By Scott Taylor
For those Canadian soldiers currently based in Latvia, this coming March 16 should prove to be an interesting distraction. It is on this date the Latvians parade through the streets of Riga to commemorate their veterans of the Second World War.
So far, so good, as honouring fallen warriors is something that our Canadian soldiers can certainly relate to.
Unfortunately in this case, the March 16 parade through Riga is in celebration of the Waffen SS Latvian Legion. That’s right folks, this was a formation of the same notorious SS organization led by Heimrich Himmler, Adolf Hitler’s architect and chief executioner of the Holocaust.
The parades honouring Latvia’s fallen SS soldiers began in 1990 when this Baltic nation regained its independence from the Soviet Union.
During the war, the Latvian SS Legion had fought for Hitler against the Soviet Union. The date chosen for the commemoration is in recognition of a major battle fought on March 16, 1944 in which the two Latvian SS divisions – the 15th and 19th, fought together as a single entity. Sort of like a Latvian version of Canada’s World War I Vimy Ridge Battle legacy, except that they were fighting for Hitler, and they lost the war.
Since 1990, the commemorative parades gathered both popular and political support, and in 1998 the Latvian government declared March 16 to be an official day of Remembrance. Two years later however, with Latvia trying to gain membership in NATO and the EU, international pressure forced the Latvian Parliament to reverse their official recognition of this SS unit.
However, despite the controversy and condemnation from Jewish organizations such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the annual parades still take place in an unofficial capacity.
Apologists for the Latvian SS Legion point out that by the time this unit was formed in 1943, Latvia was considered to be Juden-Frei (free of Jews) by Hitler’s regime. Their argument is that the Latvian SS Legion therefore did not play a direct role in the Holocaust.
The flaw in that premise is that from the time the Germans entered Latvia in June 1941 until the Latvian SS Legion was established two years later, it was largely Latvian death squads that executed en masse the Jewish population.
The largest and most ruthless of these militias was the Arajs Kommando. It was this same Arajs Kommando that formed the nucleus of the Latvian SS Legion when it was formed by Himmler in 1943.
To follow the logic of the apologists, the Latvian SS Legion did not kill Jews, because its founding members – the Arajs Kommando had killed all the Jews before the Latvian SS Legion came into existence.
One of the most infamous leaders of the Arajs Kommando was a former Latvian aviation pioneer named Herberts Cukurs. He was a national hero for his piloting exploits and was considered to be a Latvian Charles Lindbergh.
Then the Germans drove the Soviets out of Latvia in 1941, and Cukurs turned his attention to the extermination of the Jews. According to Time Magazine, Cukurs was involved in a number of major atrocities including the burning of the Riga Synagogue which he had first packed with helpless Jewish victims, the mass drowning of 1,200 Jews in a lake, and a mass murder of over 10,000 Jews in a forest outside the Latvian capital on November 30, 1941.
Although Cukurs escaped to Brazil after Hitler’s defeat, Israeli Mossad agents executed him in 1965 in Uruguay.
Despite the evidence of his war crimes, there are those in Latvia today who want to return Cukurs’ legacy to that of a national aviation hero. In 2004 Cukurs supporters produced postal envelopes in his honour. Although these envelopes were condemned officially, and the General Prosecutors office of Latvia has twice rejected appeals for the exoneration of Cukurs, the fact is that Latvian nationalists want to re-write their Nazi past.
In fact just last week, Latvia’s National Alliance opposition party once again requested that March 16 be re-instated as an official day of Remembrance. “We shouldn’t be ashamed to honour Latvian freedom fighters” said National Alliance Party leader Raivis Dzintars. Actually, when those individuals fought under the Swastika banner of Hitler and Himmler, you probably should be ashamed.
Denial of any aspect of the Holocaust is still denial.
With Canadian soldiers currently deployed to Latvia to project Canadian values of freedom and democracy, we should be far more vocal in denouncing such blatant glorification of Latvia’s Nazi past.
We owe it to our WW2 veteran’s who fought against Hitler’s evil empire.