Former SS men defend march in Latvia

By Ed Vulliamy, March 18, 2010

Juris Dobelis was one of 350 veterans of the Latvian Legion of the SS and 2,000 supporters marching to the monument for freedom in Riga on Tuesday.

"A soldier is a soldier and all soldiers are equal," insisted Mr Dobelis, a parliamentary deputy for Latvia's Fatherland and Freedom Party, which sponsors the march, and to which the British Conservatives are allied in the European Parliament.

The units that fought here against the Red Army under Heinrich Himmler's command "were young men of 19 mobilised to fight other young men. We have seen commemorations in London and Moscow - this is ours".

The Latvian Legion fought, he insists, "for the liberation of Latvia from the Soviet Union", and supported the Wermacht "as liberators, only for a moment".

Some 75,000 Jews were murdered in Latvia during the Shoah, many of them at the hands of the Latvian Legion. The force was founded on Adolf Hitler's orders in 1943 after the Wermacht occupied the country, which had been previously invaded by the USSR in 1940. It was initially as a volunteer force, but later a conscript division of the SS. The volunteers included officers already serving in the commandeered Latvian police.

Facing down the marchers was a smaller counter-demonstration mainly by ethnic Russians led by Josepf Koren, founder of the Latvian Anti-Fascist Committee. Mr Koren describes himself as "not Russian but Jewish, and born anti-Communist" after his and his wife's family were persecuted by the Soviets.

These are important credentials in a country where to be anti-fascist is often seen as apologising for the former USSR, and to advance predatory Russian ambitions towards independent Latvia, whose population is 28 per cent Russian.

"We don't say all veterans are war criminals", said Mr Koren, "but at least 25 per cent of the Latvian Legion were recruited from the Latvian police, who were involved in the murder of Jews and other Latvians. The SS Legion should not be permitted a celebration in our city."

With a British election imminent, the SS parade has been suddenly made a European issue by the Conservative Party's alignment with its organisers in Latvia. But in 2004, it was US Secretary of State Colin Powell who first put direct pressure on the Baltic states to reckon with their histories, amend school textbooks and stop the commemorative SS memorials as a condition to joining Nato.

Vyacheslav Dombrovsky of the Riga branch of the Stockholm School of Economics says that Latvia failed to do so, partially because of the economic pressures following independence.

"The pain of the transition from the Soviet era was considerable. There are two ways to organise the masses: either persuade them they're enduring pain for something, or against an enemy. The new Latvian elite mobilised the people against the Russians externally, and internally. Latvia needs to rid itself of this ethnic strife."

Defeated in their attempt to have Tuesday's march banned, leaders of Latvia's opposition alliance said that reckoning with Latvia's role in the Holocaust was a fundamental precondition to becoming a modern democracy. The leader of the pro-Russian Harmony Party, Janis Urbanovics, said that "although the Legionnaires themselves decrease with time, the problem is increasing. After independence, this country became so preoccupied with hating Russia that it is not coming to terms with what happened during German occupation. We need that in order to draw a line under the past."

And his chief economic adviser, Armand Strazds, insists that "this country has been through terrible trauma, but has failed to put itself through the necessary therapy. The elite has not been willing to examine Latvia's history during the Holocaust, as the Germans have done, which is why it is unlikely that anything of the kind could ever happen in Germany again, while here we exhibit the shame of these commemorations."

Last updated: 4:40pm, March 18 2010