While the world’s attention has been focused on the developing crisis in Crimea, Baltic ultra-nationalists took to the streets of the current and pre-war capitals to demonstrate their extreme patriotism, express their xenophobia, and pitch a dangerous revision of the accepted narrative of World War II and the Holocaust.
The latter message was particularly manifest Sunday, March 16, in Riga. The march was of Latvians who served in the Latvian Legion, which was composed of the 15th and 19th divisions of the Waffen-SS, which was deployed on the Eastern Front against the Red Army. The units’ service alongside Nazi troops fighting for victory of the Third Reich, the most genocidal regime in human history, would be sufficient to disqualify them as heroes of contemporary Latvia, but the record of a significant number of these men is even more dubious. Thus although the units did not participate in Holocaust crimes (the Legion was established in early 1943, by which time almost all of Latvian Jewry had already been murdered), many of those who joined its ranks had previously served in Latvian Security Police units, such as the notorious Arajs Kommando, which played a highly significant role in the mass-murder of Latvian Jewry, and whose glorification therefore would be absolutely outrageous.
Besides ignoring the above facts, their Latvian supporters further distort history by presenting these soldiers as freedom fighters for Latvian sovereignty, a notion underlined by the conclusion of the march at the “Freedom Monument,” a cherished symbol of Latvian independence, where they walked through an honor guard of young supporters waving flags of today’s democratic Latvia.
Yet nothing could be further from the truth. The Nazis had no intention of ever granting the Baltic countries independence, a cause which was not advanced one iota by service in the Waffen-SS and/or fighting against the Soviets. In fact, it is only because Latvia was liberated from the Nazi occupation that the country was able 35 years later to reestablish its independence.
In Lithuania, the emphasis of the marches was less on Holocaust history, although that too was an element of the message. In Lithuania’s pre-WWII capital, Kaunas (Kovno), on February 16 (the day of original Lithuanian independence in 1918), and in its current capital of Vilnius (Vilna) on March 11 (the day independence was restored in 1990), the close to 4,000 (total) marchers were more focused on their hostility against minorities. “Lithuania for Lithuanians” was the chant bellowed again and again and again. The fact that both marches took place on Lithuanian Independence Days and were conducted on the main avenues in each city, emphasized the ultra-nationalist message of xenophobic patriotism, the kind that was a key factor in the extensive participation of Lithuanians in the mass murder of 96.4 percent of the Jews who lived under Nazi occupation.
And lest there be any doubt as to the connection to Holocaust history, in both marches a large image of Juozas Ambrazevicius-Brazaitis, the prime minister of the provisional government established by Lithuanians in the wake of the Nazi invasion of June 22, 1941, was carried prominently. It was Ambrazevicius who publicly supported the Third Reich and actively promoted the persecution and murder of Lithuanian Jews, certainly no basis for adulation by citizens of a member of the European Union in good standing.
I am certain that these events were not what the leaders of NATO and the European Union expected when they admitted these countries to membership in 2004. The sad truth is, however, that practically all of post-Communist Eastern Europe is suffering from a serious case of collective historical amnesia, which expresses itself in Holocaust distortion and anti-Semitism, as well as in promotion of the canard of equivalency between Communist and Nazi crimes. The time has come for Brussels and Washington to finally take a stand and once and for all put a stop to the promotion of a false narrative of WWII and the Holocaust, which hides the extent of local participation in Shoa crimes and fans the flames of neo-fascism, racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism.
Not only because these phenomena will almost certainly help Russia justify possible efforts to undermine Baltic independence, but because they represent the core values that both NATO and the European Union profess to hold dear.
The author is the chief Nazi hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of its Israel office. He personally led protests against all three marches of neo-Nazis and extreme-right activists in Lithuania and Latvia during the past month.
His most recent book is Operation Last Chance; One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice (Palgrave-MacMillan).