Legionnaires' commemoration draws criticism

  • 2000-11-09
  • Nick Coleman
RIGA - A ceremony honoring soldiers who died while serving in a Latvian unit of the German army in World War II has sparked controversy, leading the prime minister's office to defend the defense minister's attendance at the ceremony.

More than 1,000 people gathered for the unveiling of a new statue of a mother with her dying son at the Fraternal Cemetery at Lestene, in the Tukums region of western Latvia, where the number of Latvian legionnaires killed was particularly high. The bodies of up to 1,430 legionnaires are to be moved to the cemetery from sites, often unmarked, where they were originally buried. The bodies of 570 are already buried at the cemetery.

Also present was the chief of staff of the armed forces, one of whose predecessors was dismissed for attending marches in honor of the legion, and MPs from the conservative For Fatherland and Freedom party. Lutheran archbishop Janis Vanags gave an address and guns were fired in a salute.

Arnis Lapins, a spokesman for Prime Minister Gundars Berzins, said he expected Defense Minister Girts Valdis Kristovskis would be able to explain his actions. Kristovskis' attendance "should not be related to any specific historical events or facts" but should be interpreted as a tribute to fallen Latvian soldiers in general, said Lapins. Kristovskis has so far not answered questions on the subject put to him by The Baltic Times.

Boriss Cilevics, an MP of Jewish origin in the leftist For Human Rights in a United Latvia coalition acknowledged that the legion's members were not volunteers, as the Nazis claimed. But judging from press reports this was not an innocent ceremony of remembrance, he said.

"Some of the speeches at the ceremony could be described as hate-speech," said Cilevics. "If it was a commemoration of the victims of history I'd support and understand it. But this ceremony glorified these people, which I can't accept. It was a celebration of heroes."

But Archbishop Janis Vanags disagreed.

"The Latvian Legion saved thousands who were able to escape to Sweden but would otherwise have been sent to Siberia or killed," he said.

"Under the Soviet regime these people were marginalized. It was impossible to take the bodies of the dead to family cemeteries. Now they can be buried with dignity. Most speeches at the ceremony were about how Latvian legionnaires weren't supporting the Third Reich, but fighting for the liberty of their homeland."

The so-called Latvian Waffen-SS Volunteer Legion should not to be confused with the German SS, says Matthew Kott, former director of the Occupation Museum of Latvia - a view which accords with post-war Allied policy. The creation of the legion in 1943, after the Nazi's defeat at Stalingrad, reflected the abandonment of racial bars on membership of the SS by a regime desperate to recover from defeat, said Kott in a written report to The Baltic Times. While the legion may have included some Latvians involved in mass-executions of the country's Jewish and Roma population between 1941 and 1942, the great majority were not aiders and abettors of the Holocaust, he said.

"In general, men who made their names by killing women and children were not respected in front-line forces and were often a cause of embarrassment to their fellow soldiers."

But while every country has the right to remember its war dead, the idea that the legion "fought for Latvia" is also wrong, said Kott.

"From the perspective of the independence and self-determination of Latvia all men from Latvia who fought in World War II fought on the wrong side," he said. We should not shy away from this tragic history, says Kott.

"I have no problem with reminding society of the horrible choices Latvia had to face in the years under repeated foreign totalitarian occupation. This will teach us to place a greater value on the freedom and democracy we enjoy today."