The Holocaust of Jews and Roma, instigated and carried out by German Nazis upon occupying Latvia in 1941, was a premeditated, deliberate and merciless act of annihilation for purely racial reasons. The murder of Latvian Jews began immediately after the occupation army had entered the territory of Latvia and was completed by the end of 1941. Individual Latvians were co-opted to participate in the killings, which were oftentimes manipulated to look like they were carried out without German participation.
In the Baltic region, the Holocaust was organised and supervised by a special Operational Unit of the Nazi Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst—SD) commanded by Major General (Brigadeführer) Walter Stahlecker. This unit arrived with the advance troops of the occupying army. From November 1941, command was assumed by SS and Police General Friedrich Jeckeln, the Supreme Commander of the SS and Police in Northern Russia and Ostland.
According to documented sources, Stahlecker Operational Unit A was directed to initiate spontaneous pogroms by the local population in the occupied Baltic territory. The attempts to do so were not successful.
However, individual Latvians were co-opted to become accomplices in furthering the Nazi aims. Several SD auxiliary units were formed. The unit commanded by Viktors Arājs (the "Arājs Commando") existed the longest and gained the greatest notoriety. In 1941 it numbered some 300 men and participated in the Holocaust in Latvian territory; additional men were recruited in 1942 when the unit was involved in punitive actions and Nazi crimes along the eastern border in Russia and Belarus.
Racist and dehumanising German propaganda justifying the annihilation of Jews was unleashed already in the first days of the occupation: posters, exhibitions and articles in newspapers. Jews were accused of Communist atrocities and murders during the one-year of Soviet rule in 1940–41. Victims found in mass graves were used to incite anti-Jewish sentiments.
The propaganda was organised by a special propaganda unit from Germany. Jews were publicly ostracised, humiliated and discriminated against administratively: they were ordered to wear the Star of David, ordered to clear rubble and to exhume the victims of Communist atrocities, forbidden to walk on sidewalks, to frequent public places, to shop, etc.
The first mass murders of Latvian Jews started in July and continued until September. Groups of Jews were ordered to be shot in Riga, Daugavpils and in many smaller towns. Recent research shows that all these actions were organised by the German authorities but usually carried out by Latvian auxiliaries without direct German involvement.
In September, the remaining Jews in Riga were herded into a fenced-in ghetto in the city's Moscow Suburb and forcibly kept there under guard.
From the Riga Ghetto, under the direct supervision of Friedrich Jeckeln, about 25,000 Jews were driven on foot to Rumbula Forest, on the outskirts of Riga, and murdered there in two operations— on 30 November and 8 December 1941. Latvians performed guard duties; Jeckeln's SS men shot the victims.
About 3000 Jews from Liepāja were murdered between 15 and 17 December. This was practically the end of the mass annihilation of approximately 70,000 Latvian Jews.
In addition, some 25,000 Jews were brought from Germany, Austria and the present-day Czech Republic. Around 20,000 were killed.
Riga Ghetto was closed in 1943. Those Jews still alive and able to work were transferred to nearby concentration camps, the largest of which were located in Rīga (Mežaparks/Kaiserwald) and Dundaga. In 1944 most of the remaining Jews were transferred to Germany where some of them survived until the end of the war.
The unprecedented, extensive and swift persecution and murder of Latvia's Jews evoked expressions of empathy. Such reactions, however, were officially condemned. Nevertheless, fellow citizens of Latvia saved more than 400 Jews. Several of them were punished by the Nazi authorities for harbouring Jews.
There was no widespread killing of Jews by the local population without German involvement. There is no record of virulent anti-Semitism before the arrival of Nazi Germans. The Nazi German policy was to make it look like Latvians were spontaneously killing their own Jews; they co-opted and manipulated individual Latvians to do so in their stead. Jewish survivors, not knowing the command mechanism, oftentimes assumed that the Latvian collaborators were acting on their own.
Soviet propaganda later found it convenient to continue the impression created by the Nazis as a means of intimidation and suppression. Eventually, accusations of Latvian complicity with the Nazis, most but not all of them unfounded, were used against leading exile Latvian figures.
The Latvian Auxiliary Police Battalions and the Latvian Legion were involved in the Holocaust. The murder of Latvian Jews was basically completed by the end of 1941. The Schutzmannschaften Battalions were formed by the German authorities in late 1941 and 1942. There were two controversial Soviet trials against members of two of the battalions, which resulted in convictions. It is also known that two battalions were involved in guard duties at the Warsaw Ghetto.
However, the "Latvian SS Volunteer Legion", as it was officially called despite the fact that most of the soldiers were conscripted, was founded by Hitler's decree of 10 February 1943. It included some of the front-line police battalions and eventually some members of the Arājs Commando, but the Legion's two divisions, manned basically by conscripts, were only involved in military combat actions. Latvian legionnaires taken prisoner in the West were considered illegal conscripts and not members of Hitler's criminal SS.