teisipäev, juuli 31, 2007

Can Comedy Cure the WWII Blues?

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.

38 kommentaari:

LPR ütles ...

Might as well make "Malev 2" and show the same characters steadfastly sticking to their habits of peacful farming, beer drinking and blonde shagging when the members of passing marauding hordes enthusiastically try to convince them in the virtues of goose stepping or kazatchok dancing. As estonians are not cooperative a lot of misunderstanding ensues and poor estonians of course get the short end of the stick in the end - hated and whacked by both sides.

Then fast forward 50 years. By now goose steppers and kazatchok dancers have become friends, get high on the gas and then blame the estonians for mass murders and rewriting the history.

But estonians still do most of the same - drink beer, shag their blondes and ... instead of tilling the land, posting their pictures on rate.ee and refusing to listen that they are about to be collecitvely shagged out of their freedom again.

Work in the bronze night riots and you get the whole shabang.

Anyway, the script should just write itself because estonian history is so effed up, funny and absurd.

Juan Manuel ütles ...

I don´t know much about the subject. I have read the Wikipedia article.

But was the 20th Division really an SS division? I mean most of those soldiers were forced to serve by the occupation authorities. It doesn't seem they received the indoctrination of regular SS units. They were just drafted by the Germans to face the Soviets.

Is there evidence that some of those men participated in any kind of war crime? How strong is the case made by the Simon Wiesenthal Center to try some of the survivors?

I think there is nothing wrong in those people gathering to commemorate a battle where they tried to resist a new (cruel) occupation.

stockholm slender ütles ...

Waffen-SS was an incredibly vile organization that was a crucial part of the armed forces of an incredibly vile government. (This despite of its mainly military - as opposed to mindless racially motivated mass slaughters of civilians - role). As far as it is meaningful even to make the distinction, and it's not that far. Anyway, if this is made clear, and it is quite the truth, then why not commemorate the true heroism of these Estonian patriots that were not influenced by Nazism in any way but for whom choices were cruelly limited in those nightmarish conditions when an even more immediate threat by an equally vile system was confronting Estonia?

I hope that this issue would be framed in something like the above fashion - which would be very true to the actual circumstances - but this does not seem to be always the case. It's no doubt a natural reaction to the historical holocaust that Estonia has undergone (and which is still by and large unacknowledged by the West), but maybe it should be remembered that a national holocaust would have ensued also if the Waffen-SS would have been victorious. They were hateful enemies of Estonia.

Tiamsuu ütles ...

Juan Manuel, well spotted with that indoctrination aspect. In fact, that was one of the details that were mentioned during Nuremberg trials. Point being, not all Waffen-SS units are to be treated on equal grounds. Sensible thing, especially as quite a few of those Waffen-SS estonians were employed as guards for said proceedings.

As Justin has nicely pointed out, the reason for estonians to join up wasn't driven by ideology, but rather the o'shit moment - germans retreating, soviets coming back.

Wiesenthal Centre (i.e. Zuroff) isn't very popular over here. They tend to fly in, throw around some accusations and leave after a while sprouting abuse when they unerringly fail to back up their claims with evidence.

Oh, and they offer cash for hints. Sick.

Jens-Olaf ütles ...

Some Balts who left their country cause of the Hitler-Stalin pact, because the Soviets started taking over the states, have seen their relatives ending up in German controlled refugee camps. Offers were made by the German side. They should do a deal. Entering the German army and SS and your family will would get regular citizenship or living permits. In one case I know a former Latvian who joined the Totenkopf branch of the SS cause of that reason. He wittnessed the Holocaust (which started 1941): Mass shooting in the Ukraine. He talked about it in the short vacations back home. He refused to excecute Jews, instead he was ordered to guard the scene. Later in 1943 he was killed in Ukraine during a regular clash with Soviet Units.

One of the problems with WWII is the oversimplification. I was strucked to read about the Nomanhan incident in August 1939 recently. Where hundreds of tanks, air force, infantery the whole military machine was involved. Who was battling. The Japanese the Soviets. Not at home but in Outer Mongolia.
Ten thousands of soldiers died. And only shortly, after these battles, the official WWII started with the Green Light from the Hitler- Stalin Pact in September 1939.

Kristopher ütles ...
Autor on selle kommentaari eemaldanud.
Kristopher ütles ...

One question, though:

It's late 1864. You are a member of a small self-sufficient farming community in eastern Georgia. You pay your field hands wages.

General Sherman's coming and like Stalin long after him, he's declared a scorched earth policy.

So even though you are bitterly opposed to the Confederate thugs quartered in your fields and the notion of slave-holding disgusts you morally, do you join the Southerners, figuring you'll be able to keep the Union troops from destroying your holdings until you can reassert your authority?

Rein Kuresoo ütles ...
Autor on selle kommentaari eemaldanud.
plasma-jack ütles ...

Estonian filmmakers might manage to squeeze a Malev-like comedy out of the sad tale of the Estonian Waffen SS.

I guess you've never read Andrus Kivirähks' book "Ivan Orav - Minevik kui helesinised mäed" where he rewrites the Estonian history of 20th century. Shame that this book hasn't been translated to English, the original version might be too difficult to read.

When I was looking for Kivirähk's translations, I found this hilarious piece (in English) where the infamous strong Estonian Woman is introduced.

Unknown ütles ...

In 1949-1950, a United Nations commission investigated the Estonian and Latvian "SS" and found these military units to be
NEITHER CRIMINAL nor NAZI collaborators. On 12 September 1950, Harry N. Rosenfield, the United Nations Refugee Relief
Association Commissioner, wrote the following to Latvian Ambassador J. Feldmanis: "That the Baltic Waffen SS. Units (Baltic Legions) are to be considered as separate and distinct in purpose, ideology, activities, and qualifications for membership from the German SS, and therefore the Commission holds them not to be a movement hostile to the Government of the United States."

There you have it, nothing to be ashamed about due to the Estonian Legion, units committed to keeping the yoke of bolshevism out of Estonia, they are quite "on par" with the soldiers in Vabadussõda, in fact many of them had participated in Vabadussõda.

I'm certain the Estonians in Waffen-SS would have desired to fight in Estonian uniforms, but *cough* the Russians dissolved the Estonian army and murdered its officers in 1940-1941, so Waffen-SS was the only way to effectively try and keep the Russians out.

I even found the picture of my great-great uncle on the net. What a handsome guy, reminds me of myself. =]


plasma-jack ütles ...

My grandfather was drafted to Luftwaffe. He deserted. I think it was the smartest move he could have done.

Ära mine kallis poiss seda teed ei minda
See tobe sõda pole väärt su noore elu hinda
Sealt võid saada kuuli pähe või siis täägi rinda
Suudlema jääd mitmeks päevaks võõrast mullapinda
Poiss ei kuula läheb ikka vaatamata taha
Paarikümne meetri pärast langeb näoli maha
Jällegi on surma saand üks eesti idioot
Enda meelest kangelane vist või patrioot
Teised veel said veidi aega olla kaevikuis
Põgenevad põlluhiired võisid kuulda kuis
Laulsid nad veel viimast korda kangest koduõlust
Mahajäänud talust ja eesti naise ilust

Unknown ütles ...

Let us suppose you (whoever "you" may be) are taking a walk by the river with your wife and daughter. You love them both more than your very own life. Soon a terrible storm brakes loose and they both fall into the vicious river. There is nothing around to help rescue them.

The "smart" thing to do would be to simply stand by the river and watch or run away. But it is uncommon to be that "smart" so you jump in the vicious stream yourself. The situation is utterly hopeless, but then you see Charles Manson strolling along the river whistling with a roll of hanging rope. He smiles in a charmingly friendly manner and throws you one end of the rope. You have heard some awful things about the man, that he has been rather "rude" to people in the past etc. But he is being awfully nice to you and offering you his help to save you and your family from the engulfing river (whatever his motives may be).

Do you grab the rope?

LPR ütles ...

Some "comedic" material here: http://www.postimees.ee/010807/tartu_postimees/274894_1.php

Giustino ütles ...

There you have it, nothing to be ashamed about due to the Estonian Legion, units committed to keeping the yoke of bolshevism out of Estonia, they are quite "on par" with the soldiers in Vabadussõda, in fact many of them had participated in Vabadussõda.

Except they were fighting as part of the German Army, not the Estonian Army. And they lost, unlike in 1918. That's two strikes right there.

I saw a nice book somewhere that catalogued all the uniforms Estonians have worn. I did not know, for example, that Estonians fought in the Great Northern War as part of the imperial Swedish army.

I wonder what those uniforms looked like ...

Unknown ütles ...

