Walking Since Daybreak: A Story of Eastern Europe, World War II, and the Heart of Our Century
is a 1999 work of history and autobiography by Latvian-Canadian historian Modris Eksteins, professor of history at the University of Toronto, Scarborough. The book interweaves Ekstein’s personal and family history in Latvia with the country’s modern history, centering on Latvia’s devastation during and after the Second World War. Upon publication, Walking Since Daybreak
was hailed as “a beautiful meditation, written with both intellectual and moral urgency, on the nature of guilt, collaboration, and European consciousness in the middle of the twentieth century” (Publishers’ Weekly
Eksteins finds a doorway to his subject in his own family history. He begins with his maternal great-grandmother, Grieta Pluta, born in 1834. Grieta is seduced by her lover, a Baltic-German Baron, for whom she works as a chambermaid. The Baron leaves Grieta while she is pregnant with his child. Eksteins suggests that this story serves as a symbol of relations between Latvia and Germany down the centuries. He notes that Grieta’s story became an important part of his family’s lore, a reason for the Eksteins to consider themselves superior to the other Jewish peasants of their community, who did not have aristocratic blood. He adds that Grieta’s story is far from untypical. He sees his great-grandmother as a figure representative of her era.
From the story of Grieta, Eksteins expands his focus to the history of Latvia more generally. He focuses particularly on relations with Russia and Germany in the run-up to the Second World War. He says that Nazi fascism and Soviet Bolshevism—which he calls “red fascism”— are virtually indistinguishable in their effects on Latvia.
Eksteins begins his narrative run-up to the Second World War in 1919. In Latvia, the British, the Soviet Bolsheviks, Latvian nationalist forces, White Russian soldiers, and German Freikorps struggled for control. Already, atrocities were commonplace. During a single retreat, the Soviets murdered at least 6,000 people between Jelgava and Riga. At particular risk were clerics: "Probably the most dangerous profession in the Baltics was that of clergyman.” The Soviets’ opponents, an alliance of German mercenaries and White Russians, were just as savage. When they captured Riga, the alliance executed fifty prisoners every morning. The victims were required to dig their own graves, a practice which would be resuscitated by the Nazis.
Among the Germans fighting in Latvia in 1919 was Rudolf Hoss, who would later run the extermination camp at Auschwitz. Hoss later declared that he was “turned to stone” by his experiences in Latvia: “When contact was made, the result was butchery to the point of utter annihilation.”
Between the Wars, Latvia was independent, and almost succumbed to a homegrown nationalist dictatorship. When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, the Baltic states found themselves trapped once again between two powerful warring enemies. The results were horrific. “Between 35,000 and 40,000 Latvians were murdered or deported by the Soviets during the occupation of 1940-41, most of them on June 14, 1941," he writes.
The brutality of Stalin’s regime in Latvia helped fuel Latvian complicity in the Holocaust. The communist regime formed close ties with the Jewish community, who had been vulnerable under the previous Latvian nationalist regime to anti-Semitic attack. As a result, many Latvians failed to distinguish between Jews and Communists. When the Nazis arrived, these Latvians took their opportunity to avenge Stalin’s crimes on the Jewish population. Even Nazi officials described the Latvians’ anti-Semitism as “monstrous.” Latvian nationalists murdered more than 1,000 Jews even before the arrival of the German army in the country. During the occupation, a single group of Latvian auxiliaries murdered as many as 260,000 Latvian Jews.
Eksteins picks up his family narrative here. At the age of one, the author was grazed by a fragment from an exploding shell as Nazi and Soviet soldiers fought on his grandfather’s farm in Kurland. His earliest memories are of detention camps. His family was one of the lucky ones: due to his father’s connections, they were able to emigrate to Canada. As well as his own family’s experience of emigration, Eksteins discusses the mass displacement of Latvians by the Second World War.
Finally, Eksteins argues that contemporary culture has misunderstood the Second World War and its legacy. He asserts that the end of the war in 1945 “is not our victory, as we often like to think; 1945 is our problem.” For Eksteins, the suffering and destruction of the Second World War mark the end the Enlightenment’s narrative of rational progress. Only post-modern historical approaches are appropriate to the story of the war and its aftermath: "Germany at the end of World War II is the ultimate 'placeless' place—defeated, prostrate, epicenter of both evil and grief, of agency and submission. It is here in the swampland of meaningless meaning, that our century has its fulcrum."