The History of the Occupation of Latvia

May 8/9. Commemorating the End of World War II in Latvia

May 8/9. Commemorating the End of World War II in Latvia

Author: Uldis Neiburgs

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.


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.


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.


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.

Recommended reading

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.

  • 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.