostly former Waffen SS Legion members vanished in forests and formed partisan ranks. North Courland Partisan Organization, Latvian National Partisan Organization, “The Hawks of the Fatherland” were part of the Courlad combat movements. In Vidzeme the “The Latvian Self Defense”, in Latgalia “Latvian Fatherland (partisan) union” and “Latvian National Partisan Union”. All movements tried to print their own illegal newspapers and leaflets. At first they were written using typing machine, as the conditions worsened the last newspaper “Homeland” was handwritten. The partisans wanted to inform people about their cause and attract new members.

After first spontaneous formations of the partisan groups in the summer of 1944 they started to look forward to make contacts and form unified command. On Northen Latgalia December 10 in the Abrene district Viļaka parish the Latvian National Partisan Union (LNPU) was formed.  It was lead by Pēteris Supe (“Cinītis”). His deputy was the former student of the Latvian University National Economy faculty Staņislavs Ločmelis (“Dūze”). They were even joined by catholic dean Ludvig Štagars. At first LNPU consisted 123 partisans, after forming of united camp in the Stampaku swamp in Abrene district, the fighting force was about 350 men. In 1946 there were already 1000 men.

On March 2 1945 the camp was surrounded by the NKVD forces and local destroyers. Attackers were convinced that there is only 30-35 men there. Instead they met a sizable force that was not willing to give up. The battle lasted all day and the partisans managed to leave the Stampaku swamp and took refuge in pre-made covers. Soviets lost 32 and partisans 28. The leadership changed frequently as commanders fell in battles. Finally after three commanders were lost Antons Circāns (“Spike”) took the lead and re-organized the LNPU. He formed many regional staffs since the central staff could no longer lead all remote partisan units. LNPU operated all around Latgalia and Vidzeme. Most of the staff leaders sooner or later were captured or killed by NKVD. On July 7 the commander in charge Circāns was lost in action. The central staff ceased to exist. Local staffs continued to operate autonomously. On July 4 1948 the head of the Central Vidzeme staff Rusovs was captured along with the archive of the LNPU general staff. In months’ time all groups submitted to him were crushed.  The last remnants of the LNPU continued to resist until 1953.

In Southern part of Latgalia on January 28 in Līvāni parish Vanagu catholic church dean Antons Juhņevičs was hiding the Red Army deserters. The church was raided by the NKVD, the partisans fought back and defeated the Soviets. The catholic dean hid in the forest and organized Latvian Fatherland guard (partisan) union (LFG(P)A). The partisans had to give an oath to God and the fatherland.  The LFG(P)A) was formed into divisions that would operate in every Latvian region. That was never realized however many sizable partisan regiments Latgalia was formed. The dean wanted a full time resistance army that would lead an armed uprising. He was obviously counting on allies to start a war against the Soviet Union. Because of this he was not prepared for long time partisan warfare . As the winter came his “divisions and regiments” were one by one destroyed. On October 23 1945 NKVD assaulted the Ilūkste staff. In heavy frontal battle with great losses on both side’s partisans retreated to other forests. Since the ammunition was low  the regiment was forced to begin talks of legalization – surrender. 90 out of 200 men did this. On 17 December almost all fighters of the Daugavpils regiment turned themselves. The end of LFG(P)A) came when the undercover agent of NKVD captured the leader J Zelčāns.

Meanwhile in Courland many ex-Waffen Legion members took refuge in the forests. If they would surrender they would be sent to “filtration camps” in Siberia. Some changed his identity with fake documents. Lieutenant Miervaldis Zeidainis as Miķelis Pētersons worked as an accountant in Ventspils. However, while driving around the countryside he was looking for former Legion members. Soon together with Lieutenant A Zutis,  first lieutenant J Bērziņš, first lieutenant Ēvalds Robežnieks he formed The Northern Courland Partisan Organization (NCPO). They wanted to establish connections with the west and 17 men with one Estonian and German with fisherman boat reached Gotland. However, soon both leaders of the NCPO were arrested by  the NKVD. But, the NKVD was unable to extract information about other groups hiding in the forests.

In Talsi district Latvian National Partisan Organization (LNPO) was formed lead by former “Jagdverband” leader Alberts Feldbergs. In Kuldīga district Luitenant Ēvalds Pakulis (Sheriff) gathered men in the Latvian National Partisan Unit “Courland”. (LNPU”C”). Both groups made meetings and later were united in the Latvian National Partisan Union “Courland”. Unfortunately NKVD agent Marģeris Vītoliņš was present at the last meeting. He was posing as a British agent and convinced partisans that the British secret service will take command of them. Because of this the partisan leaders were invited to Riga to meet the British resident and discuss further cooperation. Partisans waited for such opportunity for so long that they actually fell for this trap. On October 13 they were arrested at Matīsa street.

At first Soviets sent regular Soviet Army soldiers against partisans. From May 31 to August 9 1945 in Latvian eastern parts operation “Vostok” was issued. 4 divisions and 3 NKVD battalions swept the forests, but only managed to eliminate 21 partisans. However for “filtration” 3471 civilians were arrested, meaning Soviet soldiers fighting more against them rather than partisans. On Summer 1945 battles erupted every day. On Ilūkste district in 10 days time 32 Soviets were shot and 10 wounded. Soviets were only safe in the Ilūkste district center. In Abrene district partisans paralyzed the work of the village soviets. They were either destroyed or unable to operate. On May 25 1945 partisans burned down the Bērzpils executive committee. The Tilža parish center was assaulted in the night burning down the executive building. In Jersika partisans raided the parish executive building killing major Parfenov and captured two Soviet food trucks. In retreat partisans blew up the bridge. Many villages were taken, Soviet activists were constantly under threat and shops were raided. In case of shops, milking farms and money transports  partisans spared peoples life’s. But when they encountered soviet activists- the party organizers, committee workers and executive chiefs they were usually executed.

Soviets answered the partisan attacks by sending large forces including armored vehicles. Until September 1945 3145 partisans had either lost their lives or have been legalized. 17 987 people were arrested. Soviets tried to stop the revolt by issuing legalization programs. People were asked to give up their weapons in return facing no repressions. 1268 people did this at the end of 1945. NKVD, however mistrusted them because they could find legal means how to overthrow the Soviet government. Also some of them were hired as double agents and sent  back to the active partisan units. Issues of legalization were made many times and many thousand men gave up their fight.

The NKVD men searching the woods for partisans

The NKVD men searching the woods for partisans

The only event when partisans and NKVD men made talks was the Alsvišķu truce on 28 September 1945. Lutheran priest Eduards Grāvītis was against active means of resistance and did not believe that the allies will come anytime soon. So he made contacts with NKVD to look for peace agreement. On September 4 he met them in the Zeltiņi forest. He demanded to stop repressions and release the captured ones so the partisans can freely give up their arms. He also asked to withdraw the Soviet forces. Two NKVD officials were unable to answer these questions so they proposed to take him to Riga to meet more senior NKVD men.  He arrived in Riga and met the NKVD peoples commissar  Eglītis. He gave the list of the partisan demands for proper legalization. Eglitis published answer in party newspaper “Cīņa” on October 12 where he called partisans “bandits” who only attack and pillage the locals. At the end he asked the partisans to surrender. Partisans were unable to meet such call. On September 26 commander of LNPU A Circāns met E Grāvītis and asked him to arrange a meeting with the NKVD. Grāvītis informed NKVD about this. On September 28 NKVD Anti-banditism chief lieutenant-colonel Kornejev met Circāns calling himself “major Šmits” and Grāvītis. After two hour talks of useless bloodshed, Circāns proposed a 10 day ceasefire so the signal troops can reach every partisan group and ask about the possibility of legalization. After the talks were over all partisans could freely go back to their forests. The Alsvišķu truce was in effect from September 29 to October 9 in the Valka district. This was the only such case of mutual talks between NKVD and the partisans.  However, this caused the opposite effect- LNPU gained so much respect that legalization significantly dropped among Valka district partisans.

