Schuma graduates from Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia attend a trip/conference in Germany.
Lithuanian schuma, police and TLR members.
The Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia were independent nations on the eve of World War II. These former provinces of Russia had been independent only since 1920. Unfortunately, the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939 left them to the mercy of the USSR, as it designated them to be in the Soviet sphere of influence. In June 1940, following the collapse of France, Stalin ordered his army into the Baltic states under the pretence that they had, in official Soviet language, “grossly violated their mutual assistance pact with the Soviet Union”. In fact, the move was part of Stalin’s aim to advance the Soviet frontier westwards to create a buffer zone to absorb any future German attack.
The subsequent behaviour of the Soviets in the Baltic states – 34,250 Latvians, 60,000 Estonians and 75,000 Lithuanians either killed or deported – should have turned their populations into willing allies of the Germans. Indeed, during the early stages of Barbarossa, the Germans were welcomed as liberators. However, as with the other Eastern peoples, the Baltic states were subject to Nazi ideology, which meant “germanizing” the “racially suitable”, German colonization, and deportation or extermination of “undesirables” (usually the latter). The head of Hitler’s secretariat, Martin Bormann, put it succinctly: “There are no independent nations in the East, but only the Sovietized mass of Slavs, who must and will be mastered.”
The Germans were able to recruit sizeable numbers of volunteer units, though many of the recruits believed they were fighting to liberate their homelands from the Soviets and restore national sovereignty. In reality, they were just tools to further Nazi aims. Examining each Baltic state in turn, this chapter will show how Nazi ideology, as elsewhere in the Soviet Union, resulted in wasted opportunities that ultimately contributed towards the German defeat in the East.
On 15 June 1940, the Soviets assumed control of Lithuania, including the capital Vilna, which had been part of Poland until October 1939. Seven weeks later, the country was officially annexed by the USSR. In response, underground groups were formed, including the extremist nationalist and German-sponsored Lietuviu Aktyvistu Frontas (Lithuanian Activist Front).
On 14 June 1941, tens of thousands of Lithuanians were exiled to Siberia by the Soviets for being “politically or socially unreliable”. Eight days later, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and had occupied Lithuania by the middle of August.
The Soviets had exacted a bloody toll from the Baltic states, and the Lithuanians suffered as much as their northern neighbours, Latvia and Estonia. In the face of such brutal treatment, and with the German invasion providing an impetus for revolt, it is estimated that at least 125,000 Lithuanians rose up to fight the retreating Soviets during the time between the initial German crossing of the eastern frontier and the final evacuation of all Russian troops. At least 4000 Red Army troops are estimated to have been killed during this period and another 10,000 wounded. Numerous Lithuanian cities were also liberated even before the Germans arrived, a sign of the determination with which the Lithuanians were willing to fight for their homeland. On 23 June, the Lithuanian Activist Front led a revolt against the Soviet occupiers. Partisans took over the largest cities, Kaunas and Vilnius, set up a provisional government and declared the restoration of Lithuanian independence.
Most of the Lithuanian population welcomed the Germans, and many subsequently collaborated with them in the hope of restoring Lithuanian independence, a hope that was to be quickly quashed. The provisional government was abolished and Lithuania became part of the Reich Commissariat Ostland and its name was changed to Generalbezirk Litauen (General District of Lithuania). The Lithuanian national army was not reconstituted, though some of its former officers and soldiers were incorporated into the Lithuanian police battalions formed by the Germans.
Shortly after the German occupation, a reorganization was carried out of all local Lithuanian units comprising policemen, ex-soldiers, ex-officers and nationalist elements. These disparate elements, which also included schoolboys and university students, had been attacking the retreating Soviet forces and had been harassing and murdering Lithuanian Jews (there existed a rich vein of Baltic and Russian anti-Semitism before the Germans arrived). That July, many of the units in Kovno and elsewhere were incorporated into a paramilitary organization, the Tauto Darbo Apsauga (National Labour Guard). In Vilna and other places, the corresponding military organization was named the Lietuvia Savisaugos Dalys (Lithuanian Self-Defence).
Anti-Jewish Measures in Lithuania
At the end of 1941, these formations were reorganized into battalions by the Germans, and were renamed Policiniai Batalionai (Police Battalions). By August 1942, 20 such battalions were in existence with a total strength of 8388 men, of whom 341 were officers and 1772 noncommissioned officers (NCOs). They were commanded by former officers and NCOs who had served in the army of independent Lithuania. But the occupiers had them firmly under control, with German liaison officers assigned to each battalion and all the units being directed by the district SS and police leader headquarters in Lithuania.
Just as the NKVD had rounded up “enemies of the state”, so the SS began to clear Lithuania of Jews and political opponents. The police battalions were involved in these actions, and also assisted the German Einsatzgruppen (SS Special Action Groups). The 1st and 2nd Battalions, for example, took a leading part in the mass murder of Jews in Lithuania, as well as in the adjacent territories of Poland and Belorussia.
