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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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

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