The NKVD was dissatisfied with the anti-partisan warfare results.  In so they decided to make united NKVD-NKGB staffs in the most active areas. Gathering up the forces helped to use effectively the intelligence data and make decisive strikes. During cold winter NKVD was more effective  attacking the slow moving partisans. Already mentioned attack on Ilūkste partisan staff was a failure since the partisans escaped. More attacks were made in Madona and Valka district. In Kuldīga parish even tanks and reconnaissance aircraft was used against the force of 30 men. Battles took place all winter with more losses on the Soviet side.

However, the partisans were far from giving up. The Vinston Churchill speech about the Iron Curtain on March 5 motivated them. NKVD made operative fighting groups. To force partisans to legalize NKVD took their families hostage with all their children and abused them. Whole families went to the forest to the partisans. Now women and children died in the battles. To scare the locals Soviets publicly displayed the naked bodies of the killed partisans. Public executions were made as well.

Partisans still tried to assault Soviet, and ambushed and killed the officials and their convoys. The tight security and pressure made impossible to make a full scale attacks. However, in Gulbene district partisans assaulted Līgo village and captured the main building. Soviets sent destroyer battalion and forced partisans to leave. Partisans attacked again and destroyed the executive committee in Galgauska.

NKVD went on full scale attack crushing the partisan movements in every part of Latvia. In some parts partisans were surprised while sleeping in their bunkers, others resisted til the last man. The 15 men group lead by Gulbis was all destroyed, despite his heavy wounds  Gulbis fired the machine gun until his final bullet.

On 1947 after heavy NKVD offensive the battles were more quieter. In Talsi district NKVD faced heavy battles with the Felbsbergs group. Partisans assaulted the armored vehicle and killed MGB senior lieutenant Dmitrij Krup. In answering strike Feldsbergs lost his life. On 1948 situation remained the same. NKVD used the effective method of sending double agents within the national partisans and either turned them in or assassinated their leaders. On Marc 19 NKVD assaulted the joint Latvian and Lithuanian bunker in Īle parish. 18 of 24 partisans were killed.

Then on March 25 the Soviet mass deportations took place in all Latvia. Partisans were unable to stop them. Most of them were deeply entrenched in their bunkers because of the winter. And Soviets gathered large security forces. Many partisans learned the fact about the deportations only after a few weeks. Now all could they do is to attack local soviet activists who assisted the deportations.

Soviets thought that is the end of the resistance, and removed the main MGB Interior soldiers and left only the destroyer battalions. Instead new partisans showed up, many who escaped deportations joined in. Partisans started attacks on the soviet activists killing all their families. In Jēkabpils parish partisans ambushed and eliminated whole MGB command. Since the collectivization was  underway partisans now attacked the local kolkhoz chiefs. Soviets were forced to resend the MGB forces. Again battles erupted in forests of Alūksne and Jēkabpils district. Heavy battles were also present in Courland. Even in the streets of Saldus, where NKVD was attacking two partisans. Six buildings burned down and 4 civilians were killed along with two partisans. The deportations did not halt the partisan war, but the losses of the partisans were catastrophic. Many strong groups were destroyed and surviving partisans  switched to more passive action.

Partisans became more mobile and undercover. NKVD sent fake partisan groups to destroy the real partisans. Partisans became more viscous and murdered the whole families of soviet officials and fighters. NKVD was no less brutal to partisan woman and children. On 1951 partisan activity was minimal. Soviets disbanded the MGB 24th rifleman division and changed with OKON the Special task force team a forefather of the Specnaz. Battles still erupted in some parts. To avoid capture partisans killed themselves singing “God Bless Latvia!”. From 1952 to 1953 the Moscow authorities sent special forces to stop the revolt. The 1953 was the last bloody year with 100 Latvian partisans lost.

After the death of Stalin and fading western support the partisan war activities became more rarer. From 1954 to 1956 11 were killed, 49 captured, 39 legalized. 533 people were still hiding individually or in small groups. In 13 February 1957 Mičulis partisan family of five people came out and legalized. They were resisting from 1945. They still had a sizable arsenal of weapons. Last partisan to leave the woods was Arnolds Spārns who did this in 1959. He resisted the Soviets for 14 years.

The armored resistance was over, however there are many untold stories about the non-violent resistance. Latvian intelligentsia, Jewish Zionists, all kinds of dissidents struggled for many years and made the dream of the national partisans possible.

Memorial to the fallen partisans in the city of Jekabpils

 

 

Selected Sources:

Turčinskis, Zigmārs. (2007) Karš pēc kara: Latvijas nacionālo partizānu cīņas 20. gadsimta 40. gadu beigās – 50. gadu sākumā. In: Karš pēc kara 1944-1956. Latvijas okupācijas muzeja gadagrāmata. Riga. Latvijas Okupācijas muzeja gadagrāmata.

Strods, Heinrihs. (2012) Latvijas nacionālo partizānu karš, 1944-1956. Rīga : LU Akadēmiskais apgāds.

The unknown war : the Latvian national partisans’ fight against the Soviet occupiers, 1944-1956 : the battle and memorial sites of the national partisans (2011) Latvian National Partisan Association ; English translation by Peter Jacob Kalnin. Rīga : “Domas spēks”.

 

 

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Latvian Soldiers in the Red Army 1941-1945

Latvian Red Army soldiers in the Battle of Moscow 1941

Latvian Red Army soldiers in the Battle of Moscow 1941

Much has been said about the Latvian soldiers fighting in the German lines. However, there were thousands of Latvians fighting in the ranks of the Red Army. Some of them served the duty with full support of the communist ideas, others were conscripted by force some just wanted to go back to their homeland. During the Soviet times these men were regarded as heroes, however after the regaining of independence they were mostly neglected by the society. The attempts of reconciliation between the veterans of the Legion and Soviet Latvian divisions have been mostly unsuccessful because of the political involvement. These men also deserve to be a part of the Latvian history for their fate and suffering was no less than the Latvian Legion.

The remains of the National Latvian Army were included in the 24th Territorial Corps. On June 22 1941 there 3000 Latvians left in the corps. The corps retreated to Russia, however large part of the soldiers deserted and joined the national partisans. Some were forced to spend many months in the POW camps in Eastern Prussia. Those who made it to Russia faced Germans in the battle of River Velikaya. On Latvian soil many workers guard battalions and the Riga War School faced Germans and were forced to retreat in Estonia. There they were united 1st and 2st Latvian destroyer regiments. They attacked Germans  and also the national partisans and civilians. Later they were included in the regular Red Army ranks, where they suffered heavy casualties near Talinn and Leningrad. On September 1 1940 the surviving men of the 1st regiment were included in the 10th rifleman division 62th rifleman regiment. The 2th destroyer regiment was turned into 76th Special Latvian rifleman regiment, that was completely destroyed and later disbanded.

On August 3 1941 the State Defense Committee and the Latvian Communist Party, issued an order to form a Latvian Rifleman division out of surviving worker guards, militiamen, party members and other Latvian citizens. There were many volunteers who wanted to escape the hard life in the soviet kolhozus. Latvian refugees were suffering from starvation and wanted to get back to Latvia. Women also joined in medical and communication ranks. There were also female snipers. The orders were given in Russian, but many soldiers still used Latvian in their conversations. Because of the Great Purge of 1937-1938 there was a lack of qualified Latvian officers.

