The Soviet occupation of Latvia in 1940 refers to the military occupation of the Republic of Latvia by the Soviet Union under the provisions of the 1939 Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany and its Secret Additional Protocol signed in August 1939. The occupation took place according to the European Court of Human Rights, the Government of Latvia, the United States Department of State, and the European Union. In 1989, the USSR also condemned the 1939 secret protocol between Nazi Germany and herself that had led to the invasion and occupation of the three Baltic countries, including Latvia.
In July 1989, the country stepped on the road of the restoration of its independence, and after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Latvia's sovereignty was fully restored in 1991. On August 22, 1996, the Latvian parliament adopted a declaration which stated that the Soviet occupation of Latvia in 1940 was a military occupation and an illegal incorporation.
In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917, Latvia declared its independence on November 18, 1918. After a prolonged War of Independence, Latvia and Soviet Russia (the predecessor of the Soviet Union) signed a peace treaty on August 11, 1920. In its Article 2 Soviet Russia "unreservedly recognises the independence and sovereignty of the Latvian State and voluntarily and forever renounces all sovereign rights (...) to the Latvian people and territory." The independence of Latvia was diplomatically recognised by the Allied Supreme Council (France, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Belgium) on January 26, 1921. Other states followed the suit. On September 22, 1921 Latvia was admitted to membership in the League of Nations and remained a member until the formal dissolution of the League in 1946. On February 5, 1932, a Non-Aggression Treaty with the Soviet Union was signed, based on the August 11, 1920 treaty whose basic agreements inalterably and for all time form the firm basis of the relationship of the two states.
The German–Latvian non-aggression pact was signed in Berlin on June 7, 1939. In light of the German advance in the east, the Soviet government demanded an Anglo–French guarantee of the independence of the Baltic states, during their negotiations for an alliance with the Western Powers. The Latvian and Estonian governments, ever suspicious of Soviet intentions, decided to accept a mutual non-aggression pact with Germany. The German–Estonian and German–Latvian Non-aggression pacts were signed in Berlin on June 7, 1939 by Latvian foreign minister Vilhelms Munters and Joachim von Ribbentrop. On the next day Adolf Hitler received the Estonian and Latvian envoys, and in course of this interviews stressed maintaining and strengthening commercial links between Germany and Baltic states. Ratifications of the German-Latvian pact were exchanged in Berlin on July 24, 1939 and it became effective on the same day. It was registered in League of Nations Treaty Series on August 24, 1939.
The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, signed August 23, 1939 contained secret protocols to split up territories between Germany and the Soviet Union. According to these protocols, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Bessarabia were within the Soviet sphere of interest, and Poland and Lithuania fell into the German sphere of interest. The Soviet Union did not officially admit the existence of these protocols until, under pressure from the Baltic SSRs, on December 24, 1989, the Congress of the USSR People's Deputies officially recognized the secret deals and condemned them as illegal and invalid from their inception.
Nazi Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939. France and Britain, which were obligated by treaty to protect Poland, responded with notes of protest requesting the Germans withdraw. Following French-British indecision, Britain acted alone moving forward with a two-hour ultimatum at 9:00am on September 3, which France was then forced to follow, issuing its own ultimatum. Nevertheless, despite declarations that a state of war now existed with Germany, the inter-Allied military conferences of September 4–6 determined there was no possibility of supporting an eastern front in Poland. France subsequently requested Britain not bomb Germany, fearing military retaliation against the French populace. It was determined to do nothing, so as to not provoke a transfer of German forces to the western front. Chamberlain declared on September 12 "There is no hurry as time is on our side." The abandonment of Poland was complete.
