- Estonia 1940-1945: Reports of the Estonian International Commission for the Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity
The word "monumental" appears infrequently in book reviews, and usually without much justification. Yet for Estonia 1940–1945, the adjective is justified: the product of seven years' work by a team of historians, this is truly a massive tome—anything but light reading. In the late 1990s, as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were striving for membership in both the European Union and NATO, their Euro-Atlantic partners encouraged the Baltic states to come to terms with the darker chapters in their recent past, and in particular the thorny issue of the Holocaust.
Special commissions of historians and other experts were duly set up under the auspices of the presidents and governments of all three countries. To the consternation of many outsiders, however, these commissions were also assigned to study crimes against humanity committed under the Soviet regimes as well. While sympathetic towards the desires of these post-Soviet societies to shed light on totalitarian oppression in the name of communism, some raised concerns that uncomfortable issues such as local complicity during the Holocaust would be swept under the carpet by an overwhelming official narrative of Baltic victimhood at the hands of the USSR. Fortunately, such fears turned out to have been unfounded, and the Holocaust figures prominently in the publications that have been produced by all three commissions.
The Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian experts chose, however, different approaches to fulfilling their assigned tasks. In Latvia, the Presidential Historians' Commission has overseen the publication of monographs, conference proceedings, and collections of articles—so far nineteen volumes. In Lithuania, the Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes opted instead to single out several key issues for study. Two bilingual volumes have already appeared, both co-authored by Lithuanian and non-Lithuanian scholars, with more scheduled.
The Estonian Commission for the Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity opted for yet another approach, a group of promising younger Estonian scholars being selected to do the research. Their findings were ultimately translated into English and published as a single volume. The result is an encyclopedic work with a slightly split personality. The book opens with the final reports of the Commission itself, one devoted to the period of Soviet occupation in 1940–41, the other to the period of Nazi rule. Although based upon the solid scholarship presented in the rest of the book, these portions reflect legalistic and political purposes. The inclusion of excerpts from Part 2 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, perhaps relevant from a juridical standpoint, does [End Page 321] not make the Commission's reports any more scholarly. Ideally, the reports could have been published separately as a political "white paper" outlining the Estonian state's official positions on the period in question.
The remainder of the book consists of dozens of short articles devoted to more or less narrowly defined topics. These are grouped into six sections: the Soviet occupation of 1940–41; combat in Estonia in 1941; the Nazi occupation regime; Estonians serving in military units of the German and Soviet armed forces; warfare in Estonia in 1944–45; and supporting matter including biographies, maps, a glossary, and the like.
The articles offer the interested reader concise summaries about particular events or topics such as the emigration of Baltic Germans, the Sovietization of the court system, or the Estonian "Self-Administration" (the collaborationist adjunct to the Nazi civil administration authorities) under the Germans. These are generally clearly written and well-translated, although in a book of this size minor linguistic hiccups are almost inevitable.
For someone interested in Estonia during World War II, but who cannot read the local languages, the factual details presented in this volume should impress with their comprehensiveness. The emphasis is overwhelmingly on political, legal, and military policies, but aspects of cultural and economic life under the Nazis and Soviets are also taken up...