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Soviet Historiography

Holocaust’s Soviet Legacies in Latvia

Andrew Ezergailis, Professor
Ithaca College

Those organizing agencies that in the West defined the Holocaust, such as the Nuremberg Trials, Life magazine’s pictures of the Nazi concentration and death camps, and the Raul Hilberg’s collection of documents, were absent in the Soviet Union. In a true sense, the Holocaust experience within the Soviet realm was different—in Western sense almost non-existent. On the Soviet side until 1990 even the word Holocaust was missing. The major agency in the Soviet Union that processed the information on the Holocaust was the KGB and its propaganda arm—the Agitprop. The Soviets have left a contradictory legacy: On the one hand it was engaged in truth-seeking in unraveling the Nazi “conspiracy”, simultaneously it imposed a silence on the findings and on the third hand, it created a “new” Holocaust image that had little in common with the real one. The three legacies while the Soviet Union existed lived on separate tracks that hardly ever met. The three Soviet legacies or contributions to the Holocaust can be outlined as follows:

  1. The silent treatment, 1941-1990
  2. Investigation records, 1944-1960
    1. Extraordinary Commission investigations, 1944-1946
    2. Trial Records, 1944-1966
  3. Propaganda, 1946-1990
    1. Show trials, 1960-1974
    2. Pamphlet war, 1961-1980


The silent treatment, 1941-1990

The Soviet silence about the Holocaust began in 1941 and if we exclude the “propaganda war”, continued until 1990. Even in the era of Gorbachov’s glasnost censorship about the Holocaust continued. Access to the Holocaust archives, was among the last one to become available. Stalin in the July 3, 1941 speech when he warned a variety of Soviet peoples including those, such as Uzbeks, who were not in the direct path of the Nazi onslaught, but he failed not only to warn, but even to mention the Jews, as the people most directly and immediately threatened. Although thousands perhaps as many as 20,000 Latvian Jews found refuge within the Soviet Union, thousands of others were blocked by NKVD troops from crossing the Latvian/Soviet frontier and were pushed back into the guns of the Einsatzgruppe A Commandos. During the war the situation did not improve much. The numerous war- time publications: newspapers, leaflets and handbills, dropped from the air and pasted on the walls, do not mention the fate of the Jews in Latvia. They talk about numerous Nazi crimes but specifically the killing of the Jews was not one of them. Although numerous Latvian Jews were fighting within the ranks of the Red Army none were mobilized to expose the crimes against their people. A slight crack in the monolith of silence occurred during late 1944, when the Red Army was returning and the Soviet Extraordinary Commission had began to investigate Nazi crimes. During the late 1944 and early 1945 there appeared occasional articles reporting about the work of the Extraordinary Commission in which the atrocity sites were described. But in April 1945 this “openness” only with occasional and calculated breaks, was shut down for the next fifty years.

The breaks in the silence, as few as they were, occurred mostly for propaganda purposes and they were connected with Holocaust Show trials. These show trials and the publicity surrounding them, though loud it was, added little to our knowledge about the Holocaust. To the contrary, they propagandized and Sovietized the Holocaust and in many ways mislead the world about the Nazi crimes in Latvia. In due time some of the propaganda crept into Soviet “scholarly” works about World War II.[1]


Investigation records, 1944–1960

The results of the inquiries that were started in 1944 until the end of the USSR remained a dormant Soviet Holocaust legacy. This store of information until very recently was closed even to the most trusted Soviet scholars and KGB insiders. Only those operatives on special assignments could gain limited access to these sources. There were two arms of the NKVD that even before the war had ended went to work on collecting information about the Nazi crimes:

  1. the Extraordinary Commission to Investigate the Crimes of Fascism and
  2. the Soviet courts that were prosecuting cases against individuals.

In addition the NKVD also set up a special bureau that investigated the Arājs Commando alone. Their findings were cross-indexed and compiled into a twelve volume compendium. What these volumes contain we do not know for sure, because the KGB in 1991 managed to evacuate eleven of the twelve to Russia. The one volume that waylaid in Latvia shows the care with which the Soviets had approached the identification of the perpetrators and locating their whereabouts. It also contains a list of perpetrators who had become KGB informers. The Extraordinary Commission to Investigate the crimes of Fascism was the first to start its fact-finding assignment. On their footsteps there followed Soviet military and NKVD courts, which were charged with the task of apprehending and punishing “collaborationists”. The Commission and the courts fulfilled their assignments less than perfectly, but they collected, perhaps inadvertently, a body of facts that by the post- Soviet countries can be used to reconstruct with some degree of accuracy the Nazi crimes in their lands that includes Latvia. The importance of this data base is that the information that can be drawn from it contradicts in all particulars the version of the Holocaust in Latvia that the KGB propaganda arm and the show trials developed in the 1960s. The Extraordinary Commission’s reports are especially good in documenting the basic fact of the killing operations: the locations of the grave-sites and the time of the murder. It is less accurate on the personnel that participated in the killing actions because they fail to separate the guilty from the bystander. The Extraordinary Commission was a hierarchical organization that first collected information at the grass roots and then abstracted it as it was processed up the steps to the all republic level. The higher it climbed the more abstracted and sovietized it became. Unfortunately, the grass roots reports are not available for all localities. Of the two sources, the trial records is the more important one, because frequently the evidence is less formulaic and freer of Soviet ideologizing. From the Western point of view the Soviet courts were ruthless but they did not always skew the evidence, because the punishment did not depend on the evidence. It is superfluous to note that all witnesses were not equally good nor all interrogators equally thorough. No one witness nor any one trial will give enough information to reconstruct the killing of Jews in a town. The historian needs to labor as a master jigsaw puzzle solver. The trial investigators and prosecutors seem to have been much more interested in the connections that the accused had with other accused or potentially accused, than forcing them to fill in a predesigned scenario. The NKVD interrogators needed more or less accurate information because their assignment seems to have been to trap and punish all collaborationists. To be sure many witnesses frequently attempted to wiggle out of giving evidence that would implicate them into crimes. But it needs to be remembered that the witnesses and the accused had no legal protections that would have been available to them had they been tried in a Western jurisdiction. We can also note that the witnesses frequently tried to please the interrogator by talking “too much”. These KGB trial records must be treated substantially as different from those that the same organization compiled for the “show trials”. For one the Soviets treated them differently: the trial records of which there were thousands, until 1991 were held in seclusion while those of the few “show trials” especially abroad received considerable publicity.[2]

