Over 70 years have passed since the end of World War II, but the legacy left by the war continues to play an important role in Europe’s collective memory and identity. Modern Europe can be divided into three general memory groups: Western Europe remembers the Nazi occupation and the Holocaust; Eastern Europe remembers the crimes committed by both the Nazis and also the Soviets; but in Russia, the myth of the USSR’s role solely as victor and liberator still lives on.
To this day, Latvia continues to feel the physical, material, and emotional losses of WWII, and the effects of the Soviet occupation continue to divide society along ethnic lines and interpretations of history.
THE END OF WORLD WAR II IN EUROPE AND LATVIA
On 7 May 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally at the US army headquarters of General Eisenhower near Rheims in northern France. The surrender took effect at 23:01 Berlin time or at 01:01 in Moscow.
However, the leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, was not satisfied that the signing of this document took place at the headquarters of the Western allies, rather than at the Soviet army headquarters. Therefore, the next evening at 22:43, this agreement was signed again at Soviet marshal Georgy Zhukov’s headquarters in Karlshorst, near Berlin. The difference in time zones created differences in marking the war’s end – in Western Europe is was 8 May, but in the USSR it was 9 May.
In the early morning hours of 7 May 1945 in Latvia, the commander of the Leningrad and 2nd Baltic front Soviet Army forces, General Leonid Govorov, signed an ultimatum that was presented to the leadership of the German army forces Kurland. The German leadership replied the following day accepting the ultimatum, realizing that the German army had capitulated at Rheims.
On 8 May, via radio contact, a ceasefire was declared at 14:00 in the town of Ezere near Saldus, and the representative of the Kurland force, general major Rauser signed a capitulation agreement. The agreement declared a truce and peace was declared at 24:00 local time.
REMEMBRING WORLD WAR II IN THE SOVIET UNION AND RUSSIA
The first victory parade in the Soviet Union was held in Red Square on 24 June 1945, but at the end of 1946, Stalin declared that 9 May would not be a holiday. He was concerned that former front line soldiers could influence political power; therefore, he thought it more important to highlight 1 May as International Workers’ Day and 7 November as the “Great October Socialist Revolution”.
After Stalin’s death in 1953 and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) congress in 1956, which was defined by the denunciation of the Stalin personality cult, the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev continued to downplay 9 May because of its associations with Stalin’s period of rule. Only in 1965, after former war veteran Leonid Brezhnev had become the head of the CPSU, was the 20th anniversary of the “Great Patriotic War” commemorated; he made Victory Day on 9 May an important part of Soviet tradition.
For a short time after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Victory Day lost its significance. However, since the beginning of Putin’s rule in 2000, Russia has initiated new traditions – the wearing of “St. George ribbons” and the “March of Millions”.
After the Russian aggression in Ukraine, Victory Day parades in Moscow have been characterized by demonstrations of Russian military might and an uncritical attitude towards the history of World War II. As a result, many western leaders have refused to attend this celebration.
Recently, new remembrance traditions have developed in several other post-Soviet countries, such as Belarus and Kazakhstan, but they have refrained from using the St. George ribbons. Ukraine, where both 8 and 9 May are officially celebrated, thereby highlighting not only the victory over Nazi Germany, but also commemorating the victims of WWII, has decided to adopt the red poppy as a symbol – one familiar in Europe for commemorating those who fell during WWI.
REMEMBRANCE OF THE END OF WORLD WAR II IN EUROPE AND LATVIA
The end of the war in Europe is commemorated on 8 May and is an important holiday for many countries around the world. However, there are other important dates associated with the war, which are an integral part of memory politics in many European countries.
For example, France annually commemorates the opening of the western front in Normandy on 6 June 1944 and the liberation of Paris on 25 August 1944. The Warsaw uprising (1944) is widely commemorated in Poland on 1 August. Remembrance Day for the victims of the Holocaust is internationally recognized on 28 January – the day the Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated in 1945. In the US, 2 September commemorates the defeat of Japan and the end of World War II in 1945.
