The heated exchanges between David Miliband and leading Conservatives over the proposed co-operation between Tory MEPs and the Latvian Fatherland and Freedom party in the European parliament seem, at first sight, to revolve around arcane historical issues. The rightwing, nationalist Latvians, seen by the Tories as partners at Strasbourg, stand accused of supporting the parade of war veterans that takes place each year on 16 March in Riga, the Latvian capital. This would not be a problem were it not for the fact that the parade includes former soldiers who fought in the Latvian Waffen SS. Worse, some of the volunteers who served in the Waffen SS were implicated in the mass murder of Latvia’s Jews.
But why should this concern anyone apart from “Holocaust obsessives”?
The answer is that the Tories’ dalliance with far-right parties in eastern Europe will affect the way that history is interpreted and this, in turn, will have a profound impact on the future. It threatens to derail the progress that former Soviet bloc countries are making towards pluralism and diversity – something that ought to concern all of us.
The story of Latvian military collaboration with the Germans between 1941 and 1945 cannot be divorced from Latvia’s suffering under Soviet occupation in 1940-41. Under the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, Hitler purchased Stalin’s agreement to the partition of Poland at the price of conceding Soviet domination of the Baltic states. In June 1940, the Red Army occupied Latvia and, over the following year, tens of thousands of Latvians were deported to Siberia; few returned.
Meanwhile, Latvians who escaped to Germany worked with the Nazi secret services and the army in preparation for the German attack on the USSR. When the Wehrmacht overran the country in July 1941, the Germans were welcomed as liberators. Hundreds of Latvians signed on as auxiliaries with the SS killing squads and turned on the country’s Jewish population.
Paradoxically, Latvia had treated its Jewish population quite well during the 1920s and 1930s. But a few Russian Jews had been prominent in the occupation regime and some local communist collaborators were nominally Jewish. The population easily swallowed the Nazi lie that all Jews were Bolsheviks. Following the arrival of the Germans, thousands of Jews in rural towns were slaughtered in a wave of spontaneous and organised massacres. On 30 November and 8 December 1941, 24,000 Riga Jews were shot dead in the Bikernieki woods outside Riga.
A Latvian volunteer militia led by Viktors Arajs, operating under the Nazi security police, played a leading part in the massacres, hunting down Jews and communists. Latvian volunteers eventually manned several police regiments. These local militias participated in the seizure of Jewish property and guarded the Jewish population that was now confined to a ghetto. They also supplied “shooters” for the mass-murder operations.
In September 1941, the Germans formed three Latvian police battalions into an SS infantry brigade. During the winter of 1941-42, the Germans threw more police volunteers into the line. They fought well. In early 1943, the Germans raised a Latvian Waffen SS Division, the 15th. A year later, it was joined by the 19th Latvian Waffen SS Volunteer Division, formed from police regiments and remnants of the first volunteer brigade. By 1944, many of the men serving in these formations were conscripts; but the core were veterans of volunteer units that had a bloody history of murdering Jews and Communists, and carrying out vicious “anti-partisan” operations.
When the Red Army overran Latvia in 1944-45, most collaborators fled with the retreating Germans. The 19th Latvian Waffen SS Division ended up trapped in the Courland Peninsula. Elements of the 15th Latvian Waffen SS Division were among the last defenders of Hitler’s bunker. But thousands managed to reach the British zone of occupation in northern Germany. They presented themselves as the double victims of Soviet and German aggression and were treated as bona fide refugees.
In 1947, the Labour government permitted thousands of Latvian men, now classified as “displaced persons”, to enter the UK as voluntary workers. The screening process to which they were subjected was cursory. As a consequence, hundreds of Latvians who were implicated in war crimes ended up in Britain working on farms, in factories and down the mines.
In Latvia itself, thousands of collaborators were sentenced to years of hard labour in prison camps. Another wave of deportations in 1945-46 carried off still more. Until 1990, any expression of Latvian nationalism was penalised. Swaths of the country were settled by Russians, mostly veterans of the Red Army and Soviet security services. By the time Latvia recovered its independence, a substantial minority of the population was Russian. The collapse of Soviet rule prevented an irreversible Russification of the country.
Having recovered their independence, Latvians honoured all those who had resisted the Red Army. At first, they were totally undiscriminating. However, in 1998-99 protests by Jews in Latvia and abroad, as well as pressure from western countries, persuaded the government to withdraw support for the annual Latvian Waffen SS reunion and parade.
In 1998, the first president of newly independent Latvia, Guntis Ulmanis, set up a commission of historians to inquire into crimes against humanity under the German and Soviet occupations. He realised that if Latvia was going to integrate into Nato and the EU, it was going to have to make a public show of facing its past. His efforts were continued by his successor, the savvy north American-raised Vaira Vike-Freiberga.
The historical commission, which included overseas experts, published a series of well-researched reports and held a string of widely publicised conferences. Education and outreach projects carried the work into schools and colleges. Young Latvians learned about the terrible fate of the Jewish population under the Nazis, as well as the more familiar agony of Soviet oppression. Despite a good deal of ambivalence, especially when it came to prosecuting alleged war criminals, Latvia acknowledged the extent of local collaboration with the Nazis. There are now impressive memorials to the Jews slaughtered in the Rumbula forest and at Bikernieki outside Riga. The Jewish Museum in the city offers a comprehensive account of the genocide on Latvian soil.
However, there are Latvian nationalists who refuse to see the collaborators as anything less than freedom fighters, who treat the mass murder of the Jews as either a German crime or something that the Jews brought on themselves thanks to their alleged pro-Bolshevik attitude. Their views are amplified in the state War Museum and in the Museum of Occupation, inspired and largely funded by emigres based in the US. In these grim displays, the murder of the Jews gets, at best, a laconic treatment. The genocide they suffered is routinely equated with the plight of the Latvians under Russian rule. There is more than a hint that the Jews deserved what they got.
By allying with rightwingers who propound this distorted view of the past, the Conservatives are implicitly giving legitimacy to their narrative. This is not just a matter of historical interpretation; it has implications for public policy today and in the future. It is a version of the past that justified discrimination against the Russian minority in post-independence Latvia. It is a national story that militates against cosmopolitanism and works, instead, in favour of an exclusive identity. To befriend these extremists is to betray the democrats and pluralists in Latvia who, since 1991, have worked so hard to tell the truth about their country’s tragic experiences under two totalitarian regimes.
David Cesarani, a research professor in history at Royal Holloway, University of London.