Historian: Latvians see themselves as victims, but there are heroes to discover

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Markus Meckl is a professor of history at the University of Akureyri in northern Iceland. He formerly taught in Rīga at the Latvian Cultural Academy, arriving in the year 2000 and staying for two and a half years. He still teaches each year at Rīga Stradiņš University in the media department.

In 2016 Meckl wrote an academic paper titled "Latvia's Vanished National Heroes" which suggests that after Latvia regained independence, the ideal of the national hero "simply disappeared and no heroic image emerged. On the contrary, it was now the victim that became the emblem of Latvia’s regained independence." 

"While the path Latvia had chosen of rejecting or refusing national heroes had an impact on its integration into Europe, it also contributed to ongoing frictions among its own ethnic communities," Meckl wrote in the introduction to his paper.

He recently spoke with Latvian Radio on the subject for a series looking at the possible course of Latvian identity over the next 100 years. His views are likely to be controversial and possibly even offensive in some quarters. Nevertheless, we reproduce the bulk of the interview below in the hope that it may be of interest as an outside perspective on trends in Latvian society from a professional historian with experience of the country.


Q. In your view, how did it happen that Latvians decided to become "victims"?

This is a question you have to ask the Latvians! But i have a couple of suggestions: I think one of the reasons is it is an easier path to follow. It is a path which needs less effort. If you area victim it excuses your passivity. It justifies your role in history. I wrote my PhD about the heroes of the Warsaw ghetto and I thought it was interesting to see after 1945 how the Jewish narrative was to create heroes in order to cope with this terrible past. It's quite obvious that they needed heroes to have a positive identification of themselves.

And then after finishing my PhD I came to Latvia, and Latvia had obviously suffered a lot in the 20th century, and I would have expected to find a similar path - that you give your new generation heroes to admire, to live for. But then what I found was the contrary. I was teaching at the Cultural Academy and just because of my interest in the Second World War I was asking the students about the ghetto in Rīga. No-one seemed to be aware and it actually took me quite a long time to realize that Ludzas iela [where the Cultural Academy is located] was one of the main streets of the ghetto. Whenever - just out of academic interest - I would ask a question about the Holocaust in Latvia, people became so defensive and I realized at one point, obviously this victim role helps also not to assume any responsibility, to put away all responsibility.

If you think a bit more about what a victim is actually doing: a victim only wants recognition and strives for recognition. But it is a role which prevents you from becoming active and seeking a better future. A victim constructs its identity on a ruined past.

I never really had answer for this but in recent years while teaching in Latvia I realised that things are changing and I have the feeling there's a new generation of students who have less and less interest in this victim role. They seem to be much more open towards Europe and have problems with this identity where you have six days of commemoration in Latvia, where you always commemorate how much of a victim you are.

You are not aware, but you are the only country that has a museum where you celebrate your victim role. No other country does this. You normally celebrate your heroic resistance, but you seem to embrace this victim role so much, and of course it excuses everything.

Q. Have you looked at other post-Soviet countries too? Are we special in this case?

Yes, you are special in this case! Look at Poland. What do they do? They erect monuments to the workers of Gdansk, to the priest Maximilian Kolbe. Of course you can discuss if these are the sort of heroes you want, but at least there's a public discussion about the people you put forward as role models. A hero is nothing else than a role model, someone who gives you orientation.

In Estonia, which is probably closest, they have a museum of occupation and resistance - you skip the resistance part. You just want to be recognized for what you are - a victim. You are definitely unique. Even if you think about Israel when they opened Yad Vashem, they opened it with an exhibition about Jewish resistance. Meanwhile you just seem to compete to be the biggest victim in history.

Q. In your opinion what are the consequences of this victimhood?

Markuss Mekls. Upura tēls nekad neļaus izveidot saliedētu Latvijas sabiedrību
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The main consequence is, that's the best way to keep your society segregated. It's the best way to keep on with this blame game. With this victimhood you never can create a society which includes all people and nationalities living in Latvia. You can cultivate this division according to language and so on in Latvia. It doesn't matter how well the Russian speaker in your country learns Latvian, he can never be part of it because he's not part of this victim group.

And it even doesn't matter that Ukrainians were also sent to Siberia, it doesn't matter that Russians were also sent to Siberia, no, it's a unique experience for the Latvians and only they can be part of this national identification.

If you think about the heroes of France - they died for ideas. Ideas which everyone who lives in the country can subscribe to. What always fascinated me was the case of Mavriks Vulfsons. Here you had a man who stood up, who defied the Soviet Union. Who, Pugo, the head of the Latvian Communist Party rushed to and said "You brought down Soviet Latvia!" A heroic gesture.

And this is a man where you could say, 25 years later, he's more of less forgotten. At the Tautas Fronte (People's Front) museum he is deleted from the museum. His name is taken out of memory.

With your victimhood, of course what you create is exclusion and a blame game with the other always identified as part of the people who are responsible for this suffering. This is a sad consequence and people are probably not aware that it is intentionally done. This does not create a society where all people have a strong feeling of belonging.

Q. So we have heroes, but we are just not framing them in the right way?

Yes, you have heroes, people like Jānis Lipke who saved Jews during the Holocaust - outstanding! This is probably one of the most heroic acts I ever read about. Schools should be named after him. This is a man who risked his life for his fellow citizens, and until recently there was nothing for him. There should be a monument to him. You have people who acted heroically and could be shown as people who died for ideas worth living for. You have many of these figures. But then the problem is you tried the soldiers who fought on the German side [in World War II].  It is quite obvious in a European context if you have anything with the name "SS" on it, it is really difficult to justify this in a public manner. Recently there was the opera about [Herberts] Cukurs. Yes, you can claim that he's a hero but then you cannot be surprised if other people are surprised about what kind of heroes you seem to want to frame for your country. Why do you write operas about him and not about Volfsons, where you have the development of a man who at the end decides to do the right thing. It needed courage to do what he did. It needed courage to be the people who died during the time of the barricades. And Lipke.

Q. But isn't part of this about the denial of Soviet values? The Soviet period was full of supposed heroes being presented in every direction.

I've thought about this as well. Yes, there were very strong heroic cults in the Soviet Union. But it would make more sense if you didn't turn so much towards victimhood. The victim role also alows you not to confront the Soviet past, because if you're just a victim you don't have to find an explanation of why so many Latvians were actually a part of the Soviet Union. Without the Latvian Riflemen Lenin wouldn't have succeeded in his revolution. There was a huge contribution. As long as you don't confront your past, you will always be a bit handicapped, I would say. It's almost like a child who just wants to have more recognition, not an independent person who can have an open discussion about a brighter future.

Q. So what would be your suggestions to remedy this?

Soon there will be a new generation who will have less and less feeling of belonging to this victimhood. But I would look for figures who will be inclusive for society, who will allow a lot of people to identify with each other and create a positive image of the country. You have such a long heroic history which could be inclusive in the sense that yes, there were people who wanted more than just cultivating our frustration and cultivating our feeling of alienation towards other nations. You have so many positive figures in your past. Just think of someone like Mark Rothko. How difficult is it to include him in your national narrative? If you can overcome this, you would have positive figures that the country could be proud of instead of hiding them in the closet because they don't belong to the right ethnic group or they did this or that wrong. This would be a positive way forward, but there's a long way to go. 


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