What is the Remembrance Day of the Latvian Legionnaires?

Introduction

Remembrance Day of the Latvian Legionnaires (Latvian: Leģionāru piemiņas diena), often known simply as Legionnaire Day (Leģionāru diena) or 16 March (16. marts) in Latvia, is a day when soldiers of the Latvian Legion, part of the Waffen-SS, are commemorated.

From 1998 until 2000, it was officially recognised as a “Remembrance Day for Latvian soldiers” by the Saeima.

The day has been controversial as the Legion was formally a unit of Nazi Germany and the remembrance day has been seen by some as an attempt to glorify Nazism. Others point out that no one has ever been convicted of committing war crimes as a member of the Legion and hold that it was a purely military unit fighting against the Soviet Union that had occupied Latvia in 1940.

Origins

The idea of a Remembrance Day for the Latvian legionnaires was raised in exile by the Daugavas Vanagi veterans’ organisation in 1952. 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 each other, for the first and only time, against the Red Army.

From 16 to 18 March 1944 heavy battles were fought on the eastern bank of the Velikaya River for “Hill 93.4”, a strategically important height, defended by the 15th and the 19th Waffen-SS divisions. On 16 March at 6:40 am, the Soviet assault began with a massive artillery barrage. At 7:00 am the Soviet tanks and infantry launched an attack on “Hill 93.4” and captured it at 11:00 am as the defenders withdrew. On 18 March at 5:40 pm the reinforced and approximately 300-men-strong 15th Division, led by Colonel Arturs Silgailis, recaptured the hill in a counter-attack with relatively small losses – seven non-commissioned officers and soldiers killed, 20 wounded and five missing. After that the Red Army did not try to attack there again.

History

1989/1990 to 2000

Remembrance Day of the Latvian legionnaires has been publicly observed in Latvia since 1989/1990. It was officially recognized as a “Remembrance Day for Latvian soldiers” by the Saeima in 1998, a compromise between the For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK party who wanted to establish the day as the “Remembrance Day for the Latvian Legion” and other members of the coalition fearing the potential effect such a move would have on the international reputation of Latvia. In 1998 the procession to lay flowers at the base of the Freedom Monument drew the attention of foreign media and the following year the State Duma condemned the event as “a glorification of Nazism”. In 2000 the Latvian government abolished the day as an official commemoration day, however, it was still observed unofficially.

2005 to 2008

In 2005, a counter-demonstration was dispersed by police, arresting some of its participants; the march itself was condemned by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. In 2006 the Latvian government tried to bring the situation under control by fencing off the Freedom Monument, with Riga City Council claiming it required 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 did not seem appropriate for restoration. The unapproved events took place despite the ban and 65 participants were arrested by Latvian police, two of the arrested participants being citizens of Estonia. In 2006, laws requiring approval to arrange gatherings were ruled out as unconstitutional.

On 16 March 2007, the government mobilized the police force to guard the vicinity of the monument and the day went by relatively peacefully. The veterans’ organisations Daugavas Vanagi and National Association of Latvian soldiers have announced that they dissociate themselves from ultra-radicals who organise processions at the monument and advised patriotic Latvians to attend other events. In 2008 the confrontation was limited to verbal arguments and insults.

2009 to 2011

Following the 2009 Riga riot, Riga City Council banned the 2009 commemorative procession to Freedom Monument and two counter-demonstrations, citing fears of unrest, however around 300 people disobeyed the ban and still walked to the Freedom Monument and laid down flowers under heavy police protection, with a few of the counter-demonstrators being arrested. Head of “Anti-fascist Committee of Latvia” had invited its supporters to go on “an excursion” around Old Riga that day.

In 2010 Riga City Council banned the procession and a counter-demonstration, however on 15 March the Riga District Court overruled the ban, and from 500 to 1,000 people participated in the 2010 commemoration events in Riga the next day. In 2011 to avert provocation and public disturbances all 6 both pro and anti-Legionnaire Day events were once again disallowed. Nonetheless, around 1,000 people went on the procession and approximately 100 protested against it.

