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Eksteins captures heart of 20th century in book "Walking Since Daybreak"

  • 2000-07-06
  • By Harry Rudolfs
Modris Eksteins was born in Latvia in 1943. That puts him in the
bull's eye of World War II and in the direct line of fire from the
two worst extremist forces of the 20th century. A true war-baby, at
the age of one his temple was grazed by an exploding shell fragment
as Russian and German soldiers battled over a front line that shifted
back and forth across his grandfather's Kurland farm.

So it is fitting that Eksteins has become a historian and chronicled
the fevered history of modern Latvia - no easy task and no easy
history. Indeed, "Walking Since Daybreak" is more than the story of
his family's escape into exile and the fledgling nationalist
aspirations of a group of Sels, Zemgalians, Kurs, and Latgalians on
the shores of the Baltic Sea, who share a common language. Part
memoir, part historical record and analysis, the author uses the text
as a channel to enter postmodern waters. The veins of his manuscript
run under the skin of our time.

The narrative is epitomized through the character of his maternal
great-grandmother Grieta Pluta. The strong-willed matriarch was
seduced, impregnated and cast off by the German baron for whom she
was working as a chambermaid. Born in 1834, Grieta's story is not
untypical of many Latvian women of that era. Eksteins sees her as an
important figure, more representative of the age than the baron who
bedded her.

The author wonders if the curse that Grieta is said to have
pronounced has, in fact, come true. Like Artemis of Greek mythology
who, after being seen bathing by Actaeon, turned the archer into a
stag so that his own dogs would tear him apart. So too, Eksteins
surmises, has this wronged symbol of Latvian womanhood exacted a
terrible blood sacrifice from the lineage of her colonialist master.

Eksteins plays the folds of history, juxtaposing slices of personal
story with uprisings, battles, massacres and the shifting tides of
international politics over the last 150 years. His feelers reach
across the decades and borderlands. And the borderlands are usually
dark places, says Eksteins, in a century "that swirls in eddies of
centrifugal malice.

"It must be told from the border, which is the new center," he says.
"It must be told from the perspective of those who survived,
resurrecting those who died. It must evoke the journey of us all into
exile."

The tale is grounded in Germany in 1945. The German cities are mere
shells or less, and millions of dispossessed people are milling about
- flotsam tossed up by a maelstrom of unthinkable proportions.

"Germany at the end of World War II is the ultimate 'placeless'
place-defeated, prostrate, epicenter of both evil and grief, of
agency and submission," he writes. "It is here in the swampland of
meaningless meaning, that our century has its fulcrum."

But what a terrible swath it has cut to arrive there. Statistics can
only convey more zeros piled on top of corpses. But Eksteins offers
some provocative parallels as the decades of slaughter spiral into a
vortex of absurdity and terror. "Nineteen forty-five is not our
victory, as we so often like to think; 1945 is our problem."

The story begins and ends with Latvians. A fiercely independent
culture, they have never taken to being occupied or coerced. As
Englishwoman Elizabeth Rigby writes, in Letters from the Shores of
the Baltic (c.1830), the indigenous Latvians were difficult subjects
and strongly objected to the enforced Christianity imported by
invading 13th century Teutonic knights.

Contented with their unexpensive deities of forest and dell, they
resisted to the utmost; only declaring themselves converts after
their huts were razed, their land plundered, and their best hunters
slain; relapsing the moment their new brethren's backs were turned.

Medieval chronicler Heinrich von Lettland, infuriated by violent
resistance shown by the native tribes, presages the centuries of
destruction that was to be visited on these people.

"They deserve to be killed, rather than Baptized," he declares.

And so they were. Folklorist Gottfried von Herder equated the
devastation wrought by the Baltic crusade with the Spanish conquest
of Peru where almost a whole civilization was wiped out.

A few hundred years later, during the Northern War between Sweden and
Russia (1700-1721), the land was again leveled. The Russian commander
Sheremetyev reported: "From Reval [Tallinn] to Riga everything has
been eradicated, root and branch."

