Understanding the Latvian legionnaires' march

  • 2015-04-18
  • by Etienne Morisseau

Every year on March 16, about a thousand demonstrators march in front of the Freedom Monument in the center of Riga, commemorating the Latvian legionnaires killed in combat during the Second World War.

This event is controversial because it honours the 15th and 19th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS which fought alongside Nazi forces. How can we possibly understand this demonstration, which seems to celebrate supporters of the Nazi regime?

In 2004, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) released the General Policy Recommendation N. 9 about the fight against anti-semitism. According to this text, the creation and direction of a group which promotes intentional public expression of an anti-semitic ideology, action or a war crime apology, should be penalised by European member states.

Furthermore, in its 2012 monitoring report of Latvia, the ECRI expressed strong concerns about the public demonstration that occurred on March 16, and expressed disapproval about the fact that during the spring of 2010, a district administrative tribunal decided to overturn the prevention of this commemoration.

The ECRI and the UN have both warned against practices which could contribute to feed contemporary forms of racism, discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance. And the ECRI subsequently asked the Latvian authorities to forbid demonstrations which aim to justify Nazi ideology, including those taking place on March 16.

However, the request only represents a strongly recommended suggestion that any government has the possibility to ignore. And even if the neglect of these ideas by one member state is usually subject to condemnation by the other leaders of the European Union, Latvia chose — without making it again a national celebration — to let the legionnaires' commemoration day occur.

Considering the disapproval from the ECRI, why does the Latvian government continue to preserve such a controversial event?

For part of the Latvian population, this day is not about celebrating legionnaires who fought alongside the Waffen-SS, but rather the 2000 soldiers who sacrificed themselves to push back the Red Army offensive in the name of protecting Latvia’s territorial sovereignty — and March 16 itself marks their success in defending a strategically important point: hill "93.4".

In their view, the 1st and 2nd Latvian military division neither commited any war crime, nor promulgated Nazism in the Baltics; they only fought for their sovereignty against the Soviet Union.

Andris Sne, dean of the Faculty of History and Philosophy of the University of Latvia, told The Baltic Times: “There is no reason to speak about anti-semitism or revival of Nazism in relation to the commemorative activities that take place on 16 March.“

“The repressions and mass murders done by the Soviets during the 1940-1941 occupation pressed people to turn against the Soviet forces during the German-Soviet War,” Sne continued. “But Nazi German power was an occupation power too.”

Dr Sne and several Latvian historians recently brought public attention to the historical context and causes for the Latvian Legionnaire’s day celebration, in a report called “March 16 explained.” According to this text, evidence has shown that even if the name of the legion was “Voluntary Latvian SS”, avoiding this conscription would have meant the threat of being sent instead to a concentration camp. The choice was a lesser of two evils.

Furthermore, in the summer of 1944, the decision was taken to shoot anyone who would not mobilise within a 48 hour period. Besides this pressure, Nazi propaganda was claiming that the legionnaires were fighting to free the 15,000 residents of Latvia who had been deported to Siberia by the Soviet government.

Historians point to a statistic which shows that between 80 and 85% of the legionnaires were forced to join the battalions. The report also points out that the criticisms raised about this celebration came from assertions of Russian propaganda during the late 90s, which relies on unfounded evidence of neo-Nazi ideology in Latvia and elsewhere in Europe.

On the contrary, according to Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s office in Jerusalem, asserts that the majority of the legion's soldiers had previously worked for the security police, the Arājs komando, which participated in the deportation and massacre of the Latvian Jewish community.

Joining in this way the ECRI's opinion, Dr. Zuroff believes the March 16 commemorations can be seen as a revival of anti-semitic ideology in Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, the extremist slogans that have been displayed during these demonstrations and the other three marches that take place in the Baltics do not prove him wrong.


Symbol of Freedom

Located in the heart of the Latvian capital, the Freedom Monument, 42 metres high, is one of Latvia’s most sacred national symbols, built to honour soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence.

After the procession on March 16 this year, Latvian “anti-fascist” activists followed the cortege, wearing white overalls and brooms, pretending to disinfect the Freedom Monument from Nazi remains.

The Baltic Times spoke to Kārlis Grundiņš, who has served as Guard of Honour at the foot of the statue roughly one hundred times. As a part of the Latvian military forces, he was not allowed to express his opinion about any political subject in front of the media, pointing out that “the military does not belong to any party; politicians will talk about politics.”

However, Private Grundiņš agreed to clarify the meaning of this symbol.

    “The inscription written at the base of the monument, "Tēvzemei un Brīvībai" (For Fatherland and Freedom) is a quote from the Latvian writer, Kārlis Skalbe. It perfectly describes why the monument is there and why are we guarding it.” he explained before adding: “That's what we are protecting: fatherland and freedom.”

“The girl who is standing at the top of the monument is a symbol of liberty and her nickname Milda is too. She looks like the girl on the 5 lat-coins which is now represented on coins of 1 and 2 euros” [editor's note : she was also a popular symbol of independence during the Soviet occupation]. “And the three stars she is holding stand for the regions of Latvia. It speaks for itself.”  

Kārlis Grundiņš concludes: ”This position is definitely an honour. When I joined the military, this was one of the jobs I wanted to do.”

Considering the sacred nature of the Freedom Monument, it is easier to understand the vehemence of the “cleaners” who are expressing their opposition to a march which they view as an apology of Nazi war crimes.

However, the argument that March 16 is exclusively about honouring fallen soldiers forced to take up arms in the name of their country also has its strong adherents.

So this event may be approved of, or it may be opposed; but what limits can a democratic government appropriately impose around a statue called the Freedom Monument?



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