Holocaust Educational Trust Blog

A space for featured guest bloggers and members of the Holocaust Educational Trust team to comment and reflect on timely issues.

Latvia’s difficult legacy

Monica Lowenberg, who has pursued extensive academic research in the field of German-Jewish studies, writes on last month’s controversial march of Latvian SS veterans

Every March 16th since 1998, Latvian SS veterans have marched through the capital city of Riga to commemorate and herald their fallen comrades as war ‘heroes’. Over the years, these marches have increased in numbers alarmingly.

On that day last year, in Riga, more than 2,500 people, (75% of them under the age of 30), gathered to pay tribute to Latvians who fought on the side of Nazi Germany in Waffen SS detachments during World War II. Amongst those present were a large number of neo-Nazi activists from Latvia and elsewhere in Europe.

In recent years the marches have been attended by the Latvian Chief-of-Staff, Secretary of Defence, Members of Parliament and current and former ministers and officials, who celebrate the Latvian SS veterans as freedom fighters on the basis that their role in the Nazi ranks pushed back a greater evil, the Soviet Union.

Many Latvians believe that the Latvian Waffen SS Legion could not have played a role in the Holocaust as it was not officially formed until later in the war (1943). However, substantial evidence including a series of personal accounts and confirmation received from the trial of Adolf Eichmann, supports that unknown numbers of Latvian Waffen SS soldiers acting as auxillary police were involved in the murder of Jews between 1941 and 1942. Nearly 67,000 Jews, 90 percent of Latvia’s pre-war Jewish population, were killed in 1941-42.

What is striking and often shamefully forgotten is the fact that not one of the numerous Latvian killers who collaborated with the Nazis has been brought to justice since Latvia obtained its independence. Some of the individuals who joined the Waffen SS in 1943 had already been part of the 16 auxillary police (SD) battalions. Some had been members of the ‘Arajs Team’, comprising up to 1,500 Latvian men, notorious as ghetto executioners.

Of the 37 divisions of Waffen SS, only 12 were comprised exclusively by Germans. Most were recruited among the so-called ‘Aryan’ populations of the occupied or annexed countries. Although Latvians were not considered Aryan, widespread recruitment took place and of 900,000 Waffen SS, almost 150,000 were Latvians, thus being the largest foreign contingent. Latvians were mainly placed in the 15th Infantry Division, which became the most decorated non-German Waffen SS unit.

While the Latvian Legion was actually created during the winter of 1943, it wasn’t until 16th March 1944 that the Legion was formally established on Hitler’s orders. There is broad consensus that the day marks the only occasion on which two Divisions of the Legion (15th and 19th) fought together against the Red Army. Therefore, by making the 16th March as a day to remember war dead, some Latvians (despite official protestations to the contrary), are effectively marking a day primarily of significance to Latvian SS volunteers.  As critics have noted, even if one takes the stance that the Latvian Legionnaires were not criminals and that they were forced to fight for the Nazis, to actually commemorate them remains shocking. Glorification of pro-Nazi forces during World War II has no place in an EU country.

Despite condemnation from the international community and a report from the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance which explicitly states that all gatherings commemorating the SS should be banned, in January this one Latvian political party announced its intention to push for a Bill designating Latvian SS veterans as national liberation fighters, who would enjoy benefits not enjoyed by those who fought with Allied Forces against Nazism.

As has been the situation in past years Riga City Council banned this year march, but it look place nonetheless. I travelled to the city and was shocked by what I saw taking place. Latvian politicians attended the march, young and old proudly sang together songs of mythical days of glory – and a Latvian Lutheran vicar officiated the proceedings, next to the Latvian SS shield coated in blood red tulips on Riga’s Monument of Freedom, with a desecrated wreath to the victims of Nazism kicked behind.

For these reasons, I would encourage British readers to support this petition (http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/27795), while those outside the UK can sign this petition (http://www.petitions24.com/stop_the_16_march_marches_and_latvians_revising_history).

In remembrance of the innocent voices who were brutally silenced and my uncle Paul Lowenberg 20.01.1922 who at the age of 19 was sent to the Riga ghetto on 4th October 1941.

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