2012 to Present

In 2012 around 2,000 people took part in the procession and 1,200 police officers were employed to maintain order in Riga. Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis called for coalition ministers from National Alliance not to participate in the events, warning that otherwise they might lose their ministerial positions. Three people were detained; one for displaying fascist symbols, one for displaying Soviet symbols and one for disturbing the work of police officers.

On 11 March 2014 government of Latvia agreed to forbid ministers to attend 16 March events. Nevertheless, Minister of Environmental Protection and Regional Development Einārs Cilinskis informed of his intention to take part in the procession like he had done for the past 16 years, resulting in Cilinskis losing his ministerial post. Protesters from “Association Against Nazism” were moved to a fenced-in zone in adjacent Bastejkalns Park where they installed improvised gallows. The day passed without serious incident, with seven people arrested for various misdemeanour charges.

In 2013 Saeima rejected a proposal from National Alliance to amend the law on Holidays and Remembrance Days and make Legionnaire Day a national remembrance day. In 2018 and 2019 Saeima turned down similar proposals from National Alliance.

In 2017 five people were detained during the procession in Riga, two for resisting the police and three for violating the regulations on meetings, processions, and pickets.

Controversy

Refer to the Latvian Legion.

As formally 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 the Holocaust (since it was founded more than a year after Latvian Jews were murdered or sent to concentration camps) or any other Nazi war crimes and should be viewed as a separate entity (being recognised as such by the US, for example). Even though up to 80-85% people were conscripted, it was officially named Volunteer Legion to circumvent the Hague Convention of 1907 prohibiting drafting inhabitants of occupied territories by the occupying power.

In Latvia

The government of Latvia does not recognise 16 March as an official remembrance day and has declared that Latvia commemorates its fallen soldiers on Lāčplēsis Day (11 November). People are allowed to commemorate the fallen on 16 March on their own private accord, but higher officials and members of the government do not participate at the commemorative events taking place in Riga centre in their official capacity. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia has also stressed that no Nazi uniforms, symbols or slogans appear on this or other days in Latvia, as they are banned by law.

On 16 March 2012 Efraim Zuroff during his visit to Riga to protest against the legionnaires’ procession, 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 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”.

According to 2017 research by the University of Latvia and SKDS, from 2012 to 2017, public support for Legionnaire Day had decreased from 38% to 33%, however, researcher Mārtiņš Kaprāns noted observing “a more pronounced tolerance” and that “a favourable attitude towards the Lestene memorial has grown both among Latvians and Russians.”

Russia

Russia alleges that the Latvian Legion carried out punitive actions against partisans and the civilian population in the territory of modern Latvia, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia (like the Operation Winterzauber).

Internationally

In 2011, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) adopted a report on Latvia, expressing “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 procession” 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, United Nations special rapporteur on racism submitted a communication to Latvia concerning the events of 16 March. In 2018, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the rise of neo-fascist violence in Europe, noting that “every year on 16 March thousands of people gather in Riga for Latvian Legion Day to honour Latvians who served in the Waffen-SS”. In 2019, Canada condemned the event.

Leanid Kazyrytski has argued that, even though the Nuremberg Tribunal excluded Latvian Waffen SS units from the list of criminal organisations, the Latvian Legion does possess all the features attributed to a criminal organisation by the Nuremberg Tribunal.

Traditions

Traditionally a memorial service is held in Riga Cathedral, after which the participants go in procession to the Freedom Monument where they lay flowers. Another ceremony receiving much less publicity takes place at the war cemetery in Lestene, Tukums Municipality.

Participating Organisations

Organisations whose members have been seen to participate in events:

  • National Alliance: Traditionally members organise a flag alley at the Freedom Monument when the procession arrives.
  • Gustavs Celmiņš Centre: An organisation seeking to revive the fascist Pērkonkrusts movement.

Organisations that support veterans of the Legion and participate in events:

  • Club 415: Latvian nationalist youth organisation.
  • Popular Front of Latvia: Latvian political 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.

Organisations that have demonstrated against the events:

  • National Bolshevik Party.
  • Anti-Fascist Committee of Latvia.
  • For Human Rights in United Latvia.
  • Nochnoy Dozor.
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