Yesterday morning, I stopped in Rahva Raamat in Tallinn's Old Town to kill some time. I didn't really know what I was looking for, but like all males, I was instantly drawn to the books about war: ah, yes, war -- the most dramatic theater of international relations.
The book is called Eesti Leegion, and it is about Estonian soldiers who fought in the service of the Third Reich during the Second World War. Its main author is former prime minister Mart Laar, who last week published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal condemning both Stalinism and Nazism.
Having read more than I would have liked to on the topic, I agree mostly with Laar's interpretation of history, and I think we in the West do, too. In the Western narrative, like in Estonia, the war begins in 1939 with the partitioning of Poland, not in 1941, as it does in the Russian Federation, with the Nazi invasion, for instance.
Eesti Leegion is a collection of never-before-seen photographs of both those drafted into service in 1944 as well as the batches of volunteers who joined the German Army of their own accord to fight the Soviets in the years 1941-43. Most of new recruits are kids -- probably 18, 19, 20-years-old, typically smiling in the photographs, a natural reaction of any person to the sight of a camera.
The book on several occasions describes the volunteers and draftees as heroes who fought for their country's independence. "A country that does not fight for its freedom does not deserve to be free," the book states. But were these fellows really fighting for "freedom," or were they fighting for local stooge Dr. Hjalmar Mäe -- a portly former Vaps with a mustache who makes sure to heil the fuhrer in many a photo? Were they fighting for their kodumaa, as the recruitment posters attest, or were they fighting for Heinrich Himmler, who makes a cameo in a photo in the book?
Used and Abused
After carefully viewing each sharp, black and white photo, I came away from Eesti Leegion with a profound feeling of sadness. Most of these kids were neither heroes nor villains; they were cannon fodder for sinister men with sinister plans. They were young men, like my brother-in-law, aged 20, and his friends. Today, when they gather, they are accused of glorifying the goals of 1940s Berlin. But is that really the case? I doubt it.
I also felt sad to see the Estonian flag, the sinine must valge, which seems like the most harmless expression of a person's love for their homeland, cynically exploited by the German commanders. It was a smart move from a propaganda standpoint to dress up draftees in nationally themed uniforms and give them the feeling that they were fighting for their own country, rather than on behalf of the Reich. However, for Estonia, the experience tarnished its own nationalism, confusing it with an ideology that is far removed from what this country is about.
Indeed, the photos of Dr. Mäe with his arm outstretched in salute are for Estonians at least as embarrassing as the photos of Johannes Lauristin laying a wreath at Lenin's Tomb in August 1940 on behalf of Eesti NSV. When anyone ever mentions Estonians as "enthusiastic collaborators", it should always be mentioned that there were Estonian "enthusiastic collaborators" on all sides. I am glad that the book puts it all out there for everyone to see and make their own judgments. In this way, it is quite bold.
The larger point that depresses me, though, is that it further convinced me that images and selective history can be made to serve any purpose. In Estonia, old veterans can easily become props with meanings beyond their mortal condition. Arnold Meri is a prop; the Eesti Leegion vets are props. It's like they were used in their youth, and now they are being used in old age. The violence they endured and created is considered to be a profound expression of something, and that something is usually malleable and defined by the storyteller.
One new narrative that has emerged recently is that Estonians in all armies during the Second World War were fighting for the same thing: the restoration of independence. The Finnish boys -- the most politically correct of the lot -- were fighting for "Finland's freedom and Estonia's honor." The German and Red Army vets cancel each other out: one fought against Bolshevist terror, the other against fascism, but all had one dream: to return to the country they knew before 1939.
This is a meme that has surfaced several times in recent weeks and has paired the unlikely sorts of IRL Defense Minister Jaak Aaviksoo and Estonian Social Democratic Party-founder Marju Lauristin with back to back statements reinforcing the narrative.
"Estonia and its men fought on both sides of the front line not for communism or fascism, but against both of them," Aaviksoo was quoted as saying in the Baltic Times. «Selles mõttes need mehed ei olnud nii väga erinevad [in this regards the men weren't so different],» Lauristin told ERR.
«Seda peab vaatama kui meie rahvuslikku tragöödiat, meie rahvuslikku ajalugu ja sellest tõesti õppima» [We should see this as our national tragedy, our national history, and really learn from this], she said.
I have to say, I like this new narrative. It's also simplistic enough, for those of you tired of arguing about history in all its boring detail, that it could catch on.