TALLINN. March 11 (Interfax) - The Constitutional Commission of the Estonian parliament will start considering a bill entitled "On the armed struggle of Estonian citizens against the Soviet Union's military occupation" on March 16.
The Estonian parliamentary website reported on Saturday that the bill drafted by the opposition parties Pro Patria Union and Res Publica suggests that "the legitimate armed fight against the USSR's aggression and illegal occupation" be declared "a fight for Estonia's liberation, and the Estonian citizens involved in it fighters for Estonia's liberation."
The bill's authors said the document was initiated by a number of organizations "of fighters for Estonia's liberation," who have urged the parliament to formulate its position on the participation of Estonians in the Second World War, "first of all in the ranks of the German army."
The issue of recognizing Estonians who fought for Nazi Germany during WWII as freedom fighters was first raised at a 2004 congress of the Union of Fighters for Estonia's Liberation, whose members are veterans of the 20th Estonian SS division.
First of all, this is the stuff for history buffs. Trying to pick apart the convoluted shift of Estonian independence to Soviet occupation in 1940-45 is like getting in an argument in America about the Vietnam War. And from the perspective of a North American, it is even more difficult to understand. See, we don't view World War II has a momentous struggle against fascism. We see it as a struggle against belligerents that shook up the global status quo - Japanese expansion into Southeast Asia and German attempts to colonize Europe. But in Russia, the old textbooks still view it as a mometous victory over "fascism." As if it happened that the Germans were democrats, or communists, and they still expanded into Poland and attacked Russia in 1941, that would somehow be different. (It wouldn't be). Because deporting people to die in labor camps in Siberia as communists is different from deporting people to die in labor camps as fascists. Because the Gestapo and the NKVD are two completely different things. Because Hitler and Stalin had nothing in common.
Ok, enough irony.
But what this is all about is a clash of historical narratives. The historical narratives prop up the belief in the state. The Russian government prefers a historical narrative where it plays Alexander Nevski to the German invaders. It is the strong uncle looking out for its weak Estonian nephew against a German aggressor.
In the Estonian narrative, the strong uncle is actually a child molester, and the Estonian 22 Waffen SS division - those that Res Publica and Isamaaliit are trying to honor - were lent some weapons by another malicious mofo - German-cousin Gerry - to keep the evil Uncle Joe's child molester's hands off its body.
Plus, sad to say, Estonian history isn't exactly chock full of noble Mannerheim-like heros that ride to the rescue and keep the invaders out. They are trying to resuscitate some "heros" out of a particularly humiliating period in their history. And the guys that joined the 20th Waffen SS weren't battle-hardened Nazis. They were children - born in 1926 and 1927 - the 18 and 17-year-olds of 1944. And remember this was in 1944. Benito Mussolini was out of power. The Germans had lost Stalingrad. The tide had turned. And in May of that year Jüri Uluots, the last prime minister of a democratic Estonia, encouraged the 32,000 teenagers who formed the 20th Waffen SS to join up. This has been interpreted as his effort to use German weaponry to Estonia's benefit (he was the one who formed the new government in September 1944, so his Nazi-loyalties are nil in a historic context).
The Russian chronology would describe the teenagers of the 20th as loyal Nazis, in fact so loyal that they never gave up the fascist cause for ten years after Germany surrendered. So loyal that in 1978, 69-year old August Sabbe was still walking around with a gun waiting for the Nazis to get their act together before he became the last "Nazi guerilla" to be killed by the Soviets. I guess he didn't have a radio in his cave in the woods.
Now, for anyone with a brain, the notion that the guerilla fighters who assasinated communist officials and soldiers into the 1950s, or that the 20th Estonian Waffen SS division had secretly aspired to keep Estonia in Axis hands, seems patently absurd.
But what is at risk here isn't the truth. It's the historical narrative. Because if Estonia succeeds in wiping out the old historical narrative and replacing it with the new one, then that is a tremendous failure for Russian interests in the region. The narrative of tsarist and Soviet Estonia was that the Russian government was somehow a liberator or protector of Estonia. Estonia owed it something. In the Estonian narrative, Estonia is free in spite of the attempts of its eastern neighbor to deny it that freedom. Two different visions, two differnt narratives.
Obviously one country has the right to create its own historical narrative, determine its own future. That was one of the triumphs of Wilsonianism that lasts to this day.
However, I fear that all of the nuance of actual history may be lost in a world where catch phrases and insinuations rule, and fact is a raw material to be mixed and baked in a nice propaganda oven. This could turn into another Lihula situation where the world looks at Estonia and sees something ugly rather than beautiful. That's what Interfax wants. It could generate dozens of more shrill press releases.
In some ways, I am not sure of the correct way to avoid it. Personally, I think monuments to the forest brothers - maybe I nice big one in the middle of Tallinn, facing east, just as Mannerheim faces east in Helsinki, could send the appropriate signal, and wouldn't draw the expected controversy. If you want to build a monument, build it to guys like Alfred Karmann, who lost his arm in the conflict and kept fighting anyway.
The "hero" of Estonia would look better in rags clutching a rifle and all his belongings on his pack, than one in a stiff, misinterpreted Nazi uniform. That's what I think sends a more powerful message than any memorial to the Estonian 20th SS ever could.