Where Hitler's thugs are treated as heroes

We go to Riga to find out why Latvians celebrate the men who murdered the country's Jews.

By John Nathan, March 24, 2011
Marchers make their way to Riga’s Freedom Monument to honour the Waffen SS unit known as the Latvian Legion, which took part in massacres of Jews

Marchers make their way to Riga’s Freedom Monument to honour the Waffen SS unit known as the Latvian Legion, which took part in massacres of Jews

Latvia's Waffen SS were marching again last week. Their objective was more modest than the one for which the army of 140,000 Latvian men was formed by the Nazis in 1943. Then they were recruited to help Germany occupy the Baltics, advance on Leningrad and defeat the Soviet army.

This time the challenge is to walk the short distance from the city of Riga's baroque cathedral, along the fat cobbles of the Latvian capital's elegant streets, past chic cafes and boutiques, to the towering Freedom Monument, the country's most potent symbol of independence. It should only be a 10-minute stroll, but it will take considerably longer for the handful of Waffen SS veterans, all of whom are pushing 90 or over.

Although the annual event, known as Legionnaire's Day, is not sanctioned by the government, at least not since 2000, it enjoys the support of thousands of Latvians. Despite Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis's view that the march should be banned; despite criticism from the Russian government, and from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre's Efraim Zuroff who condemned the event as an attempt to glorify the SS and rewrite history; and despite opposition from Latvia's Russian-born minority and an attempt by Riga's ethnic Russian mayor to halt the march -the order was overturned at the 11th hour by the courts -- still it goes ahead.

So on this beautiful, sunlit March morning, which is not quite mild enough to melt the hillocks of ice that line Riga's pavements, something is about to happen that to most people in Europe would seem repugnant. The old soldiers of an army that fought for Nazi Germany are about to be celebrated as national heroes.

Along an avenue lined with Latvia's red and white national flags, Waffen SS units will be honoured with the laying of wreaths and the singing of folk songs. All this will happen to the hoots and jeers of the outnumbered Russian protestors grouped together within shouting distance of the Freedom Monument.

Anti-Nazis, some in death camp uniform,  turn out against the march

Anti-Nazis, some in death camp uniform, turn out against the march

As the marchers gather in the square adjoining Riga's cathedral, the striking thing about those who are taking part is not the age of the veterans but the youth of their supporters. One of them is 18-year-old Oscar, who is wearing a shirt bearing an image of an advancing Waffen SS division and military-style boots. He and his friends there appear to be in thrall to the fashion of fascism.

"Latvia has its own history," he says when I ask if he is aware that most of Europe will find his celebration of the Waffen SS offensive. "If Europe suffered under the occupation of the Soviets, then they will understand the feelings here."

With this short answer, he sums up the argument used by the marchers and their supporters to defend what appears to be indefensible. The views that are being expressed here today are rooted in a Latvian national identity that had been suppressed by decades of Soviet communist occupation.

One of Oscar's black-shirted colleagues gives his view. "There is a Legionnaires' song that is about a free Latvia. "It says that Latvians will fight all occupiers, whether they are Russian or German."

"The only possibility to fight against the communists was to join the Waffen SS," adds Oscar.

None of which explains why young Latvian men such as Oscar and his friends, who belong to a party called the National Power, are drawn to dressing like the Gestapo. But maybe this does: "The Russian occupation is not over," says another in the group. "There is still Russian influence from Moscow. Jewish influence too." His country's membership of both the European Union and Nato is apparently of little relevance.

It appears that my questions have attracted some attention. A man standing among the black shirts conspicuously photographs me. Either he is trying to intimidate me - which to be honest, he does a little - or he thinks I am very attractive. I think probably the former.

But it is easy to make fun of a group that to many in the West appear as social misfits, rather like many of those who belong to our own, British far right. But a look around the cathedral square tells a different story. A few yards away there is another group. They appear to be very different from Oscar and his chums. The girls are pretty, the boys good looking, they wear jeans and beanie hats, the kind of student clothes that look good on any campus. With friendly smiles they hand out copies of a free newspaper called DDD which stands for the "De-Occupation, De-colonisation and De-Bolshevisation" of Latvia. It is published by the Latvian National Front whose website urges Latvian parents to bring their children to future marches celebrating the Waffen SS.

And with a convoluted logic apparently attached to a campaign for Latvian post-Holocaust reparations, it not only manages to accuse Efraim Zuroff of antisemitism but "prominent Zionists" of "sticking their nose in Latvia's internal affairs", too.

There is, in fact, little if any fundamental difference between the teenagers wearing jeans and the black shirts. Everyone here is part of Latvia's nationalist movement.

Among the flags being held aloft in the shadow of the cathedral is one from the All for Latvia! (AFL) party. In Latvia's parliament the AFL is the partner of the Fatherland and Freedom Party, one of the European far-right parties with which David Cameron has controversially allied his European MPs. Previous assurances from Cameron's Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, that the marchers are merely commemorating those conscripted by the Nazis into the Waffen SS sound less than convincing as the AFL flag, which looks remarkably like a swastika, flutters in the Baltic sun.

This is a country that lost 90 per cent of its Jews to the Holocaust. According to Zuroff, a Holocaust historian, only two thirds of Latvia's Waffen SS were conscripted by the Nazis. The rest were volunteers, and many of those are thought to have been members of the killing squads that took part in some of the biggest massacres of Jews in the Holocaust.

I ask one of the many old men carrying red and white flowers which will be laid at the Freedom Monument, why he feels the need to commemorate the Waffen SS. At 80-years-old, he is too young to have fought alongside the Nazis, but wishes he had.

"I feel a connection," he says. "I lost 15 family members to the Soviet occupation. We always support the SS because a lot of lies are told about them."

I ask what he thinks of those members of the Waffen SS who are said to have been responsible for the massacre of his country's Jews. Should they also be commemorated?

Another old man, joins the conversation, but ignores the question. "Latvia was free before the Soviet occupation. We had aeroplanes and culture. The Russians took it away."

Jews will not be mentioned today, except by the Russian protesters at the monument. They carry placards listing the massacres that took place under the occupation of the Nazis, for whom the Latvian Waffen SS fought. "36,000, Rumbala", says one, referring to a place not far south of Riga and the number of Jews who were killed there.

Not that the marchers will be taking any notice. The old men, the parents with children on their shoulders, the teenagers with their newspapers and the black shirts, all form an orderly queue behind a group of men carrying large Latvian flags, and as the sound of folk songs rises into the air, off they go on their parade.

    Last updated: 2:22pm, March 24 2011