After the renewal of Latvian independence, the Latvian Council of Ministers passed a law on 3 October 1990 regulating holidays and remembrance days: 9 May was designated a day of remembrance for the victims of WWII. On 6 April 1995, the Latvian Parliament altered the previously adopted law by declaring 8 May a day of remembrance for the defeat of Nazi Germany, as well as a day of remembrance for the victims of WWII. On this day, a long-standing tradition has become the laying of flowers by the Eternal Flame in the Brethren Cemetery by the President of Latvia.
Since 2014, an official remembrance ceremony also takes place at the Salaspils memorial to the Holocaust victims. In 2012, the then President of Latvia Andris Bērziņš initiated a joint ceremony at the Brethren Cemetery on 8 May that united those who had once fought on opposite sides, former Red Army and Legionnaire soldiers, and the Latvian Parliament prepared legislation that would determine the status of former participants in WWII.
Since 1997, Latvia has designated 9 May as “Europe Day”, as it is in other European countries. This date is devoted to peace and unity and marks what is generally considered the anniversary of the origins of European political unity: At a speech in Paris on 9 May 1950, the then French foreign minister Robert Schuman gave a speech that set out a new form of European political cooperation that would make war an impossibility. For this reason, the leaders of the European Union and European nations attending a high level meeting in Milan declared 9 May as Europe Day. Latvia, too, declared this day to be Europe Day on 18 December 1996.
Simultaneously, a large segment of Russian-speakers in Latvia still adhere to the popular former Soviet and modern Russian tradition of celebrating Victory Day on 9 May, by accenting the role the Soviet Red Army played in the defeat of Nazi Germany. Particularly popular is the celebration of 9 May at Victory Park in Riga, as well as in Daugavpils, Rēzekne, and other Latvian towns.
However, there is silence around the Soviet participation in bringing about WWII as a result of its activities from 1939 to 1941, including attacks on Finland, Poland and Rumania, the occupation and annexation of the Baltic States, the post-war Sovietization of Eastern Europe, and other crimes committed by the communist regime.
The official position of Latvia regarding the end of WWII can be summarized by the statement made on 12 January 2005 by the then president of Latvia, Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga about 9 May: “Latvia, along with the rest of Europe, celebrates the defeat of Nazi Germany in May 1945. However, unlike Western Europe, the defeat of the hated German empire did not result in the liberation of my homeland. In its place, the three Baltic States – Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania – were subjected to the ruthless occupation of another foreign empire – the Soviet Union. [..]
“For Latvia, the end of World War II came much later on 4 May 1990. This is the date on which my country’s parliament adopted the declaration of independence from the Soviet Union. [..]
“This year, on 1 May, Latvia will celebrate the first anniversary since joining the European Union. This is the date that truly symbolizes the end of World War II for my homeland. It marks the end of an artificially imposed sphere of influence. It marks the return of my homeland to the wider democratic and independent family of European nations.”
Along with the defeat of National Socialism in Germany on 8 May, World War II ended and peace returned. One of the most brutal totalitarian regimes known to 20th century Europe was defeated at a cost of over 50 million soldiers and civilians, including 6 million Holocaust victims. The capitulation of Germany on 8 May also concluded the hostilities in Kurzeme, the part of Latvia that the Soviet army had not been able to defeat.
During WWII, Latvia lost its independence and was not able to restore it. The end of the war in Western Europe meant a return to freedom, but Eastern Europe fell under communist totalitarian rule. It soon became apparent that the end of World War II was only the beginning of the Cold War, waged between former allies – the Soviet Union and many Western nations.
H. Bekmanis un J. Keruss (sast.), 1945. gads: 8. maijs – Atbrīvošanas diena? 9. maijs – Uzvaras diena? Starptautiskā simpozija referātu krājums, Rīga, LU Akadēmiskais apgāds, 2006.
N. Muižnieks un V. Zelče (red.), Karojošā piemiņa: 16. marts un 9. maijs, Rīga, Zinātne, 2011.