By all accounts, the manner in which the Teutonic Order took possession of Estonia in the 13th Century was not laughter inducing. Yet, Estonians, looking back at their past centuries later, managed to reduce the bloody conquest to a comedy called Malev.
Over the past few days I have read a lot about the recent gathering of Estonian SS veterans near Sinimäe in Ida Virumaa. It has been picked up by the Russian-controlled media as part of its ongoing war against Estonia's rightwing government. I have nothing against old veterans of any army gathering. They are old and lived through hell, they should be allowed to assemble and pay homage to their fallen comrades who were cut down in their prime for foolish purposes.
Yet it is true that the role that the Estonian state -- as represented by a letter from Defense Minister Jaak Aaviksoo who was conspicuously absent -- played in these ceremonies is controversial. An official letter calling the SS veterans heroes on par with those who brought Estonia its independence in 1918? Hmm. That's an interesting way of looking at it.
Yet, as always, things are more complicated here. The Estonian state that operated underground during the German occupation did not support enlisting in the German Army until it became clear that Germany was going to lose the war in mid-1944. Then Prime Minister Jüri Uluots, acting on behalf of President Konstantin Päts who had been deported in 1940, called on Estonian men not to resist being drafted into the 20th Waffen SS in order to keep the Reds out so the republic could be restored.
How do we know Uluots was not a Nazi? Because the first thing he did when the Germans began retreating was appoint a new Estonian government. And so, because the Estonian state told its people not to resist that draft it now owes them, even in their elderhood, something for their sacrifices -- like official letters and a military band.
The problem with this situation is that idiotic World War II propaganda is still being used by Russian nationalists and Estonian nationalists to sew feelings of hatred for one another. Official commemorations -- such as at the Bronze Soldier or at Sinimäe -- are used by some to fan the flames of discontent, and to link that struggle -- which now seems preposterous in its ideals -- a Bolshevist Superstate? an 'Aryan' Europe? Come on! -- to the present where it honestly serves no purpose.
Sometimes I wish people would look beyond the mind numbing propaganda of the 1940s and realize how stupid the whole thing was. I mean the Germans and Russians spent thousands upon thousand of lives over what exactly?
Think about all those German and Russian tombstones in Ida Viru county. Why of all places did they die in Estonia? There's no downhill skiing here. No vast reserves of oil to export. The harbors are nice, but the Russians have learned to live with Ust-Luga. Anyway you add it up, you have slightly more than one million people, some farm land, some lakes, and a lot of berry and mushroom yielding forests. The idea of a "world war" occuring in this remote part of Europe is, I am sorry, a joke.
The memories of the horrors of that conflict are still raw and the veterans deserve their respect. But mark my words, at some moment in the future, Estonian filmmakers might manage to squeeze a Malev-like comedy out of the sad tale of the Estonian Waffen SS.