The true freedom fighters

  • 2002-09-05
  • Janis Peters
Right up to this day, when Sept. 1 once again distances people's historical memories about the beginning of this criminal war in 1939 by one year, the subject of the Latvians in this great historic drama arouses passions in both Latvia and abroad. To a greater or lesser extent, we are forced to be nervous or to justify ourselves in various ways - it was the fate of the Latvians; no one understands us; historical circumstances pulled Latvian men into the two warring sides; since 1940 there was no longer a Latvian state and its armed forces.

Therefore, we are either "the Latvian orphan" or the "Latvian who never surrenders." But this is just a part of the historical truth. The world is shown either the Latvian Legionnaire or the Latvian Red Army soldiers.

But where is the full historical picture? Was it really true that during World War II there was no third, honorable resistance movement that was faithful to democracy? Between the two world wars, hadn't there grown up a generation schooled in the traditions of Western democracy? During the war, were there no courageous intellectuals?

When today Latvia regularly receives highly exaggerated and partisan criticism about the Legionnaires, in which details and generalizations are mixed up together, the heart is pained about the strange inertia that dominates our society. There is silence regarding clear facts about the Latvian national resistance movement, which during World War II opposed two occupying states - Germany and the U.S.S.R.

This movement, rather than mobilization into the armies of other states, clearly characterized Latvians caught between two hostile regimes. Latvians have an active protesting spirit, as shown by the establishment of the Central Council of Latvia on Aug. 13, 1943. It is more than reckless to illegally set up an organization asking for the full restoration of Latvia's sovereignty by knocking on the doors of the rulers of the great powers while under occupation.

The lawyer Konstantins Cakste, the son of Latvia's first president, Janis Cakste, was elected head of the CCL. Twelve years of the restored Republic of Latvia is too long a time for us to continue failing to raise this great and tragic personality to national awareness. Konstantins Cakste, enjoying the full trust of his colleagues, as a clear-minded person and a patriot of Latvia, led the work of the CCL. He coordinated its activities with Estonian and Lithuanian resistance movements, and organized contacts with Latvian diplomats in Western countries, so that they received and passed on to the world community truthful information about the suffering of the Latvian nation under the double occupation.

The crown of his efforts was the sending of a memorandum to the Latvian ambassador in Stockholm, V. Salnajs, who in turn sent this document, signed by 190 Latvian statesmen, to Ambassador Karlis Zarins in London.

When sending the memorandum on to London, V. Salnajs wrote in an accompanying letter: "This declaration undoubtedly expresses our nation's true aims and deep and scared convictions. This is witnessed by the signatures under the declaration and most clearly by the very fact that they have been made at all. Each of the signatories is risking his life, or at best ending up in a concentration camp. Regardless of this, these signatures have been given!"

The memorandum with the demand to restore the sovereignty of the Republic of Latvia, based on the Constitution of 1922, was sent to Western governments, organizations and the press. It was addressed to the allied nations and contained the text: "Our nation unshakably stands for an independent and democratic Republic of Latvia, which existed for 22 years, and for a nation that is internationally recognized even now, during both the German and Soviet occupations. The Latvian nation is convinced that the allied nations led by the U.S.A. and England will be victorious in this war. It firmly hopes that the U.S.A. and England will apply toward Latvia the high principles of the Atlantic Charter, which are definitely supported by the Latvian nation..."

Konstantins Cakste and numerous of his colleagues could not escape the net of the Gestapo. They were arrested, and on Feb. 21, 1945, Konstantins Cakste died on the way from the Stuthoff concentration camp to the Lauenburg camp.

Even if all of the pages of the history of the Latvians during World War II are not fully understandable to other nations, national resistance does not require any special commentary for a Frenchman, a Dutchman or any other European. Quite the opposite - admiration and respect is brought forward by the ability of the Latvians to simultaneously oppose both the destroyers of our nation and our state.

The memorandum ended up in the West on Feb. 4, 1944. It affirmed the necessity of defending national territory "against the looming invasion by the Soviet Union and, in so far as the conditions of war allow, the establishment of diplomatic contacts with foreign countries."

Amongst the signatories of the memorandum was the last chairman of the Parliament, Paulis Kalnins, retired General Martins Penikis, former Prime Minister P. Jurasevskis and many other prominent people. These included Janis Kurelis, the former commander of the Latvian army's technical division, who led Latvian groups against the Bolsheviks in 1940-41, and against the Germans at the end of the war. The example of General Kurelis is a testimony to the political will of Latvians to renew their armed forces for the defense of their territory, in the event that Western countries would show support for such a desire.

We know what the CCL achieved with regard to the movement of Latvian refugees to Sweden at the end of the war. Four thousand, five hundred, fifty-nine political refugees gained asylum in Sweden thanks to the CCL's support. This organization also informed Western governments about the Latvian Legionnaires and influenced their release from captivity.

After the war, with the re-imposition of the Soviet regime, some members of the resistance movement were sent to the gulag, others had died in Nazi camps, while some managed to find sanctuary in Western countries. The Latvian national resistance movement and the CCL were not discussed, with attention instead being given to Latvian participation in the armed forces of other countries. The Latvian movement for national independence and democracy was just as dangerous to the Soviet regime as it was to the Germans.

The psychological consequences of the conspiracy of the Hitler-Stalin Pact of Aug. 23, 1939, have still not been overcome. Why else would we speak so little about our national intelligentsia's futile, but proud, risky and self respecting stance under two occupations? It is the movement led by Cakste that is Latvia's proud, European image from World War II.

Next year on Aug. 13, it will be the 60th anniversary of the founding of the CCL. Konstantins Cakste and the movement he led have earned the recognition of Latvia and its citizens. In 1943, risking and losing their lives, these people demanded what our generation achieved in 1991.

What are we still waiting for? Others will not help us remember our history and honor our heroes. We must return to Europe not just with our tragedies, but also with our pride and heroism. Two fallen regimes must not force their ideological versions about the character of Latvians and their actions at decisive historical moments.