Accessibility links

Estonia: The Search For Heroes Leads To A Minefield

  • Jeremy Bransten

Plans by an Estonian veterans' group to erect a monument in the city of Parnu representing an Estonian soldier in a Waffen SS uniform unleashed fierce debate this week both inside and outside the Baltic country. The unveiling has since been canceled, but as RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten reports, the controversy surrounding the proposed statue reflects Estonia's struggle to come to terms with its difficult past.

Prague, 26 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- For Estonia, like its other Baltic neighbors, World War II began not with a Nazi invasion, but with Soviet tanks rolling across the border in 1940.

Moscow annexed the country. Within a year, the Soviets had killed or deported about 20,000 "enemies of the people" to the Siberian Gulag. Churches were closed, private property was confiscated, and thousands of young men were conscripted into the Red Army.

When Germany attacked the following year, many Estonians were forced to join the new invading force in their campaign against the Soviets, but others volunteered, seeing the Nazis as liberators from Moscow's oppression. Most were soon disabused of that notion and the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis showed Berlin's intentions to be no nobler than Moscow's.

But some Estonian veterans who fought side-by-side with the Nazis say they have nothing to be ashamed of. They and their supporters say they made a difficult -- but well-intentioned -- choice, aimed at winning back freedom for their nation.

Since the end of Soviet rule more than a decade ago, these groups have campaigned for rehabilitation. Their efforts, as in neighboring Latvia, have provoked strong emotions -- especially given evidence that some of those who fought with the Nazis also participated in rounding up and murdering Jews and in other crimes against humanity.

A storm of protest was raised when veterans in the southern Estonian city of Parnu moved to erect a monument of an Estonian soldier in an SS uniform with the legend: "To all Estonian servicemen who died in the second war for the liberation of the Fatherland and a free Europe in 1940-1945."

Historian Andres Kasekamp, director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute, says a clear distinction has to be drawn between those Estonians who served as soldiers in the German army and the few who volunteered for duty in special police units.

"If we come directly to the question of atrocities, then I think it's also been very clearly separated that those who fought on the front in German uniform -- that they have never been implicated in any atrocities. When we come to mass murder, the Holocaust, then we're talking about units, the security police. And that's a different story. There you can find individuals who can be directly implicated, most of whom were already tried by the Soviets."

Kasekamp says the idea for the Parnu monument -- although misguided -- can be explained as a reaction to decades of Soviet lies, an attempt by a few individuals to restore a sense of wounded national pride.

"I think in this particular case it's the pendulum having swung to the other extreme, with Estonians having heard for 50 years through Soviet propaganda that they were all Fascists and the Red Army were liberators and now, one person has gone to this extreme to raise a monument which probably doesn't reflect a very adequate understanding of history."

In Parnu, city councilors who moved quickly to ban the monument's unveiling nevertheless have been left embarrassed. Prime Minister Siim Kallas this week said the episode could hurt Estonia's image both at home and abroad.

Aiming to avoid any blame, Parnu City Government spokesman Romek Kosenkranius told RFE/RL that local councilors never gave permission for the monument to go up and were only furnished with details of the statue by the veterans' group earlier this week (22 July).

"They put the monument up illegally because they didn't have permission to erect it and they never discussed the monument with us."

Enn Hallik, editor of Parnu's main newspaper -- "Parnu Postimees" -- cast doubt on Kosenkranius' statement. He told RFE/RL that city councilors would have had to know some type of monument was being built -- the fact that they now claim not to have received any details -- if true -- is a poor excuse.

"Parnu Postimees" has been conducting a survey of public opinion, on its Internet site, about the issue. So far, some 65 percent of respondents agree with the decision to cancel the project.

Hallik says that in his opinion both the statue and the text are inappropriate, regardless of one's opinion about whether some of the Estonians who fought with the Germans did so out of patriotism.

"The text and the uniform -- both. The text is wrong and the uniform is an SS uniform. It's bad -- the whole thing is bad. The text essentially reads: 'For Estonian soldiers killed in the army in the SS uniform for a free Europe.' Nobody thinks that the SS was fighting for a free Europe."

It would appear, then, that the world does not need to fear a swing to the radical right in Estonia. But nation building, or rather nation rebuilding, poses special challenges in this Baltic country after decades of oppression and falsified history.

As historian Andres Kasekamp notes, Estonia still harbors monuments glorifying the Red Army and most Estonians certainly do not believe Soviet forces were on the side of freedom, either. But for geopolitical reasons, these statues cannot be pulled down. Kasekamp recalls another monument -- which remains in place in the heart of the Estonian capital -- which has raised passions for many years.

"The one that has actually caused much more heated debate in the past but now has died down is the main monument to the Soviet dead in liberating Tallinn in 1944 and this is in a very prominent place, right in front of the National Library. And that was an issue of very hot political contention in the 1990s, and the Estonian government wanted to remove this statue, whereas mostly Russian-speaking Estonians celebrated the memory of the fallen Red Army soldiers. So this was a really hot issue which has only faded away in the past few years."

Perhaps the moral of Estonia's monument wars is that if the nation is to seek heroes, it should not look for them on the battlefield. Kasekamp says, "Estonia's always had a paucity of military heroes. There really hasn't been a military victory for the Estonians to celebrate, except the War of Independence in 1918-1920. Estonians don't have a tradition of glorifying military leaders because most of them have been foreigners and Estonians have usually been the objects of military campaigns."

Enn Halik, the newspaper editor, agrees. He remarks that the Estonians who emerged the least scathed by the war were those who tried to avoid entanglement with either side.

"For example, my father fled to the woods twice and he had the good luck not to be in the Soviet or the Germany army -- it was very good luck."

Kasekamp says 21st-century Estonians would be wise to remember the words of their 19th-century writer Jakob Hurt and look for leaders from the realm of the arts.

"Estonians, I think, have more of a tradition of glorifying their writers and cultural figures. There's a famous saying from the National Awakening [era] in the 19th century, when Jakob Hurt says: 'We Estonians will never grow into a great nation like the other European nations, but we can at least become a great nation culturally.'"

If sacrifices in wartime must be recalled, Kasekamp says Parnu's city councilors should be inspired by another recent monument, at the country's largest battlefield.

"I think this Parnu monument is a one-off in that the scene of the bloodiest battle in the second World War on Estonian territory -- in the northeast, in the Blue Hills -- there, a couple of years ago, a monument was erected to the fallen on both sides. And that is a very neutral monument. It has a cross and it very plainly does not celebrate one side or the other but the fallen in that bloodiest of battles on Estonian territory in the second World War."

No heroes to remember here -- just actors in a human tragedy.