Thursday 18 March 2010 11.12 GMT
Dangerous history-rewriting in Latvia
Efraim Zuroff

This week I took part in a protest against those who paint the Waffen-SS as heroes. Britain should take a similar stand

Ever since the marches of Latvian SS veterans have been held on 16 March in Riga, I have been involved in the efforts to convince the local authorities to ban these ceremonies. There were a few years when we succeeded, but for the most part the marches have continued to the consternation of the Russian residents of Latvia and those who oppose the honouring of individuals who fought alongside the Nazis to achieve a victory of the Third Reich.

This Tuesday, for the first time, I actually saw the march with my own eyes and had an opportunity to join a peaceful protest staged by local anti-fascist demonstrators. It was a shocking and utterly disheartening sight to see over 1,000 people gathered in subfreezing weather to honour Waffen-SS units, among whose soldiers were several of the biggest mass murderers of Jews during the Holocaust.

As emotionally distressing as the ceremony was for me personally, however, its most problematic and disturbing aspect was the manner in which the symbols of renewed Latvian independence were exploited to honour the service of the members of the Latvian Legion – thereby reinforcing the myth that they were freedom fighters for their country's independence, as opposed to fighters in the service of Nazi Germany, a regime which bears direct responsibility for the mass murder of tens of millions of innocent civilians. Thus two rows of young Latvian nationalists waving the flags of democratic Latvia, a member in good standing of the European Union and Nato, stood as an honour guard at the Freedom Monument as the procession of veterans came to lay flowers and wreaths at its base.

Staging the ceremony at the Freedom Monument, probably the most cherished symbol of Latvian independence and opposition to the Soviet occupation, and incorporating the use of current Latvian flags, gave the event an aura of ostensible official recognition that was not in fact the case. (No government officials participated.) Even worse, it sent a message that the new Latvia salutes the Latvian Legion, despite the fact that among its members were mass murderers and Latvia's most ardent supporters of Nazi Germany.

Standing among the demonstrators against the march and listening to the hateful exchanges between the two sides was both frustrating and infuriating. Were the pro-Legion marchers aware of the fact that there was never any indication that the Nazis intended to grant Latvia independence? Were they aware of the terrible crimes committed by the self-declared Latvian patriots who were among those who volunteered for service in the Waffen-SS Latvian Legion? It appeared as if these facts were irrelevant to the supporters of the march, who were driven by hatred of the Soviets more than any other element.

In reality, Tuesday's ceremony was in certain respects only the tip of a very dangerous iceberg that is attempting to rewrite the history books and create a false symmetry or equalisation of Communist and Nazi crimes. And while the march was not organised by the government, it is obvious that there is strong support for its message among Latvian leaders. Thus, for example, yesterday Latvia's foreign minister Maris Riekstins issued an official statement in which he attacked my criticism of the march and attempted to equate the suffering of all the victims of the second world war, as if there was no difference between those supporting Nazism and those opposing it.

The question facing the European Union and especially Britain (given the Conservative's alliance with march supporters, For Fatherland and Freedom), is whether they will finally realise how dangerous this movement of Holocaust and second world war distortion is and take the necessary measures to defeat it, before it defeats us.