The History of the Occupation of Latvia

Latvia during World War II

Latvia during World War II

Author: Uldis Neiburgs


When World War II started on 1 September 1939, Latvia announced its neutrality in an attempt to avoid involvement in military operations and to preserve its national sovereignty.  

On 5 October, as a result of political pressure from the USSR, Latvia’s neutrality was substantially infringed and restricted, when the Soviet-Latvian “Mutual Assistance Treaty” was signed; the treaty envisaged the stationing of 25,000 Soviet troops in the territory of Latvia. The Latvian government, concerned about the future of the state, made the decision to delegate extraordinary powers to the Latvian Envoy to Great Britain Kārlis Zariņš on 17 May 1940 and, after that, also to the Latvian Envoy to the USA Alfrēds Bīlmanis.

The extraordinary powers could not prevent the occupation of Latvia and the loss of independence, but they served as an instrument in securing the de jure existence of the Latvian State during the war and the post-war periods. Despite the actual loss of Latvia’s sovereignty, it continued to exist de jure as a subject of international law during wartime.

That was attested also by the war-time standpoint of the Western Allies, the USA and Great Britain, which struggled against the countries of the Axis alliance. They considered the subordination of the Baltic States to the USSR, and later to Germany, as illegal and invalid. From the viewpoint of the Latvian State’s legal position, both the Latvian SSR Government, which during the war was evacuated to the USSR, and the Latvian Self-Government of the Land, which was established during the Nazi occupation of Latvia, were illegal.

The only legitimate representatives of the Republic of Latvia, K. Zariņš and A. Bīlmanis, whose status was completely or partially recognized by the governments of their home countries, Great Britain and the USA, wanted to promote the victory of Western democracies. However, their applications for Latvia to officially join the Atlantic Charter, signed on 14 August 1941, and the United Nations’ declaration, passed on 4 January 1942, were rejected.


On 16 June 1940, after Soviet Army units attack Latvian border posts in Masļenki and Smaiļi (warnings about the willingness to use military force), the USSR issued the Latvian Government an ultimatum demanding that it resigns and admits an unlimited number of Soviet troops into Latvia. The State President Kārlis Ulmanis and the government decided not to resist and thus maintain at least some hope to preserve the sovereignty of Latvia.

On 17 June, 1940, the USSR occupied Latvia. After the Latvian Government’s forced resignation, the so-called “People’s Government”, with Augusts Kirheršteins as the leader, was established; its activity was controlled by the USSR Embassy and Andrei Vyshinsky, Deputy Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR, sent from Moscow.

Kārlis Ulmanis, under house arrest, formally continued to carry out the duties of the President. “The People’s Government” proposed the development of a democratic political system and the creation of an agreement with the USSR, but did not propose that Latvia should become part of the Soviet Union. To legitimize the new power, parliamentary elections were organized at short notice; they took place on 14-15 June.

The organization and the procedure of the elections violated the principles of the Constitution of the Republic of Latvia (Satversme), pressure was exerted upon voters, and the elections took place under the presence of Soviet troops. The statement that Latvia will be annexed into the USSR took the Latvian population by surprise as it was only declared after the parliamentary elections.

The “People’s Parliament” that convened on 21 July, manipulated the will of the people to make it seem as if the people unanimously declared the establishment of Soviet power in Latvia and made the decision to join the USSR. Thus the Constitution of the Republic of Latvia was violated, as the Constitution dictates that any changes concerning the state’s sovereignty, political system or territory can only to be decided by a nationwide referendum.

On 5 August, Latvia was incorporated into the USSR as the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic, thus concluding the state’s annexation. The occupation of Latvia, which had been carried out by means of military menace, and the following annexation to the USSR was an illegitimate act of aggression and a crude violation of international law.

After Germany’s attack on the USSR, in the summer of 1941 Latvia came under the power of National Socialist Germany, which considered Latvia not to be a free and independent state, but rather an occupied territory of the USSR. Initially, Latvia was subordinated to German military administration, but from 1 September – to the civil administration.

