Latvian Legion

Latvian Legion

The Latvian Legion was a formation of the Waffen-SS consisting primarily of ethnic Latvians. The Latvian Legion was formed November 13 1943, when the Latvian Self Administration took over mobilization from the Germans.Fact|date=May 2008 The 15th Division was administratively subordinated to the VIth SS Volunteer Corps, but operationally it was in reserve at the disposal of the XXXXIIIrd Army Corps, 16th Army, Army Group North.cite book | author = Hugh Page Taylor and Roger James Bender | title = Uniforms, Organization and History of the Waffen-SS - Vol. 5 | publisher = R. James Bender Publishing | year = 1982 | id = ISBN 0-912138-25-4] The 19th Division remained active in the Courland Pocket until May 1945, when it was among the last of Nazi Germany's forces to surrender at the close of World War II.

The legion consisted of two divisions of the Waffen-SS:
*15th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Latvian)
*19th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (2nd Latvian)


The Latvian Legion was created in January 1943 on the orders of Adolf Hitler following a request by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. Technically, it was a volunteer unit, but one month after the unit was founded, German occupation authorities in Latvia started conscripting military age men. They were given a choice between "volunteering" for SS Waffen legions, serving in the German army (Wehrmacht) as "auxiliaries" (laborers behind the front lines), commanded by German officers and often treated as subhumans, or being sent to a slave labor camp in Germany. Those who tried to avoid one of those options were arrested and sent to concentration camps.cite book | author = Visvaldis Mangulis | title = Latvia in the wars of the 20th century | publisher = Princeton Junction, New Jersey | year = 1983 | id = ISBN 0-912881-00-3] As a result, only 15-20% of the soldiers serving in the legion were actual volunteers.cite book | author = Edvīns Brūvelis | title = Latviešu leģionāri / Latvian legionnaires | publisher = Daugavas vanagi | year = 2005 | oclc = 66394978]

With Nazi Germany losing the war, conscription was extended to larger and larger numbers of Latvians. The first conscription, in 1943, applied to all Latvian men born from 1919 to 1924. The subsequent conscriptions extended to Latvians born between 1906 and 1928.

The division commanders and most of the staff were German SS officers. The individual combat regiments were typically commanded by Latvian officers.

On July 1, 1944 the Latvian Legion had 87,550 men. Another 23,000 Latvians were serving as Wehrmacht "auxiliaries". cite book | author = Visvaldis Mangulis | title = Latvia in the wars of the 20th century | publisher = Princeton Junction, New Jersey | year = 1983 | id = ISBN 0-912881-00-3]

Motivations of Latvian Legion Soldiers

Soldiers serving in the Legion did not share Nazi ideology and were not completely loyal to Germany. A report by the commander of the 15th Division, Oberführer Adolf Ax on January 27, 1945 says: "They are first and foremost Latvians. They want a sustainable Latvian nation state. Forced to choose between Germany and Russia, they have chosen Germany, because they seek co-operation with western civilization. The rule of the Germans seems to them to be the lesser two evils." [ Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia: The Volunteer SS Legion in Latvia] , retrieved: 2007-05-16.] For some, this choice was the result of Soviet occupation between 1940 and 1941 during which tens of thousands of Latvian families were executed or deported to Siberia.

Some soldiers believed that, if they helped Germany win the war, Latvia might be rewarded by independence or autonomy. This naive hope was consciously exploited by the legion command, which would emphasize the fact that the legion was fighting against Bolshevism and underemphasise the Nazi ideology.

Another hope was that the legion would fight off Soviet Union, until it was no longer dangerous to Latvia and then turn the arms against Nazi Germany, as a repeat of the Latvian War of Independence of 1918-1920, when Latvia managed to fight off both Soviets and Germany. This was reflected in one of the most popular legion songs which went "We will beat the Russians now and we will beat the Germans after that" (with euphemisms for Russians and Germans).cite book | author = Edvīns Brūvelis | title = Latviešu leģionāri / Latvian legionnaires | publisher = Daugavas vanagi | year = 2005 | oclc = 66394978]

Due to their shortage of manpower in the second half of World War II, the German Army tolerated a less-than-fully loyal legion.

Military Operations

The first Latvian Legion unit was the 2nd Latvian SS brigade, created in February 1943. It fought its first battle defending German positions near Leningrad, opposite the Pulkovo observatory on March 18, 1943. It continued fighting around Leningrad until the German forces retreated in January 1944.

The 15th Waffen-SS Division was formed and sent to the front in November 1943. Originally, it was sent to Ostrov and Novosokolniki districts of Pskov Oblast, but after German army suffered setbacks there, was moved to positions in Belebelka district of Novgorod Oblast in January 1944. It retreated from there a month later.

At the end of February 1944, both units took joint defensive positions on the Sorota and Velikaya rivers. At that time, the 2nd brigade was renamed the 19th Waffen-SS division. Over the next two months, these positions saw intense fighting.

In April 1944, the legion was replaced by other units and moved to less active positions in Bardovo-Kudever, 50km east of Opochka. It came under attack there in June 1944 and started to retreat on July 10, 1944, crossing the Latvian-Russian border on July 17.

In August and September 1944, the 15th Division was moved to Prussia, for replenishment with new recruits. It was in training near Danzig until being ordered into battle on January 22, 1945. At that time, the division consisted of about 15,000 soldiers. It fought near Danzig in January and February, retreating to Pomerania in early March. By early April, the division was reduced to 8,000 men. About 1,000 were sent by sea to replenish the forces in Courland Pocket, the rest was lost during the fighting. On April 11, the division was told about the plans to transfer the entire division to Courland. Seeing that the war was lost and understanding that being sent to Courland meant having to surrender to Soviets (infamous for abuse and murder of war prisoners), the division decided to surrender to Western Allies instead, disobeying the German orders, when necessary.

