25. Oct 2015
Dr Heiko Pääbo is lecturer at the Institute of Government and Politics, University of Tartu. His main research relates to the depiction of past in the history textbooks, and his current focus is on the development of the WWII depiction in Estonian history textbooks. His latest book Potential of Collective Memory Based International Identity Conflicts in Post-Imperial Space: Comparison of Russian Master Narrative with Estonian, Ukrainian and Georgian Master Narratives was published in 2011.
The Second World War was the most traumatic event of the 20th century that altered the path of development for many Estonians. It is a watershed in the Estonian master-narrative that is divided into the before and after, the good old days and present-day Estonia. Although it was such a traumatic event for the country, it is defined as an "alien war" in which the people of Estonia became pawns in the hands of two totalitarian regimes. Therefore, the official war commemoration of the end of that war is dedicated to the suffering of victims and not the victory itself. However, there is a significant number of the population that celebrates Victory Day in a way that makes the victims a secondary feature of the war and the main narrative focuses on glorifying the myth of the so-called victory. Accordingly, on 8 May, Estonian officials commemorate victims without a large amount of public attention or involvement. And the next day, 9 May, (mainly) the Russian speaking population celebrates Victory Day, which is a glorification of Russia’s power and legitimisation of the sacrifices made. These two events carry very opposite meanings: the former is a rather quiet, mourning commemorating the victims of WWII, whereas the latter is a people’s festival that every year represents more-and-more a celebration and demonstration of military might than a tribute to those who suffered. These two commemorations are not in dialogue but exist as parallel universes representing two very different memory regimes.
For Estonia, WWII began on 23 August 1939 when Hitler and Stalin divided Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union. Estonia remained under Soviet control and in June 1940, when Hitler conquered France, Stalin used the opportunity to force the Estonian government to open its borders for military occupation while his henchmen began to liquidate the Estonian national elite. Therefore, when the Wehrmacht arrived in summer 1941, the people initially celebrated as they though they were being liberated from the Soviet terror – they were very quickly proven wrong. Estonian men were divided between the two totalitarian regimes. Before the Soviet authorities withdrew from Estonia, there was an organised mass mobilisation that forced around 50,000 men into the Red Army The local population did not support the Nazi regime, but their fear of a Soviet return was even greater. Thus, combining fear with the force of mobilisation, Nazis recruited around 70,000 Estonians to fight in their army.The bloodiest battles took place in Estonia in 1944 when the Red Army forced the Nazis out of Estonia. The Nazis and the Soviets both used their Estonian military units, which resulted in Estonian men fighting with one another for an ideology that most of them did not subscribe to. In addition to the big battles, the civilian population suffered the mass bombings of Estonian cities (Narva, Tallinn, Tartu, Jõhvi) by the Red Army in March 1944. During the summer when the Red Army slowly pushed out the Nazis and the fiercest fighting took place in Eastern Estonia, many Estonians tried to escape to Germany or Sweden. By the end of 1944, the Soviet occupation replaced the Nazis and the actual fighting ceased; however, the atrocities did not end there.
The re-established Soviet regime also aimed to change people’s memories. Therefore, they formed an official Soviet-Estonian narrative of the war. It was the war between the righteous (Soviets) who fought for a just cause against the evil forces (Nazis/Germans). The war became known as the Great Patriotic War against the archenemy of the Estonian people. In order to demonstrate the evil nature of the Nazi regime, to hide victims of the Soviet atrocities, and to synchronize Estonian experience with other Soviet territories, the number of war victims was quadrupled. With the guidance of the Russians, Estonia was liberated in 1944, and the collaborators – who were defined as traitors and fascists – were condemned and lawfully punished. This narrative neglected all Soviet atrocities and legitimised them as a proper measure with which to deal with fascists. The latter become a code word for all anti-Soviet forcesBased on this Soviet narrative, today there is a reinforced glorifying myth that shows the victory as a joint effort of all Soviet people under the guidance of Russia.
