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National Exhibit
National Exhibit
Latvia: The Country and its People in the 20th Century

Author:  Dr. Valters Nollendorfs Dr. Valters Nollendorfs has a Ph.D. in German literature from The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is a Professor Emeritus of German from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he taught from 1961 to 1995. Dr. Nollendorfs lives in Riga, Latvia and volunteers at the Museum of the Occupation as Director of External Affairs and Project Director for Nakotnes Nams (Building for the Future), a major reconstruction and expansion project that involves planning and development of a new exhibition and major fundraising.

Becoming a Nation

The self-realization of the Latvians as a nation began in the nineteenth century as part of emancipation, modernization and national renaissance all over Europe. Still indentured to their German landlords at the beginning of the century, the Latvians had at least partly freed themselves from the economic and social control of the land-owning German gentry and had disengaged from German cultural paternalism as the twentieth century dawned. They had modernized their language, developed the seeds of modern literature, gained a considerable amount of economic independence and made strides in becoming politically engaged. Large numbers had moved to the fast-developing cities, especially Rīga, and many had bought their farms from their landlords. The 1905 Revolution turned both against the German gentry and the czar's government in Latvia. It was brutally suppressed but became a precursor of independence thirteen years later.

World War I was fought in Latvia from 1915 to 1918. It resulted in widespread destruction, displacement and loss of life. About a third of the population left the country as refugees. Many never returned. Latvian soldiers fought in the Russian army. National units, the Latvian Riflemen's battalions, later regiments, were formed to defend Rīga against the advancing German troops. When the Germans took Rīga in 1917, many units of the riflemen joined Lenin's revolution, trusting his promise of independence.


Independent democratic Latvia was proclaimed on 18 November 1918, a week after the end of World War I, while the territory was still under German occupation. The Red Army, including the Latvian Riflemen, was poised to attack, and a Soviet Latvian government was formed. With very few forces of its own, the democratic provisional government had to seek help from German irregulars and the local German Home Guard, who had an agenda of their own.

Thus, in 1919, all of Latvia became a battleground again, with national Latvian, pro-Soviet, pro-German and even pro-Czarist forces trying to gain upper hand. With the assistance of the Western Allies, the national government prevailed, however, and on 11 August 1920 signed a peace treaty with Soviet Russia, which forever renounced any sovereign Russian claims to Latvia.

In 1920 the country established its democratic institutions and rebuilt. A Constitutional Assembly was elected. A momentous agricultural reform law was passed. It confiscated the land of the German barons and redistributed it to landless farmers. In 1921, Latvia was recognized de jure by many countries and joined the League of Nations. The Constitution was approved and the first parliament, the Saeima, was elected in 1922.

Despite widespread destruction and loss of population, Latvia succeeded in reviving its economy so that the country could support itself and even export. Its main achievements, however, were in the area of nation-building, education and culture. Ethnic minorities were granted extensive rights; education became a driving force for development; and Latvian culture flourished free of foreign constraints. Latvia became a leader in numbers of university students and books published.

In 1934, like several other European countries, Latvia became a dictatorship when Prime Minister Kārlis Ulmanis disbanded the Saeima and prohibited political parties. The government assumed both legislative and executive functions. The dictatorship was relatively benign, but it suppressed dissent, encouraged conformism and consolidated economic power in state hands by buying up private enterprises.

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Location:  Northeastern Europe
Capital:  Riga
Communist Rule:  1940-1941 / 1944-1990
Status:  06.09.91 - independence recognized
Victims of Communism: