Archive for the ‘Latvia’ Category

The Latvian Legion’s Parade took place again on March 16 in Riga

March 10, 2019


Photo Credit: Ilmars Znotins / AFP / Getty Images

Approximately 115,000 Latvian soldiers served in the Nazi German armed forced during the Second World War against the Soviet Union.

“At the end of the war, almost 50,000 of them became Soviet prisoners-of-war, imprisoned for short or long periods of time in Soviet filtration or Gulag camps. . . . Many never returned, and a number of the former Legionnaires experienced arrests and imprisonment after they had served their initial sentence.  The forced imprisonment of tens of thousand of Latvian citizens in the Gulag camps and their treatment as Soviet citizens was a human rights violation under international law. Provisions and living conditions in the filtration camps were deplorable with illness, and sometimes death, resulting from malnutrition, poor hygienic conditions, lack of medical treatment, and exhausting labor.”

Source: Uldis Neilburgs, Aftermath: What happened to the Latvian Legionnaires after the war? (LSM.LV — March 16, 2018).

On March 16, 2019, supporters applauded veterans of the Latvian Legion as they paraded through Riga, the capital of Latvia.  Others protested.

Each year on March 16 the parade commemorates a heavy battle that was fought on the eastern shore of the Velikaya River for Hill “93.4,” a strategically important height for both the Soviet and German armies.  It was defended by the 15th and 19th Waffen-SS divisions.  On the morning of March 16 the Soviet assault began and the defenders were forced to withdraw but the Soviets did not break the Latvians’ resistance.  In a counter-attack on March 18 by the 15th Division the hill was recaptured with minimal losses.  After that the Soviets did not try to attack there again.

March 16 was the first occasion in World War II when both Latvian divisions fought together in the same battle and was the only battle in World War II led solely by Latvian commanders.  Thus, in the years after the war, March 16 was chosen by the Latvian Legion veterans’ organization as the day of the Latvian Legion.  Latvian Legion veterans hold a parade in Riga each March 16 and have done so ever since Soviet rule of Latvia ended in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Latvia was unsuccessful in stopping the Soviet advance, which led to nearly 50 years of Soviet occupation of Latvia.  The parade is controversial to some because the Latvian Legion was created by Germany in January 1943 and commanded by the German Waffen-SS.  The parade is said to be the only public event currently in Europe honoring persons who fought under the banner of the Waffen-SS. There have been constant attempts to ban the parade.

According to the Latvian government, the Latvian Legion was not really an SS unit and that the legionnaires merely sought independence for Latvia.  A spokesman for the Latvian Legion said “it is only in good faith, with gratitude, to pay tribute to the accomplishments of our soldiers . . . .”

“The Legion had no allegiance to Nazism. It was largely conscripted to fight on the Eastern Front against the Soviets, whose last act prior to Germany’s invasion of the USSR — and Soviet-occupied Latvia — had been the mass deportations of Baltic citizens — men, women, children, and infants of all ethnic groups.  Honoring the Legion houours only the act of struggling against impossible odds to keep Latvia free — hoping to first drive out the Russians and to then turn on the Germans in a replay of Latvia’s successful struggle for independence a mere 25 years earlier.  It was only after Latvia declared Legion Commemoration Day a state holiday in 1998 that Russia mounted a concerted propaganda campaign denouncing it as Nazi glorification.  There had been no such accusations of Nazism any of the 46 years prior.”

Source: Telling the Story of the Latvian Legion.

Latvian nationalist organizations such as “All For Latvia!” and “National Power Unity” march in support of the Latvian Legion.  Predominantly Russian organizations like “For Human Rights in United Latvia” hold protests to block the marches.

“For part of the Latvian population [March 16] is not about celebrating legionnaires who fought alongside the Waffen-SS, but rather the 2000 soldiers who sacrificed themselves to push back the Red Army offensive in the name of protecting Latvia’s sovereignty — and March 16 itself marks their success in defending a strategically important point: hill ‘93.4.’ In their view, the 1st and 2nd Latvian military division neither committed any war crime, nor promulgated Nazism in the Baltics; they only fought for their sovereignty against the Soviet Union.”

Source: Etienne Morisseau, Understanding the Latvian legionnaires’ march (The Baltic Times — April 4, 2015) (hereafter Morisseau).

Andris Sne, dean of the Faculty of History and Philosophy of the University of Latvia, explained:

“There is no reason to speak about anti-Semitism or revival of Nazism in relation to the commemorative activities that take place on 16 March. . . . The repressions and mass murders done by the Soviets during the 1940-1941 occupation pressed people to turn against the Soviet forces during the German-Soviet War. . . . But Nazi German power was an occupation power too.”

