by Aleksandrs Feigmanis (Riga)
There are here in Latvia some high-ranking Latvian politicians who actually believe that the country’s Waffen SS fighters fought for freedom of their country. Every year on the 16th of March Latvian nationalists gather at the Freedom Monument in the heart of Riga, the nation’s capital, and in the cemetery at Lestene, a village some seventy-two kilometers from Riga, to remember and honor (honor!) the living and dead veterans of the Latvian Legion of the Waffen SS.
Established by order of Adolf Hitler on the 10th of February 1943, they fought for Nazi Germany against the Red Army on the Volkhov front near Leningrad, and later in Great River region, Kurzeme (Kurland), in Poland, Germany and elsewhere.
Although the alarming series of annual events commemorating and glorifying the Latvian SS Volunteer Legion events are now officially non-governmental, some MPs and even ministers do not hesitate to not only participate publicly, setting an example for the nation’s youth, but also to publicly refer to Waffen SS legionnaires as heroes and national freedom fighters. Had Hitler won the war, there would have been no Latvia left to become free in 1991. By swearing and oath to Adolf Hitler’s genocidal regime, and then in fact delaying the liberation of the concentration camps by the Allies, they were pawns of the Nazis who do not deserve to be glorified by a modern, democratic member of the European Union and NATO.
FROM THE ARCHIVES:
For example, on 16 March 2014 in the commemorative events in the cemetery of Waffen SS legionnaires in Lestene were graced by the very public presence and support of Dace Melbārde, who is today Minister of Culture of Latvia, and MEP Karlis Šādurskis, now the Minister of Education. In their speeches, they called the Waffen SS legionnaires “fighters for freedom of Latvia” (see report in the newspaper Latvijas Avīze, 17 March 2014, p. 2).
One year later, on March 16, 2015, the same commemorative events for the Waffen SS legionnaires attracted the enthusiastic participation of Justice Minister Dzintars Rasnačs, Culture Minister Dace Melbārde, plus seven members of parliament from the National Association party and one member of the Unity party. Both parties are members of the ruling coalition. In addition, one of the events held in Lestene was attended by representatives of the Latvian armed forces and the Number Two in the state ladder of authority, Speaker of the Saeima (Latvian Parliament) Ināra Mūrniece.
In her speech, Speaker Mūrniece recalled that in 1950 the United States recognized the Latvian and Estonian SS legions as “different” from the German SS divisions whose fighters were actual members of the Nazi Party. She stressed that the Latvian and Estonian SS legions did not in her view commit war crimes or crimes against humanity. A report on the commemorative events in Lestene was published on the front page Latvijas Avize of 17 March 2015. The article featured a photograph of children at the memorial stele that features the names of perished Latvian Waffen SS. The caption to the photo reads: “Many pupils also participated in the commemorative events in Lestene.”
For future historians it will be a curiosity that leading Latvian politicians, praising the Waffen SS legionnaires fighting in the army of Nazi Germany, do not meet with the tiniest official response from the Israeli Embassy or indeed the official Latvian Jewish community leadership.
I asked the head of a Jewish research organization that works closely with the Ministry of Culture of Latvia whether he would consider, bearing in mind the suffering and the number of victims of genocide by the Nazi regime in Latvia, to protest against the minister’s description of the Waffen SS as “fighters for the freedom of Latvia.”
He replied that he would not make any statement but that the speeches of his country’s Minister of Culture are not of interest to him.
Aleksandrs Feigmanis, who holds masters and doctoral degrees, is a Riga-based historical and family tour guide and genealogist in Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine.