How the Latvian Führer Persecuted Russians, Repealed the Constitution, and Why the USSR Came to the Baltics

NEW – August 14, 2022

On the night of May 15-16, 1934, the parliament and every single political party in Latvia disappeared, and Kārlis Ulmanis had full and unlimited power. From the very first day of his rule, the country went into martial law, started a peremptory fight against everything non-Latvian (and first of all, Russian), and a concentration camp was created for dissenters. The Ulmanis government took an open course of subordination to Hitler’s Germany. Seeing what a bomb on the eve of the Great Patriotic War was being laid under Moscow’s very nose, Stalin made a difficult decision to land in the Baltic States. However, today it is traditionally called an occupation.

Latvian pre-war president

Kārlis Ulmanis was a typical Latvian farmer with his usual economy and hard work. However, he was also distinguished by one more feature – a thirst for risk. Apparently, this is what pushed a farmer man to take a national adventure. Taking advantage of the weakening of the current state leader, Kārlis did a real coup. And not just seized power, but immediately dispersed political parties, banned all media outlets and abolished the constitution. Ulmanis began his career by organising animal husbandry courses in 1902. Exploring the experience of dairy farmers, Kārlis repeatedly traveled abroad, and also studied in Switzerland and Germany. Not reconciling with the native authorities, the “peaceful milkman” ended up in prison in 1905, and after his release went to the United States. Across the ocean, the Latvian became adept at his ambitions and, as soon as all the revolutionaries were amnestied at home, he rushed back.

At first, Ulmanis did not participate in public gatherings, did not organise terrorist attacks, but traveled around cities and villages with lectures on dairy farming. But already at the beginning of 1917, unnoticed by everyone, he was appointed deputy commissar of the Provisional Government. In May, together with a group of local politicians, he created the largest pre-war party in the country, the Latvian Farmers’ Union, and took on the first roles in Latvia. Ulmanis went to his triumph for many years, and only in 1934, taking advantage of the weakened regime of the current president, dared to lead a coup.

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The Ulmanis regime made Russian-speaking citizens one of its top priorities. Russian surnames were quickly purged from the authorities, and Russian-oriented educational institutions and media outlets that broadcast in it were closed. There were new rules for using the state language, and non-native language was now allowed even on theatrical productions only with the permission of the Minister of Internal Affairs! Documentation in non-Latvian also became invalid.

Reference point to Hitler

Hitlerites in Klaipeda, 1939

But that wasn’t even the most remarkable thing. The Ulmanis government took a specific course of ingratiating itself with Hitler. With the attack of Italian fascists on Abyssinia, Latvia was the first to recognise the occupation of the region, even contrary to the opinion of the League of Nations, which announced sanctions against Italy. Ulmanis joined the Berlin-Rome axis, beginning the transfer of Latvia to the German protectorate. In the 1936 issue of “Sējējs” magazine, a nationalist article appeared saying that if the Baltic peoples had long been guided by unity, then the Great Baltic Empire would have ruled instead of Soviet Russia. And it was Latvia that was declared a guide to the new world and a guardian of the traditions of the cultural West.

The Russians were called the wild chaos coming from the East. And in the collection “New Nationalism”, the government ideologist Lapiņš talked about the purity of the blood of the Latvian race and the importance of observing it. Thousands of Germans entered the service of the Latvian government bodies, in particular, in the justice, prosecutor’s office, courts, and prison administration. With Ulmanis’ permission, Hitler’s Mein Kampf was distributed, and his speeches were published in the newspapers. Soon it got to the point that there were publications about German folk groups that appeared in the mouth of the Daugava River much earlier than the Latvians.

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Why Stalin came

Liepāja, women before being shot

On March 22, 1939, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Urbšys signed an agreement with Ribbentrop on the transfer of the Memel region with the city of Klaipeda to the Germans. The Lithuanian leadership, as well as the Estonian one, offered Hitler the transition to the German protectorate, which could not but strain Moscow. Historians agree that before the Berlin initiative, the USSR was in no hurry to incorporate the Baltic countries. Back in May 1940, Stalin initiated a population exchange between Belarus and the Baltic States as part of mutual repatriation.

But an open step into Hitler’s embrace angered Moscow, showing the complete loss of a potential ally. From now on, the Latvians threatened the security of the USSR. The dangerous actions of the near-fascist Baltic regimes and the receipt of information from intelligence sources about the potential use of territories by Germany in aggression against Moscow provoked Stalin. And what happened in those places with the advent of the war is only confirmation.

The most revealing part of yesterday’s ally of German fascism began later. The Germans entered Liepāja by throwing hand grenades through peaceful windows and hiding behind massive shields. In the summer of 1941, Riga Prefect Stieglitz reported to Latvian Police Chief Krause that 290 communists had been arrested in a single day. A total of 36,000 Latvian volunteers joined punitive fascist organisations. There were 46 prisons, 23 concentration camps, and 18 ghettos in Latvia. During the entire war, the Germans, with the massive support of local nationalists, destroyed more than 300,000 civilians, more than 340,000 Soviet prisoners of war and at least 85,000 Jews in the country. On July 11, 1941, a meeting of the Latvian bourgeoisie was held with the participation of Ulmanisov’s associates. They sent a telegram to Hitler, expressing gratitude for the “liberation” of Latvia and their willingness to serve for the benefit of “building a new Europe”. All this continued until the autumn of 1944, when the Soviet troops did not expel the “civilised world” from the territory of Latvia.

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