RIGA, Latvia (JTA) — Police arrested a man for displaying a poster of soldiers killing Jews at the annual march by local veterans of two SS divisions that made up the Latvian Legion during World War II.
The man was arrested Friday morning on the margins of the annual march of the Remembrance Day of the Latvian Legionnaires — soldiers from the 15th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS and the 19th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (the 1st and 2nd Latvian, respectively). A handful of veterans, flanked by hundreds of supporters waving Latvian flags, gathered around Freedom Monument for the march under heavy police guard.
The march in Latvia, a member of the NATO alliance and the European Union, is currently the only public event in Europe and beyond honoring people who fought under the banner of SS, Nazi Germany’s elite security force. Occurring amid rising tensions with Russia, it is part of numerous expressions across Eastern Europe of admiration for those, including Holocaust perpetrators, who collaborated with Germany against the Soviet Union.
Several protesters from the Latvia Without Fascism group demonstrated against the event by carrying signs reading “They fought for Hitler” and “If they looked Nazis, and acted like Nazis – they were Nazi.” None of those protesters was arrested.
Police did not allow a counter protest by Latvia Without Fascism, Joseph Koren, a leader of that group, told JTA. Hundreds of police cordoned off the Freedom Monument, as veterans, some of them wearing uniform, sang patriotic songs and laid wreaths for their fallen comrades. Organizers of the event from several nationalist groups then drove the veterans to a cemetery where many of their comrades are buried.
“It’s a disgrace that this is happening in Europe,” Aleksejs Saripovs of the Latvia Without Fascism group told JTA. “The European Union needs to pressure Latvia into abandoning this shameful event, but so far there is total silence.”
Many locals offered flowers to the veterans as they marched from the area around Riga’s St. Peter’s Church to the Freedom Monument.
Advocates of the veterans and their supporters claim that Latvian Legion soldiers were not involved in atrocities against Jews, despite evidence to the contrary. According to the Latvian government, the Latvian Legion was not really an SS unit and that the legionnaires who weren’t forcefully conscripted merely sought independence for Latvia when they joined Hitler’s army.
German Nazis and collaborators led to the near annihilation of 70,000 Jews who had lived in Latvia before the Holocaust.
On Wednesday, a bill proposing to make March 16 a national Latvian Legion Day was defeated in Latvia’s parliament.