“The Brussels Diary with Yana Toom”: Historical Half-Truth


The Foreign Affairs Committee of the Riigikogu (Estonian Parliament) has prepared a statement “On the historical memory and falsification of history”, which is about to be submitted to Parliament. In a stormy dispute between Russia and Poland regarding who was the executioner and who was the victim during the Second World War, we are being asked to take the side of the Poles. It is understandable: blaming Russia is a tradition sanctified by time.

Back in September, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact laid the foundation for the Second World War. I did not vote for the resolution: it is good enough that historians argue about the causes of that war; they know more about it than all the EU deputies put together.

Establishing any historical truth with political declarations is the last thing one should do. Everything in a declaration is quite straightforward: we are in the clear, the other is to blame. It is a rare politician who says that his or her country is to blame for something. Yes, half a century ago, German Chancellor Willy Brandt knelt down in front of the Warsaw monument to ghetto heroes. Alas, this was an exception.

Any historical truth is sophisticated. It is true that Poland was a victim of the Third Reich. It is also true that Poland, along with the Third Reich, destroyed Czechoslovakia. It is true that the Soviet Union was an ally of the Third Reich and seized a piece of Poland. It is also true that the Soviet Union was at war with the Third Reich and liberated Poland. And so on.

If you search hard enough, you will find compromising evidence in every country. One terrible example: the USSR, the USA and the UK could have saved hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of German Jews. In 1938, the US Secretary of the Interior offered to accept Jewish refugees in Alaska. In 1939, the Jews asked the British to let them settle in Palestine. In 1940, Hitler suggested that Stalin resettle the German Jews in Birobidzhan and Western Ukraine. But Roosevelt, and Chamberlain, and Stalin refused. Yes, they did not know that the Holocaust was imminent. But if you must blame someone, let’s blame everyone.

Estonia has nothing to brag about: it was declared “judenfrei”, a country with no Jews. And local collaborators also organised the Holocaust here: Estonian Self-Administration headed by Hjalmar Mäe, Johannes Soodla – Head of the Omakaitse organisation – were involved in the extermination of Jews. At the same time, thousands of Estonian Jews escaped – they managed to flee, because, in the summer of 1941, the Soviet army resisted the Germans as much as they could. It’s true. And before that, hundreds of Jews were deported to Siberia. And this is true as well.

As for Poland, history is even more complicated. It’s bad to choose titbits for national pride or, even worse, political self-interest from this story, but to remain silent or lie about the rest – that seems bad. If politicians can’t help it, let them follow Willy Brandt’s example and ask for forgiveness from all victims. Using someone’s pain and death to offend a geopolitical opponent is a vicious practice. Any political statement – whether Polish, Russian, Estonian, European – that does not take into account the fullness of the historical truth falsifies history. Any half-truth is worse than a lie.

Let’s leave history to the historians. The job of politicians is not to slate each other with resolutions, but to reach agreements.

See you next week!