2016Efraim Zuroff, Simon Wiesenthal Center

Latvia must come to terms with its past

Originally posted at www.www.jpost.com, published XX March 2016[1]

The time has come for the new democracies of Eastern Europe to start facing the historical truth.

Placards at the annual procession commemorating the Latvian Waffen-SS unit, also known as the Legionnaires, in Riga on March 16.
(photo credit:REUTERS via JERUSALEM POST online.)

Note, the same photograph as used in the 2016 Frank Brendle article.

Latvia must come to terms with its past • By EFRAIM ZUROFF

Last Wednesday, I was in Riga to monitor and protest against a march by Latvian SS veterans and their supporters through the center of the Latvian capital, to 1mark the date (March 16) that both Latvian Waffen-SS units fought side by side with Nazi troops against the Soviet Red Army. This is an annual event, which seeks to honor these soldiers who are 2portrayed by their supporters and sympathizers as “freedom fighters” who fought to achieve Latvian independence, and whose sacrifices on the battlefield against the Soviets in World War II helped pave the way for Latvia to regain its sovereignty. (The country has been independent during the years 1918-1940, 3was occupied by the Soviets in June 1940 and a year later invaded by the Nazis. In 1944, the Soviets ended the Nazi occupation and Latvia was incorporated into the Soviet Union until the breakup of the latter in 1991.) This theme was expressed in the route of the march from one of Riga’s largest churches to the Freedom Monument, which throughout the Soviet occupations was the symbol of Latvian aspirations for independence, and the ceremonial honor guard of young Latvians with flags of today’s democratic Latvia awaiting their arrival to lay wreaths at the monument.

4The problem is, however, that nothing could be farther from the truth.

The Latvians’ 5desire to fight against the Soviets and prevent a second Communist occupation was understandable, but their choice of partners was morally and practically deeply flawed. By joining the Latvian Legion, which was part of the Waffen-SS, 6their service was spent fighting for a victory of the most genocidal regime in human history, and even worse was totally for naught.

The Nazis, in fact, had absolutely no intention of granting Latvia, or any of the Baltic countries, independence.

7Thus ironically, it is only because Germany was defeated in World War II, that Latvian sovereignty could ultimately be restored. 8Thus two of our arguments against the march are that those who fought together with the Nazis should not be regarded as national heroes, nor can they be considered freedom fighters, since there was no basis whatsoever to assume that serving in military units which fought under the Nazis’ command would bring about Latvian independence.

9Even worse is the fact that quite a few of the Latvians who joined the Legion had previously served in the local security police units, which played a major role in the mass murder not only of their Jewish fellow Latvian citizens, but also of many thousands of Jews from Germany and Austria who were deported to Riga by the Nazis to be murdered there. In addition, some of the men who served in the notorious Arajs Kommando death squad were sent to Minsk to assist in the annihilation of the 100,000 Jews incarcerated in the local ghetto. 10Needless to say, such crimes should automatically disqualify such persons from any honors or recognition.

11There were only seven veterans who marched to the Freedom Monument, others are no doubt alive, but unable to attend for reasons of health and/or logistics. There were, however, about 1,000 people who came out to honor the Legionnaires, and additional tens of thousands who no doubt identify with them all over Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, as well as throughout post-Communist Eastern Europe. 12They reject the accepted narrative of World War II and the Holocaust, and have yet to even begin to seriously confront the role of their own nationals in the annihilation of their Jewish communities.

The current threat posed by Russia’s belligerent foreign policy and Moscow’s highly exaggerated accusations that the Baltic states are reverting to fascism only reinforce their fear of another Russian occupation and strengthen their resolve to focus on their own victimhood at Soviet hands.

So much so in fact that the 13Latvian authorities foolishly barred the entry of several German protesters who sought to demonstrate peacefully against the march, and even arrested five of them.

In addition, those who were able to arrive at the demonstration were consigned to a spot some 200 meters away from the march, where they could not be seen by the marchers.

The time has come for the new democracies of Eastern Europe to start facing the historical truth, and for the European Union to finally make clear that 14hiding Holocaust crimes by locals and falsely equating Communism with Nazism are not acceptable.

As hard as this might be at this point for Eastern Europeans to accept, 15such developments are likely to have a much more constructive effect on their societies, than the acceptance in the West of the false narrative that they have been trying to peddle for the last quarter of a century.

The author is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of its Israel office and Eastern European affairs. His most recent book, written together with Ruta Vanagaite, is Musiskiai; Kelione Su Priesu (Our People; Journey With an Enemy), a study of Lithuanian complicity in Holocaust crimes and how the Lithuanian authorities are trying to conceal the extremely important role of local collaborators. It was published in Lithuanian two months ago by Alma Littera.

