World War II Rewriting Latvian History
Russian President Vladimir Putin is planning to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II by celebrating former Soviet might. But for the Baltic states the day of liberation from the Nazis was also the day of occupation by the Soviets. For this reason, the Latvian president is demanding clarification for Stalin's crimes.
Latvia is leading the charge to rewrite post-World War II history to reflect the suffering it endured under the communists.
Former Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin would be turning over in his grave if he could hear what's now being said about him on the second floor of his former summer residence in the Latvian Baltic seaside resort of Yurmala. The conversation is no friendlier when it comes to his cronies, members of the privileged Communist "master race." They came to Latvia in 1944 to "occupy" the country and ostensibly deported its residents to Siberia or drove them into exile. And it was all done under the pretext of stamping out fascism. Now, after years of silence, Latvians have finally decided to put an end to the deliberate concealment of Soviet crimes.
Or, at least their president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, has. Other than living in his beach villa, she has practically nothing in common with former Soviet leader Kosygin and his world. Today, dressed as severely as her manner is stern, she holds court in the Soviet prime minister's former living room, flanked by a Burmese cat and a small black ball of fur named Fumi. For Vike-Freiberga, a former psychology professor, the past is a hot-button topic.
Ever since she announced that she would find it difficult to attend the festivities in Moscow to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in May, Vike-Freiberga has been making waves beyond Latvia's borders. As long as Russia refuses to publicly apologize for its "subjugation of Central and Eastern Europe after the war," she said, Russia cannot be seen as the equal of other countries in the free world when it comes to freedom, democracy and human rights.
On May 9, 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin, accompanied by US President George W. Bush, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and 56 other heads of state, will attend a parade in Moscow in honor of the Red Army. But for Vike-Freiberga, it will not be a day for rejoicing: "The defeat of the Nazis did not result in the liberation of my country. Instead, the three Baltic states, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, were subjected to a brutal occupation by yet another foreign, totalitarian regime -- the Soviet Union."
Detonating an old bomb
Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga says she would have trouble attending ceremonies commemorating the end of World War II in Moscow. She wants recognition that the Soviets were brutal occupiers, not liberators of her country.
It's as if a forgotten World War II bomb had suddenly been detonated. The Baltic states were the only victims of Hitler's war of aggression whose sovereignty was not reestablished after 1945, not even to a limited extent. The three republics, independent between 1920 and 1940, disappeared completely and were absorbed into the Soviet Union for almost half a century.
Only since the victory of the "singing revolution" in 1991, and since what Latvians call the "third awakening," which began in the form of a human chain running from the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, to Riga in Latvia and ending in the Estonian capital of Tallinn, have the citizens of the Baltic states been able to begin writing their own history. Of course, their perspective differs markedly from that portrayed in Soviet history books.
In the Baltic states, Europe's tragedies of the past century are preserved like flies in amber, miniatures of a time gone by. The Baltic process of self-discovery is once again raising uncomfortable questions about the past, questions about whether tyrants like Hitler and Stalin can -- in fact, must -- be placed on the same level, and questions about the unique nature of the Holocaust, questions that have become a hot topic for debate among German historians.
Latvia was occupied by Soviet troops in June 1940, attacked by Nazi Germany in June 1941 and, in 1945, retaken by the Soviets. Leftists call the arrival of the Soviets in 1945 "liberation," but the president and the country's nationalists prefer the term "occupation." Close to 100,000 Latvians died in the conflict, on both sides of the front, leaving deep divisions within the people.
The SS or the Soviets -- bitter choices
Russian President Valdimir Putin responded with a curt thank you when handed a Latvian version of their post-war history during this trip to Auschwitz.
The words "For Fatherland and Freedom" are inscribed in the base of a 1935 bronze female figure, which managed to survive both the Nazi and Soviet occupations unharmed. The war veterans, each of whom receives a monthly pension of up to 150 from Germany, lay wreaths at the foot of the memorial. Some greet each other with the words "Heil Hitler" and complain a bit about the "hexagonalists," their term for those who wear the Star of David and, as they believe, continue to promote a Jewish global conspiracy.
"Better to drown in clear German water than in Russian shit, that was our motto," says an old soldier, as he and his former comrades head to Riga's 13th-century St. John's Church to listen to the words of the legion's aging pastor, Arved Celm. The partition of the Latvian people, which often led to members of the same family fighting for either the Soviets or the Germans in 1944 and 1945, is alive and well, says the pastor: "This partition did not end on May 8, 1945."
Raivis Dzintar, a young man fashionably dressed in a black coat and white scarf, is one of a group of people who have formed an honor guard for the veterans, waving Latvian flags outside the church. Dzintar is the chairman of a movement called "Everything for Latvia." He writes an opinion column in the country's largest newspaper, with a circulation of 220,000, and also happens to be a guest author for a newsletter filled with neo-Nazi invective.
That afternoon, at a cemetery for members of the 15th and 19th divisions of the Weapons SS in the village of Lestene, Dzintar speaks to veterans and fellow right-wingers in an icy snowstorm. "Nazi Germany lost the war," he says, "but the battle fought by the Latvian Legionnaires was not lost, nor has it ended." The battle he's talking about is the struggle between Latvians dressed in the uniforms of the SS and Russian occupiers.
That evening, the young nationalist leader sits in a restaurant in the old section of Riga. He wears a signet ring bearing an emblematic likeness of a swastika, and he talks about the legacy of the younger generation's fathers, men who resisted the Bolsheviks. "We should learn to appreciate the heroic acts these men accomplished for their people," he says.
The same story sounds a little different in the Jewish Theater at Skolas Street 6, just behind the old city, where Margers Vestermanis asks: "Who committed all the murders in the first two months, when the German police weren't organized yet?" He says that 35,000 Jews were liquidated in the first 100 days after the German invasion -- 30,000 by Latvian murderers.
- Part 1: Rewriting Latvian History
- Part 2: One of Latvia's last Jewish survivors tells his heroic story