TALLINN - The Soviet T-34 tank in Narva, parked a few meters from the bridge that spans the river between Estonia and Russia, was put there in the 1950s. There is no sign on the pedestal, as the monument needs no explanation: It is one of hundreds spread across the Soviet Union to remind everybody of the country's victory over fascism and the millions of war casualties.
To be sure, the tank has never been a major topic of discussion in Estonia - unlike many other monuments commemorating Soviet, German and Estonian soldiers who fell during World War II - even though, ironically enough, its cannon points toward Tallinn.
One monument aficianado, Leo Tammiksaar, a businessman and history enthusiast, made headlines again last week when he applied for a permit to put a World War II anti-aircraft cannon on the roof of a building under construction in downtown Parnu, where he lives.
Part of the building will reportedly host Tammiksaar's collection of war paraphernalia and will serve as a private exhibition hall.
"To call this thing a museum would be an obvious exaggeration," said Tammiksaar, who runs the nonprofit organization Eesti SS-Leegioni Muuseum (Estonian SS Legion Museum).
"I would simply agree or disagree to show my collection to people who have found a way to contact me. I do not want to talk about the new building because I do not want to advertise the collection." In his words, it is mainly school children and war veterans interested in seeing the collection, and he doesn't have the heart to reject their requests. For the last 10 years, Tammiksaar has hosted some 15 groups of school students and some 40 to 50 groups of World War II veterans from Estonia, Finland and Germany.
In fact, his hobby has impressed many state officials, and Estonian museums have often borrowed parts of his collection. Even now the national history museum and the occupation museum in Tallinn, as well as one of the border guard museums, exhibit parts of Tammiksaar's collection.
But Tammiksaar's fame goes beyond his collections. In 2002 he received permission to erect a monument to the Estonian freedom fighters - one featuring a soldier wearing a German infantry uniform - but the monument met stinging protest from the national government and was eventually removed. In November 2003 a more neutral monument was erected.
During the war, Estonians fought on virtually every side possible. Some joined the German Wehrmach, the SS legion or the Finnish army. Some fought in the Red army, and some chose guerilla warfare to protect their homeland. The commemoration of Estonian soldiers from the SS legion and the protection of existing Soviet military monuments has always been a political issue at both domestic and international level. Russia recently reprimanded Estonia for one individual's initiative to erect a cross commemorating SS colonel Alfons Rebane on private territory.
Under the famous Bronze Soldier memorial in Tallinn, set between the National Library and the Kaarli church, 13 Soviet soldiers were reportedly buried. History experts say that the somewhat unusual location of the grave - the area was in the city center - can be explained by the general practice of the Red army commanders who only cared about having their dead men buried, regardless of the city planning issues. Despite a number of calls, mostly coming from Estonia's right-wing political parties, to remove the monument, the Tallinn city government has declined to do so. The monument has become the main place for the May 9 (the Victory Day in Soviet Union and in Russia) celebrations for Soviet World War II veterans.
THE SOVIET ANGLE
Sergei Smirnov, 77, chairman of the Union of Veteran Organizations in Estonia, which unites the people who fought on the Soviet side in World War II, said that there were about 320 burial places - mostly mass graves - throughout Estonia that contain Soviet soldiers. Incredibly, new graves are frequently discovered by history buffs. The latest case is a mass grave recovered near Sillamae in northeastern Estonia. "They have not been classified exactly yet, but for a number of signs we can say most of them are remains of Soviet soldiers," Smirnov said.
"Every grave is taken into account. There are neither forgotten nor forsaken burial places," he stressed. Although municipal authorities in Estonia maintain a positive attitude in general about the issue of re-interment, cases of vandalism are not uncommon, according to Smirnov.
One of the latest cases occurred in Paldiski last week, when a group of hooligans stole the three anchors of a monument in memory of a Soviet submarine crew that perished in an accident after the war. The thieves then sold the artifacts to a scrap metal company.
Thankfully, the anchors were later recovered from the company warehouse.
Despite these cases, in Smirnov's opinion, the government does [not] pay due attention to the memorials of the Soviet past. Sometimes it even neglects them. "In the Soviet time there was a well-kept memorial complex in Klooga [not far from Tallinn] where the Nazis killed and burned bodies of some 2,000 people, mostly civilians. Now the memorial desperately needs renovation," he said. The headmaster of a school removed a bust of General Lembit Parn, commander of the Estonian corps of the Soviet Army during World War II, from his own school territory. It was one of two in the country. The second, still standing in a village in eastern Estonia, is likely to be removed by the local municipality.
"The Parn bust was removed from the school territory because the school needed a place for a flagpole. Well, a flag is an important national symbol, but it was not the Estonian flag that freed Estonia in 1944 but a Soviet soldier led by General Parn," an emotional Smirnov said.
