Peer-reviewed articles Holocaust Memory in Contemporary Estonia Clashes of Victimhood

This article explores how several key museums discuss the Holocaust in the wider context of Estonian history, including Estonia’s traumatic past under Soviet occupation. It is argued that the Estonian narrative of victimhood still dominates collective memory as displayed in museums, and Jewish suffering in the Holocaust takes a much less prominent place despite an increase in Holocaust awareness among the Estonian political elite since the country’s “return to the West”.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 1-2 2016, pp 16-25
Published on on June 16, 2016

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This article explores how several key museums discuss the Holocaust in the wider context of Estonian history, including Estonia’s traumatic past under Soviet occupation. It is argued that the Estonian narrative of victimhood still dominates collective memory as displayed in museums, and Jewish suffering in the Holocaust takes a much less prominent place despite an increase in Holocaust awareness among the Estonian political elite since the country’s “return to the West”. Three museums which present vastly different narratives are analyzed, the Estonian History Museum, the Museum of Occupations, and the Estonian Jewish Museum. The Estonian case is part of a wider and increasingly complex institutionalized European commemoration culture which has developed since the EU enlargement 2010.
KEYWORDS: the Holocaust, Estonia, memory, museology, East European studies.

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, 2012, at the opening of the “Gallery of Memory”, a memorial to the 974 Estonian Jews killed on Estonian soil during the Holocaust, Prime Minister Andrus Ansip said, “I understand and share the grief and pain caused to your community by the Holocaust.” He went on to comment, “The crimes of totalitarian regimes are indelible and can never be justified,”1 referring to both the Nazi occupation and the brutal Soviet occupation of Estonia. The Soviet occupations of Estonia (1939—1941 and 1944—1991), and in particular the 1941 deportations in which over 50,000 Estonians were either killed, exiled to Gulags, or conscripted into the Red Army, are undoubtedly the most prominent traumas of contemporary Estonian history. They have contributed significantly to shaping post-Soviet Estonian identity as the “other”, in contradistinction to what democratic and independent Estonia represents. The shorter Nazi occupation, from 1941 to 1944, has received less attention in both public and scholarly discourse. The same is certainly true of the Holocaust, an event which led to the massacre of 974 Estonian Jews and the absolute destruction of Jewish life in Estonia, yet did not interfere with the majority of the population in any meaningful sense.2 The other 7,651 European Jews — mostly from Lithuania, Latvia, and Czechoslovakia — who were killed during the occupation died in remote concentration and labor camps, far from the public’s attention.3

The remoteness of the Holocaust in Estonia contributed to the absence of any kind of “bottom-up” collective memory generated by the experiences of individuals. This absence, coupled with the Soviet Union’s complete suppression of the Holocaust as a subject of debate and scholarly inquiry, goes a long way towards explaining the absence of the Holocaust in national memory. Even after independence in 1991, the Holocaust did not become a subject debated by significant numbers of politicians or scholars until it was thrust onto the agenda shortly before and after Estonia’s accession to NATO and to the European Union in 2004. The effect of Estonia’s “return to the West” has been a mixture of apologizing for the crimes of local collaborators during the Nazi occupation and keeping a firm grip on Estonia’s victimhood status, and on Estonians’ view of themselves as the ultimate victims of the Second World War.

This paper will analyze public memory of the Holocaust in Estonia and highlight the conflict of memory between Estonian and Jewish victimhood by an examination of official speeches and museums. Neither of these areas have previously been addressed in works on Holocaust memory in Estonia, all of which acknowledge the prevalent tendency in Estonian memory politics to minimize the Holocaust in the shadow of the Soviet occupation.4 The intent is not revisionist, but rather to add to the understanding of this dynamic in relation to new realms of memory. Furthermore, the implications of this paper extend beyond Estonia’s borders in a broader literature dealing with the remembrance of Communism and Nazism in countries that were occupied by both Germany and the Soviet Union — a literature which often descends into what Dan Stone calls “‘double genocide’ rhetoric”.5 I will argue that, while the Estonian state has attempted in its political discourse to come to terms with Estonia’s role in the Holocaust, it has nevertheless simultaneously sought to maintain Estonia’s status as a victim of Soviet oppression. I will then juxtapose this “official” memory at an elite level with how the Holocaust is represented in three Estonian museums. Two of these museums, the Museum of Occupations and the Estonian National History Museum, are prominent spaces in the country’s capital Tallinn, and generally reflect the discourse of elite “official memory” which remembers Estonia solely as the victim of the Second World War. The third museum, the Estonian Jewish Museum, presents a different story, highlighting the suffering of the Jews in Estonia during the Second World War as well as the nature of local collaboration. Yet the Estonian Jewish Museum’s marginality, both geographically and in terms of size, is somewhat reflective of the overall climate in Estonia, which has yet to reconcile the atrocities committed against Estonians during the Second World War with those committed against Estonian Jews or indeed European Jewry on Estonian soil.