Before the Great Northern War the Swedes formed militias out of Estonians and Latvians (7000-8000 men), these units were involved in combat, I assume they did not have uniforms. As soon as the war started Sweden began to recruit men to their regular army, many joined voluntarily with the aim of keeping Estonia as a part of Sweden because Swedish rule was/is considered as a golden era in Estonia due to all the progress in education, culture and so forth, but most importantly because Karl XI abolished serfdom in Estonia for the first time (with the Russians came the return of serfdom). Sweden was also culturally much closer due to more than half of the subjects of the kingdom being finno-ugric.
The uniforms looked like this:

Unknown ütles ...

It turns out the Estonians who fought for Sweden against the Russians are also "on par" with the men in Vabadussõda. I guess that makes them "fascist". =P

Too bad Sweden lost the war, with men like Forselius around, the national awakening would have started about a hundred year earlier in a much more friendly and civilized environment. Just to think of all the possible positive results...

Rein Kuresoo ütles ...
Autor on selle kommentaari eemaldanud.
Rein Kuresoo ütles ...
Autor on selle kommentaari eemaldanud.
Rein Kuresoo ütles ...
Autor on selle kommentaari eemaldanud.
Unknown ütles ...

Yes well...many, many thanks go out to the Russians for making life interesting. No counterarguments there =]

Anonüümne ütles ...

Evil Puric, as far as I know, Karl XI wanted to and planned to abolish serfdom in Estonia but he didn't, because the local ruling class was against it.

Unknown ütles ...

You are right about the local nobility being against it, but he did it anyway. This was called reduction, lands were returned to the crown. De jure this amounted to abolishing serfdom in most of Estonia.

ARK ütles ...

Good post, G.

Humour’s a funny thing. So subjective. No clear rules or lines. Quo Vadis? There’s the safe, white-bread Everybody Loves Raymond route. Or we go Lenny Bruce, Lewis Black, or even David Cross or Margaret Cho. (All NorAm references, I know. But they come up sometimes in this forum, quite naturally, don’t they?)

A few rules of thumb with humour:

Humour = tragedy + time. (Twain, Woody)

If it bends, it’s funny; if it breaks, not. (Woody)

If you think you’ve gone too far, then you really haven’t. (Hitchens)

If everyone in the room is laughing, then you’ve failed. (Hitchens again)

Irony and humour are the “glory of the slaves” (or powerless) – the one thing that power has an impossible time controlling or stamping out. (Milosz)

Canadian filmmaker/writer Ken Finkleman – look him up if you haven’t; genius – made a joke about making a sequel to Shoa. He described the Holocaust as the ultimate ‘pie in the face’ because it was so horrifying. Only a year or so after 9/11, he was writing clever, political gags about the terrorist attack in his film Escape from the Newsroom.

Daring. Edgy. Provocative. But, for a Canuck, that’s probably the equivalent of a Balt doing WW2 SS jokes.

Mind you, from my time in Estonia and Latvia, I did hear some very edgy, off colour jokes on that general topic, albeit using the fictional Russian hero Stirlitz as proxy.

Given the general reaction to Rein Lang playing Mister Dressup, I’d say it’s a bit too early. Audiences are still humourless about recent revelations that Kreutzwald actually compiled Kalevipoeg as a 19th C Romantic version of a French bedroom farce, replete with Oedipal and homosexual undertones. (That said, back in 1994, I did see a very amateurish burlesquey version of Kalevipoeg performed in Tartu, for real. Just recalled that now, during the writing of this bit. Just goes to show: nothing is, and few things should be, sacred or off-limits.)

As for the general discussion of Estonia, Nazis, SS, Holocaust, Wiesenthal, etc… I think I’ll follow the lead of Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny in the “Krazy Kripples” episode of South Park… proud "crips" Jimmy and Timmy are pissed at that “butthole” Christopher Reeve for making like a cripple, because true cripples born that way… Stan et al opt to ‘stay out of that one.’

Btw, does “SS” really stand for “Super S’fine”?

ARK ütles ...

RE: Kristopher’s point about Georgia in 1864 and Union General Sherman’s scorched earth policy (see above).

This was indeed an historic event to behold. The Caucasian War had just ended in May 1864 with the march of Tsarist and Georgian troops on Abkhazia. It looked as though the Abkhazian and Adygeyan causes were all but lost. Shamil’s dream of a Union of Mountain Peoples seemed dead. Georgian nationalism and colonialism were bubbling; Georgian independence was in prospect, though still years off.

