An Ugly Fight Erupts Over Soviet War Memorials in Eastern Europe

Riots broke out in the Estonian capital of Tallinn recently when the government announced plans to move a monument honoring Red Army soldiers who died there in World War II. The monument, called the “Bronze Soldier,” depicts a war-weary Soviet solder, helmet in hand, looking humbled by his efforts. It was originally erected in 1947 to honor the Soviet “liberation” of Estonia but in recent years has become a point of contention between Estonians and the sizable Russian ethnic minority living there.

Many Estonians saw the Bronze Soldier as a reminder of fifty years of Soviet oppression. But Russian nationalists viewed moving the monument, which was built above the grave of unknown Soviet soldiers, as an insult to the dead—as well as a challenge to their right to remain in Estonia—and were behind two nights of violent protests in April that left one Russian man dead.

Similar scenarios are being played out in other former Eastern Bloc countries. The government of Ukraine has formed a special panel to determine what to do with the Soviet war memorials scattered over the country. And in Poland, government officials promised this spring to draft legislation that will give local authorities permission to remove monuments honoring Soviet war dead. Polish officials were careful to say that the monuments would be preserved after they were removed, but the message was clear. “Wherever our national pride is hurt with praise for the communist dictatorship, the local governor should act,” the Polish culture minister, Kazimierz Michal Ujazdowski, told a local television station.

Not surprisingly, this historic revolt has infuriated some Russians. Several members of the Russian parliament are insisting that removing the monuments is tantamount to supporting the Nazis. Following the death of the protestor in Tallinn—a twenty-year-old Estonian-born Russian named Dmitry Ganin—both houses of the Russian parliament called on President Vladimir Putin to impose sanctions or sever relations between the two countries. Putin has done neither, but he has denounced the Estonian police. “They didn’t just disperse demonstrators. They killed one demonstrator,” he said at an EU–Russia summit in May.

Since then, cyberattacks from Russian Internet addresses have overwhelmed several Estonian newspapers, television stations, banks, and government offices. The Russian government denies involvement. Estonian officials, meanwhile, detained two men this spring, neither of them police officers, suspected of attacking Ganin, but no arrests were made.

The Estonian government quickly relocated the Bronze Soldier to a cemetery outside of town after the riots and later exhumed the bodies of the Soviet soldiers buried beneath it and moved them to the same cemetery, causing further controversy.

The government has made efforts to defuse tensions. Two weeks after the statue was moved, government officials placed flowers at the new site. This was the first time since the country gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 that it has paid any official tribute to the Red Army.

And Poland’s culture minister has made it clear that his country’s new law will not apply to monuments celebrating the bravery of Red Army soldiers. “Under no circumstance can we be accused of a lack of respect for the ordinary soldiers,” he said.

Coming Soon to a Theater Near You: Kamikazes?

A controversial movie written by Tokyo’s staunchly nationalistic governor, Shintaro Ishihara, that honors the sacrifices of the wartime kamikaze pilots has opened in Japan.

With an all-star cast and a $17 million budget, For Those We Love is a big-screen attempt to tell the true story of a Japanese woman, Tome Torihama, who became known as “Kamikaze Mother” while running a restaurant close to the base where a group of young pilots trained to crash their aircraft into Allied warships near the end of World War II. The movie doesn’t focus much on combat—relatively few scenes depict actual kamikaze attacks—concentrating instead on Torihama’s agony as she watches young men fly off, day after day, to certain death. Nearly five hundred pilots from the southern Chinese airfield depicted in the film flew kamikaze missions in the last year of the war.

When the real-life Torihama died in 1992 and the Japanese government refused to publicly acknowledge her death, Ishihara devoted himself to writing a screenplay based on his conversations with her. “I want to pass on the fact that those beautiful young people really existed,” Ishihara said at a press conference in March. “This film is not meant to glorify the special attack forces, but neither is it an antiwar movie.” The movie’s director, Taku Shinjo, who is not a conservative, insists that his work is not political and says he views Japan’s wartime military leaders as despicable.

In any case, For Those We Love proved a big draw at the box office: during its opening weekend, only Spider-Man 3 and a kid’s fantasy movie sold more tickets.

