Latvian Legion veterans skip controversial march

  • 2001-03-22
  • Nick Coleman
RIGA - Some 300 veterans of the Latvian Legion, also known as the Latvian Waffen SS, honored their fallen comrades on March 16, but did not stage a controversial march that in previous years had angered Moscow and Jewish groups.

The former soldiers, most of them in their 70s and 80s, attended a service in Riga's Dome Church before going on to a veterans' cemetery in the suburbs.

The soldiers, some in combat fatigues, many carrying flowers or canes, said they wanted to remember some 50,000 fellow soldiers who died in battle during World War II, not to make a political statement.

"People can see that these people are Christians and not Nazis," said Juris Sinka of the right-wing For Fatherland and Freedom Party, one of a handful of MPs attending the church service.

The annual march to the Freedom Monument in central Riga was canceled because it is under renovation, veterans groups said, adding that they would march again next year.

The government has distanced itself from the commemorative events, and Parliament last year withdrew earlier recognition of March 16 as an official day of remembrance marking a battle against the Red Army at the Velikaya River in western Russia in 1944.

The Soviets occupied Latvia at the start of the war in 1939, Germany ruled from 1941-44, and the Soviets retook it in 1944. With Latvia sandwiched between the Nazi and Soviet armies, 250,000 Latvians ended up fighting on one side of the conflict or the other, usually after being conscripted.

Defenders of the Latvian Legion say it was not the same as Germany's SS Ð Adolf Hitler's elite force that carried out the Holocaust and other atrocities.

But Russia blasted the procession last year, saying it showed contempt for Soviet war dead, while Latvia's 10,000-member Jewish community said it was an affront to the memory of 80,000 Latvian Jews killed at the beginning of the 1941-44 Nazi occupation.

Gregory Krupnikov, co-chairman of Latvia's Jewish Community again emphasized this week that the Latvian Legion was "part of the Nazi war machine," and was not fighting for Latvian freedom.

But reaction was generally muted. "Let them meet at the cemetery if they want," said Leonid Raihman, the Jewish co-chairman of the Latvian Human Rights Group, which campaigns on behalf of the Russian-speaking community. "They shouldn't parade in central Riga in the company of officials from the municipality and the cabinet."

In a statement earlier this week, veterans groups decried what they said were historical misunderstandings and called for a nationwide debate about the Latvian Waffen SS.

Struggling up the steps from the church veteran Janis Lama stopped to open his overcoat and proudly displayed two Nazi-era iron cross insignia pinned to his lapel.

"We helped protect the German army, but we weren't fighting for Germany, we were defending Riga," he said.

At the Brothers' Cemetery in Riga, a tearful Silva Kalno paused in her task Ð laying snow-drops on the graves of those who died fighting to establish the first Latvian republic in 1919. Her own father was a Legion member, she said. She didn't know where he was buried, in Poland or eastern Latvia, but she'd started making inquiries.

"We were happy when the Germans arrived. We thought they'd save us from the terrible year of Soviet occupation we'd had. But their treatment of the Jews was terrible. These weren't Latvian methods. Many Latvians helped the Jews."

Thousands of Legion soldiers who were buried in unmarked battlefield graves are currently being exhumed and reburied at a newly-opened cemetery in Lestene, eastern Latvia.

A few yards from Kalno a small group of youths, wearing arm-bands in the Latvian colors, were distributing nationalist leaflets. "Small nations are being destroyed in the name of globalization, democracy, liberalism and human rights," one of them read.

"They're proud Latvians," said college student Ieva, pointing to the veterans. And Latvia's involvement in the Holocaust? "I don't know," she said.