In: The Reluctant Exiles
Andrejs Plakans
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This book is about the approximately 176,000 Latvians who succeeded in reaching the west after fleeing their northeastern European homeland during the last year of World War II (1944-45). Probably more than that number tried to leave – some estimates are as high as 250,000 – but many became discouraged or were killed, and others were overtaken and turned back by the advancing Soviet army, that, having occupied the Latvian capital, Riga, by October 15, 1944, was relentlessly pushing against the retreating German Wehrmacht. Those who fled took the land route from southwestern Kurzeme (Kurland; Courland) through coastal Lithuania into East Prussia, or the sea route by fishing vessel to Sweden, or – by far the largest number – were allowed to board military transport ships taking wounded German soldiers from Riga and Liepāja (Libau) to Danzig (Gdansk) or Gotenhafen (Gdynia) in German-occupied Polish territory. After WWII ended in May 1945, there ensued for these Latvians a half decade of refugee life in both Sweden and ally-occupied Germany. Then in the years 1949-1951 the refugees dispersed – nearly all of those living in Germany but only a fragment of those in Sweden – throughout Europe, North America, South America, and Australia.1 By the early 1950s, the hope of returning, though not completely extinguished, had faded, and the challenges of resettlement in widely scattered and mostly unfamiliar host countries were pushing that likelihood farther into an unknowable future. During the 1950s, Latvian ‘colonies’ in the west came to form, figuratively speaking, a world-wide archipelago, comprising in each host country a handful of sizable ‘colonies’ in large urban centers and smaller ones in lesser towns, but only infrequently in entirely rural areas.2 This resettlement configuration, involving several continents, numerous host countries, and many localities of different sizes, remained largely unchanged for the next four decades. The number of Latvians in these enclaves, however, did change over time, resulting in the reduction of overall numbers as well as in the size of particular ‘colonies.’ Natural mortality worked to diminish the older cohorts of the population pyramid, while acculturation and assimilation processes produced a variety of identity changes in the middle and younger cohorts. The old homeland, having in 1945 become the Latvian SSR, remained cut off from the western Latvians by an ‘Iron Curtain’ that permitted no additional western emigration. By the end of the 1950s, most of the western Latvian population was straddling the language and culture they had brought with them, on the one hand, and the languages and cultures of the host countries, on the other, with generational change gradually tipping the balance in favor of the latter.3 The absorption process, however, was slow enough for many western Latvians to continue thinking of themselves as ‘exiles’ (trimdnieki, from the Latvian trimda [exile]), producing a formidable Latvian-language cultural superstructure, and creating a network of organizations that had considerable staying power.

The 1991 disintegration of the USSR and the return of Latvia to the status of an independent European state problematized the identity question once again for western Latvians.

The activists in Latvia who spearheaded the renewal conceptualized the reborn Latvian state as a ‘continuation’ of the interwar Republic, and invited western Latvians and their descendants to re-link their lives to their old homeland. During the post-1991 decades, the new situation demanded of them changes in their sense of Latvianness, however, as after the prolonged international economic crisis of 2008-2009, a new emigration wave from Latvia moved westward and as the Latvian government began increasingly to use the term ‘diaspora’ to describe all ‘external’ Latvians, the post-WWII refugees and their descendants included.

At this writing, there does not exist an integrated written history of the entire post-WWII refugee experience, its prolonged unfolding in the host countries, and its final decades after 1991. At the same time, the primary and secondary sources available for such a history are plentiful. The 1944/45 flight carried with it a very high proportion of the active Latvian intelligentsia of the interwar period – poets and novelists, journalists, academics, clergymen, and many other practitioners of the written Latvian word – who, in exile, continued their earlier callings as best they could and were quick to start constructing a Latvian-language western presence. The main obstacles to the systematic use of the available material have been the fragmentation of professional history writing among Latvians and the simple fact that primary sources – documents produced by western Latvians in exile – have generally continued to be only partially accessible to researchers and remain uninventoried and uncentralized (Štrāle and Auziņa Smita, 2004). Secondary sources – retrospective accounts about trimda (exile) produced by exiles themselves or by contemporary and later non-participants – have been plentiful but comprise in the main an array of widely differing descriptions with disparate goals, writing styles, methodologies, and levels of ojectivity. There has never developed a consensus about generizable evidence, periodization, and the relative importance of different kinds of factual materials. Moreover, when writing about themselves, western Latvian exiles tended to focus on those parts of their long-term experience that buttressed their continued use of the Latvian language, enabled communal organizations to perpetuate cultural Latvianness, and supported political activity that furthered the goal of ‘freeing Latvia.’ This was understandable, since nothing was to be gained from analyzing and describing those thousands of western Latvians whose sense of belonging to the host societies expanded and crowded out their Latvian identity.

