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Spring in Latvia—a perfect time for rewriting history

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  • Pavasaris Latvijā – īstais brīdis, lai pārrakstītu vēsturi  Šis raksts ir pieejams latviešu valodā
Every spring, rival historical narratives about World War II emerge in Latvia’s public space, as pro-Kremlin media outlets portray Latvia as a thriving hotbed of Nazism. 

Emotions run particularly high on 16 March, when several thousand people publicly mark the so-called Latvian Legion—created in 1943 when Nazi Germany illegally drafted around 115,000 young men into its armed forces. Of that total, 30,000 died fighting. After the war, veterans of the Latvian Legion living in exile introduced the tradition of honoring their fallen comrades on 16 March each year. Although Legionnaires Day is no longer officially observed, it has become a major media event. In particular, the pro-Kremlin media uses 16 March commemorations in downtown Riga to claim that Latvia glorifies the Waffen SS soldiers. 

This year, Russia’s state-owned NTV channel offered the most extensive reporting on the annual 16 March event, characterizing it as “the march of the neo-Nazis.” However, neither NTV nor any other pro-Kremlin outlet offered proof of the rally’s neo-Nazi character. Instead, they aired Soviet-era documentary footage on Nazi crimes. On 17 March, NTV program Central Television combined this footage with closeups of a swastika (see at 3:37 and 4:17). In fact, those who mark 16 March in Riga always hold up visible banners condemning the Hitler and Stalin regimes. 

Pro-Kremlin media also ignored the fact that 16 March is not an official, state-supported holiday but a private initiative. Nor did those outlets mention that the Riga City Council—ruled by a pro-Kremlin party (Harmony) since 2009—lets the Latvian Legionnaires organize the annual event. The NTV news story also quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who labeled the EU and NATO reaction to the Riga commemorations as “the silence of the lambs.” All this coverage downplayed the fact that Nuremberg Tribunal declared that the Latvian Legion was never part of the Waffen-SS which the Tribunal recognized as a criminal organization. That means no Western country has ever associated the Latvian Legion with Nazi crimes, nor has a single person been found guilty of war crimes while serving in the Legion.

In other NTV news material, Latvian pro-Kremlin activist Alexander Gaponenko not only likened the Latvian legionnaires to Nazis (see from 01:20) but argued that the United Nations regularly votes to condemn them—even though Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia always abstain on those votes. Gaponenko did not mention that all EU countries and the United States—not only the Baltic states – have not supported the UN resolutions on glorifying Nazism because those countries see the resolutions as politicized.  

Publicizing a fake revival of Nazism is an essential part of the Kremlin’s public diplomacy, yet the West’s reluctance to support Kremlin claims about such a revival in the Baltics makes this strategy less effective. Survey data also suggest that attempts by pro-Kremlin media to frame Latvia as sympathetic toward Nazi ideology have failed. A recent survey commissioned by the Latvian Defense Ministry shows that only 10 percent of Latvia’s Russian-speaking minority believes Latvia is dominated by fascist ideology. Moreover, Latvians in general also demonstrate a decreasing interest in 16 March as a politically important date.

Photo: AP PHOTO/ Roman Koksarov
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