Legionnaires make world headlines again

  • 2000-03-23
  • By Philip Birzulis
RIGA – It is one of the paradoxes of today's Latvia that a peaceful walk through Riga by a few hundred old men can cause such a fuss. But this year's March 16 parade by veterans of Word War II German army units has once again thrown the international spotlight onto the country.

Perhaps this is not so surprising considering the Pandora's box of historical memories, suppressed during five decades of Soviet occupation, that are brought to the surface by the event.

Nominally it commemorates a battle fought on the eastern front on March 16, 1944, by two Latvian divisions of the Waffen SS, known as the Latvian Legion. The veterans and their supporters claim they fought in German ranks to hold back a greater evil, Soviet Russia. Russian speakers, Jewish groups and a few Latvians themselves think the veterans' links with the Nazis are a national disgrace.

This year's procession went off peacefully enough. Several MPs from the People's Party and For Fatherland and Freedom faction took part as private citizens, but the government had removed all official connection with the event a month earlier, when it erased its status as a national commemoration date.

The ranks of several hundred veterans swelled to an estimated 2,000 people when supporters joined them for a stroll from Dome Cathedral to Riga's Freedom Monument, via the crooked streets of the city's Old Town. The participants carried national flags, banners of various ex-service organizations, and flowers to place at the monument, but no army uniforms or military standards. The National Soldiers Association which organized the march banned any military regalia out of fear that provocateurs would stir up trouble.

Things heated up once the procession reached the large square that surrounds the monument, which for most Latvian's symbolizes the country's struggles against various foreign conquerors. Crowds of Latvians greeted the supporters with cheers and patriotic songs. A few dozen counter-protesters, holding pictures of Hitler and black banners decrying the veterans' SS links, made up for their smaller numbers by belting out Red Army songs from the Great Patriotic War. A group of Latvians gathered opposite to drown them out with their own tunes.

But there was no violence similar to the 1998 march when scuffles between Russians and veterans got international media attention. One onlooker wryly observed that, since competitive singing is a traditional Latvian way of settling disputes, the fact that both groups abided by the custom may show that ethnic integration is coming along nicely.

But the memories of the various participants reflect divisions that will not heal so easily. World War II may have ended a long time ago on paper, but the barbarities committed by all sides in the conflict make it seem like yesterday to those affected.

One elderly man who identified himself as Daniels, a Latvian citizen, said he was categorically against the Legionnaire's march after what he had witnessed as a child in the eastern Latgale region of Latvia. He cannot forget bloody arrests of local communists by the Germans in 1941 and equally brutal actions against anti-Nazi partisans later in the war.

"They [the Legionnaires] are up to their elbows in the blood of the Latvian nation," he said.

Still, another old man also from Latgale, Henriks Kusners, watched the march in full support. He remembered atrocities committed by Latvian communist partisans who sadistically dismembered some of his relatives.

"We have to commemorate the fight against the communists who we did not want," he said.

Others had even more personal reasons for taking part in the march. Liana Maurina said she was six when the Soviets threw her family into cattle cars bound for Siberia in 1941. Her mother, grandmother and one-year-old brother all starved to death, she said. To fight back, her father joined the Legion and was killed at the front in 1944.

"I have come to honor my father who I loved very much," she said.

Zina Slokenberga, also marching in the veteran's ranks, had similar memories of deportation which prompted her uncle to fight and die with the Germans.

"Let van der Stoel go to Siberia and see the Latvian bones," she said.

The Organization Security and Cooperation in Europe minorities commissioner is unlikely to take up this invitation, and opinions in the West about March 16 differ markedly to those held by the participants. International media reports on the event collated by the Latvian Foreign Ministry revealed misgivings about the morality of the Legionnaires' march.

A report from the Reuters news agency broadcast on cable channel CNN gave veterans space to deny charges by the counter protesters that they are pro-Nazi. But the report concluded that the march has "tarnished the image of Latvia" as it bids to join the EU and NATO.

An article in the Chicago Tribune with a Riga byline focused on the trial of alleged Soviet war criminal Vasily Kononov and claimed that no Latvian involved in killing Jews has been brought to trial.

"Almost nine years after Latvia regained its independence from the Soviet Union, the Kononov controversy shows that rebuilding a nation is not only about holding free elections and creating a market economy. It is also about developing and standing by principles of fairness and justice," read the article.

An article in London's The Times had a Moscow byline and focused on Russia's angry reaction to the march. It quotes the head of the Russian Parliament's International Committee saying that the march is "another proof of the need for tough and consistent measures by Russia to protect human rights and democracy." The article's only quote from a local source is from an ethnic Russian decrying the march.

As expected, the Russian media expressed the harshest criticism of the event. The daily Nezavisimaja gazeta claimed that protesters against the march managed to assemble despite early-morning police raids on various Russian-speakers organizations, including the banned National Bolsheviks. The article entitled "The last parade?" asserted that, "everybody in Latvia knows that amongst the Waffen SS soldiers and officers were not a small number who shot people in the Riga ghetto and in Salaspils concentration camp, although of course the former Legionnaires deny this."

This rhetoric was backed up by a protest note issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry. Without specifying what further action could result because of the march, the ministry expressed concern at what it sees as the rehabilitation of fascism in Latvia, symbolized by the veterans' procession being allowed while Kononov is being tried.

"Criminals convicted at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal are regarded in Latvia as heroes, whereas heroes who shed their blood against the 'brown plague' [Nazis] are now held as criminals and put into jail," read the statement.

According to the Latvian Foreign Ministry, no official reaction has been received from any Western government.