Baltic SS Units

[by Max Gordon]

The history of Baltic collaboration with the German occupying force during WWII is a much-contested and many-layered narrative. Some Balts resisted the Nazis from the beginning. Others saw the Nazis as a liberation from Communism, and viewed the occupation as a means to escape Soviet hegemony, and others simply cooperated to survive. Some were conscripted into the various ‘defense battalions’ formed by the Nazis, while many others were conscripted. Nonetheless, some of those who collaborated with the Germans did participate in grievous crimes against humanity.

Estonia and the German Occupation

An Estonian truth commission was initiated in 1998 to investigate these war crimes. It made clear its moral intentions: that the large part of responsibility lies with Germany, and that “it is unjust that an entire nation should be criminalized because of the actions of some of its citizens; but it is equally unjust that its criminals should be able to shelter behind a cloak of victimhood” (Estonian International Convention). It thus sets out to enumerate the various war crimes committed by Balts, presumably to draw the line between the victim-nation of Estonia in WWII and the true criminals, thus ‘absolving’ the nation as a whole. Violence was primarily directed against Jews, Roma (Gypsies), and Soviet prisoners of war. Most of Estonia’s Jews fled the country (to the Soviet Union) and avoided being captured, but some 1,000 remained, and of these, only a handful survived. Amongst the crimes committed by Estonians was the setting up of labor camps. Aleksander Laak was in charge of a camp called Jagala for Jews deported from other Nazi-occupied countries. In 1942, around 3,000 Jews were executed at Jagala. The following spring, most of the prisoners were shot when the camp was decommissioned. In prison camps, some 15,000 Soviet POWs (half the total amount) were either executed or died of negligence and maltreatment. Elsewhere, the Estonian legion and many Estonian police participated in massacres of Jews, including in Belarus and Poland (Estonian International Commission…). Hundreds of Roma and thousands (around 6,000) of Estonians themselves were murdered at the hands of or with the assistance of Estonian collaborators, often the so-called Omakaitse (the German-sponsored ‘defense battalion’).

Latvia and the German Occupation

In Latvia, the victims of the notorious Arajs Kommando number in the tens of thousands. An SS-collaboration organization consisting of around 1,500 Latvians at its peak, it killed some 29,000, mostly Jews (BBC News). The nation’s government largely denies Latvian participation in the holocaust (aside from the Arajs Kommando), maintaining that only a few individual Latvian citizens were co-opted by the Nazis into murder, and that the Germans subsequently made it appear that the Latvians had done it without German participation (Ministry of Foreign Affairs…). Many Latvians were drafted into the Latvian Defense Battalions via the mandatory labor quotas: “in theory, individuals had a choice, but the widely-known poor conditions in the Labor Battalions, combined with various pressures exerted by local recruitment officers, induced over half the ‘volunteers’ to choose Legion service”(Misiunis 57-8). As many as 150,000 joined these battalions (Misiunus 8), which were subordinate to the German SS and many of whom “collaborated actively in the killing of Jews” (Hiden 118). In the end, some 70,000 Latvian Jews were murdered, largely kept at camps manned by Latvian guards, who were often directly involved in the killing (Ministry of Foreign Affairs…).

Lithuania and the German Occupation

Around 20,000 men joined the Defense Battalions in Lithuania. Many of these men were Lithuanian soldiers who had surrendered to the German army (almost immediately), and whose only alternative was to be sent to a prison camp (Misiunas 57). Later, in 1944, the SS allowed the formation of “Local Detachments” of Lithuanian soldiers to combat Soviet resistance within Baltic territory. 30,000 volunteered for service, and “German extermination squads were given valuable assistance by local auxiliary police and militia units” (Hiden 118). This cooperation was quite significant in Lithuania as well as Latvia, perhaps because of the greater number of Jews living there compared to Estonia. By the end of German occupation, 2,000 of Lithuania’s originally 250,000 Jews had survived.

Clearly many Balts did collaborate with the SS in war crimes including participation in the Holocaust. However, this took place within the context of German aggression. The Latvian government insists, for example, that Latvian participation is grossly distorted and exaggerated, even going so far as to say that anti-Semitism was present only to a negligible degree before German occupation (Ministry of Foreign Affairs…). More generally, as per John Hiden and Patrick Salmon, “all three Baltic governments had a good record for their treatment of Jews between the wars” (Hiden 119). These populations, then, were ‘co-opted’ into participating in atrocities. It may be true that Balts would not have engaged in the slaughter en masse of Jews had it not been for the Germans, but it may well be that the Nazis would not have been capable of murder on such a horrific scale had it not been for Baltic participation.


Works Cited

  • Romuald J. Misiunas, Rein Taagepera, The Baltic States: Years of Dependence, 1940-1980 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993.
  • Estonian International Convention for Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity (Max Jakobson, Chairman). Phase II: The German Occupation of Estonia in 1941-1944., 1999.
  • “Konrad Kalejs: Target for Nazi-Hunters.” BBC News, 3 January 2006.
  • Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Latvia. History of the Occupation of Latvia 1940-1991, Briefing Paper 03. Occupation Museum Foundation, Riga, 2006.
  • John Hiden and Patrick Salmon, The Baltic Nations and Europe: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the Twentieth Century (Longman Publishing Group, 1991).