"Latvia"
50 Years of Terror Tyranny and Oppression 1940–1991
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German Occupation World War I
 
On 1 August 1914 Germany declared war on Russia and by 1915, the conflict reached Latvia. "On 7 May the Germans captured Liepāja" and on 18 May, Talsi, Tukums and Ventspils. On 29 June the Russian Supreme Command ordered the whole population of Kurzeme evacuated, and around 400,000 refugees fled to the east. Some of them settled in Vidzeme but most continued their way to Russia. On 19 July the Russian War Minister ordered the factories of Riga evacuated together with their workers. In the summer of 1915, 30,000 railway wagons loaded with machines and equipment from factories were taken away. In August the formation of Latvian battalions known as Latvian Riflemen started. From 1915 to 1917, the Riflemen fought in the Russian army against the Germans in positions along Daugava River. In December 1916 and January 1917, they suffered heavy casualties in month-long Christmas Battles. In February 1917 Revolution broke out in Russia and in the summer the Russian army collapsed. The German offensive was successful and on 3 September 1917 they entered Riga. In November 1917, the Communist Bolsheviks took power in Russia. The Bolshevik government tried to end the war and in March 1918, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed which gave Kurzeme and Vidzeme to the Germans. "By February the Germans had occupied all of Latvia". However after the German Revolution, on 11 November the armistice treaty between the Allies and Germany was signed thus ending World War I. Great Britain declared its de facto recognition of Latvia in writing on that day as well, confirming a prior verbal communication of 23 October to Meierowitz by the British Minister for Foreign Affairs, A. J. Balfour.
 
Ober Ost
 
         
                                      Flag of the German Empire                                          Coat of Arms of the German Empire  
 
Supreme Command of All German Forces in the East 
Oberbefehlshaber der gesamten Deutschen Streitkräfte im Osten
 
Military occupation authority of the German Empire
 
1914–1919
 
      
 
Ober Ost is short for Oberbefehlshaber der gesamten Deutschen Streitkräfte im Osten, which is a German term meaning "Supreme Commander of All German Forces in the East" during World War I. In practice it refers not only to said commander, but also to his governing military staff and the district they controlled - Ober Ost was in command of the Eastern front. After the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk it controlled Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, parts of Poland, and Courland: former territories of the Russian Empire. The land it controlled was around 108,808 km². The Ober Ost was created in 1914, and its first leader was Paul von Hindenburg, a Prussian military hero. When the Chief of the General Staff Erich von Falkenhayn was dismissed from office in 1916, von Hindenburg replaced him, and Prince Leopold of Bavaria was given control of the Ober Ost.
 
Policies
 
"Ober Ost ruled the land with an iron fist". The movement policy or "Verkehrspolitik", divided the land without regard to the existing social and ethnic organization and patterns. One was not allowed to move between the districts, which destroyed the livelihood of many merchant Jewish people and prevented indigenous people from visiting friends and relatives in neighboring districts. They also tried to "civilize" the people in the Ober Ost controlled land, attempting to integrate German ideals and institutions with existing cultures. They brought in railroads but only Germans were allowed to ride them and schools were taught by German instructors, since they had not trained Lithuanians. 
 
In 1915, when large territories came under Ober Ost's administration as a result of military successes on the Eastern Front, Erich Ludendorff, von Hindenburg's second in command, set up a system of managing the large area now under its jurisdiction. Although von Hindenburg was technically in command, it was Ludendorff who was in control of the administration. There were ten staff members, each with a specialty "finance, agriculture, etc.". The area was divided into the Courland District, the Lithuania District and the Bialystok-Grodno District, each overseen by a district commander. Ludendorff's plan was to make Ober Ost a colonial territory for the settlement of his troops after the war as well as provide a haven for German refugees from inner Russia. Ludendorff quickly organized Ober Ost so that it was a self-sustaining region, growing all its own food and even exporting surpluses to Berlin. The largest resource was one that Ludendorff was unable to exploit without difficulty. The locals had no interest in helping obtain a German victory as they had no say in their government and were subject to increasing requisitions and taxes. 
 
Communication with Locals
 
There were a great many problems with communication with indigenous persons within the Ober Ost. Among the upper class locals the soldiers could get by with French or German and in large villages the Jewish population would speak German or Yiddish, "which the Germans would somehow comprehend". In the rural areas and amongst peasant populations soldiers had to rely on interpreters who spoke "Latvian, Russian" or "both". These language problems were not helped by the thinly stretched administrations, which would sometimes number 100 men in an area as large as Rhode Island. The clergy were at times relied upon to spread messages to the masses, since this was an effective way of spreading a message to people who speak a different language. A young officer-administrator named Vagts relates that he listened "through a translator" to a sermon by a priest who tells his congregation to stay off highways after nightfall, hand in firearms and not to have anything to do with Bolshevist agents, exactly as Vagts had told him to do earlier. 
 
Russian Revolution
 
Given the uncertain situation caused by the Russian October Revolution in 1917 and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, some indigenes elected Duke Adolf Friedrich of Mecklenburg as head of the United Baltic Duchy, and the second duke of Urach as king of Lithuania, but these plans collapsed in November 1918.
 
Administrative Divisions
 
The Ober Ost was divided into three Verwaltungsgebiete "administrative territories": "Courland", Lithuania, and Bialystok-Grodno.
 
The total area was 108,808 km2, containing a population of 2,909,935 "by the end of 1916".
 
Main military units in 1919
  • the 10th Army, Commanding Officer Erich von Falkenhayn, Grodno
  • the Heeresgruppe Kiew
Aftermath
 
With the end of the war and collapse of the empire, the Germans started to withdraw, sometimes in a piecemeal and unorganized way, from Ober-Ost around late 1918 and early 1919. In the vacuum left by their retreat, a series of conflicts arose as various ethnic groups "Poles, Balts, Ukrainians" tried to create states, clashing with each other and with the various factions of the Russian Revolution. Winston Churchill commented: "The war of giants has ended, the wars of the pygmies began". For details, see:
  • Soviet westward offensive of 1918–1919, part of the Polish-Soviet War "the largest of the resulting conflicts"
  • Ukrainian-Soviet War and Ukrainian-Polish War
  • Estonian War of Independence, Latvian War of Independence, Lithuanian War of Independence
Parallels with Nazi German policy
 
Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius postulates in his book "War Land on the Eastern Front: Culture, National Identity, and German Occupation in World War I", that a line can be traced from Ober Ost's policies and assumptions to Nazi Germany's plans and attitudes towards Eastern Europe. His main argument is that "German troops developed a revulsion towards the "East", and came to think of it as a timeless region beset by chaos, disease and barbarism", instead of what it really was, a region suffering from the ravages of warfare. He claims that the encounter with the East formed an idea of 'spaces and races' that needed to be "cleared and cleansed". Although he has garnered a great deal of evidence for his thesis, including government documents, letters and diaries, in German and Lithuanian, there are still problems with his work. For example he does not say much about the reception of German policies by native populations. Also, he "makes almost no attempt to relate wartime occupation policies and practice in Ober Ost to those in Germany's colonial territories overseas".