The new formation was called 201th Latvian Rifleman division commanded by colonel Janis Veikins. The starting point was the Gorohoveca training camp in Ivanovo region near Gorky. On 12 September 1941 the oath was given and flags were received making one of the first national formations in the war time Red Army. The division consisted of 92th,122th,191th rifleman regiment, 220th artillery regiment, 10th special anti-air battery, 170th special communications battalion, 53th special sapper battalion, 112th special scout company, 43th medical sanitary battalion, and other smaller units. In October there were 10 877 men 1100 of them communists, 940 young communist league members, 70% joined voluntarily. They believed that the victory will come and Latvia will be liberated under the Soviets. At first the division was filled with the communist elite- party member, civil war veterans and Secret police members. Most of them perished in the first years of the war.

On December 1941 the 201th division joined the Battle of Moscow. Under the command of the 33th army their task was to capture the city of Narofominsk. The battle took place in the snowy fields near river Nara. Soldiers had to cross the frozen river. The weather was extreme: -35 on the day and -42 at night. Despite the lack of proper intelligence and artillery support the Narafominsk was captured. 5000 men were either lost or wounded. On January 4 1942 Latvians joined the 33th army and captured Borovsk. 200 Latvians were awarded with orders and medals. On January 16 the division was stationed at Aprelevka and received reinforcements.

In February they were called to join the battle at Staraya Rus. 1st special Latvian rifleman reserve battalion was formed in Gorohovec camp. 33 000 soldiers of them 51% Latvians, 17% Jews, 3% poles and 3% other nationals. After great losses in the Battle of Moscow more non-Latvians were included. Only 60% of the division were from Latvia after the receiving reinforcements. Latvian commander Jānis Veikins was replaced with Russian. Many deserted because of the Russifaction in the division, poor commanding and lack of supplies.

On February-March 1942 201th division took place in the battle of Demyansk. Many villages were captured assisting the encirclement of the German 16th army. The division was positioned in a flooded swamp unable to get supplies by land. Only way to get them was from the air. That was not enough and for many months the division suffered from starvation. Soldiers lived like prehistoric people, eating frogs, horses, birds and gathered nettles, sorrels and berries. 2494 men were taken to hospital because of severe weight loss. In August to September Latvians joined the Battle of Tuganovo. The Junior lieutenant sniper Jānis Vilhelms received the Hero of The Soviet Union tittle and later US medal Distinguished Service Cross.

To mark the achievements in the Battle of Moscow the 201th rifleman division was renamed as the 43th guard Latvian rifleman division. The new commander was major general Detlavs Brantkalns. On 1943 January to February heavy battles took place near Staraya Rus and Nasva. Then it took place in the liquidation of the Demyansk breached. The new flack artillery regiment was made and only national air unit in the Red Army. Latvians had three PO-2 bomber squads that operated at nights in Russia and later Latvia.On January 1944 43th guard division broke trough the German Eastern wall fortifications near Nasva. It was one of the biggest achievements of this division.  On June 1944 Soviets entered Latvia. From the 1sth Special Latvian reserve regiment a 308th Latvian rifleman division was formed. Commander was Voldemārs Danbergs later Mārtiņš Kalniņš. The division consisted of 319,323 and the 325th rifleman regiment, 677th artillery regiment, 377th special anti-tank regiment, 301th special sapper battalion, the 326th medical battalion., 282th special scout company. A 7319 men in whole.

Later, both divisions were joined in the 130th Latvian rifleman corps. The new commander was Detlevs Brantkalns. On 43th guard division there were 47% Russians, 35% Latvians, 8,5% Jews, 2,1% Ukrainians, 3,7% Belorussians, Lithuanians and Tatars. On July 18 this force entered Latvia. They attacked Germans at river Aiviekste and captured Krustpils. Both divisions suffered great casualties, the 43th guard division lost  1192 men, 308th division lost even more. In September 2318 men from Latvia were conscripted into their ranks. All those who were too young to be conscripted by the Germans were now taken to the Soviet army. This was the breach of the 1907 Hague convention that prohibited the conscription of civilians in the occupied lands. Both Soviets and Nazis did this in Latvia. Many deserted, others wanted to get to the hospital as fast as possible.

The 130th Latvian Rifleman corps spent last months in war fighting in Courland. On December 1944 they faced the Latvian Waffen SS 19th division. For the first time Latvians fought each other. The 130th rifleman corps faced great casualties and was unable to break  the German defense line. Battles continued in Courland until May 9 1944 when the war was finally over.

17 368 Latvian Red army soldiers were decorated with Soviet Orders and medals. Jānis Vilhelms, Jānis Rainbergs and Mihails Orlovs received the highest award – The Golden star and became the Heroes of the Soviet Union. 12 men received The Order of Lenin. 80 000- 10 000 men from Latvia fought in the Soviet lines. One part of them were evacuated from Latvia in 1941, the other part was mobilized in Latvia. More than 50 000 men lost their life’s.  While the Latvian Legion members spent their days in Siberian camps and were outcasts of the society; the Red Latvian soldiers enjoyed special social status and propaganda admiration. After the fall of the Soviet Union many of them could not forgive that the state and society’s attention changed positively towards Latvian Legion veterans. We must not forget that both of these groups of people are direct victims of the Nazi and Soviet crimes that forced the Latvian nation to fight under rouge flags.

Selected Sources:

Neiburgs, Uldis. (2011) Latviešu militārie formējumi PSRS un Vācijas bruņotajos spēkos Otrajā Pasaules karā. In:  (Divas) puses. Latviešu kara stāsti : Otrais pasaules karš karavīru dienasgrāmatās. Riga : Mansards.

Kažociņš, Indulis. (1999)  Latviešu karavīri zem svešiem karogiem 1940.-1945. Riga : Latvijas Universitātes žurnāla “Latvijas Vēsture” fonds.

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Latvian Resistance Against the Nazi Occupation

The Leader of the Latvian National resistance Konstantīns Čakste

The Leader of the Latvian National resistance Konstantīns Čakste

When Nazi Germany  invaded the Soviet Union many greeted them as liberators and took arms against Soviets. There were many legitimate reasons to do so. However, soon many realized that the Germans are just another occupiers and foreign oppressors.  This made some Latvians to start resisting the Nazi occupation. There were many types of the anti-Nazi resistance. The nationally motivated resistance movements fought for full restoration of the Latvian independence and also regarded the Soviets as enemies. There were movements who tried to resist using peaceful means and tried to contact the Western allies. Other small groups took arms and engaged in battles against Germans. There is also another type of anti-Nazi resistance- the Red Partisans. Soviet propaganda exaggerated their importance. After the fall of the Soviet Union the Red Partisans have been viewed rather negatively in the Latvian historiography and are considered not as partisans, but as special commandos sent in from the Soviet side of the front. There are still discussions going on about the legitimacy about the actions of the Red Partisans and they cause for the Latvian people.

First underground resistance groups have appeared already against the first Soviet occupation in 1940-1941. The largest ones were the New Latvians, Latvian National Legion, The Combat organization for Latvian liberation”, The Guards of the Fatherland. Most members were schoolboys. Some tried to establish the contacts with the Nazi intelligence service. However, Soviet secret police were ready enough to combat them. The rise of the National partisans on Summer of 1941 is a different subject.

The Germans made a solid administration of the occupied territories of the Baltic states. During the active war phase whole power belonged to German military government lead by infantry general Francis von Roques, later to cavalry general lieutenant Walter Bramer. At first three days of the war the center of command was located in Kovno (Kaunas), Lithuania but after July 17 in Riga. In all cities and other vital military locations, a commandant’s office was established. In Courland and Lithuania at  July 25 1941, then in September 1 in whole Latvia military government was changed with civil government. Adolf Hitler issued an order on June 17 to appoint Alfred Rosenberg as minister of the east. Alfred Rosenberg was a Baltic German from Estonia. He was a German chauvinist and visible anti-Semite. He witnessed the Russian revolution in 1917–1918, which made him strongly against Jews and Communists. He also showed no sympathy to the Latvians and Estonians downgrading them at the same level as Jews. He is mostly known as the main Nazi ideologue and author of the famous book The Myth of 20, century (Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts) . Despite the fact that he was appointed on June 17, it was officially declared only in  November 17 1941, because German leaders hoped to announce the fact after some important event, like the capture of Moscow or Leningrad.

