As another March 16 prepares to roll around, exactly the same sequence of events as usual is set to unfold – hopefully. Because any deviation from the norm can only mean trouble.
It will be my eighth Legionnaires’ Day. Once more it will result in those who claim to be the greatest Latvian patriots helping the rest of the world get the impression that Latvians goose-step to work each morning and believe there was a ‘good’ Waffen-SS as well as the ‘bad’ Waffen-SS.
In recent years, the event has been both permitted and banned. It makes no difference. It happens anyway.
So here are a few memories of previous March 16 events.
At my first March 16 I followed an elderly participant on the tram from Pardaugava. He had put on his best clothes and had unmistakable military bearing. He spoke to no-one until he met some similar-looking friends outside the Occupation Museum and they walked away together quietly.
Also gathering at the same place was a group of skinheads. They took part in the parade too, and later in the day I saw them, beer cans in hand, urinating off the Akmens bridge into the River Daugava below, blissfully unaware of the symbolism of their action.
Call me a boring traditionalist but I regard it as bad form if, while standing in line to pay respects to war dead, you while away the time chatting on a mobile phone.
Similarly, dressing up as a concentration camp inmate to register your opposition to Legionnaires’ Day is a strategy that I find to be in questionable taste, particularly when you can only be bothered to wear a stripy cap and then puff away with a cigarette dangling from your top lip while you accuse passers-by of fascist tendencies.
A couple of years later I asked a marcher why he was wearing a ‘Germany’ scarf. “Because it’s cold,” he replied. Not cold enough for him to close his coat or actually tie the scarf round his neck, but just cold enough for him to drape it decorously around his thick neck.
Another March 16 was summed up when, processing through Livu square, the supporters of the Legion (with friends from Estonia and Lithuania) stopped briefly to pose with their flags, in front of a ferris wheel. Slowly but inexorably it turned, lending an appropriate air of absurdity and repetitious inevitability to the whole thing. All the fun of the fair.
Just as ludicrous was the time a group of nationalist politicians pretended to be pushed from behind so they could grab at a counter-demonstration playing ear-splitting atrocity records through a public address system. The way the MPs lumbered forward as a totally fictitious irresistible force propelled them could have been classed as slapstick if it wasn’t so pathetic.
But perhaps the most powerful image of all came when I found myself back at the Freedom Monument one year when everyone else had already left. As the crash barriers were being loaded, the flags furled and the street sweepers were moving in, a tiny, hunched old woman who looked a hundred years old inched forward to lay her flowers with trembling hands. It took her an age. She was completely ignored yet you had the impression her gesture actually meant something. It was a memory of an individual: a brother, a husband, a lover perhaps, not an attempt to frame anything as tragic as slaughter to fit a political or historical agenda.
If anyone emerges with credit from March 16 it is not the paraders, the protesters or the reporters but the police. Over the years they have turned policing the event into an art, keeping their cool when the insults are flying. This year they will need their wits about them as never before.
At times it’s possible to feel a certain sympathy for both the paraders and the demonstrators, but the only lasting conclusion I have drawn from this annual circus is a hardening of belief that November 11 really should be the day for remembering fallen soldiers.
This piece was originally published here by