Riga police say over 1,000 people joined veterans who fought Soviets to mark key 1944 battle.
Jewish groups and ethnic Russians living in Latvia have denounced a controversial annual march through Riga to mark the anniversary of a key 1944 battle, saying it glorifies Nazism.
Police said more than 1,000 people took part in the parade in honor of the Latvian Legion, commanded by the Waffen-SS, which fought alongside the Nazis to repel an advance by Moscow.
"It's a very sad day to see these people marching and to see Waffen-SS troops glorified as freedom fighters," Efraim Zuroff (pictured) of Jerusalem's Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center told AFP. “Anyone who fought for the victory of the Third Reich shouldn't be a hero.”
Several hundred ultranationalists, including seven veterans of the Waffen-SS, the Nazi party's elite police force, joined the march through Riga, “a controversial affair that is Europe’s only annual event by Waffen-SS veterans,” JTA reported.
Zuroff told the news agency that several far-right Latvian lawmakers also participated in the march, and Latvian authorities detained five Germans who crossed over to Latvia from Lithuania and prevented another from boarding a plane bound for Riga.
Ever since Soviet rule over Latvia ended in 1991, the Legionnaires have been holding the parade every 16 March, the date of a battle in Russia’s Opochka region in which they ultimately failed to repel an advance by Moscow.
The veterans insist they were trying to defend their homeland against Soviet occupation.
"I've faced death – in the Legion and when I was sent to Norilsk [a Soviet prison camp]. Since returning, I see every day as a gift to be appreciated," Eduards Zirdzins, 95, told the Latvijas Avize newspaper, AFP said.
The Russian Embassy’s press service said in a note of protest that under the Nuremberg Trials rulings, all Waffen-SS units, including the "SS legion of Latvian volunteers" (15th and 19th Divisions) are criminal organizations, The Baltic Times reported.
"As for forced drafting to the SS divisions, people who have been forced to join criminal organizations do not take pride in their participation in such organizations 70 years on,” an embassy spokesperson is quoted as saying. “But if a person is proud and is not embarrassed to speak about it, it means that this has been his own informed choice to join.”
- The Soviets seized Latvia under a 1939 deal with Nazi Germany that divided eastern Europe between the two powers, and later deported tens of thousands of Latvians to Siberia.
- Hitler drove out the Red Army when the Nazi leader reneged on the pact, but the Soviets recaptured Riga in October 1944 and ruled the country until the USSR collapsed in 1991.
- Some Latvians had hailed the Nazis as liberators despite killing 70,000 of the country's 85,000 Jews with assistance from local collaborators, AFP said.