Why does Latvia still honour the Waffen-SS?

No EU member state should be honouring members of the biggest Jew-killing machine in world history.

This morning, 16 March, a 47-year-old British woman, Monica Lowenberg, placed a wreath at the foot of the Freedom Monument in Riga, Latvia. She was dressed in the ghetto garb the Nazis forced Riga's Jews to wear. Many of her family died at the hands of Germans and their Latvian collaborators.

She stood in silent witness as marchers arrived to celebrate the Latvian Legion of the Waffen-SS, the biggest Jew-killing machine in world history. Latvians pushed Ms Lowenberg to one side to place their own large insignia of the Latvian Waffen-SS in front of the Freedom Monument.

Below is an open letter that Ms Lowenberg wrote to the government and parliament of Latvia to explain why in 2012 she believes, rightly, that no EU member state should be honouring members of the Waffen-SS in an open public ceremony in a European capital city.

Denis MacShane

Open letter to the government and parliament of Latvia on the eve of the Waffen-SS commemoration

My name is Monica Lowenberg and I am the only child and daughter of Ernest Lowenberg, a German Jewish refugee who managed to leave Nazi Germany five days before the outbreak of war in 1939. He was 16. His mother, my grandmother Marianne Loewenberg (née Peiser), born in Leipzig, a violinist and opera singer, managed with the help of the Hinrichsens, owners of the music publishing firm C F Peters, to leave Germany in April 1939 on a domestic's visa.

Tragically, the rest of the immediate Peiser and Loewenberg family did not manage to escape in time and were brutally murdered in the various camps or shot. My grandfather David Loewenberg or Levenbergs, born in 1877 in Libau in Latvia, was one of eight children, as I discovered only last year in the Latvian Historical State Archives in Riga. His two elder twin brothers also left Latvia, like himself, Moishe for Paris (his children worked in the French Resistance and were murdered by the Gestapo) and Abraham for Tehran. My grandfather was, from what I could gather, the only Levenberg who went to university and studied in Dresden, later making a life for himself in Berlin. He was an engineer and an inventor whose factory was taken away from him by the Nazis in 1935, forcing him to place his two sons in an orphanage.

His other brother and three sisters stayed with their parents, Minna and Lazzers (Lazzers had been a soldier), in Libau and most likely helped them out in their furniture shop. From what I have read, I must conclude that my Levenberg family who stayed in Libau were all murdered by Latvian Arajs commandos and auxiliary police in the Libau massacres of 1941.

After many years of searching for family members and even devoting ten years of my life to studying the Holocaust formally at MA and then DPhil level, working at Sussex university and the Wiener Library as an academic and education officer, I decided to go to Riga for the first time last year and try to establish what had happened to my uncle Paul, my father's brother born in Halle, Germany, 20 January 1922.

Paul, who was a year older than my father, had not managed to get out of Nazi Germany and therefore found himself trying to leave for Palestine with the help of a Jewish youth movement. He worked first of all on a farm in Denmark before going to Riga to work in 1940. The last letter my grandmother received from him was dated 8 September 1940. In the Riga archives, I discovered that Paul had been sent to the Riga ghetto on 4 October 1941. There are no records of what happened to him. I must assume that he was killed, aged 19. In 1941 and 1942, 90 per cent of Latvia's pre-war 62,000 Jews were killed, Latvian commandos and auxiliary police taking a leading role in their extermination.

As I am sure you can appreciate, discovering these facts has been exceptionally distressing. However, it was equally distressing to discover that the men actively involved in the mass murders of Latvia's Jews joined the 15th and 19th Divisions of the Latvian SS in 1943. The 15th Division was the most decorated out of all Himmler's SS divisions. In an EU country, these men are today held as "heroes" by many Latvians.

The current Latvian prime minister feels we should "bow" our heads to these Waffen-SS klillers. I also find it of deep concern that British Conservative MEPs in the European Parliament work with the Latvian MEP Roberts Zile and have made an unholy alliance with the party to which he is connected.