Public Holocaust memory in Estonia

Public memory has been described by John Bodnar as “a body of beliefs and ideas about the past that help a public or society understand both its past, present and by implication, its future”.6 Bodnar argues that public memory is not a monolithic phenomenon, however, and is expressed in both “official” and “vernacular” forms — the vernacular reflecting more informal, “grassroots” commemorations, a public memory “from the bottom up”. This section will focus on public memory in its official form, memory which “originates in the concerns of cultural leaders or authorities at all levels of society” who “have an interest in social unity, the continuity of existing institutions, and loyalty to the status quo”.7

“Official” public memories of the Holocaust emerged as an important international issue during the 1980s, when the German chancellor Helmut Kohl attempted to shape a memory of the Nazi past on various anniversaries, such as the 40th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 1945.8 Public memory, unlike private memory, is an elite-based construction of historical events which tends to serve a political purpose. It is utilized by political elites — that is, government officials and the state institutions they both fund and operate — as a form of socialization and means of creating a historical narrative to which national identity can relate. It must not be confused with private and individual memories, which can accumulate to form “collective memory”, and are likely to differ from the official state narrative.9 Indeed, there are often clashes between conflicting narratives of “bottom-up” and “top-down memories”. It is particularly important in the context of European integration and globalization to note that public memory can often be influenced by external international forces and “outsiders”, both state and non-state.10 Jeffrey Olick’s distinction between public and private memory is important: public memory is a construct and subject to change and operationalization, whereas individual private memories, those held by individuals of a given entity (social group or nation), do not necessarily cumulate to form a memory held by a wider society.11 Timothy Snyder also recognizes the important difference between “mass personal memory” and public memory, which is the construct of elites.12

Tony Judt bluntly but accurately argued in his seminal Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 that “Holocaust recognition” had become “our contemporary European entry ticket”.13 Accordingly, starting in the late 1990s, Estonian governments were put under pressure by international institutions in the period leading up to and following their accession to NATO and the EU in 2004 to improve public awareness in connection with the Holocaust. The governments responded to that pressure with a range of initiatives mainly related to commemoration and education. Yet the issue also spilled over into elite political discourse, and high-profile Estonian politicians often sought to demonstrate that Estonia was coming to terms with its past and, in line with other nations in the EU and NATO, unequivocally condemned its historic actions during the Holocaust. This new view is not seen merely as Estonia fulfilling its obligations as a member of the international organizations: it is a denationalization of memory, part of a wider “globalization” and “cosmpolitanization” of Holocaust memory, in which the public memory is no longer publicly influenced only by the nation state.14 As a result, Estonia faced the profound dilemma of aligning the historical narrative of its own victimization, which had been dominant since 1991, with its new international commitments, which required coming to terms with the Holocaust, and more specifically, conforming to a more Europeanized memory of the Holocaust. Dan Diner has referred to the Holocaust in this context as “the foundation myth of Europe”.15 Speeches by Estonian political elites can be analyzed with this new challenge in mind, and present a picture of this dilemma.

In 2005, the Estonian state demonstrated a willingness to address the issue of local collaboration with the occupying Nazi regime through a series of public apologies. Apologies for historical injustice by heads of state have been witnessed on several occasions across Europe, particularly in relation to local collaboration in the Holocaust, including those of the French president Jacques Chirac in 1995 and the Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski in 2001. In the Estonian case, apologies were made by the president and the prime minister within a year of each other and shortly after Estonia’s accession to NATO and the EU. On May 8, 2005, Prime Minister Andrus Ansip issued two apologies on behalf of the Republic of Estonia, as well as an official statement that Estonia “regrets the fact that, in cooperation with occupying powers, citizens of the Republic of Estonia also participated in the perpetration of crimes against humanity”.16 The other apology came on July 24, 2005, when President Arnold Rüütel also acknowledged and apologized for Estonian citizens who participated in Nazi crimes at the former site of the Klooga concentration camp.17

The apologies for local participation in the Holocaust can be seen as significant landmarks in Estonia’s coming to terms with the past. The apologies by the two politicians and the official state apology are “controlled” statements which were thoughtfully prepared and delivered at historically symbolic sites on symbolic dates. Ansip’s “double apology”, the more significant of the two, in which he apologized both for the fact that the Holocaust occurred on Estonian soil and for local participation, represents a clear attempt to come to terms with the Holocaust within a European memory framework. The speech was delivered on May 8, a significant day in the European context, marking victory over Nazi Germany. The date lacks a positive meaning in Estonia, given that there was no triumph for Estonians. It is therefore significant that Ansip was willing to admit and apologize for Estonian complicity in Nazi crimes on a historically significant date in Europe. Both Ansip’s and Rüütel’s speeches can be seen as attempts by the Estonian political elite to integrate Estonia into the broader, Europeanized Holocaust memory narrative. This is demonstrated by their willingness to minimize their own narrative of victimhood and to recognize their duty upon joining the Western community to address the issue of the Holocaust.