Today in many places where under Soviet rule only the Red army soldiers were commemorated, memorials to the soldiers who fought on the other side have gone up. The Soviet complex - an enormous memorial - on Pirita Road in Tallinn now has a new neighbor: a memorial where the remains of German soldiers have been re-buried.
In Sinimae, a place between Narva and Sillamae, a cross was erected in 1999 for the 20th Waffen SS division soldiers near the Soviet memorial. In July, the Estonian society of Freedom Fighters will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Sinimae battle, a major combat in which German troops tried to stop the Red army from conquering Estonia.
The grave of Estonian citizen Alfons Rebane, a Nazi colonel and commander of an SS division, is now located in the same cemetery where many Soviet generals of Estonian origin are resting.
Now that the war is already more than half a century away, Smirnov admitted that from a humanitarian morality point of view, German soldiers also deserve proper remembrance. However, the government's policy toward World War II issues is one-sided, he said, and those who fought on the German side receive preferential treatment while the Soviet soldiers are thrown into oblivion.
Meelis Maripuu from S-Keskus, an Estonian NGO dealing with modern history research, said that in the Soviet times when the Communist Party controlled everything, it was impossible for average citizens to initiate a monument project.
According to Maripuu, usually a temporary obelisk made of wood was erected immediately after the end of a battle or after the discovery of a burial place.
Decades later, more dignified monuments were installed. The monuments we see today mostly date form the 1970s.
During the Soviet era, Estonians often commemorated the monuments that were established during the First Estonian Republic from 1918 to 1940, even though they had been removed by Soviet authorities, according to Maripuu.
"For example, people kept bringing flowers to the place where the Independence War monument in Tallinn used to be," the researcher said.
"Civilized society does not maintain a conflict with the dead, and Estonia is a civilized society. At this point, only some of the ideological monuments of the Soviet times have been removed after the restoration of independence," Maripuu added.
It's incontrovertible that Estonians did, following the Nazi expulsion of Soviet forces from Estonia in the summer of 1941, enthusiastically collaborate with the Nazis. It's true, too, that some Estonians serving under Germany committed war crimes. That said, the Estonians allied with the Nazis not because they agreed with Nazi goals--Estonia had the most advanced minority policies in interwar Europe. Rather, it's because the Estonians had no other choice. I wrote about a counterfactual scenario on soc.culture.baltics on the subject.
Let's say that the Soviet Union invaded the United States in 1939 at a time when the US was a weak country, forcing the American government to admit troops to "protect" the United States, and then--surprise, surprise!--installing an American puppet government which agreed that, yes, it was entirely natural for the US to become a constituent republic of the Soviet Union. Long live the American Soviet Federative Socialist Republic!
For the next year and a half, the experience of Americans with their new Soviet citizenship would be entirely negative, between the looting of their industry, the imposition of a rigid police state, and the increasing speed of mass deportations to Siberia. By the beginning of the summer of 1941, in fact, ten million or so Americans would have been arrested by the secret police. Americans, further, would know that the aim of the Soviet government in America would be to destroy the American nation.
Now. If, in this situation, the only military force that looked like it would be capable of freeing the United States belonged to Nazi Germany, how many Americans would turn that down?
According to the Baltic Times' report on the Estonian reparations report, "during the first Soviet occupation from 1940 to 1941, Estonia lost about 48,000 people. The three years of German occupation resulted in the death of about 32,000 citizens of various nationalities, including 929 Jews and 243 Gypsies who were either killed in concentration camps or in battle. During the second Soviet occupation, which lasted from 1944 to 1994, Estonia lost nearly 121,000 people. In all, the country lost about 180,000 people, or nearly 18 percent of the population." To break the statistics down: In the space of a year and a half, the Soviet Union--in the 1940-1941 occupation--managed to kill half again as many Estonians as in three years of Nazi occupation. In the second occupation, more than four times as many Estonians died under Soviet rule--mainly in the Stalinist era, when the Soviet Union was concerned with eliminating all possible opposition to its rule in its newly annexed territories. This Council of Europe document summarizes the various atrocities committed in Estonia in the 1940s, and comes up with similar figures.
In the Second World War, the experience of western Europeans--with the notable exception of East Germans and Viennese, of course--has been that Nazi rule was exceptionally severe and unwanted; the idea of Soviet domination, never mind annexation, was hypothetical. In the central and southeastern European countries which were eventually incorporated into the Warsaw Pact, Soviet domination was a good deal less severe than Nazi rule, although the Romanians and Poles did suffer substantial territorial losses to the distended Soviet Union, and local societies and economies were terribly distorted by almost a half-century of Soviet domination. It's not unimaginable that had Czechoslovakia and Hungary been free to develop without Soviet occupation, the core of the former Hapsburg empire might uniformly enjoy modern-day Austria's levels of economic development.
