Legionnaires Day passes peacefully

  • 2008-03-19
  • Staff and wire reports

Patriots? Many people believe the Latvian SS soldiers who fought for Hitler in the Second World War were heroes defending their country against Soviet aggression

RIGA - The Legionnaires' Day march passed peacefully in Latvia, as a massive police presence that nearly outnumbered the number of veterans and well-wishers who laid flowers at the Freedom Monument, provided civic order.
A few dozen protesters hurled insults at the participants of the march, though no violence marred the event.
The legionnaires were Latvian soldiers in the Waffen SS unit that fought against the Soviet Union in WWII and swore allegiance to Hitler. All events commemorating them is condemned by both Russia and Israel.
Many Latvians maintain that the legionnaires were patriots, fighting for their homeland after the Soviet Union took over the country  in 1940.

Still, government leaders and the president stayed away from the controversial event.
In previous years there have been violent clashes between the marchers and protesters, particularly in 2005.
This year riot police surrounded the Freedom Monument and Old Town during the event. One officer told The Associated Press that 2,000 policemen had been deployed.
By contrast, some 2,500 participated in the march, while 200 ethnic Russian protesters chanted phrases such as "disgrace" and "Hitler is dead" in Russian as the marchers went by.
Russian media used the event to show what it perceives as a rebirth of Nazism is Latvia. The Foreign Ministry condemned the march, calling it shameful.
"Moscow took notice of the fact that Latvian officials did not take part in the march, but it was still shameful... no matter what national uniforms the former legionnaires and their supporters may put on, the Nuremberg Tribunal condemned the Nazi organization Waffen SS and its barbarian crimes," the ministry said in a statement.
Moscow maintains that Soviet forces liberated the Baltic states from fascism, and that the countries voluntarily joined the communist bloc in 1940.

Riga Mayor Janis Birks, a member of the nationalist For Fatherland and Freedom party, said the day should not be banned. He laid flowers at the monument.
"Organizing  the events cannot be forbidden. This year everything happened without incident. The issue is one of capacity to control these events to avoid any incidents," the mayor's press secretary said.
The Riga City Council only allowed one march to take place 's organized by the Latvian war veterans organization "Daugavas Vanagi" (Daugava Hawks) 's though there were numerous applications.
Ojars Kalnins, director of the Latvian Institute, a government funded body charged with maintaining the country's image abroad, said that despite high press coverage in Russia, foreign media largely seemed to be losing interest in the event.

"With regards to the foreign media, they have no more interest in the event. There is less and less interest each year, and this year I have not noticed any at all. Maybe Russian media still pays attention to it," he said in a March 14 interview with Latvian commercial television network LNT.
Kalnins linked the lack of media interest with the low number of tourists arriving in the country to take part in the day's events.
"Tourists are arriving because of other reasons. They are not interested in such political events. March 16 is a historic event, and tourists and journalists are not interested in that. It is our internal issue," he said.
Legionnaires Day was a national holiday until 2000.

The Latvian SS Voluntary Legion was formed in February 1943 by decree of Adolf Hitler. At first the legion consisted of four battalions fighting in the 2nd SS brigade, and later it was expanded to include police units.
Some legionnaires were volunteers who wanted to fight against the Soviet invader, while others were conscripted. A total of 140,000 soldiers formed the Latvian Legion, about 50,000 of whom died in the war or deportations following the restoration of Soviet rule in Latvia.
March 16 was chosen as the day for commemoration since on that day in 1944 the legion's two divisions fought in a battle against the Red Army near the Velikaya River as the Wehrmacht retreated westward.