The Germans resisted all attempts of forming autonomous Latvian government, but allowed certain forms of self-rule formed by loyal Latvian politicians. Those were general–offices that helped the Germans to impose order in occupied Latvia. Ex–Latvian ministers like Alfeds Valdmanis headed them. General Oskars Dankers lead the “loyalty council” called General office of Latvia. On December Germans united all “self-rule” bodies and picked the main directors of the offices. O Dankers was in charge of the interior affairs, A Valdmanis administrated jurisdiction, Mārtiņš Prīmanis overlooked the education and culture, Jānis Skujevics took over finances, Voldemārs Zāgars worked with economy, Oskars Leimanis maintained transport and Pēteris Vanags was at control affairs. The Germans called the self-government the “Self-Government of the land”. The self-government had no real rights to impose laws on their own; they completely depend on Germans. General Oskars Dankers was known as most loyal collaborators who fulfilled almost every German order. His loyalty was crucial in the organization of the Latvian Waffen SS legion when he promoted mobilization and called to join the legion.

Occupied Eastern territories were divided in reichskommissariat’s. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus were combined in reichskommissariat Ostland. Hinrich Lohse administrated it. Otto Heinrich Drechsler governed general region Latvia. The center of Ostland was Riga. The Latvian general region was divided into six districts (Gebietskommissariat’s) – Liepaja, Jelgava, Daugavpils, Riga and Riga rural area. Thus they were subdivided into counties and parishes. Gebietskommissar ruled districts. Riga was directly under Rosenberg’s jurisdictions and had special status. The administrator of Riga was oberburgomaster Hugo Vittrock, he was also a gebietskommissar of Riga district.

Germans dismayed any hopes for national independence. This made some brave men to start to form their national resistance movements. There were many small groups like The Latvian Nationalist Union, Latvian National Council, the Officer Union, organizations “The Latvian Guards”, “New Regiments, The Free Latvia”, The National Latvia Hawks of Daugava”, the Latvian Hawk organization” who called for independent Latvia. The radical nationalist organization “Thundercross” was allied with the Germans at the first months after the invasion, however then became repressed by the Germans and again started underground resistance.

The most senior movement was the Latvian Central Council founded on August 13 by the members of four biggest Latvian political parties- the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party, Democratic Center, Latvian Farmers Union and the Latgalian Christian Farmers party. These men survived the Soviet terror and now strived to restore the democratic Republic of Latvia.

The main leaders of the LCC were Konstantīns Čakste the son of the first president of Latvia Jānis Čakste and Captain Krišs Upelnieks. Already in 1941 they made contacts with the ant-Nazi resistance movements and looked for members of the parliament Saeima dissolved in 1934. They were joined by the Jānis Breikšs from the Democratic Center and the Social Democrats adding left wing of the resistance movement. On 1942 Voldemārs Salnais the envoy of the Republic of Latvia in Sweden was looking for ways to form a unified resistance organization. It was needed to prove the Western allies about Latvian intentions for freedom because of the noticeable existence of the Latvian collaborators. On March 29 1943 Salnais with the help of his mediator Edvards Skujenieks from Tallin to Riga sent a call to Latvians to form an organized resistance movement. There has been one already in Estonia. The resistance was based on a belief that the Nazi Germany will lose the war and the Great Britain and US will dictate the peace terms. First contact making with the West were discovered by Germans. However, the conspirators were released because of lack of evidence. On July 22 in a fisherman’s raft from Venstpils harbor to the island of Gotland Leonīds Siliņš entered Sweden. He sent valuable information to Stockholm about the Soviet and Nazi occupation. A complete report was sent to all Latvian diplomatic envoys.

On 1943 August 13 Čakste gathered  his colleagues in Riga. The main founders of LCC were social democrat Pauls Kalniņš, bishop Jāzeps Rancāns, Breikšs, social democrats Bruno Kalniņš, Voldemārs Bastjānis and farmers union member Ādolfs Klīve. Konstantīns Čakste was elected as the chairman with deputies Kalniņš and Ludvigs Sēja as general secretary. Seven commissions were made for most important sectors like defense, foreign affairs and finances. The LCC was made by members of all former Latvian top politicians and had high aims to be the governing body after the war.

LCC sent instructions to Latvian diplomats in exile and had contacts with the Higher Committee of the Lithuanian liberation and the Estonian Resistance center. The meetings with the resistance movements from both Baltic countries took place in Riga. A joint declaration to the UN was made and sent abroad. A foreign delegation was planned.

The LCC hoped that in the event of Nazi capitulation, Latvian Waffen SS Legion could raise arms for the Latvian state. So contacts with patriotic officers Mārtinš Peniķis and Eduards Kalniņš were made. The military commission with general Jānis Kurelis in charge was established.  After Kurelis established his armed resistance group the LCC provided the radio communications with the west for him.

The German intelligence service was aware of the actions of the LCC. The Germans arrested Lithuanian messenger in Estonia and learned about the main members of the resistance. On April 29 Čakste was arrested, on May 22 Sēja and in July Kalniņš was also taken. In mean time similar arrests were made in Estonia and Lithuania. The LCC members were sent to Salaspils Concentration Camp. On September 1 1944 they were transported to the Stuthoff Concentration Camp near Danzig. LCC continued its activities and elected Verner Tepfer, Breikšs, and Rudze as the new leaders.

The flag of Latvia in the crematory room of the Stuthoff concentration camp

The flag of Latvia in the crematory room of the Stuthoff concentration camp, commemorating the Latvians imprisoned there

Salnais and Siliņš convinced the Swedish government to make an escape route from Courland to Sweden. The distance between Courland and Gotland was good enough to escape unnoticed.   2141 people and 400 unregistered children managed to escape. The US state institutions also took part and hoped that LCC will save some Jews as well. Despite the fact that by 1944 the majority of the Latvian Jewish community was destroyed, LCC managed to transport many Jewish survivors to Sweden.

The last LCC meeting took place in September 8 1944 in Riga. The Soviets were approaching and the LCC decided to evacuate to Sweden. The LCC signed a Declaration of the Restoration of the Latvian Independence. Pauls Kalniņš became the President of Latvia until a new one is elected. The evacuation  to Sweden failed as not all made it trough. Kalniņš was halted by the Germans in the Baltic Sea and taken to Danzig. Others like Jānis Rancāns had to go to Germany or Austria. Remaining LCC members trapped in Courland fortress tried to escape to Sweden. Until the last day Germans tried to arrest them. After the war LCC divided in Swedish and German groups. Konstantīns Čakste and Pauls Kalniņš died in German captivity. Both groups still tried to affect the Western governments until the LCC ceased to exist in 1951.

General Kurelis

General Kurelis

The most famous Latvian national armed resistance movement was the Kurelis group. The group emerged from the German order of forming a battalion from remaining civil guards of the Riga region. Three battalions were made in Riga, Skriveri and Sloka. General Jānis Kurelis was installed as the commander of the group. Their main tasks were to support retreating German forces. Kurelis had close contacts with LCC and General Krišss Upelnieks. The Kurelis men were ex national partisans, fiercely patriotic and eager to fight both Germans and Soviets when the time comes. Even if the Germans tried to control the Kurelis group, they soon found out its anti-Nazi character.

When the German army retreated in Courland and became trapped the Kurelis group reached the highest level of activity. Many joined the group mostly the deserters from the Latvian Legion and people escaping from conscription. The Kurelians assisted the LCC “boat actions” to Sweden and established radio contacts with Sweden. Kurelis group even passed intelligence data to the Western allies who later passed them to the Soviets. That was met with great disappointment.

