Despised and ostracized, the Swedish community of Waffen-SS volunteers long gathered in secrecy on “The Day of the Fallen,” for obscure ritualistic annual gatherings at a cemetery in a Stockholm suburb.
Since the 1990s, the rituals have not needed to be clandestine: the few, now very elderly survivors now head to Sinimäe, Estonia, where they feel they are now getting the honor to which they are entitled. Here, Swedish, Norwegian, Austrian, German and other Waffen-SS veterans from Western Europe meet up with their Estonian comrades. The annual gatherings include those who volunteered for ideological reasons, and who are today actively passing on the experiences to a new generation of neo-Nazis.
In previous years, Mart Laar, the Estonian minister of defense sent official greeting to the veterans. Estonian government endorsement of these events means in effect that an EU member state is underwriting the Waffen-SS veterans’ own claims that they constituted a pan-European force, who were moreover pioneers of European unification.
According to the Tageszeitung, this March the Estonian parliament will consider a law, which would formally designate the Estonian Waffen-SS veterans as “Freedom Fighters.” The law, promoted by Mart Laar’s right-wing nationalist Isamaa party, represents a fourth attempt by the Isamaa to pass such a law. Previous efforts were made in 2005, 2006, and 2010. Last winter the Estonian prime minister Andrus Ansip sent the Estonian Waffen-SS veterans a letter, in which he thanked them for their service to the Estonian people.
In doing so, Estonia would confirm its leading role in rehabilitating the Waffen-SS. Across Europe, Waffen-SS veterans and their admirers are following the developments in Estonia and Latvia. Nowhere in Europe have these veterans been recognized by governments . The Estonians and Latvians were (and are) breaking a taboo, setting a precedent for others to follow.
This is all therefore not some internal Estonian affair. It should be recognized that the developments have been treated rather sloppily, even in a sensationalist way by the media. The terms Waffen-SS and Nazis have been used interchangeably, and the actual history is often confused. Certainly, being a veteran in the Estonian Waffen-SS does not equate to being a Nazi. Admirers of the Estonian and Latvian Waffen-SS usually emphasize that most of their members were conscripted, i.e. its members had no choice. For how many of its members this is correct, we do not know.
The 20th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Estonian) was established on the orders of Heinrich Himmler in May 1944. It was established through expanding, by conscription, the 3rd Estonian SS Volunteer Brigade, formed in May 1943. This unit consisted of Estonians who voluntarily pledged their lives to Adolf Hitler. The issue of whether the members of the Waffen-SS volunteered or not is important. The Nuremburg Tribunal ruled that the Waffen-SS was a criminal organization, but did not extend this designation to those forcibly conscripted into the Waffen-SS.
Admirers of the Estonian Waffen-SS veterans typically refer to them as generic “Freedom Fighters,” without much of a discussion of the nature of the freedom they fought for. This is also typical for the apologetic narrative. The bad guys were always someone else. This is strictly about honor and pride, never about ideology. We recognize this from other parts of Europe. In Austria, well into the 1980s, the Germans were the bad guys. In Germany, the apologist argument went, the Wehrmacht was clean, the Waffen-SS were the bad guys. Maintaining their innocence, the Hilsgemeinschaft auf Gegenseitigkeit der Angehörigen der ehemaligen Waffen-SS (HIAG), the society of the Waffen-SS veterans in Germany, presenting its activities as “apolitical” claimed they were clean, that the true criminals were the Allgemeine SS.
Like their Scandinavian comrades, the German Waffen-SS veterans perceive themselves as a victimized and misunderstood group, second class citizens, victims of victors’ justice. They have generally not been entitled to state pensions for veterans.
Outside of Europe, Waffen-SS veterans have been more successful in gaining acceptance for their own narrative. In Canada, government authorities, in the name of multiculturalism have agreed to share the construction cost for monuments with the association of the Ukrainian veterans of the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Ukrainian), better known at the Waffen-SS Galizien. Public institutions of higher education institute endowments in the honor of Ukrainian Waffen-SS volunteers.
To the disappointment of the extreme right, former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko (in office 2005-2010) did not follow up his rehabilitation of the most important interwar Ukrainian fascist organization, the OUN, with a rehabilitation of the Waffen-SS Galizien. To the Ukrainian far right, Latvia and Estonia have become a source of inspiration and an example to emulate. Much like the current Estonian prime minister, Andrus Ansip, the leading Ukrainian ultra-nationalist party, the All Ukrainian Association Svoboda, which dominates local politics in several Western Ukrainian cities, denies that honoring Waffen-SS veterans has anything to do with neo-Nazi ideology.
In April 2011 Svoboda celebrated the 68th anniversary of the establishment of the Waffen-SS Galizien. Lviv was decorated with billboards referring to the veterans of the Waffen-SS Galizien as “the treasure of the nation,” accompanied by the slogan “They defended Ukraine.” The far right marched through Lviv with cries like “Galicia – Division of heroes!,” and “One race, one nation, one Fatherland!” In time for the Euro 2012, a Waffen-SS Galizien taxi company was established.
These processes are interlinked. The Estonian and Latvian governments’ partial recognition granted their presumably heroic Waffen-SS veterans is part of a larger narrative of apologetics and obfuscation.
The handling of the Soviet bronze soldier saga in Tallinn provides an illuminating illustration of double standards. This author has a certain understanding about why a monument to Soviet soldiers, which turned into a rallying point for victory celebrations by Soviet veterans and parts of the Russian-speaking community in Tallinn would be regarded as problematic. Furthermore, there is no doubt that Estonia, and its democratically elected government is within its full rights to organize its own public space, which means determining what sort of public memorials should decorate its capital city. The removal of the bronze soldier and the relocation of the graves of Soviet solider was motivated partly by references to its ideological significance. There is no denying the horrendous crimes carried out by the Soviet authorities, particularly between 1940-1941, and 1944-1949.
Unfortunately, much of the criticism of the Waffen-SS cult in Estonia comes not only from Russian-speakers in Estonia, but also from Russian authorities who have instrumentalized this critique to political ends. These would be well advised to acknowledge Stalinist atrocities against Estonians, which those who objected to the presence of the bronze soldier in the center of Tallinn saw the statue of symbol for. By the same token, it difficult to see how official designation of Waffen-SS veterans by a EU member country would not an ideological act.
In fact, a Nazi victory, for which the Waffen-SS was employed, would have meant the permanent disappearance of Estonia, the population of which was earmarked for destruction by the Generalplan Ost, which stipulated that only 50% of Estonians could be Germanized. That discussion would have thereby precluded this discussion in the first place.
Thus, that government that has itself profiled from an elaborate victimization narrative making Estonia a European center of gravity for Waffen-SS nostalgists is deeply ironic.
Unlike most plants, these sort of cults grow in the shade. The Estonian government does not want international exposure on this. Yet, that is exactly what is needed.
The nostalgia for the Waffen-SS “freedom fighters” is not merely an Estonian concern It is a European concern. It is an international concern.
Per Anders Rudling is a post-doctoral fellow at the Department of History, Lund University, Sweden. This article originally appeared on defendinghistory.com