OPINION | LATVIA | BELGIUM | COLLABORATORS GLORIFIED | HISTORY | POLITICS OF MEMORY
by Roland Binet (De Panne, Belgium)
Note: for background on the monument to Latvian SS war criminals in Zeldelgem, Belgium, please see DH’s Zedelgem section, and for Latvia more generally, Roland Binet’s contributions and DH’s Latvia section.
Flemish historian Pieter Lagrou had this to say in an exchange of correspondence pertaining to the quandary of what to do with that monument in Zedelgem glorifying Latvian Hitlerist Waffen SS men. It so happens that he is the one whose official opinion in this matter will be asked on how to further proceed with the “Latvian Beehive” as the pro-Nazi monument on Belgium soil is known:
“I disagree on one point: simply removing the monument would be letting Zedelgem off too easily. The presence of the POW camp, which proved to be a gate to impunity for SS war criminals, should not be forgotten. We must force the municipality, and the Flemish government that is the exclusive owner of the camp site, to offer a critical narrative of this site and what it stands for. We have been able to measure the crass ignorance of contemporary history in the Flemish province. We should seize the opportunity to turn this into a Mahnmal, also of Flemish participation in Nazi crimes.”
As for myself, due to the matter not moving forward, I had decided to write a letter to the Presidency of the European Commission, which was posted by certified mail on August 23 (as of today’s date, incidentally,, no answer nor any acknowledgment of receipt!):
Dear Mrs. Von der Leyen,
Re: Latvia’s apoloetics concerning the monument in honor of the Latvian Waffen SS in Zedelgem, Belgium
I have always admired the German Federal Republic for the manner in which after World War II it had been able to admit the errors committed under the Third Reich and was able too, through adapted teaching methods, visits of the concentration camps by German students, through a pursuit of the war criminals, a ‘Wiedermachung’ policy and aid to Israel, through the important research works on Nazism by German historians, to contribute to put the new democratic Germany on the plane it truly deserves to be among nations.
When I went for the first time for a stay in Latvia, the first thing that struck me during my visits of the War and Occupation Museum was to see the blatant disgrace of the Latvian Waffen SS with pictures hanging on the walls and books on sale at the entrance. In 2009, I had written an indignant article which had been published in ‘La Libre Belgique’ in a newspaper version and on their website. Later, in 2012, I had decided to go and see for myself the Legionnaires’ march on March 16. That shocking spectacle of a crowd admiring the “valiant” Latvian Waffen SS revolted me. That same year, the EU had formulated concerns vis-à-vis Latvia for allowing the organization of such glorification for men who had fought for and under Hitler’s elite troops’ uniforms. Latvia persevered with that policy unworthy of a country member of the EU and, if in 2021 the march did not take place, that was only due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Now, it seems that that attitude towards the Latvian Waffen SS has taken another twist with the triumphant export of that mentality of adoration in co-financing the erection of a monument “to freedom” in memory of the 12,000 Latvian POWs who had been kept detained in a camp in Zedelgem. Riga’s Occupation Museum financed 50 % of the construction of that monument called “the Latvian Beehive.” The monument was inaugurated on September 23, 2018 in Zedelgem (West Flanders) in the presence of the Mayor and his councilors, the president of the board of directors of the Occupation Museum and, also, representatives from Daugavas Vanagi, a mutual aid brotherhood of old Nazi warriors which organizes the March 16 march in honor of the Legionnaires. The official speech said that that Beehive symbolized the hope for freedom that the Latvian POWs fostered, whose country had once more fallen under the Soviet zone of influence. On a square named “Briviba” (Latvian for “freedom”), a plaque had been put up next to the monument reading (this is an excerpt):
“This Latvian Beehive on the Briviba Square links the history of Latvia and that of Zedelgem. It symbolizes the freedom under all its aspects…It is thus that young Latvians had been recruited in the German forces to fight against the Soviet army.”
It is evidently a reductive vision of the manner under which the Latvian Waffen SS divisions had been organized, their participation in an extermination war on the Eastern front – a historical fact recognized by all respectable Anglo-Saxon, French and German historians –, as well as the participation of some of these Latvian Waffen SS in the extermination of the Jews of Latvia prior to their enlistment in the Latvian Legion. On this issue, it is important to read read The Extermination of the Jews of Latvia 1941-1945, published by the Shamir Society in Riga, under the direction of Rabbi Menahem Barkahan.
