The Challenges of Memory

[What follows is a lightly amended version of a talk given by Mr. Hiio at the Symposium on 10 December 2015] 

Ladies and gentleman,

For introduction of myself I have to confess you that I am an historian who is still finishing his PHD studies (—) the university of Tartu (—) 2008 until 2018. In the beginning of 1990’ when I finished my studies at the same university, it was already a transitional period in the history of Eastern Europe but also and perhaps more in everyone’s personal life. During the last, and a little bit more, than twenty years I had to serve in different position at university in the archives system and also in the public service.

During the last 17 years I’ve been the executive secretary for the Estonian International Commission for the Investigation of Crimes against Humanity and member of the Board of the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory. Both institutions were founded by the initiative of the Estonian presidency. The task of the first one was to research the Estonian History during the Second World War and the first post-war years up to Stalin’s death in 1953; the task of the Estonian Institute for Historical Memory founded in 2008 is to research the Soviet period of Estonia, which is the period from 1944 to 1991. Both the institutions have the task to generalise the results of their studies.

Estonia needed such generalization quickly and therefore, such independent research institutions were founded on initiative of the presidency. Both institutions had an international academic board and in spite of the foundation by the presidency, they worked and are working independently. I am happy to say that the history of XX century is not an issue of everyday political discussion in the Estonian domestic politics at least today.

In the very end of XX century the importance of history of World War II and its consequences came on the broader attention again. Organisations of Holocaust survivors, mostly in the United States, initiated the lawsuits against Germany and German enterprises to get the compensation for the sufferings during World War II. The issue was solved during the negotiations between the US Under-Secretary of State Stuart Eizenstat and the former German Minister of Economy, Otto Graf Lambsdorff. A German foundation “Erinnerung, Verantwortung und Zukunft” or “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future” has founded a million of German Marks to (—) people who had suffered during the World War II through the foundation. It is important to note here that not only the survivors of Holocaust, but also the hundreds of thousand of other victims of Nazi concentration camps, forced labour and many other forms of suppression, mainly in Eastern Europe, were compensated during several years. In this connection, the issue of deposits and assets of the victims of holocaust in Swiss, Swedish, or Luxembourgian banks was raised.

A number of investigations or historical research committes were founded, one even in the tiny Principality of Liechtenstein. The committees of historians in the Baltic states were founded in the course of the same process. The Estonian International Commission for Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity was the Estonian version of such commissions. In January 2000, a representative conference was held in Stockolm on the issue of the remembrance of the Holocaust and the “Stockolm Declaration” was adopted. An international organization was founded which name is today International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance with its central office in Berlin and rotating presidency. Today the presidency is held by Hungary and during the next year, by Romania. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance is working for working groups for academic research, museums, memorials, education and public relations. A general meeting of the Alliance together with the meetings of the working groups take place twice in a year.

In 2004 many Eastern European countries have became members of the European Union, since then, the attention was largely concentrated to the Nazi crimes during the World War II, in spite of existing academic general knowledge of Stalin’s repression in Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the crimes committed by the communist regimes before, during and after the World War II remained on the background. The black portrait on Communism by professor Stéphane Courtois, published in 1997 and quickly translated into many languages, initiated the first discussions in the public and among the scholars. Unfortunately the main attention of this discussion was directed to the number of victims published in this book which were and are controversial. Anyway Eastern European countries have come with their own history in the European scheme of public and academic discussion, since then. Survivors and their relatives have always been an influential factor in the public discussions on the crimes of the totalitarian regimes and the politicians have to keep it in mind: in all the Eastern European countries, the victims of terror of the Communist regimes and their descendants demanded and are demanding also today acknowledgement and compensations. The youngest victims of Soviet deportations were fifteen years ago in the working age yet. I’m reading here the example of my wife’s family. Her grandparents were deported in 1949 in Siberia with their two small children, two more children were born in Siberia. In 2000, they were about 50 years old, like me today. We have to keep in mind in this contest too that many countries were occupied by the both totalitarian regimes during the World War II. When the above mentioned German compensations ware paid in the beginning of the century, many victims of Communist regimes felt themselves as forgotten. There was no goal to get anything at least in a comparable amount from the legal successor of the Soviet Union, from Russia. In every country there are various supporting systems for the victims but in the prizes of fifty years ago the difference was remarkable. During the German EU Presidency, in the first half of 2007, a new framework decision was initiated with the objective of a whole European criminalization of the denial of Holocaust. We know, ladies and gentleman that in many European countries the denial of Holocaust is criminalized in spite of the somehow controversial nature of such decision. In France the genocide of Armenians was criminalized too, some years ago, and some East European countries have criminalized the denial of the crimes of Soviet regime. Russia has also criminalized something in this respect, the denial of the Soviet victory during the Second World War (—). When the European Union framework decision was initiated this process the crimes of Communist regimes in the East Europe gained at least attention.

