THE BALTIC TIMES-March 18th:
Legionnaires march divides Latvia
By Philip Birzulis
RIGA - Several hundred veterans of the Latvian Legion who walked
to Riga's Freedom Monument March 16 came with a very clear message: they had
gathered to remember fallen comrades. However, the Latvian government
distanced itself from the event amid a great deal of confusion in the rest
of society about what exactly was being commemorated.
Last year's march by the Legionnaires, who fought in a World War II
Waffen SS unit established by the Nazis, provoked condemnation from the
West and threats of trade sanction from Russia. In the aftermath, the
last Parliament decided that March 16 should be a commemorative day for
all Latvian soldiers of that conflict, whatever side they fought on.
However, rather than being a soothing compromise, the decision was
criticized in the lead up to this yearís march for associating the state
with the SS and Nazi atrocities. As a result, on Feb. 23, the government
banned any of its members from attending the events, a rule which also
applied to current members of the military. Last year, the national
armed forces commander was fired after disobeying orders by showing up
at the march.
President Guntis Ulmanis held meetings with the veterans to try
dissuading them from marching. He and other politicians have said that
the date, which marks the first joint engagement by two Latvian
divisions on the eastern front in 1943, casts Latvia and the
legionnaires in a bad light.
"Choosing March 16 to mark the day was a mistake, a mistake on my part
and that of the Parliament," he said. Meeting with foreign journalists
March 16, Foreign Minister Valdis Bir-kavs played down the significance
of the march, counseling the reporters present not to "make the smallest
gathering into a big event." However, while the soldierís should be free
to do as they liked, he warned that the march "will be used to blacken
"The day should be left to the veterans alone," he said. Prime Minister
Vilis Kristopans said he also was not opposed to soldiers remembering
their fallen comrades; his own father had been a Legion member, he
pointed out. However, he claimed that Nov. 11, on which Latvians
remember their dead from the 1918 to 1920 war of independence, would be
much more appropriate.
Margeris Vestermanis, the director of the "Jews in Latvia" Museum and a
Holocaust survivor, wondered why Latvians want to commemorate the date
when "it is a tragedy for the Latvian nation itself," since most of its
soldiers were forcibly conscripted into the ranks. He joined the chorus
calling for another date to be chosen, claiming the current one had been
selected by radical-nationalist veterans in the Latvian émigré community
during the cold war.
Vestermanis said that anti-Latvian forces in Russia would manipulate
the event, which was being stirred up by cynical politicians in Riga
itself. "This day serves the purposes of two groups: radical Latvian
nationalists, who cannot learn from the past, and the communist faction
of Parliament," he claimed.
American-Latvian historian Andrejs Ezergailis, the author of a
prominent book on the legion and its historical implications, agreed
that the government should distance itself from the commemoration, but
wondered why it had allowed it to proceed when, in his opinion, the
decision to give it a state blessing had been stoked up by just a few
enthusiastic MPs. "In Latvia today, it is impossible to say what is
reality and what is provocation," he said.
Two parliamentary factions, the opposition Peopleís Party and
government partners For Fatherland and Freedom, gave their deputies free
reign to attend the march. MP Janis Lagzdins from the former faction
joined the marchers just before they set off, flowers in hand, for the
Freedom Monument. He said he was openly associating himself with men who
had fought for Latviaís freedom and denied allegations of Nazi
connections, claiming such charges were, "The product of stories spread
by the Russian secret intelligence services."
Unlike last year, when angry counter-protesters attempted to break up
the gathering, this one passed without serious incident. After a somber
church service in Rigaís Dome Cathedral, the veterans proceeded across
town, headed by several Latvian flags but minus uniforms and military
To a man, the marchers claimed they had no regrets about their wartime
service. A recurring theme recited by the participants was that they
fought for Latviaís freedom, not for Nazi Germany. Janis, a corporal in
the legion, claimed that he had fought under the Latvian flag, sung the
Latvian national anthem at his military induction, did not have an SS
tattoo under his arm, and had given a promise to fight against
Bolshevism rather than an oath of allegiance to Hitler.
Some expressed bitterness at the government for deserting them.
Mikhail, a 74-year-old former soldier, claimed that this was because
many former communists were still running the country. Many claimed they
hated communism but bore no ill-will toward Russians as a group.
"Everyone speaks about the events of 1941, but they tend to forget
1940, known as the terrible year. The Red Army occupied Latvia, sent
people to Siberia, they butchered the whole of Latvia," said one army
veteran who wouldnít reveal his name. In answer to questions about how
the West would react to a march by men with links to the SS, some agreed
with Lagzdins that Russian machinations were to blame for the bad image.
Others pointed out that the Nuremberg trials and post-war investigations
by the U.S. government had cleared the legion of any connection with
A crowd of several thousand greeted them at the square
that fronts the Freedom Monument. The vast majority seemed supportive of the
marchers, applauding and singing patriotic Latvian songs. Some of the
onlookers claimed a strong emotional attachment to the legionnaires.
"The Freedom Monument is where I said good-bye to my brother," said one
elderly Latvian woman, who went on to tell how she had seen him inducted
into the legion there in the fall of 1943. Two months later, he was
killed in action. But there was also a vocal minority of people who see
the legion as Nazi collaborators. Dressed in mock-concentration camp
uniforms, they sang Soviet-era songs about the horrors perpetrated by
"This is terrible for Latvia, Latvia looks ridiculous," said Ludmila,
45. "At least this year the government finally understood what this
means, but very often there is a double standard."
With additional reporting by Steven C. Johnson.
onLine - Dienstag 23-03-99