Source: Morisseau.

The March 1944 battles were just a small part of the anti-Bolshevik defense by Latvia.  The people of Latvia had good reason to dislike the Soviets. During World War II, more than 33,000 Latvians were kidnapped or murdered by the Soviet secret police.

In 1998, Latvia’s Saeima (parliament) voted for March 16 to be an official national remembrance day.  Between 1998 and 2000, Latvian Legion’s Day was on the list of Latvia’s officially celebrated holidays but was called “Remembrance Day for Latvian Soldiers.”  (The word “Legion” was excluded to include all those who fought against the Soviets during both World War II and as resistance fighters afterwards.)   International pressure forced the Saeima to remove March 16 from the list of state remembrance days in 2000. The current position of Latvia is that March 16 is not an official remembrance day and that Latvia commemorates its fallen soldiers on November 11.  During 2018, a bill proposing to make March 16 a national Latvian Legion Day was defeated in Latvia’s parliament.

The Latvian Legion is determined to keep the March 16 commemoration alive.  However, today few of the anti-Bolshevik legionnaires are able to take part because most have died or are too old and in poor health.

The troops of the Latvian Legion were the last divisions to resist the Red Army’s invasion of Europe in 1944-1945.  Against overwhelming odds, the Legion took the brunt of the fighting and continued to engage the Red Army even after Berlin had fallen and Germany capitulated.

Before the formation of the Latvian Legion:

“Thousands of young Latvian men took to the woods and formed anti-communist partisan bands known as the Forest Brothers that attacked Soviet facilities and isolated military units when possible. . . . Soviet repression — officially termed ‘An Operation to Cleanse the Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian Soviet Socialist Republics of Anti-Soviet, Criminal and Socially Dangerous Elements’ — reached its peak the week before the commencement of Operation Barbarossa [on June 22, 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union]. Approximately 40,000 persons were rounded up by Stalin’s henchmen and sent to forced labor camps near the Arctic Circle in Karelia or Siberia.”

Source: Hal Elliott Wert, The Latvian Legion of World War II (History Net — Feb. 8, 2017; originally published in the March 2015 issue of Armchair General) (hereafter Wert).

“On January 23 [1943], SS chief Heinrich Himmler received Hitler’s approval to form a Latvian SS Volunteer Legion, eventually to be composed of two Waffen SS volunteer divisions. Already deeply anti-Bolshevik, the Latvians shared the Germans’ goal of defeating the Soviets; for them, however, the greatest appeal of a legion was that it could be the basis for building a national army that would restore Latvian independence. . . . Many of the volunteers were former members of the Latvian army or former policemen who deeply regretted that they had not fought the initial 1939 Soviet military incursions. For them, the legion provided an opportunity for redemption and revenge as well as the possibility of future independence.”

Source: Wert.

“In January 1944, the 2d [Latvian Division] expanded once again and became 19th Waffen SS-Grenadier Division (2d Latvian).  The Latvian divisions fighting south of Lake Peipus now constituted VI SS Volunteer Corps, which retreated in the face of the surging Red Army and tumbled into poorly prepared defensive positions along the Velikaya River christened the Panther Line. The harrowing retreat in deep snow and below-zero temperatures amid repeated attacks by bands of partisans took its toll on the Latvian divisions.  In April, toward the end of the Soviet winter offensive, 15th Latvian, despite an extraordinary effort, was shattered and pulled from the line. Meanwhile, 19th Latvian, although severely depleted, held its ground and was spared as the spring thaw brought the Soviet advance to a halt.”

Source: Wert.

“The last remnants of what had once been 15th Waffen SS-Grenadier Division (1st Latvian), about 800 officers and men, surrendered to the Americans April 25, 1945. Yet 19th Waffen SS-Grenadier Division (2d Latvian) ended the war differently than did the 15th. . . . Throughout autumn, fierce fighting continued in Estonia and Lithuania and outside Riga as Army Group North backed up and retreated into Courland — 30 German divisions were trapped there, including the 19th. . . . Costly, bloody fighting continued until May 8, 1945, when approximately 5,000 soldiers of 19th Waffen SS-Grenadier Division (2d Latvian), along with a n additional 9,000 Latvians in other German units, surrendered to the Soviets.  The Latvian Legion was no more.  Some officers were executed and the rest were sent to labor camps, as were the soldiers from the 15th who had surrendered earlier.  Over half died in captivity.  Between 1949 and 1956, those who survived were finally released.”

