I just read a pretty good explanation of this holiday here... so I don’t need to completely rehash it. The basic idea is that this is a Veteran’s Day march for the specific group of Latvians who fought in World War II. The problem, of course, is that those men who were drafted into the German army, like my father and uncles, were given the SS tag and later called “Nazis.”
When I was growing up in small town America, I heard slurs from both sides of the aisle. Because Latvia was a part of the Soviet Union, there were people who called me a “Commie!” and a “Ruski!” and made fun of me for that. I chose to simply ignore their ignorance. Latvia never had a choice in the matter.
However, the issue of being “Nazis” was a bit more difficult to deal with. My father and my mother’s family both owed a debt to Germany after the war. When Latvia fell to the Soviets, it was Germany, a war torn impoverished country with issues of its own, which took my people in and fed them and housed them when they needed it. Because of this, I grew up hearing these stories from my mother about how the Germans kept track of every single item that they took with them on the ship when they left Riga, and my father singing German marching songs with my uncles. It was something they had in common.
I read the post which I referenced above, and it seems to completely absolve the Latvian soldiers from any allegiance to the Germans during the war, but honestly, this isn’t the way I understood it while I was growing up. My father and my uncles definitely felt an allegiance toward the Germans. I do not know what would make one cross the line from being a supporter of Germany in WWII to being a “nazi”, but I don’t think there was much separating the two in my family.
I am not writing to simply whitewash or excuse this history, but trying to understand and cope with it.
Today, I had a break during our debate tournament (see the side notes below) for lunch, and I rode my bike to the march to see what I could see. I could not believe how cold it was. When I rode this morning, it was not nearly as frigid as it would become only a few hours later. Otherwise, it was a gorgeous sunny day. I approached the monument and saw a crowd of people, but more police than anything else. They stood out in their neon, glowing green vests, surrounding the monument with yellow barricades. It was an impressive show of force to make sure that the peace was kept. Then, at about 11:00 a.m., the procession slowly moved from Old Town to the monument square in front of the Laima clock. The march itself was silent. People carried flags and flowers. Men and women, young and old, walked quietly across the street toward the monument. It was one of the most peaceful marches I had ever seen. And as I stood in front of the Liberty Monument, watching the bystanders and police watching in the freezing March morning air, protecting the marchers, I felt lots of emotion.
I saw three old men talking about the old days. I saw the marchers, and I thought about Vitauts, my father, and how he would love to be here to share stories with all of these men who went through what he went through. He was only 15 when the draft orders came through, and he left his home and his family to go fight in a war that really had nothing to do with him.
The war swept him away, as it swept millions of people away, as war does. But here, on this day, those few remaining souls came together to march down the street holding Latvian flags, celebrating the service that they completed so long ago. It was… nice.
I am happy that the reports of protests were exaggerated. I did a search for news, this link was the first to show up. One protester was arrested at an otherwise completely peaceful march. There were no Nazi flags. I saw one sign protesting about these people being lovers of Adolf Hitler, but that was about it.
In America, we have similar arguments about what should be celebrated and what should be forgotten. I have no real insight on any of these issues. I just know that in this case, my father would have appreciated being surrounded by others who went through what he went through… as mixed up and turbulent as it must have been here from 1939-1945… and then under Soviet rule for 60 years… I think we can give these people a little slack when they want to celebrate some Latvian pride.
After a semester of frustration, I finally got a team to commit to going to the Riga Go! debate tournament. I am now an international speech and debate coach. I can check that off of my list. Impressions? It was neat to see an Opening Ceremony at a tournament. I like the idea of making these contests more meaningful with some kind of pageantry. Here they had each nation send up delegates to represent. There was some singing and some speeches. Most of it was in Russian, so I didn’t fully understand, but it was still cool.
The tournament lasted two days, and the organizers provided mixers and excursions for those visiting from out of town. The main topic was about cryptocurrency, and we prepared for it pretty well. Then there were two impromptu rounds where students were given a topic and 30 minutes to prepare a case. What an interesting challenge!
The debates themselves were a bit sloppy in terms of structure and argumentation, but it was great to see these kids putting in such an effort to debate in English as their second language. What a great way to put language into action! They were enthusiastic and very fierce with their engaging rhetoric.
My kids went 1-2 and got a bye in the final round. Four teams went to semi-finals, we were not one of those teams. The results were okay considering this was our first contest. I have a feeling that we all learned quite a bit about the Karl Popper style and format. Like so many other things in life, you don’t really get it until you experience it.
I have to share this final video of one of the speakers singing during the opening ceremony. I have never heard a voice quite like hers. I had the pleasure of judging her during a round and thanking her for her incredible singing! I hope you enjoy…