Academic Coordinator and Researcher, Center for the Study of Democracy, Leuphana University Lüneburg
Aufarbeitung of the Holocaust in the Baltic States: Comparing Baltic History Commissions’ Impact on Jewish-Baltic Reconciliation
Present and Absent Victims: The Baltic States and Romania , Friday, March 12, 2010, 1:45 – 3:45
Eva-Clarita Pettai, PhD, is academic coordinator and researcher at the Center for the Study of Democracy (ZDEMO), University of Lüneburg, Germany. Previously, she worked for several years as senior researcher at the Institute of Government and Politics, University of Tartu, Estonia. She is author of Democratizing History in Latvia (Krämer, 2003, in German) as well as of numerous publications on history and memory politics in the Baltic states. Her research interests include theories of history and collective memory, Baltic historiography as well as memory politics in post-enlargement Europe.
Abstract: Aufarbeitung of the Holocaust in the Baltic States: Comparing Baltic History Commissions’ Impact on Jewish-Baltic Reconciliation
The creation of international history commissions in all three of the Baltic states in the fall of 1998 came as a reaction to a continuous international pressure on the newly democratic states and EU candidate-countries to confront the recent past and in particular the history of Nazi-German occupation and the Holocaust. Ever since the Baltic states regained independence in 1991, different gatherings by former Nazi war veterans, anti-Semitic rhetoric or statements by Baltic politicians defending the right of these people to commemorate (long forcible suppressed by the Soviets) had repeatedly caused consternation and dismay among local and international Jewish organizations, but also increasingly among the countries’ own Western allies. These parties gradually began to insist that Baltic officials act more decisively to help identify former perpetrators still alive as well as to research and raise awareness about the crimes that had also been committed by locals against the Jewish populations during Nazi occupation. This mounting international pressure eventually led the three Baltic presidents to create international commissions to investigate crimes against humanity committed under the Nazis, while also insisting that Stalinist crimes be equally examined. The presidents invited representatives from both former occupation powers (Germany and Russia) as well as from Jewish survivor organizations to serve as foreign members of the different Commissions, adding what can be called “bilateral dimensions” to their work. Created as non-judiciary or -prosecutorial bodies, the aim of these Commissions was primarily in the areas of historical fact-finding, history education (both in schools and general public) and international outreach.
Focusing on the Estonian and Latvian Commissions, with occasional comparative references to the Lithuanian Commission, this paper will evaluate in what way the Baltic Commissions in fact contributed to the process of Aufarbeitung of the Nazi period and to the raising of historical awareness both in their countries and abroad. Against the backdrop of recent studies on history commissions and their role in general reconciliation, I will identify different areas and criteria against which to measure the Baltic History Commissions’ success. First, the commissions will be evaluated as to how well they contributed to the collection of historical facts and to giving a complete account about victims and perpetrators, lines of command and responsibilities during the Nazi occupation and the Holocaust in their countries. Here all three Commissions generally receive high marks, with perhaps the Estonian one slightly higher than the other two. Second, I will examine how much the given accounts of the Holocaust include the various perspectives of former victims and/or perpetrators (i.e. the criteria of multiperspectivity) and thus reach an understanding (and eventually reconcile) with Jewish survivors of the crimes that were in part committed by Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians. In this context the role of the Jewish Commission members (both local and international) becomes interesting. They have been certainly more involved in the actual investigation and evaluation process in Latvia (and Lithuania), rather less in Estonia. Third, the Commissions’ work will be evaluated in terms of its impact on society, both in the realm of school history education (curriculum) as well as historical awareness (public debates). Here the Latvian Commission gets much higher marks than the Estonian, the latter not having been involved in any curricula development or teacher training nor taking part in public debates on issues of memory culture relating to the Nazi period. Finally, and given their international character and mandate, the Commissions will be evaluated as to how successful they have been in achieving international acknowledgment of the recent Baltic historical experience. Here, of course, political support for the Commissions’ work will have to be taken into account. The Latvian Commission, for instance, benefited quite a bit from the active role taken up by President Vaira Vike-Freiberga’s in promoting international exchange on issues of the past. The Commission organized regular international conferences and spoke out on controversial issues of the past by issuing statements for the foreign ministry. The Estonian Commission was less active in this respect. The Lithuanian Commission has perhaps been the most active one in the field of education and teacher training. With its support, 62 so-called Tolerance Education Centers (TEC) were established throughout the country that seek to raise awareness among students about the past as well as address questions of ethnic and religious minorities today.
The paper will conclude with an examination of how we might explain the cross-national differences, as well as what these experiences might tell us in a general sense about historical Aufarbeitung through international commissions.