WHAT IS MARCH 16TH IN LATVIA?
Each year since 1998, former Latvian SS veterans have, on the 16th March, been marching in the centre of the capital city of Riga, accompanied by supporters of all generations, to commemorate and herald their fallen colleagues as war ‘heroes’. The marches have over the years increased in alarming numbers and have frequently been, and continue to be supported by Latvian officials.
On March 16th, 2011 in the heart of NATO, in an EU country, 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 them a large number of neo-Nazi activists from Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Germany, Norway and Denmark and Latvian officials and MEP members. Over the years the marches have been attended by the Latvian Chief-of-Staff, Secretary of Defense, members of the Seim and current and former ministers and officials. They herald the Latvian SS veterans as war heroes and freedom fighters as they claim they fought in German ranks to hold 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 1943 when nearly all of Latvian Jewry had already been murdered. However, a substantial amount of evidence including a series of personal accounts and confirmation received from the trial of German Nazi Adolph Eichmann, supports that unknown numbers of Latvian Waffen SS soldiers had indeed been previously involved in the murder of Jews as auxiliary police between 1941 and 1942. 90 percent of Latvia’s pre-war Jewish population, were killed in 1941-42, only one in ten survived. Approximately 67,000 Jews were living in Latvia at the time of the Nazi invasion in July 1941. Approximately 62,000 of them were killed during the Nazi occupation. About 30,000 Jews were killed already by mid-August 1941. The main agents of this murder were small German military units joined by the so-called Arājs Commando and assisted by Latvian auxiliary police, which consisted mainly of volunteers. In late 1941 approximately an additional 30,000 Latvian Jews were killed in a carefully organised execution also aided by Latvian police and Arājs Commando in Rumbula forest, just outside the capital city of Rīga. After this, about 25,000 European Jews were brought to the Riga Ghetto by train and at least half of them were murdered by mid-1942.
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. Killers who prior to joining the legion in 1943 had been part of 16 auxiliary police (SD) battalions that had previously taken an active part in the liquidating of ghettos in Latvia, Belarus and Poland, as well as in the destruction of civilian villages in Belarus and Russia’s Pskov region. Killers who before joining the legion had been in the ‘Arajs Team’ led by Viktor Arajs, comprising of up to 1,500 Latvian men, known worldwide as the active performers of the Holocaust in Europe, executioners of Latvian, Vilna, Warsaw and many Byelorussian ghettos.
During World War II, the Nazis created 37 divisions of Waffen Schutzstaffel (Waffen SS) of which only 12 were comprised exclusively by Germans. Most of the members of the divisions were recruited among the so-called «Aryan» populations of the occupied or annexed countries. Although the Latvians were not all considered «Aryan», they were massively recruited. Out of 900,000 Waffen SS, almost 150,000 were Latvians thus being the largest foreign contingent while their country, Latvia, only had two million inhabitants. The Latvians were mainly placed in the 15th Infantry Division, which became the most decorated non-German Waffen SS unit. It was the 15th infantry division who entrenched themselves in Berlin and engaged in the last military actions of the Third Reich.
The Latvian legion formed in the winter of 1943 was , under Hitler’s orders , formally established on March 16th 1944.There is consensus amongst all Latvian historians that the day marks the only time, the two Divisions of the Legion (15th and 19th) fought together against the Red Army. Therefore, by making the 16th March a day to remember war dead, Latvians, (despite Latvian official protestations to the contrary), are making the day when Latvian volunteers fought in the 15th and 19th divisions of the SS an act of commemoration. As Israeli/Jewish critics have commented even if one takes the stance that the Latvian legionnaires were not criminals and that they were forced to fight for the Nazis, to commemorate the Legion is far from being a positive act and a far cry from a policy to GLORIFY them. Glorification of pro-Nazi armed forces during World War II has no place in a European Union / NATO / OSCE country.
Despite condemnation from the international community and reports from the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance that in 2008 explicitly stated, ‘All attempts to commemorate persons who fought in the Waffen SS and collaborate with the Nazis should be condemned. Any gathering or march legitimising in any way Nazism should be banned’, in January this year, many Latvian policymakers expressed their respect and admiration of former SS veterans. Political party "Visu Latviyyay!" announced that it is preparing a bill declaring the veterans of the SS Legion as national liberation movement fighters. Under the bill, former SS soldiers in Latvia will enjoy many benefits and advantages, in contrast to the veterans of the Allied forces who fought against Nazism.
For 2012 Report on European Commission's Condemnation of Latvian SS parades (and last year's celebration of the day of Hitler's invasion) published 21 February 2012 see
Monica Lowenberg 23.02.2012