History of the Aizsargi

Aizsargi leadership visits Warsaw in 1933, at center, Kārlis Prauls, Alfrēds Bērziņš
Beja parish guards unit in the 1930's
Aizsargi aviation regiment, group of pilots
Gulbene Aizsargi womens' unit, circa 1938

The Aizsargi were a voluntary paramilitary organization organized on the principles of the Finnish civil guard, tasked with asssisting the state in maintaining peace, safety, and order. Prior to its liquidation by the Soviet Union upon its invasion in 1940, it had more than 60,000 members—31,766 men, 14,810 women, and approximately 14,000 youths.

Creation

The Aizsargi were founded March 20, 1919 on the proclamation[1] of the leader of the Latvian Provisional Government, Kārlis Ulmanis, and Minister of Interior Miķelis Valters. As Latvian forces advanced against the Bolsheviks, security behind the front lines became a priority. All rural males ages 18 to 60 were called into mandatory service to insure peace and safety for rural inhabitants.

With peace achieved in 1920, the Aizsargi were reorganized as an independent militia, under the authority of the Minister of Interior. Any citizen could volunteer to join who had not been convicted of a crime and had received military training. Accordingly, the foundation of Aizsargi membership were retired officers, instructors, and soldiers of the Latvian army. By social strata, Aizsargi membership was divided among ¾ths rural (approximately 30% old homesteads, 20% new homesteads, 25% laborers[2]) and ¼ urban.

Organization

The Aizsargi were a formidable force, outnumbering the regular army. The Aizsargi were organized territorially, by county, into 19 regiments, a regiment per county, with regiments subdivided into batallions, companies, units, and group. Additionally, there was an Aizsargi railroad regiment, an aviation regiment with 26 airplanes, three coast guard divisions, and other specialized units.

In the event of war, the President had the authority to subordinate the Aizsargi to the Latvian Minister of War. The Aizsargi were administered by chapters, one per county. Urban and specialized companies were administered jointly however was most efficient.

The Aizsargi also occupied a prominent place in cultural community life, often the only organizers of community events once outside the urban environment. It owned 89 real estate properties, mostly community halls (tautas nams literally translated as "people's hall").

Politicization

Throughout the 1920's, the the Aizsargi were focused primarily on community life. However, the organization became increasingly politicized throughout the 1930's.

The Aizsargi are widely represented as the force behind the Ulmanis coup of May 15, 1934. This narrative was instilled through propaganda of the Ulmanis regime to enhance the image of popular support. The primary forces supporting the coup were the army and police—to the degree that Aizsargi were intertwined—chiefs of police, individuals employed by the police—they were also participants.

Following the Ulmanis coup, nationalism reached into all spheres of activity. In schools, indoctrination rose to the importance of education—pupils could be expelled for offenses such as showing disrespect for the flag or state or making positive statements regarding Communism.[3]

Beyond the Aizsargi's mission safeguarding the nation and its leader, in their role as a cultural association and adult education program they became the regime's means for indoctrination of the new nationalist era. To advance focus on morality, national unity, and the leader principle—Ulmanis' cult of personality, mazpulki were created—the schoolchildren's version of the Aizsargi. Thus, the mazpulki were more the equivalent of the all-too-soon-to-come Komsomol than scouts or the 4-H Club; and the Aizsargi were more than a mere militia. The two were intended to be the engines to transform the nation.[4]

As war approached, nationalist fervor among the populace was tempered at best. The initial and genuine popular enthusiasm for Ulmanis' coup waned over subsequent years. The mazpulki, for example, never achieved much more than a 10% membership of the school-age population. This complacency would come back to haunt the Latvians, manifesting as lack of resistance to subsequent Soviet oppression—until the true nature of that calamity took hold.[5] While some have argued that Ulmanis' authoritarianism "softened" the Latvian masses for Soviet authoritarianism, simple complacency in the face of political incitement seems the more appropriate assessment, as upon the subsequent Nazi invasion and occupation, reports back to Berlin complained about the Latvians' indifference to German attempts to incite anti-Jewish sentiment and action.[6]

Kārlis Prauls, head of the Aizsargi, 1930–1940

Soviet occupation

The Aizsargi organization was disbanded on June 23, 1940, following the Soviet invasion and occupation of Latvia. A Red Army tribunal sentenced its leader, Kārlis Prauls, to death, and he was shot in the Ulbroka woods January 30, 1941. (His gravesite was identified only in 1944.) By June 1941, the Soviet occupiers had arrested about 80% of Aizsargi officers (2,200), who were then deported or killed. During anti-Soviet partisan actions in the summer of 1941, harassing retreating Red Army, of 128 partisans killed, the majority were former Aizsargi.

Nazi occupation

Upon the German invasion, former Aizsargi were included in auxiliary police units, ostensibly to protect strategic assets. Those units fell under Voldermārs Veiss[7] and the recruiting reserve, Rekrutierungs­reserve, which while intended to provide domestic security duty, was, in fact, tasked with readying men for service along the Latvian frontier including front-line combat serving under the Wehrmacht. Regarding those who volunteered, given a year under the Soviets of murders, mass graves, and culminating in mass deportations a week prior to the Nazi invasion, pursing and fighting against the retreating Red Army was an act of retribution, not an expression of any sort of support for the Nazi regime. By 1943, when the so-called "Volunteer" Waffen-SS divisions were created, approximately 20 combat battalions had already been sent to the front.

They were not Holocaust collaborators, such as the notorious Arajs Kommando and some other "auxiliaries" battalions subordinated to and supervised by the Sicherheitsdienst, who participated in the Holocaust in Latvia and west, including Belarus. Membership in the Latvian Army or the Aizsargi prior to the war had no bearing on whether individuals became Holocaust collaborators. Even Gustavs Celmiņš, the exiled leader of the Latvian fascist party, Pērkonkrusts, upon returning to Latvia as a translator, lobbied German authorities for Latvian combat units to pursue the Red Army, not to participate in the Holocaust. The Germans eventually jailed Celmiņš for his pro-Latvian stance.[8]

While the Aizsargi were nominally renewed in 1944, including the "Kurelis" group—named for its commander and tasked with guarding the capital, Rīga, while the Germans themselves retreated[9]—it was never reconstituted in any meaningful fashion and had already dissolved by the end of 1944.


[1]"Noteikumi par aizsargu nodaļām pagastos,” Regulations regarding guards chapters in counties.
[2]Old homesteads meaning landholders prior to the agrarian reforms; new homesteads meaning landholders who became farmers in the agrarian reform.
[3] [4] [5]Aldis Purs (2004) ‘Unsatisfactory national identity’: School inspectors, education and national identity in interwar Latvia, Journal of Baltic Studies, 35:2, 97-125
[6]Operational Situation Report No. 24., Nuremberg trial records. For a detailed discussion, see Vilis Hāzners deportation proceedings, INS Post-Trial Brief, page 8.
[7]We must note that the historical account that Veiss got on the radio ahead of the Nazi invasion and incited Latvians to kill Jews is an invention of Soviet propaganda. Such a broadcast never took place.
[8]While the notorious Arājs Kommando is described as including many former Aizsargi and Pērkonkrusts among its members, there is no accounting for how many had been Aizsargi, however, only three or four out of 300-500 during the Holocaust were former Pērkonkrusts members, as documented during Arājs' war crimes trial.
[9]It was not uncommon for the Germans to withdraw and send the Latvians in as cannon fodder in the face of imminent Red Army assault. The Latvians were more motivated, the fate of their homeland hung in the balance. Latvian forces suffered horrific losses.

External sites

Updated: June, 2017

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