The Germans finally had enough of the two faced actions of the Kurelis group. On October 30 Kurelis was summoned to visit the head of the Ostland police SS Opergruppenfurher Freidrich Jeckeln on November 2.  On November 2 Jeckeln instructed Kurelis and Upelnieks to summon to him and SD (Security Police) and give full report the size and members of the group. Jeckeln asked Kurelis to write a call to all deserters to turn themselves in in return promising independence. Kurelis suggested that Jeckeln should first publish the promise of independence first. Jeckeln ignored that.  On November 5 the list was given not including the unofficial members. In last meeting Upelnieks urged the Germans to proclaim the Latvian independence and form the Latvian Army to stop the deserting. Germans replied that Germany has already made the positive decision for Latvian independence, but because of war situation it cannot be issued for it would like German weakness.   SS obberfuhrer Fuchs promised to inform the head of the SS Heinrich Himmler about Upelnieks suggestions, when he will arrive in Berlin.

On October 9 Upelnieks and Kurelis met at the headquarters. They decided not to provoke the Germans with violence. While they had no suspicion, the Germans secretly gathered forces around their positions. On November 14 Germans came to disarm the Kurelis men. Kurelis was instructed to disband his group and gave in the deserters. Kurelis agreed, but refused to give in the deserters. A firefight erupted  wounding three Kurelis men and killing two civilians. All officers were arrested, but Kurelis was told to go to his family. Then Jeckeln came and told that officers will be shot and others taken as POWS. On November 20 Kurelis was sent to Danzig. The main officers including Upelnieks were sentenced to death and executed the same night. Others were sent to Stutthof or to German formations.

The only ones who defied the German orders of disarming were the men of the  General Rubenis. His battalion was surrounded by the Germans. From November 18 to December 8 Rubenis men fought against the Germans. They were even supported by the Red Partisan group “The Red Arrow” who attacked the Germans from behind. Rubenis men manage to break through the German encirclement. Some continued to fight the Soviets after the war. Some however joined the Red Partisans.

The restored bunker of the Rubenis battalion where the battle with Germans took place

The restored bunker of the Rubenis battalion where the battle with Germans took place

The Red Partisans are a complicated subject. The Red Partisans were mostly completed in Soviet side of the front out of Latvian Soviet activists, special commandos and Red Army regulars. At the first organization of the Soviet resistance was complicated. The Soviet partisan leaders Otomārs Oškalns and Vilis Samsons in 1941 reported that there is a great lack of support for the Soviet cause. First partisan or commando groups were destroyed. On 1942 special partisan schools were made. First partisan unit made out from the remains of the 201 Latvian Rifleman division tried to reach the Latvian border on July 1942. Despite the heavy German security the partisans entered Latvia but failed to set up strong positions there. On December 1942 first successful incursions were made by Samsons and Oškalns men. Red Partisans operated in the forests of Latgalia and Selonia. On 1944 Soviets entered Latvia. 200 special groups were sent behind the German lines. Some men from the Legion and the police battalions  joined them. At the end of the 1944 when the Germans were encircled in Courland a special unit called “The Red Arrow” was formed. They operated in the forests of Courland and hindered the German fighting force.

The leader of the Soviet Red Partisans Otomārs Oškalns

The leader of the Soviet Red Partisans Otomārs Oškalns

The very difference between the national partisans and the Red partisans was that they had different aims.  National partisans fought for full independence both from the Soviets and Germans. The Red partisans were under full command of the Soviet general staff. The partisan warfare was an important part of the Soviet strategy. Even if some members of the Red Partisans were genuinely from Latvia and wished freedom for it, they were fighting for the second Soviet occupation. The war crimes done by Vasilijs Kononovs partisan unit on May 27 1944 in the  Mazo Batu village are proven many times in all courts. There were many other outrageous crimes done by the Red Partisans in Latvia, Ukraine, Belarus and Poland.  All the units of the Red Partisans in Latvia were actually the special forces in the Red Army. Their behavior in many cases was just as bad the regular Soviet units who relentlessly raped and murdered women.

The hope of LCC for the western support for independent Latvia faded. However, until 1956 the woods of Latvia were filled with the national partisans fighting against the Soviets…

Selected Sources:

Neiburgs, Uldis. (2000) Nacionālās pretošanās kustības organizācijas Latvijā padomju un vācu okupācijas laikā (1940-1945). In book: Latvija Otrajā Pasaules karā. Starptautiskās konferences materiāli 1999. gada 14.-15. jūnijs. Rīga.

Strods, Heinrihs. (2006) Nacionālie un padomju partizāni Baltijā 1941.-1956. gadā: kopējais un atšķirīgais. In book: Nacionālā pretošanās komunistiskajiem režīmiem Austrumeiropā pēc Otrā pasaules kara. Starptautiskās konferences materiāli 2005. gada 7.-8. jūnijs, Rīga. Riga. Latvijas vēstures institūta apgāds.

Andersons, E., Siliņš, L. (1994) Latvijas Centrālā Padome – LCP. Latviešu nacionālā pretestības kustība 1943-1945. Upsala: LCP.

Biezais, Haralds. (1993) Kurelieši : Nacionālās pretestības liecinieki. Riga : Junda.

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Nazi Germany Invasion in Latvia 1941

The Soviet fast moving tanks BT-7 abandoned in the streets of Riga

The Soviet fast moving tanks BT-7 abandoned in the streets of Riga

On June 22 the long tensions between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union finally turned into full scale war. Modern research shows that the both countries were planning to attack each other at the same time. In fact the aggressive stance of the Red Army was the cause of the enormous defeats on Sumner of 1941. Gathered across the Western border in large numbers and not prepared for defense and was caught by surprise. Recent studies show that in the first weeks of the war the Red Army was not simply retreating, but running away and deserting in panic. Tanks and airplanes were abandoned and the Germans captured many thousands of POW’s. The most serious cases of resistance were when Red Arny soldiers were simply surrounded and unable to escape. This was the case of the Fortress of Brestlitovsk and the city of Liepāja. This article is about the first war battles in the Soviet occupied Latvia.

The soviets had gathered enormous forces in the Baltic states or the Special Baltic war region lead by colonel-general Kuznetsov. 24 divisions with 375 863 men, 1514 tanks and 1814 airplanes. In Lithuania the 7 Army by Colonel General Sobennikov, the 24 Territorial corpus made out of the surviving ranks of the Latvian Army was under command of the 27 Army of Major General Berzarin. Also 11 army lead by lieutenant general Morozov. Also 16 ad 67 Rifleman division. German military intelligence was well informed about the Soviet military situation and that was the reason for their quick success in the Baltic front.

The German attack force was gathered in the army group “Nord”. Its main task was not the capture of Riga, but advance quickly trough the Baltic States to Leningrad. So Daugavpils was more important. The main attack force was the 4 tank group. The leading commander was marshal Leeb, the 4 tank group was lead by colonel general Hepner, and 56 tank group was under the command of colonel general Manstein.

On 4:00 in a morning German aviation made air raids against the main airfields, war ports and railways. There was an occurrence when airfield received warning about the air attack and the joyful Soviet pilots rushed to their planes shouting “It’s time to bomb Germany!”.  After the second air strike and artillery cannonade German infantry moved on the way of Kreitinga-Palanga-Rucava -Liepaja. German army did not bother to meet the Soviets in frontal battles, but tried outmaneuver them and encircle them. That proved successful as the Germans already in June 22 reached Palanga and Rucava. On the next day Germans were around Liepaja and Ventspils. The Red Army was unable adequately react as their airfields were too close to the border and tanks too heavy to move quickly. Even the state of the art fast moving BT-7 tanks suddenly were unable to move on the rotten Soviet roads.

