Estonia has caused outrage with plans to honour hundreds of Nazi collaborators. The EU country is expected to give official ‘freedom fighter’ status to veterans of the 20th Waffen Grenadier Division. Several hundred who fought in the Estonian SS gather annually to commemorate their role in battles against Soviet forces.
The division was founded in 1944 by the occupying Nazis. The veterans say they allied with the Nazis to defend their country from the Soviets but anti-Nazi campaigners claim the troops were involved in war crimes against civilians. Johan Backman, of World without Nazism, said: ‘The Estonian SS legionaries did not fight for Estonia. They fought for Hitler.’ Russia described the move as ‘blasphemous and unacceptable.
Several hundred men who fought in the Estonian SS still gather every year to commemorate their role in battles against Soviet forces.
The division was founded in 1944 by the occupying Nazis - three years after Germany launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded Russia with the most powerful invasion force in history. More than three million German troops attacked in three parallel offensives. Despite warnings that Germany could not fight a war on two fronts, Hitler saw the Russian invasion of Romania in 1940 as a threat to his Balkan oil supply and invaded with 3,000 tanks, 2,500 aircraft and 7,000 artillery pieces.
The Red Army was disorganised and the Germans were able to push 300 miles into Russia before the winter hit and the advance slowed. The war on the Eastern Front went on for four bloody years and arguably resulted in the eventual defeat of the Nazis.
At the last gathering of the Estonian veterans in August last year, they were promised the Tallinn government was moving to officially recognise them in 2012. The move is being spearheaded by powerful Defence Minister Mart Laar, the country's ex-premier. 'If Mart Laar makes any promise, he will move to his goal like a tank, and you will be freedom fighters as early as next year,' said Tarmo Kruusimae, activist of ruling party Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica.
Legislation is now being drawn up in Tallinn which now aims to keep this promise to all those who fought in Estonia against the USSR. The SS veterans claim they only allied with the Nazis to defend their country from Soviet invasion. In the event, their efforts failed and the Baltic state was swallowed up by the Soviet Union for more than four decades.
But anti-Nazi campaigners dismiss this and claim the Estonians were collaborators involved in war crimes against civilians. Mr Backman, a leader of the international human rights group World Without Nazism, added: 'The government is trying to create a new history of Estonia, which is very dangerous for the young generation.'
The Russian embassy in Tallinn claimed legislation to name them 'freedom fighters' was a bid to 'cover the atrocities committed by Estonian Nazi collaborators'. This was 'blasphemous and unacceptable' and should be abandoned, said Moscow. 'We hope that in this case common sense, conscience and a feeling of responsibility will prevail.'