Even so, a social history of the half-century after the 1944/45 flight – which is the goal of the present volume – has to be prepared to incorporate all manner of turning points, unrealized aspirations, internal conflicts, generational disagreements, and dissonance between leaders and followers. Exile reality was a messy affair, with geographical dispersion, deep disagreements, and contentiousness as much a part of the story as the demonstrable successes of linguistic and cultural continuity. After the dispersion from the displaced persons (DP) camps, western Latvian lives continued to unfold for the most part in local settings differentiated by size, national location, linguistic environment, economic opportunity, and demographic structure, with these interacting variables producing a variety of micro-histories that do not easily lend themselves to being woven into a single cohering story. In the new locations, trajectories of imagined and actual movement were no longer dominated by the old homeland, which had receded geographically and continued to recede chronologically, but involved movement of another kind, namely, socio-economic mobility – accumulation of wealth, material improvement, restoration of professional qualifications, the education of offspring, and, among the young, family formation. Some kinds of identity change, or at least identity modification, became inevitable and some irreversible.

While it was true that the members of this ‘global’ western Latvian population remained able to communicate with each other in their native Latvian language, the prolongation of their stay in the host countries was everywhere having an impact. An elaborate organizational effort and a Latvian-language cultural superstructure kept absorption and assimilation from happening quickly, but Latvian language skills were fraying anyway, accompanied by the continual drift of many away from Latvianness and from a fixed Latvian identity. These processes created dramas of a lesser kind, playing out at lower levels: among younger unmarried Latvians unable to find partners in the Latvian community; within families seeking to keep a dominant foreign language from invading the family circle as offspring worked their way through the host-country educational systems; in local Latvian societies that depended on voluntary labor and seemed hard put to design programs capable of retaining the interest of the younger generations. The evidence that in the host countries – which had showed themselves to be receptive to newcomers by accepting and absorbing the post-war refugees – a robust Latvianness (Latv. latvietība) could remain alive among some was strong, even while there was perpetual dissonance about what, exactly, Latvianness was and what could be properly expected as its inward and outward manifestations.

The number of descriptive and analytical forays by participants into the history of the western exile decades is not very large. Some of these are autobiographical accounts in which the personal history of the author is deliberately intertwined with the larger exile story and offered to the reader in fictional and non-fictional form.4 There exist encyclopedia accounts, in Latvian, of the DP camps years and the post-dispersion decades of the entire western Latvian population, as well as some chronicles of smaller local western Latvian communities during the same time period, but none of the larger ones.5 In the renewed post-1991 Latvian republic, detailed group histories, written by old-homeland academics, of the western Latvian literary elites offer accounts of both the latter’s published work and their socio-economic setting.6 Occasionally over the years, separate articles, book chapters, and encyclopedia entries of various lengths have been produced in English about western Latvians in one or another of the host countries, and there have even been book-length surveys meant to highlight the ‘contributions’ of Latvians on the occasion of host countries’ national birthday celebrations.7 A detailed encyclopedia article in 1980 laid out the basic facts of the post-WWII Latvian presence in the US, placing it in the larger context of American immigrant history.8 In the post-1991 decades, the growing popularity of oral history has turned the attention of some old-homeland scholars, as well as second-generation westerners, to the early experience of the Latvian refugees in England, Sweden, and elsewhere; recently uncovered photographic caches about the Latvian refugee experience has made available a pictorial record of some aspects of the flight; and in a few instances, the subject of assimilation of Latvians to the languages and cultures of their post-WWII new homelands has been addressed in autobiographical and social-scientific writing.9 One monographic study has examined the politics of Latvian refugees in the US, another the content of Latvian novels written in exile, and a book chapter has looked at the Latvian exile in a comparative Baltic framework.10

Several major inventories by and about the exile westerners are central to any effort to look at their overall experience. One of these covers their publications and the other the changing composition of their scattered communities.11 Another recent multi-volume work examines the Latvian refugee experience through fictionalized life stories of refugee “types,”12 and the growing interest in post-1991 Latvia in the experience of the western refugees has yielded biographical studies of their most prominent literary figures and also the publication in Latvia of their collected works.13 One recent volume – the proceedings of a 2004 conference in Latvia – was devoted entirely to various aspects of exile.14 On balance, and perhaps not surprisingly, the examination of the western Latvian refugee experience by scholars in post-1991 Latvia has already outdistanced in some ways the published self-examinations produced by the westerners of themselves. All this potentially usable material, however, has remained unintegrated into a unified story, least of all into a narrative that leans toward social history and does not seek to subordinate the half-century of Latvian presence in the west entirely to the history of Cold War politics.

