While Estonia’s largest bookstore chains decided that they won’t put a new Estonian translation of Mein Kampf up for sale, there has been little and thus far only very superficial discussion of the topic in local media. Considering the current political and social situation as well as how Estonia has dealt with its own complicated history in the past, this is worrying, finds ERR news editor Dario Cavegn.
One comment, by editor-in-chief of Estonian foreign policy magazine Diplomaatia, Erkki Bahovski, stands out, in which its author condemns any attempt at “banning history,” such as banning Mein Kampf would constitute.
In an opinion piece for daily Postimees (link in Estonian), Bahovski also makes the point that the oft-quoted Western understanding that the peaceful European order of today builds on the determination to avoid a repetition of the atrocities of the Holocaust does not have as much weight in Eastern Europe as it does elsewhere.
Because for those states, the experience of the totalitarian dictatorships ended only in the early 1990s — and in the West, the crimes committed by Communist regimes still tend to get less attention and the victims less recognition than those who suffered from crimes committed by the Nazis.
It is difficult, at least for this editor, not to interpret this as an example of whataboutism, at least to some degree. The crimes committed by Nazi Germany in no way diminish those committed by the Communist regimes before and also after 1945, which is the point Bahovski makes in his piece. But at the same time, the reverse is true as well. The fact that Western media, governments, and academia have inexcusably neglected the proper treatment of Communist crimes — and still do! — should not make way for the trivialization in Estonia of those committed by the Nazis.
And it is very difficult to see the publication of an unannotated Estonian translation of Mein Kampf as anything else, especially considering statements made by the book’s publisher, Mati Nigul:
“Before World War II, Hitler managed to do a great deal of good for the German people,” Nigul told online news portal Delfi.ee earlier this month (link in Estonian). “This book has been slandered so often, it isn’t fair.”
According to Nigul, it is difficult to pinpoint how much of what is said about the Nazi leader is true, and how much of it is invented.
The publishers of an annotated 2016 German edition would disagree, at least where Hitler’s magnum opus is concerned.
In time for the expiration of the copyright on Hitler’s Mein Kampf, the Leibniz Institute for Contemporary History in Munich published a thoroughly annotated edition of the Nazi dictator’s hack manifesto. According to the institute, the idea was to have such an edition published before distributing the book would become a free-for-all.
The result are two volumes of altogether almost 2,000 pages, adorned with more than 3,700 footnotes and comments. It is especially those footnotes and comments one should be worried about, as readers won’t find any of them reflected in the new — and unannotated — Estonian translation.
Leibniz Institute director Andreas Wirsching said at the time that beyond plenty of outright lies, Hitler’s book is crammed with a seemingly endless list of exaggerations and half-truths, which can be seen as the most threatening part of Mein Kampf’s legacy.
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These half-truths, then, are a core focus of the commented edition. The painstaking comparison of Hitler’s own claims and sources, the historical analysis of the times and context within which Mein Kampf was first published, all of this is part of it.
But this critical discussion isn’t part of the Estonian translation. Which doesn’t bode well, at least not if one goes by publisher Nigul’s comments:
“If you tell me that the Holocaust and so on happened, then there are several points of view there as well,” Nigul told Delfi.ee. “I think that none of us can say exactly what happened.”
While the annotated German edition was published in an atmosphere of relative agreement on the historic facts of the case, from Hitler’s biography and career to Nazi atrocities committed between 1933 and 1945, the problem with the unannotated Estonian translation is that it is being dropped on a society where Nazi crimes not only aren’t a great issue, but often become a subordinate matter, as some of Estonia’s most important anti-Communist freedom fighters also happened to be Waffen-SS recruits and volunteers.
This story is long and interesting enough for a whole book, but the gist of it for the purpose of this opinion piece is that while some of them served in Waffen-SS units that verifiably committed war crimes as well as crimes against humanity, by far not all of them did. Those who didn’t include those men of the Estonian Legion who served in the Narwa Battalion, for example, who have since become an important part of history in the Estonian fight against Communist invaders, and later occupiers.
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The problem is that Estonian historians haven’t been too keen to make that distinction. The involvement e.g. of the 288th Front Battalion of the Estonian Police in the slaughter of civilians in Belarus in November 1943 is typically screened out of history books and biographies of the officers involved, even though it is documented well enough by German sources.
Combine this tendency to overlook the less convenient parts of Estonia’s own history with the recent emergence of EKRE as a hard right-leaning party in government, several politicians of which have been accused of being actual neo-Nazis. What you get is far more complicated and volatile as far as day-to-day politics and popular sentiment is concerned than anything going on in Germany in 2016.
At least at the moment, there is an apparent lack of readiness in Estonia to soberly deal with the topic of Nazism and the Holocaust on the whole, and the country’s own historic position in it in detail. This includes the sometimes almost compulsive need to always balance off Nazi atrocities with Communist atrocities.
And that, in itself, makes allowing the translation into Estonian of Nazism’s most revered devotional object, without context and without public or even academic discussion, a rather risky move, no matter how highly this country regards the principle of freedom of speech.