As, in the present Latvian ideology, based on a rather twisted “Latvian purity of intention,” that one can find in the works of the American-Latvian historian Andrew Ezergailis. See for example his pamphlet Nazi-Soviet Disinformation About The Holocaust In Nazi-Occupied Latvia, a book financed by the Occupation Museum of Riga and of which Mr. Valters Nollendorfs is the copy editor. It was he who delivered the main address in Zedelgem in September 2018. The points made were that every single criticism that qualifies the Latvian Legionnaires as Nazis, collaborators or simply “Waffen SS” can only come from Jews or Jewish organizations or else from Russian organizations or such under Moscow’s clutches.
In Belgium, the following articles and opinions from non-Jewish and non-Russian press organs have until now been published:
‘L’Avenir’, le 6 March 2021, and a follow-up on 4 July,
‘Le Vif’, 18 April 2021
‘La Libre Belgique’, 27 April 2021, with a reaction from the Zedelgem municipality
‘Paris Match Belgique’, 20 May 2021 and a follow-up on 9 July and a supplementary information from the journalist on his personal blogsite
Website ‘Apache’, 31st May 2021
‘Het Nieuwsblad, 25 June 2021
‘De Standaard’, 26 June 2021; on 5 July 2021, Lev Golinkin published an opinion; on the website of the Standaard, some other articles were published between 5 and 9 July 2021.
Numerous Jewish websites in Belgium, in Israel or in other countries, have also protested against the presence of a Nazi monument on Belgian territory. These include the European Jewish Congress (9 March 2021), Le Centre Communautaire Laïc Juif (19 April 2021), Times of Israel (21 April 2021), Brabosh.com (25 June 2021); Le Centre d’Action Laïque (28 June 2021), Jewish Telegraphic Agency (11 August 2021).
There have also been questions in the Belgian Parliament by French- and Dutch-speaking MPs to question the rightfulness of the presence in Belgium of a monument associated with Nazi Germany.
From Latvia’s side there is a well-oiled propaganda machinery, negating outright every single criticism of Nazism, collaboration or assimilation to Waffen SS. Suffice it to read what the website of the Latvian Legion actually publishes against the Jews, against renowned scholars and activists for Holocaust truth telling, including Efraim Zuroff, director of the Jerusalem branch of the Wiesenthal Center. Nevertheless, in international law it is is however quite clear that the Waffen SS have been condemned for war crimes and crimes against humanity during the Nuremburg Trials of 1945/1946
Despite the official speeches held during the inauguration of the monument and the text on the near-by plaque, speaking of “freedom,” when one digs a little more profoundly and reads information found on the internet under the name ‘Camp 2227’ (‘Laika Grieźos, diary of the POWs held then with updated content), one can see clearly the self-professed goal for the erection of this monument in Zedelgem:
“There is also an initiative to recognize the Flemish soldiers who also fought communism on the Eastern front…Together, these will be a lasting memorial to both Flemish and Latvian soldiers who died at the Eastern Front.”
One can see that the intention for the erection of the monument has nothing to do with freedom but it has been built as a memorial to Flemish and Latvian soldiers who fought for Hitler on the Eastern Front, period.
But it gets worse. While we thought that the erection of that monument in Zedelgem was a semi-private initiative (although the Occupation Museum in Riga receives funding from the Latvian State), on July 15, 2021 in Riga, during a farewell ceremony in honor of the Ambassador of Belgium, Hugo Brauwers, this was the declaration of the Under-Secretary from the Foreign Affairs Ministry Atis Lots:
“The Under Secretary of State also mentioned the developments in relation to a monument ‘Latvian Beehive for Freedom ‘ in the town of Zedelgem in Belgium. Atis Lots noted that an erroneous interpretation of those historical events has appeared in the Belgian media, and he called on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belgium to engage with the Zedelgem municipality in the resolution of the problem.” (from the official communiqué).
It thereby becomes evident that Latvian state officially defend the erection on Belgian territory of a monument that the totality of articles, comments and opinions published in the Belgian and foreign press rightly considers to be a monument glorifying the Nazis’ Waffen SS forces in Latvia.
As a consequence, I would like you, Madame President of the Euroepan Commission, dear Mrs. Von der Leyen, to initiate an investigation concerning Latvia, obviously within the limits of the powers the European Commission retains in upholding the most fundamental values of the Union. The efforts to make heroes of Hitler forces for new generations of Europeans are evident not only from this one monument, but in Riga itself at the War and Occupation Museum, the March 16th marches, all this now capped by erection of a monument in honor of the Latvian Waffen SS, in the municipality of Zedelgem in West Flanders in Belgium.
I thank you in anticipation for any follow-up that that you that you can bringto bear concerning Latvia’s activities, and I remain, Madame President of the Commission, dear Madame Von der Leyen,
Yours very truly.
Roland Binet (De Panne/Belgium)