Analysis

Each year, we have attempted to shed light on a different party to the Latvian Legion commemoration day controversy. In addition to the pieces by Frank Brendle, employed by the Die LINKE (German Left) party, we have also included Efraim Zuroff's opinion piece as it also makes mention of the VVN-Dba members refused entry to Latvia. We suggest reading the Brendle materials and analysis first to place our analysis below into context.

Contention versus Fact

What is commemorated is NOT fighting "side by side with Nazi troops." What is commemorated is the only time in the war that

  1. both Latvian divisions fought together in battle, side by side
  2. under a Latvian commander
  3. and retook a heavily contested position after an incredibly fierce battle against the Red Army.

Zuroff paints a historically bogus image of Latvian-Nazi camaraderie that echoes, verbatim, Nazi propaganda, not Latvian reality. Let us be clear. The Germans used the Latvians as cannon fodder where they were too afraid to go. Latvians would call the Legion still going into battle heroism. Hindsight that Latvians' hopes were doomed, knowing their betrayal to Stalin already at Tehran in November–December of 1943, does not diminish that heroism.

Zuroff's historical recounting whitewashes the second Soviet coming. We hesitate to use such an accusatory term, but as Zuroff uses it to indict Eastern Europe in his "canard of equivalency" denunciations, we would expect him to hold himself to the standard he expects of others.

“was occupied by the Soviets in June 1940” was invaded and occupied by the Soviets in 1940
“and a year later invaded by the Nazis” was invaded and occupied by the Nazis in 1941
“In 1944, the Soviets ended the Nazi occupation” was re-invaded and re-occupied by the Soviets in 1944 (Latvians held Courland to the end of the war)
“and Latvia was incorporated into the Soviet Union until the breakup of the latter in 1991” ...to remain occupied another 47 years, 50 years before the last Russian troops left—even then, some 40-50,000 Soviet troops still remained in Latvia, "retired."

There was no magical transmogrification from the initial Soviet invasion and brutal occupation to some beneficent "ending" of Nazist occupation and benign "incorporation" into the Soviet family. Nothing "ended" for Latvia.

Zuroff clearly implies falsehood. The description of the portrayal, however, is accurate.

For Zuroff, that some Latvians traitorously collaborated with the Nazis renders the Latvian heroism null and void. Let us examine the details of Zuroff's contentions in that regard...

"Choosing" poorly necessitates more than one option. The Latvians had no choice. They had no arms of their own, the Soviets had seen to that. They had no military organization or infrastructure, the Soviets had seen to that. The U.S. was sending tanks, winter uniforms, rations, ammunition to the USSR. The Germans were the only option. Any hope in practice was based on the still-fresh historical DNA of the Latvian War of Independence. There was no "morality" involved in the non-choice, only the hope of keeping the Red Army at bay long enough to turn on the Germans. Latvians achieved their independence after WWII having controlled even less territory than the Courland Pocket in which they held out to the end of WWII. The Latvians couldn't know that FDR and Churchill had betrayed them to Stalin.

Zuroff's historical syllogism is that "fighting against the Red Army" equals "fighting for Nazi victory." Keeping the Red Army out of Latvia did not require Nazi victory. That the Latvians held out in Courland until the end of the war despite Stalin sending in division after division, suffering over 300,000 dead, wounded, or missing, is the naked and indisputable proof. Latvians begged the Western Allies for arms to continue the fight, not knowing all of what was named "Eastern Europe" going forward had already been consigned to Stalin, not knowing that FDR had actually joked with Stalin over the suggestion the U.S. cared about the fate of the Baltic states. With everything against them, Baltic partisans still managed to resist Soviet occupation for another 20 years. That it was for "naught" was not for lack of effort on the part of the Latvians. It was for naught because, contrary to the aftermath of World War I, Britain and the rest of the western Allies betrayed the Baltic states to Soviet aggression.

It is only Zuroff's historical syllogism which results in his "irony." Restoration of Latvian sovereignty required only the departure of both Germans and Russians. Taking Zuroff's argument to its logical conclusion, it was a precondition for the "ultimate restoration" of Eastern European sovereignty that 100,000,000 Eastern Europeans be subjugated under Stalin after WWII. "Ultimately" could have just as easily been centuries instead of 50 years. Today's Latvians, born in the post-war Displaced Persons camps, born in exile of parents who had lost their homeland—lost everything—are certainly not thankful to Stalin for Latvia's restored independence, nor should they be.