Stalin then moved forward with his part of the Pact, ordering the Red Army on September 17 to cross the Soviet-Polish frontier under the claimed necessity to protect the Belarusians and Ukrainians in the territory of Poland, which Soviets argued "ceased to exist" in the wake of German successes. Stalin then suggested a "trade" to Hitler to solve the "Baltic problem." On September 28, 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union having partitioned Poland signed a border agreement, including a second secret protocol, handing Lithuania to Stalin in exchange for two Polish provinces. Shortly thereafter, on October 3, 1939, the German ambassador to the Soviet Union, Friedrich Werner von der Schulenburg, had also suggested to Molotov that various changes in the borders of the Lithuanian territory wait until the "Soviet Union incorporates Lithuania, an idea on which, I believe, the arrangement concerning Lithuania was originally based." Subsequently, the Soviet Union further agreed to compensate Nazi Germany 7,500,000 gold dollars (or 31,500,000 Reichsmarks) for the Reich renouncing its "claims" on the Lithuanian territory it was to originally possess based on the September 28th agreement.
The Soviet Union now occupied just over half of all Polish territory, and the Allied powers had demonstrated themselves incapable of military intervention on the Eastern front. There were no impediments remaining to Stalin, in concert with Hitler, achieving his aims in the Baltics.
On September 24, 1939, warships of the Red Navy appeared off Latvia's northern neighbour, Estonian ports, Soviet bombers began a threatening patrol over Tallinn and the nearby countryside. USSR then violated the air space of all three Baltic states, flying massive intelligence gathering operations on September 25. Moscow demanded that Baltic countries allow the USSR to establish military bases and station troops on their soil for the duration of the European war.
During talks in Moscow, on October 2, 1939, Stalin told Vilhelms Munters, the Latvian foreign minister: "I tell you frankly, a division of spheres of interest has already taken place. As far as Germany is concerned we could occupy you." The Baltics took this threat seriously.
The government of Estonia accepted the ultimatum signing the corresponding agreement on September 28. 1939; Latvia following on October 5, 1939; and Lithuania shortly thereafter, on October 10, 1939. In Latvia's case it was signed by Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs Vilhelms Munters and Soviet Commissar of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov. Ratifications were exchanged in Riga on October 11, 1939, and the treaty became effective on the same day. It was registered in League of Nations Treaty Series on November 6, 1939. Articles of the treaty were:
As Latvian National Foundation says the agreement called for Latvia to:
At face value, this pact did not impinge upon Latvian sovereignty. Section 5 of the Pact reads as follows: "The carrying into effect of the present pact must in no way affect the sovereign rights of the contracting parties, in particular their political structure, their economic and social system, and their military measures. The areas set aside for the bases and airfields remain the territory of the Latvian Republic."
With Baltic Sovietization imminent, Hitler issued a "call home" to ethnic Germans. Latvia entered into agreement with Nazi Germany on the repatriation of citizens of German nationality on October 30, 1939. In spring 1940, 51,000 left Latvia for resettlement in Poland. A second call a year later brought out another 10,500.:46
Publicly, on October 31, 1939, the Soviet Supreme Council called fears of Baltic Sovietization "all nonsense." Privately, this stationing of Soviet troops in Latvia under the terms of the mutual assistance pact marked the beginning of the fruition of long-standing Soviet desires to gain control of the Baltics.
Similar demands were forwarded to Finland. On October 5, 1939, the Finns had been invited to Moscow to "discuss mutual problems." The Finns refused to sign a pact of mutual assistance, and on November 30, the Soviet Union attacked Finland, launching the Winter War. Because the Soviet attack was judged as illegal, the Soviet Union was expelled from the League of Nations on December 14. Finland mounted a skilful defensive effort and managed to stall the Soviet offensive until February 1940, when its primary defensive line finally collapsed. On March 12, 1940, faced with the prospect of a complete Soviet takeover, Finland signed the Moscow Peace Treaty with the Soviet Union. Finland retained its independence, but was forced to cede 11% of its territory and lease the Hanko Peninsula to the Soviet Union as a naval base for 30 years. In June 1941, hostilities between Finland and USSR resumed in the Continuation War.
Apparent escape from Finland's fate may have led to a false sense of security for Latvia. Four months before the arrival of Soviet troops in Latvia, Vilhelms Munters, addressing an audience at the University of Latvia on February 12, 1940, stated, "We have every reason to describe the relations existing between Latvia and the Soviet Union as very satisfactory. There are people who will say that these favourable conditions are of a temporary nature only, and that sooner or later we shall have to reckon with internal-political and foreign-political pressure on the part of the Soviet Union. The foundation on which they base these prophesies is a secret of the prophets themselves. The experience of our Government certainly does not justify such forebodings."
With Soviet failure in Finland sealed for the moment, it was little more than a month after Munters' positive expressions that Molotov, speaking on March 25, 1940, essentially announced Soviet intentions to annex the Baltic States, stating, "... the execution of the pacts progressed satisfactorily and created conditions favourable for a further improvement of the relations between Soviet Russia and these States." Improvement of the relations being a euphemism for Soviet takeover.
In March and April 1940, immediately after Molotov's speech, the Soviet press commenced attacks on the Latvian government. Next, the NKVD orchestrated a series of strikes in Riga and Liepāja. When those failed to develop into a general strike, the Soviets blamed that failure on the "irresponsible element which spoils the good neighbourly relations."
Fearing Soviet action, on May 17, 1940, the Latvian government secretly issued emergency powers to the Latvian minister in London, Kārlis Reinholds Zariņš, designating Alfreds Bilmanis, the Latvian minister in Washington, as his substitute.
On May 28, 1940, the Lithuanian Minister in Moscow received a note from Molotov which dealt with the alleged kidnapping of two Soviet soldiers in Vilna. The Lithuanian government sought to clear up this matter by a Soviet-Lithuanian commission under the terms of the mutual assistance pact. Moscow rejected this proposal and cut off further discussion, soon showing and rapidly playing their hand:
Soviet orchestration of events continued following the invasion, complete with protestors, who had arrived with the Red Army troops, organizing mass marches and meetings in order to create the impression of popular unrest:
Accurate numbers for the losses the Soviets inflicted on Latvia are not available. They have been estimated at 35,000 dead from military action, executions, or deportation.:48 Many more found refuge abroad. These losses all began during the first Soviet occupation. This has also been referred to, in Latvian, as "Baigais Gads" (Year of Terror). (This term was also used in anti-Soviet propaganda of the period—these two uses should not be confused or allied in purpose. Baigais Gads is also a title of an openly antisemitic, false account of the events of the year penned by Pauls Kovalevskis, a Nazi sympathiser, in 1942.) Further mass deportations and killing were planned, however the German invasion of Soviet territory brought a halt to this. A Lithuanian government official claims to have seen a document envisaging the removal of 700,000 from Lithuania.:48
The Soviet authorities, having gained control over Latvia, immediately imposed a regime of terror. Hundreds of men were arrested, including many leaders of the Republic of Latvia. Tribunals were set up to punish "traitors to the people."
Under arrest and liable to prompt liquidation were Latvia's President Kārlis Ulmanis and Foreign Minister Vilhelms Munters. Immediate confiscation of property and execution within 24 hours was decreed for diplomats abroad who refused to recognize the new regimes and return to Latvia. Later orders expanded the list of repressions, including anyone related to someone in hiding from the government or who had fled abroad—which act made them a traitor to the state.
On June 22, 1940, all three Baltic parliaments passed initial resolutions on the nationalization of land, followed in Latvia by a Bill of Land Reform a week later. Initially, a maximum of 30 hectares of land could be used by a family, reduced during the second Soviet occupation to 15–20 hectares.
The June deportation took place on June 13 and June 14, 1941, estimated at 15,600 men, women, and children, and including 20% of Latvia's last legal government. Approximately 35,000 total (1.8% of Latvia's population) were deported during the first Soviet occupation. Stalin's deportations also included thousands of Latvian Jews. (The mass deportation totalled 131,500 across the Baltics.)
According to the Serov Instructions, the deportations were swift and efficient and came in the middle of the night. Deportees were given an hour or less to get ready to leave. They were allowed to take with them their belongings not exceeding 100 kg in weight (money, food for a month, cooking appliances, clothing). The families would then be taken to the railway station. That was when they discovered that the men were to be separated from the women and children: "In view of the fact that a large number of deportees must be arrested and distributed in special camps and that their families must proceed to special settlements in distant regions, it is essential that the operation of removal of both the members of the deportee's family and its head shall be carried out simultaneously, without notifying them of the separation confronting them ... The convoy of the entire family to the station shall be effected in one vehicle and only at the station of departure shall the head of the family be placed separately from his family in a car specially intended for heads of families."
