Usual March 16 Legion routine for Latvian police

As with every year year, the risk of provocative acts exists in connection with the controversial March 16 parade through the streets of central Rīga, but there are no grounds for great concern yet, chief of the State Police Ints Ķuzis said on LTV March 13.

Ķuzis said it should be taken into account that the European Parliament elections in May are drawing near and consequently certain people may attempt to use the March 16 parade to draw attention to themselves.

Likewise, this year's March 16 event falls on a Saturday, so there are likely to be more casual bystanders and tourists in the area to watch the event than when it falls on a working day, Ķuzis added. There will also be an officially sanctioned demonstration against the event, as in previous years.

March 16 is a date that always causes controversy and sparks a wave of negative press in international media.

Though it is not included on the nation's official calendar of events, several hundred people always turn out to parade through the center of Riga and pay tribute to Latvian soldiers who served in the Latvian Legion, units of the Waffen SS who fought on the side of Nazi Germany in World War II.

March 16 was the date in 1944 on which both divisions of the Latvian Legion fought against the Red Army.

Similar numbers of Latvians fought on both the German and Soviet sides after seeing their independent state removed from the map by the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and then enduring successive occupations.

Controversy and negative international headlines inevitably follow each parade with participants saying they are honoring freedom fighters or unwilling forced recruits, while opponents say the event promotes rehabilitating and glorifying fascism.

A less controversial commemoration of those who fought in the Latvian Legion also takes place on March 16 at the regimental cemetery in Lestene.

The Latvian government's official position on the March 16 events are available at the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and says:

  • The State of Latvia has been consistent in condemning the crimes against humanity committed by both totalitarian regimes – Latvia denounces the Holocaust and mourns its victims.
  • The people of Latvia, who during World War II were subject to horrors of war on one or the other side of the battle-front, commemorate their fallen on different dates. The battles between the Soviet and Nazi troops in March 1944 caused major fatalities among Latvian men unlawfully drafted into the Nazi German army.
  • Since the restoration of independence, the Latvian government has consistently pursued an approach that Latvia commemorates its fallen soldiers on 11 November (the Lāčplēsis Day) – the day we remember our heroes.
  • As a democratic country, Latvia respects and also guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. 16 March is not an official remembrance day, and people, on their own private initiative, pay their respects to the fallen soldiers. The senior officials and members of the government do not participate in those commemorative gatherings in the centre of Latvia’s capital city.

You can learn more about the March 16 events to gain the full background from various other sources, too. The Support Foundation of the Pocket Books on Latvia’s History has produced a PDF, not funded by any particular organization or individual but put together on a collaborative basis by historians and academics Inesis Feldmanis, Ainārs Lerhis, Rinalds Gulbis and Kārlis Kangeris.

Latvian military and defense news portal sargs.lv published an article by Jānis Tomaševskis, Head of World War II History Department of the Latvian War Museum explaining some of the controversial aspects of the Latvian Legion's history.

Finally this audio feature we produced a few years ago gives a flavor of some of the different opinions on the streets on a typical March 16.  

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