June 25, 2009

Gone, but Not Forgotten

A German view on the Pronkssõdur vendetta

A German view on the Pronkssõdur vendetta


Deutungsstreit um den “Bronzenen Soldaten” im postsowjetischen Estland, Marburg: Tectum Verlag, 2008, 145 pages, ISBN 978-3-8288-9809-7, 24.90 euros 

“The king is gone, but he’s not forgotten” – Neil Young, the Canadian-American guitar rock icon, sang back in 1978. Young was referring to Johnny Rotten, the anarchistic lead singer of the notorious British punk band, The Sex Pistols, which had become the ultimate catalyst for the frustrations of Britain’s No Future generation. This rebellious generation faced massive unemployment and was opposed to parental values and the suffocating British class society as such, from which it tried to withdraw itself.

Young’s words could be applied to the main symbol of Estonia’s split society as well: the statue of the Bronze Soldier. Two years ago, hundreds of young Russians expressed their anger about the decision of the Ansip government to exhume the bodies of Soviet ‘Liberators’, who were buried at Tõnismägi in Tallinn back in 1944-45, and to relocate their remains to an ordinary military cemetery, together with the gloomy-looking, yet proud and majestic Alyosha, the cast bronze Red Army soldier (Pronkssõdur), who had been watching over them. With many thanks to King Alcohol, the indignation soon spilled over into massive riots, looting and sheer vandalism. Due to the bronze night (Pronksöö), little and unknown Estonia suddenly found itself the centre of international media attention. What would Rotten have thoughts about this spontaneous outbreak of Russian No Future ‘resistance’?

However, there is one striking difference between these Russians and Rotten’s generation. The self-proclaimed defenders of Pronkssõdur were (and are) not opposed to the values of their parents and grandparents, i.e. their interpretation of history. On the contrary, they seem to have embraced the Soviet notions of voluntary accession of Estonia (together with Latvia and Lithuania) to the Soviet family in 1940, active Baltic collaboration with pervert, anti-Semitic Nazi regime in 1941-44 and collective liberation from the yoke of Hitler in 1944. This tendency, combined with Russia’s endless jeremiads about the ‘blasphemous revival of Fascism in Estonia’, fanned the native Estonians’ awareness of their role as victims of (Soviet and European) history. From this point of view, Prime Minister Ansip’s decision to remove the statue and the bodies that were buried under its feet has only increased the tensions in Estonian society and has not resolved any problems whatsoever; as to the integration of the Russian minority, the turbulent events of 2007 and their aftermath turned the clock back to 1991.

This is the general tenor of the conclusion of an interesting and revealing book on the Pronkssõdur vendetta that has recently been published. The author, Felix Münch, is a young and promising German historian and political scientist, who has studied in Russia, Poland and Estonia (Tartu) for some time. It is the first scientific book on the loaded subject that has been published outside Estonia. Münch, who has done extensive homework and has consulted a wide range of sources in many languages, including Estonian, first provides the reader with an extensive overview of the Krieg der Denkmäler (‘War of the Memorials’: in Pärnu in 2002, in Lihula in 2004 and in Tallinn/at Tõnismägi in 2005-2007). Then he turns to Ansip’s (partly failed) attempts to lay a solid legal foundation for the future removal of the statue in January-February 2007 (although Münch seems to overlook the fact that back then the Centre Party still was the Reform Party’s coalition partner); the parliamentary elections in March; the removal of the statue and the riots themselves, including the conduct of the police; the immediate aftermath (cyber attacks, the Nashi siege of the Estonian Embassy in Moscow); and the reactions in Estonia, Russia, other European countries, Israel and Brussels. This overview is detailed and well-balanced, although one could seriously argue that the author takes the veracity of the information from Russian news sources, such as The Voice of Russia, RIA Novosti, Kommersant and Regnum, too much for granted – this kind of information should always be double-checked, especially when Estonian/Baltic politicians are being quoted. For example, over the last months, RIA Novosti has repeatedly asserted that the Estonian Government is willing to mitigate its (negative) stand against the construction of the North European Gas Pipeline (NEGP) on the bed of the Baltic Sea, which is not true. 

