How should we remember the 100,000?

Each year since 1998, veterans of the World War II Latvian Legion and their family members have gone to memorial services in churches and cemeteries in Latvia on March 16 to remember fellow soldiers who died in the war. During the German occupation of Latvia (1941-1944), more than 100,000 Latvians were conscripted into combat units that fought against the Stalin’s Red Army on the Eastern Front.

This annual remembrance of Latvians who wore German uniforms to fight against the Soviet Union has generated political controversy, some minor protests and modest international media attention, largely because of misunderstandings about the historical role of the Latvian Legion during World War II. In some cases, the misunderstandings arise from a simple unfamiliarity with the facts. In others, there is a calculated attempt to misrepresent the role of Legion veterans, both today, and during World War II.

Part of the problem comes from the intentionally misleading German designation of the Latvian Legion as “the Latvian Voluntary SS Legion,” which was formed under the German Waffen-SS (Schutzstaffel).  The 15th and 19th Latvian Legion divisions created in 1943 were neither voluntary nor were they associated in any way with the notorious Nazi SS organization that was responsible for the Holocaust.

Most of the estimated 100,000 young Latvian men who made up the Latvian Legion were forcibly mobilized to fight on Germany’s collapsing Eastern Front. Draft evasion was punishable by death. The Soviets were advancing, the Germans were retreating and the Latvians were called up to fill the gap. While Adolf Hitler’s racist policies had forbidden the use non-German combatants in the early stages of the war, by 1943, desperation overruled discrimination. Similar non-German Waffen-SS combat units were established in France, Italy, Hungary, Ukraine, Estonia and Belarus, all in a last-ditch German effort to prevent defeat.

Hitler’s mass extermination of Jews in Latvia had already ended in 1943, long before the Latvian Legion combat units were formed. This was recognized by the International War Crimes Tribunal in Nuremberg, when the Latvian Legion and other conscripted non-German Waffen-SS units were exempted from criminal charges associated with the Nazi Holocaust.

The Latvians who were drafted into the Latvian Legion were neither Nazis nor fascists, nor did they wish to see a Nazi German victory in the war. They were young men who had just seen their loved ones and friends executed and deported by the thousands by the departing Soviet regime. Joseph Stalin’s brutal Russification of Latvia had been cut short by the German invasion in 1941, and there was every indication it would be resumed once the Soviet army pushed the Germans out and re-occupied Latvia.

Although forcibly mobilized, once armed and in uniform, many in the Legion believed this was their only chance to prevent a second Soviet takeover. As during World War I, when Latvian freedom fighters battled both Bolsheviks and Germans to win Latvia’s independence, the soldiers of the Legion hoped that history could repeat itself. They would defeat the Soviets and then turn their guns on the Nazis. But the Soviet force was overwhelming and Latvia was occupied once more. That second occupation ended in 1991 with the collapse of the U.S.S.R.

Not many surviving members of the Latvian Legion are left today in Latvia. But each year the veterans, former soldiers caught in a vise between two totalitarian powers, meet to remember their suffering and sacrifices. They see themselves as Latvian patriots who believed, however erroneously, that they were fighting for the restoration of a free Latvia. For this reason, March 16, the anniversary of a major Latvian Legion battle in Russia, was chosen by them as a day of solemn remembrance.

Moscow has always viewed the Legion veterans as enemies of the Soviet state and sent them to Soviet labor camps after the war. When the U.S.S.R. collapsed, the Russian government officially preserved this hostility and has routinely condemned the remembrance of the Legion veterans on March 16t in Latvia. This criticism, however, has often gone beyond the historical facts and wrongly accused the Latvian Legion of war crimes, fascism and complicity in the Holocaust.

Confusion over the Waffen-SS designation has also contributed to a misrepresentation of the Legion veterans in the mass media. Solemn flower-laying ceremonies at monuments and cemeteries, attended by aged veterans and their families, have been wrongly described in the media as “marches.” Nothing could be further from the truth. They march nowhere, carry no banners, shout no slogans and have no political agenda. They simply wish to honor their fallen friends and comrades.

