A broad insight into the times of war in Latvia may also be gained in the heart of Riga: in the War Museum, housed in the Powder Tower in the old city. “The authors of the exhibition do not talk about which side was the right one, quite the opposite: the viewer is encouraged to draw the conclusion that neither of these two occupation powers was right,” museum employees emphasize in connection with World War II.
The main exhibit in the two halls devoted to the last war is the Human element. Weapons, documents, mannequins are just a bonus. The photographs showing starving Red Army soldiers in POW camps and Jewish women condemned to be shot are shocking, also memorialised are the bewildered faces of the Latgale boys recruited into the Red Army and the slightly cocky looks of the new recruits of the Latvian Legion. An extensive exhibition is also dedicated to World War I. Following the German attack on Russia, the tsar issued a permission for Latvian riflemen’s battalions to be formed, which later became the actual foundation of the armed forces of the young Republic of Latvia.
Records of World War I
Even older historical documents, originating in World War I, are on view in Tīreļpurvs. On January 5, 1917, the Christmas Battles began here, which lasted six days (December 23 to 29, 1916 Old Style). This was the largest Russian military operation in World War I and a tragic one for the Latvian riflemen, of whom five thousand fell. The Latvian riflemen crossed the German fortifications and knocked the enemy out of its position. Adjacent to the Christmas Battle Museum in Ložmetējkalns (Machine-Gun Hill), a portion of the German fortification wall has been recreated. In the museum itself, weapons and household items of soldiers can be seen, but the model of Tīreļpurvs which shows the layout of the battlefield as it was then is especially captivating.
Records of World War II
In 1944 and 1945, fierce battles took place in Kurzeme. Latvian legionnaires in the ranks of the German army fought against the Red Army here, which often meant turning against their own compatriots. Many were forced to fight on the German side, as deserters’ families would face vengeance by the Germans, while many others did not want to allow the reoccurrence of the Bolshevik Year of Terror, which had already been experienced once.
On May 8, 1945, at the Plāņi Manor three kilometres from Zante, the commanders of the legion and the Latvian riflemen’s units of the Red Army signed an act of capitulation. Some of the last rounds of World War II reverberated here, between Saldus and Kandava, on May 7, 1945. The Latvian legionnaires laid down their arms (or went into the forest), and only then could the Red Army consider itself victorious.
Now on the former front-line in the Zante parish, the unique Kurzeme Fortress Museum has been set up; it is fully private, created thanks to the efforts of the owner Ilgvars Brucis. Since 2008, the museum has been included in the European register of cultural heritage. Brucis has been collecting military and other historical artefacts since childhood. Here you can find a restored wartime trench and officers’ bunker, where tourists can even spend the night in summertime. The museum’s stands feature bayonets, rifles, handguns, officers’ tableware from both world wars, and the right name has been found for everything. A separate room has been set up for each army, for Germans as well as the Red Army, the legionnaires and contemporary Latvian soldiers. Everything is authentic, there are no fake props.
“This small glass and egg cups were found in a bunker—I am quite sure a German officer ate Latvian Eier (eggs) from it,” Brucis smiles. The field exhibits of the museum include both an IS/Joseph Stalin tank and a cannon. The remnants of an IL-2, a Red Army plane shot down in Kurzeme, were a valuable find. The remains of the pilot and a rifleman were found inside, which now have been buried. “A soldier is a soldier, it doesn’t matter which army he has been fighting in, and the fallen must be laid to rest,” Brucis stresses.
World War II history can also be explored at the More Battle Museum near Sigulda. The so-called Sigulda Line stretched through here, which was the last one from which the German troops with Latvian legionnaires in their ranks defended Riga, until they were forced to retreat in the night of October 6, 1944. On display at the museum there is a model of the More Battles, a collection of wartime artefacts and weapons, while the pride of the collection is a real Soviet tank, the famous T-34.
The Salaspils Camp
A sombre testament to World War II lies not far from Riga: the Nazi-founded Salaspils camp. In 1941 and 1942, approximately one thousand Jews were imprisoned here, all of whom lost their lives. Later on, this was a place of imprisonment for collaborators with the Soviet regime, deserters from the German army and felons, yet truly tragic was the deportation of numerous families from Belarus. As retribution for their support of the partisans, the Germans burned down whole villages, and many people, including children, were taken to the Salaspils concentration camp. According to estimates by historians, some 2,000 people died at Salaspils, mostly because of the unbearable conditions. Among them were more than 600 children. In their memory, an impressive commemorative sculptural ensemble has been created on the former site of the camp, which is one of the largest of its kind in Europe.
There are many military graveyards in Latvia where fallen soldiers from both sides have been laid to rest. In Lestene in the Tukums municipality, the Fraternal Cemetery of the Latvian legionnaires is located, where approximately 1,000 soldiers have been reburied from all over Latvia. A wall has also been erected here listing the names of 11,000 fallen. The central image of the cemetery is Homeland—Mother—Latvia. As it has been remarked, it was not out of their free will that Latvians fought in the German army. Recruitment to the legion was forced and done under the threat of repression; moreover, many hoped that later, with the help of the Allies, it would be possible to regain Latvian independence. Hitler’s victory in Europe was not the legionnaires’ objective at all.
In many locations throughout Latvia there are also communal graveyards of Red Army soldiers; German military cemeteries from World War I have also been preserved.
Of all military cemeteries, the Fraternal Cemetery (Brāļu kapi) in Riga must be the most impressive: consecrated in 1936 and featuring Mother Latvia as its central image. An eternal fire burns here, and soldiers fallen during World War I and in the fight for freedom between 1918 and 1920 rest here. The first soldiers were first buried here in 1914.
The sculptor Kārlis Zāle, who also created the Freedom Monument in the centre of Riga, is the designer of the complex. It is here, in the Fraternal Cemetery, on May 8 of each year, that representatives of the Latvian government lay flowers to honour the defeat of Nazism in Europe and to commemorate the victims of the Second World War.