Latvian President Andris Berzins on Tuesday defended a controversial annual parade that honors troops from the Baltic state who fought the Soviet Union under the banner of Nazi Germany.
Speaking on the LNT television channel, Berzins said veterans of the World War II Latvian Legion, a 140,000-strong unit of Germany's Waffen SS, deserved respect not condemnation.
"They were conscripted into the fascist German Legion. They went with the ideal of defending Latvia. Latvians in the Legion were not war criminals," Berzins insisted.
He also said foreign criticism of the March 16 rally was unfair.
Though not an official holiday, the day sees a parade by veterans and their families, as well as far-right activists.
Annual parade at Latvia honors SS troops (Photo: AFP)
Simon Wiesenthal Center Director Efraim Zuroff criticized the parade saying: "An annual celebration of the Nazi invasion is like celebrating the mass murder of Nazi victims – Jews, communists, gypsies and the mentally ill." Zuroff demanded the local government put a stop to this "outrage."
Centre-right Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis has warned ministers not to take part. Members of the right-wing National Alliance - one of three parties in his coalition government - have been prominent attendees in previous years.
The rally sparks demonstrations by members of Latvia's Russian and Jewish communities who say it celebrates Nazism.
Legion veterans insist they were not Nazis but simply defending their small nation against the feared Soviets.
The Soviets seized Latvia in June 1940 under a pact with the Nazis. It broke down in June 1941 when Germany invaded Soviet territory.
German troops were hailed by some Latvians as liberators. Only a week before they arrived, the Soviets had deported 15,000 Latvians to Siberia.
But the Nazis brought their own terror, killing 70,000 of Latvia's 85,000 Jews, helped by local collaborators.
Legion veterans underline that it was founded in 1943, after most of Latvia's Jews had been slaughtered, arguing they cannot be held responsible.
The Legion was a mixture of volunteers and conscripts. Roughly a third died in combat or Soviet captivity. Another 130,000 Latvians sided with the Soviets. Almost a quarter were killed, many in battles with their Legion compatriots.
As the war's tide turned, the Soviets captured Riga in October 1944. Latvia regained independence in 1991 and joined the European Union in 2004.
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