Source: Wert.

The Commander of the 15th Division, Oberfuhrer Adolf Ax, reported on Jan. 27, 1945:

“They [the Latvian legionnaires] are first and foremost Latvians. They want a sustainable Latvian nation state.  Forced to choose between Germany and Russia, they have chosen Germany, because they seek co-operation with western civilization. The rule of the Germans seems to them to be the lesser of two evils.”

Source: Inesis Feldmanis and Karlis Kangeris, The Volunteer SS Legion in Latvia (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia).

“This perspective [of the lesser of two evils] resulted in part from the Soviet occupation between 1940 and 1941, called ‘The Year of Terror’ during which tens of thousands of Latvian families were executed or deported to Siberia with men separated from the women and children to break down resistance.”

Source: N. Wingfield and M. Bucur, Gender and war in twentieth-century Eastern Europe (Indiana Press — 2006).

“Legionnaires hoped to fight off the Red Army until it was no longer a threat against Latvia and then turn against Nazi Germany, as a repeat of the Latvian War of Independence of 1918-1920, when Latvian forces expelled both Bolshevik and German forces. Legionnaires carried Latvian flags under their uniforms as a symbol of hope.”

Source: A. Ezergalis, Latvian Legions: Heroes, Nazis, or Victims? A Collection of Documents From OSS War-Crimes Investigation Files: 1945-1950 (Historical Institute of Latvia — 1997).

As early as 1943 a British investigative mission found Latvians stood against both their Soviet and German occupiers.  Source: Heinrihs Strods, Zem melnbruna zobena (Riga, 1994, page 96, fact finding mission of July 5, 1943).

A 2000 documentary titled “Latvian Legion” was directed by Inara Kolmane and scripted by historian Uldis Neilburgs.  It covers the beginning of the Legion, its actions in battle and the controversy which has been created today.  The 40-minute film includes newsreels, examination of popular perceptions, interviews with former legionnaires, historians and the general public.  The film was made by the film studio “Devini” with support from the Ministry of Defence of Latvia.

Today the Republic of Latvia is a small country (24,938 square miles) in the Baltic region of Northern Europe less than 2.0 million people.  (For a comparison, the state of West Virginia is 24,239 square miles.)  The largest city is Riga with a population of about 700,000.   Latvian is the official language.

Latvia is bordered on the north by Estonia, on the south by Lithuania, on the east by Russia and on the southeast by Belarus.  It shares a maritime border with Sweden to the west.

The first free national elections were held in 1990. The 100-seat unicameral Latvian parliament, the Saeima, is elected by direct popular vote every four years. The president is elected by the Saeima in a separate election, also held every four years. The president appoints a prime minister who, together with his or her cabinet, forms the executive branch of the government, which has to receive a vote of confidence by the Saeima.

The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia was established in 1993 in Riga as an historical educational institution to educate the public about the 51-year period when Latvia was occupied by the USSR in 1940-41, then by Nazi Germany in 1941-1944 and then again by the USSR from 1944-1991. The museum’s missions includes to: “Show what happened in Latvia, its land and people under two occupying totalitarian regimes from 1940 to 1991.” The various exhibits display the atrocities committed against the people of Latvia and the systematic destruction of the nation’s sovereignty.


Photo Credit: Museum of the Occupation of Latvia

As of 2011, Latvians formed about 62 percent of the population while about 30 percent are Russians. Belarusians, Ukrainians, Poles and Lithuanians also account for from three to one percent of the population.  About 84 percent of the population are citizens, 14 percent are non-citizen permanent residents and about 47,000 are citizens of other countries — mostly Russia.

There is no state religion in Latvia  Most of the population rarely attends church services. There are 294 Lutheran congregations with a membership of about 700,000; 240 Roman Catholic congregations with a membership of about 500,000 and 122 Russian Orthodox congregations with about 370,000 members.  There are other smaller congregations as well.

The United States’ first group of Latvian immigrants (old Latvians) began arriving in the late 1800s. About 90,000 persons in the United States identify as Latvian or Latvian-American.  Common male Latvian names include Valdis, Janis and Martins. Common female names include Madara, Leide and Maija.

Approximately 1,000 persons marched in the parade on March 16, 2019 in honor of the Latvian Legionnaires.  Those supporting the ceremony placed flowers at the Monument of Freedom in Riga.


Photo Credit: Ilmars Znotins / AFP / Getty Images