Latvian government reiterates condemnation of radical rallies

The Latvian government has reiterated its condemnation of radical rallies to commemorate veterans of the Waffen SS Legion who fought for the Nazis against the Soviet army in World War Two.

Nevertheless, in spite of criticism from around the world for reviving Nazi ideology, authorities gave permission for a march in the capital Riga on Friday.

Anti-fascist campaigners also took to the streets.

Despite fears of demonstrator clashes, Riga’s City Council granted permission for the marches to take place.

“Riga City council decided to allow the events to go ahead because the Legion's veterans only wanted to place flowers on the monument that represents the fight for freedom and Latvia's independence,” said Andris Grinbergs, Executive Director, Riga City Council.

For their part, SS veterans also say they were fighting for Latvia's independence, and wearing a Nazi uniform saw them aligned with what they call the lesser of the two evils.

Some of the members of Latvia’s parlament seem to share this point of view.

“The Latvian legionnaires were not members of the national socialist party, they were not the Nazis,” said Yuris Dobelis, Latvia’s Parliament Member.

However, what some see as fighting for freedom, others see as war crimes.

“They were burning and shooting not just in Latvia but in Belarus, in Ukraine and in Russia as well. We are persuaded that evil remains evil at all times. Nazism should not be seen as heroic; rather, it should be publicly condemned,” underscored Yakovs Pliners, Union for Human Rights in United Latvia.

Meanwhile, around 150 anti-fascists rallied outside the main square putting a stop to what they deemed as a celebration of the Waffen-SS. They say SS members committed atrocities towards millions of people during the war and should not be seen as heroes.

“I cant' understand it to have fought for Latvian independence under Hitler flags and Hitler army – it's not serious,” stressed Joseph Koren, Vice President of the Anti-Fascist Committee.

The events were staged throughout the day with police maintaining a heavy presence. Although some minor scuffles between demonstrators did take place, police said most of the trouble was kept at bay.

About a dozen persons were detained for different violations during the rally, some people – for wearing SS uniform. However, no major incidents were reported.

Traditionally the veterans’ march takes place around 5 p.m. This year it started around 11 a.m. at the heart of the Old Town and moved to the Statue of Freedom where wreaths were laid.

Last year, the march was not authorised but it did take place. The Latvian President said then that the veterans should stick to Remembrance Day in November to commemorate the war dead.

This year, the event was authorised, causing controversy in society, especially from the pro-Russian opposition and anti-fascists. The pro-Russian opposition in the Latvian parliament tried to pass a motion against what they call the “glorification of rebirth of Nazism” but this did not succeed.

Waffen-SS divisions were formed in most of the territories occupied by the Nazis. The Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and the former Soviet Union, including the Baltic Republics, were no exception. Russians see them as Nazi collaborators. Latvians say they were a conscripted front-line army, markedly different from the German Schutzstaffel, or SS.

The Latvian Waffen-SS – or the Latvian Legion – was formed in 1943 and 1944 while the country was occupied by Nazi Germany. The German SS recruited members from all occupied countries. Latvia made the biggest contribution to Hitler's army – more than 150,000 conscripts and volunteers, who formed several units – including the 15th and 19th divisions of Waffen-SS.

Unlike other Waffen-SS legions, the Latvian divisions were known for their proficiency in combat and commitment to the standards of Nazism. They killed at least 70,000 Jews, including those destroyed in the Riga ghetto run by Latvian the Waffen-SS. Tens of thousands of Slavs and fellow Latvians fell victim as well.

In 1945, after being decimated by the advancing Soviet army, the remaining elements of the two Latvian Waffen-SS divisions regrouped for the defence of Berlin.

In the interview which he gave Russia Today, Ivan Bobarikin, a former Soviet marine officer and the veteran of World War II said that such marches should not be allowed to take place.

“I think events like these are abnormal. There is a feeling certain elements are instigating it. Some provokers are inciting the youth who have a poor knowledge of history,” emphasized the Soviet veteran.