Latvian memorial sees Waffen SS as freedom fighters
Almost 70 years after the end of World War II, a monument to local Waffen-SS troops in Latvia has caused heightened tensions between Russia and the Baltic state. Russia sees the memorial, which was unveiled last week in Bauska, as a glorification of National Socialism while Riga honours the fighters, known as Legionnaires, as heroes who fought for Latvia's independence.
Copyright Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 2012
This is not the first time that the Baltic state has been accused of promoting neo-fascist activities and the monument has not only elicited a furious reaction from the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow against the Latvian government. "There have been attempts again and again to glorify former SS soldiers," said Efraim Zurof, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Jerusalem, who believes Latvia is trying to disguise its role in the Holocaust.
"Not a single collaborator has ever been hunted down or punished," he says. Latvia is regularly criticised in the centre's annual report for failing to hold any Holocaust perpetrators accountable, primarily due to what it argues is a lack of the requisite political will.
Latvia's role in World War II has also led to conflict with Russia, which sees Latvians as willing collaborators who cheerfully welcomed the German Wehrmacht into the country after Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union, and who took part in the mass murder of Jews.
Historian Karlis Kangeris does not dispute that many people living in the Baltic states were happy when the Wehrmacht drove back the Red Army in 1941 and were also eager to sign up to the military. "Many Latvians saw Stalin's Soviet Union as a greater threat than Nazi Germany," Kangeris explains.
This view is shared in neighbouring Estonia where the removal in 2007 of a Red Army war memorial in the capital, Tallinn, led to protests by the country's large Russian minority. Germany's eventual capitulation in 1945 did not mean liberation for the Baltic states but rather the beginning of what many consider a Soviet occupation that involved the mass resettlement of hundreds of thousands of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians.
The authorities in Riga argue that the more than 100,000 volunteers in the Latvian Legion of the Waffen-SS fought only the Soviet Union which had previously occupied and annexed Latvia, and was not responsible for Holocaust. However, the Latvian security police were also involved while many Latvians also assisted in the mass murder of Jews, who were considered as co-conspirators and made scapegoats for Soviet crimes.
The traumatic events of World War II for the Baltic states are clear to see in the Occupation Museum in Riga where a copy of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact hangs behind glass. The pact carved up Eastern Europe between the two powers and its consequences sealed the destiny of the three Baltic states for the next 50 years.
Its aftermath is still felt today in the EU and Nato members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania where the integration of substantial Russian minorities in each country remains unsolved. Experts do not see relations between the Baltic states and Russia improving any time in the foreseeable future. One reason for this is how history is remembered by both sides in Riga. While former soldiers of the Red Army traditionally march on May 9 to celebrate Victory Day, Latvian SS veterans parade on Legion Day on March 16. The events never fail to stir controversy among both sides.