History is always a subject of interpretation, and three brutal military occupations in a five-year period during World War II, have made Latvia’s history especially difficult for non-historians to understand. For Latvia, this was an especially tragic period when most who were caught between two invading armies became victims of forces far beyond their control.   

In recent years, some radical political groups have tried to disrupt the quiet March 16 events to call attention to themselves and their political causes. They have been condemned by Latvian authorities as well as the former Legion soldiers. But most who go to church or cemeteries on that day have no political agenda whatsoever. They are simply paying their respects to 100,000 fathers, sons and friends who became tragic victims of a very costly and complicated war.

19 thoughts on “How should we remember the 100,000?

  1. Thank you for writting this detailed explaination of events of that time. As a Latvian-American it will help me explain the situation to my children.

  2. For J.Janons , please, http://www.latvietis . com, lose the logo! It may be etnographically correct, an ancient symbol for many peoples but it does not enhance our or your status in today’s world as it de novo is associated with a henious chapter in the annals of human history

  3. Well said. Having recently discovered my own family’s experiences, as noone wants to speak about it, this notion of a “herioc” Legion, as perpetuated by people such as DV, seems rather perverse. My father deserted as soon as he and his friends got near the Americans and my uncle bided his time in a hospital with blisters and never fired a shot. Another uncle was hidden in a cupboard by my grandmother until the German’s finally found him on their 3rd visit. It was the last time my grandmother ever saw him. They were 14 & 15 year old boys who had no interest whatsoever in the War, let alone the SS uniforms they were press ganged into. Their misplaced glorification only serves to harm the cause, as it provides critics on all sides with ammo. This only serves to set back the day when the Soviet lobby finally admit to Stalin’s crimes – which after all is the real issue, although it gets so easily obscured.

  4. On behalf of my Father (Elmars Silis, b. Riga, 1923 – 1998, d. Hamilton, ON) and all the others who were forced by the Germans to take up arms, thank you for this clear account of what happened during this sad period in our history. I was well into my 30’s before I ever learned that my Father wore a German uniform; but it remained something he did not want to talk about to the end. I know more about when he threw his pistol into the Baltic as he escaped in advance of the Russians, and his adventures after that, than I do of anything before. So thank you from me as well.

  5. Do a Google Search on Latvian Nazis and maybe as much as 20% results shed a positive light on Latvia. If you all thought Ojars article was so good then it seems to be a good starting point for a website to counter the negative majority?

    Standing on the sidelines clapping your hands but doing nothing about it does very little for Latvia and its people. There are too many Latvians eating dust and not making dust.

  6. I was born March 16th, 1954 when my parents had already made their journeys as displaced persons of WWII to the US.
    The writer talks of the “Latvian Legion” that was forcibley conscripted to fight Hitlers last battle and how “Hitler’s mass extermination of Jews in Latvia had already ended in 1943, long before the Latvian Legion combat units were formed.”
    It soundds like a revisionist theory suggesting it was solely Hitlers fault and we Latvian were innocent,
    Growing up in New York State in the 1950’s attending a Latvian Church Summer Camp, my friends called out “Jew” ( Tu Zieds ) as a derogotory remark.
    A good friends father was a Latvian SS officer who proudly displayed his photograph in his SS uniform in his home. Another friend would joke about Latvians going to Liepaj to shoot Jews for sport. His mother was the Latvian representative to the United Nations at the time.
    I went to Latvia in 2002 for the first time, In Riga, my last morning there, a group of young Aryans, marched through the old town, fists in the air, chanting anti … anti anything really.. slogans. It was a reminder that some Latvians have not learnt from the past.

    When I went to Latvia, I studied the history and found that Latvia had been ruled by Germans for more than 600 years. Riga, for many centuries was more German than it was Latvian.

    My father was in Latvia during WWII. He was an oderly in Rigas War Hospital and part of the “Aisargi”. When he was ordered to “Germany to protect the Fatherland” . He and others on the ship hijacked it to Sweden.

    What the heck is Latvia, and what has it been but a small community of music loving coastal people wedged between Germany and Russia?
    What is the future?
    How can this little piece of land with just few million inhabitants reach out to the world and say ” We are Unique””We are different”” You should invest in us”
    I believe our culture, in particular musicaly, has much to offer (my Great Grandfather was Indrizis Zile, pirmais visdirigents, pirmajos Dziesmas Svetkos ) WWII demontrated we are more like a leaf in the wind that get’s blown in whichever direction the world will take us.

    That’s our history. Where is our future?
    I’m willing to listen…..and to help

  7. Thank you sir for this enlightenment. My father was born in Riga and did not talk much about those horrific times. My guess is being only 6, loss of family and friends was too traumatic, then becoming displaced in camp for several years before coming to America. You have my support.

  8. I don’t think that anyone wants to be glorified, but it would be wrong not to acknowledge the efforts of the men who went out to defend their country, for the benefit of all Latvians. Denying veterans and their families the right to honour the fallen, and remenber their heroic efforts in their fight for Latvia’s freedom is appalling. These soldiers have nothing to be ashamed of. The fact that the Latvians wore German uniforms and were part of the SS, should be taken into context. Germany simply provided them with the materials with which to carry out their fight. Greater efforts should be made to explain this to the ignorant people who can’t see past the colour of one’s uniform. It is not a crime to fight for what is right, and the honourable men who had the courage to take on a vastly numerically superior force, deserve the respect and recognition that any defender of their country does. Fighting for your country’s freedom is probably the most justified of all reasons to fight. History has also shown us that the Legionaires were only fighting against an enemy that turned out to be the common enemy of most of the Western World. It is time that articles such as the above were more widely publicised to promote the truth as opposed to sweeping our history beneath the carpet and allowing others to put an unfair and unjust slant on things.

  9. I am the child of a Latvian who as a young lawyer during the first Soviet occupation escaped a Siberia-destiny by a mere turn of circumstance, i.e., by having moved in just days before with his new bride and thus not being at home when communist thugs knocked on his bachelor apartment during the fateful night of June 14, 1941. When the opportunity to flee oncoming Stalin terror arose for our little family in August of 1944, German troops stopped my father and forced him to take up arms, just as they did all the other young Balts who owned not a trace of sympathy for any occupying force, just an undying wish for a free and independent Latvia.

    Thank you, Ojars Kalnins, for an excellent explanation and presentation of the facts surrounding this tragic and widely misinterpreted turn of events in war-torn Latvia.

  10. Well as usual in these debates I have not received a response from anyone willing to do anything about the topic. So I did a little research before I purchased to create a web page to counter to propoganda attempting to discredit honourable latvian soldiers.

    But I found that this debate has missed its mark. Yes most likely Latvian Nazis did not contribute to Genocide. But it seems that Latvian Arajs Commando did and they adopted Nazi philosophy.

    So for me it is a mute point to bother to defend Latvian Nazis when they are not the issue but a distraction from Arajs Commando.

    I was a soldier in a military unit for 5 years that was initially established to kill Nazis in WWII but I am happy to defend any honourable soldier in peace time because they had a lot more to contend with than the self righteous do in 2006.

    Arajs Commando are in a category I do not understand. I do know ‘war is hell’ and the Latvians did not bring war to Latvia.

    It seems to me that this whole issue is a distraction as are Latvian Nazis. Latvians did not create Nazism and Latvians did not create a Pact to Occupy another country.

    What are we prepared to do to prevent Genocide occuring again? It appears very little too late when you look at Bosnia and Rwanda.

    Bosnia was in the backyard of Europe and it took the US involvement to stop it because europeans were unwilling to get involved unless the US committed ground troops. Why was there not more Latvian, Israeli, German or Russian lobbying for immediate intervention?

    Genocide is destined to occur again for as long as people say they are sorry but do not back up their words with actions.

  11. The President of Latvia eloquently alludes to the legacy we have that would be an honourable way to remember the 100,000.

    As a special envoy of the secretary general on the reform of the United Nations last year, I was pleased that the General Assembly managed to agree in principle on the necessity for sweeping and fundamental reforms. The new Peace-building Commission was created, which we need for diffusing long-lasting conflicts. Too often in the past, the United Nations has been unable to prevent genocide and lasting bloodshed: in the Congo, in Rwanda, in the former Yugoslavia and now in the Darfur region of Sudan.
    One of the United Nations’ fundamental roles lies in the defense of human rights. The newly created Human Rights Council must become more credible and more effective than the Commission that preceded it.