Evidently, however, the Estonian state was not prepared to apologize without mentioning the crimes of the Soviet Union against Estonians. Soviet crimes toward Estonians are recalled or mentioned during a discussion of the Holocaust either by specifically referring to the Soviet Union or by discussing the Holocaust under the umbrella of “totalitarian crimes and occupation”, which, in a discussion about the Nazi occupation, effectively serves as a euphemism for Soviet crimes. At a speech in Israel, President Rüütel said:

We remember our past and we tell our children about it, not only on the Holocaust Memorial Day, January 27. Neither should we forget the crimes committed by the Soviet regime, the victims of which were Estonians, Jews, as well as people from other nationalities.18

On Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2007, Ansip delivered his strongest condemnation of “totalitarian” crimes during a discussion of the Holocaust: “Estonia too suffered during and after the Second World War under totalitarian regimes and we paid for this with our independence. Their crimes will never expire and their perpetrators cannot be justified.”19 On Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2012, Ansip continued in this vein, stating that “the crimes of totalitarian regimes are indelible and can never be justified”.20

Estonian politicians frequently condemn Soviet crimes in their speeches at various public events and commemorations. However, by doing so during speeches dealing with the Holocaust, often on Holocaust Remembrance Day, they send a clear message regarding the role of the Holocaust in Estonian memory: that it cannot be discussed without a reminder of the barbarity shown toward Estonians during the periods before and after the Holocaust. Given that International Holocaust Remembrance Day is a global event, the practice sends a clear message to the international community that the historical consequences of the Second World War in Estonia include the suffering of Estonians, which must be recognized in a discussion of “totalitarian crimes”. The discussion of Soviet crimes is clearly self-defensive in nature. It does not explicitly seek to exonerate those who participated in crimes against humanity, but it does seek to place the Estonians who participated in the Holocaust’s actions in the context of the immediate aftermath of the first Soviet occupation, when many undoubtedly experienced fear and were willing to exact retribution.

Unlike the apologies cited, the discussion of Soviet crimes demonstrates a retreat into the national memory narrative of victimhood, away from addressing Estonian participation in the Holocaust. The reference to the “totalitarian regimes” of the Second World War presents Soviet and Nazi crimes without distinguishing them from one another. This practice can also be found in the broader “East vs. West” memory conflict in Europe which has emerged since the accession of post-Communist East European states to the EU, and represents an attempt by Estonian politicians to place themselves firmly in the “East” camp and push for a greater recognition of Soviet crimes by western Europe. Ultimately, speeches at commemorative events represent an attempt by the Estonian political elite to demonstrate a willingness to come to terms with the Holocaust while conserving Estonia’s victimhood status and reminding the international community of the historical details that are important in understanding Estonia’s attitude toward the Holocaust. The following section examines how museums in Estonia represent the Holocaust in the context of this elite-level discourse.

The Holocaust and Estonian museums: the Estonian Jewish museum

While Bodnar’s emphasis on the distinction between official and vernacular forms of public memory is important, he argues that the two nevertheless have meeting points. Public memory is “fashioned ideally in a public sphere in which various parts of the social structure exchange views”.21 These public spheres can be anything from cultural events, such as books, films, documentaries, and art, as well as memorials, monuments, and parades. One such site where official memory is reflected, but also contested, is the museum. Museums are important in the study of public memory as institutionalized sites of memory where we can witness a constructed narrative of history. Yet museums do not operate in a vacuum; they also reflect wider trends in historical remembrance beyond their walls. Thus museums are manifestations of official memory and at the same time play a part in building it. Aro Velmet, speaking of the three Baltic “occupation” museums in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, argues that

The Baltic museums of occupations provide three attempts at writing [the] final chapter for the national narrative of their respective countries. Though purportedly academic institutions of critical inquiry, museums are also discursive establishments, conduits of power transmitting and shaping narratives of national identity through their scholarly and political authority.22

The museums analyzed in the present study are the Estonian History Museum, the Museum of Occupations and the Estonian Jewish Museum, all in Tallinn. These three were chosen as the largest and most relevant —other smaller museums and memorials would also enrich the study, but cannot be included simply for reasons of space.23 The analysis deals with the content of displays and exhibitions, pamphlets, historical guides, visual artifacts, architecture and design, and the funding and operations of the museums. The museums have been read as texts for their literal as well as their symbolic content, both of which can be seen as attempts to represent a particular narrative or version of history. That is, the museums can be seen as specific sites of memory which demonstrate their own interpretation of history, and as indicative of wider trends in Estonia’s coming to terms with the Holocaust.

The Jewish Community Center which houses the Estonian Jewish Museum and the Gallery of Memory is located on Karu Street, about a kilometer outside the Old Town. It is situated beside the relatively new $2 million synagogue, which opened in 2007. The synagogue received international attention as the first to be built in Estonia since the Second World War (the original was erected in 1883, but destroyed in a Soviet air raid in 1944).24 The Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, accompanied by the Israeli president Shimon Peres, marked the occasion with a speech praising Estonian-Jewish relations in which he said, “Estonia has been a good and safe home for the Jewish people”,25 and highlighted Estonia’s progressive attitudes toward the Jews during the 1920s. It is in this small hub of Jewish life, in the corridor of the third floor of the modest community center building, that the Gallery of Memory can be found. The Gallery of Memory displays two glass tablets, both fractured in two, displaying the names of the 947 Estonian Jews who perished in Estonia during the Nazi Occupation, with their dates of birth and a Star of David next to each name. Also displayed are plaques which commemorate the 1942 Wannsee Conference where the Final Solution was discussed and Estonia was declared “judenfrei”. The two Estonians who have been awarded the “Righteous Among the Nations” medal by the state of Israel, Uku and Eha Masing, are also commemorated. A plaque thanks the sponsors of the Gallery of Memory project, including the Government of Estonia, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, two prominent private donors, the Estonian Jewish Museum (which is funded entirely by private donors), and a list of 33 other individuals.

