2011John Nathan, The Jewish Chronicle

Originally posted at www.thejc.com, published March 24, 2011[1]

Where Hitler's thugs are treated as heroesWe go to Riga to find out why Latvians celebrate the men who murdered the country's Jews.

1Marchers make their way to Riga's Freedom Monument to honour the Waffen SS unit known as the Latvian Legion, which took part in massacres of Jews

Latvia's Waffen SS were marching again last week. Their objective was more modest than the one for which the army of 140,000 Latvian men was 2formed by the Nazis in 1943. Then they were recruited to help Germany occupy the Baltics, advance on Leningrad and defeat the Soviet army.

This time the challenge is to walk the short distance from the city of Riga's baroque cathedral, along the fat cobbles of the Latvian capital's elegant streets, past chic cafes and boutiques, to the towering Freedom Monument, the country's most potent symbol of independence. It should only be a 10-minute stroll, but it will take considerably longer for the handful of Waffen SS veterans, all of whom are pushing 90 or over.

Although the annual event, known as Legionnaire's Day, is not sanctioned by the government, at least not since 2000, it enjoys the support of thousands of Latvians. 3Despite Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis's view that the march should be banned; despite criticism from the Russian government, and from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre's Efraim Zuroff who condemned the event as an attempt to glorify the SS and rewrite history; and despite opposition from Latvia's Russian-born minority and an attempt by Riga's ethnic Russian mayor to halt the march—the order was overturned at the 11th hour by the courts—still it goes ahead.

So on this beautiful, sunlit March morning, which is not quite mild enough to melt the hillocks of ice that line Riga's pavements, something is about to happen that to most people in Europe would seem repugnant. The old soldiers of an army that fought for Nazi Germany are about to be celebrated as national heroes.

4Anti-Nazis, some in death camp uniform, turn out against the march

Along an avenue lined with Latvia's red and white national flags, Waffen SS units will be honoured with the laying of wreaths and the singing of folk songs. All this will happen to the hoots and jeers of the outnumbered Russian protestors grouped together within shouting distance of the Freedom Monument.

As the marchers gather in the square adjoining Riga's cathedral, the striking thing about those who are taking part is not the age of the veterans but the youth of their supporters. One of them is 18-year-old Oscar, who is wearing a shirt bearing an image of an advancing Waffen SS division and military-style boots. He and his friends there appear to be in thrall to the fashion of fascism.

"Latvia has its own history," he says when I ask if he is aware that most of Europe will find his celebration of the Waffen SS offensive. "If Europe suffered under the occupation of the Soviets, then they will understand the feelings here."

With this short answer, he sums up the argument used by the marchers and their supporters to defend what appears to be indefensible. The views that are being expressed here today are rooted in a Latvian national identity that had been suppressed by decades of Soviet communist occupation.

5One of Oscar's black-shirted colleagues gives his view. "There is a Legionnaires' song that is about a free Latvia. "It says that Latvians will fight all occupiers, whether they are Russian or German."

"The only possibility to fight against the communists was to join the Waffen SS," adds Oscar.

None of which explains why young Latvian men such as Oscar and his friends, who belong to a party called the National Power, are drawn to dressing like the Gestapo. But maybe this does: "The Russian occupation is not over," says another in the group. "There is still Russian influence from Moscow. Jewish influence too." His country's membership of both the European Union and NATO is apparently of little relevance.

It appears that my questions have attracted some attention. A man standing among the black shirts conspicuously photographs me. Either he is trying to intimidate me—which to be honest, he does a little—or he thinks I am very attractive. I think probably the former.

But it is easy to make fun of a group that to many in the West appear as social misfits, rather like many of those who belong to our own, British far right. But a look around the cathedral square tells a different story. A few yards away there is another group. They appear to be very different from Oscar and his chums. The girls are pretty, the boys good looking, they wear jeans and beanie hats, the kind of student clothes that look good on any campus. With friendly smiles they hand out copies of a free newspaper called DDD which stands for the "De-Occupation, De-colonisation and De-Bolshevisation" of Latvia. It is published by the Latvian National Front whose website urges Latvian parents to bring their children to future marches celebrating the Waffen SS.

And with a convoluted logic apparently attached to a campaign for Latvian post-Holocaust reparations, it not only manages to accuse Efraim Zuroff of antisemitism but "prominent Zionists" of "sticking their nose in Latvia's internal affairs", too.

There is, in fact, little if any fundamental difference between the teenagers wearing jeans and the black shirts. Everyone here is part of Latvia's nationalist movement.

7Among the flags being held aloft in the shadow of the cathedral is one from the All for Latvia! (AFL) party. In Latvia's parliament the AFL is the partner of the Fatherland and Freedom Party, one of the European far-right parties with which David Cameron has controversially allied his European MPs. Previous assurances from Cameron's Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, that the marchers are merely commemorating those conscripted by the Nazis into the Waffen SS sound less than convincing as 6the AFL flag, which looks remarkably like a swastika, flutters in the Baltic sun.

This is a country that lost 90 per cent of its Jews to the Holocaust. 8According to Zuroff, a Holocaust historian, only two thirds of Latvia's Waffen SS were conscripted by the Nazis. The rest were volunteers, and many of those are thought to have been members of the killing squads that took part in some of the biggest massacres of Jews in the Holocaust.

