Rewriting Shoah history in Estonia

During a recent visit, it became apparent how deep the problem of Holocaust distortion is in this Baltic country.

Efraim Zuroff 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Efraim Zuroff 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Most people in Israel when asked to identify the country which hosted the most recent reunion of Waffen-SS veterans would probably guess either Germany or Austria, which is a logical but incorrect response. The answer in this case is Estonia, the smallest of the Baltic republics and generally not known for particular Nazi sympathies. But the problem is that in the Baltics, which suffered German and Soviet occupations, the historical concepts generally accepted throughout Europe and the rest of the world are turned topsy turvy, with the Nazis being regarded as the by-far lesser of the two evils and the Soviets considered the arch-villains. Thus late last month, a day before I arrived in Tallinn to launch the Russian-language edition of an anthology on contemporary anti-Semitism dedicated to the memory of Simon Wiesenthal, Estonia hosted its annual reunion of Waffen-SS veterans at Sinimäe, the site of one of the fiercest battles fought by the 20th Waffen-SS Grenadier Division (also known as the First Estonian Division) against the Soviets in the latter stages of World War II. SS veterans from other European countries, in which such gatherings are illegal, were only too happy to join in the festivities in a country where their service on behalf of the Third Reich is considered by many to be worthy, rather than denigrated. THE EXISTENCE of such a reunion, however, is only part of the story. The attitude of the local authorities to the SS veterans and their supporters on the one hand and to those opposed to such gatherings on the others, is indicative of the distorted view on history currently prevalent in Tallinn. Thus, for example, foreign SS veterans who came to the reunion, as well as younger persons sympathetic to them, were welcome guests in Estonia. Foreign and even local anti-fascists who sought to demonstrate against the reunion, on the other hand, were treated very harshly in a manner totally unbecoming a country which is a member of NATO and the European Union. Thus protesters from Finland and Latvia were declared persona non grata and expelled from Estonia, whereas local anti-fascists were arrested when they sought to protest in concentration camp garb, while others were detained for no reason to make sure that they would not be able to register their legitimate protest. The annual SS veterans reunion is only the tip of the iceberg of sympathy for these men who are considered fighters for Estonian independence even though the victory they sought to achieve was for Nazi Germany, which had no intention of granting them sovereignty. Thus all sorts of souvenirs of the unit are widely available for purchase, its outstanding soldiers are lauded as local heroes and their exploits are memorialized in an impressive album readily available which emphasizes "their selfless courage against communism and for the restoration of Estonian independence," but which begrudgingly admits only in passing that they "had to wear a German uniform to do so" (The Estonian Legion in Words and Pictures, Tallinn, 2008, coedited by none other than former [twice] Estonian prime minister Mart Laar). DURING MY visit, I encountered several additional examples of the Estonians' reversal of conventional historical wisdom about World War II. The most famous, and the incident which sparked violent riots in Tallinn in the spring of 2007, was the removal of a monument honoring the Soviet soldiers who liberated the country from the yoke of the Nazi occupation, from its central location in the capital to a military cemetery on the outskirts of the city. Besides grievously insulting the large Russian minority which views the Soviet troops as heroes who achieved a vital victory in the fight against Nazism, the removal of the statue was also a painful blow to the Estonian Jewish community, whose annihilation in 1941 was orchestrated by the Nazis and their Estonian collaborators. Having visited both the monument's original location opposite the national library and its new site, it is clear that Estonians prefer not be reminded that their current narrative is a distortion of the historical events of World War II. I encountered another blatant example of the rewriting of Estonian history at the Maarjamae memorial ground, dedicated to "the units participating in the 1944 defensive battles in Estonia." It was bad enough to see large plaques commemorating the infamous SS Viking Division and other European Waffen-SS units, but the most shocking and infuriating sight was a marker in honor of the Omakaitse, a paramilitary self-defense organization which played a very active role in the arrest and murder of numerous Jews and communists in 1941. Among its more notorious commanders was the mass murderer and rapist Evald Mikson, who commanded the unit in Vonnu and whom the Wiesenthal Center exposed living in Iceland in 1991. TODAY WILL be marked in Estonia as a day of remembrance for the victims of totalitarian regimes. This ostensibly innocuous initiative to commemorate Nazi and communist victims together is actually just a first step towards obtaining official recognition that communism and Nazism were equally evil, a major step toward undermining the current status of the Shoah as a unique tragedy and one which will help deflect attention and criticism from the Estonians' distortion of history and failure to face their Holocaust past. (They have since independence, failed to prosecute a single Estonian Holocaust perpetrator, while bringing to trial numerous communist criminals.) On the surface, it would be poor manners for our ambassador to be absent from the ceremonies, as if we are oblivious to Estonian suffering under the communists, but as long as Estonia and the other Baltic countries insist on rewriting history and relativizing Nazi crimes, Israel must make it unequivocally clear that we will not support such initiatives. The writer is Israel director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.