1,000 Veterans March in Latvia to Commemorate Nazi SS Soldiers

March 16, known as Legionnaire Day, has attracted criticism at home and abroad by those who say the events glorify Nazism

People attend the annual procession to commemorate the Latvian Waffen-SS (Schutzstaffel) unit, also known as the Legionnaires in Riga, Latvia, March 16, 2019.
\ INTS KALNINS/ REUTERS

Veterans of Latvia's World War II-era Waffen SS wing and their supporters marched through the capital Riga on Saturday in a controversial demonstration to commemorate their fallen comrades.

Around 1,000 people took part in the march in cold, drizzly conditions, accompanied by a large police presence and isolated counterprotests. No violence was reported, police said.

As has become an annual tradition, flowers were laid at the city's Freedom Monument.

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Around 140,000 people joined or were forced to join the Latvian Legion, an outpost of Nazi Germany's Schutzstaffel (SS) paramilitary force, during World War II. Around 50,000 of them perished during Adolf Hitler's bid to defeat the Soviet Union.

March 16, known as Legionnaire Day, has been held annually since 1990 to mark the anniversary of a battle against the Red Army in 1944. The day has attracted criticism at home and abroad by those who say the events glorify Nazism. But many Latvians view the veterans as freedom fighters who fought against a Red Army occupation.

Latvia was occupied by Soviet forces in 1940; Nazis marched into the Baltic Sea country the following year.

"The whole battle was for Latvia's independence, so that the Latvians could have their own state," Gunars Dzenitis told dpa in Riga. The 86-year-old took part in the march wearing his old uniform, "to honour the Latvian legionnaires."

Opponents held placards denouncing the march in various languages, with slogans like "They fought on the side of Adolf Hitler" and "The Legion Waffen SS was a criminal organization." Some waved baby dolls smeared in fake blood.