Wednesday, 17 March 2010
Remembrance of things past
I'm about to enter into something of a political minefield. I shall have to be careful, to move on tiptoes, to stand in carefully prepared positions. Do try to bear with me as I make my way towards the end and-please-no sudden movements!
For Eastern Europe the Second World War did not end in 1945, something we are increasingly coming to terms with in the West. No, one form of occupation was simply substituted for another. It was an occupation that was to last for almost fifty years, bringing all sort of personal and national traumas. It was an occupation in the case of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, the three Baltic States, that entailed the long term prospect of cultural extinction. So there are demons that have to be exorcised in these places, places where the brief Nazi occupation was replaced by a lengthy Soviet one; places where the Russians are hated even more than the Germans.
David Cameron came in for some criticism from the likes of Edward McMillan-Scott, a former Tory MEP, now a Liberal Democrat, for aligning the Conservative Party in the European Parliament with such organisations as Latvia's Fatherland and Freedom Party. I should pause and say I have no idea what a euro wet like McMillan-Scott was doing in the Conservative party in the first place, but that only makes my passage all the more difficult. Cameron has also been criticised by David Miliband, Banana Man himself, our benighted and incompetent Foreign Secretary, describing his association with Fatherland and Freedom as "sickening". Why? Because Fatherland and Freedom in Riga today commemorated the men who fought and died in the Latvian SS Legion.
This is the part of the field where the mines are packed most closely together; so I have to be highly cautious, highly careful, watching each step as I go. The commemoration was for those Latvians, teenagers mostly, who fought, not for the Germans, but to prevent the return of the Soviets, who in a brief occupation of 1940-41 deported thousands of people to Siberia. Still, those who know the history of the Legion will also know it was not only made up of selfless patriots and fighters. No, some of its recruits came from the police, men who were more involved in killing Jews than in fighting Russians. But those who were not, those who served in the fighting battalions, continue to be honoured by many Latvians as defenders of their freedom in some of the darkest days in the nation's history.
It's almost impossible to imagine what it would be like to be forced into this kind of choice; of serving alongside one opponent in countering another. I'm working my way through Paul Scott's The Jewel in the Crown quartet of novels about the final years of the British Raj. In A Division of the Spoils, the last of the four, he touches on the officers and men, serving in the British Indian Army and captured by the Japanese in the Malaya and Burma campaigns, men who subsequently went on to enrol in the so-called Indian National Army. This collaborationist force was set up under the guidance of Subhas Chandra Bose, an extreme member of the Indian National Congress. The aim was supposedly to serve alongside the Japanese in the 'liberation' of India, though a deeper aim was to prevent the substitution of one Raj for another. These men, the memory of these men, is not without honour in modern India.
And so it was, it might very well be argued, with the men of the Latvian SS, who served only as soldiers and died only as soldiers. But the very acronym 'SS' carries such a burden of horror that it's almost impossible to be objective, almost impossible to see things in dispassionate terms. Perhaps it is wrong for the Latvian Freedom Party to make this a political focus for an emergent nation; perhaps there are some things best forgotten. But for a long time Latvians had no choice but to forget. This recovery of memory, even an unhappy memory, is part of a process of coming to terms with a sublimated past.
There, I'm through. :-)