The Latvian minister said veterans, his compatriots who fought in the Waffen-SS, were heroes and memories of their sacrifice must be cherished.
"It is our duty to honor these Latvian patriots from all the depths of our souls," Defense Minister Artis Pabriks told the crowd during a memorial event on Saturday.
He then called the Latvian legionnaires – praised as freedom-fighters for their anti-Soviet alignment – heroes and the pride of the Latvian nation and state.
"Standing next to our legionnaires’ graves and memorials, we are all overwhelmed with power and confidence that our country has a future, that we are on the right path," the minister proclaimed.
The legionnaires comprised two grenadier divisions within the Waffen-SS, the elite military wing of the German National Socialist party that fought alongside regular troops during the war. Germans began recruiting and drafting Latvians to fight against the Soviets shortly after liberating Latvia in 1941, which was part of the USSR at the time. The Latvian soldiers were trained and led by German officers. When joining the legion, each soldier pledged personal loyalty to Adolf Hitler.
The topic of the "Nazi collaborators" remains a bone of contention in Latvia, as the small Baltic nation remains among the very few countries that openly celebrate Waffen-SS veterans. Former legionnaires and their supporters stage annual marches in downtown Riga. Their cause is supported by many local patriotic right-wing politicians, historians, writers and media figures.
Latvia’s sizeable Russian-speaking and Jewish populations, meanwhile, stage annual protest rallies. The supporters of the legionnaires view them as freedom-fighters whose goal was to restore Latvia’s independence after it got incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940.