I ask one of the many old men carrying red and white flowers which will be laid at the Freedom Monument, why he feels the need to commemorate the Waffen SS. At 80-years-old, he is too young to have fought alongside the Nazis, but wishes he had.

"I feel a connection," he says. "I lost 15 family members to the Soviet occupation. 9We always support the SS because a lot of lies are told about them."

I ask what he thinks of those members of the Waffen SS who are said to have been responsible for the massacre of his country's Jews. Should they also be commemorated?

Another old man, joins the conversation, but ignores the question. "Latvia was free before the Soviet occupation. We had aeroplanes and culture. The Russians took it away."

Jews will not be mentioned today, except by the Russian protesters at the monument. They carry placards listing the massacres that took place under the occupation of the Nazis, for whom the Latvian Waffen SS fought. "36,000, Rumbala", says one, referring to a place not far south of Riga and the number of Jews who were killed there.

Not that the marchers will be taking any notice. The old men, the parents with children on their shoulders, the teenagers with their newspapers and the black shirts, all form an orderly queue behind a group of men carrying large Latvian flags, and as the sound of folk songs rises into the air, off they go on their parade.

Analysis

Contention versus Fact

Not a single individual has been accused of a war crime in the service of the Latvian Legion. A fundamental lie which sets the tone for the article.

The Germans fully occupied the Baltics in 1943. The Latvian Legion had no treasonous role in subduing, or murdering, their fellow citizenry. For those who volunteered for earlier police battalions serving on the Eastern Front, their motivation was to avenge their friends, relatives, and family who had been killed or deported during the Soviet occupation. For all, regardless of ultimately volunteered or conscripted, their only motivation was to prevent Soviet reoccupation, and in the hopes of eventually ridding themselves of the Germans as well.

All those mentioned point to the politicization of the commemoration in what is said about it and what motivations are ascribed to those involved. The implication is that a broad community denouncing neo-Nazism must be justified in that denunciation, whereas, what we are actually witnessing are the pursuits of individual agendas driven by bias, ambition or fear and unrelated to upholding historical fact.

Regarding the signs portrayed, Salaspils was not dedicated to the extermination of Jews. Salaspils claimed some 7,000 victims, not only Jews. Neither the sign—56,000—or the Soviet era figure quoted for many years of 300,000 dead are true.

Nathan never actually addresses the answer given, and that enshrined in Legion song, to drive out both Russians and Germans in a replay of the Latvian War of Independence.

All for Latvia logo/flag
The AFL flag bears the symbol for the fertility god Jumis, whose primary role in Latvian folk mythology is to insure a bounteous harvest. Anywhere else such uninformed grasping at straws to heap "looks like Nazis" accusations on the innocent would be met with moral indignation. But here, Nathan heaps speculative slander upon All for Latvia! with self-righteous impunity.

The only motivation of those serving in the Latvian Legion, regardless of mostly conscripted, some volunteered, was to combat the Red Army. Zuroff uses the crimes of the few—the collaborationist Arajs Kommando was joined to the Waffen SS late in the war—to falsely tar the entire Latvian Legion, which had absolutely no involvement in the Holocaust. Nathan leaves the impression that "many" of a third of 140,000 murdered Jews. Even a third of a third would amount to 15,500 Holocaust collaborators, whereas Arajs Kommando—responsible for 26,000 murders under German supervision—numbered 300 to 500 during the Holocaust while official trial records indicated as few as 100 to 200 members at the time.

Whatever was said to Nathan, likely through a Russian interpreter, was not that Latvians support the Nazi SS.

Investigation

Regardless of subsequent attempts to relate the event with less sensationalism, Nathan's article is crippled as journalism at the outset. He falsely contends that the Latvian Legion massacred Jews, apparently before they helped the Nazis occupy the Baltic states.

We were curious about Nathan's politicizing the commemoration—we quoted a shorter excerpt earlier:

Research reveals that Zuroff had been vehemently denouncing Pickles ever since the initiation of the Tory–conservative Latvian political relationship. Here, Nathan simply repeats the anti-Nazi activist anti-Tory party line.

Of more interest is that Nathan had attended the 2011 commemoration with "Russian-language" playwright Alexei Scherbak, who had written a drama, Remembrance Day, about the annual procession of Legionnaire veterans and the division it causes in families in Latvia today.[2] The play was to be staged that April by the Royal Court.[3] Nathan's similar, but separate, account of this same Rīga Legionnaire commemoration finishes on a more positive note:

Suddenly Scherbak's refusal to judge even those who fought for the SS seems to be one of the more moderate opinions being expressed on Riga's streets today.
Understanding and reconciliation demand we examine and judge the Latvian Legion and its commemoration on facts, not specious allegations serving ahistorical agendas. Nathan would do well to learn from Scherbak's example.
[1]John Nathan's article published at www.thejc.com/lifestyle/lifestyle-features/47023/where-hitlers-thugs-are-treated-heroes, retrieved 9 June 2015.
[2]A search of the Latvian press turned up numerous articles on award-winning Russian-Latvian Aleksejs Ščerbaks and his plays, including "Piemiņas Diena." Ščerbaks' works are regularly translated into Latvian and performed in Latvia.
[3]Article available at archive.org, 'Remembrance Day': A hatred that refuses to die, retrieved 10 June 2015.
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