MissionTelling the Story of the Latvian Legion

The language[1] used to describe the annual Latvian commemoration by and of Latvian Legion, Waffen-SS, veterans ascribes false motivations and denies historical facts:

Contention versus Fact  

Nazi glorification

The Legion had no allegiance to Nazism. It was largely conscripted[2] to fight on the Eastern Front against the Soviets, whose last act prior to Germany's invasion of the USSR—and Soviet-occupied Latvia—had been the mass deportation of Baltic citizens—men, women, children, and infants of all ethnic groups.[3] Honouring the Legion honours only the act of struggling against impossible odds to keep Latvia free—hoping to first drive out the Russians and to then turn on the Germans in a replay of Latvia's successful struggle for independence a mere 25 years earlier. It was only after Latvia declared Legion Commemoration Day a state holiday in 1998 that Russia mounted a concerted propaganda campaign denouncing it as Nazi glorification. There had been no such accusations of Nazism any of the 46 years prior.

Rather than "sympathy" for the perpetrators of war crimes, there is shame and anguish over those who joined in the Holocaust—yet anguish, also, that those crimes are now used to slander the Legion and to tar an entire people.

Excusing crimes against humanity simply because criminals happened to fight against Soviet re-occupation

Germany joined earlier collaborator units such as Arājs Kommando to the Legion late in the war.[4] Collaborators who participated in the Holocaust numbered in the hundreds, whereas as many as 110,000[5] Latvians were pressed into military service, some 57,000 in the Legion—not counting those pressed into the service of the Red Army, some serving with both, some imprisoned by both. Estimates of Latvian casualties range from 30,000 to 50,000. Regardless, not a single individual has ever been accused of a war crime in the service of the Legion. It is baseless and reprehensible to state as fact that any Latvian would excuse genocide for any reason. To accuse an entire people is a measure of prejudice, not truth.

Nor, similarly should the horrors of Stalinism—historians estimate some 20 to 60 million or more dead in addition to 20 million lost in WWII—be excused because the USSR eventually helped defeat Nazi Germany after first launching WWII as its partner and ally.[6]

Attempting to equate the horrors of Nazism with those of Communism
Jewry under Hitler and the Baltic peoples and citizenry—including Jews— under Stalin shared a common fate: to be ripped from home and hearth, to be packed standing-room-only into a cattle car with a hole in the floor in the corner for a toilet, last, to be carted off to one's death. Hitler's industrialization of human extermination was unprecedented in history. Still, whether dying by being gassed and body cremated or dying on the way to Siberia and body tossed in a ditch by the side of the tracks or freezing to death at journey's and body bulldozed into a mass grave, the result was the same: an innocent life brutally cut short. No one is attempting to dilute the Holocaust. The true tragedy is that some would categorically deny a common fate of genocide under Hitler and Stalin based on a technicality.[7] In doing so, they deny the community of empathy and understanding born only of shared suffering—and foster discord instead of the unity and resolve essential to preventing future atrocities.

The invading German military established collaboration units in 1941 immediately upon invasion. Arājs Kommando, as an example, numbered from 300 to 500 during the Holocaust. They were under direct command and constant supervision of the Germans—members had to check their (non-automatic) weapons out in the morning and back in at end of day. There was no possibility of independent action as is often alleged. Nor were Latvians the executioners in the killing forest of Rumbula. That privilege was reserved for Jeckeln's hand-picked German squad.[8]

SS-Obergruppenführer Friedrich Jeckeln,
architect and executor of the Holocaust in Latvia
photo at occupation.lv

The Legion was established in 1943. The Arājs unit was included in the Legion only at the end of the war. That the Legion had any responsibility for the Holocaust is purely guilt by association. Nor was the Legion voluntary. Nor was the Legion considered by either the Germans or the post-war Allies to be part of Hitler's Nazi-elite criminal SS organization. No Latvian Legion officer or soldier was ever a member of the Nazi Party—the Legion did not consist of "men who joined the armed wing of Adolf Hitler's Nazi party" as is reported even in mainstream media, even by reporters with Baltic roots.[9] Indeed, rather than being "convicted at Nuremberg"[10], the Allies—including Roman Rudenko, Soviet Chief Prosecutor at the main trial of the major Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg Trials and who as Procurator General of the Soviet Union later presided over the show trials of Latvians—entrusted former members of the Latvian Legion with guarding the main Nazi war criminals during the trials.

Conscription notice, 1943
Occupation Museum, Latvia

The Latvian Legion was created as a front line unit and fought exclusively on the Eastern Front. Nazi war criminals have been tried and punished. The attempt today to paint the Latvian Legion as a criminal organization can only be seen as a deliberate attempt to blacken the reputation of the Legion's members, the Latvian people who honour their sacrifice attempting to keep Latvia free, and the Latvian state. As WWII fades into the past—ending in Europe 75 years ago—our understanding of basic historical facts appears to be fading out of reach as well, events increasingly defined by propaganda serving other agendas.

