The History of the Occupation of Latvia

Salaspils camp. History and Memory

Salaspils camp. History and Memory

Author: Uldis Neiburgs

Since World War II, many differing opinions about the Salaspils camp have been expressed. For many years, the dominating view was one widely accepted in the Soviet Union – Salaspils was a “death camp” where at least 53,000 (in the camp and its affiliated sites – 100,000) Soviet citizens were killed. As a result, the general view was that the living conditions in Salaspils were abominable, that the imprisoned were continuously killed and degraded in many ways, that medical experiments were performed on children, that the thousands who died there had their blood removed, and so on. Yet, Soviet historiography and research paid little attention to the fate of Soviet soldiers who were held in German prisoner-of-war camps around Salaspils, and artificially connected their fate with the Salaspils camp, which was intended for civilian victims, thus inflating the number of imprisoned and killed. Many of these preconceived notions, resulting from Soviet propaganda has also penetrated historical research and left a mark on public opinion – even today.


The Salaspils camp was part of the wide camp system developed by National Socialist Germany. Initially, the Security Police and the SD (Sicherheitspolizei und Sicherheitsdienst) in Latvia wished to create a concentration camp in Salaspils, but the leadership of Reich Security Main Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt) in Berlin did not give permission. It allowed the creation of an “extended police prison”, which later included a “labor correctional camp”. At the end of 1942 and beginning of 1943, another “branch” was created for convicted Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian SS and police service members, and later also included Estonian and Latvian legionnaires. Therefore, the Salaspils camp from May 1942 until September 1944 functioned as an “extended police prison” and a “labor correctional camp”, as well as a prison for convicted Baltic Police Battalion members and legionnaires. It also served other purposes, such as a short-term transit camp for other types of prisoners.

The Salaspils camp was never subordinated to the general concentration camp authority and the SS Economics and Administration Main Office (SS Wirtschaftsverwaltungshauptamt); the Security Police and SD in Latvia consistently avoided being placed under their administration. The commander of the Security Police and SD for Latvia, SS Sturmbannführer Rudolf Lange, consistently was of the opinion that Salaspils needed to be under the regional command of the Security Police, which would have unfettered control over the camp. Clearly, the Salaspils camp was a punishment camp, but it had idiosyncrasies that differentiated it from true concentration camps. For instance, Salaspils was designated to follow police prison, labor correction camp, and SS court-designated administrative rules that were different from those in concentration camps. However, there were similarities with regulations governing concentration camps, which the Salaspils camp leadership did not deny, but they were only similarities, not requirements. Examples are the categorization of inmates, work regulations, and other rules.


Until now, historical research has focused primarily on the building of Salaspils. Approximately 1500-1800 Jews (of whom 1000 died), brought in from Germany and elsewhere, participated in its construction.

The Salaspils camp was also built so that prisons in Riga would not be over-crowded. When the investigation of detainees was complete, they could be sent to Salaspils, often classified as security protective internment (Schutzhäft). The person’s status in Salaspils was also dependent on whether only an investigation had taken place or whether a sentence had also been declared. The exact number of interred in the Salaspils camp is not precisely known because the registration records were destroyed. Precise numbers are only available for specific dates. For instance, in January 1943, Salaspils had a total of 1857 inmates, on 1 April – 1990, but in May –2197 people. Even fewer records remain about the classification of people into “A”, “B” or “C” categories.

People who were sent to the Salaspils “labor correction camp” section served sentences and were held for up to 56 days. Statistics about this category of prisoners are lacking as well. It can only be generally surmised that approximately 70-80 people were held, monthly, for work-order transgressions. That means that during the entire time of the camp’s existence, the total number of this type of prisoner could have reached 1800.

In addition, information about people who were detained in Salaspils in operations against partisans or for recruitment of forced labor in Germany is also incomplete. The number of people who ended up in Salaspils due to the February-April 1943 anti-partisan operation Winterzauber in Belarus can only be estimated. It is known that of the 7465 people apprehended during this operation, about 4000 were brought to Salaspils. The August-September 1943 operation Sommerreise in Latgale brought 3284 prisoners to Salaspils. Precise details of other smaller contingents sent to Salaspils are likewise missing. The children taken during operation Winterzauber were separated from their parents upon arrival at the camp and remained there for a relatively short time. It is known that about 1700 children were released by mid-April 1943 and placed in farmsteads or with other families in the Riga region. Although these children found themselves in very dire and traumatic circumstances, there is no basis for the belief that mass executions of children took place. It is undeniable that a number of the children (primarily the youngest) died in Salaspils (statistics vary between 250 and 650), but this was the result of malnutrition, famine, illness and epidemics, not medical experimentation.