The pamphlet offered at the Gallery of Memory and at the entrance to the Estonian Jewish Museum is 34 pages long. On the front page are a map of Estonia which has been stamped “judenfrei” and the title “The Holocaust on the Territory of Nazi-Occupied Estonia 1941—1944” (the pamphlet is available in Estonian, English, Russian, and German). The introduction, titled “Blot on the Map”, describes the publication as “a brief guide to the details associated with the national tragedy of the Jewish population on a tiny corner of Estonian land”, and warns, “One should not expect revelations and sensations from our story. One shouldn’t anticipate zealous accusations. We simply attempt to follow the history and background of the Holocaust in Estonian lands. But even that is enough”.26 The pamphlet summarizes in a brief but nuanced manner the history of Jews in Estonia; the initial stages of Nazi occupation, during which Estonian Jews were eradicated; the introduction and murder of European Jews; life in the concentration and labor camps; and a map displaying the locations of concentration camps and all sites where Estonian and European Jews were killed. The brochure does not shy away from discussing local collaboration, and includes information regarding the crimes of the Omakaitse, the 3rd Company of the 287th Police Battalion, which was made up of Estonians, and the 20th Estonian SS Division.27

The pamphlet devotes a section to the memory of the Holocaust,28 including the ruthless retributions against and prosecution of Nazi collaborators under the Soviet occupation, and to a discussion of the suppression of Holocaust memory during the Soviet occupation. It contains a list of memorials dedicated to the Holocaust located at the historic sites around Estonia. The pamphlet engages with much recent scholarship on the Holocaust in Estonia, and weaves the findings of the History Commission together with those of scholars such as Gurin-Loov, Elhonen, and Maripuu. Anton Weiss-Wendt, the author of Murder without Hatred: Estonians and the Holocaust (2009), is also credited with a contribution to the history of the Holocaust in Estonia, in spite of the controversy generated by his book, which described in detail the nature of local collaboration. The book led to a variety of verbal, mostly ad hominem attacks on Weiss-Wendt in the Estonian press and anti-Semitic abuse from members of the Estonian public writing in online forums.29

The modest Jewish Museum is situated in one room attended by one member of the staff. The Museum displays (in Estonian and Russian only) the history of Jews in Estonia. It devotes a considerable section to the Holocaust in Estonia, with a few objects seized from Estonian Jews, as well as detailed pictures, maps, tables, and text documenting the history of the Holocaust on Estonian territory, delivered in a similar style to the pamphlet. The rest of the museum focuses on Jewish life from the 19th century to the present, including prominent Estonian Jews and the activities of the Jewish community today.

The overall theme of both the Gallery of Memory and the Jewish Museum is the intention to portray the plight of Estonian Jews during the Nazi occupation in a realistic manner, based on scholarly research by prominent Estonian historians of the Holocaust. The displays and museum focus more on the Estonian Jews and less on the majority of Jews who died in Estonia during the Holocaust, who had been brought from outside the national borders. This focus demonstrates a reluctance to view the Holocaust in Estonia as part of a transnational genocide, a preference to portray it as a national tragedy and a “blip” in the otherwise solid Estonian-Jewish relations which are presented in national history. The location of the museum and memorial are also telling: located outside the center of Tallinn next to the synagogue, on the third floor of the Jewish Community Center, the museum is not given the prominence of other museums or memorials such as the Museum of Occupations, and is located far away from the grandiose sites of memory devoted to Estonian Independence in central Tallinn. If museums are representative of memory, the Jewish Museum plays the part of an outsider. The Government’s role in the opening of the synagogue, in the form of President Ilves’s statement in front of the president and the chief rabbi of Israel that “Estonia has been a good and safe home for the Jewish people”, can be looked back upon as ironic, given that the building located 50 meters away from where he spoke has since become the place in which the “uncomfortable” history of Estonian collaboration in the Holocaust is presented to anyone who cares to visit.

The Estonian History Museum

The Estonian History Museum contains very little information on the Holocaust or World War II, but is nevertheless worthy of analysis as the best representative of the state narrative of Estonian history displayed in a museum. The Museum is located in the heart of Tallinn’s Old Town in the medieval Great Guild Hall, a Hanseatic building which has been a thriving center of economic and cultural activity for centuries. The permanent exhibition is given the title “Spirit of Survival” and seeks to present 11,000 years of Estonian history, from the first settlers to the reestablishment of Estonian independence in 1991. The exhibition gives an extremely broad overview of the Estonian people and nation, and mainly focuses on their interaction with and rule by foreigners. The overriding message is that the ten different occupations Estonians have experienced over the centuries have had a dangerous and negative impact on the native population. Yet the indefatigable Estonians have struggled through and maintained their language, culture, and customs despite attempts to suppress them, particularly through Germanization and Russification. They are ultimately “survivors”. Key aspects of the museum are the attempt to portray Estonians as a Nordic and European people, and the thesis that Russification was largely unsuccessful because it is completely alien to Estonians. The overriding narrative of the museum seeks to offer a triumphant picture of Estonian history in which the Estonian state has historical roots stretching back thousands of years, and foreign rule has failed in eliminating or, to an extent, even disrupting Estonian culture. The Estonians are portrayed as victims, but victims who have ultimately prevailed.