The trains were escorted by a NKVD officer and military convoy. Packed into barred cattle cars, with holes in the floor for sanitation, the deportees were taken to Siberia. Many died before even reaching their final destination because of harsh conditions. Many more perished during their first winter.
A number of Latvians who managed to avoid deportations decided to hide in the forests, where anti-Soviet units were organized. When Nazi Germany attacked Soviet Union, those rebels immediately went into collaboration with Nazi Germany.
The Soviet-German war cut short this first year of Soviet occupation. The Nazi offensive, launched June 22, 1941, just over a week after the mass deportations were executed, entered Riga on July 1, 1941. This disrupted documented NKVD plans to deport several hundred thousand more from the Baltic states on June 27 and 28, 1941.
With memories of the mass deportations of a week before still fresh, the German troops were widely greeted at their arrival by the Latvians as liberators. The Latvian national anthem played on the radio, and, as Chris Bellamy wrote: "the [anti-Soviet] rebellion broke out immediately after the news of Barbarossa". The majority of ethnic Latvians who had been forced to serve in the Red Army deserted from their units, and soon afterwards attacked the NKVD. On July 2, 1941, a unit of Latvian deserters captured the town of Sigulda, and three days later, Latvian rebels took control over another town, Smiltene, also blocking the strategic road to Pskov. Latvians did not only desert en masse from regular Red Army units, they also escaped from military training camps, which were part of the Soviet mobilization plan. Among other battles with retreating Soviet units, Bellamy mentions Limbaži (July 4), Olaine (July 5), and Alūksne (July 9). All these locations were captured by Latvian rebels before the first Wehrmacht units appeared in the area.
Nazi Germany, however, had no plan or desire to restore autonomy to Latvia, even though they ordered Colonel Alexander Plesners to oversee formation of the Latvian Defence Forces. On July 8, the Germans announced that wearing of non-German uniforms was banned. Also, rebel units were ordered to disarm. Jewish fears of the Nazis—which had led some to look upon the Soviet occupation as a measure of security—were to prove tragically well founded.
By July 10, 1941, German armed forces had occupied all of Latvia's territory. Latvia became a part of Nazi Germany's Reichskommissariat Ostland – the Province General of Latvia (Generalbezirk Lettland). Anyone who was disobedient to the German occupation regime as well as those who had co-operated with the Soviet regime were killed or sent to concentration camps.
In 1939 Generalplan Ost was drawn up by Nazi Germany covering eastern countries. As regards Latvia, it was determined that the population of around 2,000,000 should be reduced by 50%, those remaining being considered worthy of "Germanisation". Accordingly, Jews, Romani people, communists, army officers, politicians, and other intellectuals all found themselves being rounded up.:54–56 Further reductions in the civilian population would be achieved through the creation of food shortages, resulting in mass starvation.:56
Latvia was again occupied by the Soviet Union from 1944 to 1991. Under the Soviet occupation thousands of Latvians were deported to Siberian camps, executed or forced into exile.
Many Latvians fled in fishermen's boats and ships to Sweden and Germany, from where until 1951 they drifted to various parts of the Western world (mostly Australia and North America). Approximately 150,000 Latvians ended up in exile in the West.
According to approximate estimates, as a result of World War II the population of Latvia decreased by half a million (25% less than in 1939). In comparison with 1939 the Latvian population had diminished by about 300,000. The war also inflicted heavy losses on the economy – many historic cities were destroyed, as well as industry and the infrastructure.
In July 1989, following the dramatic events in East Germany, the Latvian Supreme Soviet adopted a "Declaration of Sovereignty" and amended the Constitution to assert the supremacy of its laws over those of the USSR.
On August 23, 1989 political demonstration Baltic Way took place. Approximately two million people joined their hands to form an over 600 kilometre long human chain across the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania).This demonstration was organized to draw the world's attention to the common historical fate which these three countries suffered.