Münch proceeds to put the ‘War of Memorials’ into a broader, more theoretical context of Estonia’s post-1991 Vergangenheitsbewältigung (‘coming to terms with the past’) and its process of nation building. He refers to and quotes from the works of Jan Assman, Pierre Nora, Stefan Troebst, Jürgen Trimborn and others, paying special attention to the ‘Culture of Memory’ and ‘History Politics’, the correlating phenomena of creating all kinds of solemn national rituals and placing nations on the right side of history (to quote a former Dutch Foreign Minister), both aimed at creating a ‘Wir-Gefühl’. The author takes – both directly and indirectly – a critical stand against the ultimate zenith of this cultivated ‘We Feeling’: the removal of the twelve Soviet warriors and the Pronkssõdur statue. He cites authors who are sometimes plainly grandiloquent (“punishing the ethnic Russian population”, “symbolic murder” and “memoricide”) and states that “in Estonia, the aim of reckoning with the past has turned into its opposite – ghosts that were thought to be long gone were conjured because the government fatally underestimated the meaning of the monument.” The latter remark is not only a reference to the intrinsic meaning of the Soldier, a fighter who waged a heroic battle against Fascism and ‘liberated’ people, but also to what Münch calls ‘Dekontextualisierung’ (due to the reason that the monument was removed from the centre of the town, it lost its symbolic meaning; without the original context (Tõnismägi), the Soldier simply became a dusty memorial like many others).

Yet the big question remains why the Estonian authorities decided to remove the statue in 2007, although the ‘Culture of Memory’ and ‘History Politics’ had already been set in motion shortly after the restoration of independence in 1991. Why was Alyosha not removed in 1994, after the departure of the Russian troops, or in 2004, after Estonia’s accession to the EU and NATO? Maybe Ansip’s allusion to the removal of the statue was a populist election stunt, aimed at attracting conservative voters? Maybe his words became a self-fulfilling prophecy because the IRL, now in government, saw its chance and grabbed it? Münch himself, like Henn-Jüri Uibopuu, an Estonian-Austrian Professor of Law, before him, emphasizes the ‘continuity of the elites’ in politics and the judicial system after 1991. Former high-ranking Communist officials, many of whom became members of the Riigikogu (the Estonian Parliament) in 1995, were not interested in coming to terms with the past because this might have revealed unpleasant details about their background. Only when they had left the stage, tensions emerged in Estonia’s relations with Russia. This view, however, is too narrow because leading politicians like President Lennart Meri, Mart Laar and Siim Kallas had already strongly criticized Russia in the 1990s, thus ‘compensating’ for the reluctance of the aforementioned members of the Riigikogu to do so. On the other hand, Münch is right when he writes that the Kremlin only started to use the mantra of ‘revival of Fascism’ in a later stage, being thankful for the chance to exploit the indignation in Europe, the U.S. and Israel after the incidents in Pärnu and Lihula.

The average Estonian reader might suspect Münch of harbouring ‘typically German/Western European’ post-modern ideas, since he repeatedly points out that Estonia has to come to terms with the negative aspects of its past as well. He touches on the two most sensitive issues in Estonia: the suspension of legal proceedings against Harry Männil in December 2005 (he served as a police officer during the Nazi occupation and the Simon Wiesenthal Centre holds him responsible for the death of hundreds of Jews and Communists) and the murderous activities of Polizeibattaillon Nr. 36 in Belarus in 1942, in which Estonians were allegedly also involved. Whatever one might think of the attention Münch pays to the topic of Nazi collaboration, he is right when he writes that Estonia has been too eager in shifting the responsibility for anti-Jewish excesses onto Nazi Germany. For example, he refers to the introduction of Estonia 1940-1945: Reports of the Estonian International Commission for the Investigation of Crimes against Humanity (2006) – “overall responsibility for most, if not all of the episodes of criminality reported upon here lies with the German military and civil occupying forces.” According to Münch, this kind of “rejection of Estonia’s active [sic!] involvement in the Holocaust is also a necessary consequence of the construction of [Estonia’s] national history, which dissociates itself from those of the Soviet Union and Russia.” He also points out that one of the members of the Commission, Wolfgang Freiherr von Stetten, was Chairman of the Studienzentrum Weikersheim, a controversial ultra-conservative think tank in Germany, which is often associated with the Neue Rechte (‘New Right’), the ‘intellectual part’ of Germany’s far-right movement. 

This kind of criticism certainly should not be interpreted as a grave accusation of collaboration ‘on a massive scale’, which Russia has been voicing in a hysterical way. Apart from that, Münch will undoubtedly agree that it is perfectly understandable that 48 years of Soviet occupation and repression have interfered with the analysis of the fate of Jews under the much shorter Nazi occupation. However, if Estonia wants to be free of such unpleasant accusations once and for all, it will have to embark on a profound investigation of the period between 1941 and 1944. At this point, Lithuania could serve as an example because over the past years many more scientific studies on the involvement in Nazi crimes and the roots of anti-Semitism have been published there than in Estonia.

