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The Latvian Legion was a formation of the Waffen-SS during World War II created in 1943 and consisting primarily of ethnic Latvians. The 15th Division was administratively subordinated to the VI SS Volunteer Corps, but operationally it was in reserve or at the disposal of the XXXXIII Army Corps, 16th Army, Army Group North. 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:


Armshield of Latvian legionnaires
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 as close to none were interested. They were given a choice between "volunteering" for SS Waffen legions, serving in the German army (Heer) 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.

As a result, only 15-20% of the soldiers serving in the legion were actual volunteers.

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 13 November, 1943, the collaborationist Latvian Self-Administration took over mobilization from the Germans. On July 1, 1944 the Latvian Legion had 87,550 men. Another 23,000 Latvians were serving as Wehrmacht "auxiliaries".

Motivations of Latvian Legion Soldiers

Soldiers serving in the Legion did not necessarily share Nazi ideology and were not completely loyal to Germany. A report by the commander of the 15th Division, Oberführer Adolf Ax on 27 January, 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 of two evils." For some, this choice was the result of Soviet occupation between 1940 and 1941 called "The Terrible Year" during which tens of thousands of Latvian families were executed or deported to Siberiamarker. In this one year the dislike between Latvians - who were German serfs for 8 centuries and Germans disappeared almost completely.

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 Unionmarker, 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). Also Latvians, like Estonians and to lesser degree Lithuanians, believed that Western powers, especially Britain, will come to aid any time soon, like it did in 1918-1920.

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 Leningradmarker, opposite the Pulkovo observatorymarker on 18 March, 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, 50 km east of Opochkamarker. 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 Danzigmarker until being ordered into battle on 22 January, 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 Lithuaniamarker 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 German 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 the 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 only 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.

After World War II

In 1946, the Nuremberg Tribunalmarker 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. The 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."

Even before this decision, around 1,000 former Latvian Legion soldiers served as guards at the Nuremberg Tribunal, guarding Nazi war criminals. Afterwards, during Berlin Blockade, they took part in securing Allies facilities involved in the Berlin Airlift and later also were guarding USA Army headquarters.

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 the 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.

In 1946 the coalition government of Sweden led by Social Democrats, despite strong protests of Swedish society, extradited to Stalinist USSR soldiers of Latvian Legion (also some Estonian Legion and Lithuanian soldiers) interned in Sweden in an event, which became known as "Baltutlämningen". In the 1990s the Swedish government admitted that this had been a mistake. Surviving Baltic veterans were invited to Sweden in 1994, where they were met by King of Sweden Carl XVI Gustaf and Minister for Foreign affairs of Sweden Märta Margaretha af Ugglas and participated in various ceremonies commemorating the events surrounding their extradition. Both King and Minister for Foreign affairs of Sweden expressed their regret for Sweden's past extradition of Baltic Legion soldiers to Stalinist USSR.

Latvian Legion Day

Latvian Legion Day, 2008

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 World War II 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 World War II, 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.

See also


Further reading

External links

  • Map (in Latvian).

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