The term volunteer is a misnomer, but it was useful to circumvent international law, which forbade an occupying state to forcibly conscript from the subjugated population. However, the vast majority of the 110,000-115,000 Latvians in the Legion did not volunteer, but were compelled to join up or risk death arguing legal points with wartime Nazis.
January 23, 1943
“I order the formation of a Latvian SS-Volunteer Legion.” – Adolf Hitler
Not participant to Germany’s heinous anti-Semitic scheme, rather the Legionnaires were mainly deployed in a struggle against communism on the eastern front, where a third of them died.
On the losing side of World War II, Legionnaires who were not fortunate to surrender to the Western Allies became prisoners of the USSR. Survivors were vilified as fascists and accused of war crimes, their role in the war misunderstood and controversial to this day.
Similarly, the SS-designation erroneously implies that the Latvian Legion was a party to the atrocious Waffen-SS death squads of Holocaust notoriety. But categorizing the Latvian Legion under the SS (Hitler’s personal guard and secret police) was just another rule-skirting formality: non-Germans were prohibited from bearing arms in the Wehrmacht (the German Army), so the Legion was organized under the SS.
The Latvian Legion was a fighting force established and commanded by the Germans. Few Latvians had sympathized with Germany prior to 1940-1941, but one year of Soviet terror was sufficiently ghastly to make most Baltic residents greet the German occupiers wholeheartedly as liberators.