III. Propaganda, 1946-1990

a. Show trials, 1960-1974

b. Pamphlet war, 1961-1980

The Soviets with their censor’s iron hand first created a void in the knowledge of the Holocaust then it filled it with misinformation, in the best of cases with half-truth. The “show trials” were intended for the purpose to fill the void left by censorship. The first of these show trials that received considerable amount of publicity in Latvian newspapers and air waves was the Fredrick Jeckeln one in 1946. Jeckeln from November 1941 to the end of the war served in Latvia as the highest SS and Police leader in the Northern zone of occupation. At the end of the war he was captured and brought to Riga to be tried. It was a “show trial” in the sense that the verdict was announced beforehand, that it took place in front of an audience that applauded the verdict, and that the execution by hanging was a public one. Although the trial took place in Riga, it had very little to do with Latvians. The point of the trial was to prove that Nazism was a criminal and murderous regime. It did not address the Latvian participation in the killing of the Jews.


The real “show trials” in Latvia began in early 1960’s after Khrushchov commenced his war against the “nationalists”. There were three major “show trials”:

  1. The 18th Police Battalion trial in 1961;
  2. The Rezekne trial of Eichelis, Puntulis, Maikovskis and others in 1965;[3]
  3. and the series of 21st Battalion trials, 1972-1974 of which there were five.

Similar Show Trials took place within all Soviet Republics which had the misfortune of being occupied by the Nazis. None of the trials, nor the three Latvian ones in Holocaust literature as yet have not received their full significance but those who are acquainted with Vyshinsky's trials of 1930s will have any difficulty seeing similarities. Ultimately the accusations in these three trials were of groups, national collectivities. Soviet nationalities were accused of collaborationism with Nazis, specifically in collective participation in killing Jews. For most of the men they were their second trials and in most cases these accusations in the second trial had not surfaced  in the first ones.

There is no question that the crimes for which the people were tried had occurred, the question is whether the men accused in the “show trials” were the one who committed those crimes or had played the kind of a role that was assigned to them. The verdicts were proclaimed before the trial and there was no, especially in the courts, presumption of innocence. The pre-trial interrogations leave the impression that they were scripted and the prosecutors regardless of the evidence, drove the cases towards a predetermined conclusion. The verdict, especially in the first and the third trials were made on the basis of self-incriminations and the testimonies of witnesses who themselves if true must have been guilty of the same crimes as the accused. Yet these witnesses were never tried or suffered any punishment.

The first trial, that of the 18th Battalion, took place in 1961. The 18th Latvian Police Battalion was accused of murdering the Jews of Slonim in August 1942. Nine members of the unit were placed on trial and five were sentenced to death. There is no question that the Jews of Slonim from June 1941 to December 1942 when the Slonim ghetto was liquidated, were killed. It also appears that the 18th Battalion was passing through Slonim when on August 20th, 1942 one of the last massacres of Slonim Jews took place. The history of the murder of Slonim Jews has been told by several Jewish authors, but none includes the participation of the 18th Battalion. The men of the 18th were convicted on the basis of “self-confessions” without any material evidence.