Pille Petersoo’s framework of identity is useful for a more nuanced analysis of the museum. Petersoo analyzes the role played by the “other” in Estonian identity, that is, how Estonians as a nation define themselves by comparing themselves to an opposite force. Petersoo states that there are four types of “other” in the Estonian case, all of which are components of Estonia’s identity construction: the internal positive, internal negative, external positive, and external negative. The internal positive other is a group that is defined as non-Estonian but present within Estonia, and having a positive influence in Estonian identity construction. This group is identified as the Baltic Germans, once seen as the ruling class and enemy of the Estonians, but now as a positive historical influence in many areas of Estonian culture and society. The internal negative other is a group that is non-Estonian and present in Estonia, but that has a negative influence in Estonian identity construction. Petersoo describes this group mainly as the ethnic Russian minority, especially those Russians who arrived during the Soviet occupation. There is a perception of the Russians living in Estonia as the antithesis of Estonians and the bearers of Russian imperialism and colonization. The external positive other is a group that exists outside Estonia and has a positive influence on Estonian identity construction. Major positive external influences on Estonia are Finland, Scandinavia, and continental Europe in general, all of which have many historical, cultural, linguistic, and economic ties with Estonia. The external negative other is a group that exists outside of Estonia and is viewed negatively in relation to Estonian identity. This group is identified as Russia, which is seen as an imperialist threat. The common theme in Petersoo’s work is that Russians and Russia are viewed negatively in relation to Estonian identity, and are seen as a threatening “other” and everything the Estonian is not.30

The Estonian History Museum largely conforms to Petersoo’s typology of Estonian identity. Russia is discussed in negative and menacing terms in the museum, taking the role of an “external negative other”. The emphasis on Estonia’s “Nordicness” and “Europeanness”, and on the beneficial historical, cultural, and economic influences that Nordic and European cultures have had on Estonia, also confirms Petersoo’s claim that Estonians see Europe, Scandinavia, and Finland as “external positive others”. The Baltic Germans are given both positive and negative roles: they were oppressive land barons and reduced Estonians to a peasant-like status; however, they also brought cultural, economic, and linguistic benefits to the nation. Interestingly, the museum does not discuss the role of Russians in contemporary Estonia, so that Petersoo’s claim that Russians are also “internal negative others” is neither confirmed nor refuted, although this absence in itself could indicate that Russians are not viewed entirely favorably in the context of contemporary Estonian identity.

The majority of the museum displays are dedicated to the Middle Ages, and extol Estonia’s history as a thriving hub of Baltic trade. In one room, which shows how various wars have affected Estonia, the Second World War is discussed in a brief passage. The brutal first Soviet occupation is discussed before a brief mention of the German occupation. Estonian support for the Nazi occupation is described as “lukewarm”, in contrast to total opposition to the Soviet occupation. Throughout the entire museum, no mention is made of the Holocaust on Estonian soil, with the exception of a brief snapshot of the entrance to the Klooga concentration camp in a video display. Clearly, this relatively small museum does not aspire to give nuanced accounts of Estonian history, but rather provides broad overviews for foreign visitors. It is therefore not surprising that the complexities of the Second World War, important as they are, are not discussed in any detail. However, what the museum does show is the overriding themes which are contextually important for understanding the nuances: first, Estonia is a nation with deep historical roots in Northern Europe and the Baltic Sea region. Second, Estonia has been the victim of many foreign occupations and repressions throughout its history (the worst of which were domination by the Baltic Germans, the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union), but has maintained, against all odds, its culture, language, and traditions. The most prominent state museum in Estonia thus paints a triumphant and in many ways positive picture of Estonian history, while also maintaining a narrative of victimhood. This is in contrast to the partly state-funded, but privately operated Museum of Occupations.

The Museum of Occupations

The Okupatsioonide Muuseum or Museum of Occupations in Tallinn was established in 1998 by Olga Kristler-Ritso at the request of the Estonian government.31 Kristler-Ritso is an expatriate Estonian who fled the Second World War to the United States. She is the head of the Kristler-Ritso Foundation, which oversees the long-term development of the museum, while its day-to-day operations are administered by Executive Director Heiki Ahonen (until 2012). Approximately 25,000 visitors per year are welcomed at the museum, many of whom are international tourists. Ticket sales account for a third of the museum’s revenue, and the rest is subsidized by the Estonian state through the Ministry of Culture. State funding in 2009 amounted to about €190,000.32 The museum describes its objectives as follows:

Our task is to document the catastrophes and cataclysms which took place during the last fifty years and to find detailed proof about the past based on facts and analysis. We are interested in how the generation which reestablished Estonia’s independence in 1991 was formed and want to learn which obstacles they had to overcome. We are interested in the life of Estonians, and also of Russians, Germans, Jews, Swedes and other minorities under the totalitarian regime of the second half of the XX century.33 We have no reason to be ashamed of our history, rather the reverse. At the same time, we should not forget our experiences and keep silent. On the contrary, we must prevent the dreadful offences from being forgotten.34

