Thursday, March 11, 2010

Latvia and history: Europe View 175


Harmony in Riga

For once, the anniversary of a wartime battle in Latvia should pass off peacefully

Mar 11th 2010 | From ​The Economist​ online

THAT March follows February is not a state secret, but it sometimes seems to come as a surprise to Latvian officials. Sometime in February, they notice that March 16th is approaching and start worrying, belatedly, about what outsiders will think.

That date is the anniversary of a battle in 1944, when two Latvian units raised by the Nazis fought against the Soviets side by side, under Latvian command, for the only time during the war. The commemoration highlights a sharp historical controversy in the ex-communist region. On one side are those who regard those Estonians, Latvians and others who fought on the Nazi side and wilful collaborators with the genocidal regime of Adolf Hitler. That they bore the uniforms of the SS—the epitome of Nazi brutality—is a key incriminating fact. Given the slaughter of Jews in the Baltic states during the war, the only defensible position is to accept that the Soviet forces were liberators. Any form of commemoration of their opponents, such as the Latvian SS, is tantamount to nostalgia for the Nazis.

In the middle are those that see mitigating circumstances. By this late stage in the war the “SS” label was used for all conscripted non-Germans, who were not allowed to join the Wehrmacht. The label “volunteer” was a Nazi propaganda trick: the vast majority of soldiers in these units were conscripts. Though many war criminals did join the new units, fighting in the Third Reich’s military forces was not in itself a war crime. The Soviet claim that the Estonian and Latvian SS were “traitors” is based on the idea that the 1940 annexation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union was legal. That is not an approach that any civilised country accepted then, or believes today.

On the other side are those who think that Latvians and others who fought against the Red Army were fighting in a just cause: to defend their countries against a return to the horrors of Soviet rule they had experienced in 1940-41. Their military prowess and bravery in a doomed fight deserves recognition, particularly given the huge casualties and persecution they experienced after the end of the war. It is this last group that most wants to mark March 16th.

The anniversary is marked not by a march or parade. Instead, veterans of the Latvian units, in civilian attire, lay flowers at the Freedom Monument in Riga, in memory of their fallen comrades. The event attracts unpleasant attention from neo-Nazi and skinhead groups on one side, and self-proclaimed anti-fascists on the other.

Russia usually makes a big deal of this. Tarring Latvia (and Estonia) as “fascist” is a big theme of Kremlin propaganda. Claiming that the authorities honour “SS veterans” (or at least permit them to meet in public) adds an extra twist. By skilful manoeuvring and news management, Estonia has managed to defuse the issue. But in Latvia, the authorities have found it a perennial and perplexing headache.

This year, the pot is, for once, off the boil. Regnum, a normally polemical Russian news website, published a remarkably balanced commentary ​here​ (in Russian) Riga city council has banned the veterans’ wreath-laying.

This reflects Latvia’s changing politics. Riga is run by a coalition led by the Harmony Centre party, which has good chances in the October parliamentary elections. The party is mainly Russian-led, but its pro-welfare policies attract Latvian voters too. A big row over March 16th would polarise opinion, driving Latvian voters to support the mainstream parties that thrive on fears of Kremlin mischief-making. The leaders of Harmony Centre don’t want that. Neither do their friends in Russia.


CT said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Giustino said...

The Soviet claim that the Estonian and Latvian SS were “traitors” is based on the idea that the 1940 annexation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union was legal. That is not an approach that any civilised country accepted then, or believes today.

Actually, one of the few European countries to recognize the occupation and annexation de facto and de jure was Nazi Germany.

Juris Kaža said...

But there is a big row building. The supporters of the Legionnaires are angry about the ban on all activity near the Freedom Monument, the nationalists of varying intensity are angry, the "anti-fascists" are not pleased (they, too, are banned) and supporters of the freedom of speech and assembly, such as myself are angry, too. What makes it all the more bizarre is that the Latvian Supreme Court overturned last year's ban on the March 16 march. That ban was defied, the police stopped no one and kept opposing sides apart.
Nils Ušakovs is following in the footsteps of his nationalist predecessor, Jānis Birks, and making a malevolent buffoon of himself. Unfortunately, I have to be out of town most of the 16th, otherwise I would attend just to defy anyone telling me who I may or may not see marching in this city.

G. Reinis said...

Mr.Lucas must be congratulated for his attempts to view East European history objectively, and not through a prism of Soviet&Russian "history".
All politicians know the most effective weapon of political murder: labeling. Pin a label of fascist, neo-nazi, reactionary, or, heaven forbid, holocaust denier
on someone and, presto, he is a political corpse, or worse, a leper. The Soviet&Russians have made this their favorite and most effective tool.
The same weapon is being used right now against the VL&LNNK party in Latvia.The two major accusations against them are:
a) they advocate deportation of Russians, and
b)that all state financed education be in Latvian
Reviewing a), it was no other than Mr.Putin who urged Russians to return to Russia and offered various incentives for returnees. Is Mr.Putin a fascist,
a neo-nazi or Latvian ultra-nationalist? The record of VL&LNNK is clear for all to see (who want to see):
they advocate that the government of Latvia support Mr.Putin's initiative on a voluntary basis.
Regarding b) is any explanation needed? Is this not the policy and practice in USA, UK, Germany and any number of democratic countries? Mind you, not merely being advocated, but implemented. If this is fascism, it should be attacked and eradicated first
in the countries where already in effect.
Keep up the good work.

Gunars Reinis Riga, Latvia