Veterans of the dreaded Nazi Waffen
SS marched in freezing temperatures in the Latvian capital
Riga today cheered by locals who view them as heroes.
A city council ban on the march was overturned at the 11th hour by a court.
That meant that men who once wore
the double S-flashes of the Nazi party's elite combat unit
were honoured among the 2,000 who took part as freedom fighters
All in their late 80’s and 90’s, the 30 odd Latvians who took up arms for the
Third Reich against the Soviet Union in WW2 were the heroes
of the day in the tiny Baltic state where Stalin was considered
worse than Hitler.
The march was attended by a member of the right-wing Fatherland
and Freedom party in Latvia, which is allied with David Cameron's
MEPs in the European Parliament.
Efraim Zuroff, the world’s foremost Nazi hunter who was also in Riga for a Holocaust
conference, pleaded for Latvians not to honour the memory
of the 140,000 men who joined the Latvian Legion in 1943
to fight for the Third Reich. His pleas fell on deaf ears.
March 16 has become a hallowed date
for Latvians. On that day in 1943 they fought the Red Army
for the first time and halted it.
But history is never so simple: included
in the ranks of these young conscripts were at least 500
men who had participated in the liquidation of the 40,000
Jews of the Riga ghetto.
Yet in this part of the world, following
two bouts of occupation by the Communists - from 1940 to
1941 in which 65,000 people were deported to Siberian labour
camps, and from 1945 until the collapse of the Soviet empire
- many view these SS veterans as freedom fighters.
Supporters vastly outnumbered the
handful of anti-legion protesters who heckled them with cries
of 'No quarter for fascists' and 'Nazis get out of Latvia'
as the old men, many wearing the L-flash of the legion with
a sword running through it on their shoulders, walked stiffly
and with pride through the beautiful old town of Riga.
Upon the anti-Nazi banners waved in their faces were grinning skulls in SS helmets
with the words: 'Remember the 46,500' - a reference to the
number of Jews they say Latvian Legion members helped massacre.
Two thousand armed police lined the route from the city’s German built cathedral
where the local bishop had given a sermon detailing the evils
of Stalinism and Communism.
Junis Dogeds, 88, was one of those
who fought for Hitler. He has no regrets; 'The Russians were
the b******s in this country. They killed thousands before
'We fought for the lesser of two evils.
Hitler was gone in three years but the Soviets stayed for
‘They were our real enemy. So I march
with pride and I always will as long as I draw breath.
'The Nazis are estimated to have killed
around 18,000 of us. The Russians did for over 300,000. So
I ask you; who were the bad guys here?'
Nils Usakovs, the ethnic Russian politician
who is the mayor of Riga and who sought to have the events
called off, said the annual confrontation was 'disastrous'
for Latvia's international reputation.
'It has nothing to do with commemorating
those who were forced to fight. It is an event which is hijacked
by small parties and politicians,' he said.
'It's pretty difficult to be a hero
if you're fighting for a German Nazi.'
Yet that is how many see it. Katherina
Sliane, a local news agency reporter, said: 'It will never
'You have a million people in Riga,
half of them Russian, half Latvian. One half will always
think the other half wrong.
'Not all the people here are Nazis:
this is more a celebration of Latvian nationalism and pride.
The old Nazis just happen to be a part of it and it is the
part that the world, and opponents, focuses on.'
She pointed out that the occupation
museum in the city is divided 50/50 with exhibits that detail
Nazi occupation and Soviet rule.
Aivars Ozols, 85, another marcher
who dumped a boquet of white roses at the foot of the monument,
said he had been conscripted by the Germans back in 1943
and had no choice but to fight.
'I spent nine years nine years in
a gulag after the Russians captured me,' he said. 'I paid
my dues and I come here to honour old comrades, nothing more.'
Standing among the demonstrators was
Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Jerusalem,
who had called on the authorities to ban the parade.
'The event has taken place. I wanted
to be here and stand on what I think is the right side,'
No serious disturbances were reported.
Police said they arrested five people for minor public order
Housewife Irina Brodek, a Russian,
spat at the foot of a demonstrator who tried to argue that
Stalin was a worse mass murderer than Hitler.
'Tell that to the families of the
26 million Hitler killed in Russia. You are trying to rewrite
history and it will not work.'