By Philip Birzulis

Wrestling with a painful past and a confused modern identity, an annual parade by Latvian veterans of German army units to Riga's Freedom Monument has produced much soul searching amongst the soldiers' fellow countrymen in recent years. But while the old men will answer the call again this March 16, other sections of society are taking a more subdued interest than before.

The march commemorates a battle on the Eastern Front on March 16, 1944, which was the only occasion when both Latvian divisions of the Waffen SS, known as the Latvian Legion, fought side by side. The veterans say they were fighting for Latvia's freedom from the Soviet Union, and putting on a German uniform was a choice to battle against the greater evil facing their country. Their detractors claim the letters "SS" indelibly link them with the horrors of Nazism, a connection they think should not be paraded through the streets of Riga.

These polarized views have put Latvian governments over the past few years into an awkward position.

Some public figures have joined the march to show solidarity with the veterans, and before last year's event the Parliament gave March 16 official status by making it National Soldiers Memorial Day.

The Russian government, some Western ones and the international media criticized this decision, and when the big day rolled around, the administration of then Prime Minister Vilis Kristopans took great pains to distance itself from any connection.

This year, the politicians have put it all behind them. A month ago Parliament voted to drop March 16 as a commemoration date, and there will be no official involvement. President Vaira Vike-Freiberga will attend to other business.

"The president's view is that soldiers who fought for Latvia's freedom are honored on Nov. 11, Lacplesis Day [Latvia's other remembrance date]," said Aiva Rozenberga, the president's press secretary.

Some MPs have said they will join the procession as private citizens, while others like Dzintars Abikis of the People's Party are taking a position between outright support and denial. Abikis will be in a sitting of Parliament during the march, but said he will later place flowers at the Freedom Monument in honor of fallen soldiers.

"Its everyone's individual choice, its not an official state day," he said. "I place flowers at the monument every year because I think the Legionnaires fought for Latvia's freedom, and thanks to them many Latvians escaped to the West rather than getting sent to Siberia."

However, veterans think the government has let them down. Nikolajs Romanovskis, chairman of the National Soldiers Association which is organizing the event, said Nov. 11 covers only the independence struggle after World War I, and World War II veterans need there own day.

"There is not the slightest reason to forgo this day," he said.

Romanovskis has requested a permit for 400 marchers from the Riga City Council, but judging by many phone calls he has received he reckons the number could actually reach 4,000. Public support could make the march into "a national manifestation," according to Romanovskis.

In 1998, international attention was drawn to the event when a group of Russian-speakers scuffled with the veterans at the Freedom Monument. Romanovskis said the veterans have banned anyone wearing military uniforms in their ranks, since they don't have any themselves and anyone wearing one is likely to be a provocateur.

"We are distancing ourselves from any provocation," he said. "Our action will not be a march, nor a goose-step, but a dignified procession to place flowers in honor of our fallen."

Romanovskis said claims that the veterans were involved in crimes against humanity are the products of fifty years of Soviet propaganda.

"We fought against communism, and so they charged the Legionnaires with shooting Jews. The truth is that only a small number, from the Arajs Kommando, were involved in these activities. To say that many of us were involved in shooting Jews is nonsense," he said.

However, Gregory Krupnikov, co-chairman of the Latvian Jewish Community, believes that the veterans' connection with the Nazis is too strong to brush away. He said the abolition of the day as an official commemoration was the right thing for the government to do and people should distance themselves from what is an insult to the Jewish people.

"This commemoration glorifies the Nazi army, and like it or not the Legion was part of that Nazi army," he said.

Furthermore, Krupnikov wondered why Latvians are celebrating events which saw their young men drafted into fighting for one totalitarian regime against another. He cited documents published by Latvian emigre historian Andrew Ezergailis showing that what the Nazis planned to do after the war was just as brutal as the actions of the Soviets.

"The Nazi regime wanted to eliminate Latvia and Latvians, assimilate the most Aryan ones and deport the rest to Siberia," he said. "What has that got to do with fighting for the freedom of Latvia?"

Not surprisingly, representatives of Latvia's large Russian speaking community are also against the march.

"In the public's eyes, those who fought with the Nazis were on the side of the devil, not the angels. The majority of local Russian speakers think this is an attempt to rehabilitate the Nazi ideology," said Alexander Krasnitsky, national news editor of the Russian-language daily Chas.

Krasnitsky said his personal view is that those who committed war crimes were punished under the Soviet regime, and that the Legion veterans can be viewed as sufferers. But turning them into heroes, which he sees the march as doing, is wrong and spits in the face of the Western democracies that fought against Hitler. He said it is important for Latvia to compare its behavior not with Stalin's Soviet Union, which he described as a "harsh, bloody empire," but with its far more enlightened allies in the struggle against the Nazis. It is also unlikely that the West will understand why the Legionnaires are marching. In previous years, Latvia has drawn some very bad international press over the event, which continuing the march will not change, according to Gudrun Dometeit, foreign editor of the German news weekly Focus, which is planning a story on the March 16 event.

"Some older people might sympathize, because they are politically right-wing or they think these veterans fought for the freedom of the Baltics. But the majority are skeptical and think it shouldn't happen, since the Baltics want to join the EU," she said.

March 16 events in Riga:

10:00: Service in Dome Cathedral
11:00: Procession by veterans from Dome Cathedral through Old Riga to the Freedom Monument.
14:00: Remembrance service in Riga's Brothers Cemetery.
14:30: Remembrance service at Lestene War Cemetery.

to: Crimes Against Humanity