Latvia critical of Belgian plans to relocate war memorial

According to a release by the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on 10 December 2021, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Latvia, Edgars Rinkēvičs, sent a letter to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, European Affairs and Foreign Trade and the Federal Cultural Institutions of the Kingdom of Belgium, Sophie Wilmès, "expressing concerns about developments in Zedelgem in relation to the 'Latvian Beehive for Freedom' monument and asking that the Minister follow the matter closely."

"Minister Rinkēvičs underlines in his letter that pursuant to an agreement signed between the Museum of Occupation of Latvia and the Municipality of Zedelgem in April of 2017, the monument should symbolically refer to the concept of ‘freedom’ and remind the public of the tragic consequences of World War II – the captivity of more than 12 000 of Latvian prisoners of war in the Zedelgem POW camp during 1945–1946, while showing proper respect to the memory of those soldiers," said the statement.

"In light is this, Edgars Rinkēvičs expresses deep regret over the removal of the monument’s informative plaque, the launch of a formal process to change the name of the Brivibaplein (Freedom Square) and recommendations received from a group of international historians to relocate the monument. The Latvian Foreign Minister voices concern that the Municipality of Zedelgem may have encountered a very strong local and international disinformation of various origin," the statement continues, adding that "democratic European nations, including Latvia, have been experiencing smear campaigns and misuse of their difficult histories for a blunt geopolitical gain by undemocratic and aggressive regimes,” without specifying who those enemies are in this case. 

The panel of historians includes several from Latvia or of Latvian heritage, as well as historians from universities in Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Russia, the United States, France and Sweden. 

"The Minister calls on the city of Zedelgem to engage with its cooperation partners in Latvia, especially with the Museum of Occupation, and find an appropriate way forward that respects the very different but tragic WWII histories of Latvia and Belgium," the statement concludes, noting that on 14 December, the Ambassador of Latvia, Andris Razāns, will make a visit to the municipality.

According to an account of the unveiling of the monument in 2018, the monument by Latvian sculptor Kristaps Gulbis "is dedicated to the Latvian Legionnaires, who did not lose faith in freedom for the Latvian State, during the winter of 1945 to 1946 when they were held in Zedelgem prisoner of war camp," a PoW camp run by the British on Belgian soil.

Between September 1945 and May 1946, the Zedelgem prisoner-of-war camp in Belgium housed about 11,700 of the 25,000 Latvian soldiers who had served in German military units and had been captured by the Western Allied armies at the end of World War II. Almost 90% of these prisoners of war belonged to the Latvian Legion, founded in 1943 during the German occupation of Latvia.

The monument has caused controversy in Belgium as the Latvian Legion was part of the Waffen SS. English-language news outlet The Brussels Times, citing the major De Standaard daily, reports that following protests about the monument over the summer, an international panel of historians deemed the monument inappropriate. More about the historians and their findings is available at this website

In addition, Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks has also sent a letter to the Belgian Minister of Defense Ludivine Dedonder asking that the monument is not moved. 

"I therefore urge that all possible means be used to overturn this decision, as the people of Latvia will take it as a serious insult," Pabriks warned in his letter.

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