German invasion on 22. June 1941.

German invasion on  June 22 1941.

As the Germans invaded in Lithuania and Latvia a sharp rise of the partisan activity occurred.  However, these people attacked Soviets not Germans. Motivated by the will to avenge the Soviet terror and reclaim independence the Red Army faced even harder times. Important factor in this was the mass deportations in  June 14 that made many to take their arms and chase away the Soviets. After one year of terror the Nazi’s seemed as the lesser evil.

On June 24 Germans reached Liepaja and moved to Daugavpils. The Red Army forces defeated in Lithuania were retreating. One of the first heavy tank battles took place near Šiaulai, where medium level German tank 41 tank corps destroyed 2 Soviet tank division featuring the most modern Soviet tanks. At the start of the war the Soviet tanks were actually heavier and stronger than the German tanks. However, the discipline and maneuverability of these tank corps were quite low. On June 25 Soviets were routed in panic as the Germans entered Ilūkste next to Daugavpils.

The Daugavpils had supreme tactical importance as the main direction of the attack was Pskov and Leningrad. 56 tank corps lead by General Manstein was tasked to capture the bridge over the Daugavpils unharmed. The special task force “Brandenburg” with four captured Soviet trucks and soldiers in the Soviet uniforms headed to the bridge.  The bridge was full of moving Soviet transport. After they attempted to check the fourth truck the fire was opened. After bloody 2o min fire exchange the bridge was captured. The path to Leningrad was clear. Out of 50 Brandenburg group men only 15 survived. General Manstein went over bridge himself and greeted them. A similar attempt was made on the bridge of Jekabpils, however it failed and the bridge was blown in half.

Between June 23-29 June the Battle for Liepaja took place. Despite the usual Soviet stories about the heroic defense of the city in reality the Soviets were desperate to break out of the city. Similar story took place in the famous fortress of Brestlitovsk. Because of the specific planing of the fortress the soldiers could not escape the German encirclement and was forced to fight until the end. Liepaja was the home base for the Red Baltic Fleet. Liepaja was bombed on the first hours of the war. The military command had no plans how to defend the city and the war port. Soon the whole city was under the German siege. The Soviet Soldiers were trying to get rid of their uniforms and leave the city. However, the national partisans were hunting them too. Those who really resisted were the young cadets of the Infantry war school. As all the attempts of breaking out and counter attacks were thwarted the  defense force was broken. In the rush Soviets sunk all the ships and submarines. On the 29 June after chaotic street fights Liepaja was captured.

On June 29 Germans captured Jelgava, before that Saldus and Tukums. Soviet heavy divisions were running trough Riga abandoning their tanks. The only ones who tried to defend Riga was the 5 NKVD regiment. German tanks in many cases draw away 300 km from the infantry units. While German commanders were worried about this, the gap between tanks and infantry was controlled by partisans. The Germans had already made contacts with the most partisan units and gave them orders. Nazi planners had actually included a handful bunch of the Latvian commandos made of the exiles, but they were surprised about the local support. From June 22 to July 1 Soviets had lost 57 207 men, 1087 men were captured. 631 tanks, 40 airplanes and 3 armored trains were captured. On Daugavpils airfield Soviets simply left 30 warplanes to Germans. Soviets were more concerned about saving their skins than tanks, planes and cannons.

The 24 Territorial corpus was formed from the remains of the Latvian Army before 1940. The elite officers were already deported or shot. However, the simple soldiers were unwilling to fight and deserted. The Soviet Command in fear of uprising rushed to get them out of Latvia. The 181 division was moved from Litene to Russia where it faced battles and destruction. 183 division moved from Riga and made it to defense lines near Strugi Krasnije and Pavi. The 24 Territorial corpus at  the end was destroyed and disbanded. Later a new national Latvian unit was formed in the Red Army.

On June 29 Germans had captured the main points at the river Daugava. Only Riga was still under the Soviet control. On June 30 Germans advanced to Madona and Gulbene draw back the Red Army group at Rezekne, and bypass Riga from the north and Rezekne from the west. The Germans reached Madona. Soviets left Rezekne, the 28 motorized corps lost nearly all of their tanks in the vain attempt of defense.

Riga on fire 30 June 1941.  The Nazi propaganda blamed Jews and Bolsheviks for the destruction of the St Peters church while actually it was German cannon fire

Riga on fire 30 June 1941.
The Nazi propaganda blamed Jews and Bolsheviks for the destruction of the St Peters church while actually it was German cannon fire

On June 29 Germans entered the Pārdaugava the Riga neighborhood over the west bank of the River Daugava. Germans were intending to assault the bridges of Riga. They were defended by the two workers guard battalions and NKVD guards. Also two armored trains and artillery. 3 German mobile assault cannons managed to cross the river, but the special unit was unable to stop the Soviets from destroying the bridges. Bridges were blown up. Those who managed to cross the river were now involved in heavy firefight. Only few managed to cross the river back to safety. Battles emerged around Pārdaugava as more Germans arrived. The Germans then built a pontoon bridge at Katlakalns and crossed the river. On the night of July 1 the Soviets completely abandoned Riga. The Riga historical center was damaged by the artillery fire. The House of Blackheads, The  Riga Town House and the tower of the Church of the St Peter was in ruins. The whole city was filled with armed national partisans attacking the Soviets and NKVD agents.

The Soviet occupation of the 1940-1941 was the Great Shock for the Latvian nation. Latvians were ready to greet the Germans as liberators. The 700 year old hate was suddenly forgotten. People were gathering in the streets and greeted the German soldiers. Latvian national flags were waved and the anthem of Latvia was sung. Many believed that Germans will restore Latvian independence. Germans used this and posed as liberators, the propaganda on the radio and the press issued that Riga is finally free from the Bolshevism. Pretty soon Germans found the main scapegoats of the 1940 occupation – the Jews. At same time the Germans had no intentions of restoring independent Latvia. The Latvian flags were removed the anthem was forbidden. The conquered territories of Lithuania and Latvia were later included in the new Ostland province. Local self-government of collaborators was made, but it was a merely a puppet government unable to act independently. The national partisans were gathered in self-defense units and were used in the Holocaust and anti-Soviet activities.

Nazi Propaganda showing Germans as the liberators of Riga

Nazi Propaganda showing Germans as the liberators of Riga

After Riga was captured the Soviet army was all about retreating to Tallinn and Pskov. Many cities were taken by the national partisans before the Germans reached them. The Red Army was in disorder and run as fast they could. Soviets were running 50 km in a day and 10 hours in a single day. About 10 000 men were shot for retreating. All Soviet government officials left in a panic. Those  who did not make it were taken by the national partisans and shot. The Latvian Soviet government had already abandoned Riga on June 29. The dramatic breakup of the Red Army can be explained by the bad military training, lack of discipline and morale. The Red Army officers were incompetent and simple soviet soldiers were unwilling to fight.  However, Stalin was actually hoping to use this army to conquer the Western Europe.

After  5 July nearly all territory of Latvia was captured. On July 10 Germans captured Tallinn. Actions against the Jews that already begun in the first days of war is a different story.

Selected Sources:

Strods, Heinrihs. (2002) Sarkanarmijas haotiskā atkāpšanās no Latvijas (1941. gada 22. jūnijs- 5. jūlijs) In: Latvijas Okupācijas Muzeja Gada Grāmata. 2001. Nācija gūstā. Riga: Latvijas 50 gadu okupācijas muzeja fonds.

Pētersons, Aivars. (2007)  Krustugunīs : latviešu karotmāka, 1940-1945 : 60 gadus no tautas slēptais. Riga : Author publication.

Lācis, Visvaldis. (1995) Otrais Pasaules karš 3 daļa. Rīga. Preses Nams.

