Monday, July 20, 2009

Lithuania's selective amnesia

The Third Estate has an interesting piece by one of their writers who's currently travelling in Lithuania. He's visited the so-called "Museum of Genocide Victims" in Vilnius and has noted that through some oversight, certain years have been excluded from its historical record. These reflect Lithuanians' selective memory concerning their history since 1939.

"(M)any different myths (have been) created. The myth of the Workers’ State and the fabulous development it promised, the myth of the proud ethnic Lithuanians against the degenerate Jews and Gypsies or the cunning Russian occupiers, the myth of the salvation of the free market from state planned paralysis, and many others. But what is of particular interest, and particular concern, is the creation of the post 1991 national myth. If the stories the country’s museums tell is anything to go by, there is a deeply problematic story being told.

"‘Museum of Genocide Victims’ in Vilnius is a clear example of it. This is a museum housed in a former KGB building, which offers an account of the history of the period 1940-91 which is as exaggerated as it is incomplete. For a start you would expect something called the ‘Museum of Genocide Victims’ to have something to say about Genocide; but there is nothing. The museum’s story begins in 1939, has a brief gap from 41-44, and starts again in 1944. During this period, 300,000 Lithuanians, 200,000 of them Jews, were executed by death squads or in camps. This accounted for 94% of Lithuania’s Jewish population. These figures are acknowledged, but despite the fact that they dwarf the numbers imprisoned, executed or deported by the KGB the story of the holocaust in that country is not told"

The author notes in passing that this obliteration of memory is related to a resurgence of fascism. In every instance, fascism requires the creation of false history. This is true for several reasons: to create a false golden age which must be reattained, to create false demons which must be fought, and to erase the fascists' own bloody fingerprints.

Lithuania has been a victim both of Nazi and Soviet occupation. About that, there can be no dispute. The question is whether those who choose only to remember the crimes of the Soviets will succeed in resuscitating the demons of the right.

Read the rest here: Lithuania – New Myths and Old. (Hat tip: Harry's Place)

On a personal note: I once met an Estonian woman who claimed about her homeland "we were very accommodating to our Jews". (It actually sounded more like "vee vurr werry accommodating...") I found her view surprising considering that Estonia's Jews were completely wiped out -- for the most part killed by local militias. She went on to tell me at great length how difficult it was for her to leave Estonia and flee to Germany to escape the Soviets.

Did I mention that my grandfather came to the U.S. from Estonia? That's what started that particular conversation. I noticed that this woman's last name had an odd blend of vowels. I asked what kind of name it was. Estonian. I said my granddad came from there. "Oh. What's the family name?" "Chasan." "That doesn't sound Estonian." "It's Jewish." "Oh. Vee vurr werry accommodating to our Jews."


Mina said...

I found her view surprising considering that Estonia's Jews were completely wiped out -- for the most part killed by local militias.

There have never been any pogroms against Jews in Estonia. Unlike in Lithuania, Russia, Poland, Germany, Spain etc.

If You don't believe me then Jewish Virtual Library should be neutral/Jewis source to back my claim :) -

(I think the Estonian women meant Jewish cultural autonomy.

On 12 February 1925, the dream was fulfilled. The Estonian government passed a law pertaining to the cultural autonomy of minority peoples. This was a logical step forward in the national policies of the Estonian Republic. The Jewish community quickly prepared its application for cultural autonomy. /.../

The cultural autonomy of minority peoples is an exceptional phenomenon in European cultural history. Jewish cultural autonomy was of great interest to global Jewish community. The Jewish National Endowment presented the Estonian government with a certificate of gratitude for this achievement.

Adam Holland said...


After the Germans occupied Estonia in 1941, virtually every Jew who had failed to escape was killed.

"German SS and police units, together with Estonian auxiliaries, massacred the Jews of Estonia by the end of 1941. No ghettos were created in Estonia during the German occupation.

"Starting in 1942, tens of thousands of Jews from other European countries were sent to forced-labor camps inside Estonia. The main camp was Vaivara. Jewish forced laborers built military defenses for the German army and mined shale oil. Thousands of foreign Jews were also murdered at Kalevi Liiva."


And, from an earlier post on this blog:

"Estonia’s prewar Jewish population was about 6,000. During the German occupation, about 5,000 Estonian Jews fled to Russia.

"Of the 1,000 who remained, only seven survived. The Germans also killed 7,000 other people, including 6,000 ethnic Estonians.

