by Ojārs Kalniņš
Director, Latvian Institute
Each year, since 1998, veterans of the World War II Latvian Legion and their family members, have gone to memorial services in churches and cemeteries in Latvia on March 16 to remember fellow soldiers that died in the war. During the German occupation of Latvia (1941-1944) over 100,000 Latvians were conscripted into combat units that fought against the Stalin's Red Army on the Eastern Front.
This annual remembrance of Latvians who wore German uniforms to fight against the Soviet Union has generated political controversy, some minor protests and modest international media attention, largely because of misunderstandings about the historical role of the Latvian Legion during World War II. In some cases, the misunderstandings arise from a simple unfamiliarity with the facts. In others, there is a calculated attempt to misrepresent the role of Legion veterans, both today, and during World War II.
Part of the problem comes from the intentionally misleading German designation of the Latvian Legion as 'the Latvian Voluntary SS Legion' which was formed under the German Waffen SS. The 15th and 19th Latvian Legion divisions created in 1943 were neither voluntary, nor were they associated in any way with the notorious Nazi SS organization that was responsible for the Holocaust.
Most of the estimated 100,000 young Latvian men that made up the Latvian Legion were forcibly mobilized to fight on Germany's collapsing Eastern Front. Draft evasion was punishable by death. The Soviets were advancing, the Germans were retreating and the Latvians were called up to fill the gap. While Hitler's racist policies had forbidden the use non-German combatants in the early stages of the war, by 1943, desperation overruled discrimination. Similar non-German Waffen SS combat units were established in France, Italy, Hungary, Ukraine, Estonia and Belarus, all in a last ditch German effort to prevent defeat.
Hitler's mass extermination of Jews in Latvia had already ended in 1943, long before the Latvian Legion combat units were formed. This was recognized by the International War Crimes Tribunal in Nuremberg, when the Latvian Legion and other conscripted non-German Waffen SS units were exempted from criminal charges associated with the Nazi Holocaust.
The Latvians that were drafted into the Latvian Legion were neither Nazis nor fascists, nor did they wish to see a Nazi German victory in the war. They were young men, who had just seen their loved ones and friends executed and deported by the thousands by the departing Soviet regime. Stalin's brutal Russification of Latvia had been cut short by the German invasion in 1941, and there was every indication it would be resumed once the Soviet army pushed the Germans out and re-occupied Latvia.
Although forcibly mobilized, once armed and in uniform, many in the Legion believed this was their only chance to prevent a second Soviet takeover. As during World War I, when Latvian freedom fighters battled both Bolsheviks and Germans to win Latvia's independence, the soldiers of the Legion hoped that history could repeat itself. They would defeat the Soviets and then turn their guns on the Nazis. But the Soviet force was overwhelming and Latvia was occupied once more. That second occupation ended in 1991 with the collapse of the USSR.
Not many surviving members of the Latvian Legion are left today in Latvia. But each year the veterans, former soldiers caught in a vice between two totalitarian powers, meet to remember their suffering and sacrifices. They see themselves as Latvian patriots who believed, however erroneously, that they were fighting for the restoration of a free Latvia. For this reason, March 16th, the anniversary of a major Latvian Legion battle in Russia, was chosen as a day of solemn remembrance.
Moscow has always viewed the Legion veterans as enemies of the Soviet state and sent them to Soviet labour camps after the war. When the USSR collapsed, the Russian government officially preserved this hostility and has routinely condemned the remembrance of the Legion veterans on March 16th in Latvia. This criticism, however, has often gone beyond the historical facts and wrongly accused the Latvian Legion of war crimes, fascism and complicity in the Holocaust.
Confusion over the Waffen SS designation has also contributed to a misrepresentation of the Legion veterans in the mass media. Solemn flower-laying ceremonies at monuments and cemeteries, attended by aged veterans and their families have been wrongly described in the media as 'marches'. Nothing could be further from the truth. They march nowhere, carry no banners, shout no slogans and have no political agenda. They simply wish to honour their fallen friends and comrades.
History is always a subject of interpretation, and three brutal military occupations in a 5-year period during World War II, have made Latvia's history especially difficult for non-historians to understand. For Latvia, this was an especially tragic period when most who were caught between two invading armies became victims of forces far beyond their control.
In recent years, some radical political groups have tried to disrupt the quiet March 16th events to call attention to themselves and their political causes. They have been condemned by Latvian authorities as well as the former Legion soldiers. But most who go to church or cemeteries on that day have no political agenda whatsoever. They are simply paying their respects to 100,000 fathers, sons and friends who became tragic victims of a very costly and complicated war.