Last year two Latvian politicians, Dzintars Rasnacs and Raivis Dzintars, participated in the march to honour the Waffen-SS, the greatest Jew-killing machine in world history. Raivis Dzintars belongs to the national association "All For Latvia!" and was a member of the ultranationalist For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK party, to which Mr Zile is still linked.

I must also add that another party comrade of Mr Zile told the Latvian parliament that LNNK has always been against the trial of Konrads Kalejs and other Latvians accused of Nazi crimes. Kalejs was a close assistant of Viktors Arajs, chief of the bloody Arajs Commando, responsible for guarding and finishing off those Jews who were still alive in the ditches into they fell after mass shootings. Some survived and tried to escape but the Latvians were on hand to kill them.

To raise concern about these Latvian politicians and the Waffen-SS, I launched a petition, started on the anniversary of my uncle's birthday – 20 January 2012 – 70 years to the day of the Wannsee conference when the Final Solution of exterminating the Jews was planned. The petition was called "Stop the 16 March Marches in Riga and Latvians Revising History", as I sincerely believe glorification of pro-Nazi armed forces during the Second World War has no place in a country that is a member of the European Union, Nato, the OSCE and the Council of Europe.

In little over a month, the petition has gained over 5,500 votes from around the world, indicating that I am not alone in believing that such glorification is terribly wrong. One should add that the ECRI, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, had already in 2008 explicitly stated: "All attempts to commemorate persons who fought in the Waffen-SS and collaborate with the Nazis should be condemned. Any gathering or march legitimising in any way Nazism should be banned." The ECRI reiterated the same in its most recent report about Latvia, dated 21 February 2012.

The Latvian apologists and their friends in British politics who refuse to dissociate themselves from Mr Zile should consider the following:

1. Many of the worst Latvian killers served in the Latvian Security Police prior to joining the SS Legion. Honouring such persons would be a travesty of justice and a whitewash of their heinous crimes.

2. The Legion fought under the Nazi high command for victory of the Third Reich. They do not deserve to be honoured for fighting for a victory of the most genocidal regime in human history. Ironically, such a victory would have been a disaster for Latvia because the Nazis had no intention or plan to grant Latvia independence.

3. About one-third of those who served in the Legion were volunteers (two-thirds were drafted) and many of them had served in Latvian Security Police units that actively participated in the mass murder of Jews in Latvia and in Belarus, such as the infamous Arajs Commando squad.

4. When Latvian SS killed Soviet soldiers, they allowed Nazis on the western front to kill British and American soldiers in turn and thus made it possible for Auschwitz and other concentration camps to continue their heinous crimes against humanity.

5. Democratic Latvia should not glorify those willing to give up their lives for victory of the Third Reich. The Latvian Righteous Gentiles would make much better role models.

6. The ultranationalists who support the march are the ones who are seeking to rewrite the accepted narrative of the Holocaust in Latvia. Their efforts will help hide the crimes of local Nazi collaborators and promote the canard of equivalency between communist and Nazi crimes.

7. Ceremonies in churches and cemeteries are also forms of honouring the deceased (whether they deserve it or not). Witness the masses held in Zagreb and Split, Croatia, last December in honour of the Croatian mass murderer and leader of the Ustashe Ante Pavelic.

As these men march from the main Latvian Lutheran Church towards the symbol of Latvian independence – Freedom Monument in Riga's central square on 16 March – will any of these men and politicians spare a thought for their Latvian murdered compatriots who happened to be Jewish? Will they remember how 25,000 of them, in the autumn of 1941, over two weekends, were marched down Riga's streets from the ghetto to Rumbula, shot and thrown into pits using the "sardine method"? Will they say a prayer for them?

With kind regards,

Monica Lowenberg

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and a former Europe minister

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
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Keep the Burkini, ban the beach

Beaches are dreadful places. Maybe it would just be easier to ban them.