"Though only 3,000 Jews live in Estonia today, Holocaust-related issues have emerged as a fierce source of debate in the past month. In late July, the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center provided the Estonian Security Police Board with the names of 16 Estonians it claimed helped murder Jews in Belarus in August 1942.

"The Police Board denied any Estonian participation and hastily closed its investigation — despite a report from an independent Estonian war crimes commission that confirmed the participation.

"The U.S. Embassy in Tallinn expressed its concern about the Police Board’s decision to the Estonian government."

Mina said...

I found her view surprising considering that Estonia's Jews were completely wiped out -- for the most part killed by local militias.

Term “Local militia” is usually defined as ad hoc armed ethnic groups. Altough there certainly were also Estonians working in the concentration camps but there was no voluntary local militia. There were two occupying totalitariand powers that forcefully conscripted Estonians into their ranks.

Your post is trying to imply as if there were some kind of voluntary and spontaneous pogroms in Estonia. Never have been and never will. I think you are mixing Estonia up with Lithuania or Poland.

All German and Soviet occupied lands had concentration camps; irrespective of the friendliness or unfriendliness of the local people towards the occupying power, gypsies or Jews.

Adam Holland said...


The participation of Estonians in the Holocaust is indisputable, both within Estonia and elsewhere in the area. The question as to whether they were "militia" is valid, however. I've seen the Estonians who took part in the mass killings of Jewish civilians within their own country described as "auxilliary police". I'll look into the question further and devote a post to it soon.

If you have information to support your contention that Estonian participation in the killing of Jews was forced by Germans, feel free to post it here or email me at My understading is that participation in the sort of mass executions which took place in Estonia was voluntary, and that there were cash incentives. The Germans didn't want the problems associated with unwilling executioners.

As a rule, I avoid debates over whether the Holocaust was uniquely bad among genocides. I feel that it was, but don't really see much to gain by pursuing that line of conversation. You may feel that, by saying both Soviets and Nazis "had concentration camps, irrespective of the friendliness or unfriendliness of the local people towards the occupying power, gypsies or Jews", you somehow excuse Estonian participation in the Holocaust. On the contrary, it only shows how little has been learned.

Robbie said...

To take a state centric view of holocaust guilt is nonsensical. Within all societies there are citizens with potential for complicity in a genocide. To judge a states guilt merely by the barometer of whether some of its citizens worked with the Nazi’s is useless. Far too often those powers that were not subjugated by the Nazi’s tend to take the moral high ground over those that were in the false belief that if it had been them they would not have participated, and therefore judge state complicity in absolute terms. However, had the Nazi's occupied the UK or indeed the USA there would have been a number of anti-Semites and power hungry opportunists willing to participate.

Certainly it can be seen that Estonia has a far better track record in terms of anti Semitism than indeed the rest of Europe. The fact therefore that Estonia went from a position of relative tolerance to the Jewish community, in stark contrast with the high levels of anti Semitism across much of Europe, would suggest that Estonia as a nation was not complicit in the holocaust.

Moreover, it seems that by attacking Estonia you are somehow excusing humanities role in the holocaust; Estonia is no more to blame for being party to a small number collaborators than the international community is for refusing to deal with the Nazi‘s earlier. Had the Nazi’s established control over any state on the globe, a certain level of complicity in the holocaust would have been inevitable. Genocide is about people and not about states, by taking a state centric approach you are dehumanizing what essentially are base level human instincts; hatred, contempt, greed. What should be learned from the holocaust is that where the state system lacks the strength or willingness to prevent mass murder, more likely than not those ‘evil’ within society will take advantage of the situation. Indeed by attacking Estonia over its role in the holocaust, you are demonstrating the very ‘them and us’ mentality that helps to perpetuate genocide. The fact therefore that you continue to consider holocaust guilt as a state centric issue is what really shows how little has been learned, as demonstrated by wide spread disinterest in contemporary African genocides that are considered as ‘African‘ issues, rather than humanities issues.

Adam Holland said...


I'm not sure what you mean when you say that the Holocaust is not a state-centric issue. I frankly don't think that means anything.