That the hopes and dreams of the Latvians were ultimately doomed does not invalidate those hopes and dreams. The Latvian end game was to turn against the Germans, not to continue to serve with them until Nazi victory was secured. By Zuroff's logic, neither should the Jews of Mosada who resisted the Roman siege to their deaths be hailed as heroic because they, too, were doomed. The Latvian Legion wore Latvian flags under their uniforms. Not the Nazi swastika. Not the Bolshevik hammer and sickle. The test of the morality and motivations of a people lies in their hopes and dreams, not in their successes or failures in attaining them. The Latvians were doomed because the Western Allies lied about their support for Latvia—Britain even radioed the Legion to await an evacuation by sea that never came. Meanwhile, the only official act of the sovereign authorities of the Latvian nation in WWII was to assign its merchant marine to the Allied war effort, where it served with distinction and sacrifice.

Not only does Zuroff contend the Latvians not freedom fighters because they were doomed, he tars the many with the sins of the few. Arājs Kommando numbered 300-500 during the Holocaust (under direct German supervision at all times) in Latvia, as many as 1,200 later, operating outside Latvia. They were joined to the Legion late in the war as the Eastern Front deteriorated. Regarding the police battalions, the Soviet show trial of the 18th Latvian, for example, was based on fabricated Soviet archival evidence accusing Latvians of genocide conducted by the Germans.

Regardless, no one has ever been accused of a war crime in the service of the Legion. The record of the Legion is blameless. It is the Legion and their sacrifices which Latvians commemorate and honour.

It is deceitful to suggest Latvians, by honouring the Legion, are honouring Arājs & Company. No Latvian excuses Holocaust crimes for any reason. By Zuroff's logic, neither can Americans honour their Vietnam veterans because to do so also honours the perpetrators of the My Lai Massacre and other war atrocities.

No one has attempted to "qualify" Latvian Holocaust perpetrators as worthy of honours.

We suspect Zuroff has never talked to a Latvian Legionnaire, and if so, likely only to denounce them for fighting for the end of Western civilization.

What is the "accepted narrative" to which Zuroff alludes? First, let us clarify two definitions:

  • liberate = restore legitimate sovereign authority to power;
  • collaborate = cooperate traitorously with an invader/enemy against one's own sovereign country's citizens

We can't tell for sure what Zuroff's narrative is, but given he has indicated that Latvians achieving freedom through the Nazi defeat of the Soviets would have meant the end of Western civilization, we can venture an informed opinion. To the narrative.

At the end of WWII, Europe was liberated from Nazism.TRUE.
At the end of WWII Europe was liberated.FALSE. Only Europe west of East Germany was liberated.
The USSR liberated Eastern Europe.FALSE. The USSR illegally annexed occupied territory or installed puppet governments subservient to Moscow. Individuals were deported from all across Eastern Europe to the USSR, an act of war.
The Latvians fought for Nazi Germany.FALSE. The Latvians fought against the USSR.
All the peoples between Germany and the USSR offered their "fanatic support"[2] in the eradication of their Jewish neighbours.FALSE. However, this is Zuroff's core contention whence all else flows.

Zuroff disallows the possibility that the eastern Europeans were no different from western Europeans in that the overwhelming majority supported neither the Nazis, nor the Bolsheviks, nor the Holocaust. Recall that prior to the Cold War division of Europe:

  • "eastern Europe" was "Russia in Europe," that is, Russia west of the Urals;
  • western Europe was largely what we consider it today; while
  • the territory between Germany and Russia was "central Europe"—the heart of Europe.

"Eastern Europeans" is as much a Cold War artefact as the politically motivated "history" the Kremlin peddles, as much the legacy of Nazi and Soviet and now Russian propaganda having the common goal to blame the peoples lying between them for each other's atrocities.

Zuroff reproduces at face value the press release masquerading as a news report written by an employee of the far left Kremlin-supporting German Die LINKE political party. The German "protesters" are members of a leftist (and former Communist) anti-fascist group which has featured Kremlin-funded "anti-fascist" Josef Koren and his "Latvia Without Nazism"[3] in Berlin and whose members have ties to organizations deemed by German intelligence to be "hostile to the constitutional order." One protester was barred from a flight to Latvia, the five who had arrived had the choice to turn around and go home or otherwise be detained. They chose detention as a publicity stunt, then texted their moral outrage from "jail."