Major Holocaust Archive Opening to Scholars

The world’s largest collection of Holocaust documents will become available for historical research for the first time, after the eleven countries that oversee the archive, including the United States and Germany, reached an agreement in May. The International Tracing Service, located in the German town of Bad Arolsen, is home to tens of millions of documents collected by the Red Cross during the war to help survivors locate missing family members. In total, more than 17.5 million people who spent time in Nazi concentration camps or were otherwise persecuted by the Nazis are thought to have files at the facility.

There is no doubt that Bad Arolsen is a gold mine of historic proportions. Included on its sixteen miles of shelves are Anne Frank’s deportation records and the list of a thou sand slave laborers rescued by Oskar Schindler. Insight into the darkest sides of Nazi chiefs like Heinrich Himmler can be found at the facility, including rarely seen records of Himmler’s orders authorizing the abduction of children from occupied countries to be “Germanized.”

Bad Arolsen’s files also tell the stories of countless, lesser known atrocities. Meticulous, handwritten records from the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, for example, describe the execution of three hundred people at two minute intervals on April 20, 1942, to honor Hitler’s fifty third birthday.

Previously, the documents had been available only to Holocaust survivors and their families, to trace missing per sons and help settle restitution claims. But last year, under pressure from scholars and survivors worldwide, the supervisory commission agreed to begin transferring digital copies of documents to other institutions including the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. “It is a very important decision for us because it means we can begin sending out copies of our documents as soon as we have the technical capability,” Iris Moker, a spokeswoman for the International Tracing Service, told the New York Times. That process is expected to take at least a year.

A Mundane Origin to History’s Most Infamous Moustache

Hitler’s signature moustache has inspired endless parodies and almost as many theories as to why he first adopted the undeniably sinister, short-clipped look. But according to recently published recollections of Alexander Moritz Frey, a medical assistant who served with Hitler in World War I, the future Nazi chief cut his moustache simply because German army regulations stipulated that all facial hair fit under a gas mask.

Frey, who died in 1957, met Hitler for the first time in 1915 while taking cover during an artillery assault. According to his memoirs, Frey was not exactly impressed: “One evening a pale, tall man tumbled down into the cellar after the first shells of the daily evening attacks had begun to fall, fear and rage glowing in his eyes. At that time he looked tall, because he was so thin. A full moustache, which had to be trimmed later because of the new gas masks, covered the ugly slit of his mouth.”

Frey wrote about several other meetings with the then-unknown Hitler, but his observations remained buried in a German archive for nearly half a century until journalist Stefan Ernsting unearthed them and incorporated them into a recent biography of Frey. The recollections, stemming largely from an essay by Frey titled “The Unknown Private— Personal Memories of Hitler,” have attracted attention because so little firsthand observations are available of Hitler from that period.

“His yellow face grew red,” Frey wrote of his first encounter with Hitler, “and he resembled a gobbling turkey as he began to rant about the English.…I immediately had the same impression that many had of him later—that he took the military maneuvers of the enemy personally, as if they wanted to take his precious life in particular.”

Dutch Airline Accused of Helping Nazis Flee

Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz doctor known as the Angel of Death, and Adolf Eichmann, the German officer in charge of the Nazi death camps, were among the hundreds of Nazis to flee to South America after the war. According to recently discovered documents from Swiss archives, some of them may have had help getting there from an unlikely source: KLM, the Dutch national airline.

Sander Rietveld, the Dutch journalist responsible for the accusation, says he has dis covered Swiss border police records indicating that a KLM employee identified only as “Herr Frick” asked Swiss authorities to allow Germans without the proper paperwork to cross into Switzerland in order to access flights to Argentina. The Swiss police’s record of the conversation with Frick indicates they refused his request. But Rietveld says the airline’s passenger manifests to Buenos Aires include long lists of German names, two former Nazis among them.

The airline, for its part, says it has no record of an employee named Frick and no evidence that it transported war criminals. Nevertheless, KLM has indicated its willingness to investigate. “If we really want to be sure what happened, we have to have a thorough investigation,” Bart Koster, a spokesman for KLM, told a Dutch radio station.


Originally published in the September 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here