With respect to Estonia's role in the Holocaust, I pointed out the guilt of those who collaborated with the Nazis, and the desire of many present-day Estonians to deny that this occurred or obscure its significance. I don't know if you're Estonian, but I see your comment as entirely consistent with what I described. You wish to deny the significance of the crimes committed by Estonian collaborators by saying they don't reflect on the nation's "track record with respect to anti-Semitism", which you describe as better than the rest of Europe. The fact is that Estonia's small Jewish community was completely eliminated in a very short period of time. That couldn't have happened without the voluntary participation of Estonian pro-Nazis. Now many Estonians wish to forget this entirely or at least equate it with the crimes of Stalin. Many go further with that kind of argument to actually blame Stalin on the Jews!

All of this seems very conveniently to absolve Estonia for its role in the Holocaust, as does your attenuated argument concerning the guilt of the entire human race. Are you actually arguing that no nation is responsible for its actions?

Robbie said...

"I'm not sure what you mean when you say that the Holocaust is not a state-centric issue."

By this I mean that the holocaust was not merely the consequence of an individual state or small group of states. I am arguing that an event such as the holocaust is the responsibility of the entire international community. Without sounding too idealistic, humanity is a brotherhood and therefore preventing crimes against humanity should be a common goal relevant to everyone. In the same way that the international community has adopted extra state institutions to tackle global problems such as climate change and human rights, in the 1930’s and 40’s similar mechanisms should have been created and enforced to deal with the blatant anti-Semitism both across Europe and specifically within the Nazi regime.

In regards to your second paragraph:

No I am not Estonian, I am from the UK. Although this is perhaps not as it came across, my argument is not absolving the guilt of Estonian Nazi collaborators, but rather to say that if guilt is to be apportioned then it should not be based around the idea that specific states are guilty, with the implication being that other states are not. At the point of subjugation to the Nazi’s, a certain level of complicity became inevitable, all states have certain citizens who for whatever reason choose to collaborate in such horrendous crimes. If you do want to go down the route of apportioning blame to individual countries then the question should be did the level of complicity go above and beyond ‘normal’ levels rather than did any complicity take place. However as for the reasons I mention above I believe that apportioning blame to individual countries is a pointless tact to take. Furthermore, Estonia’s reluctance to ‘fess up’ to the negative behaviour of a tiny minority of its citizens is completely understandable and by no means unique. In the same way that at British war museums the issue of Chamberlin’s collaboration through appeasement is rarely mentioned and I have yet to see a British war museum that apologises for our decision to effectively hand over the most credibly defended piece of central Europe without a fight, states prefer to focus on their own positive contribution and loss rather than advertising negative decisions that they took. I am merely pointing out therefore that Estonia is in no way unique or distinct from other nations either in the level of complicity or its preference for omitting certain aspects of its history and by focusing specifically on Estonia in your blog you seem to be saying it is somehow ‘worse’ than other states.

continued due to size...

Robbie said...

"All of this seems very conveniently to absolve Estonia for its role in the Holocaust, as does your attenuated argument concerning the guilt of the entire human race. Are you actually arguing that no nation is responsible for its actions?"

No, my argument is certainly not to absolve Estonia but rather to highlight that by placing specific blame upon Estonia you yourself seem to be absolving the wider international community. As stated before, blaming individual states is a very convenient way of avoiding the inconvenient truth that the prevention of genocide can only be achieved through wider international co-operation. By blaming individual states for the holocaust you are in effect saying that the killing of Jews in Estonia is an Estonian issue to be dealt with by the Estonian government, whether that government be subjugated by an invading force or not, and as such is not something other states have to worry about. Moreover, it is this very mindset of blaming individual states for genocides that means they continue to take place; after the second world war it was promised “never again”, and yet genocides continue to take place throughout Africa as the western world sees African genocides as an African issue to be dealt with by the African states and the African Union.
In other words blaming individual states is merely a mechanism for assuaging our own guilt for failing to prevent such genocides.

As such if you truly desire a meaningful analysis of holocaust guilt then you should focus on the failings of the wider international community to prevent the genocide, as the current tact of placing the onus of blame upon individual participant states has allowed genocides to continue to take place.

Lorenzo said...

Lithuania was not onli a victim of the Soviets, but somehow collaborationist too. Lithuania did eat Poland together with Hitler and Stalin and, thanks to them, it could annex Vilnius and move the capital from Kaunas.
I invite You to visit the Italian-Estonian site "Confini amministrativi-Riigipiirid". A lot of views of borders! Go to and enjoy Yourself.

Sergio said...

The site of the borders is very cool!
As regards holocaust, the Jews were captured above all in Countries in which there was a strong Catholic element. See in Poland and in Hungary, for instance. We all should think about it very deeply.


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