In June 2008, the (—) of the declaration on the totalitarian regimes was signed by a number of former heads of States and well-known public figures. The question belonged to the agenda of the Czech Presidency of the European Union in 2009. It was a Czech initiative also the effective international cooperation of various organisations and State institutions active in the fields of bringing awareness and remembrance of the victims of totalitarian regimes again, which resulted in the foundation of the platform of European memory and conscience, two years later. Platform has began with some initiatives: publish reader for the schools, (—) public exhibition on totalitarian regimes and so on..if you are interested in more details, and I hope you are, please look at the website, something you can find even on Facebook.

Apart for history, one of the main differences between the Communist regimes and Nazi regime was that the communists tried to create and in many cases even outside the Eastern bloc, also successfully, created the impression of the most democratic governance system in the world, when the main objective of Nazis was to create, sorry I simplify a little bit here, was a prospective of a greater Germany and germanic people ruled according to the “Führerprinzip” without any democratic (—-), so the communists (—-) the propaganda of the world revolution and, for that reason, presented themselves as fighters for the welfare of the working people of the whole world. Communists take-over Russia as also in other countries was presented as the result of the will the of working people. The member states of the eastern bloc were formally independent and this strong separation was executed by the Central Agency of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, was carefully (—). Many people in the Soviet bloc believed the official propaganda. One has to keep in mind that the Soviet rule in the Soviet Union lasted 70 years, and in other countries of the Eastern bloc in Europe, past half a century. So the generations grew up who has never seen another way of living. The official propaganda was supported by the strong censorship (—) radio, communication and TV stations and education system, which was under strong political control beginning with the kindergarden to the end of academic career. Of course in the different countries there were smaller or bigger gaps in the system and the system itself stagnated but we cannot forget that even by the big part of academic youth in Western countries, especially during ’60 – ‘70, the communist system was taken as a sort of ideal world. It seems today to many people that all the communists regimes were uniform, it is true in the sense of the power (—-), that one ruling party, with tiny allied parties – sometimes they are not – where a small politburo which took all the important decisions, effective secret police trying to militarize the society, and limitation of democracy and with seemingly fast, absolute popular support. But some other dictatorships, not only communists ones, are very similar. Communism was and is a political ideology, so the objective of most of the political ideologies is to gain the political power. The communists regimes did not born on empty spaces, communists took over the existing states using skillfully the propaganda or with the direct (or covered) military assistance from the Soviet Union. But in many countries up to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – sorry – in spite of that, communists had to take account into the local circumstances and the international balance of power. Therefore we have seen example in the case of Yugoslavia (—) wasn’t even a member of the Warsaw pact, and the neighbouring Bulgaria whose leaders tried to join the Soviet Union as (—) Union republic. We have seen the Polish uprisings during ‘50, ‘60, ‘70 and the independent trade union’s Solidarity in 1980’, and Tchekoslovakia, after the defeat of the Prague Spring in 1968, whose leaders, under Gustáv Husák, become totally faithful to the Soviet leadership. In Soviet Union was totally different. (—————————————–).

The Baltic republics, occupied by Soviet Union in ‘40, were show windows of the Soviet Union as East Germany was created as show window for the Eastern bloc in general, at least for a while. Our (—-) are influenced by our parents and grandparents, the same we can say about countries, states and nations. The most of the member states of the Eastern bloc were born or restored – remembering Poland – during the last years of the First World War, when the European empires have collapsed one after each other. First Russia, then the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany followed. The new East European countries were created as nation states but many of them had big national minorities.

There is one thing more that is often forgotten: the new East European countries were the states of the former national minorities of big empires, the élites of these countries were very young, some of these nations, like my own, Estonians had never had even their own nobility, and the most of new élites had their roots in the peasant class. There were exceptions of course like Balkan Kingdoms, Poland and Hungary (—-) traditional upper class. Almost all new states nations begun as democracies in the era of fighting between two big ideologies, in their different forms: socialism and nationalism. Democracy and Parliamentarism is something that needs experience. Therefore most of the East European democracies remained short living due to different reasons. At the end of (—) there were only two democratic states in the Eastern Europe: Finland, that was never taken over by the soviets – Finland (——-) after end of World War II – and Czechoslovakia. In many countries democracy was liquidated by the founding fathers of statehood, who have been the first head of state in (—-). They became strong leaders in the second half of 20’ or in the beginning of 30’ who ruled in the different forms from mild authoritarianism with a strong leadership. Such leaders were for example Józef Piłsudski in Poland, (—-) in Ukraine, Konstantin Päts in Estonia, Kārlis Ulmanis in Latvia. They succeeded to stabilize the society and were very popular among the people. The most of the dictators are loved by the people, we have seen the history.

