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Latvia: SS Marchers Show Tangled Web Of Baltic History

By Peter Zvagulis/Breffni O'Rourke

Veterans of the Nazi-era Waffen SS are again on the march in Latvia. Their presence in a parade in Riga wakes old ghosts from the convoluted past of this small Baltic state, and poses questions for the present. Correspondent Breffni O'Rourke, in cooperation with the director of RFE/RL's Latvian Service, Peter Zvagulis, looks at the phenomenon.

Prague, 16 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The crushing weight that history can impose on a nation and its citizens is clearly illustrated by events in Latvia this week.

Latvian veterans of the notorious Waffen SS participated today (Thursday) in what has become an annual march through the center of the capital Riga. Police were present in large numbers to protect the veterans and their supporters from anti-Nazi protesters as they walked to the Liberty Monument to lay flowers.

The organizers of the parade, the National Association of Latvian Soldiers, claims to include veterans of all armies and wars, but Waffen SS men clearly take the most active part in the group.

The former Waffen SS members have long marked March 16 as a commemorative day, recalling the only occasion when the two Latvian divisions comprising their legion fought together against Soviet Red Army forces, in 1944. For the rest of the time, the two divisions operated separately on the Russian Eastern front.

For many of the aged veterans, the occasion thus marks the time they bore arms against the hated Russian communists who had forcibly annexed independent Latvia, as well as Lithuania and Estonia, in 1940.

But for others, including the country's small Jewish community and the Latvian and ethnic Russian veterans of the Red Army, the day is an unforgivable reminder of the darkest chapter in modern history, the Nazi reign of terror and genocide. Nazi German forces occupied Latvia between 1941 and 1945.

For the present Latvian government of Prime Minister Andris Skele, the occasion is one of renewed embarrassment, focusing international attention on a black chapter of history that pitted Latvian against Latvian, while the helpless civilian population lay caught in the middle.

At least the embarrassment is less acute this year than last year, when March 16 was still the official Latvian Soldiers Day. With monumental insensitivity and lack of foresight, the parliament had declared the day a national holiday in 1998. It was meant to commemorate soldiers who had fought in all armies, but not surpassingly it was viewed with outrage inside and outside the country as glorifying Nazism.

Earlier this year, parliament voted to drop March 16 as Soldiers Day in favor of November 11, a date which in the West traditionally marks the First World War armistice. In Latvia's case the 11th of November commemorates those who fell in the successful war which in 1918 ushered in the country's brief period of independence.

This year's march in Riga was therefore strictly unofficial, without a government presence or backing, although some rightist members of parliament were expected to attend privately.

The Latvian contingent was called the Voluntary Latvian Waffen SS Legion, although most -- but not all -- of the soldiers were not volunteers. Most were drafted by collaborationist Latvian local authorities. Some 50,000 legion soldiers died, mainly on the Russian eastern front.

There are allegations that the legion participated in atrocities against civilians. What is certain is that massive war crimes against civilians, particularly Jews, were committed by the notorious pro-Nazi Arajs death commando. In the latter part of the war, the commando was incorporated into the Waffen SS legion.

In 1941 alone, the Arajs commando is estimated to have killed 30,000 Jews, practically destroying the Jewish community in Latvia. It also took part in burning villages and their inhabitants in Latvia and Belarus suspected of collaborating with the Red Army.

The Riga march comes at a time when the issue of war crimes by Latvians is making international news. Two former Waffen SS members, Karlis Ozols and Konrad Kalejs, both of whom now live in Australia, are accused of war crimes stemming from their alleged involvement with the Arajs commando.