Fascism and Latvia

In the post-WWII Cold War period, exiled Latvian politicians and historians (Švābe, Bīlmanis, et al.) represented Ulmanis' coup and authoritarian regime as a necessary imposition of order following the breakdown of the democratically elected government to function. They made the case that Ulmanis' actions were constitutionally within the letter of the law. While some of those arguments seem more tenuous with the passage of time, they were all correct to dispute the label of "fascist dictatorship" such as in the following example, from the Latvian Soviet Republic Concise Encyclopedia ("Latvijas LPSR Mazā Enciklopēdija"):

ULMANIS, Kārlis (1877-1942) — bourgeoisie Latvian reactionary political official. Born into a farming family. Studied at the Leipzig Institute of Agronomy, Nebraska University Agricultural Institute (U.S.A.); agriculturalist. Returned to Latvia in 1913, active in rural Latvian bourgeoisie farming organizations and societies. 1917 — Vice-Commissar of Vidzemes gubernia in the Provisional Russian government. One of the organizers and leaders of the counter-revolutionary Zemnieku savieniba [Farmer’s Union]; led the Latvian bourgeoisie fight against the October revolution and soviet authority in Latvia. November 1918 — June 1921 premier of bourgeoisie Latvia’s provisional government, who, supported by German, later British and American imperialistic might, dealt bloodily with Latvia’s revolutionary workers. Ministry president (1925—26, 1931 and March, 1934 — June, 1940) and foreign minister (1926, 1931, 1934—36). One of the primary guilty operatives of state corruption (dubbed the “father of corruption”). In May, 1934 behind the force of the Aizsargi perpetrated a fascist coup and became Latvia’s fascist dictator (April 1936 also appointed himself to the post of Latvian state president); carried out an openly terroristic dictatorship in support of rural and urban bourgeoisie interests. June 1940 the Latvian workers overthrew the fascist regime, and, assembling together in the Latvian Peoples' Saeima, on July 21, 1940 relieved Ulmanis from the position of state president.
For those expecting nationalist fascist banners, an Aizsargi Sports Team

Ulmanis engaged in none of the violence or bloodletting of Europe's fascist regimes. Instead, Ulmanis outlawed Latvia's Pērkonkrusts fascists and exiled their leader. Nor was Ulmanis' regime anti-Semitic. Indeed, Latvia acted as a transit country for Jews escaping Germany, and was the only European country which banned the publication of anti-Semitic literature.

Nor have the Aizsargi, widely portrayed as Ulmanis' co-conspirators and usurpers of sovereign state authority, escaped the fascist label. Quoting the Latvian Soviet Republic Concise Encyclopedia again:

AIZSARGI — military fascist organization in bourgeois Latvia; founded in March 1919 in the war against the revolutionary movement and Red partisans. The Aizsargi recruited loyal bourgeois individuals. The Aizsargi dealt brutally with participants in the revolutionary movement, participated in breaking up workers' gatherings, and in the spying out and imprisonment of revolutionaries. The bourgeoisie planned to employ the Aizsargi in foreign imperial adventurism against the USSR. The Aizsargi consisted of 19 regiments (according to the number of Latvian counties), those in turn consisting of battalions, companies, and squads. There were also the Railway Aizsargi regiment, Aviation Aizsargi regiment, and Marine Aizsargi. The Aizsargi chapters [or brigades] were formed in 1923 — the Youth Aizsargi in 1938. Sport troupes also functioned within the Aizsargi organization to attract youth. The Aizsargi played a decisive role in the May 15, 1934 fascist coup in Latvia, and they became the primary armed support of the Ulmanis fascist regime. The Aizsargi were the main disseminators of chauvinistic attitudes and mouthpieces of bourgeois nationalism. In 1940, the Aizsargi organization had 31,874 Aizsargi, 14,810 [women] Aisargi, and approximately 14,000 Aizsargi youth. Following the overthrow of the fascist dictatorship, the Aizsargi organization was liquidated with the edict of July 8, 1940. During the occupation by the German fascists, many former Aizsargi actively collaborated with the occupiers, and participated in the slaughter of Bolshevik patriots and genocide of the Jews, upon the establishment of the German fascist "New Order." On May 15, 1943 the German occupants renewed the function of the Aizsargi[1] (officially, the Aizsargi organization was re-established on July 22, 1944), utilizing the Aizsargi as police auxiliaries and to replenish its armed forces. In the first years after the German occupiers were driven from the territory of the LSSR, former Aizsargi participated in armed bands, which attacked and murdered Bolshevik and partisan activists, Komsomol youth, and kolhoz workers. The security organs of the LSSR, in close partnership with the peoples' workers, eliminated [this] banditry. E.Žagars.

Compare these Soviet versions of history to this chronology in the Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora:

1934Latvian Democracy is abolished and a Fascist government with strong sympathies with Nazi Germany comes to power. Jewish autonomy is abolished and anti-Semitism increases, but the dictatorship does not institute harsh punitive anti-Semitic laws. The Jewish kehillah in Riga, which records births, marriage, and deaths, is permitted to remain open.[2].
June 21, 1941  Germany invades the Soviet Union. Ghettos are established in larger cities in Latvia, and German Einsatzgruppen are used to massacre Latvian Jews; a pro-Nazi Latvian paramilitary group called Aizsargi aids Germans in the massacre.[3]

While authoritarian, the Ulmanis regime was not fascist. Members of the Latvian fascist organization, Pērkonkrusts, were arrested and its leader exiled. There were no sympathies with Nazi Germany—Latvia was attempting to navigate a doomed course between two eventual invaders, Hitler and Stalin. With regard to Jewish relations, the "abolishing" of Jewish autonomy should not be interpreted as anti-Semitism. Despite its small size, Latvia was highly fractured with respect to schooling and language dialects. Each minority, not just Jews, had its own Department of Education. Ulmanis understood that Latvia needed to be speaking the same Latvian language for economic and societal progress; however, many saw his program to standardize language and schooling as erasing uniqueness in both regional Latvian and minority cultures. It was, instead, the Soviet invasion which effected the complete erasure of all Jewish cultural and educational autonomy.[4] Similarly the semi-nationalisation of strategic assets most impacted Latvia's historical merchant classes, thus disproportionally targeting Jews and Baltic Germans as compared to Latvians. Despite what one can argue was a pursuit of ethno-nationalism, we must note, again, that Latvia was also the only European country to pass a law banning anti-Semitic literature.

The pervasive so-called "truths" that the Aizsargi were fascists and anti-Semites from their very founding are false.


[1]This refers to the creation of the Latvian Waffen SS units. However, the Latvian Waffen SS was created in January, 1943. This Soviet account purports the Aizsargi were renewed in celebration of the anniversary of the Ulmanis coup.
[2]There is no reference for the contentions.
[3]Ehrlich, M. Avrum. Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture, Volume 1, page 1030. ABC-CLIO, 2008. ISBN 978-1-851-09873-6
[4]Max M. Laserson. The Jewish Minorities in the Baltic Countries. Jewish Social Studies Vol. 3, No. 3 (Jul., 1941), pp. 292 and following.

Updated: June, 2017

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