A monument has been erected in a Flemish town in memory of Nazi fighters belonging to the Latvian Legion.
The monument is dedicated officially to “the idea of freedom” and pays tribute to 12.000 soldiers belonging to two Latvian SS units imprisoned as POWs in Zedelgem, near Bruges by the British. These units, the 15th and 19th Latvian SS Divisions, made up the Waffen-SS Latvian Legion.
“It appears that these individuals placed in this camp had been part of the German troops and had operated in the Baltic countries as well as on the Eastern front”, said Wilfred Burie, President of Belgians Remember Them, a veterans’ organisation in Belgium.
“These units were made up of Latvian nationalist elements, most of whom were not forcibly recruited, but came under the SS banner in order to fight their then enemy, the Soviet Union. Reports and testimonies both from the Western Allies and the Soviet Union detail the nature of the abuses committed by these individuals against the civilian populations and prisoners of war they arrested,” Burie added.
The Zedelgem monument, which was erected in 2018, takes the form of a Latvian beehive. “The hive is the nation, the bees are the inhabitants: hardworking and peaceful, as long as they are not threatened. The sound of the buzzing bees conveys the vibrancy of a harmonious society,” reads a description on the website of the municipality of Zedelgem.
In addition, the square in the town where the monument was placed was renamed to Brivibaplein, a reference to the Latvian word for freedom.
The designer and sculptor of the monument, Kristaps Gulbis, explained his concept thusly: “My idea is to unite in this monument the common European values and the symbolic language understood by all Europeans with something special and visually characteristic only to Latvia.”
At the opening of the monument in 2018, Zedelgem’s Alderman in charge of Heritage Patrick Arnou stated: “Latvian boys were deployed in the German army in World War II to fight against the Soviet Union.”
“When World War II drew to a close, many Latvian soldiers surrendered to the Allies. Nearly 12,000 of them ended up in the POW Camp in Zedelgem from 1945 to 1946. When they regained their freedom, they settled. they are located in different western countries, including here in Belgium,” Arnou explained.
The Latvian government has claimed in the past that the Latvian Legion was not really an SS unit and that “the legionnaires who weren’t forcefully conscripted merely sought independence for Latvia when they joined Hitler’s army.”
90,000 Jews lived in Latvia prior to the Nazi occupation in summer 1941. Significant numbers of Latvians organized in armed groups, which they called self-defense units, attacked and murdered Jews for their alleged collaboration with the Soviets.
The Nazis and their collaborators murdered close to 70,000 Jews who had lived in Latvia before the Holocaust. It is believed that unknown number of Latvian Waffen-SS soldiers may have been involved in the murder of Jews as auxiliary police, years before they entered the front-line unit, which was formed to fight the Red Army.
Each year in March, a demonstration is held in Riga in honour of the Legion, with around 1000 veterans and supporters wearing military uniforms sporting swastikas and Nazi insignia.