The History of the Occupation of Latvia

The Six Biggest Myths About the Founding of Latvia

The Six Biggest Myths About the Founding of Latvia

  1. Latvian independence was serendipitous

Independence for the Republic of Latvia was a serendipitous result of historic circumstances. Latvia would not have declared independence if Germany and Russia had not lost World War I and had not had revolutions, if civil war had not broken out in Russia, and if the Entente had not declared the right of nations to self-determination.

The idea of Latvian independence did not just appear on 18 November 1918 or even 17 November, but much earlier. Indeed, the idea of an independent Latvia was not widespread among the inhabitants of Latvia (ethnic Latvians included) until 1917, but the situation began to change dramatically in the summer of 1917. After a series of events, including the fall of Riga to the Germans in September, the Bolshevik revolution in November, and the dissolution of the Russian Constituent Assembly in January 1918, the idea of Latvian independence was supported by a majority of Latvian political parties and social organizations. It is for good reason that contemporaries and historians alike believe that Latvia’s independence was declared before 18 November 1918, as indicated by resolutions adopted by the Latvian Provisional National Council on 2 December 1917 and 30 January 1918. In addition, Britain recognized the Provisional Council as the de facto government of Latvia a week before 18 November 1918. Therefore, the declaration of independence was not serendipity and would have occurred at the first opportunity.


  1. Latvian independence was declared by a handful of unpopular politicians

Latvian independence was declared on 18 November 1918 by 38 lesser-known Latvian politicians, who represented eight insignificant and unpopular parties. Moreover, the most significant political power holder, Latvian Social Democracy (Bolsheviks), did not participate in or support the proclamation of the Republic of Latvia.

The majority of the eight political parties that made up the People’s Council of Latvia formed to declare an independent state was, in fact, small in number with little support in society. Yet the same could not be said about the Latvian Farmers’ Union (LZS) or the Latvian Social Democratic Workers’ Party (LSDSP). LZS had participated in all the most important 1917 Latvian territorial elections, obtaining 20–25% voter support. LSDSP, which had separated from the Bolshevik-controlled Latvian Social Democracy in the spring of 1918, had undeniable support among Latvian workers. This was witnessed, for example, by the party’s victory, under very difficult circumstances, in Liepāja City Council elections in January 1919. The party was well organized and had 2-3 times more party members than did the Bolsheviks at the time of declaration of independence. In addition, after the end of the War for Independence (1918–1920), LSDSP won all parliamentary elections.

Moreover, there were many well-known politicians amongst those present at the declaration of independence, including LSDSP Central Committee chair Pauls Kalniņš, LZS leader Kārlis Ulmanis, former Russian Duma member Jānis Zālītis, former Riga mayor Gustavs Zemgals, Jānis Akuraters, Atis Ķeniņš, Miķelis Valters, and Fricis Menders.


  1. No one noticed the declaration of independence

The declaration of Latvian independence on 18 November 1918 took place so quietly that there was no celebration in the city, and the majority of people had no idea that an important historic event had occurred that day. Inhabitants were indifferent to the news of the declaration of independence and some even received it with hostility.

The ceremony on 18 November was comparatively ambitious, considering the post-war situation in Riga, where the German occupiers were still in power. The organizers prepared 1200 invitations, which were divided equally between the representatives of the various political powers. Those who were present stated that the Riga Second City Theatre (today – Latvian National Theatre) was over-crowded on 18 November. The theatre was chosen specifically because it could accommodate the large number of people interested in participating. It is known that seating capacity in the theatre was around 800, so the total number present could have been around 1000, which in itself was a significant number, considering the event was planned in a hurry and took place on a Sunday. Guests consisted mostly of members of the intelligentsia, including students, but also many workers – LSDSP received 400 invitations to the event.

The 18 November ceremony was described widely and in great detail in the largest Latvian newspapers, including the German press. The press also published the declaration that all power had been transferred to the Latvian People’s Council and that Latvia was now an independent democratic republic. There is no doubt that within days, the vast majority of the residents of Latvia knew of the declaration of independence. There were press reports of celebrations in many schools in Riga. Students at the then Baltic Technical Institute of Higher Education (today – University of Latvia) hung Latvian flags and created an honour guard. In other places in Riga, the national flag was flown as well, creating a notable stir among the people.

The declaration did not go unnoticed among people outside Riga as well. For example, a Valmiera general secondary school cancelled the last three classes of the day in honour of the event. Widely publicized events took place in Liepāja, where several thousand people, including many workers, attended an event at St. Anna’s Church. Many national flags were waved by those in attendance, and the Latvian flag was also flown over the Liepāja Latvian Society Hall.


  1. The People’s Council of Latvia and the Provisional Government were German marionettes

The Provisional Government was a German puppet government, Kārlis Ulmanis was of German ancestry, and the Republic of Latvia was a German-inspired project. The Latvian government was funded by the Germans and could only function with the protection of German military forces.

