Latvians commemorate Waffen SS divisions

AP News
Posted: Mar 16, 2013 8:39 AM

RIGA, Latvia (AP) — Over a thousand Latvians on Saturday commemorated Nazi-allied World War II soldiers while police used force to prevent violence from erupting between participants and ethnic Russians, who are a minority in the country.

Many Latvians consider March 16, or Legionnaires Day, an opportunity to commemorate war veterans, while Russians see it as an attempt to glorify fascism and whitewash a black chapter in Latvia's history.

Latvia, which gained its independence after World War I, was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, then by Nazi Germany a year later, and again by the Soviets in 1944. During the Nazi occupation thousands of Latvians were forcibly conscripted into the Waffen SS divisions, and many Latvians consider them to be heroes who fought for independence from communism.

Some 250,000 Latvians fought alongside either the Germans or the Soviets, with approximately 150,000 eventually dying in battles.

Nearly 80,000 Jews, or 90 percent of Latvia's prewar Jewish population, were killed in 1941-42, or before the formation of the Latvian Waffen SS units. This, claim many Latvians, shows the unit did not have a role in the Holocaust.

On Saturday, the Latvians walked from a cathedral in downtown Riga, the nation's capital, to lay flowers at the nearby Freedom Monument, where they were met by a small group of protesters.

Like in previous years, those protesting the commemoration hung pictures of the Holocaust on a mock death camp fence, but this time they used two large speakers to blare an air-raid siren, Russian language music, and finally a list of crimes committed in Latvia during World War II.

The cacophony incensed a handful of commemoration participants, including nationalist lawmakers Raivis Dzintars and Janis Dombrava, who approached protesters and tried to tear down the photographs.

Police dragged the participants away, and an additional group of riot police was summoned to surround protesters and force them to turn off the speakers.

Police said four people were detained at Saturday's event.