After the restoration of Estonian independence in 1990, the official narrative of WWII changed significantly. The division between the righteous and the evil forces was removed. The war became an imposed external war where Estonians were victims in the hands of two similar totalitarian regimes. The Estonian master-narrative subscribes to the postcolonial narrative where the central focus is a struggle for independence. As such, WWII carries a strong mourning element on both an individual and on a collective level. The previously condemned veterans of the Waffen SS were no longer seen as Nazi collaborators, but as Estonian freedom fighters who did not fight for Nazi ideology, but fought for Estonian independence and against the return of the Soviet regime Similarly, the Red Army veterans from Estonia are also seen as people who were forced to fight against their will. The fighting between Estonians in 1944 is depicted as national tragedy where people were not divided based on their worldview or ideologies, but were divided by a third-party based on the year they were born. While the independent Estonian narrative of WWII focuses a large part on the suffering under the Soviet regime, it doesn’t forget the suffering at the hands of the Nazis.
Thus, the year 1945 itself was not an important watershed for Estonia because, unlike other Western European countries, the suffering did not end there. According to the Estonian master-narrative, neither 8 May nor 9 May1945 is considered the end of the war: the narrative stretches out until 1994 when the last Russian troops finally left Estonian territory, thereby symbolically ending the Soviet occupation.Thus, the official Estonian war narrative focuses on the suffering and subsequent mourning – both of which are well reflected in commemoration on 8 May.
Elmo Nüganen's new film 1944, which was released shortly before Estonian Independence Day in February 2015, depicts the end of the fighting and the transition from the Nazi occupation to the Soviets in 1944. Although it is not officially dedicated to the end of the war but to all who have fought and suffered for independence,because of its release date, it is a good example of an inclusive-anniversary tribute. Futhermore, it offers a fine and delicate story about sensitive issues without providing any strong judgements The film was very well received by the Estonian public: it was praised in the media, and within one month of its release, it had over 100 000 viewers.
The film combines the stories of two men, Karl Tammik and Jüri Jõgi, who fought in different armies against one another. Although it is a war film, it doesn't glorify war, but instead delivers a strong anti-war message. There are no clear heroes and it shows the war as senseless suffering – soldiers are fighting without clear aim, and the next battle becomes just another task to do. This is well depicted in the scene where a retreating Waffen SS soldier projects his comrades’ future: "tomorrow the Red Army comes and kicks us out of the woods; the next day we kick them out of the woods; then the Red Army kicks us out of the woods again; and the day after that, the forest warden comes and he kicks us all out of the woods." There is also little enthusiasm among the Red Army soldiers. Otherwise serious and rather grim soldiers march and fight their way through Estonia. The only truly happy emotion is depicted when a soldier arrives to his family farm hoping to see his loved ones. Even the very end of the film when the Red Army unit makes the last raid to clean out the last of the German soldiers from the forest, there is little enthusiasm on the soldiers’ faces. They are men who do their job, and even their captain’s encouragement – "this is the last sector and then we have liberated Estonia" – gets silent response because the men know that the Nazis will be replaced by another repressive regime. The strong anti-war discourse for a broader international audience corresponds well with the Estonian nation-state narrative – there is no honour in the war where men fight in foreign armies for alien ideologies.
Instead of glorifying war heroes, the main theme of the film is reconciliation, which is centred on three major concepts: mourning/suffering, guilt, and forgiving. The film shows death in the battlefield where young men die for something they do not understand. Death is taken with a silent pause, with few expressed emotions (in some cases, with tears), and directs the audience to internal mourning. Thereby, the viewers’ own reflections on death are aroused without providing clear assessments of how one should feel. The film also portrays civilian suffering. It shows the mass deportation of June 1941 (and even foreshadows the mass deportation of March 1949), the Narva and Tallinn bombings, and refugees from overseas who become victims of the military bombings. This suffering is borne with a similar yielded, and externally powerless, silence that directs the audience, again, to self-reflection. These narrative elements bring the attention to the victims and their suffering, making them the centre of commemoration instead of glorifying war heroes or condemning the perpetrators. However, there is a very hazy line between the perpetrators and the victims – at least on an individual level. It is difficult trying to reflect on the complexity and intertwinement of these two categories without judging their various choices. Rather than judgement and condemnation, the film aims to provide an understanding that could better enable reconciliation.
In the film, suffering is accompanied by guilt. It is the guiding motivator for both leading characters: their guilt of passiveness. Karl Tammik went to Waffen SS because he silently observed from the bushes how his family was deported. He tries to find forgiveness and peace through fighting the Soviet regime. However, this makes him self-destructive, and he places himself into dangerous situations without reservation, looking for punishment until he is killed in battle. Jüri Jõgi expresses his feelings of guilt for having passively let the Soviet army cross the Estonian border, and he tries to rectify it with discipline and fear. Symbolically, this passive-guilt is forgiven by Karl’s sister Aino who concluded, "Innocent feel guilty and those who are guilty do not feel anything." Although today it is not a dominant discourse in Estonia, in the 1990s (and even the early 2000s), there was a big "if" raised – what would happen if Estonia resisted the Soviet Union like Finland did? Therefore, this film can be interpreted as redemption for passive surrender, and encourages making peace with the past and ending self-accusations.
In this film, the characters also feel guilty for the acts they've committed. Jüri Jõgi kills Aino’s brother, and despite his initial plan to admit it to her, he decides to conceal it. Talking with Aino, he learns that most likely his father listed her family for deportation, so he decides to hide his family name and borrows one from his comrade in arms. However, in the end, he decides to send a letter to Aino where he reveals his true name and confesses that he killed her brother in the battle. In order to move forward together, he writes, he has to be honest with her. In the end of the letter he asks forgiveness, if she could. Although the end of the film does not explicitly indicate Aino’s decision, her earlier dialogue with Jüri, in which she claims she is ready to forgive the man who listed her family, suggests that she would be ready to accept Jüri’s apology. This theme, related to Jüri’s guilt, can be understood as a symbolic reconciliation between victims and perpetrators. Instead of looking to the past and aiming for revenge (as Aino’s brother Karl did), forgiving (but not forgetting) would enable them to move on and establish a future together.
Another, and even more explicit, theme of the film 1944 focuses on the tragedy of a forcefully divided nation – one central dilemma for both sides of the war is what to do if one meets a compatriot on the other side of the front. This is a familiar dilemma for the Estonian audience because of the WWII film, Men in Soldier's Overcoats (1968). The latter is a Soviet Estonian production, and the final conclusion about the men who fought in the German army is clearly condemning. 1944, however, still carries dialogue with it and tries to correct the earlier ideological assessment. Nevertheless, it avoids developing a mirror image of the 1968 film, and instead, offers equal insight into both parties. The film provides two parallel stories where the two main characters (Karl and Jüri) have similar concerns, they face similar challenges, and in the end, they are both killed. The first half of the film portrays the story of the Nazi soldiers, and the second half continues with the story of a Red Army unit. Their meeting ends with a small battle, which comes to a halt when the Red Army captain realises that he is fighting against other Estonians. Symbolically, the leading character Jüri Jõgi asks to bury the Red Army and Waffen SS soldiers together in one grave. This gesture puts the war veterans––from both armies––on an equal level. When the first main character (Karl) is buried, Jüri takes the leading role in the film. He is connected with Karl through his sister to whom he brings Karl’s last letter. Similarly, she gets Jüri’s last letter at the end of the film. This narrative emphasises that it is not important which uniform someone wore; these men were all victims of two similar totalitarian regimes who made them to fight against each other.
This message is also important because it aims to explain Estonian history on an international level. The Russian glorifying Great Patriotic War memory regime, however, revives the narrative of the Baltic and Ukrainian Nazi collaborators, defining them clearly as ideological fascists. On the other hand, 1944 provides a better understanding of the men who ended up in the German army. It also avoids a black-and-white, simplified narrative template and develops the story with its complexity, and demonstrates rather, the tragedy of the Estonian soldiers. The anti-fascist attitude of the Estonian soldiers is clearly represented in the Estonian soldiers’ awards scene. They all receive pictures of Hitler that, later, they complain are completely useless – it's not even possible to roll a cigarette from it. Also, during the awards ceremony, the Estonian collaborator congratulates them and says, “Heil Hitler!” The greeting is replied with "Ei ütle!" It sounds similar to Heil Hitler but it means 'I won’t say it!'On an international level, it both aims at gaining understanding and undermines the simplification that all who fought on the side of Nazi Germany were ideological fascists. For the domestic audience, it provides a clear anti-fascist meaning, targeting a small group of local right-wing radicals who glorify the veterans of the Waffen SS because of their fascist ideals of national purity. It shows clearly that the motivation behind most Estonian men in the German army was not ideological at all.