Münch urges Estonia to make more serious efforts to reconcile the visions of history that are currently colliding; a feeling of belonging together (Zusammengehörigkeitsgefühl) in a pluralistic society should flourish. Therefore, the ‘Culture of Memory’ and ‘History Politics’ should be inclusive, not exclusive phenomena. This vision is far from being original and has also been advocated by several leading social scientists in Estonia. Yet the crucial question remains how such a common and ‘democratised’ understanding of the past should be given a concrete shape. Münch does not exceed the level of abstraction either, but admits that it will be a difficult task, since Estonia’s ‘confrontational’ perception of history has only become more acute after April 2007. He does not conceal his sympathy for Alexander Astrov’s overacted theory, which claims that an ethnic Russian is the new Homo sacer (a person who was outside the law and was exposed to the arbitrariness of the state in Ancient Rome). Furthermore, Münch advises Estonia to ignore Russia’s ‘historically-motivated’ reflexes and to show its ‘democratic superiority’ instead.

The big problem, however, is that such an Estonian-Russian modus vivendi presumes the acceptance of an interpretation of the past that is at variance with basic historical facts. One does not have to be a nationalist conservative, a disciple of Mart Laar or a fanatic member of the Kaitseliit (the National Defence League) to discern that the vision of history that is cherished by Russia and the greater part of the Russian diaspora is founded on a surrealistic (Soviet) mythology, which hardly corresponds to the truth. Even most of the Western European historians have come to realize this. Of course, this attitude is not unique to Russia – it took France more than forty years to accept (the excesses of) the Vichy regime’s collaboration with Nazi Germany, while the Netherlands still hesitate to acknowledge that the work of diligent Dutch civil servants greatly contributed to the deportation of their Jewish fellow-citizens, not to mention the dirty colonial wars the Dutch fought in Indonesia in the second half of the 1940s. But France and the Netherlands are democratic countries that have succeeded, or will succeed in the end, in facing the black spots in their national history. 

Russia’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung, on the other hand, has not yet begun; only some admirable scientists like Boriss Sokolov and Jelena Zubkova have dared to criticize the Kremlin’s reading of history and its obsession with the ‘Great Patriotic War’. This is not the responsibility of Estonia and no one can expect Estonia to accept the bizarre falsifications and distortion of history presented in some books, such as Alexander Dyukov’s The Genocide Myth of the Soviet Regime’s Repressions in Estonia from 1940 to 1953. In other words, a dialogue with the Russian minority in Estonia and more active involvement of ethnic Russians in politics, society and public debates in general are most welcome and should be encouraged as much as possible, but it will be impossible for the Estonian national historical narrative to absorb the Russian unworldly vision of history. Although the author of this article is not in favour of juxtaposing Nazism and Communism, such an absorption would be equal to Germany suddenly accepting the ‘positive aspects’ of the Third Reich and embracing the ideas of the aforementioned Studienzentrum Weikersheim. It is pointless to try desperately to reconcile the antagonistic, mutually exclusive dogmas of ‘Occupation’ (Estonia) and ‘Voluntary Accession/Liberation’ (Russia/the Russian minority). Instead, the premise should be that the Russian people in Estonia are familiar with what really happened in what is also their fatherland, which is why they should be offered good and objective information in Russian.

The book’s main merit is that it introduces a broader audience in ‘Old Europe’ to the anguish of Estonians and Russians. This is all the more important because the ongoing process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung in Estonia and other former Communist states will also affect the whole of the European Union, as has been demonstrated by various attempts by ‘new’ members of the European Parliament, for example, Tunne Kelam, to condemn Communist crimes. The book contains some small errors – Diena is a Latvian, not a Lithuanian newspaper; the Estonian Embassy in Moscow was not occupied by the Nashi protestors; Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov attended a NATO, not an EU meeting in Oslo in April 2007; and, of course, the Reichskristallnacht of 1938 took place during the Hitler era, not under the Weimar Republic. But these mistakes do not change the fact that the book deserves to be read by everyone who is interested in Estonia’s struggle with its national identity and the hidden tensions of Estonian society. The book shows convincingly that – again in Neil Young’s words – “There’s more to the picture than meets the eye.”

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