After the end of the Soviet system the era of constitutions began in the many former communist countries. The lands, houses and enterprises were given back to the former owners or their descendants. It was easy in the bordering states because for example that there was no private property in the Soviet Union, and therefore no new ownership relations were created during the Soviet rule. Everything has belonged to the state, big land ownership had been liquidated already during land reforms of interwars governments. Communists monuments were removed and the old ones restored, but also the former authoritarian rulers were (…) again. There is a “Piłsudski” street probably in every Polish town for example. In nations’ memory the last rule (…) before the Second World War and the Soviet and Nazi occupation were under the government of these man, founders or restorers of the statehood. People cares not very much about academic discussions on liquidating democracy by these men, the same men, during 1930’. In connection of academic and public discussions in Eastern Europe and on the history of Eastern Europe the thesis of two occupations has brought a controversy between scholars. For us, in the Eastern Europe, it is an historical fact: the countries were occupied by both totalitarian regimes but some politicians “of memory”, if I could say so, are accusing Eastern European scholars and politicians that they are trying to justify the cooperation or collaboration of the members of their nations with the Nazis using these thesis. But the (—-) nations, but also some others had found in the Nazis their allies against the Soviet Union, who destroyed the independence of their states. We cannot forget that the most infamous extermination camps, Auschwitz, Sobibor, Belzec, Majdanek and others were founded by Nazis on the territory of occupied Poland. We cannot forget that even before that in summer/autumn 1941 tens of thousands of Hungarians, Ukrainians and other Jews were executed respectively in Kamenets-Podolsky and Babij Jar in Ukraine. We cannot forget that even in Estonia (———–) of Jewish population, before the War, several thousands of Jews, mostly transported to Estonia from other European countries were executed by Nazis or, according to their orders, by their collaborators.

Timothy Snyder, renown American-British historian, has named Eastern Europe as “Blood Land” of the World War II. He is right, in a certain extent. The cruelty of Soviet occupation of the years from 1939 to 1941, not to say about 20 years of Soviet rule in Ukraine, Belarus and Poland, was (—–) of the nazi occupation. There were plenty of collaborators for both regimes. The collaborators for the first occupation, in the case of my own country Estonia, with almost non-existing Communist Party before the war, they were mostly young people blinded by the soviet propaganda and selected intellectuals who had opposed the authoritarian rule of Konstantin Päts, they were forced to participate in the Soviet repression against others estonians and were executed for that, when the Nazis came, when they did not to succeed to escape to the Soviet Union. Collaborators for the German occupation forces were mostly those who wanted to revenge for the Soviet repression and the defeat of the national statehood. They were punished since Autumn 1944, when the Soviets returned. Somewhere in between there was the absolute majority of population who simply tried to survive without any cooperation with occupiers, but especially in the case of totalitarian regimes it is not so easy. Everybody was somehow involved, from school teacher to 17 years old students mobilized into the German air forces auxiliary services in August 1944, evacuated to Germany, and taken over there by Waffen SS.

It is the task of élites of every society to tell to their countryman what is right and what is wrong. The Soviets and also the Nazis tried to defeat national élites of the occupied countries. During 1939 to 1941 hundred of thousands of man and woman were arrested or deported from the land occupied by the Soviets during this period. Only a very small part of them returned more than dozen years later after Stalin’s death. Many deported who had the the opportunity to join the Władysław Anders Army and to return through Middle East to Europe. They fought against Germans in Africa and in Italy, in the famous battle of Monte Cassino. Romanian, Slovakian, Croatian soldiers who were taken as prisoners of war in Stalingrad battle, were recruited to the units under the Soviet command, it was anyway better as a death in the Soviet (—) camps. The same fate was shared by those who had remained in the soviet area. They were recruited to the general (—) army. Part of these soldiers and officers were used in the Soviet takeover of the military and state security agencies of the East European countries after the end of the war. These were some examples, after Stalin’s death the Stalinist rulers lost their positions also in the East European countries. The most infamous crimes against humanity, the political executions and sentences of 5 to 10 years in the gulag, were stopped, as also deportations of woman, children and other people. By the way, the last deportation was the deportation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses together with their families from the Western part of Soviet Union in 1951. After Stalin’s death hundreds of thousands of survivors of gulag camps and forced settlements were released and returned to their homelands.

