Estonia and the Holocaust

Sanitized History in the Baltics


I recently attended a Protestant conference in Estonia. With one exception, the assembled Estonian pastors left the impression of being truly elated about the transfer of the Baltics from the Russian to the Western sphere of influence.


But the article of a California professor and author, Sandy Tolan, got me thinking. After seeking out a history museum in St. Petersburg this summer, he did the same thing in Tallinn, visiting its 2003-opened “Museum of Occupations”. He calls this museum a “historical denial”, for it describes the Estonians as nothing less than the constant victims of Russians - and occasionally also of Germans.


He writes: “What struck us most about the shiny museum was its depiction of Estonians’ victimization without any reflection of responsibility. Estonians ‘joined the German army’ but never became Nazis.” Tolan quotes the University of Helsinki’s Oula Silvennoinen: “Collaboration was crucial to the realization of the Holocaust on the local level.” Silvennoinen added that the “genocide of the Estonian Jews was largely perpetrated by Estonian militias and security police.” I read elsewhere German forces claimed that Estonia was “cleansed of Jews” by October 1941, only two months after the start of the German occupation.


Tolan concludes: “What a contrast to Germany, which has confronted its own terrible history head-on.” Well, at least since 1968, I would interject. After the student revolts and the retirement of most Nazi-era culprits, Western Germany did a rather good job of coming to terms with its recent past.


The Tallinn museum says nothing about the fact that Estonians stood on both sides of the barricades during WW II. From 1941 to 1944, Estonians were both starving in blockaded, Soviet-ruled Leningrad while other Estonians fighting with the Wehrmacht were starving them out. Reports state that 30.000 Estonians fought on the Soviet side during the war, another 60-80.000 on the German one.


One prominent example for the thousands of once-broken Estonian families is the Meri clan. Lennart Meri (1929-2006) was a fighter for independence and the president of Estonia from 1992 to 2001. His older cousin, Arnold Meri (1919-2009), was a highly-decorated war veteran and “Hero of the Soviet Union”. At the time of his death, Arnold Meri was on trial for genocide accused of complicity in the deportation of 251 Estonians in March 1949. Yet shortly after the deportations, Arnold had been stripped of all honours and resettled himself to Central Asia. He was rehabilitated, along with thousands of others, in 1956. Some sources say he had been sacked because of his reluctance to be a part of the “deportation movement”.


So at the time of his death seven years ago, Arnold Meri was both defamed in Estonia and celebrated in next-door Russia. Lennart though had apparently been reluctant to criticize his cousin in public. Thanks to Arnold’s high-level intervention, Lennart’s family had been able to return to Estonia much earlier than most and he was able to obtain a doctorate as early as 1953. (See “Berliner Zeitung”, 31 Aug. 2007, also „Wikipedia“.)


The history we read is usually a history as interpreted by victors. And victors file, grind and shape their own “history”. So, sadly, the state-sanctioned, present interpretation of Estonian history ends up no less slanted than the old Soviet one.


Shall we cast stones? If yes, at whom? I do not see Estonian Protestants beating their own breasts. What about the Russian-speaking churches up in the northeastern corner of Estonia around Narva? Perhaps they could help bring balance to this important topic.


William Yoder, Ph.D.
Smolensk, 04 November 2016


A journalistic release for which the author is solely responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #16-13c, 582 words.