The museum is located just outside Tallinn’s Old Town, a mere 300 meters from the Riigikogu, the Estonian parliament. The short walk down the hill from the Riigikogu to the museum is symbolic in itself, and contains monuments and memorials dedicated to Estonian independence, including a stone with the inscription “20. VIII 1991”. There are also busts of Rear Admiral John Pitka (1872—1944), who founded the Defense League which fought successfully in the war of independence, and Major General Orasmaa (1890—1943), the leader of the Home Guard who was arrested by the Soviets in 1940 and died in captivity.35

The Museum is housed in a modern, irregularly-shaped building made predominantly of glass supported by concrete. Upon entering the museum, the visitor is at first confronted by souvenirs and books, mostly dedicated to Estonia’s occupation and independence. The booklets offered as history guides in several different languages at the beginning of the museum tour mark the first formal attempt to educate the visitor about Estonia’s plight between 1939 and 1991. They are written by Mart Laar, a historian and prominent politician who has been Prime Minister on two occasions since 1991. The short guides are divided into four booklets: Red Terror: Repressions of Soviet Occupation Authorities in Estonia, Estonia in World War II, The Forgotten War: 1944—1956; and A Bird’s Eye View of Estonian History.

Three of the four guides focus heavily on the negative role of the Soviet Union in Estonia, particularly during the first occupation of 1940—1941. The booklet on Estonia’s experiences in World War II devotes a single section to Nazi occupation. The Holocaust is dealt with in one short paragraph, which gives a brief overview of the plight of Estonian and European Jews on Estonian soil during the German occupation. One statement in the guide which can be seen as misleading is the sentence “Nazis did not succeed in instigating Estonians … to exterminate other ethnic groups or carry out pogroms”.36 Given that the museum guide, written in English, is for visitors who are probably not experts in Estonian history, the sentence may appear to absolve Estonia of any guilt whatsoever of complicity in the Holocaust. The guide also confusingly states, after implying that Estonians were not collaborators in the Holocaust, that the Nazi occupation “does not release those citizens of the Estonian Republic who fulfilled orders of the Nazis, of liability for the crimes committed. But it cannot be the Estonian state or people who are to bear responsibility”.37 The paragraph devoted to the Holocaust also refers to the peaceful relations between Estonians and Jews during the interwar period, and mentions the Estonians who rescued the few Jews who did survive. It is striking that, in a section devoted to the history of the Nazi occupation, the Holocaust, which was certainly one of the most brutal and shocking aspects, and what many would see as the defining aspect of the Second World War in Europe, is confined to a paragraph, half of which is devoted to a cautious stance on the issue of Estonian complicity. The two quotations above demonstrate an unclear public presentation of the role Estonia played in the Holocaust and the extent to which collaborators should be held responsible. Even if the first misleading statement can be attributed to poor translation or writing, it nonetheless represents a certain confusion over the nature of Estonian collaboration.

The visual display of the museum, with its bland, grey walls and ceiling, seeks to recreate the totalitarian atmosphere of the Soviet Union and situate the visitor inside a prison, similar to the many KGB prisons located all over Estonia which are now museums aimed at shocking as well as informing foreign visitors. The scattered props, mostly suitcases and Soviet memorabilia, are intended to present the tragedy of the deportations of Estonians and the loss of the Estonian way of life. Unavoidably, the display on the Nazi occupation can only be observed in comparison to the two Soviet occupations. The exhibits include Nazi administrative documents ordering the execution of Estonians and a 28-minute video loop. The video, a short documentary of the Nazi occupation, demonstrates that the Soviet occupation was indeed far more brutal towards local Estonians than the German occupation. It shows German troops being greeted as liberators and scenes of jubilation as Nazi troops take control of Tallinn. Soviet terror and brutality are discussed by locals in graphic detail, apparently as a basis for explaining Estonian civilian and military collaboration with the Nazis and the Waffen SS. Several veterans tell of their motivation in the video. At some moments, the video even attempts to rationalize Estonian support for the Nazi occupation: the Nazis promised the Estonians autonomy, the possibility of a “Greater Estonia”, and most importantly, protection from the brutal Soviets. The film also discusses the West’s betrayal of Estonia at the Tehran conference, where it was agreed that the 1941 borders would be maintained in the event of an Allied victory. Estonians are shown fighting valiantly alongside the Nazis in 1944 in an attempt to prevent a second occupation. Estonia’s declared independence after the Nazi retreat lasted two days before the Red Army crushed any hope of Estonian self-determination. The film ends solemnly with a discussion of the Holocaust in anecdotal form, with no nuances in regard to numbers or the specific nature of collaboration, as locals recall the smell of burning flesh and the grim scenes of corpses in the concentration and labor camps. The fact that the Holocaust is displayed as an afterthought to the whole Nazi occupation is extremely telling, particularly given the short film’s intense focus on legitimizing and explaining Estonian-Nazi cooperation.

The remainder of the museum is devoted entirely to the decades-long post-war Soviet occupation. Historical agency is accorded to Estonians, in keeping with contemporary Estonian historiography on the Soviet years, and the ultimate fall of the USSR is represented in jubilant detail. During the time of the author’s visits, there were two temporary displays devoted to Estonian “forest brothers”, the Estonian guerillas who fled to the forests to resist Soviet occupation in the 1950s. Another particularly poignant display was the “letters in bark” exhibition, which portrayed the human tragedy of Soviet deportations through messages written on bark that were sent home by Baltic prisoners in Siberia. The downstairs area contains decrepit and mutilated Soviet statues, monuments which were torn out of their prominent settings in central Tallinn and removed to the museum’s dingy basement.

