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The meanings of March 16th (2010)

The date of March 16 didn’t become controversial in Latvia until the early 1990’s, when several Latvian organisations chose this day to honour Latvian soldiers who fought and died in the Latvian Legion during World War II.

The Latvian Legion was created by the Nazi German occupation forces in 1943 as combat divisions called the Waffen SS. After their invasion and takeover of Latvia in 1941, German authorities would not allow Latvian nationals to arm themselves, for fear that they would turn their guns on the Germans. But by 1943 Latvia faced a re-invasion of Soviet troops who were pushing the retreating German forces back out of Russia and Eastern Europe. The Germans needed additional manpower to hold back the Soviets and began conscripting young Latvians into two special Latvian divisions of Waffen SS units. The Germans had created such combat units in Estonia, Finland and many other occupied countries, and despite the “SS” designation, they had nothing to do with the Gestapo.

The fact that this was a violation of the Hague and Geneva Conventions meant nothing to the Germans. The Germans needed more soldiers and would not allow foreigners in the German army, so they created special “weapons” SS units to fill their need. Those who refused the draft faced punishment or execution, so most submitted. Some justified their presence in the units because they believed that by fighting side by side with other Latvians, they would hasten the German departure and keep the Soviets from re-occupying their country a second time. In their minds, they weren’t fighting for the Germans, but against the Soviets.

But they were forced to wear Nazi German uniforms with SS emblems on them and half a century later, questions about who they were, what they did and why they did it have become a subject of earnest discussion among historians and impassioned debate among others.

Those who chose March 16th as a day of remembrance for the veterans of the Latvian Legion did so because on this day in 1944 the 15th and 19th divisions of the Latvian Legion joined forces to battle the advancing Soviet army at the Velikaya River in Russia. This is the only time in the war that these two divisions fought side by side.

The surviving veterans who wish to observe this day denounce fascism and Nazism, deny that they ever committed atrocities during the war, and insist that they were fighting, albeit in vain, for the restoration of Latvia’s independence. For them, March 16th is a day to go to church, to cemeteries or the Freedom Monument in Rīga, and honour friends and family members who died fighting with the Latvian Legion during World War II.

But not everyone sees it that way.

It’s understandable why many Jews in the world, especially Holocaust survivors, are troubled by any show of respect for soldiers who fought on the German side during the war. While many will acknowledge that the Latvian Legion itself did not participate in the Holocaust (the Nazi-managed mass murder of Jews in Latvia had ended before the Legion was created), the mere fact that Latvian soldiers fought under German command is enough to prompt distrust and condemnation.

Many Russians also object to any show of respect for the Latvian Legion because the Latvians fought, with great ferocity at that, against the Soviet Red Army. For those Russians who still identify with the former Soviet Union, the combatants of the Latvian Legion were, and still are, the enemy.

One tragedy in all this is that Latvians were forced to fight on both sides of the Eastern Front. During the first Soviet occupation of Latvia, many Latvians were drafted into the Red Army as well. Thus, Latvians on the German side fought Latvians on the Soviet side, although most felt little loyalty to Germany or the USSR. Under orders from Moscow and Berlin, brother fought against brother and father against son. They were victims of overlapping occupations and pawns in the alternating power grabs of Hitler and Stalin. They were young Latvian men caught in the middle, and no matter which way they looked, they saw the enemy.

The details as to how and why it all happened, and who did what to whom is something usually left to historians to debate. But when a Latvian veteran organization decided to honour the Latvian Legion on March 16th, they confronted a vocal and sometimes aggressive opposition, which brought the debate to the streets. Since the first commemoration of March 16th in the early 90’s, it has been a day of confrontation, controversy and conflicting international media coverage.

The Latvian government does not recognize March 16th as an official day, and recommends that all activities intended to honour Latvia’s war dead – regardless of which war they fought in – should be on November 11, or Lačplēsis Day. Because March 16 processions to the Freedom Monument have in recent years been a catalyst for conflict, most veterans choose to go to churches or cemeteries to pay their respects. They have no desire to make a political statement of any kind and simply want to honour their relatives and comrades-in-arms.

But groups with a more radical agenda have seized this day to popularize their causes and generate colourful video-bites for TV news shows. Unfortunately, the tears, flowers and all the historical nuances get lost in the shouting. The debate over what really happened in the past has become an argument over what people should be allowed to do in the present.

For some, March 16th is the day a major battle took place. For others, it is a day of solemn remembrance. Some see it as a slap in the face of their ancestors. Others see it as a way to honour their ancestors. For others still it is a chance to get on the evening news and shout slogans that no one really understands. But for almost all the people of Latvia, it is a day when the sorrow, anger and confusion of the past are painfully brought back to life in an equally confusing present.

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