The Economist online, 11. 03. 2010.
For once, the anniversary of a wartime battle in Latvia should pass off peacefully.
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) http://bit.ly/b2FdM4. 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.