The general regions of Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Belarus became the constituents of the Reich Commissariat for Ostland, established by the Nazis; Riga hosted the institutions of civil administration and military command not only for Latvia, but for the whole of Ostland, as well as the main SS and Police establishments. Essential changes in the administration of Latvia were introduced after the Red Army stormed and broke through to the Gulf of Riga at Tukums on 30 July 1944, and split Latvia’s territory into two parts for three weeks, but on 13 October the Red Army took Riga. The establishments of German occupation power continued to be active, in a reduced capacity, in Kurzeme, which on 21 January 1945 came under the subordination of Reichfeuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler, and became the only territory administered by the SS during World War II.

Although variants of the German general plan “Ost” envisaged the colonization and the germanization of the Baltic States, its implementation was significantly influenced by German military defeats at the fronts of World War II. Thus, in practice, the plans for the near future dominated, in which the main objective of the general region of Latvia was to supply the German army group “Nord”, but the plans for the further future drew back; they envisaged making German living space (Lebensraum) in Latvia and Latvia’s annexation to the German Reich.

The actual military and political situation, and the necessity to foster the local inhabitants’ support for the achievement of Germany’s goals in the war, determined that in various institutions of the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories and Reichfeuhrer-SS, several projects for Latvia’s autonomy were worked out, however they did not receive the German leader Adolf Hitler’s approval or attention.

On 17 July 1944 the Soviet Army’s troops of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Baltic fronts reached the border of Latvia, and in Vidzeme and Latgale the Nazi occupation was replaced by the second USSR occupation. Initially, for the administration of the conquered territory, there were special institutions established: the forward echelons of the Latvian Communist Party’s Central Committee that followed the Red Army and consisted of leading party officials. Though they were allowed to take over the civil administration, their work nevertheless was rather restricted, since the actual power belonged to the USSR armed forces and the Soviet security institutions.

Also, the Latvian SSR government that later returned from Russia was merely an instrument used to implement the USSR occupation policy in Latvia. As early as 23 August 1944, part of the eastern territory of Latvia – Abrene and six adjacent civil parishes were annexed to the Russian Soviet Federative Socialistic Republic.

On 13 October 1944, the USSR Red Army captured Riga, which had already been abandoned by the German Army that had retreated to Kurzeme. The majority of the Latvian population did not want the Soviet occupation regime to return, but they were forced to reconcile themselves with its presence by either taking a wait-and-see position, cooperating or disassociating themselves from it.


Despite the loss of state sovereignty and the presence of occupation powers, during World War II there was a national resistance movement against the occupying forces in Latvia. In 1940-1941, in Latvia several organizations developed resistance by published illegal leaflets, sabotaged the USSR occupation power’s orders and preparing for the armed struggle to restore Latvia’s independence. The school youth were actively involved in the resistance movement.

After the start of the German – Soviet war, in the summer of 1941, active operations against the occupants and their supporters were initiated by the Latvian national partisans. During the Nazi occupation, the Latvian Central Council, secretly established in Riga on 13 August 1943, attempted to become the political center of the resistance movement. The Committee consisted of representatives of the largest pre-war political parties under the leadership of Konstantīns Čakste.

The LCC was striving for the restoration of the Republic of Latvia, based on the Constitution of 1922; they prepared several memoranda for the Western governments and maintained contacts with the resistance movements of the other Baltic States and Latvia’s envoy from the independence period in Stockholm, Voldemārs Salnais.

In the summer-autumn of 1944, when one occupation replaced the other, the LCC was not able to implement their plans for the development of the Latvian provisional government and the organization of a military revolt. The main forces of General Jānis Kurelis’ group were arrested in Kurzeme on 14 November 1944. Armed resistance against the Nazi was carried out by the soldiers of Roberts Rubenis’ battalion, who by 9 December had successfully resisted a number of German attacks, till finally, the survivors were forced to flee because of the enemy’s dominance.

