Controversial legionnaire tribute takes place

  • 2004-03-18
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - Surviving members of both divisions of the Latvian legion - the primary group of the country's soldiers who fought against the Soviet Union in World War II - attended services at Riga's Dome Church on March 16, Legionnaires' Day, taking part in a controversial tradition that has drawn criticism from the international community.

The former legionnaires continued by marching to the Freedom Monument to lay flowers in remembrance of Latvians who died fighting in the war.
Police were out in strong numbers due to heightened tensions between Latvians and Russians and the recent beating of right-wing publisher Aivars Garda.
Riga City Council executive director Maris Tralmaks had initially banned a procession by the radical right-wing youth organization Club 415 due to a report from the Security Police that warned of a threat to public order by actions of opposition groups. The ban was later lifted by the Riga Regional Court.
Despite these concerns, no incidents were reported at any of the events commemorating the soldiers.
The public commemoration of the legionnaires in Latvia began shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. However, the procession of former soldiers in Latvia has drawn strong criticism from the international community in the past because of the group's ties to Nazi forces. The Riga City Council banned the march last year due to security fears.
The two Latvian legions were formed in 1943 and consisted of about 115,000 soldiers, of which approximately 50,000 died in combat. Many of the rest either were deported after the war by the Soviet Union or escaped abroad to the West.
While foreign observers have refrained from directly criticizing the legions' actions, they have made accusations about the scale of participation in war atrocities by some of its members before the legion was officially formed.
In September of last year, the commemoration event for the first cemetery for legionnaires in Lestene, a city 50 kilometers outside Riga, drew international disapproval.
Ceremony returned to this spot on March 16 when a commemorative event also took place at Lestene, drawing around 500 people.
Many of the former soldiers have complained that they are a misunderstood group, explaining that they were not ideologically fascists but were in fact conscripts who fought against the Soviet Union.
Alons, a Latvian who joined the legion in 1943 and was later deported to Siberia, was upset at the initial ban placed by the city council.
"Why did they not want us to march?" Alons asked when approached in front of the freedom monument. "We are not and have never been Nazis."
The meeting was also a time to see friends from the war, but many of the surviving soldiers looked in poor physical condition.
"Most of the legion has already died," Alons added with emotion.
Young men holding Latvian flags joined the early morning meeting of former soldiers, as did supporters of Garda.
Later that day around 20 people made up of various nationalist youth organizations marched from the Tornakalns train stop, the point where many people in Riga were taken for the deportation of 1941. The group was followed by a massive police presence to the Freedom Monument.
This year's procession marks the 60th anniversary of a major battle fought between the Latvian legion, under the command of Nazi Germany, and the Soviet military in 1944. March 16 was first commemorated abroad in 1952 by the Free Hawks organization, made up of veterans from this legion.