Estonia was the only country designated as "judenfrei" -- free of Jews -- at the Wannsee Conference in 1942, a terrible category to be put in, indeed, and one that continues to haunt the country in the discussion of its past.
At the same time, it is perhaps worth noting that by the time the Germans arrived in Estonia in 1941, Estonia's prewar Jewish community, which numbered around 4,500, had been reduced to around 1,000 persons, thanks to Soviet deportations, executions, and Red Army mobilization. In comparison, there were around 34,000 Jews in Lithuania and up to 420,000 in occupied Poland at the time.
So the "final solution" was carried out in Estonia even before Wannsee, indeed even before Hitler himself decided to eliminate the rest of the European Jewry. Some interesting things I learned in my class on WWII and Stalinism in the Baltic States this week about this nauseating chapter in Estonian history:
* The Germans staged the Holocaust on the Eastern Front as a mass, spontaneous pogrom carried out by locals. This is why so much photographic "evidence" exists of Baltic partisans taking part in atrocities: that's how the German propaganda masters wanted it. They did not want to take responsibility for it themselves.
* The Soviet authorities later used this photographic "evidence" of Baltic war crimes to discredit Baltic emigre leaders in the West who opposed the Soviet occupation and annexation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In this way, they recycled Nazi propaganda for their own purposes.
* It was not the Estonian and Latvian SS Divisions that were central to Nazi war crimes in the occupied Baltic region. The German-led operation instead used local police battalions to guard the camps and, at times, carry out the mass executions. Sadly, many of the local police battalions were comprised of Estonian or Latvian Russians who were considered too much of a security threat to send to the front.
* Incentives to join a killing squad? Believe it or not, they were voluntary. Members of killing squads got better pay and considered it a dirty job that would advance their careers after the war. It was also safer than being sent to the front. Finally, most of the executioners were inebriated while doing their "work." Alcohol was consumed prior to mass executions.
* There were no gas chambers in Estonia. Mass executions were carried out by police battalions and killing squads using shooting as a means to accomplish their hideous task.
* According to German documents, the Estonians in German civil administration were not considered anti-Semitic enough. The local population did not support Nazi racial theories and it was difficult for the Nazis to enlist locals in their efforts.
* The Germans and Estonians were more culturally similar. They had seen the same Western films and knew the same popular songs. In comparison, the Soviet troops had lived under socialism already for 20 years. This is one of the reasons why German rule was seen as milder by many Estonians, and the Soviets were seen as alien.
* Most Estonian men who served in the German and Soviet armies were conscripted during a military occupation. The conscription of men from an occupied territory is considered a war crime in itself.
* After the war, Western military intelligence integrated existing German networks into their own. German military methods were also studied as the conquered army was still considered to be a well-run and efficient operation. Hence, many officers and officials connected to war crimes were never prosecuted and some continue to live on in the West without threat of prosecution.
And so concludes our history lesson. While I admit the topic is intense and, at times, quite sickening, I felt that these new nuggets of knowledge needed to be shared.