Where de Sade and the SS live on

Observations on Latvia

Shortly before his death, Gyorgy Lukacs remarked gloomily that if communism failed, it would lead not to the rebirth of bourgeois liberalism, but the triumph of Sadism. Go to Latvia and you may think he was right. Certainly, post-communist reality there conforms more to the Marquis de Sade's vision than to Adam Smith's.

The capital, Riga, is a riot of prostitution without constraints. At the once-grand Hotel Riga, opposite Wagner's old opera house, a club called Dolls offers rooms by the hour and see-through bathrooms. In the park around the nearby monument to Latvia's freedom, glue-sniffing boys offer same-sex services. For the more discreet gay man, there is the subtly named Purvs.

There is an even darker side to all this. Virtually all signs of Soviet occupation - war memorials celebrating the Red Army, for example - have been removed. Not so the country's other 20th-century occupation. Head west out of Riga towards where the front line between the Red Army and Hitler's troops still stood in May 1945, and you'll find the Nazi period alive and well.

In Lestene, a huge memorial commemorating tens of thousands of Waffen SS men has recently been inaugurated; here, Latvian members of Heinrich Himmler's elite force defended a pocket of Nazi- controlled territory until the end of the war. About five miles away, at the old front-line village of Zante, an enterprising amateur local historian has put together a museum with a remarkable assemblage of the debris of the fighting. This has become a place of pilgrimage, to which Latvian soldiers are taken for pep talks before they go out to Iraq to join US-led operations.

I travelled on the army bus with an elderly man who spoke fluent German. "Adolf", he said, had saved Europe from communism because Stalin's forces were about to surge westwards, but Hitler "pre-empted" his attack. In 200 years' time, he guessed, "there will be monuments to Hitler". Judging from the rate at which some Latvians are putting up monuments to their SS, Hitler won't have to wait that long. Nowadays, the word "occupation" usually refers only to the Soviet period.

While so much effort is being put into mythologising Latvia's darkest chapter, little or nothing is being done for the country's real heritage. The collapse of agriculture demanded by Brussels as the price of entry into the EU has not only driven the peasantry from the land, but also led to the abandonment of countless beautiful old farm buildings. Wooden cottages and barns lie in ruins in untended, weed-infested fields. In Riga itself, only a handful of the fabulous pre-revolutionary art nouveau buildings have been preserved properly. Even as the local English- language paper decries the shortage of living space, many fine old buildings lie empty. Early 20th-century factory buildings, which would be renovated in the west, are commonly demolished.

Latvia is a rootless parody of a nation state. SS chic marches hand in hand with sex for sale. With a wildly distorted past, its present has become a perverse reality.

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