An Estonian citizen casts her vote during a parliamentary election in Uulu.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I very much doubt whether anyone in Israel paid close attention to this past Sunday’s national parliamentary elections in Estonia, but I was anxiously awaiting the results to see how the EKRE, the Conservative People’s Party, would fare. A week previously, I had personally seen the party in action in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital and largest city, where as part of their election campaign, they staged a torchlight parade to celebrate Estonian Independence Day. The march was sponsored under the slogan of “Estonia for Estonians,” a very clear and exclusionary message for the country’s minorities, many of whom have been residing there for generations.
I went to protest and monitor the march as part of a project to document and assess four neo-Nazi/ ultra-nationalist marches which are taking place in a span of less than 30 days in the capitals of the Baltic countries of Lithuania (two marches, one in the prewar capital of Kaunas [Kovno], and another one in the current capital of Vilnius [Vilna]), Latvia and Estonia. The marches in the first two countries have been staged regularly for quite a few years, but the march in Estonia was being held only for the second time. The number of marchers has been on the rise throughout the region, and the major themes are the lack of tolerance for minorities and the glorification of wartime local Nazi collaborators.
The latter theme is part of a systematic effort by most of post-Communist Eastern Europe, led by the Baltic countries and especially by Lithuania, to rewrite the accepted narrative of World War II and the Holocaust by promoting the canard of equivalency between Communist and Nazi crimes. The motive in this case is to hide, or at least minimize, the significance of the war crimes committed by local Nazi collaborators and emphasize the suffering of these nations under Communist rule.
At the march, the main banner bore the inscription “For Estonia,” but the message was clearly directed against the country’s minorities, who are perceived as a threat, which is hardly surprising since some of the leaders of the EKRE are known for their lack of tolerance. Thus, for example, prominent party member Martin Helme not that long ago summarized his attitude toward the possibility of African immigrants coming to Estonia as “If you’re black, go back.”
As far as historical issues, they were noticeably absent, even though the EKRE reportedly is the party of choice of many Estonian SS veterans. Since the latter meet every summer in Sinimae, where they host their fellow Waffen-SS veterans from various Western European countries, where such gatherings are prohibited by law, it’s possible that the preference was to focus on the more pressing issue of national identity. Another possible explanation might be that he Holocaust does not concern most Estonians, since the scale of the tragedy was ostensibly very minor, with only 1,000 Jews being caught by the Nazi occupation in July 1941.
The fact of the matter is, however, that almost every single one of those Jews was murdered, in many cases by Estonian Nazi collaborators. In addition, tens of thousands of Jews from other countries were deported to Estonia to be worked to death in some 20 concentration camps staffed by Estonians, and the 36th Estonian Security Police Battalion participated in the mass murder of thousands of Jews in Nowogrudok.
While planning my trip, I consulted with an Israeli friend living in Tallinn for many years, who suggested that I postpone my visit until after the elections on March 1, lest my presence at the march be considered a provocation, which would help the ultra-nationalists at the polls. I explained that obviously I could not accept his suggestion, since it was important to personally attend the march, which was planned to celebrate Estonian Independence Day on February 24. As it turned out, the march took place without any unpleasant incidents, with only about 200 people participating, although the Estonian press did note my presence in negative terms.
The electoral results indicated, however, that there are far too many Estonians willing to support the ultra-nationalist EKRE, which received 46,763 votes, and seven seats (out of 101) in the Riigikogu, the Estonian parliament. They will almost certainly not be part of the new government coalition, but their initial success should ring a loud alarm bell, not only in Tallinn, but also in Brussels.The author is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of its Israel Office and East European Affairs. His most recent book is
Operation Last Chance: One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice. His websites are: www.operationlastchance.org and www.wiesenthal.com and he can be followed on Twitter @EZuroff.