It is also important to note, that although both sides use Estonian for internal communication, they were not ethnically homogenous groups. On both sides, other ethnicities are also represented. One character from the Waffen SS has a Slavic name, Vladimir Kamenski, and tells the story of how his father fought against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War and how his family was immediately repressed when the Soviets took power in Estonia in 1940. A Red Army soldier named Abram Joffe shows a picture of his family who lived in Pärnu. Although the reference to the Holocaust and the killing of Estonian Jews is implicit, it is a theme that is rarely mentioned in Estonians films. Thus, the film avoids emphasising ethnicities (indicating a multi-ethnic society only through names) but at the same time incorporates everybody's suffering into one narrative without asserting who suffered more.
The celebration of Victory Day on 9 May carries a very different narrative than the suffering and reconciliation story depicted in the film, 1944. As in earlier years, in 8 May 2015 passed with the traditional commemorative ceremonies that focus on remembering all those who suffered in the war. The victims were commemorated at the Maarjamäe memorial with a candlelight vigil and the placement of a wreath with the inscription, "To Victims of the Second World War from the Estonian people". The following day, 9 May is celebrated in Russia as the Victory Day of the Great Patriotic War. Since Putin has come to power, this celebration has become more and more emphasised in Russia and is the main demonstration of Russian military might. In contrast to the Estonian suffering story, it is narrated as a great achievement of the Russian people and is the main point of adoration. This memory regime is also annually observable in Estonia at the Bronze soldier monument. Of course, it certainly has its part in commemorating the war victims and gathering the war veterans who want to share their stories, but it is only part of the commemoration. The overall mood in the venue looked more like a festival: people brought candles and flowers to the monument, but at the same time, there were military songs, festive celebrations, and even refreshments were sold. All these elements suggest glorification of the war rather than remembrance of the event.
Russian commemoration was not limited to an embassy visit and a visit to the monument itself, but the celebration has also been a clear act of Russian nationalism for years. The event has been decorated with Soviet and Russian flags, and in the earlier years, one could also find Russian tsarist flags. Today, some activists wear the black-orange ribbons of St George. Although this ribbon has already been symbolically visible in Estonia for a decade, during the 2015 celebration, these symbols with black and orange stripes have become larger and more visible. During the commemorative event at the monument, one could see a strong intergenerational linkage: some children dressed in Soviet military uniforms performing honorary guard. This element appeared in these celebrations after the relocation of the Bronze soldier in 2007. This intergenerational linkage is not intended for a better understanding of the war atrocities, but unfortunately, these children are being abused by ideological myth-making. In 2015, the Russian campaign Immortal Regiment also received some attention in Tallinn where some mourners walked with pictures of their lost relatives. However, the importance of 9 May is more inculcated by the Russian state than it is a spontaneous, local, commemorative act.
In Estonia in 2015, the commemorations of WWII did not differ much from the earlier years. The two parallel memory regimes that existed in 2005 are still there, but instead of moving closer, they depart more from one another. Their tonalities are opposing and therefore, it is impossible to reach a compromise. 1944 provides a good narrative that aims to overcome old dividing lines and remind us of the tragedy of WWII for all Estonians. At the same time, it attempts to heal the trauma with conciliating elements. Certainly there is part of the Russian-speaking community who would subscribe to this narrative. It also would correspond well with those Russian oppositional voices who protested Putin’s glorified myth-making by reminding us of the enormous loss of human lives and the destruction of a country. These voices also found some ground among the Estonian Russian-speaking community. If these would become a dominant discourse, it would enable us to reach to a compromise with the Estonian suffering-narrative. However, the more visible commemorative event of the Russian-speaking community well reflects the glorification myth of Putin's regime. In Estonia, the differences between these two memory regimes have become greater due to Russian regime-propaganda and a memory culture that uses television ads and also targets groups beyond its national borders.
Heiko Pääbo: "1944" vs. 9 May – An Attempt at Reconciliation Instead of Vigorous Glorification: Estonia Commemorating WWII in 2015. In: Cultures of History Forum (25.10.2015), DOI: 10.25626/0047.
Copyright (c) 2015 by Imre Kertész Kolleg, all rights reserved. This work may be copied and redistributed for non-commercial, educational purposes, if permission is granted by the copyright holders. For permission please contact the editors.
Commemorations on May 9 at the statue of the Bronze Soldier (In Estonian)
Get this article as PDF download (including pictures).