The struggle over Estonia's history

The controversy over the WWII monuments in Estonia is only the tip of the iceberg.

jp.services1 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Last weekend's large-scale riots in Estonia in which one demonstrator was killed, over 100 people were injured, and more than 1,000 detained in response to the government's decision to remove a Soviet-era monument commemorating the victory of the Red Army over Nazi Germany from downtown Tallinn to a remote location, were hardly surprising. Anyone who has followed the manner in which the history of WWII and the Holocaust and their aftermath have been treated in the Baltic republic is well aware that the controversy over the monument is merely the tip of the iceberg, a metaphor for a much more fundamental struggle over its recent history. Ever since Estonia regained independence in 1991, the country's occupation by the Soviets in 1940-1941 and for more than four decades after World War II, and by the Nazis during 1941-1944, has been the subject of bitter debate between the Estonian majority and the country's ethnic minorities - Russians and Jews. While the former, for obvious reasons, prefer to emphasize their suffering under Soviet rule and the role played by Russians and Jews in Communist crimes, while ignoring or minimizing Estonian collaboration with the Nazis, the latter continue to view the victory of the Red Army in Estonia and the end of the Nazi occupation as liberation and salvation. It is important to remember that in Estonia (as well as throughout post-Communist Europe), this debate has numerous practical implications that have deepened the rift between the sides over the years. One of the most obvious concerns the prosecution of those responsible for the crimes committed under the occupations. For example, the Estonian judicial authorities have invested much effort in prosecuting Communist criminals, mostly Russians, at least 10 of whom have already been convicted in Estonia. The same cannot be said, however, of the investigations carried out regarding Estonians who collaborated with the Nazis in the crimes of the Holocaust. Not a single Estonian citizen who participated in the persecution and/or murder of Jews during WWII has been brought to trial by the Estonians, despite the existence of abundant incriminatory evidence in at least two cases submitted in recent years. The lack of political will in Tallinn to prosecute Holocaust perpetrators is clearly evident in public pronouncements by officials such as former state prosecutor Heino Tonismagi, who in announcing his late 2005 decision not to take legal action against Estonian Political Police operative Harry Mannil, who participated in the arrests in 1941 of Jews and Communists subsequently executed by his colleagues, claimed that Estonians could not have been involved in any Nazi war crimes since the country was occupied at the time, an assertion that ignores the active participation of numerous Estonians in WWII era crimes and the support of much of the local population for the Nazi occupation. (There was no anti-Nazi underground or resistance movement of any kind in Estonia.) Local efforts to encourage Holocaust commemoration and education in Estonia lag far behind those of most European countries, a factor clearly reflected in the belated decision to observe January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, as a memorial day. The fact that no Estonian Jews were deported to that death camp made the choice more palatable to the Estonian public, the overwhelming majority of whom (93 percent according to an opinion poll in the Eesti Paevaleht daily) opposed the establishment of such a day. The widely-divergent views on the most important events in recent Estonian history are a key factor in the tense interethnic relations in the country. If we add the deep-seated feelings of discrimination in employment and education shared by most of the Russian minority, who constitute a third of the population and are viewed as occupiers by many Estonians, it is obvious why the decision to remove the statue of a Red Army soldier from the center of Tallinn sparked the worst riots in Estonia's recent history. Prime Minister Andrus Ansip's government was clearly playing to nationalist sentiment by moving the monument, but in the eyes of those ethnic groups who were saved by the Red Army, such a step bordered on the sacrilegious, and reinforced the local Russians' sense of marginality in Estonian society, making the current clashes inevitable. Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel.