The History of the Occupation of Latvia

Lestene Brethren Cemetery. The struggle between time and eternity.

Lestene Brethren Cemetery. The struggle between time and eternity.

Author: Mārtiņš Mintaurs

During the Soviet occupation, it was not possible to create memorials to those Legionnaires who fell during World War II, as ethics of a civilized society would require. Recognition and maintenance of the graves of fallen Legionnaires was not allowed in the Latvian SSR. Since the restoration of Latvian independence, Latvian Legion veterans and various social and political organizations have supported the creation and maintenance of a memorial at one of the epicentres of the Kurzeme battles (1944-1945): A Brethren Cemetery has been created next to Lestene Church where Legionnaires, who fell in battle in Latvia and outside Latvia, as well as those who died in exile have been laid to rest. The Lestene Brethren Cemetery is not just a reminder of the war, but also a testimonial to influence of the interpretations of this war and its significance in modern Latvian politics.


“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.


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.


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.

Recommended reading

I. Kažociņš, Latviešu karavīri zem svešiem karogiem 1940–1945, Rīga, LU žurnāla “Latvijas Vēsture” fonds, 1999

A. Rozenšteine, A. Saulītis, G. Siliņa, V. Zelče, ’16.marts – konfrontācijas un piemiņas diena’, grām.: N. Muižnieks un V. Zelče (red.), Karojošā piemiņa. 16.marts un 9.maijs, Rīga, Zinātne, 2011

V. Zelče, ‘Latviešu leģiona atmiņa un piemiņas dienas Latvijā sākotne’, grām.: N. Muižnieks un V. Zelče (red.), Karojošā piemiņa. 16. marts un 9. maijs, Rīga, Zinātne, 2011

  • 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.