The volunteers who make up Latvian military archaeology organization Legenda nobly explore the country’s battlefields to find missing soldiers. Indeed, tens of thousands of German and Soviet servicemen died there during fierce fighting towards the end of World War II. What’s more, many would have remained unidentified if not for Legenda’s help. But on one seemingly routine dig, the group found something extraordinary.
More often, though, Legenda exhumes the remains of those who perished in that infamous conflict – and many sadly did so after July 1944. At that time, some 200,000 German soldiers were trapped on Latvia’s Courland Peninsula, between Soviet lines and the Baltic Sea. However, Hitler denied their evacuation by sea, instead ordering them to continue their resistance. By the time the soldiers surrendered in May 1945, then, around 100,000 of them had already been slaughtered by the Soviets.
And the Legenda group’s avowed aims are to discover the lost and forgotten graves of fallen men in Latvia and to identify the buried soldiers using dog tags. When the dog tags are German they are forwarded to the German War Graves Commission, which endeavors to identify individuals and inform any living relatives. Legenda’s findings have been bittersweet, though, as around 700 sets of remains are found year on year.
“We believe all people have the right to a worthy grave,” Fritz Kirchmeier, a German War Graves Commission spokesman, told Bloomberg Businessweek in August 2016. “There are lots of people who want to clear up their relatives’ fates… many of these descendants are 70 years or older and in a phase where they want to clear up these questions and find some inner peace.”
If the dead that Legenda finds are in fact Soviet troops, though, then the group informs the authorities. The remains are then stored before being given a proper burial at an annual ceremony in April, near the Latvian capital of Riga. Eminent officials from both Russia and Latvia as well as relatives of the fallen attend these ceremonies.
Unfortunately, alongside Legenda’s noble endeavors are many who are digging up remains simply to get hold of sellable items. This, though, is not a practice indulged in by Legenda members; as one of the volunteers, Andris Lelis, insisted to Bloomberg Businessweek, “I do not rob anything from bodies.”
But on one particular day, it wasn’t human remains that the Legenda volunteers discovered. Instead, what they dug up from the ground in a Latvian forest were five rusted containers with unbroken seals. And the weaponry and munitions that the canisters contained amazed them.
Inside the containers, for example, were French pistols, blasting caps and anti-personnel fragmentation grenades from Russia. There was also a magnetic mine and even pieces of coal that were actually disguised explosives. Furthermore, German-made tools were also to be found inside.
What was really startling, however, was the pristine condition of the contents. Indeed, because the seals on the canisters were intact, the materials inside remained dry. The items discovered, therefore, were in the same state as they would have been when concealed.
And often when the volunteers find weapons, they’re rusted almost beyond recognition. That’s hardly surprising, though, as most such artifacts have been lying undiscovered for 70 years or more. That, however, made the excellent condition of Legenda’s latest finds all the more surprising.
As for how and why the canisters and their deadly treasures had come to be there, the Legenda volunteers believed that the cache of materials had been left there by Germans. What’s more, they came to the assumption that the weapons would have been for use by any German saboteurs willing to take on the Soviet foe.
But why the lethal stash was never used is still open to speculation. Perhaps the German soldiers had to leave the area too quickly for the sabotage operation to be executed? Or maybe the Nazis entrusted with the task were themselves killed before they could carry out their mission?
In fact, we can’t even be certain that the would-be saboteurs were German. Latvians, for example, fought both with the Soviet army and with the German army. Indeed, both the U.S.S.R. and Germany invaded Latvia during WWII: the Soviet Union occupied the country from 1940, only for it to be usurped by the Nazis the following year.
And many Latvians didn’t survive unscathed from either occupation. After the communists took over the country, for example, 35,000 native citizens were forcibly deported, including thousands of Jews. The unluckiest were sent to prison camps in Siberia, where death was an ever-present threat.
However, Latvian Jews were to suffer a much worse fate after 1941, when Hitler broke his 1939 non-aggression treaty with Stalin and German troops duly overran the country. Tragically, some 75,000 were killed during the Nazis’ pursuit of what came to be known as the “Final Solution.” And, altogether, it’s estimated that 200,000 Latvians lost their lives during the conflict.
Despite the brutality of the Nazis, though, some Latvians saw them as emancipators from communist rule. Indeed, it may be hard to believe now, but a surprising number of the natives preferred the Nazis to the Soviets and welcomed the German forces when they marched into Riga.
After the Nazis surrendered, though, they were shipped off to Soviet prison camps. Then, Latvia was once again occupied by the Soviets. Understandably, at that time there was little appetite for finding dead Nazi soldiers to identify them and give them a proper burial.
And it was only after Latvia gained its independence from the crumbling Soviet Empire in 1991 that people like the Legenda group began to search for the dead that were left behind. This was also a time when a thriving black market in memorabilia opened up. Legenda, though, regards this as desecration.
What’s more, amateurs uncovering supplies like those found in Legenda’s unexpected haul may be at risk of real danger. After all, even old munitions are liable to explode. Legenda members, though, have been taught how to handle these items with proper care, and any live ordinance found by the group is handed over to the army for safe disposal.
And while the exact identities and motivations of the people who laid down this cache of arms some 70 years ago will likely never be known for sure, one thing is more certain: that the dedicated volunteers of Legenda will continue with their gruesome task. Their only reward is the knowledge that they may help some of the wartime bereaved towards a long-delayed closure.