No one is hiding crimes or criminals. It is Zuroff's perspective which is flawed. As far back as 30 years ago, Zuroff denounced Swedish authorities when they thoroughly investigated and ultimately dismissed his 1986 submission—pointedly, to maximize Baltic insult, on Latvian Independence Day—of Nazi war criminals based on Soviet propaganda. That incident conclusively demonstrated that Zuroff's definitions of "collaborator" and "crime" include any cooperation with Nazi Germany, even in the complete absence of the commitment of any actual crime, for example, accusing Aleksandrs Plensners, the highest ranking officer of the Latvian Legion, as a collaborator to be brought to justice. LINK

We address the "equating" accusation at length in our recent review of Christopher Hale's "Hitler's Foreign Executioners: Europe's Dirty Secret", specifically that Eastern Europeans equate "Red" (Soviet) and "Brown" (Nazi), and that the Prague Declaration calls for the equating of Nazism and Communism.

We would prefer to not surmise that Zuroff agrees with Russian propaganda railing against the Eastern Europeans for their attempts to re-write history. Where the Latvians are concerned, Zuroff's syllogistic history and refusal to acknowledge that Latvians only hoped to restore their independence—and even if they did, they were doomed so what the Latvians hoped for doesn't count, all that counts is that they fought for the end of Western civilization—the polarized chasm between Zuroff and the Latvians will remain.

That the Baltic peoples have been circling their proverbial wagons for the last 46 years dates to Soviet propaganda which led Elizabeth Holtzman to declare "All Latvians are Nazis." A refrain which continues as loudly today as then. Once you call someone a Nazi, any denial is met with louder shouting, any vindication is denounced as an escape from justice.

Hitler and Stalin both carted their victims to their deaths in cattle cars. To recognize that commonality is not to equate Stalin's campaigns of terror and class genocide with Hitler's industrialized extermination of Jewry—an instantiation and scale of evil without precedent. But such a recognition would be the path to a bond, a bridge to constructive dialogue—and pursuit of the guilty in partnership. But Zuroff indicts all the peoples between Germany and Russia for making the Holocaust possible by their "fanatic" support,[4] We hope to see that bridge built some day, even if (our conclusion) Zuroff's personal end game is that every last "Eastern European" confess the complicity of their ancestors in the Holocaust.

Additional Reading

  • Alexander Statiev's scholarship declares that the Latvian 18th Battalion killed all the Jews of Slonim, Belarus—echoing verbatim their fabricated Soviet show trial "evidence." Indeed, one of the Latvian officers convicted and executed is conclusively documented to have been hospitalized at the time. You can read more on Slonim at Professor Andrew Ezergailis' site. LINK

[1]Efraim Zuroff's opinion piece published at www.jpost.com/Opinion/Latvia-must-come-to-terms-with-its-past-448705, retrieved 22 March 2016
[2]From Zuroff's German language version of "Occupation: Nazi Hunter". See also the footnote following.
[3]Latvia Without Nazism is part of World Without Nazism, founded by Kremlin insider Boris Spiegel, and which has hijacked "anti-Nazism" for Russia to denounce any anti-Soviet or anti-Russian sentiment or representaions of history as Nazism. We should note that WWN organized a conference in response to events in Ukraine in 2014 to denounce anti-government protests as a ressurgence of Nazism. "‘Honourable colleagues, we need to unite in order to uproot Nazism entirely. I know what I’m saying! It is not the opposition that fights for some rights of the Ukrainian nation!’ – said the leader of World Without Nazism Boris Spiegel." at BBN-NEWS, retrieved 17 September 2016.
[4]Zuroff contends the Holocaust was as thorough in its eradication of Eastern Europe's Jewry owing to "fanatic support by the native population" in Beruf: Nazijäger. Die Suche mit dem langen Atem: Die Jagd nach den Tätern des Völkermordes, Ahriman, Freiburg 1996, p. 44 and following. A common argument is that Hitler lacked the manpower to do it alone, thereby proving the Eastern Europeans responsible. However, German archives include a letter from the field, for example, that a squad of 12 German police commandos eradicated Lithuanian Jews village by village, not Lithuanians as officially reported—and it would not look good for Berlin if the truth got out. This was widely known at the time, but all those witnesses are long dead. Where the peoples lying between them are concerned, neither Nazi nor Soviet archives can be trusted without corroborating evidence. We have encountered little, if any, scholarship which investigates the toll Stalin's invasion prior to Hitler's took on Eastern Europe, that is, it was Stalin's decimation of Eastern Europe which paved the way for the "success" of Hitler's Holocaust, not fanatical local support or centuries-old virulent anti-Semitism Zuroff and others allege.

Updated: May, 2017

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