In March 1990 candidates from the pro-independence party Latvian Popular Front gained a two-thirds majority in the Supreme Council in democratic elections.
On May 4, 1990, the Latvian Council declared its intention to restore full Latvian independence. Soviet political and military forces tried unsuccessfully to overthrow the Latvian government. On August 21, 1991, Latvia claimed de facto independence. International recognition, including that of the USSR, followed. The United States, which had never recognized Latvia's forcible annexation by the USSR, resumed full diplomatic relations with Latvia on September 2, 1991.
In February 1992, Russia agreed to start withdrawing its troops from Latvia.
In August 1994 the last Russian troops withdrew from the Republic of Latvia.
Russia officially ended its military presence in Latvia in August 1998 following the decommissioning of the Skrunda-1 radar station, which was the last active Russian military radar in the Baltics. The last Russian troops withdrew from the station the following year.
The Government of the Soviet Union suggested to the Government of the Republic of Latvia that they conclude a treaty of mutual assistance between the two countries. Pressure from the Latvian working peoples forced the Latvian government to accept this offer. A Pact of Mutual Assistance was signed allowing the USSR to station a limited number of Red Army units in Latvia. Economic difficulties, dissatisfaction with the Latvian government policies "that had sabotaged fulfillment of the Pact and the Latvian government" and political orientation towards Nazi Germany led to a revolutionary situation culminating in June 1940. To guarantee fulfillment of the Pact, additional Soviet military units entered Latvia, welcomed by the Latvian workers who demanded the resignation of the bourgeoisie Latvian government and its fascist leader, Kārlis Ulmanis. That same June, under the leadership of the Latvian Communist Party, the Latvian workers held demonstrations, and on that day, the fascist government was overthrown, and a People's Government formed. Elections for the Latvian Parliament were held shortly thereafter in July 1940. The "Working People's Union", created by an initiative of the Latvian Communist Party, received the vast majority of the votes. The Parliament adopted the declaration of the restoration of Soviet power in Latvia and proclaimed the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic. The parliament then declared Latvia's wish to freely and willingly join the USSR, adopting a resolution to that effect. That request was approved by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and Latvia became a constituent republic of the USSR.
The issue of the Soviet occupation, its motives and consequences, remains a bone of contention between the Baltic states and Russia. At the core lie different versions of the historical events during World War II and after: the Latvian (shared also by Estonia and Lithuania and widely espoused by Western historical scholarship) and the Soviet one, which continues to be supported and defended by the government of Russia.
According to the European Court of Human Rights, the Government of Latvia, the United States, and the European Union, the occupation of Latvia by the USSR in 1940, and its subsequent re-incorporation in the Soviet Union in 1944, was illegal. According to this account, the lawful government of Latvia was overthrown in 1940 and Soviet rule was imposed by force. Subsequently, the Soviet Union conducted large-scale and systematic actions including murder and mass deportations against the Latvian population. Rigged elections were organized in which only Soviet-supported candidates were permitted to run; results were accidentally released to the Western press in London before the elections were even complete. As reported by Time in 1940, those who had failed to have their passports stamped for voting Latvia into the USSR were allowed to be shot in the back of the head by Soviet NKVD, The country remained occupied by the Soviet Union until restoration of its independence in 1991. The 48 years of Soviet occupation and annexation of the Baltic States was never recognized as legal by the Western democracies. The United States especially applied the earlier-adopted Stimson Doctrine to the issue of the Baltic states, leading to its becoming an established precedent in International Law.
While the Congress of People's Deputies of the Soviet Union condemned the annexation of Latvia and the other Baltic states prior to the dissolution of the USSR, the Russian Federation, the legal successor state of the USSR, does not recognize the forcible occupation of Latvia by the Soviet Union. Specifically in reference to Latvia, the Russian Duma passed a resolution to "remind the deputies of the Latvian Saeima that Latvia's being a part of the Soviet Union was grounded by fact and by law from the international juridical point of view." The government of Russia further maintains that the Soviet Union liberated Latvia from the Germans in 1944.