In America, the Greatest Generation ages and the number of witnesses to the struggle, horror, and bravery of World War II dwindle down. Behind them they leave an untarnished legacy of the fight against Nazism, and personal bravery and sacrifice in the name of human brotherhood. Elsewhere, Nazi movements are re-born.
On March 16, in Riga, Latvia, I will join other Americans and Europeans to witness an annual march and wreath-laying to honor the Latvians who served in the Waffen-SS, including numbers of men who participated in the murder of Jews and others massacred by the German killing machine. It is a breathtaking symbol of the resurgence of Nazi movements across the world, and a moment to reflect on our moral and political condition.
From Greece to Russia to India to Hungary to Moldova and the Ukraine, and in North America, there are active political organizations and mass sympathies for Nazi and neo-Nazi groups. They flow from traditional wellsprings, anti-immigrant hatred, economic insecurity, irredentist conflict, and sheer bigotry. And they are often supported or manipulated by governments and well-known political parties. In many places they serve within government and receive considerable support in elections.
There is a body of opinion that the best way to handle all this is to ignore it. Naming it by its' name, it is said, will only encourage it. This may be the way to handle nutty fringe efforts, but the depth and breadth of these movements is no longer something to be shrugged off. They are growing in number and in boldness and we must decide what to do. We've chosen to take it seriously, to go to Riga and see for ourselves, and to speak while things are still controllable. If you doubt that this is the lesson history teaches, consider the words of Winston Churchill in the 1930's as Germany embraced Nazism and took actions in its' name : "arrest the calamity at the threshold. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it now."
The Latvian situation is complicated to be sure. Some of the Latvian Waffen SS were drafted. Some eventually turned on the Germans. But some took gun in hand and shot men, women and children. There is also the complications of today's politics. Only twenty or thirty of the Riga marchers are surviving SS members. The bulk of the people who show up are from today's Latvian ultra-nationalist and reactionary organizations, who harbor broad anti-Russian sentiment flowing from the Russian occupation of the Baltic states during and after WWII. Undoubtedly there is room for an historical debate. But the Riga marchers don't dwell on ambiguities. They must and will ignore that part of the historical record that doesn't fit their politics, and as a former Latvian President said, "bow" to the Latvian Waffen SS. The truth is, the Latvian Waffen SS is not the organization and these are not the men to honor and emulate before the world.
Most, but not all, European governments and political parties have opposed the Riga march. But as memory dims, too often the positions taken are based on the politics of the moment. There is something truly different about the Holocaust and the horrors of mass murder and genocide of seventy-five year ago. There remains a need to continually reassert our outrage about those events. There is a need to speak clearly about these upsurges wherever they appear. We do so in the name of the dead who cannot speak for themselves, for those still living who did so much to prevent the horror, and for the world to come which must never again see such things.