Over 1,000 Latvians commemorated Nazi-affiliated World War II soldiers on Wednesday, while police stepped up security to prevent violence from erupting between participants and ethnic Russians, who are a minority in the country.
Many Latvians consider March 16, or Legionnaires Day, an opportunity to commemorate war veterans, while Russians see it as an attempt to glorify fascism and whitewash a black chapter in Latvia’s history.
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Latvia, which gained its independence following World War I, was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, then by Nazi Germany a year later, and again by the Soviets in 1944.
The country restored its independence in 1991, after nearly five decades of Soviet occupation, in the wake of the Soviet collapse.
About 250,000 Latvians fought alongside either the Germans or the Soviets, with around 150,000 Latvians losing their lives in the fighting.
Nearly 80,000 Jews, or 90 percent of Latvia’s pre-war Jewish population, were killed between 1941-42, two years before the formation of the Latvian Waffen SS unit, which some Latvians claim as proof the unit couldn’t have played a role in the Holocaust.
Many Latvians honour war veterans on Legionnaires Day, but ethnic Russians – who account for about one-third of Latvia’s 2.3 million population – see it as glorifying fascism.
On Wednesday, the Latvians walked from a cathedral in downtown Riga, the nation’s capital, to lay flowers at the nearby Freedom Monument, where they were met by a few dozen anti-fascist demonstrators.
The opposing protesters who gathered at a nearby park behind police barricades were both from Germany and Latvia’s Russian-speaking minority.
Nirds, a protester from Berlin, said it was “unbelievable” and “a scandal” that the people serving in SS legions were remembered as heroes.
One person, British independent journalist Graham Phillips, was detained following a confrontation with Estonian politician, Jaak Madison.