Already in the autumn of 1944, an armed resistance movement started to develop in Latvia against the second USSR occupation. People who wanted to restore Latvia’s independence, or who were under threat from the Soviet power’s repressions became partisans. The greatest fights between the national partisans and the armed formations of the USSR took place in March of 1945 in Stompaki Marsh, Latgale, and in December in Kabile, Kurzeme. The school youth’s resistance to the occupants was active as well.


Political repressions against the Latvian population started immediately after the state’s occupation on 17 June, 1940. The USSR occupation powers arrested 3,353 people in Latvia, including a number of former officials of the Republic of Latvia, the State’s President and other members of the government. The charges were based on Article 58 of the Russian SFSR Criminal Code, which defined punishments for so-called “counterrevolutionary crimes”, including “treason”.

The repressions reached their peak on 13-14 June 1941, when in one night 15,443 inhabitants of Latvia – men, women and children – were taken to the USSR. Among them there were many soldiers and officers of the former Latvian Army, who were shot on the spot in Litene camp or, in large numbers, were arrested and deported to the USSR. Massacres took place in Riga Central Prison, Dreiliņi, Stopiņi, Baltezers, Katlakalns and other places. In 1940-1941, about 26,000 Latvian people were arrested, killed or repressed.

The German occupation power’s repressive policy in Latvia was directed against the enemies of the race, political rivals and people who had failed to observe the rules of the occupation regime. In the Holocaust, organized by the Nazis and implemented with the help of the local population, approximately 70,000 local and 20,000 foreign Jews were massacred in Latvia.

The occupation powers exterminated about 2,000 Roma (Gypsies) and 2,271 mentally ill people. The total number of other repressed Latvian citizens includes about 15,000 people murdered or imprisoned in Nazi prisons and camps, as well as people taken by force to work in Germany, whose total number reached between 16,000 to 25,000 people.

As a result of the second Soviet occupation, in 1944-1945 the repressive internal troops at the rear of the frontline and the Soviet security establishments turned against the Latvian population not as citizens of the USSR, but rather as the inhabitants of an occupied territory. After the German Army’s surrender in Kurzeme on 8 May, 1945, Red Army units arranged in chains scoured through the just-captured regions and detained all the 16-60 years old men for identity clarification.

Prisoners of War and civilians, caught in this filtration, were often sent to filtration camps in remote regions of the USSR, where they were used as forced labor in USSR industry and construction projects. Many of the arrested were sentenced, according Article 58 of the Russian SFSR Criminal Code, for Treason and then imprisoned in Soviet concentration (Gulag) camps and special settlements, from where many of them never returned.


The military operations in the period 1939 – 1945 between the Axis and Allies took the lives of more than 55 million civilians and military personnel. For the first time in history, the World War had the nature of total war, which affected all sections of the population of the countries involved, massive war crimes against peace and civilian populations were committed. World War II caused an enormous loss of human, material and mental resources for the warring countries.

If the USA, Great Britain and the totalitarian Soviet Union were united by their struggle against their common enemy – National Socialistic Germany - then their aims and ideology in the war were diametrically opposed, which was testified also by the military-political contradictions that became apparent at the end of the war and particularly the Cold War initiated in the early postwar years between the former allied powers – the USSR and the Western super powers.

The end of the war meant the return of freedom for the population of formerly occupied Western Europe, but Eastern Europe, on the contrary, came under the power of a communist totalitarian system. Also, for Latvia, World War II and its end did not mean the state’s liberation and the victory over absolute evil, but rather the loss of independence and the substitution of one evil for another.

Recommended reading

A. Ezergailis, A. Nazi Soviet Disinformation about the Holocaust in Nazi-Occupied Latvia. Daugavas Vanagi: Who Are They? Revisited, Riga, Latvijas 50 gadu okupācijas muzeja fonds, 2005

V.O. Lumans, Latvia in World War II. New York, Fordham University Press, 2006

D. Bleiere, I. Butulis, I. Feldmanis, A. Stranga un A. Zunda, Latvija Otrajā pasaules karā (1939–1945), Rīga, Jumava, 2008

B.M. Felder, Lettland im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Zwischen sowjetischen und deutschen Besatzern 1940-1946, Paderborn, Schöningh, 2009