The peculiarity of the second, the Rezekne, trial was that along with four men living in Latvia, the Soviets also tried in abstentia three former Rēzekne Police chiefs living abroad: Eichelis, living in Germany, Puntulis, living in Canada, and Boleslavs Maikovskiss, living in the United States. Rēzekne was both the name of a city and of the district in which Rēzekne was the district’s capital. The case staged in 1965 revolved around the destruction of the Audriņi village that was razed in January 1942. The killing of the Jews in Rēzekne district, though present, was peripheral to the case. The trial was held in a sizable auditorium and was accompanied by a large publicity hullabaloo.[4]

The three from Latvia were Jēzeps Basankovičs (1916), Jānis Krasovskis (1916), Pēteris Vaičuks (1919), and the three from abroad (USA) Boļeslavs Maikovskis (1909), (Germany) Alberts Eichelis (1912, (Canada) Haralds Puntulis (1909).[5] All but Vaičuks, who received 15 years, received the verdict of death.[6]

The Soviet prosecutors in 1972 planned to stage a huge 21st Battalion case consisting of about twenty-four defendants. For reasons unknown they decided to break up in six cases. Though six they were, they differed from each other very little. The same accusations, the same documents, the same witnesses were cycled through all of them. Altogether 24 men were charged with the murder of Liepāja Jews in massacres in September, and December 1941 and February 1942. Of the twenty-four seven were sentenced to death, the rest received about 15 years of imprisonment. The falsity of the accusations are even more manifest than in the 18th Battalion. At the time of the September and December 1941 massacres the battalion did not exist. While in February 1942, the battalion existed the massacre was an imagined event that did not take place.[7]

After the show trials, a Soviet pamphlet barrage commenced. Exaggerations, falsity, and half-truth became their content. The assignment to write and publish the pamphlets was entrusted to a special KGB agency, The Committee of Cultural Relation with Latvians Abroad. The main pamphlets that the Committee published were: Kas ir Daugavas vanagi?, (Who are the Daugavas vanagi?), Emigranti bez maskas, (Emigrants without a Mask}, Bez maskas (Without a Mask), No SS un SD lîdz… (From SS to SD…) The most influential of these pamphlets was also the first one. Kas ir Daugavas vanagi? It was translated into English, German and Swedish. Everything about the pamphlets were false: we do not know the full identity of the authors, or the place of publication. The titles of these pamphlets never appeared on the lists of the publishing houses that purportedly published them and they were not available in Latvia. One of the authors of the Kas ir Daugavas vanagi? was Paulis Ducmanis. He was a leftover of the Nazi times who had worked in the anti-Semitic press of the German occupation. These pamphlets projected a special Soviet point of view that was at variance with Soviet earlier position on the Holocaust. The basic assertion of these pamphlets was that the Jews of Latvia were killed by Latvians. They contained the following three assertions:

  1. That the Latvians killed a countless number of Jews before the Germans had arrived there;
  2. That the Latvians were better killers of Jews than the Germans;
  3. That Latvia was a fitting land for the killing of Jews and thus 200,000 Jews from Europe were brought to Latvia to be killed.

The overarching premise of this literature was that the Holocaust in Latvia was Germanless. In conclusion we can note that the Soviet Holocaust’s legacies in Latvia still continue to exist; and to a large measure they continue to exist in separate compartments; and they are unmediated. The tradition of silence has not as yet ended, although the airing of the archival information has begun. The strongest tradition that still dominates in Latvia, especially within the non-Latvian community is the propaganda one. The latent documentary tradition has as yet not fully come into its own as in the future it will and it must. To be sure, that if the country is to remain democratic, the Western views of the Holocaust will need to penetrate it more fully than it has after ten years of democracy.[8]

[1]     For an example of the internal use of propaganda see Lavijas Zinātņu Akadēmija, Vēstures Institūts. Latviešu Tautas cīņa Lielajā Tēvijas karā, Rīga,  Zinātne, 1964. pp. 182-242.
[2] The Historical Institute of Latvia has compiled an index of these trials,
Rudīte Vīksne and Kārlis Kangeris (eds) No NKVD lIdz KGB, 1940-1986: Noziegumos pret padomju valsti apsūdzēto Latvijas iedzīvotāju rādītājs, Latvijas vēstures institūts, Rīga, 1999.
[3] The fullest analysis of the Eichelis trial is by Ojārs, Jānis Rozītis, “Justizfüormige Bearbeitung und öffentliche Darstellungen in Lettland,” Juristische Zeitgeschichte, Band 4, NS-Verbrechen und Justiz. Düsseldorf, 1996.
[4] Representatives from the foreign press were invited among them S.E. Nordlinger from the Baltimore Sun, who wrote his report for Baltimore Sun, October 12, 1965.
[5] 5 LVVA, case number 45038.
[6] Whether or not any of the accused were guilty of any of the charges can not be adjudicated here, but from the tenor of the rhetoric it is clear that truth was not the object of the Soviet prosecutors. There may have been a grain of truth behind the charges but does not expunge the show-trial nature of the proceedings. The follow-up of the Rēzekne case was a suit against Albert Eichelis in Germany and one against the Boļeslav Maikovskis in the United States. Albert Eichelis was convicted but died before the sentence was announced. Maikovskis was found deportable from the United States then he fled to Germany where a suit was started against him. He died before trial ended.
[7] The cases are found at the Latvian State Historical Archives in Riga LVVA case numbers 45232, 45225, 45236, 45234, 45234, 45233, and 45230. In 1987 the Latvia’s State prosecutor’s office asked their prosecutor Aster Leičenko to examine the cases. She found them all to be a falsification and corruption of justice. The Prosecutorial office of Latvia as of yet has not made a final determination on these cases.
[8] The state of scholarship has not changed materially in the years since.—Ed.
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