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Across the Former Soviet Union in Latvia, Wartime History Present in Controversy over Soldiers’ Rall

March 27, 2006
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The recent uproar in Latvia over a proposed march by Latvian veterans of the Nazi SS highlighted the ambivalent relationship the Baltic nation has with its World War II behavior. After last year’s march — during which protesters, dressed in striped concentration camp outfits, tried to stop the procession, but were arrested instead — Latvia received condemnation from the international community — especially Russia and Israel.

Condemning the march as an attempt to rewrite Latvian history and whitewash Latvia’s role in the war, anti-nationalist factions vowed to repeat last year’s protests and to do everything necessary to stop the march if it takes place again this year.

Fearing an outbreak of violent confrontations, Riga city officials canceled the march three days before it was scheduled to take place.

Latvia’s President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, once a supporter of Soldiers Day — as the March 16 date is known in the official calendar since 1999 — also spoke out against it.

She voiced concern about the negative attention the event brings Latvia and worried that it portrays the Baltic nation as a country full of fascists and neo-Nazis.

Nonetheless, nationalist factions organizing the event, planned to go ahead with the march.

This year, a thousand-strong police force was mobilized, and Riga’s city center was fenced in to prevent any mass rally.

A few hundred protesters from both sides attended the banned march. After minor skirmishes and some arrests on both sides, police was finally able to quell the demonstrators and prevent the march from taking place.

Why such a surge of emotion?

Latvia, then part of the Russian Empire, gained its independence after the end of Word War I. But in 1939, on the eve of Word War II, the Soviet army occupied the country and imposed its rule on its mostly ethnic Latvian population.

When the German army advanced on Latvia in 1941 and pushed out the Soviet forces, many Latvians greeted the invading German soldiers as liberators.

“The Germans treated Latvians much better than the Soviets,” said one young participant in this month’s march, waving an Estonian flag. He drove from Estonia to Riga to show solidarity with his Baltic kin, even though he knew the march had been cancelled. According to him, in Word War II Latvians chose the lesser of two evils — a view widely shared in the Baltic countries today.

Many Latvians agree and firmly believe in the patriotic role of Latvian SS Legions played in fighting for liberation from the occupying Red Army.

But Latvia’s role in Word War II was not so simple.

For many in the Russian-speaking community — and that includes the vast majority of today’s estimated 15,000 Latvian Jews — the march is symptomatic of a larger problem within Latvia. They see it as deliberate act of nationalist myth-making and a revision of Latvian history, part of an attempt to legitimize Latvia’s role in Word War II and the Holocaust.

Many historians agree that even compared to other Baltic states, Latvia was particularly supportive and compliant with the Nazi regime.

In the first year of Germany’s occupation of the country, invaders backed by special Latvian police battalions murdered over 90 percent of Latvia’s 100,000-strong prewar Jewish population.

By the end of the war, the death squads merged with Latvian Waffen SS Legions.

Although Latvian SS forces never officially participated in mass executions, the country had the largest per capita recruitment rates in the Waffen SS ranks in Europe.

“The Latvian government is the last fascist government,” Aleks Liba, one of the counterprotesters, told JTA.

Says Meijers Mellers, project manager of Riga’s Jewish Museum: “There is nothing wrong in the fact that somebody remembers their fallen comrades. But to create a myth that all Latvian Waffen SS were fighting for independence is incorrect,”

According to Mellers, it is impossible to figure out who in the Legions participated in the mass execution of Latvian Jews. “The veterans would never inform on each other.”

But Mellers pointed out that high-ranking government officials — who took part in past processions on Soldiers Day — probably marched shoulder to shoulder with potential war criminals.

During her recent trip to Israel, Vika-Freidberga apologized for Latvia’s role in the Holocaust. But on paper, Latvia still seems to be in active denial about its role in the Holocaust.

In January 2005, the Latvian government published a book on Latvian history that referred to Salaspils, Latvia’s largest concentration camp where more than 50,000 people were killed, as a “corrective working camp.”

And although Latvia has prosecuted several Soviet functionaries for Communist-era crimes, not a single Nazi collaborator has been brought to trial since the country became independent in 1991.

Where do Latvia’s 5,000 Jewish fit into the picture?

Although, some Jews have protested the SS marches as individuals, Latvia’s Jewish community has officially stayed out of the scandal.

“The Jewish community has nothing against veterans who gather to honor their comrades,” said Gita Umanovska, executive director of Riga Jewish’s community.

“But we do not agree that holding this march at Riga’s Monument to Freedom is the right thing to do,” she said referring to the rally’s planned venue, because “it only politicizes the event.”

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