2010Tony Paterson, The Independent

Originally posted at www.independent.co.uk, published March 17, 2010[1]

1Thousands pay tribute to Latvia's fallen Nazi troopsTories' European allies back march despite protests by Jewish groups

Flanked by flags, supporters march to the freedom and fatherland monument in Riga yesterday
to honour the Latvian Waffen SS legion

They turned out in their hundreds despite the snow: grizzled old men in overcoats and thick anoraks. Nearly all of them were in their late eighties and many hobbled on walking sticks. 2Watched by more than 1,000 blue-uniformed riot police, they brandished red-and-white Latvian national flags and barked out patriotic wartime "warrior songs" that echoed ominously through the narrow streets of Riga's old town.

The march, by some 350 surviving former members of Latvia's Nazi Waffen SS division and more than 2,000 of their supporters, looked like an act of collective octogenarian defiance. In many ways, it was.

Only hours earlier, Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, the man currently considered to be the world's leading Nazi hunter, had called on Latvia to ban public celebrations marking the country's controversial Legionnaires' Day, calling it an "attempt to rewrite history". He was backed by Jewish groups, Holocaust memorial organisations and by 3Nils Usakovs, Riga's ethnic Russian Mayor, who insisted: "It is a bit difficult to claim to be a hero if you were fighting for the Nazis." But at the last minute, Riga's district court overturned the ban after judges agreed that a city which last year permitted a controversial gay pride parade could not in all fairness prohibit a march by former Waffen SS men.

4Controversy has always surrounded Latvia's so-called Legionnaires' Day. It marks the anniversary of a 1943 battle in which two Latvian divisions of some 30,000 Waffen SS troops inflicted defeat on the Soviet Red Army. This year, however, the occasion has put the spotlight on David Cameron's Conservative Party, which is politically in bed with the event's backers. The Tory leader's decision to remove his party from the centre-right bloc in the European Parliament has realigned the Conservatives with questionable right-wing groups such as Latvia's Fatherland and Freedom party, which helped to organise yesterday's parade.

After an emotional church service held in Riga's 14th-century cathedral, 5more than 2,000 Nazi veterans and their supporters were allowed to march freely through the snowbound streets of the city. Flanked by hundreds of Latvian flags, they placed flowers and Waffen SS memorabilia at the foot of the city's 1930s-built freedom and fatherland monument, which was erected to celebrate Latvia's post-First World War independence.

6A large gang of young ethnic Russians represented the other side. They brandished placards bearing the words "Waffen SS" and the names of Latvian villages where atrocities against Jews were committed by Latvian Waffen SS members during the war. Some 75,000 Jews were murdered in the country during the Nazi occupation. "It is disgraceful that these people should be allowed to march here," said one of them, called Mikhail, in his early thirties. "All the Russians are against it," he insisted.

Riga's inhabitants, who number close to a million, are equally divided between Russians and Latvians. Yet the Russian anti-Waffen SS protesters were in the minority during yesterday's celebrations. In Riga, a capital city that was part of the Soviet Union until 1990, anti-Soviet resentment remains high. "These Waffen SS veterans were fighting for the liberation of Latvia," said one respectable-looking man in his fifties. "They have a right to their celebration."

That view is echoed by 86-year-old Visvaldis Lacis, one of 140,000 Latvians who fought on the German side during the Second World War. Mr Lacis was drafted into the Waffen SS in 1943 and insists he was fighting for an independent Latvia. He points out that Latvians were prohibited from joining the regular German army and were only permitted to serve in Waffen SS "legions".

"The Germans and Russians invaded Latvia for centuries and incorporated us into our empires," he said. "We chose the lesser of two evils because during the German occupation, the Germans killed or deported 18,000 Latvians, whereas the Russians killed or deported 300,000. Were we not right to make such a choice?" he asked.

7Many Latvian SS veterans insist that they were not party to atrocities. However, Jewish groups point out that Latvian police were recruited by the Germans and took part in the Holocaust. They were responsible for the mass execution of Jews after the Nazi invasion in 1941. These men later willingly joined the Waffen SS. Historians point out that they were involved in a war against so-called "partisans" which almost certainly involved mass shootings.

8"With all my sympathy for the victims of Communism, the crimes of Communism are simply not the same as the Holocaust. Part of this is fuelled by a desire to deflect attention away from the extensive collaboration with the Nazis during the Second World War," Mr Zuroff said. "They thought they were fighting for Latvia but the real beneficiary of these men's service and bravery was Nazi Germany."

The LNNK: Cameron's awkward ally

When David Cameron promised to pull the Conservative Party out of the centre-right coalition that sits in the European Parliament, he may not have expected to find himself in a new grouping with the Fatherland and Freedom party. The Latvian group's celebration of SS veterans is nothing new, but its potential to cause political headaches for Mr Cameron can only increase in an election year.

One of the oldest parties in Latvia, the LNNK, as it is also known, has been represented in parliament since 1993. Its most prominent figure is Juris Dobelis, a Latvian nationalist who commemorates the country's Waffen-SS men every year. To Mr Dobelis, this marks his country's proud resistance against the Russian army; to many foreign critics, it looks like apologism. Foreign Secretary David Miliband has called the Conservatives' connection with the Fatherland and Freedom party "sickening". In reply to that remark, Mr Dobelis last year insisted Mr Miliband was "wrong". "He does not know the history of Latvia," he said.

9Efraim Zuroff, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre's chief Nazi hunter, also criticises the LNNK, saying the party's support for the commemorations is an effort to "whitewash the villains, dishonour the victims, and rob the heroes of their well-deserved pride". LNNK leader Roberts Zile rejects that charge, insisting that his group does nothing to celebrate Nazism. To say otherwise, he wrote, "is simply absurd".

Analysis

Contention versus Fact

Paterson's article goes awry at its headline, as no Latvian Legionnaires were ever members of the Nazi party. Nor was the Waffen SS the same as Hitler's elite SS, which was convicted of war crimes at Nuremberg.

This is little more than yellow journalism—conjuring up imagery of riot police protecting the populace against rabid Nazi octogenarians.

Ušakovs' statement is unsurprising, given his party's ties to Moscow and his expression of support for Russia's so-called restoration of Crimea in 2014. Of course, fighting against Soviet re-occupation—both his grandfathers were Soviet generals—would be fighting "for" the Nazis.

An outright lie. It cannot be repeated enough that the current "controversy" is a manufacture of post-Soviet Russia. Legionnaire's Day has been celebrated for 65 years. Until it was declared a national holiday after the restoration of Latvia's independence, there had been not a single complaint. Any real controversy would have manifested itself long before it could be openly celebrated in a Latvia liberated from half a century of Soviet occupation.

Paterson again invokes the imagery of a threat descended upon the streets of Rīga, perverting Latvia's Freedom Monument to the purpose of Nazism.

The Waffen SS—Latvian Legion—did not commit any atrocities. Paterson's wording reflects the circumstance that the collaborationist Arajs Kommando was joined to the Legion late in the war—Paterson joining the Russians in using the crimes of the few to denounce the innocent. No one, not even these 300-500 Holocaust collaborators, has ever been accused of a war crime while in the service of the Latvian Legion.

The facts of the actions of Latvian Police Battalions, such as the 18th—convicted in a Soviet show trial—its officers executed—and today accused of killing all of Slonim, Belarus' Jewish inhabitants, are clouded in propaganda. German records unequivocally detail the Germans themselves slaughtered Slonim's Jews before the Latvians ever arrived and that the KGB manufactured Soviet archival "evidence."

Arājs Kommando, later numbering as many as 1,500 during "anti-partisan actions," is documented to have committed atrocities in Belarus. It was folded into the Waffen SS at the end of the war to serve under the Wehrmacht as conditions on the Eastern Front deteriorated. That should not be used to impune the motives of the Legion.

Zuroff's comments often feature prominently in pieces on the Latvian Legion commemoration. The Holocaust and GULAG were both paths to death. Hitler's targeting of and means of inflicting genocide on the Jews has defined the Holocaust as uniquely and unspeakably evil. But to say that Latvians—indeed all of post-WWII "Eastern Europe" are seeking to deflect attention away from their "extensive collaboration" by calling attention to Stalin's genocide is biased at best. Both Hitler and Stalin carted their victims off to their deaths. Do we value the lives lost differently whether they rode to oblivion in Hitler's or Stalin's cattle cars? Zuroff ignores the bridge before him of mutual suffering under totalitarianism to build a unified community to stand against all future genocides. Instead, in his writings, Zuroff has condemned all the peoples of Eastern Europe for the success of the Holocaust, thanks to "fanatic support by the native population."[2] Regarding what the Legion were fighting for, they knew what that was. We should not discount those hopes of a repeat of the miracle of independence less than a generation prior because we know now that such hopes were doomed.

The Latvians held out in Courland until the end of the war—where the Red Army suffered 300,000 wounded, dead, and missing attempting to eradicate them—and would have driven the Germans out as well given the chance.

Paterson concludes with an an apt summary of the polarization of views. The litmus test is the question of motivation. Zuroff is mistaken that Latvian Legion Commemoration Day is in any way or manner linked to Nazism or its glorification.

We featured Zīle's assessment of Latvian Legion Commemoration Day and Zuroff's objections the prior year (2009).

Investigation

We located a photo of the protesters and their placards accusing the Waffen-SS of war crimes.[3]

"Anti-fascist" protesters and placards.
LocationPlacardHistorical Background
Biķernieki forest46,50030,000, largest site of total Holocaust murders in Latvia
Audriņi189Nazis killed the town's inhabitants, approximately 200, after a family hid a member who was a Red Army member and townsfolk had engaged in an armed skirmish with police. Residents were mostly Orthodox Russians.
Sķēde dunes, Liepāja19,5002,749 documented killed at the dunes in the largest single anti-Jewish action in Liepāja; estimates are that as many as 5,000 of Liepāja's 5,700 Jews were killed. Germans and Latvian collaborators participated in the killings, which also victimized communists and Gypsies.
Salaspils56,0001,200 to 2,000 victims of multiple ethnicities, whereas Soviet era propaganda alleged 300,000 dead
Rumbula36,00025,000, the largest single massacre of Jews on Latvia's territory, all killed by Friedrich Jeckeln's hand-picked German squad

Despite its flaws characterizing the Latvian Legion as "Nazi" troops, attempts to feed a sense of trepidation, and not fact-checking placards, Paterson's piece still sets out the opposing positions in a more factual fashion than a number of other other accounts and commentaries.

Paterson reports primarily on European politics, including developments in the pursuit of Holocaust perpetrators.


[1]Tony Paterson's article published at www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/thousands-pay-tribute-to-latvias-fallen-nazi-troops-1922388.html, retrieved 10-June-2015.
[2]Efraim Zuroff, Beruf: Nazijäger. Die Suche mit dem langen Atem: Die Jagd nach den Tätern des Völkermordes, Ahriman, Freiburg 1996, p. 44 and following.
[3]At clemensheni.files.wordpress.com/2010/03/p1040256.jpg, retrieved 28-May-2017
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