Atis Lejiņš, member of LATO, honorary director of the Latvian Institute of International Affairs
At a time when old and new threats make themselves increasingly felt (terrorism, climate change, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Israeli-Palestine conflict, Iran) and a new world order is emerging with China and India as super powers, Latvia is the only country in the world where the Second World War has still not ended. Can such a state meet the challenges poised by the 21st century?
Why do the dates March 16 and May 9 awake tension and negative emotions?
There were three men in my immediate family circle who fought in the so-called Latvian legion : Konstantīns who voluntarily enlisted because he wanted to avenge his deported parents in the Year of Terror ; Jānis who was mobilized, and thus had no choice; and Vincis, who enlisted of his own free will at the age of 17 because he didn’t want to marry a woman ten years older than he. His mother had arranged the wedding. All are now resting in peace in Australia, America, and Latvia.
I also knew another Jānis, who fought in the Red Latvian Division that defended Moscow. He ended up in exile in Stockholm and was a member of the Latvian Social Democratic Workers’ Party’s Foreign Committee. He didn’t spare himself in the struggle for the restoration of Latvia’s independence.
I will relate three episodes told to me by my uncles and the former Red Army soldier.
In extreme cold Jānis of the Latvian legion roamed the front lines searching for his bunker. In the dark he found one from which he could hear music. He yanked the door open – before him sat Russians and one was playing an accordion. Amazed they stared at Jānis in total silence. Jānis apologised and, retreating, banged the door shut. The music resumed. The terrible frost had transformed enemies into human beings.
Vincis heard the sounds of the Latvian language carried across the river from the other side where the enemy was camped. Soon his unit gathered at the bank of the river while the enemy did the same on the opposite side. Instead of bullets, a whole barrage of questions and answers flew across the water: where are you from, which school did you attend? Is so and so still alive? How’s your food? This went on all through the night. Both sides didn’t go to sleep. Next morning they were too tired to fight.
Jānis of the Red Latvian Division questioned the Russian High Command policy of sending soldiers into senseless assaults. He was sentenced to death. The Russians, however, were afraid of the Latvians – the division could rise in mutiny! Jānis was summoned to appear but instead of a bullet he was given a glass of „blue” vodka and a bite of bacon. The Germans scattered leaflets from airplanes urging Latvians to surrender and promising them that they would not be compelled to fight on the German side. Jānis took his company across the front line and surrendered. The Germans kept their word, and soon he became active in the underground of the Latvian resistance movement led by the Latvian Central Council. He was responsible for the clandestine transportation of several hundred refugees to Sweden.
Why does not Estonia, which also had a „voluntary” Waffen SS division (but only one), go through a similar March 16 ordeal? The Estonian President Tomass Hendryk Ylvess gave me the answer – “we appealed to our legionnaires not to go out in the streets after commemoration services in the churches because this would draw fire as a political manifestation.” Spokesmen for the Latvian Transatlantic Organization succeeded in convincing the former legionnaires to refrain from going out in the streets after church commemoration services for several years while Latvia was preparing to join NATO. When we did join, everything started all over again – spokesmen from certain political groups turned up and persuaded the legionnaires to „march again” (shuffle would be the right term) after the services. The point is that LATO is an NGO, not the government, as was in the case in Estonia.
The Lithuanian local administration dared to resist Nazi Germany’s orders and no legion was established. Instead a powerful underground army was organized that inflicted heavy casualties on the Soviet army and KGB units when they liberated Lithuania from the Germans. Who can fault them for that?
In Russia people suffer from an identity problem after the collapse of the Soviet empire. The victory over Nazi Germany has remained as almost the only positive achievement. But the war was begun by two – Hitler and Stalin! May 9th is not just a day of commemoration, but also a political manifestation. This attitude compels Russia to try and regain her superpower status by endeavoring to militarily compete with China, the EU, and the USA. This is doomed to fail from the very beginning – a poor Russia with only 140 million people cannot do it. A good part of the young Russians growing up in Latvia already feel they belong to Latvia. But are we able to reach them?
Why can’t we follow Estonia’s example? If not, why not? And has not March 16 grown into a mutation wherein we confuse our guilty consciousness in caving in to Moscow in 1939 without offering even token resistance with Greater Germany’s epic battle with the USSR? March 16 is not independent Latvia’s army day.
Is it not best to remember our fallen legionnaires, who believed in their hearts that they fought for Latvia, on the day when the Germans smashed the kurelieshu movement in Kurzeme at the end of 1944? Were not the soldiers of that movement putting into practice the words of the popular song sung by the legionnaires which we all know by heart – our weapons are aimed against both occupying powers? It is somewhat strange that we hardly want to remember the kurelieshu movement, but was not General Kurelis, the commander, our second Kalpaks? Have we forgotten that the 19th division planed to rise up against the Germans while retreating through Riga and proclaim Latvia a free state again? Even if it was to last only a few days before the Russians arrived? The fact that the division was diverted away from Riga and retreated to Kurzeme in a roundabout maneuver doesn’t change anything.
I think that this kind of approach will help us to regain our national values, cultivate political wisdom, and thereby with confidence tackle the challenges poised by this century.
Translated from the original Latvian, published in Latvijas Avīze, March 20, 2010