Washington, 2 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Two weeks ago (March 16) 500 veterans of the Latvian Waffen SS Legion gathered in the capital Riga and marched through the city streets to commemorate their World War II service.
The gathering prompted immediate protests from Russians living in the city. The gathering was subsequently also condemned by the Russian government and drew further criticism from German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Jacques Chirac at their meeting with Boris Yeltsin in Moscow.
This week (March 31) Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis issued a statement asking for understanding from the international community in connection with the march. He said the SS legion gathering illustrated an aspect of Latvias tragic past, which involved occupation by both Nazi Germany and Soviet forces.
But Ulmanis added: Independent Latvia has no links with totalitarian occupying regimes, so the president believes the participation of senior officials in commemorative events by soldiers of a former occupying regime contradicts Latvias chosen path of forming a democratic European state. Current Latvian army commander Juris Dalbinsh and Parliament Speaker Alfreds Chepanis took part in the march.
Today among Latvians and Estonians, the word handed down from the previous generation is that the majority of young men who put on uniforms fought for independence against the Russians. The Soviet occupation in 1940 ruthlessly suppressed the ethnic identities of the three Baltic states.
Defenders of the rally in Latvia have said the veterans were among thousands of Latvians forced to join the Waffen SS and who later fought for independence against Soviet troops.
The SS is regarded by historians as the organization most fanatically loyal to Nazi ideology. Its men were tasked with running concentration and slave labor camps and linked to numerous atrocities in Nazi-occupied Europe. The post-war International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg branded the SS, along with the Waffen SS, "a criminal organization," guilty of crimes against humanity.
However, the tribunal excluded those men who were forced to join the Waffen SS and who did not commit crimes against humanity. Many people in Latvia and Estonia believe that it was a minority of those in Waffen SS units which perpetrated atrocities. Some Waffen SS veterans have been demanding public recognition as fighters for the anti-communist cause.
In 1950, the Displaced Persons Commission of the U.S. government decided that the Waffen SS units from the Baltic states "are to be considered as separate and distinct in purpose, ideology, activities and qualifications for membership from the German SS, and therefore the Commission holds them not to be a movement hostile to the Government of the United States." The decision opened the door to the emigration to the United States of many Latvian and Estonian Waffen SS members.
The gathering in Riga was called to mark the 55th anniversary of the formation of the Latvian legion. The turnout of nearly 500 veterans plus a counter-demonstration by elderly ethnic Russians, made it one of the most publicized SS veterans events.
In Germany, where the great majority of Waffen SS retreated in 1945 or emigrated years later, Waffen SS veterans hold quiet reunions, usually in the private rooms of restaurants. The law does not permit public rallies displaying flags and insignias bearing the swastika or the SS runes.
According to Jewish sources in the Baltic states -- and the former Yugoslavia -- Waffen SS veterans are increasingly getting some recognition, as ultra-nationalists are endorsing their cause and the governments are quietly sympathetic.
Ojars Kalnins, the Latvian ambassador in Washington, disagrees. "There is no swing to the far right in the Baltic states," he says. "The Latvian government does not officially participate in any of the events the veterans organize. The government wishes that the whole issue would go away."