But the system itself, as in the Soviet Union as also in the Eastern Europe, remained oppressive. Violations of human rights was the normality in spite of propagandistic declarations of developed socialism since the end of the ‘60. The younger generations (—-) the total hypocrisy of all member of society. It made us cynical. Otherwise a lot of people came to terms with living under communist rules, joining the Communist party became year by year more and more attractive by the people. It was seen simply as a tool for the career and the Soviet nomenklatura system prescribed that the precondition for getting some position was the membership of the party – to such positions, even as school master of primary school belonged to, for example. The usual way of thinking was that, for example: “the old communists, they are bad but by uncle, he joined the party only for career, he remained a cool man and a good Estonian”, and in many cases it was even true.

The Estonian branch of Communist Party of the Soviet Union hit about 100.000 members, half of them ethnic Estonians, ceased to exist during 1990-1999. Many former members continued in the new parties. For example both Estonians EU Commissioners since 2004 have belonged to the Communist party earlier. After ten years of regaining independence, the former chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Estonia was elected president of Estonia in 2001 for five years. The communist past of the politicians is something that is remembered during public debates before the elections, but the fact of former membership of Communist Party has almost no influence on electoral results. For the majority of voters, it is not an issue of values and virtue. What we are doing now in different East European countries for coming to terms with the legacy of totalitarian regimes, communist regimes (…) different. One think I would like to mention here is the legal actions against the members of security services participating in crimes against humanity. In Estonia and some other country also the members of the former totalitarian security services, that is Nazi Germany but also Soviet Union, were not “under pression”, but some of them were sentenced. For example in Estonia about 10 or more people were sentenced for being part of the so called “Killing Agents” or for the participation to deportation operations in 1940’.

The cases went up to the European Court of Human Rights and, I suppose already 10 years ago the European Court for Human Rights decided that Estonian sentences for those men were right, so we have sort of a European recognition of our “occupation thesis” because in the preamble of the European Court for Human Rights’s decision is said that Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union from 1940 to 1991, but the legal continuation of the public discussion has continued.

There are also some problems with commemoration. Because we have to keep in mind that, especially in Estonia-Latvia, we have a big Russian-speaking minority and those people mostly came in Estonia- Latvia after the Second World War. Their historical memory, I would say, is different because for them the Great Victory in the Second World War by the Red Army is anyway more important than perhaps the occupation made by Stalin of tiny baltic states. And there were some problems with removal of some monuments later, in 2007 for example. In the very beginning, in 1990’, almost all Lenin’s and Kalinin’s and Soviet heroes were removed and nobody protested. The old Estonian monuments for dead soldiers of the Estonian War of Freedom from 1918 to 1920 were restored and so on. But there is a problematic issue, the monuments of common graves of soviet soldiers, because military graves are under international protection. Although we have found in our archives documents that there it was an order of the Politburo in 1944 and 1945 to erect such common graves in the center of each capital of the Soviet Union republic. Anyway there were more graves also, and therefore in 2007 when the remnants of nine or eleven Soviet soldiers from the central square of Tallin were removed to the military cemetery, there was a big and even international problem, because, it was at the same time when Russia became to use the memory of the Great Fatherland War as part of Russian new identity. But the remaining of dead soldiers is very interesting actually also in Estonia. The German military graves, there are about 25.000 German soldiers buried in Estonia. German military graves were defeated during the soviet time but now there is a special organization, Germany Volksbund, which is taking care about military graves. They created new military cemeteries and the remnants of these German and also Estonian soldiers were collected and reburied in these new cemeteries.

And another important thing is also education. It was a very big surprise for me that there are a lot of countries in Europe where history in schools is taught not up to today, but history courses are finishing somewhere earlier. In Estonia is very normal that history is taught to the last prime minister. In Estonia and also Latvia, here again, the problem is our Russian-speaking minority, whose perception of history could be perhaps different from whom, from the education, parents, grandparents and so on. The problem is not very solvable because the way of thinking the history, by Estonians and by Russian-speaking people with Soviet background is different. Estonians looking at history as a subject of knowledge, a subject of research, establishing what really happened, like the German historian Ranke has said already in 19th century. Russians, basing on the Soviet tradition, they are looking at history as something in which you can believe or not, and is very complicated to find a common ground between such two attitudes.

As last thing, in some aspect, the issue of the totalitarian past is important at the national level until today, in Estonia but also in other countries. After more than five years of discussion, Estonian Parliament adopted this declaration in 2012. The main question under discussion was how the Parliament has to treat the men who fought in the different armies during WW2. There were about, or more than, 40.000 Estonians in the Red Army and about 70.000 in different formations of the German armed forces, including Waffen SS and more than 3000 men in the Finnish army. The standpoint of veteran organizations of the former soldiers of German armed forces is they fought in the ranks of German units, or Estonian units of the German army against the Red Army and for Estonian independence. Official recognition of service in the German armed forces during WW2 as fight for freedom was impossible of course, so such text was finally adopted, as you can see here, after a long discussion.

Thank you very much!