Estonia feting Nazi past draws ire

Estonian Defense Minister Jaak Aaviksoo spoke at an event commemorating the first clashes in 1941 between Estonian pro-German troops and the Soviet Army. (NATO)

Estonian Defense Minister Jaak Aaviksoo spoke at an event commemorating the first clashes in 1941 between Estonian pro-German troops and the Soviet Army. (NATO)

MOSCOW (JTA) – Estonia’s commemoration of its pro-German World War II past, including the re-enactment of a Nazi victory, has outraged European officials and the Russian Jewish community.

A week ago, veterans of the Waffen SS 20th Estonian Division celebrated the anniversary of the first clashes between Estonian pro-German troops and the Soviet Army in 1941.

And on Monday, young Estonian ultra-rightists began a week of commemoration by re-enacting the 1941 Erna Campaign, when a diversionary platoon of 42 Estonian paramilitary volunteers trounced the Soviet Red Army. According to the semi-official Russian Federal News Agency, the re-enactment attracted participation from 10 countries, including the United States, Finland and Germany.

Recalling its pro-German World War II past has been an annual tradition for Estonia since the republic seceded from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Rene van der Linden, chairman of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, said Estonian efforts to whitewash its Nazi past would be high on the assembly’s agenda when it convenes Oct. 1 in Strasbourg.

During last week’s commemoration, in the small Estonian town of Sinimiae, elderly veterans from Estonia, Norway and Austria traveled three hours by charter bus from Tallinn, the Estonian capital. They were accompanied by dozens of young followers dressed in T-shirts with Nazi symbols, along with Estonian officials, including Parliament member Trivimi Velliste and Minister of Defense Jak Aaviksoo.

Speaking before the gathering, Aaviksoo reportedly called the former SS commandos “fighters for independence” and Velliste described the Soviet soldiers as “terrorists.”

Moscow described the Sinimiae event as a “popularization of Nazism.”

Estonia has clashed previously with Moscow over what Russia has called Estonia’s “glorification” of its Nazi past. In January, 150 people were wounded and more than 1,000 detained in violent street protests in Tallinn after a bronze statue commemorating a World War II Soviet soldier was moved from a downtown square to a less prestigious location outside the city’s center.

Estonia’s prewar Jewish population was virtually destroyed during the country’s four years of Nazi occupation. Estonia’s small Jewish population of 3,500 has stayed out of the fray, offering no formal comment on either the statue removal or this week’s commemorative events.

Foreign Jews, however, were outspoken.

Boruch Gorin, the Moscow-based spokesman for the Chabad-affiliated Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, blasted the commemoration in Sinimiae, saying the Estonian government and church leaders who supported it made heroes of “blood-thirsty killers” and were “dancing on the bones” of Jews killed in the Holocaust.

The Russian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly repeatedly has drawn attention to the situation in Estonia, but this will mark the first time it will be discussed formally. The assembly has 47 member states. Israeli representatives have attended as observers since 1957, but without voting rights. Van der Linden, the assembly chairman, plans to visit Estonia prior to October.

“Russian Jewry hopes the assembly will put the lid on this glorification of Hitler’s death squads,” Gorin said. “If we let them forget the lessons of history, we may face such crimes again.”

 

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