RIGA Veterans of Latvia's World War Two Waffen SS divisions and their supporters marched through the capital Riga on Saturday in a commemoration that passed off peacefully but drew criticism.
Now in their 80s and 90s, the men who joined the armed wing of Adolf Hitler's Nazi party say they were fighting for Latvian freedom at the end of the war and against the return of the Soviet Red Army. Before the war, Soviet troops occupied Latvia and thousands were executed or sent to Siberia, many dying.
But critics of the annual event, many of whom come from the country's large Russian-speaking minority, say it distorts history, honors Nazism and insults the victims of the conflict.
A handful of aged veterans of the division, followed by supporters carrying national flags, walked through the city to lay flowers at the central Freedom Monument.
"We wore German uniforms, so now they call us Nazis," said Vitolds Mukans, 89. He said he voluntarily joined to defend his homeland from being occupied by the Red Army.
Latvia was part of the Soviet Union for 50 years before regaining its independence in 1991. It joined the EU in 2004.
"We needed guns and the Germans were the ones who gave them to us," he said. Most political parties distance themselves from the event, but a nationalist bloc in the ruling coalition supports it and its members took part in the parade.
The veterans, many of whom were forcibly conscripted, say they were frontline troops and did not belong to that part of the SS responsible for killing Jews in the Holocaust.
A group of protesters played Russian anti-Nazi songs at loud volumes and held placards of people killed in the Holocaust.
Four people were detained by police while trying forcibly to switch off the protesters' sound system, said Sigita Pildava, a police spokeswoman. Overall, 3,000 people participated in the veterans' event, Pildava said.
"These people say they commemorate fallen Latvian soldiers, but that is done in cemeteries, with black ribbons on flags," said Iosif Koren, head of a group called Latvia Without Nazism.
"In the center of town, with nationalistic music playing, this is a glorification of Nazism."
(Additional reporting by Patrick Lannin in Stockholm; Editing by John Stonestreet)