Tomorrow at March 16 the Latvian Waffen SS Legion remembrance day will be celebrated by some and regretted by others. It’s a deeply dividing date in modern Latvian society because the such groups like Russian nationals, Socialists and others see this is a “march of the fascists”. While Latvian nationalists and patriots see this as an important day in Latvia. Occasionally at this day Legion war veterans and their nationalist supporters with flags takes a route from the Dome square to the Monument of Freedom. They put flowers at the monument to remember fallen comrades and remember the hard days of war. But in the recent years they are met by loud and angry so called “anti-fascists” and other protesters. Some of them are sent from Russia. In recent years this date is no longer a remembrance of war victims but rather a fight between radical right-wing groups and their radical left-wing counterparts. One reason why this is happening is an aggressive foreign policy of Russia since Vladimir Putin took president post. The Putin administration has taken a hard-line policy against so-called “rebirth of Nazism” and “rewriting of history”. This is a part strategy of affecting Russian minority in the Baltic states to separate them from their state. In so they more loyal to Russia rather than their home government. Russia is also panicky afraid of discovery of new historical facts about Soviet involvement in the Second World War. This has caused frustration in Latvians against Russians and that’s why the Soviet Victory day is on May 9 is met with the same anger as Russians met March 16.
March 16 is chosen as Legion Remembrance day because on March 16 1944 both Latvian divisions 15th and the 19th division fought together first battle at the Volkhov front in Russia near Leningrad. As many ethnic military formations in German army it was formed to put more living force to German army desperately fighting Soviet Army. It was called “volunteer Legion” but most soldiers were drafted by force. In Western World Latvian Legion is not considered responsible for Nazi war crimes are being ideologically Nazi and are separate entities in the German army. Captured Latvian soldiers by allies were not prosecuted and given to Soviet Union, they spent years in Western World in freedom. To gather and help veterans an organization “Daugavas Vanagi” (The Hawks of Daugava””.) were established and are still active today.
While most part of the Legion was drafted, those who volunteered were motivated by anger of killings and deportations done by the Soviets in 1940 -1941. Many who joined by their own will wanted to avenge their killed or deported relatives. Others did not want the second Soviet occupation to come. As some historians write it was horrible mass deportation in June 14 1941 that completely made Latvian minds against Soviets. When it was clear that Germany will lose war many soldiers hoped that Western allies eventually turn against Soviets and then the Latvian soldiers would fight for Latvian freedom. But allies never considered such step and neither they were ready to attack Soviets because of illegal occupation of Baltic States.
We cannot completely deny that there were some Nazi sentiments in Latvians. Before the war there was a radical organization “Thunder cross” , but it was marginal and banned by Ulmanis regime. Antisemitism was present in Latvians, but history shows that Latvian state would never do such steps against Jews as Germany did. The German invasion made possible for some antisemitic killers to fulfill themselves but they would not have such chance if Germans had not helped them. Latvian Jewish killers were not in thousands but in hundreds. It is known that some of them did joined the Legion but the count was small. Legion was a purely battle formation and should not be mixed with more criminal Latvian formations. There were also Latvian police battalions, some of them were responsible for atrocities in Belarus, but again it was not Latvian Legion.
March 16 is not a remembrance day of war criminals but simple soldiers fighting in German side. They had tragic fates. Many were captured by the Soviets and sent to POW camps in Siberia. After release their life possibilities were downsized because they fought on the “wrong side.” Lucky ones made way to Western World and lived without any restrictions. Tragic fate was for those who escaped to Sweden. Cowardly and hypocritical Swedish government despite the protests of their own people returned Latvian soldiers to the Soviets.
The explanation why the Latvian Legion is not understood in Russia or in other parts of the world is because the history is always written by victorious side. If Germany would win this war, then Latvians fighting in Soviet side would be in the same situation as Latvian Legionnaires today.