Remembrance day of the Latvian legionnaires
Remembrance day of the Latvian legionnaires (Latvian: Leģionāru piemiņas diena) or the Latvian Legion Day is a day on 16 March, when soldiers of the Latvian Legion, part of the Waffen-SS, are commemorated. It was made an official remembrance day in Latvia in 1998 but the Latvian government abolished the day as an official commemoration in 2000.
The day has been controversial as the Legion was a Nazi unit and the Remembrance day of the Latvian legionnaires as a Nazi honouring event. Others hold that the Legion was a purely military unit fighting against the Soviet Union that had occupied Latvia in 1940 and was not itself responsible for any of Nazi war crimes.
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The Remembrance day of the Latvian legionnaires was established in exile by the Daugavas Vanagi veterans' organisation. The date of 16 March was chosen because in 1944 both divisions of the Latvian Legion, the 15th (1st Latvian) and the 19th (2nd Latvian) fought alongside for the first time against the Red Army. It was the only battle in World War II led solely by Latvian commanders.
From 16 to 18 March 1944 a heavy battle was fought on the eastern shore of the Velikaya River for Hill "93,4", a strategically important height, defended by the 15th and the 19th Waffen-SS divisions. On the morning of 16 March the Soviet assault began, and the defenders were forced to withdraw, but the Soviets did not break the Latvian Legionnaires' resistance. On 18 March a counter-attack by the 15th Division, led by Colonel Arturs Silgailis, recaptured the hill with minimal losses. The Soviets did not try to attack there again.
Remembrance day of the Latvian legionnaires has been observed in Latvia since 1990. In 1993, MP Juris Dobelis of LNNK invited his colleagues to commemorate the anniversary of the Legion, supported by the Chairman of the Parliament, Anatolijs Gorbunovs. It was set as an official remembrance day in 1998. In 1998 the procession to lay flowers at the base of the Freedom Monument drew the attention of foreign media and in the following year the Russian government condemned the event as a glorification of Nazism. In 2000 the Latvian government abolished the day as an official commemoration day due to the EU objections, however the day is still observed unofficially and has since evolved into a political fight between opposing to this date and Latvian nationalists. In 2005, a counter-demonstration was dispersed by police, arresting some of its participants; the march itself was condemned by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. In 2006 the Latvian government tried to bring the situation under control by fencing off the Freedom Monument, supposedly, as it was announced by Riga City Council, for restoration. However this statement was later questioned, as politicians named various other reasons for the move, the enclosed area was much larger than needed for restoration, and the weather didn't seem appropriate for restoration. The Freedom Monument is one of the most important symbols of Latvia, therefore the move caused discontent in general society. The government was criticized for being unable to ensure public safety and freedom of speech. Latvian mass media compared the actions of government officials with the actions of Soviet officials in the late 80s and reported that no other government before had fenced off a monument for political reasons. It was also speculated that the actual reason for the government's actions was preparation for the upcoming NATO Summit 2006 in Riga. The unapproved events took place despite the ban and 65 participants were arrested by the Latvian police, two of the arrested nationalists were citizens of Estonia. In 2006, laws requiring approval to arrange gatherings were ruled out as unconstitutional. On March 16, 2007, the government mobilized the police force to guard the vicinity of the monument and the day went by relatively peacefully. The veterans' organizations Daugavas Vanagi and Latvijas Nacionālo karavīru biedrība (National Association of Latvian soldiers) have announced that they dissociate themselves from ultra-radicals who organize processions at the monument and advised patriotic Latvians to attend other events. In 2008 the confrontation was limited to verbal arguments and insults.
In 2012 there were around 1500-2000 people in the procession and 1200 police officers were employed to maintain order in Riga. About 100 counter-demonstrators watched in silence. Three persons were detained. Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis told all his coalition ministers to stay away but several MPs from the National Alliance took part.
As a part of the Waffen-SS, the Latvian Legion is seen by some as being a Nazi unit, while others point out that it fought only the Soviet Union which had previously occupied and annexed Latvia, it is not responsible for Holocaust (since it was founded more than a year after Latvian Jews were murdered or sent to concentration camps) or Nazi war crimes and should be viewed as a separate entity (being recognized as such by e.g. USA). Some of the Latvian Legion soldiers such as the Arajs Commando were, however, part of death squads prior to them joining the legion. Russia alleges the Legion was engaged in punitive actions against partisans and the civilian population on the territory of modern Latvia, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. Although primarily formed by conscription, it was officially named Volunteer Legion to circumvent the international law prohibiting drafting inhabitants of occupied territories by the occupying power.
On 16 March 2012 Efraim Zuroff during his visit to Riga to protest against the legionnaires march, stated in an interview to Latvian State television LTV1 that the "Latvian SS Legion was not involved in the crimes of the Holocaust" but also stated, as he has done each and every year since 1999, 'although these units were not involved in crimes against humanity, many of their soldiers had previously served in the Latvian security police and had actively participated in the mass murder of civilians, primarily Jews.
In 2011, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance adopted a report on Latvia, expressed "concern as regards the authorisation of certain public events to commemorate two incidents and the authorities’ reaction in this connection. As concerns the first incident, every year, on 16 March, a gathering commemorating soldiers who fought in a Latvian unit of the Waffen SS is held in the centre of Riga. In this connection, ECRI regrets that, in spring 2010, an administrative district court overruled a decision of the Riga City Council prohibiting this march" and recommended "that the Latvian authorities condemn all attempts to commemorate persons who fought in the Waffen SS and collaborated with the Nazis. ECRI further recommends that the authorities ban any gathering or march legitimising in any way Nazism". In 2013, UN Special Rapporteur on racism submitted a communication to Latvia concerning the events of March the 16th.
Traditionally a memorial service is held in Riga Cathedral, after which the participants go in procession to the Freedom Monument where they lay flowers. The participants then travel to the Legionnaires' cemetery in Lestene parish.
Organizations whose members have been seen to participate in events:
- All For Latvia! - Latvian nationalist political party. Traditionally members of "All For Latvia!" flag rally at the Freedom Monument when procession arrives.
- Gustavs Celmiņš Centre – an organisation seeking to revive the fascist Pērkonkrusts movement.
Organizations that support veterans of the Legion and participate in events:
- National Power Unity - Latvian nationalist political party.
- Club 415 - Latvian nationalist youth organisation.
- National Front of Latvia - Latvian nationalist organisation.
Parties whose members have been seen to participate in events
- Union of Greens and Farmers - a green/agrarian and conservative political alliance
- For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK - a right-wing conservative party
- New Era Party - a centre-right liberal conservative party
- People's Party - a centre-right conservative party
Organizations that have demonstrated against the events
- National Bolshevik Party - Unofficial Russian radical organisation.
- National Democratic Party
- Antifascist Committee of Latvia
- For Human Rights in United Latvia
- Night Watch
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Latvian Legion Day.|
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