The Baltic states lie in the path of ambitious giants. Napoleon and
Hitler both used the region as a stepping stone on their way to
attack Moscow. The Russians, of course, have always eyed the Baltic
zone covetously since the time of Peter the Great.

Somehow, despite the changing rulers and the moveable borders, the
German aristocrats were able to maintain their privileged position as
feudal lords and keep title to most of the land. The link between
Baltic Germans and Russians was particularly strong during tsarist
times.

This Russo-German paradigm is of particular interest to Eksteins. He
asserts that the politics of extremist left and right are not that
far apart in Latvia, and that various accommodations between the two
powers over the years are not surprising, i.e. the Molotov-Ribbentrop
pact of 1939; the close ties between former East Germany and the
Soviets; and the alliance of the German Freikorps and White Russian
opportunists after World War I.

At the height of absurdity, 1919 found several forces competing on
Latvian soil. The British navy, Bolsheviks, Latvian nationalist
troops, White Russian units and German mercenaries fought pitched
battles during that year. As always, executions became a by-product
of the fighting, especially when things weren't going well.

The Bolsheviks took hostages and left a stream of corpses in ditches
as they retreated from Jelgava towards Riga (and murdered the rest of
them in the Central Prison). Overall, the Reds took 6,000 people to
their graves in this brief foray and clerics were often a target.

"Probably the most dangerous profession in the Baltics was that of
clergyman," writes Eksteins.

Not to be outdone, the German-White Russian alliance headed by
adventurer Col. Bermondt-Avalov was equally as brutal. While in
retreat from Latvian infantry, the rebels destroyed whatever they
could. One of the mercenaries, Ernst von Salomon, describes the
action.

"We hunted the Letts across fields like hares, set fire to every
house, smashed every window. We dropped corpses in the wells and
threw bombs after them. We killed anything that fell in our hands."

In fact, when Riga fell under the rogue army's control, 50 to 60
people were executed every morning at the Central Prison, and
Bermondt started the tradition of having prisoners dig their own
graves, a practice that was to be repeated by the Bolsheviks and
revived again by the Germans.

No less than the notorious Rudolf Hoss, later to become commandant at
the Auschwitz extermination camp, received a bloody initiation during
this campaign. By his own admission, he was "turned to stone" while
serving in the Freikorps in 1919.

"The battles in the Baltic were more wild and ferocious than any I
have experienced. There was no real front; the enemy was everywhere.
And when contact was made, the result was butchery to the point of
utter annihilation."

After almost two decades of independence and a flirtation with
dictatorship, the coming of World War II brought with it a new cycle
of death and terror. Ironically, in pre-war negotiations among the
Kremlin and English and French emissaries, the Russians wanted the
Western powers to guarantee protection of the independent Baltic
states, something that the West has never agreed to do.

Following Hitler's attack on Poland in 1939, Estonia, Latvia and
Lithuania again found themselves trapped between two extremes, and
both sides were to be the source of unspeakable horror.

Eksteins cites chilling statistics.

"Between 35,000 and 40,000 Latvians were murdered or deported by the
Soviets during the occupation of 1940-41, most of them on June 14,
1941," he writes.

"The homicidal policies of Stalin are burned in the memory of most
Latvians. In general, Russian imperialism has a poor record in the
Baltics and the "socialist" models of the 20th century have done
little to make it better." Eksteins calls Stalinism "red fascism."

Moreover, communist collectivization policies and malfeasance fed the
flames of nationalism. And in some Latvian minds, the close ties
between members of the Jewish community and the communist regime
meant that they were one and the same.

In a culture where anti-Semitism has very deep roots, the SS did not
have much trouble finding willing natives to carry out their dirty
work. One German official described the Latvian peasants' hatred for
Jews and Bolsheviks as "monstrous." But many of the death squad
recruits were university graduates who were active in the Iron Cross,
an extreme right-wing organization intolerant of anything
non-Latvian. In a photo, the Arajs Kommando (a group of Latvian
auxiliary police who drove around in powder-blue buses and were
responsible for killing 26,000 Latvian Jews) looks like a university
fraternity - a group of freshly-barbered, intense young men.