In sum, the Holocaust is largely absent from the museum: there is neither a full factual presentation of the nature of the Holocaust in Estonia nor any display which shows the suffering of Estonian and European Jews as a negative aspect of Nazi occupation. In spite of the museum’s mission statement claiming to be “interested in the life of Estonians, and also of Russians, Germans, Jews, Swedes and other minorities under the totalitarian regime of the second half of the XX century”, victimhood status is accorded solely to the Estonian state and people in the context of both the Soviet and Nazi occupations. The museum’s discussion of the Holocaust is more likely to mislead one of the 25,000 visitors who visit the Museum each year, whether a foreign tourist or indeed anyone not historically inquisitive, about local collaboration in the Holocaust in Estonia. The historical guide written by Mart Laar is particularly troubling as a purportedly historically and morally accurate picture of how and why Estonia was the setting for the destruction of Jewish life in Estonia and the murder of nearly 10,000 Jews from across Europe. The Holocaust is discussed in the context of Soviet and Nazi totalitarianism, in an attempt to externalize guilt either to the Nazis, whose orders the locals were following, or to the Soviets, who terrorized the Estonians to such a degree that they could not be held responsible for collaborating. The trend of highlighting Estonia’s progressive attitudes toward the Jewish minority, also found in the speeches of elites, is also present in the museum guide, the only detailed educational resource in the museum.


The use of the Holocaust in the three Estonian museums analyzed paints an opaque picture of its meaning in contemporary Estonia. What is abundantly clear is that, although the Holocaust is an issue of high importance since Estonia’s accession to the EU and NATO, it remains on the periphery of Estonia’s collective memory of the Second World War, which focuses predominantly on the suffering of Estonians at the hands of the Soviet Union. The official state museum portrays Estonian history as 11,000 years of struggle from which the nation has ultimately and triumphantly freed itself. The Museum of Occupations shows Estonia’s darkest days under totalitarian occupation in the context of the same Estonian “struggle for survival” demonstrated in the state museum. The museum finds that Estonians were the victims of two totalitarian forces which were antithetical to Estonian values and traditions, and focuses on the pain inflicted on the indigenous population rather than the euphoria of independence and freedom. There is a distinct failure to acknowledge the broader context of suffering during the Second World War in Estonia, which extends to non-Estonians, predominantly Jews and Russians. This failure, while presenting a narrow picture of events, falls short of the museum’s own stated mission. The Estonian Jewish Museum represents a certain attempt to come to terms with the Holocaust and Estonian collaboration, yet its location within the small and isolated Jewish community center of Tallinn and its distance from prominent sites of memory in the city center illustrate that confronting the Holocaust will remain an issue on the fringes of national collective memory.

Estonia’s official memory of the Holocaust, while unique in the sense that it is almost purely elitist and transnational, with little or no “vernacular” memory, should be viewed in its regional context, which displays strong continuity. The Estonian case reflects a broader trend in the “Bloodlands” of the “New Europe” — the countries which experienced both Nazi and Soviet occupations, where local non-Jewish populations as well as Jews were the victims of untold suffering and have sought recognition of the importance of the crimes of communism. This pan-European conflict of memory, a conflict which has been institutionalized in the European Union, is reflected in a continuing struggle for national narratives and recognition of the importance of the two totalitarian occupations, typified by the Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism in 2008. The dispute in Estonia was highlighted in 2005 at a state dinner in honor of the Israeli president Moshe Katsav. President Arnold Rüütel of Estonia said, “We remember our past and we tell our children about it, not only on the Holocaust Memorial Day, January 27th. Neither should we forget the crimes committed by the Soviet regime, the victims of which were Estonians, Jews, as well as people from other nationalities”.38 The conflict of memory, often crudely described as “East vs. West” or “Holocaust vs. Gulag”, which Dan Stone rightly argues “need not be a zero-sum game”, is likely to continue in the foreseeable future.39



1              Andrus Ansip, “Prime Minister Andrus Ansip’s Speech at the Opening of the Memorial to the Estonian Jews Who Died in the Holocaust, the Memory Gallery, at the Estonian Jewish Community Centre,” January 27, 2012, Vabariigi Valitsus,

2              This paper deals specifically with the Jewish aspect of the Holocaust, and not with the millions of gypsy, communist, homosexual, and other victims.

3              The Holocaust in Estonia was considerably smaller in scale than in other East-Central European occupied states, including the other two Baltic States. Approximately 70,000 Latvian and 195,000 Lithuanian Jews were killed.

4              For a general overview, see Anton Weiss-Wendt, “Why the Holocaust Does Not Matter to Estonians”, Journal of Baltic Studies 39, no. 4 (2008): 475—497. For studies of Holocaust memory in the context of education initiatives and historical commissions, see Doyle Stevick, “The Politics of the Holocaust in Estonia: Historical Memory and Social Divisions in Estonian Education”, in Reimagining Civic Education: How Diverse Societies Form Democratic Citizens, ed. Bradley Levinson and Doyle Stevick (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield), 217—243; Doyle Stevick, “Education Policy as Normative Discourse and Negotiated Meanings: Engaging the Holocaust in Estonia”, Prospects 40, no. 2 (2010): 239—256; Eva-Clarita Pettai, “Establishing ‘Holocaust Memory’: A Comparison of Estonia and Latvia”, in Historical Memory Culture in the Enlarged Baltic Sea Region and Its Symptoms Today, ed. Oliver Rathkolb and Imbi Sooman (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht), 159—174.

