RIGA-About 1,000 people took part
in a flower-laying ceremony Tuesday to commemorate Latvians
who fought in two Waffen SS divisions on the side of Nazi
Germany, while hundreds of police kept angry ethnic Russian
protesters at bay.
Participants in the ceremony, including 200 SS veterans, who are known as Legionnaires,
sang patriotic songs under rows of the Latvian national flags,
while some 20 yards (meters) away several dozen demonstrators
— ethnic Russians whose relatives fought against Nazi Germany
— shouted insults and waved posters depicting gruesome scenes
from the Holocaust.
Police spokesman Aigars Berzins said
the event passed peacefully, though several people were detained.
It was not immediately clear how many.
The annual event crystallizes historical
passions among Latvia’s population and has become a public
relations headache for the country’s leaders, who distance
themselves from the ceremony.
Supporters say they simply want to
honour compatriots who fought in the two Waffen SS divisions
— formed in early 1943 when the tide started turning against
Germany — while critics claim that a procession in downtown
Riga is an affront to those who fought and died in the struggle
Edgars Darznieks, a 24-year-old Latvian,
said he wished to remember his grandfather’s two brothers
who had been conscripted into the Waffen SS. “On my grandmother’s
side there are some who fought for the Germans and others
for the Soviet Union,” he said. “History is complicated.”
Latvia was forcibly annexed by the
Soviet Union in 1940, then taken over by Nazi Germany in
1941, and then invaded again by the Red Army in 1944. The
country remained a part of the Soviet Union until 1991, when
it achieved independence.
Andrei Trubitsyn, an ethnic Russian
resident of Riga, said the ceremony should have been banned.
“Where else in Europe can you find people who are honouring
the Nazi army?” he said.
Ethnic Russians comprise approximately
one-third of Latvia’s 2.3 million population.
Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff of the Simon
Wiesenthal Center observed the ceremony and said it was a
“sad day for Holocaust memory.”
“From my perspective, the worst part
of this is to see young Latvians holding the flag of democratic,
independent Latvia in honour of people who fought for Nazi
Germany,” he told The Associated Press. “That is a tragedy
— it sends a message that it is OK to be on the side of the
About 250,000 Latvians fought alongside
either the Germans or the Soviets — and some 150,000 Latvians
died in the fighting.
Nearly 80,000 Jews, or 90 per cent
of Latvia’s prewar Jewish population, were killed in 1941-42,
two years before the formation of the Latvian Waffen SS unit
— which some Latvians claim shows the unit could not have
played a role in the Holocaust. But an unknown number of
Latvian Waffen SS soldiers were involved in the murder of
Jews as auxiliary police — years before they entered .