Then General William Tecumseh Sherman
arrived on the scene. No one saw this coming.

Historian Aly Sultany had this to say:

‘Georgian intellectuals and Tsarist officers were confounded, indeed perplexed, by the unprecedented arrival of this raucous American on the scene. I.P. Shekkyvashinidze, an aide-de-camp at the Batumi Campfire, met General Sherman and quoted the Union General as declaring the following,

“I ain’t sure how we gots here. Took a hard left at Savannah. There was smoke. There were drinks. Couldn’t understand a damned thing anyone was saying. They’s sounded like Russkies. Goddam Russkies. I just started setting fire to everything. There were some fellas in fur hats cheering for me so I’s gots to keep going. I was dancing the Kartuli with General Ulysses who said keep going only it wasn’t Ulysses and I don’t know what the hell they put in that wine!”

According to historian Vasil Lidel Heart, General Sherman sobered up the following Thursday. But during his short stay in Caucasia, he picked up a few regional techniques for implementing “total war” against the enemy. On Friday, Sherman started heading west again, back to Georgia.

During the ruckus, however, northern Caucasian tribal hero Imam Shamil was quoted as saying, ‘Sherman may be a schlemiel, but he’s our schlemiel!’

Here is a rare drawing of Shamil with Sherman. (Shamil is on the horse; Sherman is sitting in the middle.) Shamil was so impressed by Sherman’s “War is hell” speech (northern Caucasus version) that he presented Sherman with a giant feather duster. Sherman cherished that gift: years later, during his short stint as US secretary of war, Sherman was reputed to have kept the ‘cleanest, most dust-free office of any public official.’

According to Sultany, I.P. Shekkyvashinidze was present for the Giant Feather Duster Presentation near modern-day Sukhumi:

“Sherman was quite upset that he had to sit down and Shamil got to sit up on a horse. Sherman felt emasculated and he complained to Imam Shamil. At one point, Sherman threatened to set Shamil’s horse on fire. Shamil told Sherman to stop being a dumb fuckin’ Yankee and that if he wanted the giant feather duster so much then he should just shut up, sit down and pose.”

Another lesser-known fact:

The song “Georgia on the Mind” by Gorrel/Carmichael was actually based on Sherman’s letters to a woman named Dudukhana who ran a southern fried chicken joint near Sukhumi.

LPR ütles ...

There is something liberating in laughter when feeling immense sorrow. I have felt quilty couple of times in my life after fighting that uncontrollable urge to laugh at funerals.

Anyway, here's something deliciously un-PC about the horror of 9/11 http://www.exile.ru/2001-November-15/the_three_amigos_a_tale_of_love_and_loss_in_manhattan.html

stockholm slender ütles ...

Not to forget JR200 and Soomepoisid: those uniforms I would not call hateful, nor were they forced on. Anyway, the matter itself is very clear: Estonians had obviously absolutely nothing to do with Nazi ideology (to just mention the thing even if in the negative, feels stupid), this issue of Waffen-SS is just an indication what nightmarish things can happen when you are situated between two equally awful, equally hysterical powerful terror states.

Crazy World ütles ...

War is alway ridiculos. Doesn't matter which one. Russians have seen Estonia as "window to the Europe". Strategical location. But true, that's the only thing that comes to my mind why anybody would want to have power over that almost not populated piece of land.
Besides, then comes the issue of plain old bloodthurst and need to surrender "smaller and weaker" ones that is rather characteristic (also ignorant) for the most of bigger countries. And to the smaller countries/people who find some country/person even smaller than themselves.

Unknown ütles ...

Can Comedy Cure the WWII Blues?

The title brought to my mind immediately the superb Brittish serial Allo! Allo! from the 80´s so it has been done already by brits but I think we have long way to go there and cons. russians I have serious doubts that they will ever get there and laughing at the matter or just looking through the comic point of view will be blasphemous also in 100 years for them :).

Frank ütles ...

to whom it may concern:
lines out the background of the reduction of manors and King Charles´s role as king of peasants.

Vana hea rootsi aeg might not have been that golden age as that it is often portrayed, though, if one bears in mind that the "Swedish imperialism" in that period meant war after war. The goal of abolishing "serfdom" was not necessarily a purely humanitarian idea. It may also have been one way - among others - to guarantee the filling of the ranks.

