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16 Mar, 2009 17:38

Pro-Nazi celebration causes havoc in Latvia

A controversial march to commemorate the two Latvian Waffen-SS Legions that fought with the Nazis during the World War II was held despite a ban by authorities resulting in a clash with Latvian antifascists.

“Hitler caput”, “Fascists”

With memories of February’s mass protests that led to the government’s resignation still fresh – the authorities once again moved to prohibit both the Legion Day march and the counter-Legion Day protest.

Both sides were determined to mark the date and appealed to the courts, but an Administrative District Court decision upheld the ban.

Noting the overall instability in the country, police – despite the ban – still set up barricades to keep opponents away from each other and vowed to take harsh measures against any provocation. But police efforts proved not to be enough.

Three hundred Legion supporters showed up at a memorial church service at the Riga Dome Church at noon. After the service, the group gathered at the Legionnaire’s cemetery and lined up for an unauthorized march to the Freedom Monument.

At the monument, about one hundred members of the Latvian Anti-fascist Committee were already waiting. They went on what they called “an excursion” around the center of Riga. Wearing striped inmate caps they hailed the marchers with screams “Hitler caput” and “Fascists”, Mixnews.lv reports.

As a result, three antifascists were detained, including a member of the Council of Riga.

“War is war, this is history. We received a notice to go serve through the mail. According to martial law, if we don't serve, we are deserters. We had to go. You know there is an American saying, we fought on the wrong side, but our enemy was the right one,” former SS unit member Yuris Liepinsh said, summing up the event.

Numbers of controversy

Since 1998 some Latvians celebrate March 16 as Latvian Legion Day, marking the date of a battle that stalled Soviet forces’ pushing into Latvia in 1944.

The event has drawn repeated protests from Moscow and members of Latvia's ethnic-Russian minority who see it as an affront to the memory of soldiers who fought the Nazis.

“According to the latest data, 73% of Latvian schoolchildren think that the former members of the SS unit are heroes and that this day should be commemorated. This means that 73% of schoolchildren are infected with fascism,” Gennady Kotov from the Anti-Fascism Committee notes.

Foreseeing riots, Riga’s authorities prohibited Legion marches in 2006.

But in the subsequent two years the march was allowed with a massive police presence near the Freedom Monument as police were able to keep the two sides from attacking each other.

According to various estimates, during World War II 80,000-146,000 Latvians were part of the Legions, including both volunteers (15-20%) and those drafted during the brief Nazi rule in Latvia (1941-1943).

This number is quite large for a country with a population of 1.5 million. However, it only slightly exceeds the number of Latvians that fought in the Red Army – 90,000-130,000. World War II casualties on both sides were also comparable: 52,000 in the Legions and 36,000 in the Red Army.

Of course, the number of Jews killed during the Nazi rule – 70,000 – exceeds both.