Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Last stand at More.. the Latvian Legion

In the space of three days over Easter 2012 I had been as far east as Latvia's border with Russia and made my way back west towards Riga, passing through Rezekne, Gulbene and now coming to rest overnight in Sigulda, a popular tourist town.

In that short period I had stumbled inadvertently on the horrors of the Holocaust, visited woods where the cream of the Latvian Army was executed, walked through the forest of death at Ancupani and stepped into the massacre village of Audrini, where a mother's love for her Soviet soldier son led to 200 people being wiped out.

Here, in the tourist map of the Sigulda region, I came across mention of a spot called More (pronounced MORE-RAY), where the Latvian Legion fought a battle which, it said, changed history. Now I was about to confront the historical complexity of the Latvians who fought alongside the Nazis.

What I didn't know then was that More would be an heroic defence of their country's capital against a wave of invaders already with blood on their hands from their previous occupation just four years before.

Latvia's wartime experience is confusing, tragic and brutal and the truth about what really happened is probably lost for ever.

The Soviet Union occupied Latvia and assumed control of the country after the carving up of the Baltics in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939. In the Year of Terror that followed, 26,000 Latvians were killed, arrested or deported.
The war between Germany and the Soviet Union began on June 22, 1941 and by July 8 Germany had occupied Latvia. Now began one of the periods in history which still causes problems today: that of Latvians fighting for the Nazis.

Of course it's understandable that after two decades of Latvian independence (1919 - 1939) were extinguished by Soviet occupation - followed by mass deportation and brutal massacres, with death often the penalty in this class war for singing Latvian folk songs - that some might want to get a little revenge, or fight to ensure that the Russians didn't come back. Volunteer police forces were formed and Latvians sided with the Germans to fight Bolshevism, encouraged by German promises of a return to independence when the war was over. Latvians, I'm told, quite understandably pursued a policy of 'Stop the Russians first then turn our guns on the Germans.'

There was a significant element of Nazi-sympathising thugs though, especially in the notorious Arajs Kommando, which, fuelled by unlimited supplies of vodka and a pitiless attitude towards their victims, helped the Germans wipe out Latvia's Jewish population almost as soon as they completed their occupation of the country. (see earlier post 'Rivers of blood in Rezekne' and below for more on the Arajs Kommando.)

See this statement on the position of the Legion in the war years from the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs: http://www.am.gov.lv/en/policy/history/legion-kalnins/

In February 1943 Hitler ordered all Latvian men of fighting age to be conscripted into the German Army. Because doing this directly violated international law, the Latvians were described as 'volunteers'. In effect, according to descendants of Legionnaires, this choice involved joining the new force...  or being shot on the spot.

The resulting 15th and 19th Waffen Grenadier Divisions of the SS fought in battles near Leningrad and into Russia but were deployed in defensive lines across Latvia as the Russians gained the upper hand and pushed the Nazis back.

Things came to a head on either side of the field in central Latvia pictured at the top of this blog entry in late September and early October 1944.

But first a word about the Arajs Kommando, gathered from Wikipaedia:

The Arajs Kommando (also: Sonderkommando Arajs), led by SS-Sturmbannführer Viktors Arājs, was a unit of Latvian Auxiliary Police (German: Lettische Hilfspolizei) subordinated to the Nazi SD. It was one of the more well-known and notorious killing units during the Holocaust.

This group, composed of Latvian men, made contact with the leader of Einsatzgruppe A, Walter Stahlecker, in early July 1941, immediately following the German capture of Riga. All of the Arajs Kommando members were volunteers, and free to leave at any time.[1]

The Arajs Kommando unit actively participated in a variety of Nazi atrocities, including the killing of Jews, Roma, and mental patients, as well as punitive actions and massacres of civilians along Latvia's eastern border with the Soviet Union.[1] The Kommando killed around 26,000 Jews in total.[2] Most notably, the unit took part in the mass execution of Jews from the Riga ghetto, and several thousand Jews deported from Germany, at Rumbula on November 30 and December 8, 1941. (ED: Vilani is another: http://www.memorialmuseums.org/eng/denkmaeler/view/1012/Denkmal-Welonen)

Some of Arājs's men also served as guards at the Salaspils concentration camp.[3] (ED: see this obit from The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2001/nov/12/guardianobituaries.warcrimes)

As can be seen in contemporary Nazi newsreels, part of a documentation campaign to create the image that the Holocaust in the Baltics was a local, and not Nazi-directed activity, the Arajs Kommando figured prominently in the burning of Riga's Great (Choral) Synagogue on 4 July 1941. Commemoration of this event has been chosen for marking Holocaust Memorial Day in present-day Latvia.

The unit numbered about 300-500 men during the period that it participated in the killing of the Latvian Jewish population, and reached up to 1,500 members at its peak at the height of its involvement in anti-partisan operations in 1942.

In the final phases of the war, the unit was disbanded and its personnel transferred to the Latvian Legion.

It's important to distinguish between Nazi killers like the Arajs Kommando and regular Latvian youths forced into frontline battalions on pain of death following the huge losses suffered by the Germans at Stalingrad and in the push east.
Scene of the Legion's stand against the Red Army at More

As the Russians forced the Germans back the Latvian Legion was increasingly in the front line defensively: the Russians put their Latvian soldiers up against them so in some places there were Latvian-on-Latvian clashes. Valdis Lumans (author of Latvia in World War Two) puts the number of Latvians in German ranks at 110,294, including 31,446 in the front line Waffen SS battalions, with Legionnaires totalling 87, 750 and the rest police, border guards and auxiliaries.

Though fighting for Hitler, these men were not short of courage. Of 67 men who received the highest German military decorations, 33 were Latvian. The remaining 34 came from ten different nations. (source: Janis Vejins, publisher, in an introduction to 'Battle at More' by Legion commander Rolands Kovtunenko)

The number of Latvians fighting for the Red Army against the Germans (and their fellow countrymen) increased considerably as the Soviets occupied the country: Lumans puts this figure at around 100,000 as well. The Russians awarded 17,000 military commendation medals for valour to the Latvian Red Army brigade, which shows they did not take a passive role in this conflict.

The Legion faced the Red Army from this wood
In September 1944 the Red Army launched an assault towards Riga against the German-built defensive line at More, about 60k north-east of the capital. The extensive trench positions in this wood were filled almost exclusively by soldiers from the 19th Latvian division, outnumbered almost ten to one by Soviet forces.

Artillery, aircraft and tanks supported the assault, across that stretch of no man's land in the top picture. The wood became a hell as men fought hand-to-hand, shells burst, tanks fired machine guns at close range and positions changed hands and then back. Heavy fighting continued for ten days until More was abandoned by the German army on October 5-6 and occupied by the Soviets, who lost 2,000 men in the action.

There were indeed historical consequences: the Germans used the delay won by the Legion to withdraw from Riga and the Russian march into the city met with no resistance, so the capital was not destroyed.

At More there's a memorial stone which lists the 186 Legionnaires who fell or whose bodies were never recovered from the wood - or who perhaps slipped away in the night to take their chances as deserters.

There's also an informal and informative museum about the battle just nearby, which includes military hardware and weapons recovered from the wood and surrounding swamps, including a T-34 tank.

(More Museum is at www.moresmuzejs.lv: information leaflets which I've quoted from here are available in Latvian and English).

A little further down the road is a cemetery containing the remains of 117 of the Legionnaires killed at More between September 25 1944 and October 6, 1944.

In 1988 the veterans' organisation Daugavas Vanagi organised the reburial of their remains with information about their grave sites, together with a monument, which was unveiled on November 11, 1990. Soviet special forces blew the monument up on December 5th, 1990.

Undeterred, the sculptor made another.

Memorials to the Legion have proved controversial, and modern politics have hijacked the memorial day of March 16, when fascist and anti-fascist parties demonstrate either for or against the Legion, while others simply lay wreaths and remember the dead.
(More on Legion Day at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latvian_Legion_Day)

The war wasn't simple then, and it isn't simple now, and even remembering the dead has become twisted and difficult. Surely no-one wants to honour psychopathic brutes drunk on vodka and Jewish blood..  but isn't it time Latvians got a grip on this and sorted it out? It's twenty years since the end of the Soviet era and while today's recession may focus minds on day-to-day survival, there's a very twisted and painful past to straighten out.

No comments:

Post a Comment