Friday, April 27, 2007
Historical Revisionism in Estonia
Yesterday’s violent clashes in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, due to the government’s intention of removing a war memorial to Red Army soldiers, and the defence of the monument by Estonia's Russian speakers, has thrown light the plight of the Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia. (The other Baltic republic, Lithuania, does not discriminate against Russians)
Russians comprise 25.6% of the Estonian population and 29.2% of the Latvian population, but in both countries they are denied citizenship rights, and are not allowed to vote. New language laws also exclude non Estonian and Latvian speakers from certain jobs. Yet only 14% of Estonian Russians speak Estonian (a phenomenally difficult language to learn being Finno-Ugric), and only 23% of Latvian Russians speak Latvian.
Estonia is the darling country of the European Union (EU), with a successful market economy, and is supposedly a liberal democracy. The systematic discrimination against the large Russian minority is due to the state not recognising anyone as a citizen if they cannot establish descent from someone who was a citizen of Estonia in 1940. The Estonian government has also refused to cooperate with the Simon Wiesenthal centre in bringing to justice Estonian’s Nazi war criminals. In 2006 the Estonian state prosecutor, Heino Tonismagi, described the Nazi collaborator Harry Mannil, who personally murdered several civilians in Tallinn in 1941, as “one of the most outstanding Estonians” and cleared him of any criminal responsibility, on the ludicrous grounds that the Estonian authorities had no responsibility as the country was occupied at the time.
Significantly the EU has made no complaint about the denial of citizenship by Estonia and Latvia, and systematic discrimination against significant minority populations. Nor have voices been raised against Estonia’s protection of Nazi war criminals.
In 2002 a war memorial was raised in the Eastern city of Parnu celebrating the Estonians who served in the Waffen SS, describing the Nazi invasion of Estonia as “a war of liberation for the fatherland”. The worrying current here is the equation between Soviet communism and Nazism as equally bad.
Let us consider an analogy. There is a difference between a reckless driver who kills 14 people in a road accident, and a serial killer who systematically hunts down and murders 14 people.
The Soviet Union during the Stalin era did see terrible crimes, but this was in the context of a very backward country seeking to industrialise, and operating in a hostile environment where other states were threatening it and seeking to undermine it. What is more the official ideology of the USSR was to promote the concept of human liberation, and the excesses and crimes were despite not because of what the USSR stood for.
In contrast, the crimes of Nazi Germany were deliberately planned and executed by a state who intentionally sought to engulf the world in a nightmare of barbarism. One of the most economically developed and cultured countries in the world established modern industrial processes to slaughter human beings by the methods of mass production. The victims were transported by the most advanced railways, the extermination was administered using the most modern IBM computers, the gas chambers were designed by professional engineers, and human beings were turned into soap and lamp shades.
Had Nazism triumphed, this would have represented a catastrophic and cataclysmic defeat for the soul of humanity. The values of compassion, solidarity and fraternity would have been stripped away, and we would have been engulfed in a maelstrom of darkness, torture and despair.
Did those Estonians who volunteered for the Waffen SS know this? Or were they simple misguided patriots? With the advancing German Wehrmacht into the Baltic states in 1941 came the Einstatzgruppen. Special detachments who individually hunted and murdered Jews, gypsies, trade union activist and communists. Even before these Estonians joined the SS they would have seen atrocities against Estonian Jews by German troops. Did they know? Everyone knew.
Every Estonian, every Latvian and every Lithuanian who wore the uniform of the Waffen SS was a fascist murderer. During Nazi rule the Baltic states witnessed pogroms, in many case with mass popular participation, where Jews were murdered in their thousands.
Of course the history is complicated by the absorbtion of the Baltic states into the Soviet sphere of influence in 1940 following the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and subsequent repression. But we need to understand the context that the USSR did not believe after the defeat in Spain that the Western demcracies would ever stand up to fascism, and was seeking to build a military buffer zone.
And when the Red Army entered these countries the second time they did so as liberators. They stopped the mass murders. They stopped the transportation to the death camps.
It was a crime to forcibly incorporate the Baltic republics into the USSR, a deviation towards Russian chauvinism, and a mistake by Stalin.
But the current attempt by the Estonian government to equate the Russian annexation of their country with the murderous and genocidal occupation by the Nazis carries the terrible risk of normalising and excusing the fascist barbarism, and covering up the role of Estonian Nazi collaborators.