Eksteins doesn't hesitate to look under rocks. As Soviet troops
pulled back in 1941, Latvian zealots murdered over a thousand Jews
before the arrival of the German Einsatzkommando units, actions that
the Nazi brass found appalling. They wanted their policy of
extermination to be a "scientific cleansing" rather than murder in
the streets by hooligans.

An AP news photo flashed around the world on March 17 sticks in the
mind. A counter-demonstration in Riga, Latvia, of Soviet World War II
veterans has confronted a group of Legionnaires, former conscripts of
the Waffen SS, marching to commemorate fallen colleagues. One sign
reads, "In the fight against fascism you gave in." Two old men stand
accusingly head to head, with the Freedom Monument visible in the
background.

The two men are symbolic of the fracture in Latvian society. Eksteins
supplies the figures: "Some 140,000 Latvians fought with the Germans,
some 65,000 with the Russians.

Among the last defenders of Hitler's Reich Chancellery and Himmler's
State Security Headquarters were 80 Latvian soldiers - the last
commander of this battalion, Lieutenant Neilands, would act as an
interpreter for the talks on German surrender - yet another Latvian,
the Soviet Col. Nikolajs Berzzarins would become the first commander
of Russian-occupied Berlin.

As the war was drawing to a conclusion, the Eksteins family managed
to stay one step ahead of the collapsing Reich and Allied bombing
raids. War's end found them in Flensburg along with the remnants of
the Nazi regime.

The last days of Nazism became a pathetic comedy. In an attempt to
escape, Himmler shaved off his mustache, donned an eyepatch and
changed his name to Hitzinger, while his intimate, SS Gruppenfuhrer
Karl Gebhardt, put on a Red Cross uniform. Other former heroes of the
"Thousand Year Reich" were also in Flensburg trying to flag a
submarine ride to South America. "The fury ended, as always, in
farce," says Eksteins.

With the cessation of hostilities, Europe entered a new phase - the
era of the DP, or displaced person. Close to 40 million people were
on the move when the war ended. "Collaborators, resistance fighters,
SS soldiers, Jews, peasants, professors, prostitutes, children,
paupers, bankers, criminals, clergymen. Every nationality, age,
social class, type. They were all present amidst the devastation," he
writes.

My Latvian parents also arrived in Germany in 1945, my mother pushing
a baby carriage with all her belongings, and my father grenading
Goering's trout pond (a very effective method of fishing) on his way
through Austria.

They, like the Eksteins, spent the next six years in a DP camp until
they could find a Western country that would take them. For many
people, repatriation to the Soviet sphere would have meant
imprisonment or worse, and some committed suicide rather than return.

But it was only because of the chilling of relations between the West
and the Soviets and the start of the Cold War that the DPs were
allowed to emigrate. Even the two flourishing bouts of Latvian
independence, says Eksteins, came about in flukish circumstances that
no one had predicted: the vacuum created after the Russian Revolution
in 1917; and the putsch by communist hard-liners in 1990 that failed
to topple the Russian government.

DPs in Germany after the war were disliked by the German population
and by the Allied military authorities. With limited economic
possibilities available to them, thievery and smuggling became common
pursuits. One raid of a combined Latvian and Lithuanian camp turned
up 109 live pigs hidden in three different areas of the compound.

But DPs were more than an assemblage of criminals. These were
northern Europeans with strong artistic traditions. A very active
culture-in-exile soon sprung up in the camps as opera, dance,
theater, and music productions were regularly staged. Even a Baltic
university was set up in Hamburg which at its height in 1947 had
1,200 students.

Canadian High Commissioner to London Vincent Massey was pleased with
what he'd seen of Latvians. After inspecting a DP camp in Germany of
1,500 people, mostly Latvian, he concluded, "I am deeply impressed by
the quality of these people who appeared to be industrious, clean,
resourceful and well-mannered. The camp itself was a model of
self-help, and I could not help feeling that of all the Europeans I
have seen these Balts would make the most admirable settlers."

These camp Latvians were part of a great exodus that saw them settle
all over the western world, with the bulk of them landing in England,
Australia, the United States and Canada. Latvian émigrés were, for
the most part, very successful in their adoptive countries and some
achieved a degree of affluence. Vibrant and virulently anti-communist
Latvian communities formed in cities like Melbourne and Toronto where
their presence remains strong to this day.

The Eksteins and my family cross paths again in Toronto where they
both arrived in 1952. In Canada "DP" was a pejorative label, and in
many ways the new immigrants were made to feel unwelcome. They were
frequently told to "speak English" and the new immigrants were
routinely considered "second class citizens." Toronto was a very
stodgy British bastion in those days. Some areas of the city were
"dry," no alcohol permitted, and everything came to a stop on Sundays
because of the Lord's Day Act.

Again moving across borders, Eksteins won a scholarship to Upper
Canada College, an exclusive boys' private school, putting him in the
league of Toronto's Anglo-Saxon elite. Later he went on to become a
Rhodes Scholar and attended Oxford University.

The Duke of Edinburgh and Field Marshal Montgomery visited the
college while he was a student there. One day, the aforementioned
Vincent Massey, now in line to be a future governor-general to
Canada, arrived to dedicate a new building. In his speech Massey
praised the British tradition that allows them to turn disaster into
triumph, vis a vis the initial defeat at Dunkirk and their eventual
victory on VE day.

This is a bit of a sore point for the author. Yes, the British,
Americans and Canadians suffered horrendous casualties (388,000;
295,000; 41,700 respectively), but this is small change compared to
the 27 million Russians left dead, 7 million Germans and 6 million
Jews. If any one nation can claim victory in World War II, it would
have to be the Russians.

Moreover, the arrogance displayed by the Allied occupiers was not
lost on the German public. The western powers wanted to publicize the
atrocities committed against the Jews. They forced residents to visit
the death camps and widely distributed a film, "The Death Mills."

As Eksteins points out, for most Germans who did not live in a city
"the Jew was a myth, not a reality, as Jews were never more than 1
percent of the population and were concentrated in the big cities.
But the German people did witness atrocity in the form of Allied
carpet bombing and Soviet brutality and rape at the hands of the Red
Army. (Although members of all armies participated in raping and
looting, Stalin was the only world leader to condone such activities.
When questioned by Milovan Djilas about the practices, Stalin
replied: "Can't he understand it if a soldier who has crossed
thousands of kilometers through blood and fire and death has fun with
a woman or takes some trifle?"

"When the war was over," says Eksteins, "the mood in Germany was an
indefinable mixture of confusion, fear, and anger, but not guilt,
certainly not collective guilt."

Writer Thomas Mann suggested that the Germans even felt some pride in
the fact that the greatest tragedy of all time had been theirs.

Eksteins does not indulge in finger pointing. It wouldn't do any
good. Who was the greatest butcher, Stalin or Hitler? Who should be
charged with war crimes, a Kalejs or a Kononov?

"We must accept a variety of histories, but we must also accept
variety within our history," says Eksteins. "History should provoke,
not dictate meaning. It should be a vehicle rather than a terminus."

"Walking Since Daybreak" is more than a provocative piece of writing.
It is a tool to access a murky and dark past which, too often, has
been obscured by rhetoric and ideological agendas.

Eksteins ends the book by saying war poetry is the love poetry of our
age, and that his great-grandmother Grieta would probably agree. This
gives me a chance to include a poem by the greatest of all
catastrophist poets, Osip Mandelstam. The Russian Jewish poet was
exiled by Stalin and died in a Siberian prison camp in 1937,
ostensibly for writing a poem that ridiculed Stalin and his
"cockroach mustache." The following is from his collection of poems,
Kamen (Stone). The heads could be from any genocide, past, present or future.

"Mounds of human heads are gathering

in the distance.

I dwindle among them. No one sees me.

But in books much loved and

in children's games

I shall rise to say

The sun is shining."


Modris Eksteins lives in Toronto where he teaches history at the
University of Toronto. "Walking Since Daybreak " won the Pearson
Writers Trust Award in non-fiction in March of this year. His
previous book, "Rites of Spring," a history of World War I, received
a Trillium Award.

Harry Rudolfs is a Toronto writer who has written previously for the
old Baltic Independent.