LIHULA - It was the longest article about a Baltic country I had ever read in a German newspaper. At the end of August 2004, just two days before I left to study in Vilnius, the daily Saddeutsche Zeitung printed a whole page about how Estonia deals with World War II, when its citizens were fighting for the Red Army, for Nazi-Germany and also in Finnish uniforms. A week before, a monument had been unveiled in a small town in Western Estonia. It showed a soldier in a German uniform with a Waffen-SS (combat SS) unit emblem, wearing a steel helmet and holding a machine gun. The engraving had the following text: “To the Estonian men who fought in 1940-1945 against Bolshevism and for the restoration of Estonian independence.” I jotted down the name of the town : Lihula.
A slab of controversy
Later, I heard that police had removed the memorial amid protests from locals and that several Soviet monuments had been damaged. The international media struck an analogous chord: “The Estonians honor Nazis and hate Russians.” While following the debate over whether the Baltic presidents should travel to Moscow on May 9 to celebrate WWII’s Allied victory over Nazi Germany, I had already realized that my perspective of history was different from that of Lithuanian students. So I decided to travel north and interview journalists, students, historians, veterans and locals.
I first met with Paul-Eerik Rummo, minister for population and ethnic affairs. Rummo leads the commission on Estonia’s 20th century history that was introduced after the Lihula controversy. The government had no other choice, he said, than to tear down the monument since it was erected on state-owned land without permission and damaged the country’s image abroad. Rummo was sure that the proposals would improve the situation: A “Center for National Memory“ should coordinate research in Estonia and abroad, and a list of all Soviet commemorative signs in the country will be made. The commission also proposed adding more information to textbooks for Russian-speaking schools, because teachers and pupils might lack knowledge about Estonian history.
Stories from veterans
I met with members of the Estonian Freedom Fighters – these men had fought for the SS Legion “Estonia” that was created in August 1942. Harri Rent, 81, told me in German: “We Estonians had nothing in common with Hitler, we just wanted to defend our country.” He explained that all Estonians had lost relatives during the Soviet occupation of 1940-1941, which culminated with the deportation of 10,000 people to Siberia.
I asked about the holocaust in Estonia where less than 10 of the 950 Estonian Jews survived the German occupation. The answer was clear.
“We did not know anything about that,” Rent said. “Of course, it was terrible what happened with the Jews. But in comparison to Stalin, who murdered 100 million people, Hitler was an apprentice.”
He told stories about the battles near Silimae in 1944 where Estonian SS soldiers, together with German forces, held the Red Army at bay for several months. For the veterans, these battles were a “fight for the restoration of Estonia’s independence and democracy.” They want to be given a status equal to veterans who fought in the 1918-1920 War of Independence. I also asked them about the Lihula monument, which resembles a Nazi propaganda poster warning of the “Bolshevik threat.”
“It is ugly, caused a lot of trouble and damaged the image of Estonia and the veterans,” said Rent, stressing that “some individuals” served as the driving force behind erecting the monument.
Before meeting some of these “individuals,” I wanted to know more facts. On my way to the State Archive, I passed by the Bronze Boy memorial under which 13 Soviet soldiers are buried. It honors the fighters who freed Estonia from fascism, and I saw several flowers and candles between the bronze figure’s feet.
The office of S-Keskus, an NGO dealing with Estonian contemporary history, is based in the building of the State Archive. Meelis Maripuu is one of the few historians who researches the German occupation (1941-44): most historians concentrate on the Soviet occupation, which lasted about 16 times longer and claimed more victims. According to Maripuu, between 60 and 80,000 Estonians fought for the German armed forces, but the research was difficult – units were often renamed and documents were lost. I had read that thousands of Estonians joined the combat-SS as “volunteers,” but this term is not precise.
“Only a few thousand volunteered in 1941,” explained Maripuu.
Later the young Estonians were mobilized and had to choose between several options, among them work service in the German Reich or fighting in the SS. Those who opted for the latter had to take an oath to Adolf Hitler, and would be fighting Estonians who had been forced to join the Red Army before the Soviets left the country in 1941.
According to Maripuu, there are no doubts that Estonians were involved with murdering the Jewish and Gypsy population – a fact that is often played down by a society that regards itself as a victim of Soviet aggression. History is never black and white, but in the Baltics it is especially grey.
Lihula and its mayor
Mayor of Lihula Tiit Madisson agreed to erect the monument in his town of 1,600 inhabitants. Kersti Ajaots, a city counselor, remembered the events of Sept. 2, 2004, when the monument was torn down.
“It was a shock,” Ajaots said, adding that she never expected the government would use force against its own people.
Forty-four policemen, including the K-commando, a special unit, were involved with the monument’s removal. They used pepper gas and batons against the locals who were throwing stones. According to Ajaots, the police came without warning at 9 p.m. with a big crane – “It felt like being in Soviet times again.”
Madisson was sentenced to four years imprisonment and two years exile for anti-Soviet activities in 1980. Later he was active in the independence movement before being sent to prison again in 1996 for plotting to overthrow the government. And now, I was sitting next to this dissident, on the way to the cemetery where the monument stood for nine days. Only its concrete foundation is left, but the people of Lihula still bring flowers and light candles where a simple wooden plate has been erected: “At this place used to stand the monument for the Estonian men. 20.08.2004 – 02.09.2004.”
“Either the same monument will be erected here or the foundation will stay forever,” said Madisson, who recently published a book in which he denies the Holocaust.
The mayor, fighting his own battle against the government, has planned to erect information panels in Estonian, German and English “to show how the Estonian government treats it own citizens.”
While speaking with Madisson I thought about one thing: Why do the people of Lihula support such a person ? Lehte Ilves, a journalist writing for Lääne Elu newspaper in Haapsalu, said that the people were disappointed with the monument decision.
“I am happy that I did not have to work on that night [of the removal] because I am not sure if I could have done my work or would also have fought against the police,” she said.
Lihula’s residents had waited in vain for an excuse by the government, and when Prime Minister Juhan Parts came to visit in December 2004, another disaster occurred: While Parts spoke with the citizens in the school, the K-commando special unit was hiding in the woods just a few kilometers away.
“It was an obvious sign for the people that the government did not trust them,” Ilves said.
The new government of Andrius Ansip doesn’t seem eager to bring this complicated issue into the spotlight again, although it plans to discuss the Rummo commission’s proposals.
Meanwhile, Lihula’s younger generation has its own perspective: Every group should have memorials to be remembered by and politicians should not exploit history.
“It would be good if the government erected a central monument for all the victims of the war, regardless of which side they fought,” said one student. “Why not show a mourning mother that is crying about her son’s death!” It would illustrate the cruelty of World War II - and that everyone was suffering from it.