  12. Revisionism is a pejorative word has come to mean the distortion of history, particularly that of WW2. However, revisionism in Latvia started with the arrival of the Soviets in 1940 and continued under the Nazis, the subsequent Soviet occupation and is alive and well in Russia to this day. It is undoubtedly true that there would have been no genocide of Jews in Latvia had not the Nazis invaded but it is also true that the Nazis ensured that the local population were involved. Much of what is known in the West about the Latvian Legion and the holocaust in Latvia is derived from the 1962 publication “Kas Ir Daugavas Vanagi?” which was translated into English in 1963 as “Daugavas Vanagi who are they?”. In the absence of any great interest in the West in Latvia’s history the lies in this pamphlet have persisted and for many have become historical “fact”.

    When I was in Riga last year I bought a copy of Professor Andrew Ezergailis’s book “Nazi/Soviet Disinformation about the Holocaust in Nazi-Occupied Latvia” at the Occupation Museum. This book examines the Daugavas Vanagi pamphlet in detail and reveals that the principal author worked for both the Nazis and the KGB and that at best about 10% is true and is on a par with the other infamous Russian Secret Service pamphlet “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”.

    No member of Latvian Legion has never been tried for atrocities committed during service with the Legion. The Americans who captured members of the Legion at the end of the war did not regard these POWs as members of the SS and even drew up units which included Legionnaires to act as guards of the Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg. Therefore so far as the Legionnaires are concerned there is nothing that they as an entity need to hide. If the Legionnaires are banned from remembering comrades it would be tantamount to an acknowledgement that their military service in WW2 was criminal. Understanding can only come from discussing Latvia’s history openly and not hiding it away to be misunderstood by those for whom the mere mention of the SS is anathema and misinterpreted by Latvia’s enemies.

  13. I had an interesting chat only last year with a couple of former British Ambassadors to Latvia and a former British Military attache to Latvia. They informed me in no uncertain terms that “…..the Legionnaires were Waffen SS volunteers”, implying fanatical Jew-killing Nazis. When I tried to argue the point, I got the feeling I was treated with scorn, as if I was a Nazi apologist myself. This was quite a shocking realisation for me, as these men are presumably well informed friends of Latvia. So the job to overcome the tsunami of misinformation is possibly far greater than many of the readers above realise. But it is a story that needs to be told, for many reasons.

  14. It’s something of a joke to consider that Latvians play any real part in the world stage. And what is a Latvian… anyway? Latvia was governerned and ruled by German overlords for what was it? 600 years? Who are the true latvians other than the remnants of the Livonian tribes that lived along the coast eke-ing out a living via fishing the Baltic?
    Anti semitism in the 1930’s and 40’s wasn’t just a policy taken on by Nazi Germany, it was a fact of life for many nations around the world at the time, including the U.S.
    Latvians as well as Lithuanians participated in the social “soup de jour” of that era. It would not have mattered if Latvia was invaded by Germany or Russia, it was a mind set of the time and Latvians of that era gladly participated in this genocide. Why rewrite the facts?
    The odd thing is why anti semitism exists at all. It has been said more and more recently that Europe is moving further and further away from Christianity, that it’s churches are often poorly attended. So.. if it is an atheistic society, then what is a Jew anyway? Irrelevent!
    But for those fervent believers in Christ. Was not Christ a Jew himself? Was he not circumsized? Doesn’t the bible call them “Gods chosen people”? What was his purpose? Answer: to provide the only means of salvation available. So… it’s great… someone killed him.. be he Jew, Roman or whoever.. it was because he died, our sins were forgiven by God and all of us have the hope of eternal life. So if the Jews killed him… thank you ..why history reflects this hatred of the Jews for the crime of “deicide” is ludicrous and is one of the stupidest misunderstandings of history. Latvia in the 1940’s was simply playing out it’s role in the human saga, but.. it was wrong. So… forget it.. we weren’t the only ones that were wrong, and we had less impact. Time to move on.

