Why do Lithuanians celebrate the Waffen SS

SS Veterans: Heroes or Criminals?

Every March 16, there is a carpet of red and white flowers in front of the Riga Statue of Liberty. Most of the flowers in the Latvian national colors are laid by old men, many of whom are older than 90 years. They are Latvian war veterans, accompanied by hundreds of descendants and sympathizers. The memorial march for the fallen takes place annually from the St. John's Church in Riga to the Statue of Liberty in the middle of the Latvian capital. Police officers have to accompany him as there are violent protests against the march. Because the veterans did not serve in a regular Latvian army, but belonged to the Waffen SS.

The Latvian journalist Ģirts Vikmanis therefore speaks of a "sensitive topic". Because there is no consensus in Latvia about "Legionnaires' Day" on March 16, nor about the history of the Latvian SS legions themselves. "Some want to commemorate the fallen, some celebrate them as heroes, others see them as Nazis "observes Vikmanis. "Historians, on the other hand, have long worked on the subject," says Jānis Tomaševskis, an employee at the Riga War Museum. He believes that the annual memorial march and the counter-demonstrations are a plaything of politics.

Because it is undisputed that around 150,000 Latvian men fought on the side of the Germans in World War II. In addition to a few volunteers who had signed up for the notorious Security Service (SD) since 1941, most of the "legionaries" received their "Iesaukšanas pavēle" - the draft order - in 1943 or later. Only after the defeat of Stalingrad did Hitler order the establishment of a Latvian SS volunteer legion made up of forced recruits. The two armored infantry divisions were badly worn out in heavy fighting. A total of around 40,000 Latvians in SS uniform were killed in the war, countless of them in the Kurland Basin, where the Wehrmacht fought against the Red Army until the surrender on May 8, 1945.

Volunteers and Forced Recruits

Also on March 16, 1944 it was one of the bigger battles between the German-Latvian and Soviet units and the day was named by the survivors as "Leģionāru piemiņas diena" (memorial day of the legionaries). Men from almost all Latvian families were recruited into the "Legion", and so that memorial day has a private meaning for many Latvians. However, almost a third of people of Russian descent live in the country on the Baltic Sea, which complicates the memory. "Sometimes one son was drafted into the SS and the other into the Red Army," explains journalist Vikmanis. And many of those who fought in the SS units saw the war against the Red Army as a fight for their own country, adds Tomaševskis. "They thought that if we fight the Germans against the Soviets, we will get our independence back later."

The historical context makes this clearer: the country could not declare its first independence until 1918. As part of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the country was occupied by the Red Army in 1940. Deportations and shootings began, and around 40,000 Latvians were deported to Siberia. When the Wehrmacht marched into Riga in 1941, they were hailed as a liberator and greeted with flowers by the Latvians. Those newsreel scenes seem disturbing without knowledge of the historical context.

Few of the Latvian "legionnaires" viewed themselves as Nazi collaborators, rather as freedom fighters against further Soviet occupation. At the end of the war, this did indeed come again via Latvia, as it did via the two Baltic neighbors Lithuania and Estonia. Most of the "legionnaires" were taken prisoner by the Soviets, many of which did not survive, and the subject was made a taboo. "During the Soviet occupation, there was not even the word 'Latvian legions' in Soviet-Latvian terminology," says historian Tomaševskis. "Because everyone who collaborated with the Germans was considered evil."

Complicated memory

Although the SS was classified as a "criminal organization" at the Nuremberg trials, the Latvian SS members who were forcibly recruited were excluded. The complicated truth of the Latvian SS units, however, also includes the fact that those Latvian criminal units of the Security Service (SD) that were previously involved in the mass murder of the Jews were also integrated into the "legions". Precisely because of this, the commemoration on March 16 met with protests: Jewish associations, but also anti-fascist organizations, form up against the "March of the SS veterans," as newspapers call the commemoration.

In the meantime, namely in 1998, March 16 was even an official holiday, but the government has now stayed out of the controversial commemoration and forbids its own members to participate. The last time a minister was released was in 2014 because he wanted to march himself. Right-wing, nationalist circles take advantage of the commemoration, but also supposedly anti-fascist groups. In 2016, for example, the controversial journalist Graham Phillips, who is believed to be loyal to the Kremlin, appeared during the laying of flowers at the Riga Freedom Monument and was taken away by the police after a provocative demeanor.

But it seems that most Latvians are fed up with the politicization of March 16. "Commemoration is complicated," says sociologist Vita Zelče from Riga University. And the latest research, which she cites, shows that it divides the population of Russian descent from the Latvians. According to this, eleven percent of Latvians and four percent of people of Russian descent consciously celebrate March 16 as a day of remembrance. On May 9th, "Victory Day", the situation is exactly the opposite: for ten percent of Latvians it is important, while it is 72 percent for people of Russian descent.