The 19th Division continued to fight in Latvia. In October 1944, the Soviet advances in Lithuania cut off it and other units in Courland Pocket from the rest of German forces. It was a part of the six Grand Battles between Soviet and Nazi armies in Courland Pocket in 1944 and 1945. During third Grand Battle in December 1944, the opposing Soviet units included two Latvian divisions, the 43rd and the 308th, formed from recruits drafted in Soviet-occupied Eastern Latvia. When the Latvian units on both sides of the front faced one another, they were quite unwilling and occasionally disengaged without firing a shot. Soviet command would transfer the Latvian divisions elsewhere after a few days.

Together with other units in the Courland Pocket, the 19th division surrendered to Soviets at the end of the war on May 9, 1945. Some of the Legion soldiers continued fighting Soviets as Forest Brothers for up to 10 years after the end of the war.

War Crimes Involvement

The Latvian Legion was not involved in Holocaust, since it was founded more than a year after Latvian Jews were executed or sent to concentration camps. Some of the Latvian Legion soldiers were, however, part of death squads (such as the infamous Arajs Commando) prior to them joining the legion.

Many Latvian historians insist that the Latvian Legion itself was only a combat unit and did not participate in any war crimes. This is questioned by Russian historians who claim that the legion burned villages and conducted mass executions of Russian civilians during the operations against guerrilla fighters in the parts of Russia occupied by Nazi Germany. This idea, however, is unreal, because latvians were fighting on both sides and killing their family members wasn't their goal.

After World War II

In 1946, Nuremberg tribunal declared the Waffen SS to be a criminal organization, making an exception of people who were forcibly conscripted. Throughout the post-war years, Allies would apply this exception to the soldiers of Latvian Legion and Estonian Legion. US Displaced Persons Commission in September 1950 declared that:

"The Baltic Waffen SS Units (Baltic Legions) are to be considered as separate and distinct in purpose, ideology, activities, and qualifications for membership from the German SS, and therefore the Commission holds them not to be a movement hostile to the Government of the United States." [ Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia: The Volunteer SS Legion in Latvia] , retrieved: 2007-05-16.]

Even before this decision, about 1000 former Latvian Legion soldiers served as guards at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal, guarding Nazi war criminals. This shows that Latvian Legion members were trusted by Allies and not viewed as Nazi collaborators.Fact|date=March 2008

Remarkably, during the Soviet period it was generally acknowledged, that Latvian Legion soldiers were neither Nazis nor war criminals, which sharply contrasts with the current stance of Russia, which uses the Legion issue to assert political and ideological pressure on Latvia on international scene. For example, the Soviet film "I remember everything, Richard" (also known as "Rock and splinters" in its uncut release) made during the 1960s (during Cold War) at the Riga film studio, while being full of Soviet propaganda clichés, clearly illustrates recognition of several essential aspects in regard of Legion soldiers, amongst those: that they were front-line soldiers, they were mostly forcefully conscripted, they were not supporters of Nazi ideology, they were not taking part in Holocaust.

Latvian Legion Day

From 16 to 18 March 1944 a heavy battle was fought on the eastern shore of the Velikaya River for Hill "93,4", a strategically important height for both the Soviet and German armies. It was defended by 15th and 19th Waffen-SS divisions. On the morning of 16 March the Soviet assault began, and the defenders were forced to withdraw, but the Soviets did not manage to break the Latvians' resistance. On 18 March in a counter-attack by the 15th Division led by Colonel Arturs Silgailis the hill was recaptured with minimal losses. After that the Soviets did not try to attack there again. 16 March was the first occasion in WWII when both Latvian divisions fought together in the same battle and was the only battle in WWII led by only Latvian commanders. Thus in the years after the war 16 March was chosen by the Latvian Legion veterans' organisation in Western exile, Daugavas Vanagi, as day of Latvian Legion.

In 1990, Legion veterans started commemorating March 16 in Latvia. In 1998 Latvia's Saeima (parliament) voted this to be an official national remembrance day. The word "Legion" was, however, excluded from the remembrance day's name, in order to include all those who fought against the Soviets, both during WWII, and as resistance fighters afterwards. International pressure forced the Latvian Saeima to remove March 16 from the list of "State remembrance days" in 2000.

March 16 events have been quite confrontational in recent years, with Latvian nationalist organizations (such as All For Latvia! and National Power Unity) marching in support of the Latvian legion and dominantly-Russian organizations (For Human Rights in United Latvia) holding protests and attempting to block the marches. Latvian politicians have distanced themselves from the marches but occasionally attend lower-profile March 16 events, such as remembrance ceremonies at the Lestene cemetery, the main burial ground of Latvian legion soldiers.

ee also

*Luftwaffen-Legion Lettland
*Latvian Riflemen


Further reading

*cite web |url= |title= The Volunteer SS Legion in Latvia|accessdate=2007-05-16 |author= Inesis Feldmanis |coauthors= Kārlis Kangeris |publisher= Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Latvia
*cite book |last= Lumans |first= Valdis O. |title= Latvia in World War II |url= |series= World War II—The Global, Human, and Ethical Dimension 11 |year= 2006 |publisher= Fordham University Press |location= New York |isbn= 978-0-8232-2627-6 |oclc= 64595899

External links

lv icon *
*cite web |url= |title= Latvian legion soldiers at Nuremberg Tribunal |date= 2006-03-16 |publisher= |language= English
*cite web |url= |title= On the participation of the Latvian SS Legion in war crimes |date= 2004-02-12 |publisher= Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation |language= Russian
* [ Latvian Dilemma in a Foreign War] at Museum of the Occupation of Latvia website

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