The first formal Wehrmacht unit composed of Lithuanians to be formed was known as the Lituanische Hunterschaften, which was later used as a foundation for a series of self-defence units known as Selbschutz Bataillonen (Self-Defence Battalions). These battalions were later brought under the control of the German organization of uniformed frontline police, the Ordnungspolizie, and thus the SS, and renamed as Schutzmannschaft Bataillonen (Security Battalions) or Schumas. The Schuma units were universally renamed and reformed into police battalions in May 1943. Nearly all battalion-sized units consisted of 500–600 men. They were primarily assigned to rear-area security duties, but as the Red Army neared Lithuania they also saw frontline service. These Lithuanian units numbered a total of 35 battalions during World War II, consisting of units numbered 1–15, 251–257, 263–265 and 301–310. These units were also posted to Poland, Belorussia, the other Baltic states and even to the southern Ukraine. The battalions numbered 263–265 and 301–310 were never fully trained and were disbanded before they could be employed in combat.
As the Red Army approached Lithuania, the Germans grouped 3–4 Lithuanian police battalions into regimental-sized units known as Lituanische Freiwilligen Infanterie Regimenter (Lithuanian Volunteer Infantry Regiments). Three such units were formed as the Soviets reached the border, and they were sent directly to the front in an attempt to hold back the Red Army advance in late 1944 and early 1945.
Invariably lightly armed and poorly trained for frontline duties, the battalions fared badly against the Soviets. As they served as auxiliaries to the Ordnungspolizei, they often supported the Einsatzgruppen’s mass murder operations. The Lithuanian units were often put under the control of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA – Reich Security Department) and the Higher SS and Police Leader (HSSPF) in Ostland. This resulted in them taking part in punishment operations against local civilians for partisan attacks, which usually meant murdering all humans and their livestock in a designated area.
The Schuma Battalions
In August 1941, the Latvian urban and country police were formed into units to police the rear areas of the German frontline and also to combat partisan attacks. Called Schuma Battalions, Himmler originally wanted to form them into a Waffen-SS division in late 1941. However, the heavy losses suffered by the German Army meant they were immediately committed as frontline troops. Untrained for such a role and lightly armed, they inevitably sustained heavy losses.
Himmler eventually took control of the Schumas and used them to form the basis of a Latvian SS unit. Despite the initial problems with recruiting a Latvian legion, Himmler was determined to raise a Latvian unit. The job of recruiting was given to Rudolf Bangerskis, who was promoted to the rank of SS-Gruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS and inspector of the Latvian Legion. This proved difficult as he could not draw on the manpower in the police and Schuma units so had to resort to conscription. Males who had been born between 1919 and 1925 were eligible for call-up, but by April 1943 only 2478 of the intended 15,025 men had been enlisted. In September, the Latvian Legion became the 15th SS Waffen Grenadier Division comprising the 32nd, 33rd and 34th SS Freiwilligen Grenadier Regiments, the 15th SS Freiwilligen Artillery Regiment and support units. Recruitment was still incomplete when the division was posted to the Nevel area as part of the Sixteenth Army, Army Group Centre, in late 1943. On 18 November, the Latvians were engaged against the Soviets in the Pstoshka, Majevo and Novosokolniki areas.
In early February 1944, the division left behind two infantry regiments in Novosokolniki and moved northeast to Belebelka, 30km (19 miles) north of Staraya-Russa where it joined X Corps of the Sixteenth Army. It was engaged in defensive fighting until 15 February 1944 when it was forced to withdraw. The division fought a number of rearguard actions until it reached the “Panther Line” position on the Velikaya River, 40km (25 miles) from Ostrov, on 28 February (the line was a defensive belt constructed from Narva to Ostrov). Once there, it linked up with its sister division, the 19th SS Latvian Division. This had been formed on 7 January 1944 and consisted of the 42nd, 43rd and 44th Waffen Grenadier Regiments, 19th SS Artillery Regiment and support units. It was here that they dug in and prepared for the relentless Soviet advance. Both divisions fought bitterly in the following weeks, but by 19 July 1944, they had been pushed back to Latvia itself. Lack of supplies and the imminent occupation of Latvia by the Soviets prompted some desertions within both divisions, which weakened their strength considerably. Despite this, men still came forward to join the divisions as a result of the lowering of the conscription age to 18.
Both divisions were reformed at Konitz in west Prussia, but during their reorganization Riga fell to the Red Army in October 1944. The 19th SS Latvian Division was cut off in the Courland Pocket, where it fought until the end of the war. As the Germans fell back towards Konitz, the 15th SS Latvian Division was prematurely committed to battle. By early February 1945, what was left of it was engaged in combat at Jastrow and then at Flederborn. Between 14 and 24 February, it conducted a fighting withdrawal from Peterswalde back to Wusterbarth, though by this time it had been broken up into battle groups.
The division had ceased to exist in an organizational sense, though the battle groups continued to fight. The majority of the division surrendered to the Red Army at Neuruppin in early May 1945.
In all, an estimated 250,000 Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians served in military units under German command in World War II. Around half of them were killed in action or executed by the Soviets after the war (those captured were executed as traitors, the reasoning being that the Baltic states had been annexed by the USSR and thus their citizens had become Soviet citizens). As in Russia, the police and paramilitary units ably assisted the Einsatzgruppen carry out their grisly work: nearly all the 250,000 Jews in the Baltic states were exterminated during the war. To this figure must be added the tens of thousands of civilians who were murdered by Germany’s Baltic legions.