    But while we’re at it. Islam = the cult of Satan. This farce of a religion is todays version of Nazism. Today 56 bodies were found in Bagdad, Sunni or Shiite, who cares. But not only do they have to kill each other for their rediculous religion, they also have to torture each other as the press reported all bodies showed signs of torture.
    Forget the Jews, Islam is the real enemy and threat to your future existance.

  15. I wish to reflect on Jewish Latvia, in order to help with this discussion on the volleyed term, “Latvian Nazism,” which is balanced in large part, stated or unstated, on the genocide.

    As a Jew and non-Latvian living in Riga, I can say with certainty that, like most of humanity, Latvians “nationalists”, even the most fervent ones, evoke positive, hospitable intentions. And as in every other place I’ve spent meaningful time, I’ve also had my run-ins with a limited share of scarred, insular, fearful, wicked individuals lacking in nuance and missing out on humanity’s marvelous tapestry.

    I have many links in the Jewish community of Riga, even with those of its members (very few!) who themselves or whose parents managed to survive WWII in this country. Naturally, my feelings resonate with the Jewish history here, as much with its glory (and rebirth) as with its profound losses. The common reasoning I derive from local Jews as to the tragedies of WWII is that some of their Latvian neighbors acquiesced to the wave of complicity that allowed latent feelings of mistrust or fear to justify riddance. This, of course, is in large part the mechanism that helped Hitler’s policies along, namely, the tapping into of quite ordinary latent feelings of injustice in popular cultures. There doesn’t seem to be any outright (or clearly ludicrous) wholesale blame among Jews I meet of passive Latvians (as far as I sense in my discussions over Shabbat dinner, which tend to be rather forthright) for the erasure of what was once a blossoming Jewish community (and one which indeed thrived during Latvia’s first independence.) But there is the firm belief that in the struggle for equality, certain ethnic Latvians (itself a highly watered down term, but grant me it here) were quite organized around the taking Jewish life and property (the most accessible?) in the very cities from which they’d themselves been wrongly and racially excluded, and they seemed thriving, it would have appeared, on what was perceived to be the rightful reversal of fortune.

    The cycle of oppressed-to-oppressor has been studied in depth (Chomsky) and my own inclination is to accept the premise. It seems logical and universally proven. It explains violence, whether misplaced or not, in almost every conflict where the formerly vulnerable, abused or ostracized, come to occupy positions of power (and indeed explains the means of ascension to power.) Backlash. And be sure this is always played out in the discourse! It explains landbook documents being “lost in floods” (even in the 1990’s), concealment or revisionism, political power plays, and anti-Russianism (a concept as harmful and baseless as anti-Latvianism), and just about any tactic finding a place of heart on the basis of perceived justice. And I’m not picking on Latvians, I’d be more than happy to talk about displaced Palestinians too.

    I suppose the moral of the story is hardly one just for Latvia, or for Jews, or for Nazis for that matter, but is perhaps best stated in the universal notion of “doing unto others as you’d have done unto you…” to which I append my own thought, “… for the wheels of injustice have momentum that will find dissipation in one form or another, at a cost always greater than the selfish gains at its origins.”

  16. First of all, I think that people should be able to see history as history. There is a lot of blaming on every forums. Should I be ashame for that my grandpa fought in the war, yes on the losing side. Should I wish he died? No I don’t think so, he was 19 years old when he was called up, to the 15th Division (Lat 1). He was a young man, he was a fisherman. He escaped to sweden, some would say he deserted in august of 1944. I would say he choose to live. I’m sure he had friends who died, should’t he be able to remember them, at a memorial? As far as the killing of jews, I’m sure there was those who agreed to it. But as far as only calling the latvian or the baltic people for nazis, is wrong. But not as much talk about what the soviet regime did, they did the same as the nazi regime did. So I don’t understand why people are so blind. Then there is people who stand on high ground shouting out other countries mistakes, but not looking at there own. For example sweden was in the past a country who took other countries by force, and made thing that would be warcrimes.
    So history is history, stop put propaganda and remaikng it to look good. Just try to avoid to make the same mistakes again. Learn from it! Stop pointing fingers!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *