Caught between Stalin and Hitler, some Latvians made a “devil’s pact” with the Nazis.
The origins of World War II’s Latvian Legion are found in the diplomatic and military events of 1939-41, when the Baltic peoples found themselves being traded back and forth between Communist dictator Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union and Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s Germany. The two men, avowed ideological enemies whose countries had persistently vilified each another, treated the Baltic republics as mere pawns in a game of great power expediency. Shockingly, however, the two sides found common ground at 2 a.m. on August 24, 1939.
Early that morning in Moscow’s fortress-like Kremlin, Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov concluded a nonaggression pact and a series of secret agreements that partitioned Poland and assigned the Baltic republics – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – to the Soviets. Hitler,having assured through the pact that Germany would avoid a two-front war, invaded Poland September 1, starting a six-year conflagration that would leave much of Europe a graveyard littered with millions of dead.
Stalin’s armies crossed the Polish border September 17 and quickly moved to the dividing line agreed to with his new ally, Hitler. In October, with eastern Poland occupied, the Soviets forced upon the Baltic republics cynically named “mutual assistance” treaties permitting the Red Army to station forces at key strategic locations. All three Baltic nations then received a brief reprieve as the Soviets waged the 1939-40Winter War with Finland.
In May 1940, however, with the Finnish war successfully concluded, and after the Nazi conquest of Denmark, Norway, Holland,Belgium and France, Stalin again focused on the Baltic republics by issuing an ultimatum for them to create “Soviet-friendly” governments. Rigged elections were held July 21, and all three Baltic states created Soviet Socialist Republics and “requested” admission to the USSR – Stalin, of course, quickly granted the carefully stage-managed “requests.” The Soviets then began a “Red Terror” campaign of systematic repression, purges, deportations and murder of potential political oppositionists.
In Latvia, thousands of young men took to the woods and formed anti-communist partisan bands known as the Forest Brothers that attacked Soviet facilities and isolated military units when possible. (See ACG’s “Forest Brothers” article in the July 2013 issue.) The majority ofLatvian Jews attempted a middle course of neutrality; however, manysupported the Communists, some out of ideological conviction and others as protection against Nazi death squads after the June 22, 1941,German invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa. This burgeoning split between Jewish and non-Jewish Latvians would have tragic consequences during the German occupation of the country.
Soviet repression – officially termed “An Operation to Cleanse the Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian Soviet Socialist Republics of Anti-Soviet, Criminal and Socially Dangerous Elements” – reached its peak the week before the commencement of Operation Barbarossa.Approximately 40,000 people were rounded up by Stalin’s henchmen and sent to brutal forced labor camps near the Arctic Circle in Karelia or Siberia. Having controlled the Baltic countries only a year, Stalin managed to deport over 130,000 of their citizens. Prit Buttar, author of Between Giants: The Battle for the Baltics in World War II, estimates that 40 percent of deportees died in transit.
The trains loaded with deportees slowly snaking their way across the Soviet Union’s vast open spaces had not yet reached their destinations when the German army smashed into Lithuania and rolled smoothly on to Riga, reaching the Latvian capital July 1. The Balts,reeling from the horrific experience of Stalin’s “Red Terror,” enthusiastically welcomed the Nazis as liberators. Members of the right wing nationalist/fascist anti-Semitic Thunder Cross Party (Perkonkrusts) and individuals bent on revenge immediately formed gangsand began killing Jews. These volunteer killers became Latvia’s vanguard in Hitler’s war against the Jews, the Holocaust.
Thousands of Latvians aided the Nazis by joining German organizations and military units, including the Luftwaffe. A month after Operation Barbarossa began, the Nazis assembled an auxiliary police force (Ordnungs-Hilfspolizei) of approximately 3,000 Latvian men comprising five companies. The number of police units grew exponentially over the next year. Some fought alongside front-line German army units in Russia, others fought partisans or carried out guard or logistical duties, and some rounded up and killed Jews. The notorious Sonderkommando Arajs, named after Thunder Cross leader Viktors Arajs, was responsible for the cold-blooded murder of at least 26,000Jews. Latvian military leadership and Latvian civilians in the German-appointed government pushed to merge these widely dispersed police units into a larger all-Latvian combat force.
By January 1943, the Battle of Stalingrad was in its final phase and German units were losing huge numbers of soldiers. A partial solution to Germany’s manpower shortage was to create volunteer legions or divisions from Nazi-occupied countries for the Waffen SS by pitching the war in Russia as an anti-Bolshevik crusade – a war for “civilization.” On January 23, SS chief Heinrich Himmler received Hitler’s approval to form a Latvian SS Volunteer Legion, eventually to be composed of two Waffen SS volunteer divisions.
Already deeply anti-Bolshevik, the Latvians shared the Germans’ goal of defeating the Soviets; for them, however, the greatest appeal of a legion was that it could be the basis for building a national army that would restore Latvian independence. While some legionnaires were fascists, most suffered no illusions about their predicament. As one wrote: “We have no friends either in the east or the west. They only want to rule and be overlords, which is why we now want – and perhaps even more so at a later time – to fight for independence.” Many of the volunteers were former members of the Latvian army or former policemen who deeply regretted that they had not fought the initial 1939 Soviet military incursions.For them, the legion provided an opportunity for redemption and revenge as well as the possibility of future independence.
