Commemoration After Latvia Restores IndependenceNazi Accusations Originate From Russia Once Declared an Official Holiday

In 1990, Legion veterans started commemorating March 16 in Latvia. The commemoration was observed without controversy until 1998, when the Latvian parliament (Saeima) voted to establish March 16th as an official state holiday.[1]

That Latvians fought "on the side of the Nazis" had already become an issue prior to March, coming up during Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis' visit to Israel. The Simon Wiesenthal Center accused Latvia of not doing enough to prosecute Latvians who participated in the Holocaust. The ensuing debate in politics and the press included accusations in the Western—not only Russian—media that Latvia was a fertile haven for anti-Semites and Nazi supporters. Indeed, Swedish television carried a report that a commemoration was planned for March 16th, upcoming, to celebrate the 55th anniversary of the formation of the Waffen SS—totally inaccurate, but indicative of the power of the "Nazis" and "Nazi sympathizers" narrative.

That year's commemoration, with some 500 participants, was still conducted without incident. However, a small number of Russian-speaking demonstrators did shout at the participants, calling them Nazis and murderers. Moreover, there was heavy local and foreign media coverage including by two Russian television stations. This marked the launch of an intense anti-Latvian campaign in the Russian press and the Duma which continues to this day. Russian "anti-fascists" host Holocaust memory activists. The western press now regularly includes accounts smearing the Legion, for example, as "members of the biggest Jew-killing machine in world history."[2]

In 2012, The Council of Europe’s Commission against Racism and Intolerance published its report on Latvia (fourth monitoring cycle), in which it condemned commemorations of persons who fought in the Waffen SS and collaborated with the Nazis.[3] Reflecting the politicization surrounding the commemoration, European Parliament Spokesperson on Human Rights, British MEP Richard Howitt, issued a statement condemning the commemoration (2014, viz. British MEP Richard Howitt, European Parliament Spokesperson on Human Rights, Issues Statement on Riga Waffen SS March), using Russia's code language alleging "rewriting history" and also using the opportunity to denounce his Conservative political opposition for suggesting the Legion were "liberation fighters.")

It is easy to point to a German issued uniform and equate it to Nazi sympathies (viz. Latvian Nursery School Posts 'No Jews' Sign, where the school did not actually post the sign, nor is teaching school children about the Legion, in uniform, confirming a "history involving Nazi sympathies.") It is more difficult to defend against such accusations, explaining that mostly illegally and forcibly conscripted collaboration fighting against the re-invading Red Army had nothing to do with and in no way constituted fighting for the ideals of Nazi Germany. Russia now pours well over half a billion dollars a year[4] into its global propaganda campaign, making the defence for a factual history of the Latvian Legion all the more challenging.

Commemorations today are considered the private affair of the veterans and their relatives.[5] Yet even those are under the assault of moral indignation (viz. Monica Lowenberg's comparison: "Ceremonies in churches and cemeteries are also forms of honouring the deceased (whether they deserve it or not). Witness the masses held in Zagreb and Split, Croatia, last December in honour of the Croatian mass murderer and leader of the Ustashe Ante Pavelic.").


[1]The word "Legion" was excluded from the Remembrance Day's name so as to include all those who fought against the Soviets, both during World War II and as resistance fighters afterwards.
[2]viz. Denis MacShane at Why does Latvia still honour the Waffen-SS?
[3]Council of Europe: European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) (February 2012) ECRI Report on Latvia (fourth monitoring cycle), p. 9. “All attempts to commemorate persons who fought in the Waffen SS and collaborated with the Nazis, should be condemned. Any gathering or march legitimising in any way Nazism should be banned.”
[4]Since writing this originally, Vladimir Putin announced on 28 April 2015 an annual spend of 36 billion rubles equivalent to €643 million.
[5]Eva-Clarita Onken. The Baltic States and Moscow's 9 May Commemoration: Analysing Memory Politics in Europe. Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 59, No. 1 (January 2007), pp. 23-46.
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