16 March 2010 thestar.com
Hundreds in Latvia honour Nazi SS units amid angry protesters
Gary Peach

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 against fascism.

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 murderers.”

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 .