The sight of SS veterans marching down the main avenue of the capital city of a member of Nato and the European Union is hardly a sight to bring joy to the heart of a British political leader. Yet just a few days ago, Conservative chairman Eric Pickles saw fit in an interview on Radio 4 to rush to the defence of the Latvian "For Fatherland and Freedom" party which is among the staunchest supporters of precisely such an event that takes place annually in Riga every 16 March.
The simple explanation is the hackneyed cliche that politics makes strange bedfellows, and that Pickles felt obliged to defend his new partners in the European Conservatives and Reformists group of the European parliament in Strasbourg. In reality, however, Pickles's knee-jerk response is probably the product of sheer ignorance of the world-view of his Latvian political allies and their distorted perceptions of the history of the second world war, which no mainstream British political leader could possibly support.
The controversy over the annual march of the Latvian-SS Legion veterans in Riga has been raging since Latvia regained independence in 1991. Its supporters claim that the men in the Legion were soldiers who only fought against the Soviets and had no connection to SS crimes. They viewed their service as helping to defend Latvia and did so for positive patriotic reasons and not out of loyalty to Nazi Germany. Yet while it is true that the Legion as such did not participate in Holocaust crimes, many of its men were active participants in the mass murder of Jews before the Legion was established in early1943. By this point, practically all of Latvia's 70,000 Jews, as well as most of the approximately 20,000 Central European Jews deported to Riga and many tens of thousands of Jews in Belarus, had been murdered by members of Latvian security police units, many of whom subsequently volunteered to join the Legion, among them numerous men from the infamous Arajs Kommando, one of the most notorious Nazi death squads.
As far as the motives of those joining the Legion, a third volunteered (the rest were drafted) to fight for a victory of Nazi Germany and its totalitarian regime, which would have had unimaginably horrific consequences for the future of Europe. And while these Latvians might have thought that they were fighting for Latvian independence, their German masters had no such intentions, making their service on their behalf even more reprehensible.
The obsession of "For Fatherland and Freedom" to pay public homage to the Latvian-SS Legion in contradiction to all historical logic and sensitivity to Nazi crimes is not a product of ostensibly harmless nostalgia as Pickles would have us believe, but part of a rather insidious plan to gain recognition for a perversely distorted version of European history which will officially equate Communism with Nazism. In practical terms, this will transform those eastern European nations that had a high percentage of Nazi collaborators from perpetrator-helpers of a genuine genocide to victims of a tragedy posing as a genocide. It will also help them cover up their role in Holocaust crimes and failure since independence to prosecute their own Nazi war criminals.
The manifesto of this movement, the Prague Declaration of June 2008, warns that "Europe will not be united unless it is able to reunite its history [and] recognise communism and Nazism as a common legacy". Resolutions in this spirit which call for a joint commemoration day (23 August) for the victims of Communism and Nazism are only the beginning of a campaign to rewrite the history of the second world war in a way that will whitewash the villains, dishonour the victims, and rob the heroes of their well-deserved pride.
I cannot believe that Pickles and the Conservative party really support such nonsense.
Efraim Zuroff, the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the founder and director of its Israel Office.