At the time of the declaration of independence, Germany had not yet recovered from the recently occurred November revolution and did not have a clear policy regarding the Baltics. The local Baltic Germans attempted to create a Baltic state that would include Latvia and Estonia. The leadership (Regent Council) of this “state” continued to operate until 28 November 1918. The negative attitude of Estonia and Latvia towards the possibility of such a state, as well as the Ententes’ dismissive position, did not allow the Germans to realize their plans for the creation of a Baltic state.

True, the newly formed Latvian state did receive some support from some government of “revolutionary” Germany, as well as from some German and Soviet soldiers and sailors. German soldiers were scheduled to be sent back to Germany and were interested in the quick creation of a Latvian state, which would relieve them of the duty of protection of this territory from communist invasion. A week after the declaration of independence, Germany recognized Latvia de facto. Recognition notwithstanding, the German occupying forces placed hurdles in the way of forming the new state. They hesitated in dismantling occupying institutions and handing over state functions to the Ulmanis-led Provisional Government; they also initially refused to arm Latvian military units and continued to delay the process, even after signing the associated treaty.

In addition, the actions of the Provisional Government did not indicate that it was a German marionette. Ulmanis’ government attempted to establish close relations with the members of the Entente (Germany’s enemies), regain control of German occupying institutions, and refused to grant land to German soldiers who had fought against the Bolsheviks, even though the Germans persistently attempted to gain such rights. It should also be noted that the People’s Council originally wished to hold the 18 November ceremony in Riga Castle, home to the German 8th Army High Command, in order to raise the flag and symbolically demonstrate Latvia’s victory over the occupying forces. Ultimately, it was decided not to use Riga Castle because the Germans categorically refused to lower their flag, and the space was too small to be able to hold such an auspicious ceremony.


  1. The People’s Council of Latvia and the Provisional Government were British marionettes

If the Latvian Provisional Government was not a German marionette, then it was a British puppet. Great Britain had recognized Latvian independence de facto a week before the formal declaration. Great Britain wished to create a cordon sanitaire between German and Russia and, thus, created the Republic of Latvia.

Great Britain was truly interested in limiting the spread of communism, but by the summer of 1919 and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, their priority was not stopping Soviet Russia but rather putting pressure upon Germany, which could resume military actions at any time. For this reason, Great Britain offered limited assistance to the Provisional Government of Latvia – small deliveries of ammunition and protection of Kārlis Ulmanis’ Cabinet (toppled by the Germans) on 16 April on one of the ships in their fleet off the coast of Liepāja. The British did not rush to establish contacts with the Latvian government and refused to use their war ships to defend Riga against the Red Army in early January 1919. Great Britain and France involved their war ships in actions in Latvia only during the October-November 1919 campaign against the pro-German Bermondt army. The British lost several sailors in these battles.

British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, formally recognized Latvia’s independence on 11 November 1918. Yet, it did not recognize the People’s Council but its precursor – the Latvian Provisional National Council (LPNP) – as the de facto government of Latvia. This was not surprising, as the LPNP had attempted to maintain close ties with British and French diplomats since the end of 1917. In 1918, Great Britain also provided financial aid to the LPNP. Yet, the British-recognized LPNP did not become the government of Latvia, nor did they make up the base of the People’s Council, although a number of LNLP members became Cabinet Ministers.


  1. After the declaration of independence, civil war broke out in Latvia

The fact that civil war broke out immediately after the declaration of independence indicates that the Provisional Government, led by Kārlis Ulmanis, did not represent the interests of the majority of society. At one point, there were three concurrent governments in Latvia. This indicates that the local Germans and communists, who were supported by wide segments of society, did not support the creation of the Republic of Latvia.

The assertion that Latvia experienced a civil war from 1918 to 1920 is misleading. At the end of 1918, the preconditions for civil war did not exist. Local communists in Latvia were very few – only about 800. In comparison, the Latvian Social Democratic Workers’ Party, which supported the creation of the Republic of Latvia, had approximately 2500 members. The situation changed after the entrance of Russian Red Army, which brought with it thousands of communists (mostly Latvians living in Russia). Latvian communists even admitted that without the help of the Red Army, they would not have been able to engage in armed resistance or wrest power from the Provisional Government.

It served Germany and Soviet Russia to portray the events in Latvia as civil war and not foreign aggression. Thus, it was advantageous for both the Germans and also the communists to attempt to create pseudo-permanent state and political structures, which were very unpopular amongst the local people, despite massive financial and military support. The need to hide their aggression was also the reason that neither Germany nor Russia formally declared war on Latvia, even though both countries were forced to sign peace treaties with the Republic of Latvia in 1920. These treaties indicate that both countries were actually at war with Latvia. Formally, the Provisional Government declared a state of war on 11 February 1919, and ceased diplomatic relations with Germany on 25 November 1919. Latvia is one of the rare countries (perhaps the only one) that has fought against both Germany and Russia simultaneously and won.

The preparation of this report was supported by the Latvian Ministry of Culture
  • 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.