Солонин, (2009)  23 июня «день М». – Москва,

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Kārlis Ulmanis Authoritarian Regime 1934-1940

Kārlis Ulmanis shown as the Great Leader. On the top of the left a possible future symbol for future single state party

Kārlis Ulmanis shown as the Great Leader. On the top of the left a possible future symbol of future single state party

Latvia as many other nations were the pioneers of the parliamentary democracy. The hopes for political freedoms were high as Latvian politicians made one of the most liberal constitutions of those times. The election law was also very generous as no percent cap was made and  only 100 signatures were needed to form a party. The good intended policy soon turned into a chaotic political struggle between various parties. Two largest political forces – The Latvian Farmers Union and the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party never managed to achieve political prominence because they had to mingle with the small parties. This caused resentment in many and opposition against the parliamentary democracy grew stronger every year.  Obvious opponents of the parliamentary system were  radicals both left and right wings. Latvian Communist Party worked in underground by the guidance of the Comintern and various nationalist movements also strived for dissolution of the parliament (Saeima). However, as in many cases abroad the people who destroyed the parliamentary democracy were the ones who actually helped to make and took part in it. They were so called founding fathers – the leaders of the wars of independence whose ambitions were limited by the parliamentary democracy. For Poland it was Jozef Pilsudsky, for Lithuania Antas Smetona, for Estonia Konstantin Päts.

Kārlis Ulmanis was born on September 4 1877 at a Bērze parish house called “Pikšas”. He was the third son in a wealthy land owner family.  As a third son, he was sent to various educational facilities. He studied at Zurich and Leipzig universities and earned an agronomist diploma. His entry into politics begun with the revolution of 1905. Czarist authorities sent him to Pskov prison where he spent a few months. After release he went to Germany where he worked as a teacher in Agricultural school. From 1908 to 1909 he was at Nebraska University Lincoln Industrial Agricultural college. After graduating it, he opened his milk farm in Texas.  But, his homeland was more dear to him, so he returned to Latvia in 1913. He resided in Valmiera and worked as an agronomist and the editor of the newspaper “Zeme” (Land). During the First world war he  worked in the refugee support committee. After the February revolution of 1917 he again could start his political career. His biography was perfect: son of a rich farmer family, diplomas from foreign universities, took part in the revolution of 1905 and took part in the important refugee support work.

The young Kārlis Ulmanis

The young Kārlis Ulmanis

So no wonder his designed political force was called the Latvian Farmers Union. Founded by his own initiative and him as the chairman the LFU soon became the leading force. By scoring support with his charisma and willpower, he took the role of the Prime Minister of the Provisional government in 1918. He led Latvia during the War of Freedom from 1918 to 1920 and became widely recognized by the Latvian nation.

 He continued to take part in the Latvian politics and was elected in every election. Many times he again took the role of the Prime Minister, he also served as foreign, war, welfare and agricultural minister. Ulmanis also tried his hand in the business, by founding the Latvian Farmers bank that turned out to bee short lived project. As the years went by his political image faded. Many blamed him for corruption, others noted that Ulmanis was too friendly with national minority party leaders especially Mordehai Dubin the Jewish orthodox politician. The last election results showed a dreadful possibility for Ulmanis not to be elected in future elections.

Kārlis Ulmanis ridiculed by the satyric press 1926

Kārlis Ulmanis ridiculed by the satyric press 1926

The opposition against the democratic system started to rise in the late twenties. In the first discussions were merely about changing the constitution (Satversme) or the election law. However, the leading parties especially LFU discovered that making the election law will hurt them too. Then in early thirties various proposals for changing the constitution appeared. The  usual call was for the president elected by the people not by parliament and making his powers stronger. The idea of a strong personality that would replace a quarreling parliament of 100 men was stronger than ever. The right wing Nationalist Union and the Ulmanis supportive block of the LFU was for this notion.

On October 24 1933 the LFU fraction proposed a radical change in Satversme. 100 parliament seats should be minimized to 50, the age of voting raised 21 years and president is elected by the people for five years. The presidential powers could allow him to dissolve parliament, remove ministers and suppress civil and political liberties. The proposal was not rejected but in usual style sent for examination at the parliamentary commission. That would take long months and that is what Kārlis Ulmanis needed. He was already plotting a coup and long unearthly discussions to divert attention is what he required.

Kārlis Ulmanis was a believer of the strong, solid government with the complete support of the people. He predicted the coming of the new age of unity. His ideal politician was the British dictator Oliver Cromwell, who was the leader of the English civil war and later deposed the parliament. His two close aides were Vilhelms Munters and Alfrēds Bērziņš.  Important ally was General Jānis Balodis also an independence war hero. With his high rank and influence in the Latvian army he devised the plan for the coup. Two other affiliated supporters were Marģers Skujenieks an ex moderate leftist now a nationalist and long time nationalist leader Arveds Bergs.

Conspiracy has begun in summer 1933 and continued until spring 1934. Ulmanis was also a Prime Minister that time that made the job easier. His military supporters took time to gather loyal army units. The most significant achievement was the support from the Aizsargi – civil guard a popular paramilitary organization. They would act as police and ensure order in rural areas.

There were also conspiring forces like nationalistic movement “The Legion” lead by “kopvedis” Voldemārs Ozols.  Their inspirations were uncovered by the secret police and their leaders were arrested few days before the coup. Another nationalist movement “Thundercross” despite sparking anti-governmental agenda was actually preparing for elections. Ulmanis was actually quite sympathetic to them, however their negative stance on LFU proposed changes in Satversme was a negative surprise for him. Eventually the “Thundercross” movement turned out to be the most active underground resistance movement against Ulmanis regime. Meanwhile Latvian Social Democrats that had the most largest arsenal of weapons and supporters was warning everyone  about the coming danger against democracy.

A similar coup took place in Estonia few months ago, Lithuania had already deposed of democracy in 1926. Nazi’s came to power in 1933. The heated rumors about communist/nationalist/military conspiracy was good enough for Ulmanis to call a cabinet meeting on May 15  to inform about expected riots by “the criminal elements”. Therefore an extra security was needed for main governmental buildings including Saeima and the House of Cabinet and also the Postal and Telegraph center. At 19:25 the last parliament session ended. Social Democrats were joking to Ulmanis to treat them as nice as could if he really makes a coup. Ulmanis replied: “Sure as best as I can!”

The conspirators went to jachtclub to play a card game. There Ulmanis said that the time has come. In 23:00 the telephone communications were shut down. At the same time police raided the Social Democrat headquarters. The only shot that was fired during the coup was made by social democrat Bruno Kalniņš that fired his pistol at the ceiling as a protest to his arrest. Despite having arms social democrats were taken by surprise and did not resist. Conspirators moved to the Foreign Ministry. At 8:00 in a morning Ulmanis visited the president of Latvia Alberts Kviesis to inform about the coup. With resentment Kviesis accepted the  coup. This was one of the most civilized coups in Europe despite the heavy army and police involvement.

Karlis Ulmanis and Janis Balodis on the night of May 15 1934

Karlis Ulmanis and Janis Balodis on the night of May 15 1934

The official explanation for the coup was that other radical organizations were intending to seize the power, however the parliament was too weak to resist them. Also the unstable international situation was blamed. The reaction against the coup was passive. LFU elected deputies were quite sad about losing their jobs so as the other right wing parties. However, they seen Ulmanis as the lesser evil and silently resigned from their posts. Radical socialists decided that resistance is useless and decided to ally with the Communists and go underground. “Thundercross” was utterly surprised and was angry that Ulmanis had stolen their ideas. In so decided to go against Ulmanis. National minority leaders were worried about loosing their status. Mordechai Dubin called Ulmanis and said “If I am no longer needed here, I will leave!” Ulmanis however talked him out of it. The overall reaction from the people was passive and even welcoming.