In response to Hitler’s go-ahead, two Latvian police battalions were pulled from the front line and trained along with a third. This new unit established an all-volunteer Latvian Legion that returned to combat to participate in the siege of Leningrad and saw limited but fierce action. In February, in an effort to expand the legion, the Germans created 15th Waffen SS-Grenadier Division (1st Latvian), an organization plagued with difficulties that needed time to come together as a unit. In May, the Latvian Legion was pulled from the siege and reorganized as 2d Latvian SS Volunteer Brigade. Recruitment had begun in Riga in mid-February and soon nearly 1,000 untrained volunteers were sent as replacements.
Second Latvian SS Volunteer Brigade was assigned to a quiet sector of the Leningrad front honeycombed with lakes,rivers and mosquito-infested swamps that soldiers called the “end of the world.” The high-water table forced the legionnaires to construct log roads and above ground log fortifications that all too often flooded. Relationships with the German military were not always smooth, and disagreements occurred over poor training, inadequate equipment and the Latvians’ desire for Latvian officers to command the legion.
In November, 15th Waffen SS-Grenadier Division (1st Latvian) – hardly combat-ready but with its numbers restored to division size by new recruits – was assigned to a sector of German Army Group North on the southern edge of Leningrad next to 2d Latvian SS Volunteer Brigade. Despite obvious deficiencies,the 15th was able to hold its ground against Russian attacks.
In January 1944, the 2d expanded once again and became 19th Waffen SS-Grenadier Division (2d Latvian). The Latvian divisions fighting south of Lake Peipus now constituted VI SS Volunteer Corps, which retreated in the face of the surging Red Army and tumbled into poorly prepared defensive positions along the Velikaya River christened the Panther Line.The harrowing retreat in deep snow and below-zero temperatures amid repeated attacks by bands of partisans took its toll on the Latvian divisions. In April, toward the end of the Soviet winter offensive, 15th Latvian, despite an extraordinary effort, was shattered and pulled from the line. Meanwhile, 19th Latvian, although severely depleted, held its ground and was spared as the spring thaw brought the Soviet advance to a halt.
The main thrust of the huge 1944 Soviet summer offensive, however, did not fall on Army Group North but rather on Army Group Center. The Soviets launched Operation Bagration June 22, the third anniversary of Barbarossa. They quickly penetrated German lines and literally chased the retreating Germans across Belarus and into Latvia and Lithuania in early July. Army Group North’s right flank was now dangerously exposed and at risk of being cutoff, and the army had been weakened by troop transfers to Army Group Center in a desperate effort to stop the Soviet advance. The Soviets seized this opportunity and attacked across the southern flank of Army Group North. The Latvian Legion and the rest of Army Group North hastily retreated west.
Bad news reached 15th Division when word arrived that advancing Red Army units had reached the Gulf of Riga July 31. Persistently harassed by partisans and hounded by the Soviet army, one of 15th Division’s regiments was completely destroyed. Many men from both Latvian divisions deserted, heading for home hoping to protect their families and to avoid capture.
The legion regrouped just inside the Latvian border, where 15th Latvian turned over its heavy equipment to 19th Latvian and then was withdrawn for refitting and eventually reassigned to the East Prussia front. To bolster the 15th’splummeting numbers, the notorious Jew-killing Sonderkommando Arajs was assigned to the division, which participated in a long and difficult retreat from Pomerania. The losses were of such magnitude that 15th Division was downsized to a regiment. Several battalions, approximately3,000 men, were captured by the Soviets. Two Latvian battalions sent to defend Berlin purposely avoided combat, maneuvering around the city to the south and then marching west.The last remnants of what had once been 15thWaffen SS-Grenadier Division (1st Latvian), about 800 officers and men, surrendered to the Americans April 25, 1945.
Yet 19th Waffen SS-Grenadier Division (2d Latvian) ended the war differently than did the 15th. In August 1944, with the Soviet army poised to reconquer Latvia, the call for volunteers to defend the homeland was sounded throughout the country. Thousands responded, and three new battalions were raised and assigned to the 19th.
Throughout autumn, fierce fighting continued in Estonia and Lithuania and outside Riga as Army Group North backed up and retreated into Courland – 30 German divisions were trapped there, including the 19th. But instead of treating the Courland pocket as a “holding pen,” the Soviets engaged in a series of six determined efforts to annihilate the surrounded Germans. Costly, bloody fighting continued until May 8, 1945, when approximately 5,000 soldiers of 19th Waffen SS-Grenadier Division (2d Latvian), along with an additional 9,000 Latvians in other German units, surrendered to the Soviets. The Latvian Legion was no more. Some officers were executed and the rest were sent to labor camps, as were the soldiers from the 15th who had surrendered earlier. Over half died in captivity. Between 1949 and 1956, those who survived were finally released.
Others in the Courland pocket refused to give up. As many as 3,000 Latvian soldiers and a few Germans made for the woods and the cities to become Forest Brothers and to continue their fight against the Communists. However, the Forest Brothers were ruthlessly hunted, and this, coupled with mass deportations, ended any effective resistance by spring 1947 (although a few diehards hid out until a last surrender in 1957). The return of Latvian independence so arduously sought by the legion and those Latvians who made their “devil’s pact” with the Nazis was finally achieved in 1991.
Dr. Hal Elliott Wert is a professor of history at the Kansas City Art Institute. He has written a number of scholarly articles on various aspects of World War II, published two articles in the British magazine “History Today,” and written many book reviews for the “Journal of Military History” and “Military Review.”
Originally published in the March 2015 issue of Armchair General.