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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 Latviaís name."

"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."

Open wounds

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 insignia.

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 Nazi atrocities.

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 "fascists."

"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.

haGalil onLine - Dienstag 23-03-99

Die hier archivierten Artikel stammen aus den "Anfangsjahren" der breiten Nutzung des Internet. Damals waren die gestalterischen Möglichkeiten noch etwas ursprünglicher als heute. Wir haben die Artikel jedoch weiterhin archiviert, da die Informationen durchaus noch interessant sein können, u..a. auch zu Dokumentationszwecken.

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