“On the one hand, in this place we remember and think about extremely painful things – war, death, anguish – but on the other hand, this is a place of peace. This is the struggle between time and eternity.” With these words, Jānis Vanags, the archbishop of the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church, commemorated the internment of Legionnaires at a religious service held at Lestene Brethren Cemetery in 2001. The creation of Lestene Brethren Cemetery and the significance of this memorial in the understanding of the history of the 20th century in Latvia indicate how difficult it is to regain historic memories. Particularly when the understanding of the past has been distorted by many years of Soviet negation and the later influence of political manipulation. The archbishop’s comparison allows one to see the contrast between eternal peace, which the fallen deserve, and the situation dictated by temporal considerations that surround interpretations of the role of the Latvian SS Legion. Lestene Brethren Cemetery is also tied to interpretations of the events that take place on 16 March, which only serve to remind us of the need to evaluate the history of a people and its country.
CREATION OF LESTENE BRETHREN CEMETERY AND ITS COMPOSITION
The pretext for the creation of Lestene Brethren Cemetery was tied to the heavy battles of 23-30 December 1944, when the Red Army attempted to break the German lines in Kurzeme around Tukums. These battles incurred heavy losses on both sides – the Latvian Legion 19th division fought against units of Latvian soldiers in the Red Army 130th Rifleman corps. At the time, several officers of the 19th division had hoped to create a memorial to the fallen by Lestene Church, where a field hospital had been created, but war activities did not allow this to happen.
The gravesites of German soldiers and Latvian Legionnaires, who fell in this area from October 1944 to March 1945, were destroyed after WWII. In the late 1980s, granite memorial stones were placed on gravesites of some of the fallen and at battle sites in Džūkste, Code, Jaunpils, and More, but were destroyed by the time Latvia regained its independence ; the perpetrators were never discovered.
The call for the creation of Lestene Brethren Cemetery gained momentum in the latter half of the 1990s when the Latvian war veterans’ organization in England, the Latvian Welfare Fund, and the Latvian National Soldiers’ (LNKB) began an active campaign to find the burial sites of Legionnaires who fell in Latvia and to reinter them in Lestene Brethren Cemetery. The groundbreaking ceremony took place on 27 April 1996 when the Cemetery was officially consecrated and marked by a single white cross. The Latvian Republic Brethren Cemetery Committee and the Latvian Welfare Fund Central Committee took over fundraising and design competition duties. The initial plan to reinter all Legionnaires who fell in Latvia was maintained, in order to identify the fallen (archival data from Germany was also used for this purpose) and to guarantee that their final resting spot would be tended. The interment of up to 2000 fallen soldiers was estimated. The Kurzeme Brethren Cemetery Fund was created in 1998 to which individuals and organizations donated money; it also received funding from the state budget. The first ten Legionnaires were ceremoniously reinterred on 8 May of that year.
The competition for the Brethren Cemetery memorial ended in 1998. A total of 13 projects were submitted, and the winning design (sculptor Arta Dumpe; architect Edvīns Vecumnieks) was a memorial created from metal in which the central mother figure indicates with dismay at her two sons, soldiers of opposing sides, thereby symbolizing the fractured nation.
The winning design also planned for the visual inclusion of Lestene Church, where an army hospital had been located during the ill-fated battles. It incorporated both the restoration of the church, as well as the creation of memorial chapel devoted to the memory of the Legionnaires. The dominating feature of the cemetery was to be a granite sculpture depicting a soldier carrying his fallen comrade. The head of the selection committee clarified: ”The basic premise of the memorial is love for the homeland and the tragedy of this generation, who never succeeded in realizing this dream, despite the great loss of life.” In addition, the need to designate Lestene Brethren Cemetery as a national memorial was also stressed.
The project was completely gradually, as funds allowed, but the primary objective was to find the gravesites of the fallen Legionnaires and to reinter them in Lestene. The design also experienced some changes, most notably the replacement of the two soldier figures with the Mother Latvia figure cradling a fallen soldier’s head in her lap. The sculpture was unveiled on 5 November 2000. The consecration and unveiling of the memorial itself took place on 27 September 2003.
The original hope to restore Lestene Church with the special chapel was replaced by plans for a memorial wall in which the names of the Legionnaires known to have fallen during World War II would be engraved. The wall will become the memorial for all Legionnaires. The final resting places for many soldiers who fell in Russian territory remain to be discovered, and the wall will remind us of those soldiers whose gravesites are unknown. Although officially, the project was completed in 2008, memorial sites continue to be created, and the struggle in the interpretation of Latvia’s role in WWII also continues.
CONCLUSION: THE POLITICS OF CREATING MEMORIALS
The creation of the Lestene Brethren Cemetery took place at a time when foreign journalists, as well as local Russian-language media, paid great attention to the commemoration of 16 March, Legionnaire Day, and the associated march to the Freedom Monument in Riga. The day was given official status as a day of commemoration, which was later rescinded because of international pressure. This caused confusion and discontent in society. This is also reflected in conflicting positions expressed by the government as regards participation in ceremonies at Lestene by elected officials and inconsistencies in allowing interment ceremonies to be completed with military honours.
The Russian foreign ministry has made accusations that both the 16 May celebrations and also the unveiling of the Lestene memorial is a glorification of Latvia’s defense of fascism. Similar official protests were received from the Israeli foreign ministry. Yet, when the German organization (Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge), who are responsible for the maintenance of German soldier gravesites, created a similar brethren cemetery for approximately 16 000 Latvian and German soldiers near Saldus in September 1999, no such international outcry took place. In addition, the LNKB and the Latvian Welfare Fund publicly expressed incredulity at the fact that the Latvian government “…has long ago agreed to protect the gravesites of Red Army soldiers, but not those of fallen Latvian solders”, indicating that the Lestene memorial had not yet received protected status.
Despite the Latvian government’s concerted efforts to maintain a balanced position in this matter (“We should not differentiate between the fallen; respect must be shown to them all.” – Artis Pabriks ), it can surmised that Lestene Brethren Cemetery will continue to be used to create conflict through alternative interpretations of history. In this situation, it is important to remember the act of remembrance itself for society. Remembrance and commemoration cannot be an isolation of the past, because every society needs historic memory, particularly in this modern era of information overload. Remembering fallen Latvian soldiers is required of humanity, which has little to do with politics. The remembrance of the tragic past is not a propaganda tactic, but rather acknowledgment of historic experience that can only help us to prevent these events from occurring again in he future.
The author would like express sincere thanks to Vidis Vēveris for giving access to his vast collection of press material on this topic.