5              Dan Stone, “Memory Wars in New Europe”, in The Holocaust, Fascism and Memory: Essays in the History of Ideas, ed. Dan Stone (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 178.

6              John Bodnar, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 15.

7              Ibid., 13.

8              Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider, The Holocaust and Memory in the Global Age (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006), 120.

9              Ene Koresaar uses “private memory” and “mass personal memories” in the study of Estonia and the Second World War in her book Soldiers of Memory: World War II and Its Aftermath in Estonian Post-Soviet Life Stories (Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, 2011).

10           See Eric Langenbacher and Yossi Shain, Power and the Past: Collective Memory and International Relations (Washington, D. C.: Georgetown University Press, 2010); Jan Werner-Muller, ed., Memory and Power in Post-War Europe: Studies in the Presence of the Past (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Ned Lebow, Wulf Kansteiner, and Claudio Fogu, eds., The Politics of Memory in Post-War Europe (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).

11           Jeffrey Olick, “Collective Memory: The Two Cultures”, Sociological Theory 17, no. 3 (1999): 333—348.

12           Timothy Snyder, “Memory of Sovereignty and Sovereignty over Memory”, in Memory and Power in Post-War Europe: Studies in the Presence of the Past, ed. Jan Werner-Muller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 57—58.

13           Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (New York: Penguin, 2005), 803.

14           Levy and Sznaider, The Holocaust and Memory, 10.

15           Dan Diner, “Restitution and Memory: The Holocaust in European Political Cultures”, New German Critique 90 (2003): 36—44.

16           Andrus Ansip, “Address by Prime Minister Andrus Ansip in Klooga, Estonia”, May 8, 2005, Vabariigi Valitsus,

17           Arnold Rüütel, “The President of the Republic at the Opening Ceremony of a Memorial to the Victims of the Holocaust That Had Taken Place on the Territory of Estonia During World War II”, Klooga, July 24, 2005, The President of the Republic of Estonia, .

18           Arnold Rüütel, “The President of the Republic at the State Dinner in Honour of the President of the State of Israel, H.E. Mr Moshe Katsav”, Kadriorg Palace, September 19, 2005, The President of the Republic of Estonia, .

19           Andrus Ansip, “Statement by Prime Minister Andrus Ansip on International Holocaust Remembrance Day”, January 27, 2007, Vabariigi Valitsus,

20           Ansip, “Speech at the Opening of the Memorial”.

21           Bodnar, Remaking America, 15.

22           Aro Velmet, “Occupied Identities: National Narratives in the Baltic Museums of Occupation”, Journal of Baltic Studies 42, no. 2 (2011): 190.

23           There is also a memorial on the former site of the Klooga concentration camp, as well as other smaller memorials such as the Jewish Cemetery Holocaust memorial near Räpina, erected in 2001. In addition, the Maarjamae Palace Museum — 4 km from Tallinn city center — has also installed an exhibition on the Nazi occupation.

24           “First Post-World War Two Synagogue Opened in Tallinn, Estonia”, European Jewish Congress, accessed April 15, 2013,

25           Toomas Hendrik Ilves, “President of the Republic at the Opening of the Jewish Synagogue, 16 May 2007”,

26           Josef Katz, Stamped “Judenfrei”: The Holocaust on the Territory of Nazi-occupied Estonia 1941—1944, trans. Adam Cullen (Tallinn: Jewish Community of Estonia, 2012), 4.

27           Ibid., 8—23.

28           Ibid., 24—28.

29           Evidence of this was obtained through private correspondence with Anton Weiss-Wendt, who very kindly sent me several pages of the hate messages he received after a review of Murder Without Hatred in the Estonian newspaper Eesti Ekspress.

30           Pille Petersoo, “Reconsidering Otherness: Constructing Estonian Identity”, Nations and Nationalism 13, no. 1 (2007): 117—133.

31           Cynthia Haven, “Stanford Takes Estonia’s ‘Museum of Occupations’ Under Its Wing,” September 21, 2011, Stanford News,

32           Velmet, “Occupied Identities”, 190—191.

33           This is not strictly correct, as both occupations began in the first half of the 20th century.

34           “Museum of Occupations: Who We Are”, Okupatsioonide Muuseum,

35           Stuart Burch and Ulf Zander, “Preoccupied by the Past: The Case of Estonia’s Museum of Occupations”, Scandia 74, no. 2 (2010): 59—60.

36           Mart Laar, Estonia In World War II (Tallinn: Grenader, 2005), 25.

37           Ibid.

38           Rüütel, “At the State Dinner in Honour of the President of the State of Israel.”

39           Stone, “Memory Wars”, 180.

  • by Paul Oliver Stocker

    PhD at Teesside University’s Centre for fascist, anti-fascist, and post-fascist studies. His research relates to the British radical right and fascist conceptions of empire. He also has a focus on the legacy of fascism and the Holocaust in Eastern Europe.

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