|"With Latvian flags, people march in a procession to honor soldiers who fought in a Waffen SS unit during World War II, in Riga, Latvia, Tuesday, March 16, 2012." (AP Photo/Roman Koksarov)|
By Michael Goldfarb
Global Post on Salon.com, April 2, 2012
"In the Baltic States they celebrate their liberation from the Soviet Union in the middle of March. Winter's worst lies grey on the streets, but that doesn’t stop people in Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, and Riga, capital of Latvia, from marching solemnly to honor the heroes who fought vainly to keep the Soviet Union at bay. Among those who march are groups who honor those who fell wearing the uniform of the Waffen SS, the military arm of the notorious Nazi paramilitary unit. These SS veteran marches are not fringe events. Thousands march and thousands more turn out to cheer them on. The parades' permits are applied for by members of the governing party in parliament. Marchers are defended by the government. Latvia's president Andris Berzins reportedly praised the SS veterans on Latvian television last week, 'It's crazy to think they're war criminals.' Berzins added, 'Many people lost their lives for the future of Latvia. I don't see any basis to deny this ... it seems to me it's not acceptable to dishonor these people, before whom we should bow our heads,' he said. It's not just on Independence Day that the Nazi past intrudes on public life. In 2008, the Lithuanian parliament passed a law banning the display of Soviet and Nazi symbols. In 2010, a local Lithuanian court ruled that Swastikas were exempt from that law because the twisted crosses were 'Lithuania's historical heritage rather than symbols of Nazi Germany.' It would be easier to accept that explanation if the crowds didn’t cheer the marchers on with cries of 'Juden Raus!' or 'Jews out!' as eyewitnesses have attested. The official tolerance for marches honoring those who fought with the SS is part of a general trend in the Baltic States and all along the eastern borders of Europe: an embrace of a form of exclusionary nationalism that belongs to the 19th century, rather than the globalized 21st. It is the kind of nationalism that underpinned Hitler's theory of 'One People and One Reich.'
In recent weeks, Latvian voters rejected a proposition that Russian be acknowledged as the country's second official language. Around 27 percent of Latvia's population of 2 million is native Russian speaking. When the votes were counted Latvian president Berzins, said, 'An overwhelming majority of Latvian citizens have expressed their unequivocal support for one of the core constitutional values, the national language.' Tensions between Lithuania and Poland are also high over language. Officially, government forms and all shop signs are supposed to be in the Lithuanian language. The largest minority in Lithuania is Polish, around 6.7 percent of the population. There are significant differences in the Polish language from Lithuanian. Lithuania's Polish minority is demanding the right to spell their names on official documents in Polish rather than in the Lithuanian alphabet. They also want Polish shops to be able to put signs up in Polish. Quantifying the strength of the ultra-nationalists is almost impossible. Dovid Katz, an American scholar based in Vilnius who runs Defendinghistory.com, says it is sizable. 'Ultra-nationalism is a real trend and is being mainstreamed. Many of its supporters are young and they have dynamism.' Katz adds, 'It'd hard to imagine that these EU and NATO countries are taking up this nativist ideology.' Certainly, the Baltic states' counterparts in the EU and NATO are deeply concerned. On March 11th, the American Embassy in Vilnius backed an alternative parade, 'Celebrate Freedom' organized by leading human rights campaigners. The Council of Europe published a report on the Nazi marches in Latvia in February. It said, 'All attempts to commemorate persons who fought in the Waffen SS and collaborated with the Nazis, should be condemned. Any gathering or march legitimizing in any way Nazism should be banned.' The report went on to state that the EC, 'cannot but express concern about any attempt to justify fighting in the Waffen SS and collaborating with the Nazis, as it risks fueling racism, xenophobia, antisemitism and intolerance ...'" That is the key point. The endorsement of Nazi collaboration by some officials gives encouragement to racists and violent xenophobes. It discriminates against minorities and preserves an official place for the kind of racial hatred which has watered too much of the soil that lies in the land between the Baltic and the Black Sea. The reason for this resurgence in ugly ultra-nationalism is an unanswered question of history: who was worse, Hitler or Stalin? This may seem like a question for the seminar room, but not here. In the countries between the Baltic and the Black Sea the question is deeply emotional. It has been rephrased this way: Does the blood of someone killed fighting the Soviet Union cry out louder from the grave than someone who died fighting with the Soviets against the Nazis? And what about those who were simply murdered without taking up arms? In the eastern borderlands of Europe, those deep questions are the meat of politics. When a small group of Lithuania’s Social Democrats signed an international declaration in January on the 70th anniversary of the Wannsee conference; when the Nazis initiated the 'Final Solution' for Europe's Jews. [...]"
[n.b. I was in the same square in Riga last summer as they were commemorating the heroes of the anti-Soviet resistance. Spooky to think of these mainstream neo-nazi elements congregating freely in the same space.]