The book is divided into nine chapters. Chaper 1 describes the months between June 1944 and May 1945 when the decisions to leave Latvia were made and acted upon. Plans for an orderly evacuation of the civilian population came to naught and evacuation became a disorderly flight involving Latvian civilians, Latvian and German officials, as well as soldiers. A surreptitious variant of the flight took a much smaller number of civilians across the Baltic Sea to Sweden, a neutral country. Chapter 2 focuses on the Latvian refugees in Germany and Sweden after World War II ended in Europe (May 8, 1945). The Latvian refugees in Germany were now part of a population of some ten million other non-Germans who were referred to as “displaced persons” (DPs) and were placed under the authority of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRRA), created in 1945. Most but not all Latvians (only 82,000 by the end of 1945 but increasingly more as time passed) were distributed through some 300 “displaced person camps” in the three western occupation zones: 55% of them in the American zone, 43% in the British, and 3% in the French. The rest remained living outside the camps, scattered throughout the German population. By the late 1940s, the Latvians in Sweden had managed to settle into Swedish society without ever experiencing the “DP camp” phase typical of the majority of their exiled compatriots.

Chapter 3 and 4 examine what later came to be known among Latvian refugees as the “Great Dispersion.” This was the result of the growing disinclination of the western occupying powers and recovering German society to permanently maintain special camps for post-war refugees. Most Latvian DPs took the option to relocate overseas, but one portion – about 10-15% – remained on the European continent and are surveyed in Chapter 3. Those who emigrated overseas to Canada, United States, Australia, South America – are described in Chapter 4. Feelings about the “new world” were mixed, and none of the overseas host countries had large Latvian communities from earlier emigrations that the relocated DPs could, in some sense, join. By the end of the Great Dispersion (mid-1950s) the configuration of the western Latvian population had changed totally from having two “centers” (Sweden and Germany) to being decidedly polycentric.

During the next decade and a half after the Dispersion (to about the mid-1960s), western Latvian exiles everywhere were preoccupied with surviving and improving themselves economically, creating and maintaining a specifically Latvian organizational and cultural superstructure, struggling against linguistic assimilation, furthering the political goal of a “free Latvia,” and dealing with generational change within their own ranks. These aspects of the new life in the west are described in Chapter 5. The old homeland, being behind an ‘Iron Curtain’ and closed to the outside world, supplied few additions to western Latvian ranks. The prospect of losing national identity through acculturation and assimilation had worried Latvian leaders from the beginning and that threat continued to be felt due to the effects of dispersion and decentralization. The widely-felt dilution of “Latvianess” was differentiated by generation, however, a matter dealt with in Chapter 6. Community activists among Latvian adults in a variety of cultural and social organizations argued for programs promoting cohesion and unity, but no one had the power to compel the larger scattered Latvian population to subscribe to them. Individualism and free choice were moving to center stage as younger Latvians began to absorb the values of the societies in which they were being educated. Assimilation did not come as a tsunami but as a series of adjustments and accommodations over time, with generational tensions exacerbated by the social and cultural change sweeping all western societies during the later 1960s and early 1970s.

The political mission to “free Latvia” continued to be maintained by an activist core in full force, but generational change brought alterations in strategy and tactics. In the second generation there were individuals – primarily writers and academic intellectuals – for whom establishing active contact with their peers in the old homeland became a preoccupation during the 1960s and beyond. This phenomenon is dealt with in Chapter 7. To them, western Latvian life had become ritualized, locked in nostalgia, and they sought its revivification. Critics of ‘cultural contacts’ with the old homeland, however, perceived in the ‘contact’ philosophy the progressive erosion of a strict anti-communist stance and sought to dampen it, but to little effect. The general mood of ‘détente’ settling in in western societies during the 1970s, continued to promote ‘contacts,’ as well as a growing interest among western non-Baltic scholars in the Baltic region, including Latvia.

The elevation of Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR in 1985 and his attempts to reform the Soviet system resulted in the rapid emergence in the USSR’s borderland republics of powerful pro-independence movements for which the western Latvians, on their side, were entirely unprepared. The disintegration of the USSR and the re-emergence of an independent Latvia are dealt with in Chapter 8. There was a great deal of uncertainty among western Latvians about whether these new developments constituted welcome change or were (as many of the older Latvians thought) orchestrated by the KGB in order to maintain control over reform. Latvian organizations tended to take a wait-and-see attitude, while individual Latvian activists from about 1988 onward traveled to the old homeland to be part of what they believed to be a transformatory moment. The August 1991 return of Latvian independence, however, did not trigger a massive west-to-east re-migration. Rather, there was an exponential growth of personal and organizational connections that quickly became the new framework for all manner of continuous flows in both directions of persons, information, resources, and know-how. The vast majority of western Latvians stayed in place.

Among westerners, nonetheless, the 1991 re-emergence of an independent Latvia changed self-perception and self-definition in a complicated process dealt with in Chapter 9. The habits of mind that pictured Latvian life in western countries as “exile” became anachronistic and fell away, to be replaced eventually by an official and unofficial discourse in the renewed homeland that referred to all Latvians living outside Latvia’s borders as a ‘diaspora.’ The volume of a distinct western Latvian voice diminished in global Latvian affairs, as the main actors became a mix of those born and educated in Latvia and those born and educated outside of it. The role of the pre-1991 western Latvians – now increasingly referred to as the ‘old exiles’ – was reduced further when, after Latvia’s having joined the European Union in 2004 and in response to the prolonged economic downturn of the years 2008-2010, several hundreds of thousands of younger Latvians left their homeland to seek their fortunes in western countries. This new demographic outflow – estimated by some to be larger than the refugee population of 1944/45 – did not immediately produce in the west new integrated Latvian-language communities because of age differences between the ‘old’ westerners and the new ‘economic emigrants,’ their contrasting historical memories, and their radically different reasons for departure. The newly forming western Latvian population – now routinely referred to by the Latvian government as a ‘diaspora’ – still faced the threat of erosion to the idea of Latvianness as its absence from the old homeland became prolonged.


The most careful statistical account to date of the number of refugees who left for Germany is Kangeris (2016). Still, the 1944/45 departure period is only the first of many turning points in the history of this refugee population when the numbers of persons involved remains at the level of estimates, as will become clear in the later chapters of the book.


The ‘archipelago’ metaphor for the spatial configuration of the western Latvian exile settlements was used, perhaps for the first time, by Celle (2004). In spite of the fact that Latvia was never a colonizing power, the use of the term ‘colonies’ for Latvian settlements outside Latvia predates WWII: see. for example, Krasnais (1938).


In contemporary research such populations are frequently referred to as ‘diasporas’: see, e.g., Cohen (1997), Radulescu (2002), Munz and Ohlinger (2003), Kaira, Kaus, and Hutny (2005), Sahoo and Maharaj (2005), Dufoix (2008), and Ziemer and Roberts (2013). The conceptualizations used in the present work (see Chapter 9) owe much to the invaluable theoretical perspective of Gabriel Sheffer (Sheffer 2003), who analyzes ‘ethno-national diasporas.’


The best-known Engish-language autobiographical account is Eksteins (1999), while Nesaule (1995) is a fictionalized but also well-known version of roughly the same westward journey. A more recent personalized exploration of her Latvian origins is Verzemnieks (2017).


Švābe (1950-1955), Vol. 2, pp. 1242-1282; Andersons (1983-2007); Slaidiņš (2011), about San Francisco; Plume and Plume (2004), about a DP camp in Germany.


Daukste-Silasproģe (2002, 2007, 2014, 2019).


Harned (1975), Akmentiņš (1976).


Anderson (1980).


Bela (2010), Zirnīte and Hinkle (2004), Zirnīte & Lielbārdis (2015).


Zaķe (2010); Rozītis (2005); Plakans (2020).


Jēgers (1968-1988), Veigners (1993; 2009).


Žīgure (2009, 2012).


E.g. Nollendorfs (2001), Hausmanis (2003), Sproģis (2009), Sodums (2001-2008).


Kļaviņa & Brancis (2004).

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