U. Neiburgs un V. Zelče (red.), (Divas) puses. Latviešu kara stāsti: Otrais pasaules karš karavīru dienasgrāmatās, Rīga, Mansards, 2011

U. Neiburgs, „Dievs, Tava zeme deg!”. Latvijas Otrā pasaules kara stāsti, Rīga, Lauku Avīze, 2014

  • 1939 - 1940 Okupācijas priekšvēsture
    1939 - 1940
    Occupation prehistory
    • 23 August 1939
      The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany sign a non-aggression treaty.
    • 1 September 1939
      Germany attacks Poland – World War II begins; Latvia declares neutrality.
    • 17 September 1939
      USSR attacks Poland.
    • 5 October 1939
      As a result of military and political pressure, Latvia signs a “bilateral assistance” agreement with the USSR, allowing military army bases to be placed on Latvian territory.
    • 30 October 1939
      Nazi Germany signs an agreement with the Latvian government to transfer ethnic Germans living in Latvia to Germany.
    • 15 June 1940
      USSR attacks several border guard posts on the eastern border of Latvia.
    • 16 June 1940
      USSR presents Latvia with an ultimatum demanding Latvia allow unlimited Soviet troops to enter Latvian territory.
  • 1940-1941 Padomju okupācija
    Soviet occupation
    • 17 June 1940
      USSR occupies Latvia.
    • 20 June 1940
      A new government, created by Moscow and led by Augusts Kirhenšteins, is installed in Latvia.
    • 14-15 July 1940
      Rigged, non-democratic elections, which contravene Latvian election laws and the Latvian Constitution, take place; only one party participates – Latvijas Darba Tautas bloks [Latvian Workers’ Bloc].
    • 21 July 1940
      The illegally elected Parliament declares Latvia a Soviet Socialist Republic and requests that the USSR admit it to its Union. Kārlis Ulmanis steps down as president; he is arrested and deported to Russia the following day.
    • 5 August 1940
      Latvia is admitted to the USSR.
    • 13 August 1940
      The All-Union Communist Party (bolshevik) (AUCP(b)) Central Committee ratifies the constitution of the Latvian SSR.
    • November 1940
      The Soviet Russian Criminal Code officially becomes law in Latvia.
    • 14 May 1941
      The Soviet government and the AUCP(b) begins planning mass deportations and repressions of Latvian citizens by adopting the secret decision "On the deportation of foreign elements from the Baltic republics, Western Ukraine, and Moldavia ".
    • 13-14 June 1941
      The Soviet Union deports 15 443 inhabitants of Latvia.
  • 1941-1944/45 Nacionālsociālistiskās Vācijas okupācija
    Nazi German occupation
    • 22 June 1941
      Nazi Germany attacks the Soviet Union. Hostilities begin on Latvian territory along with Nazi occupation.
    • 16 July 1941
      Berlin creates the administrative region Ostland – Latvia is one of the four regions that make up Ostland.
    • July 1941
      The first mass annihilation of Jews begins – the largest actions take place in Riga, Daugavpils, and Liepāja, as well as in other smaller towns.
    • 30 November 1941
      Killing of Jews in the Riga Ghetto begins. In total, 70 000 Latvian Jews were killed. Thanks to the efforts of local citizens, 400 Latvian Jews were saved.
    • 5 December 1941
      The German army is defeated at Moscow.
    • 7 March 1942
      Nazi occupiers create the Landesselbstverwaltung – local administrative rule.
    • 29 января 1943 года
      Nazi occupiers adopt regulations for the arrest of Latvia’s Roma population and their incarceration in concentration camps.
    • 11 February 1943
      Orders are passed for the creation of a “voluntary” Latvian legion under the auspices of the SS; mobilization is often involuntary.
    • 13 August 1943
      Representatives of the four largest parties from the last Latvian Parliament found the Latvian Central Council (Latvijas Centrālā Padome – LCP) in Riga, which calls for the renewal of Latvian independence. Konstantīns Čakste is named head of the LCP.
    • 28 November 1943
      USA president Franklin Roosevelt, Great Britain’s prime minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin meet at the Teheran Conference. Stalin succeeds in gaining permission to have a free hand in the Baltic States and Eastern Europe after the war.
    • 22 March 1944
      189 Latvian politicians submit a resolution to the Nazi occupiers for the renewal of Latvian independence, which is denied.
    • 18 July 1944
      The Soviet army defeats German troops and crosses the Latvian border at Šķaune in Ludza county. The second Soviet occupation begins.
    • End of July – beginning of August 1944
      German occupiers allow General Jānis Kurelis and the chief of his headquarters, Captain Kristaps Upelnieks, to create a separate military unit. It cooperates with the LCP in the hopes of becoming the nucleus of the army of independent Latvia.
    • 8 September 1944
      The last LCP meeting to occur on Latvian soil takes place at which a declaration for the renewal of Latvian independence is adopted.
    • 20 November 1944
      Unable to control troops under the command of Kurelis, German SD units arrest all military personal at his headquarters. Eight officers are convicted and shot. The remaining military personnel are imprisoned in concentration camps.
    • 5 February 1945
      Leaders of the USA, GB, and the USSR meet at Yalta. During discussions, Soviet demands are met, and the Soviets occupy Latvia once again.
  • 1944/45-1953 Staļinisma terors. Padomju okupācija.
    Soviet occupation
    Stalinist terror
    • 8 May 1945
      WWII ends on Latvian territory; German forces in Kurzeme surrender, including the 19th Latvian Legionnaire division.
    • 3 October 1945
      The first meeting of members of the LCP who have escaped to Germany takes place in Lustenau, Austria. Latvian citizens in exile continue the struggle for Latvian statehood.
    • 6 October 1945
      Latvian SSR Supreme Council members accept Moscow’s decision to annex the city of Abrene and six neighbouring townships to the Russian SSR.
    • 10 February 1946
      Latvian SSR Supreme Council elections take place.
    • 17 February 1947
      In order to weaken communist rule in Eastern Europe, the USA begins transmission of the Voice of America, which is listened to in Latvian territory illegally.
    • 29 January 1949
      USSR Council of Ministers decide to deport members of the National Partisans and their supporters, as well as wealthy farmers (kulaks) from Latvia to Siberia.
    • 25 March 1949
      Soviet occupiers carry out the second mass deportation of Latvian inhabitants to Siberia – in total 42 322 people.
    • July 1949
      As a result of repressive Soviet occupation politics, the number of collective farms (kolkhozes) triples, creating 3857 kolkhozes.
    • 17 January 1953
      Latvian SSR Supreme Council adopts the decree creating a new Latvian SSR flag.
    • 5 March 1953
      Stalin dies.
  • 1953-1959 “Atkusnis”. Padomju okupācija.
    Soviet occupation
    • 12 September 1953
      Nikita Khrushchev becomes First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Central Committee (CPSU CC).
    • 14 May 1955
      Creation of the Warsaw Pact.
    • 25 February 1956
      At the CPSU 20th Congress, Khrushchev openly speaks of crimes committed by Stalin and condemns the Stalin “personality cult”.
    • 23 August 1956
      The uprising by the people in Hungary is put down by Soviet forces.
  • 1959-1985 “Stagnācija”. Padomju okupācija.
    Soviet occupation
    • 7–8 July 1959
      Latvian CP plenum condemns the national communists.
    • 13 August 1961
      The GDR closes the border to West Berlin; building of the Berlin Wall begins.
    • 10 October 1964
      Khrushchev is forced to resign as First Secretary of the CPSU CK; Leonid Brezhnev takes his place.
    • December 1965
      The Hydroelectric Station at Pļaviņas begins operation.
    • 27 May 1968
      Calls for ending censorship and freeing political prisoners in Czechoslovakia initiates the “Prague Spring” demonstrations.
    • 20 August 1968
      Soviet troops put down the “Prague Spring”.
    • 25 December 1979
      Soviet forces invade Afghanistan.
    • 10 November 1982
      Leonid Brezhnev dies; Yuri Andropov becomes First Secretary of the CPSU CK.