Things were rather different in the Baltic States, though. It had been Hitler's plan to incorporate the homelands of the Balts into Ostland upon the conclusion of the war against the Soviet Union, to make the entire region a destination for German colonists and to atomize the societies of the Ostland's natives. Stalin didn't do that, exactly; perhaps he couldn't, since he'd need Balts to remain in the Baltic States in order to justify their continued existences as soviet socialist republics. The Karelo-Finnish SSR could be eliminated, given the paucity of Finns in the area between the flight of ethnic Finns in former sovereign Finnish territory and the genocide of the Finns in the pre-1939 Soviet territory. Expelling five million Balts--including under a million Estonians--would be too dramatic.
The Baltic States got the unique privilege, nonetheless, of being directly incorporated into the Soviet Union, exposed to the full blast of Stalinism. Estonia's population, for instance, declined by one-fifth even before the onset of the occupation; even today, there are fewer ethnic Estonians living in Estonia now than before the Soviet occupation. The missing Estonian population was replaced by an influx of first tens then hundreds of Russophone colonists, their numbers growing to the point that in the capital of Tallinn Estonians were almost outnumbered by Russophones just as they were substantially outnumbered in the northeast. Had Soviet rule persisted for another generation, it's conceivable that the process of Sovietization (Russophone immigration, the displacement of Estonian language and culture from its traditional position, the Communization of society) might have eroded the Estonian nation entirely.
Of the 25 member-states of the European Union within its frontiers as of 1 May 2004, eight were occupied by Nazi Germany during the Second World War, and did not fall under Soviet domination after that war's end. (That number rises to nine if you include Austria.) Germany proper was divided into an area which fell under American influence and was incorporated into the North Atlantic community, and an area which fell under Soviet influence and was incorporated into the Warsaw Pact. Four more member-states were occupied by Nazi Germany during the Second World War, and were occupied by the Soviet Union until the early 1990s, again after that war's end. Another eight member-states were occupied by neither of Europe's 20th century totalitarian states.
Estonia, and the other two Baltic States, stand out from the rest of the European Union. These three European Union member-states experienced the Soviet Union of Stalin, not the Nazi Germany of Hitler, as the worst totalitarian empire in their national experience. In Belgium, say, or Italy, the idea of putting up to a monument to honour locals who served under the SS in the defense of their homelands against Communism would be both nonsensical and offensive. In the central European states which did fall under Soviet domination after 1945, the sheer viciousness of Nazi German rule would likewise preclude that. In the Baltic States, though--most particularly Estonia--things are different. You can make a legitimate argument can be made that given Estonia's inability under existing geopolitical circumstances to maintain its independence from both comers, and given how the country had to make a choice between the two empires, it chose the empire that was the least malevolent.
Estonia's interpretation of its history can and should be blamed, of course, for overlooking the atrocities committed by Estonians serving in the SS, and in Estonia by Nazi Germany. The real problem, though, is that Estonia's historical experience doesn't fit into the general western and central European experience of horrific Nazi rule followed by more-or-less beneficent liberations, whether by the Western Powers or by the Soviet Union. It's difficult if not impossible to view the Soviet reconquest of Estonia in 1944 as initiating a period of peace and prosperity in the country, even of relative peace and prosperity as in central Europe. Soviet rule was significantly worse for Estonia than Nazi rule, and remained so for a much longer period of time.
Certainly, a place should be saved in Estonia's history books for the Soviet soldiers who destroyed the Nazi presence in Estonia (even if that meant the installation of a worse and more destructive tyranny for a much longer period of time, and despite the various atrocities committed against Estonians in wartime). I'd also think, though, that a place should be saved for the Estonian soldiers who fought for the independence of their homeland against the Soviet Union (even if that meant that they were complicit in Nazi German war crimes, against Jews and against Soviets). The relative importance of the Soviet soldiers and the Estonian soldiers should be weighed carefully, though I can't say I'd be opposed to a reading that placed more importance on the latter group than the former.
In the end, what the debate over the Estonian experience of the Second World War does is demonstrate that it's impossible, in Europe in the time of the Second World War as in the wider world throughout history, to come up with a clean, coherent, and inoffensive history of any nation. There may be good guys (relatively speaking) and there may be bad guys (again, relatively speaking), and the degree to which they are good or bad can be impressively stark in many occasions.
Of course, my reading may be quite wrong. Thoughts?
UPDATE (10:17 PM, 18 June) : Crossposted on Living in Europe.