On June 20, Latvia’s Saeima approved a ban on the public display of Soviet and Nazi symbols, including the hammer and sickle, swastikas, and the singing and promotion of fascist and communist anthems and ideologies. The bill’s broad coverage also includes provisions that flags, coat of arms, anthems, the display of symbols of the German SS and the Soviet Union are prohibited at public entertainment and festive events. The law defines that a public event is a planned and organized public display of celebration, remembrance, entertainment, sporting or recreational event in a public place. President Andris Berzins is expected to sign it in July.
There’s no doubt that this bill will only increase the controversy between ethnic Latvians worldwide and our Russian friends in Latvia. While the story hasn’t been picked up by most papers, the Russian press has expressed some concern with the bill calling it dishonorable to compare Russian symbols with fascist ones. This controversial issue has been going on for some time now.
Every year when the Latvian Legionnaires want to have a parade, or on May 9 when the Latvian Russian-speaking populace holds their memorial rally, the charges and counter charges of fascism and communist ideology are hurled back and forth. World War II ended in 1945, yet today the war with words continues to this day. Both sides see their participation in the world through different eyes and circumstances and neither side wants to give in to what they believe in.
Over 250,000 Latvian soldiers fought alongside the Germans or the Soviets. The Latvian Legionnaires think of themselves as true patriots for fighting against the Russian Army because they felt that the Russians were the aggressors for invading Latvia and destroying their culture, industry, agriculture and their nation. They remember the mass deportations of Latvians to Siberia and often death and the mass influx of Russians to Latvia and the loss of their property to the Russian newcomers. The Russian populace thinks of themselves as victors over Germany and liberators of Latvia from fascism, and so the controversy continues.
While the Latvian Legionnaires were neither Nazis nor fascist, the official Russian stand has been that because they were formed under the SS, they are fascist. It is unfortunate that the onetime Nazi Germany followed the Hague Convention on war and used the SS to form the Latvian Legions to fight against Russia, which is given bad press by the Russians to this day. That fact is that the convention does not allow one army to conscript occupied civilians into their army. The SS was not considered to be an army, and in this way the Nazis were able to circumvent the Hague Convention.
The Latvian Legions were, from the beginning, neither Nazis nor fascists and were used as regular soldiers on the front lines. After the war, the Allies agreed that Latvian Legions were never SS and, in fact, Latvian MPs were used at the Nuremburg trials after the war. To my knowledge, no member of the Latvian Legions was ever indicted for any war crime.
After years of misinformation, these controversies festered until the Saeima felt that that they had to act, and act they did. But was it overkill? I don’t know what the complete bill contains, but I do have questions about how they plan to enforce it.
Frankly, I don’t see any problem with the Legionnaires, as they don’t display any fascist symbols or flags. The Russian celebrations are a different story, as they do display numerous and varied items from the Soviet Union. Who in the government will check for any broken laws, and what if the authority decides that nothing openly was wrong, but they thought that the implication is there. Who will be the judge? At what point do we prevent all thought from our citizens?
The controversy will continue for who knows how long. The war is over. Sixty-eight years have passed and Latvia once again is a free country. If you live in Latvia, think like a Latvian, because that is what you are. Assimilate if you came from somewhere else. You don’t have to give up your heritage to live here, but you do have to start thinking of this land as being your home. Time will only tell if this bill helps, or only causes more friction. It’s time that we all start to be friends.
Viesturs Janis Drupa is a Lieutenant Colonel, retired, United States Army and lives part of each year in Latvia.