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Estonia

World War II: Push To Honor Estonian SS Nazi Unit Sparks Outrage

The small Baltic nation was caught between Soviet and Nazi ambitions, and Estonian members of SS units are remembered by some for staving off the Red Army. But others can't forget that some 1,000 Estonian Jews, 250 Roma and 7,000 Christians were

Hjalmar Mäe welcoming Estonian soldiers of the 20th Waffen-SS Division in 1944.
Hjalmar Mäe welcoming Estonian soldiers of the 20th Waffen-SS Division in 1944.
Sven Felix Kellerhoff

BERLIN - Though still vague on details, plans are once again afoot in Estonia to posthumously honor as "freedom fighters' those who served in Estonian units of the Waffen SS, an armed wing of the Schutzstaffel police squadrons.

Similar past initiatives, which nationalists say are meant to pay tribute to those who pushed back the Soviet army, have failed. But new draft legislation to honor the Estonian SS members is being drawn up, and is expected to be introduced into the Estonian Parliament in March.

In Germany, the project has been met with outrage. The Berlin Tageszeitung, a left-leaning paper, warns of "beatifying the SS," and reminds readers that the Simon Wiesenthal Center described the Baltic SS units as being part of the Nazi "structure of blood and death."

Despite such reflexes, it is worth taking a closer look at the Estonian initiative --for it is not an attempt to justify mass murder, but rather an understandable motion in the context of the small Baltic nation's history. After all, after 200 years as a Czarist colony, Estonia only won independence after the First World War. It then came under Russian – this time Soviet – influence again in 1939, was then occupied by the Germans from 1941 to 1944, and finally from 1944 to 1991 by the Soviet Union.

Estonia and the other two Baltic countries, Lithuania and Latvia, had been independent for about two decades when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed their Non-Aggression Pact in 1939. Secretly agreed on by Stalin and Hitler was the fact that the Soviet Union would get the Baltic states as long as it remained true to the pact, and Germany would get Western Europe.

Less than a year later the Red Army annexed the three countries and "sovietized" them brutally and immediately. Ten thousand Estonians were displaced, hundreds tortured and murdered. The national freedom movement in Estonia, which formed immediately after the Soviet annexation, was hardly in a position to do much to counter the powerful Russian army.

Then on June 22, 1941, the German army attacked what until then had been its partner in the pact, and within a few weeks German soldiers had chased the Russian army out of Estonia and occupied it. Initially, the Germans were greeted as liberators, until it became clear relatively quickly that the Baltic states would in no way be getting back their independence.

The new Reichskommissariat Ostland was formed to oversee the three countries, which had the right to limited self-government at the hands of Baltic functionaries who were loyal to the Nazis. In Estonia, this took the form of a "directorate" led by Hjalmar Mäe. However, significant decision-making power, primarily about inland security, remained in the hands of the Germans.

Pronounced "Jew-free"

The Holocaust began in the Baltics at the same time as the occupation by German troops. As Estonia is the northern and easternmost of the three small nations, Jews here had the best chances of getting away. About three-fourths of the country's small number of Jews either got out with withdrawing Red Army soldiers or fled via Finland.

The thousand or so remaining people who, according to Nazi criteria, were considered Jews were murdered, mainly by Task Force 1a under the orders of Martin Sandberger, who until his death in March 2010 was the last former top SS functionary alive. At the 1942 Nazi Wannsee Conference, Estonia was pronounced "Jew-free" after the killing of 963 people.

The involvement of Estonian leaders and military and police units in Nazi crimes was thoroughly researched by the Estonian International Commission for the Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity created in the 1990s by then Estonian President Lennart Meri. Despite the lack of sources, the knowledge accumulated is fairly substantial.

Along with some one thousand Estonian Jews, during the German occupation at least 250 Roma and six to seven thousand Estonian Christians were killed. The occupation regime also supported the killings of some 10,000 of other nationalities in the sense that work camps for Jews were established on Estonian soil, along with internment camps for Soviet prisoners of war.

The Estonian International Commission for the Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity tried to find out how Estonians had been involved in specific crimes, but discovered that the information in files from Soviet court cases after 1945 was far from reliable. What was established with certainty was that between 1,000 and 1,200 Estonians in the Omakaitse – "Home Guard" – took part in criminal activity.

Furthermore, several regular police units were deployed as security in Jewish ghettos in occupied Poland, and were involved in brutally clearing out those ghettoes as part of the objective of annihilating Jews in concentration camps.

Men in these units were also used as security personnel inside Estonia and other places outside it, for example Belarus. In the summer of 1942, the Estonian 36th Police Battalion took part in what was described as "fighting partisans," but was in actuality another German-style genocidal campaign.

In 1942-43, large numbers of those in Estonian police units were taken up first in the "Estonian Legion" and then in the 3rd Estonian SS Volunteer Brigade. In early 1944, that unit was renamed the 20th Estonian SS Volunteer Division, which in turn, in May of the same year, became the 20th Armed SS Grenadier Division (Estonian Nr 1). They were deployed in the northern part of the Eastern Front to try to at least delay the forward march of the Red Army, and were mostly wiped out.

Reincarnated in October 1944, the unit belonged to the parts of the Waffen SS that defended East Prussia. It was dispatched to Silesia, managed to escape encirclement, but finally capitulated in Bohemia. Several hundred members fled to the West and after a while were able to go the United States as Displaced Persons.

Unfortunately all that remains of the records of this unit are three meager files in the German federal archives. There is a book about Estonians in the Armed SS, but it was written by an admirer of the military arm of the Himmler apparatus and published by a small, far-right-leaning publisher, so its contents should clearly be viewed with caution.

The argument underlying the initiative to honor SS members as freedom fighters, supported mainly by nationalist parties in Estonia, stems from their role in trying to hold the Red Army back in the first six months of 1944. The draft legislation should be put before parliament in Tallinn this March.

Read the original article in German

Photo - Eesti Filmiarhiiv

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