    • 9 February 1984
      Yuri Andropov dies. Konstantin Chernenko becomes First Secretary of the CPSU CK.
    • 10 March 1985
      Konstantin Chernenko dies.
    • 11 March 1985
      Mikhail Gorbachev becomes the leader of the CPSU CK and the Soviet Union.
  • 1985-1990/91 “Perestroika”. Padomju okupācija.
    Soviet occupation
    • 10 July 1986
      The first Latvian human rights organization Helsinki-86 is founded in Liepāja.
    • October 1986
      Widespread public support for the environmental protection of the Daugava River begins.
    • 28 February 1987
      The Environment Protection Club (Vides aizsardzības klubs – VAK) is founded.
    • 14 June 1987
      Helsinki-86 invites people to lay flowers at the Freedom Monument to commemorate the deportations in 1941.
    • 23 August 1987
      A protest takes place by the Freedom Monument to commemorate the signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact.
    • 27 April 1988
      VAK organizes protests against the proposed construction of a metro in Riga.
    • 1–2 June 1988
      The Latvian Creative Society organizes a plenum. Journalist, Art Academy professor, and member of the Supreme Council Mavriks Vulfsons publicly declares that Latvia was occupied in 1940.
    • 10 July 1988
      The Latvian National Independence Movement (Latvijas Nacionālās Neatkarības kustība – LNNK) is founded.
    • 16 July 1988
      VAK organizes a protest in Mežaparks at which the Latvian national flag is flown.
    • 8-9 October 1988
      Latvian National Front (Latvijas tautas fronte – LTF) founding congress. Dainis Īvāns is elected leader.
    • February 1989
      The pro-communist supporters of Moscow Interfront organize protests – they oppose proposed policies to stop migration to Latvia from other Soviet republics and to give the Latvian language official national status.
    • 5 May 1989
      Latvian SSR SC adopts a law granting Latvian national language status.
    • 23 August 1989
      The Baltic Way – a human chain over 660 km long is formed through all three Baltic countries to commemorate the 1939 Hitler- Stalin Pact.
    • 9 November 1989
      The Berlin Wall falls.
    • 18 November 1989
      Mass demonstrations for an independent Latvia on the banks of the Daugava with over 500,000 participants.
    • 18 March 1990
      Latvian SSR parliamentary elections.
  • Neatkarīga Latvija
    Independent Latvia
    • 4 May 1990
      Latvian SSR SC adopts the resolution for the restoration of Latvian independence.
    • 2 January 1991
      Soviet special forces OMON occupy the press building in Riga; there are armed attacks by OMON against other strategic government sites.
    • 13–27 January 1991
      Residents of Latvia create barricades in Riga to protect key locations from forces loyal to Moscow.
    • 3 March 1991
      Inhabitants of Latvia participate in a referendum on declaring an independent democratic state – two-thirds vote for restoring independence.
    • 12 June 1991
      Boris Yeltsin is elected president of Russia.
    • 19 August 1991
      Radical communist attempt a coup in Moscow – the August Putsch.
    • 21 August 1991
      Republic of Latvia Supreme Council declares the Republic of Latvia as an independent democratic state.
    • 22 August 1991
      Iceland is the first nation to recognize Latvian independence.
    • 24 August 1991
      The Russian Federation officially recognizes Latvian independence.
    • 17 September 1991
      Latvia joins the United Nations.
    • 30 December 1991
      The Soviet Union officially ceases to exist.
    • 14 February 1994
      Latvia joins the NATO program “Partnership for Peace”.
    • 12 March 1999
      The first post-Soviet nations join NATO – Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary.
    • November 2002
      Prague summit. NATO leaders decide to invite Latvia to begin negotiations for admittance.
    • 20 September 2003
      Referendum on joining the European Union.
    • 29 March 2004
      Latvia becomes a member of NATO.
    • 1 May 2004
      Latvia becomes a member of the European Union along with 10 other nations.