The new authorities made arrests. The social democrats were arrested the most. With almost no use of violence, expect broken doors and windows people were taken to Riga Central Prison or the Liepaja Concentration camp. The target groups were social democrats, Thundercross, Jewish socialists and German and Austrian socialist emigrees that werre exiled from Latvia. 503 social democrats, 128 Thundercross members, 15 Jews, 2 Belorussians, one German, and a few members of the right wing parties were jailed. The main scapegoats for the coup – the Legion members were already jailed before May 15 and only six of them were taken into custody after it. Only a few people were actually put on trial and sentenced. The usual sentence was four months in the correctional facility.

The so called Liepaja Concentration Camp had 369 prisoners. The purpose of the camp was to keep the people from making trouble for some time then let go. The conditions of the camp were fine comparing to Nazi and Soviet camps. Until the end of the year nearly all people were released from the prison. The camp was closed in 1935.

Ruling regime fired many people from state sector considered unloyal. All 109 official political parties including LFU  were closed. 113 societies were either closed or demanded to close themselves. Most closed societies were leftist based. A censorship was issued and 50 newspapers were closed. Newspapers were banned from discussing social and national issues. For the first time it was banned to write bad remarks about other ethnic nations.

The press analysis of the 1933-1934 shows relative rise of antisemitism and social tensions within Latvia even in the rural areas. The growing radicalization on both wings was halted by the Ulmanis regime. We may suggest that political radicalization inspired by the Nazi Germany and the falling popularity of the ruling parties may cause greater danger than on May 15. If so then Kārlis Ulmanis had actually saved Latvia from possible problems in the future.

The new government issued a state of emergency for six months. A declaration was issued that stated that parliament is dissolved and constitution has lost its effect until a new one is made. All regional municipalities were fired and replaced with loyal councils.

Although Kārlis Ulmanis was talking about the Latvian national unity and placed Latvians first, he did not dare to suppress the national minority rights completely. However, he changed the liberal education law, by removing minority school councils. He replaced them with a single desk officer for each minority. The number of minority schools dropped, but not in the critical level. Even if some schools were forced to include more Latvian language and history lessons than usual it was nothing that could be compared with countries like Poland or Romania. Ulmanis continued to be a good friend to Jewish leader Mordecai Dubin. Ulmanis only suppressed Jewish socialist activities, he was very found of the Zionist ideas. Consequently from 1934 to 1940 Ulmanis helped thousands of the Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and Austria to escape to Palestine, Australia and US.

Even with this light approach to things the Kārlis Ulmanis regime can be called exceptionally radical.  Instead of Estonia and Lithuania, where the new dictators passed new constitutions, Ulmanis never bothered to do that. The Satversme was simply taken out of effect to a “better times”. Because of this Latvia still uses the 1922 constitution while other two Baltic States had to pass a new one.  While other two Baltic States had a single official ruling party, Ulmanis simply ruled with his own loyal government. There are however speculations that Ulmanis was actually intending to make his own party, but the war canceled this. Ulmanis only took the president post once Alberts Kviesis had officially finished his days in office in 1936.  The presidential title was just a decoration for Ulmanis. His true  title was the Leader “Vadonis” that was almost a God like figure.

But, there are no reasons to label the Ulmanis regime as “fascist”. Soviet propaganda has created myths about the fascist nature of the Ulmanis regime. No political prisoners were ever sentenced to death. Antisemitism in the mass media was suppressed.  There were no single leading party. It’s true that Ulmanis went to Germany in 1933 to rehab, but that he met Hitler there who instructed him do make a coup is highly questionable. Even wilder tales of book burning marches that are still echoing in the modern Russian historiography are no more than fantasy. The Kārlis Ulmanis regime was a simple authoritarian regime with the featured cult of personality.

Ulmanis regime did a semi-centralization of the Latvian economy. Corporate economic chambers were made for every state sector. Six of them were made for trade and economy, agriculture, manufacture, labor, arts and writing and professions. Corporate chambers worked as a consultative body to the government and controlled associated societies and enterprises. Trough the Ulmanis rule many large enterprises were nationalized and the size of the public sector doubled. In later years plans were set for collective farming. The Latvian economy that already had recovered from the Great Depression experienced an upswing. It’s hard to say whether this was because of Ulmanis policies.

Ulmanis regime ideology was based on holy trinity- The Leader, national unity and Latvian nationalism. The Ulmanis nationalism was to achieve the Latvian national dominance in economy and culture. The Latvian culture and language was regarded as the uniting factor. National minorities were not excluded, nor was it possible to do that, however they experienced a minor reducing of their national rights. Greater importance was added to national unity. The solidarity, unity and common thinking were put in first place. Latvian farmer was placed as the main symbol of the Latvian nation.

The personality cult of Kārlis Ulmanis himself reached high level. He was called the “most wisest statesman in Europe” a “double genius”. His rights of dictatorship were given by the God himself. In the last years before the war Ulmanis had issued to make silver coins with his portrait on it and even new order with his face on it. The propaganda gave rapid dose of positivity and gave one sided look of the world outside and within. The fact that Ulmanis even suppressed to write negative comments about the Nazi Germany and Soviet Union proved to be highly unproductive during 1939-1941.

Ulmanis had vivid ideas in architecture. He planned to demolish much of the Old Riga buildings for being too German. His achievement was the creation of the Dome Square – before there were many small streets with buildings that were removed. He even wanted to remove more buildings. On 1936 The Monument of Liberty was finished (the project was started before Ulmanis rise to power) marking great celebrations. But Ulmanis wanted an even larger monument to the Victory in the War of Freedom. His wish was to build a 25 0000 seat stadium and 50 meter tall tower of victory. 3 million lats were already gathered in public charity, but WW2 halted these plans. Later in that same spot Soviets built the infamous Monument of Victory.

The Grand project of the Victory park

The Grand project of the Victory park

Ulmanis and his foreign minister Vilhelms Munters proved to be far less successful in foreign policy. The neutrality policy was not working in practice. Latvia became far too close to the Soviet Union. Ulmanis despite knowing the context of the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact  may have hoped that the Soviets would keep him as a satellite state leader. On 17 June 1940 Ulmanis said a rather shameful speech urging not to resist the invaders and said a historic phrase: “I will stay in my place, you will stay in yours!” He was under the house arrest until 21 July and then deported on the next day to Stavropol. After the German invasion he was accused of anti-Soviet activities and jailed. On July 1 as the German army was approaching he was loaded on a ship to transport him to Krasnoyarsk prison. He fell ill on the ship over the Caspian Sea.  He died in the Krasnovodsk prison on September 20. His resting place is unknown, most probably in the modern day Turkmenistan city of Türkmenbaşy (Krasnovodsk).

The cultivated positive image of the Karlis Ulmanis regime has stayed in the minds of many. What happened after 1940, made a myth of the “good Ulmanis times”. From one side they were good times of stability and relative prosperity, from the other side the removal of democracy and the delusional positivism made Latvians totally unprepared for the greatest shock of the 1940-1941 and the Nazi invasion afterwards.

Selected Sources:

Jēkabsons, Ēriks and Šcerbinskis, Valters. (2012) Apvērsums : 1934. gada 15. maija notikumi avotos un pētījumos.Rīga : Latvijas Nacionālais arhīvs : Latvijas Arhīvistu biedrība.

Dunsdorfs, Edgars. (1992) Kārļa Ulmaņa dzīve : Ceļinieks. Politiķis. Diktators. Moceklis. Rīga : Zinātne : Lana.

Bleiere, Daina, Butulis, Ilgvars, Stranga, Aivars, Feldmanis, Inesis and Zunda, Antonijs. (2006) History of Latvia : the 20th century. Riga: Jumava.

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