To hell with political correctness, I'm just going to say it. I think women who wear burkinis to the beach are silly. I also, for that matter, think women who wear bikinis to the beach are silly. Not because of what they're wearing – women, quite obviously, should be able to wear whatever the hell they want without interference from eyebrow-furrowing douchecanoes and neighborhood bigots whose opinions are neither relevant nor requested. No, my problem is with the beach. 

Beaches are dreadful places. I question the judgement of anyone who chooses to go, of their own free will, to a strip of boiling sand that gets in all your squishy bits, just to lie down. I associate beaches with skin cancer and sunstroke and stickiness and sharks. As a neurotic, anxious goth who struggles with the entire concept of organised fun, even the idea of the beach distresses me. I won't go and you can't make me. Especially given that if I did go, whatever I chose to wear, some fragile man somewhere whose entire identity depends on controlling how the women around him behave would probably get outraged and frightened and try to ban me.

Men love to have opinions on what women should wear on their holidays. Nipples are not to be tolerated, and burkinis are now an invitation to Islamophobia, so I can only imagine how my grumpy summer goth robes would go down. The annual summer storm over women's beach attire has a xenophobic twist this year after burkinis – the swimsuit alternative for women who want to conform to a “modest” Islamic dress code – were banned on many beaches in France (although one specific one, in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet, has been overturned by a test ruling in the country’s highest court).

Not to be outdone, Nicholas Sarkozy has promised to institute nationwide legislation against the “provocative” garment if he's re-elected as president, jumping gleefully on the bandwagon brought to global attention by race riots in Corsica. Photos have emerged of Nice police officers apparently forcing a sunbathing Muslim woman to strip down and issuing her with a penalty slip. I can only imagine what that poor woman must have felt as the state swooped down on her swimsuit, but hey, Sarkozy says that public humiliation of Muslim women is a vital part of French values, and women's symbolic experience is always more important than our actual, lived experience. There are many words for this sort of bullying, but Liberty does not come into it, and nor does Equality. Fraternity, of course, is doing just fine.

Whatever women wear, it's always provocative to someone, and it's always our fault – particularly if we're also seen to be shamelessly enjoying ourselves without prior permission from the patriarchy and the state. If we wear too little, that's a provocation, and we deserve to be raped or assaulted. If we wear too much, that's a provocation, and we deserve racist abuse and police harassment. If we walk too tall, speak to loud or venture down the wrong street at night, whatever we're wearing, that's a provocation and we deserve whatever we get. The point of all this is control – the policing of women's bodies in public, sometimes figuratively, and sometimes literally. It's never about women's choices – it's about how women's choices make men feel, and men's feelings are routinely placed before women's freedom, even the simple freedom to wear things that make us feel comfortable as we queue up for overpriced ice cream. It's not about banning the Burkinis, or banning the bikini. It's about stopping women from occupying public space, curtailing our freedom of expression, and letting us know that whoever we are, we are always watched, and we can never win.

If you ask me, the simplest thing would just be to ban the beach. I consider people on the beach a personal provocation. Yes, I grew up in a seaside town, but some of the beach people come from far away, and they aren't like me, and therefore I fear them. The very sight of them, laying around all damp and happy, is an active identity threat to me as an angry goth, and that means it must be personal. As far as I'm concerned the beach is for smoking joints in the dark in winter, snogging under the pier and swigging cheap cider from the two-litre bottle you've hidden up your jumper. That's all the beach is good for. Ban it, I say. 

I do, however, accept – albeit grudgingly – that other people have different experiences. Some people actually like the seaside. And given that I am neither a screaming overgrown toddler with affectless political ambitions nor a brittle, bellowing xenophobe convinced that anything that makes me uncomfortable ought to be illegal, I have learned to tolerate beach people. I may never understand them. That's ok. The beach isn't for me. Not everything has to be for me. That's what it means to live in a community with other human beings. As performative Islamophobia and popular misogyny bake on the blasted sand-flats of public discourse, more and and more conservatives are failing to get that memo. I'd suggest they calm down with an ice lolly and a go on the Ferris wheel – but maybe it'd be easier just to ban them. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.