Russia's naked ambition and ongoing territorial aggressions have fuelled a new Cold War.[11] Russia has hijacked the moral cause of "anti-Nazism" in its information war to defame its neighbours and direct attention away from Soviet, and now Russian, war crimes. Historia sovietica survives and prospers 28 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, bolstered by massive spending on the part of the Russian state: the 2015 budget for RT ("Russia Today") was slated at $400 million, with another $170 for Rossiya Segodny[12]; French- and German-language expansions have been planned or are in progress (as of 2014).[13] Russia also pays individuals to monitor news at key media outlets and to shout down criticism of Russian policy and conduct as Russophobia and to flood comment boards with pro-Russian propaganda.[14]

No amount of money, however, can spin lies into facts. Nor blinded righteous indignation substantiate baseless contentions that the annual Latvian Legion commemoration "honors Nazi occupation." Our goals are straightforward: to stem the tide of propaganda and misinformed accusations, to examine the past in the context of facts, and to promote an accurate understanding of historical and current events.

[1]"Unfortunately," Zuroff said in the statement, "there is far too much local sympathy for Latvians who committed the crimes of the Holocaust as long as they fought against the Soviets. The only way to eradicate this distorted perception of Latvian history is to tell the whole truth about the critical role played by Latvians in the mass murder of Jews and other victims of the Nazis, and to stop trying to create false historical symmetries between Nazism and Communism." archived at Neo Nazi march denied in Latvia, The Jerusalem Post, retrieved 31 August 2014.
[2]By the end of the war, the Nazis had conscripted every Latvian male under the age of 40.
[3]Never mentioned is that Jews suffered more than any other group in Stalin's mass deportation from the Baltics and were sent to the harshest conditions. Jews, who formed 5% of the population, constituted 12% of the deportees. Stalin's thorough beheading of Jewish civil society left it ill-equipped to organize and cope with Nazi Germany's invasion only a week later.
[4]Arājs Kommando has come to interchangeably represent all Latvian police battalions. While there were numerous units such as Arājs' who collaborated in the Holocaust, others solely fought on the Eastern Front in the wake of the Soviet retreat. The horrors of the Soviet occupation had motivated Latvians to form partisan units to insure the Russian withdrawal and to join units the Germans subsequently organized to fight on the Eastern Front. Indeed, even Gustavs Celmiņš, exiled leader of the pre-war fascist Pērkonkrusts who had returned with the invading Germans as a translator, submitted a formal proposal to German occupational authorities to form Latvian military units to fight against the USSR on the Eastern Front—not to murder Jews.
[5]Numbers from 100,000 to 140,000 have appeared in the press. 110,000 appears most frequently in current scholarship, indicating half served in the Latvian Legion.
[6]After the German-Soviet partition of Poland at the outset of WWII, the USSR occupied 51% of Poland's territory to Nazi Germany's 49%.
[7]Political and economic including occupational classes were omitted from U.N. Resolution 260 (III). Prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, defining genocide (1948), solely to avoid a USSR Security Council veto, thus condemning Hitler and exonerating Stalin, still in power. Raphael Lemkin, who created the term "genocide," made no such exception.
[8]"The killing was done by a twelve-man team that Jeckeln personally selected from his retinue, drivers, and bodyguards. While six men rested, the other six worked both sides of the pits. The killing was done with Russian (according to some witnesses Finnish) submachine guns set to fire single shots." Andrew Ezergailis, Harold Otto, Gvido Augusts, Nazi/Soviet Disinformation about the Holocaust in Nazi-Occupied Latvia, Latvijas 50 Gadu Okupācijas Muzeja Fonds, Riga 2005, pp. 110–111.
[9]viz. Waffen-SS veterans commemorate Latvia's checkered past at Reuters' web site, retrieved 8 September 2014.
[10]viz. Richard Brodsky's account, "Brodsky: Latvia's second coming—The world can't afford to ignore a resurgent Nazi movement," Saturday, 23 March 2013, retrieved 8 September 2014 at timesunion.com: "Americans, me among them, go as witnesses to a celebration, a parade, a flower-laying in praise and remembrance of the Waffen-SS, which was responsible for those murders, mostly of Jews. There's the death head insignia and veterans of the death squads. A criminal organization, said the Nuremburg [sic.] tribunal."
[11]Given Russia's military intervention in Moldova's Transnistria already in 1990, and seeing the same players, such as Viktor Alksnis and his proxy Vladimir Antyufeyev, now active in Ukraine, one can argue the "Cold War" never ended.
[12]Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, "Looking West, Russia Beefs Up Spending on Global Media Giants," The Moscow Times, 23 September 2014, retrieved 26 October 2014.
[13]On 28 April 2015, Putin announced a media budget of 36 billion rubles, equivalent to €643 million for 2015. Putin to spend €643mn on media this year at euobserver.com, retrieved 02 May 2015.
[14]Olga Khazan, "Russia's Online-Comment Propaganda Army," The Atlantic, 9 October 2013, retrieved 26 October 2014.

Updated: June, 2017

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