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Baltic States 1939–1945

Undoubtedly, the most difficult period for Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania began with 1939 and the consummation of the Hitler-Stalin pact, part of which assigned the Baltic states to a Soviet "sphere of influence," a move that would lead to the outright Soviet annexation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 1940. Andrei Vishinskii, already notorious for his roles in the Moscow purge trials, was dispatched to Riga to supervise the annexation of Latvia. The massive Soviet propaganda machine worked at full bore to present this to the world as a freely made choice on the part of Latvia's working class. The Stalinist police state was not shown in the newsreels of Soviet troops entering Riga but operated from the beginning of the annexation to ensure that Latvians complied with rule from Moscow.

In the Hoover Institution Archives is the original carbon copy of an appeal, in Russian, made by the Ulmanis government in Latvia to the Soviet authorities just prior to annexation. This appeal, which pledged cooperation while pleading for continued independence for Latvia, fell on deaf ears, and worse was to follow. Karlis Ulmanis was taken into Soviet custody and died a prisoner in Russia in 1942, under circumstances which have never been fully explained, but which were most probably related to the strenuous interrogations he endured at the hands of Soviet security agents. Copies of the records of these interrogations are available in the archives (in the Indulis Ronis collection).

In June 1941, Stalinist repression in the three Baltic states, now "Sovietized," led to the mass deportations of thousands of Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians to the Gulag. The Soviet deportations, which included hundreds of children, were followed in a matter of days by the blitzkrieg of Nazi Germany, as Operation Barbarossa was unleashed against the Soviet Union, which by then included the three newly annexed Baltic states. Nazi Germany, claiming that it came to "liberate" the region from "Jewish Bolshevism," prepared its propaganda carefully to this effect, including different-language versions of the same poster glorifying Hitler. Copies of these posters are in the archives.

The severity of Soviet rule in 1941 meant that many in the Baltic states initially saw the Germans as the lesser of two evils, even though the Nazis never intended to restore independence to Latvia, Estonia, or Lithuania, instead creating by fiat the military district of Ostland, with German rule established over the entire Baltic region. The Nazis envisioned an eventual "Aryan" colonization of Ostland, with the Baltic peoples being viewed as "inferior" races, only a step above the Slavs in the racist Hitlerian scheme of things.

Of course, for the Jewish populations in Latvia and Lithuania, a collective tragedy began with the Nazi invasion, as the German mobile killing squads, the Einsatzgruppen, began their work of mass murder. This tragedy—and the question of the complicity of a small minority of Latvians, mainly in the Arajs commando, working for the Germans—has been the subject of much recent research, some of it based on materials in the Hoover Institution Archives.

The Latvian American historian Andrew Ezergailis has recently edited a collection of primary materials entitled Stockholm Documents: The German Occupation of Latvia, 1941-1945: What Did America Know? Based on reports prepared during the war by Latvian diplomats abroad who had sources in occupied Latvia, these materials parallel collections in the Hoover Institution Archives, involving as they do the reports of Voldemars Salnais, Jules Feldmans, and Alfreds Bilmanis, all of whose collections are in the archives. Their collections shed light on the nature of both the Soviet and the Nazi occupations of Latvia and contain information on issues such as the mass deportations to the Gulag, the Holocaust in Latvia, and American and British knowledge of both events.

Efforts to regain independence preoccupied Latvian politicians and diplomats during and after the Second World War. The Hoover Institution Archives has many documents relating to this struggle, including an appeal made to President Franklin Roosevelt by Latvian diplomats abroad (the document is in the Jules Feldmans papers). All three Baltic states continued to maintain officially accredited diplomatic missions in the United States, and the archives has materials showcasing their joint efforts to press the case for Baltic independence under adverse circumstances. Technically, of course, as the result of Soviet and German occupations, these were stateless diplomats, as the independent countries on whose behalf they spoke had ceased to exist in a formal sense.

Recently, additional materials have come to light pertaining to the Alfreds Bilmanis papers. Bilmanis, who was both historian and diplomat, headed the important Latvian Legation to the United States during and after World War II. These materials provide evidence of the close working relationship among diplomats of the three Baltic states, their ties to émigré organizations, and the efforts of historians such as Bilmanis to record events during yet another troubled time for the region. The Bilmanis materials include his response to news of the Holocaust in Latvia and documentation on Soviet deportations. The collection also contains lists of Latvian refugees being sought by family members after the Second World War.

Also in the archives are materials relating to resistance groups during World War II, including the Swedish-based Latvian Central Council, which opposed both Nazi and Soviet rule, as well as records concerning military units conscripted from the Baltic states by the Germans and Nazi efforts to suppress partisan activity in the Baltic region. There are also documents concerning the important postwar partisan movements, the "forest brothers," who took to the woods of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in a determined, if unsuccessful, effort to resist the re-Stalinization of the Baltic states.

The forest brothers were most numerous in Lithuania, but an estimated 40,000 partisans existed in Latvia at the time; Latvian historians have only recently begun to provide fuller accounts of this resistance movement and its suppression by Soviet security forces. The role played by British and American intelligence services in support of guerrilla activities in the Baltic states has been the focus of recent books by Western historians; undoubtedly more information on this subject is in the large Radio Free Europe collection in the archives.

After the Second World War, many people from the Baltic countries ended up in displaced persons' (DP) camps in Germany, organized according to nationality, with each community participating in the organization of camp life. Cultural activity centered around national traditions, including the Baltic custom of celebrating the midsummer solstice. A large number of Latvian newspapers produced in the DP camps can be found in both the Latviesu Centrala Komiteja records and the Alfreds Bilmanis papers. The Latviesu Centrala Komiteja records also contain photo albums depicting life in the DP camps, including Ligo celebrations and the continuity of traditions in Latvian arts and crafts.

Edgars Andersons (known in the United States as Edgar Anderson), a prominent Latvian-American historian of the Baltic region, spent time in a DP camp, and wrote for a camp newspaper. Andersons was instrumental in bringing collections on Latvia during World War II into the archives, and there is a collection in his name in the archives as well. It includes the manuscript of his book on Baltic history and materials on a number of Latvian subjects, including important documentation of the Latvian national resistance against German and Soviet occupations during the Second World War. A dossier in the Edgars Andersons collection is devoted to the cultural awakening of the Liv minority in Latvia during the 1960s.