In a related question How did residents of Estonia and Latvia prove that their family settled in the country prior to 1940, in order to become citizens in 1989? an interesting comment was left by @Gnudiff:

There were several archive institutions in Latvia, dealing with different kinds/topics of documents. Some part of Latvian Historical archive (dealing with documents pertaining to territory of modern day Latvia starting from 12th century) was evacuated during WW2 (link in Latvian latvijasarhivi.lv/index.php?&115 ) but plenty remained and as far as I know, mostly preserved. Neither Germans nor Soviets were ones to wantonly burn documents. Unlike books.

I was surprised to learn that the Nazi army apparently didn't bother destroying the archives as they were retreating from occupied lands, even though that seems like a great opportunity to make your enemy's life more difficult when they return to power. I.e. it would've been extremely challenging to prove land ownership or inheritance rights.

Why was this the case? Was it seen as too minor of a concern compared to destroying resources such as railroads and ship yards? Or perhaps even the Nazi army didn't want to intervene too much into how the local bureaucracy is run?

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    @MarkC.Wallace destabilizing future governance could make it easier to re-conquer the county in the future. Nov 12, 2020 at 21:17
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    @JonathanReez both of the major belligerents wouldn't have been fazed by lack of documents. It takes a lot to destabilise something as huge as the USSR. Destabilising a small independent Latvia on the other hand, wouldn't need any lack of archive documents.
    – Gnudiff
    Nov 12, 2020 at 22:48
  • Deleted my prior comment because it wasn't even a barn cat. I don't know the answer, but I think that the answer probably lies in an exploration of what is a valid military target and what are legitimate military objectives during a fighting retreat.
    – MCW
    Nov 13, 2020 at 13:58
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    Given that Latvia was being annexed by the Soviets, would land ownership or inheritance rights have even been an issue? It all belongs to the state.
    – jamesqf
    Nov 13, 2020 at 17:04
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    @jamesqf For one, it would be an important source for KGB in order to evaluate which inhabitants had ties to prewar bourgeoisie. Note that while much of deportations happened in 1941, there were also some in 1949. Also there was partisan resistance against Soviet regime that was only quelled in 1956. Archives could be considered significant secondary sources of information for many purposes, and serve as proof at times when occupying powers started to bother about actual proof.
    – Gnudiff
    Nov 14, 2020 at 18:10

3 Answers 3


This is only partial and rather speculative answer, but it is a bit too long for comment.

A short historical overview of the Latvian State History Archive (LSHA) is found (in Latvian) on its webpage, which was linked in my original comment: http://www.latvijasarhivi.lv/index.php?&115

Note that while it is called "state history archive" it has not only national level documents, but also many local ones. So, as per the same page, in 1922 the State History Archive is the one to receive back from the USSR many documents evacuated during WW1, such as many parish church birth and death records, regional court proceedings, Riga school archives, etc. In 1935 a law is passed that mandates LSHA to receive not only government, but also municipal and non governmental organizations' archive documents.

Regarding WW2, the page states that as soon as the Soviets came into Latvia, they promptly renamed the archive into Latvian SSR State Archive, and created secret sections within LSHA. A bit later it is included as a department int the Soviet State Archive. As the Soviets retreat they evacuate parts of archive and some employees.

In 1941 the archive is renamed again into State Archive -- apparently by Germans. It is now part of General directorate for Education and Culture, department of Scientific institutions and archives.

In 1944 the LSHA is under department of Scientific institutions, art and culture. In the same year, as the Soviet forces near Riga, the more valuable parts of archive are evacuated, first to Ēdole castle in Latvia, then in autumn - both from Ēdole castle and Riga - to Czechoslovakia.

All of the above leads me to assume that:

  • archives are considered important enough to be evacuated rather than destroyed, upon leaving;

  • the archive's value includes specialists who know its contents. I am quite prepared to suggest that the very same people who worked in LHSA during independent Latvia, probably for most part remained as employees during the first Soviet occupation, German occupation, and the second Soviet occupation.

  • I guess also that while the high command might be very interested in all archives, the local army on ground were much more interested in things more essential for immediate survival.

That would mean that even if there was command to destroy the unevacuated parts of archive, there was less interest in following that order during the retreat of the army, and quite probably some kind of sabotage of such command by the employees of the archive.

Consider also the many changes of management of the archive during war. It appears that while it was in some part important, it wasn't important enough not to toss it around.

And as a final thought, both sides managed to evacuate what they presumably thought was the most important parts. Perhaps they didn't consider the remaining part worth the effort.

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    Good answer! I think "I guess also that while the high command might be very interested in all archives, the local army on ground were much more interested in things more essential for immediate survival." may be the key point.
    – Mark Olson
    Nov 13, 2020 at 16:56

Consider what they did destroy.

It was the Nazi policy to destroy infrastructure on their retreat, a scorched earth policy. They tried to destroy transportation, and did not completely manage that. A military commander who has the manpower to blow one more bridge or the municipal birth records instead would probably go after the bridge.

Of course post-war accounts were somewhat self-serving, see Speers claims of having halted the Nero Decree or Choltitz and Paris.


Retreats are rarely well organized

WW2, especially on the Eastern front, was mostly characterized by large all-encompassing offensives that moved front lines for hundreds of kilometers. Between those offensives front could be static for months and even years, like near Leningrad. Anyway, well organized retreats were rare. One example of well organized German retreat was Operation Büffel. As we can see, in this instance Germans thoroughly and systematically destroyed everything they could, and even forcibly evacuated local male population. However, this was more of an exception than a rule. Usually, Germans postponed retreat to the last moment, in many cases permission had to be given by OKH and Hitler himself.

Specifically for Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, Germans didn't plan to retreat from there, at least not in a hurry. However, whole Eastern front started to unravel in summer of 1944, when Operation Bagration started. As a followup, there was a Baltic Offensive that effectively cleared Germans from all those territories with exception of Courland. Without going into too much details, it is clear that Germans didn't want to retreat, they even planned and executed some counter-offensives in attempt to cut off and stop Soviet offensives. As such, when finally forced to move, they didn't actually have time for full scorched earth policy. It is likely that Hitler and OKH still deluded themselves with possibility of recapture. In any case, archives would be a low priority target for destruction at this moment, especially archives that didn't deal with military matters or possible German crimes. Transportation, infrastructure and industrial capacities would take precedence .

As a final note, it would be interesting to know what happened in Courland. Since Germans there endured till the end of the war, they did have time to decide what to destroy.

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