In the spring of 1943, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian members of Police Battalions, who were convicted of various transgressions, began to be interred in a special section at Salaspils. Later, Latvian and Estonian legionnaires, tried by the 16th SS and Police Court, were sent to the camp. In December 1943, the number of interred in this category was 204, but in 1944, the number of military personnel rose rapidly. Although precise statistics about the existence of this category of prisoners in Salaspils is not available, it is known that from July to August, about 2000 interred soldiers were included in the newly-formed punishment and construction battalions subordinated to the General Inspector Headquarters of the Latvian Legion.

Based on approximate calculations, it is possible to ascertain that during the entire period of existence between 21,855 and 23,035 people were interred in the Salaspils camp for longer or shorter periods of time. Of these, 11,735 were transit prisoners, taken as a result of various security police operations to be transported elsewhere later.


Salaspils camp was not a “death camp” in the sense that people were brought there specifically to be exterminated. Salaspils did not have gas chambers, and “gassing trucks” were not sent there for mass murder of inmates. However, for some of the inmates, Salaspils became their place of death, but for many inmates it served, more or less, as a harsh survival experience on the way to concentration camps outside Latvia. If 4000 inmates from the Salaspils camp were transported to concentration camps in Germany and Poland, it can be assumed that, of them, 1500 or more died.

Adult transit prisoners, detained in operations Winterzauber and Sommerreise (4000 in total), were sent to Germany, where they were handed over to the General Plenipotentiary for Labor Allocation (Generalbevollmächtigter für den Arbeitseinsatz). Their future depended on the laborer category to which they were assigned. The fate of those detained in other operations and later sent through Salaspils to Germany (4500 people) is not known. Their fate was, to a great extent, dependent on whether they were interred in concentration camps or handed over to the Labor Deployment Office. Assignment to work category gave them better opportunities to survive the war in Germany. The fate of transit prisoners after the war, including the number of survivors and those who returned to Latvia, Belarus, or Russia, has not yet been researched; information can be found only in published memoirs. Yet, it is known that in Latvia about 2700 children from Belarus and Latgale were housed in farmers’ homesteads, foster families, and various child care institutions.

During the first post-war years in occupied Latvia, one’s presence in the Salaspils camp was frequently viewed with suspicion, as the loyalty of those people to the Soviet regime was questioned. Sometimes they were even accused of collaboration with the German occupying forces, since they had managed to survive the war despite being imprisoned. Only in the 1960s the Salaspils Concentration Camp Prisoner Society was formed, which about 500 former inmates joined. The membership of this society was mainly made up of Communist sympathizers whose suffering could be, and was used for Soviet propaganda purposes. In addition to the lack of data about former Salaspils inmates who were in Germany at the end of the war and did not return to Latvia, as well about those who were not Communist sympathizers and did not participate in the Salaspils camp survivor activities after the war, the fact remains that in post-war Latvia, the 500 registered former prisoners were just a small part of the 6000-7000 political prisoner total. This leads us to believe that the swath of death in concentration camps outside Latvia was quite considerable.


The ruthless, brutal, and inhumane living and working conditions in the Salaspils camp differed little from concentration camps in National Socialist Germany. It was not particularly large, with an average population of 1800-2200 prisoners at any given time. The number of prisoners and deaths is vastly different from the numbers mentioned in Soviet historiography and propaganda of that era, but this fact most certainly does not minimize or relativize the responsibility and guilt of the Nazi regime and those local individuals who supported its repressions. The facts revealed in historical research represent a search for truth, which is important not only for the accurate reflection of the history of the Salaspils camp in Latvian and international academic circles and the public sphere, but also for further research on the criminal system of the National Socialist regime.

Recommended reading

Céline Bayou, Eric Le Bourhis, Rendez-vous manqué entre histoire et mémoire. Le camp de concentration de Salaspils en Lettonie. In: Le Courrier des pays de l’Est, 6, No.1064, 2007, pp. 65–76.

Bлад Богов (Cост.), Приговоренные нацизмом. Концлагерь Саласпилс: забытая история. Сборник документальных свидетельств о злодеяниях немецких нацистов и их пособников в годы германской оккупации Латвии в 1941–1944 гг. Рига, 2011.

Andrej Angrick, Peter Klein, The “Final Solution” in Riga. Exploitation and Annihilation, 1941-1944. New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2012

Kārlis Kangeris, Uldis Neiburgs, Rudīte Vīksne, Aiz šiem vārtiem vaid zeme. Salaspils nometne 1941-1944. Rīga, Lauku Avīze, 2016

  • 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.