And from the nobility´s point of view the reduction in many cases was just a plain violation of the law.

I agree that it is more than difficult to judge the behaviour of our ancestors, and this applies also to the generation of vana-ema and vana-isa. So he has a point who argues that a comedy makes probably more sense than any film that claims to depict "how it really was ..."

Unknown ütles ...

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.

They died because St. Petersburg is a big city and holding that was important to the Germans. The Russians couldn't allow it. And Estonia is basically the front hall of St. Petersburg. They didn't fight because of Estonia, the fighting was because of Leningrad and the fact that Estonia was in the way, was just a coincidence. Like most wars, it was about influence and land. It wasn't a joke at all. I imagine it was pretty critical for both sides to either take or keep St. Petersburg as the second biggest Russian city.

Kristopher ütles ...

I read that a Russian alderman in Riga wants to ban use of the number 55 (as in the address 55 Pardaugavas iela) because of its resemblance to "SS" (Schutzstaffel).

Perhaps it is too early for humour.

Of course, a humorous treatment doesnt have to be farce, like Malev. You could come up with a darkly humorous, nihilist treatment like Catch 22 (the book at least).

For Westerners, 1944 in Estland is too obscure and bloody. Whereas anyone familiar with colonialism in any of its guises can identify with the 13th century and Malev.

EvilPurc: Was Charles Manson in Estonia? He would have been about 10 or 11. Andres Kahar, do you have anything on that?

Frank ütles ...

One should be careful to simplify, and addressing 13th century Estonia as a colony to me seems like a late 19th century cliché ...

Among the vassals of the Danish kings a certain percentage of Estonians is above doubt, and Estonian historians have always tried hard to include the Uexkuells, Wrangels, Maydells and other pur sang Baltic Barons who named themselves after Estonian possessions into that lot - and I guess these and other families at least married into the "autochthonous" Estonian upper set of that day and age to gain ground in a country where to survive you needed cousins and brothers in arms ready to take your side, and be it to battle with the Estonians of a neighbouring county or clan.

As far as I know up to Jüriöö ülestõus in 1343 Estonians in many ways were treated as equals and naturally enjoyed the same right to bear arms as all freemen did.

So it is much more complicated and, once again, historical and ahistorical stereotypes are mostly justified when they serve the purpose of comedy and the subsequent undermining of clichés.

Juan Manuel ütles ...

Comedy is a good idea, but that ERNA Retk or however it is called doesn't seem to be a very good idea, specially in those days when Estonia is involved in an information war about it's own image.

I was appalled when I saw it on tv. There was this Kahvel showman saying it was a sporting event and nothing more. But hey, you can organize that sporting event in a different place where there are no nostalgic WWII veterans. And by the way, shooting around and dropping grenades in the forest is not a very polite entertainment.

martintg ütles ...

I think the ERNA Raid is fantastic! There are teams from Finland, Denmark, Norway, Germany and the USA involved, so it is quite an international event. Here is the website:

Unknown ütles ...

Bashing the Erna retk is going too far imo. The original Erna guys were volunteers to the Finnish army who decided to come and help liberate Estonia from the Soviets. Just that they were anti-Soviet doesn't make them fascist automatically. Of course Russia is trying to play that card because The Soviet Union Was The Greatest State Ever (tm) and noone in their right mind could have opposed it.

The Erna Raid is a great military game though which doesn't put too much pressure on the historical side. And anyway, why should we feel ashamed celebrating the men who helped dozens of Estonian civilians escape the deadly grip of the Red Army?

plasma-jack ütles ...

I wonder if it's still all right to feel comfortable reading from Henrik's "Chronicles of Livland" about men from Sakala roasting Latvian village elders or eating the heart of foogt of Järva.

plasma-jack ütles ...

How is foogt in English, fogd? Anyway, most of Estonians seem to be nasty bastards, if you read Henrik. Somebody should tell that to all those British bachelors.

Wahur ütles ...

First thought that came to my mind that such jokes would become bearable, when all first-hand participants are dead + one more generation. Then again, if Estonians swallowed Ivan Orav (and actually most considered it a brilliant stuff) then maybe it can happen faster.
And I feel that many, especially younger people are really tired of this victim game (ooh, our history is soooo miserable!). They would like to put it behind and go on, which is probably good idea. Unless Russia screws up again, of course.