Waffen SS veterans commemorate Latvia's checkered past

Sat Mar 16, 2013 1:23pm EDT
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By Andrius Sytas

RIGA (Reuters) - Veterans of Latvia's World War Two Waffen SS divisions and their supporters marched through the capital Riga on Saturday in a commemoration that passed off peacefully but drew criticism.

Now in their 80s and 90s, the men who joined the armed wing of Adolf Hitler's Nazi party say they were fighting for Latvian freedom at the end of the war and against the return of the Soviet Red Army. Before the war, Soviet troops occupied Latvia and thousands were executed or sent to Siberia, many dying.

But critics of the annual event, many of whom come from the country's large Russian-speaking minority, say it distorts history, honors Nazism and insults the victims of the conflict.

A handful of aged veterans of the division, followed by supporters carrying national flags, walked through the city to lay flowers at the central Freedom Monument.

"We wore German uniforms, so now they call us Nazis," said Vitolds Mukans, 89. He said he voluntarily joined to defend his homeland from being occupied by the Red Army.

Latvia was part of the Soviet Union for 50 years before regaining its independence in 1991. It joined the EU in 2004.

"We needed guns and the Germans were the ones who gave them to us," he said. Most political parties distance themselves from the event, but a nationalist bloc in the ruling coalition supports it and its members took part in the parade.

The veterans, many of whom were forcibly conscripted, say they were frontline troops and did not belong to that part of the SS responsible for killing Jews in the Holocaust.   Continued...

A man holds a placard during the annual procession commemorating the Latvian Waffen-SS (Schutzstaffel) unit, also known as the Legionnaires, in Riga March 16, 2013. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins