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Exchange with Anton Weiss-Wendt

Anton Weiss-Wendt, Murder Without Hatred, Estonians and the Holocaust.
Syracuse University Press, 2009.

My relationship with Dr. Anton Weiss-Wendt goes back about fifteen years (I don’t know how old he is, but at the time he must have been very young—he still is) when my book on the Holocaust in Latvia came out. He wrote me a letter wanting a copy of my book, which I sent him, for a promise to review it, which he did. Ever since I have followed his writings. At all turns, I have been impressed by the seriousness and single mindedness of his commitment. I think at the time, he did not fully understand my book, because he wrote a very nice and positive review. After having become Americanized and had fully immersed himself in the Holocaust literature, such as it is, I don’t think, given a chance, he still would be as positive about my book as he was at the time.

There are many good things that I could say about Weiss-Wendt’s study of the Holocaust in Estonia. It is a well written and argumentative work, worthy of a freshly minted Ph.D. I am almost ready to pronounce, save for some clichés, the study to be definitive. He expertly marshals his arguments, and a strong part of his polemics is that while he is right about much of what he argues he is also in part wrong about most of the same issues. This duality makes Anton an elusive but also a toothsome target. The central chapters in which he documents the fate of the Estonian Jews and that of those European Jews who were brought to Estonia, by themselves are stellar example of scholarship. Those chapters are detailed and well documented. In the background chapters in which he summarizes stacks of historical literature, he demonstrates that he has mastered those stacks and most of the time, he is judicious in his formulations. When, however, in his comparative generalizations he ventures outside of Estonia, to Latvia and Lithuania, which he does quite frequently, he shows some soft spots.

It is my understanding that I was invited to write the commentary not to praise Anton, but to slay him. For the balance of my commentary, I’ll try to challenge some of his judgments and implications of his judgments.

# 1. The author does not fully persuade me that there was a special affinity between the Estonians and the Nazi. He argues that many of the organizational and administrative decisions (including those of the police and military) in Estonia were made on a consensus basis with the occupiers who treated the occupied with honor and respect. Whatever grain of truth there may be in Weiss-Wendt’s assertions—it even may be true that in all Europe there may not have been another Hjalmar Mäe—he harms his own argument by misnaming (I doubt it is matter of mistranslation) the names of almost all administrative, police, and military entities that defined the cooperative or collaborative relationship. While the Nazi themselves never failed to designate Estonian Police units as Hilfs Polizei that is Auxiliary Police units, Anton without failing omits the “auxiliary” designation and simply calls them the Estonian Police, thus, I assume, attempting to advance his thesis of unique status of Estonia within the Nazi empire, creating the impression that the Estonian police was a self generated and independent decision making unit. In contrast to Denmark where the prewar police, to a man, retained their status and organizational framework, in Estonia the police was organized and improvised after the occupation. According to SS-Brigadefuehrer Walter Stahlecker in Estonia as in Latvia, it was the Germans who made sure that the police consisted of trustworthy members. It is also true that every police precinct was supervised by at least one German and Estonians had to report to the Germans on a daily basis. While the Germans never forget to designate the Estonian police as “auxiliary”, Weiss-Wendt drops that designation. The same legerdemain he performs, with heightened ethical implications, when discussing the so called Auxiliary Estonian Security Police, those units that were responsible for carrying out atrocities. The implication of Weiss-Wendt’s use of the Security Police designation is that the Germans and Estonians made a common decision to murder Jews and other undesirables. I understand why Ruth Bettina Birn as a German in an article some years ago might promote a similar opinion; Weiss-Wendt’s urge to do so leaves me perplexed.

# 2. Weiss-Wendt insists on designating the Estonian grenadier division as a Waffen-SS unit. Waffen-SS was not a generic concept but an institutionally designated SS subgroup, consisting of racially certified, born Germans. Contrary to Anton’s insistence, Germans designated the Estonian grenadier unit in two ways: as SS-Freiwillige or later as Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS. I know that in the public, including that of Estonia, there is much confusion on this question, but historians should live by a stricter standard of truth than journalists and those that receive political payoffs. To learn about various subsections of the SS organization, I recommend to consult the works of John Keegan. In the post-Nazi times, especially the second of the designations Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS has become a puzzle because it is ambiguous, harboring contradictory meanings: one implied meaning of the designation is that it is a subgroup of the SS, the other that it is not. The second reading of the designation is that the grenadier division is under the control of the SS without being SS. As I understand it, the courts in post-war Germany have ruled for the second meaning, as did the British and U.S. armies in the immediate postwar period. According to my knowledge, the Estonian “Waffen SS” men did not have the right to attend the SS whore houses.

# 3. Omakaitse is a fine Estonian word and I wish that our author had not used it to cloud important issues of the German occupation in general and the Holocaust in particular. The meaning of the word is self-defense, Selbstschutz in German. Anton wants to push the argument that the Omakaitse was a unique Estonian entity. In reality something like Omakaitse has come into being pretty much in all places where central order has disintegrated. Even in the United States there are “neighborhood patrols” to fight crime.

A novelty was introduced by the Nazis as it began to spread its imperial wings. As the German forces entered Poland, the Free City of Danzig and Czechoslovakia, they began to organize Selbstschutz units and use them as revenge forces against their real or imagined enemies. When the war against the Soviet Union began the Germans entered with the same plan to organize “civilian” revenge teams as they had in Poland. There indeed might have been some peculiarities in Estonia, but in general the Nazis preempted the local Omakaitses and made them serve Nazi purposes. They determined the size of Omakaitse units, their arms and made them auxiliary to the Wehrmacht and the Security Police. It was also the Germans who co-opted them to participate in a number of killing actions. I wish that Weiss-Wendt had given a bit more evenhanded treatment and shown how the Nazis corrupted the purposes of the Omakaitse. As it is, I fail to see why Anton, instead of exposing the Nazi plans, leaves the issue under a cloud.

# 4. Revenge. It is clear that the Nazi state harbored a deep seated sense of revenge that grew out of the Dolchstoss mentality[1] and led to a limitless and many-sided anti-Semitism. Did the Estonians in particular and East Europeans in general in any way duplicate the Nazi mentality? Where exactly Weiss-Wendt stands on this issue I am not so sure. He entitles his book Murder without Hatred—that would indicate that Estonians on the hatred index did, as if, diverged from the Germans, yet in some other parts of the text when documenting the evolution of Estonian police or of Omakaitse mentalities, he seems to argue that Estonians developed some kind of a zeal for revenge that parallels that of the Germans. Weiss-Wendt’s indifference to “orders” in the relationship between Estonians and the Nazis leaves me skeptical.

# 5. As all historical happenings so the Holocaust has at least two lives: its material existence as an event; and second, its existence as a text in history books. Once a book is written about the Holocaust it in part departs the world of facts and joins the realm of semantics, semiotics, biases and ideologies. From this aspect the Nazis perhaps were cleverer than many historians of their regime. As the project Barbarossa and the plan to carry out the greatest crime in history reached its fruition, the Nazis prepared for both. They also began to manage the memory of their crime—its historical text. When the Nazis occupied Eastern Europe, they arrived with more than weapons: they also carried a satchel-full of words and concepts. While the bullets were aimed at Jews—the words were intended for the victims and victimizers, natives and the public of the world. While the historians have pretty much unraveled their military schemes, the Nazi vocabulary still haunts Eastern Europe and discombobulates historians, especially those with a German orientation.

Among the Nazi imports first of all were the SELF-words: “Selbstverwaltung”, “Selbstbereinigung”, and “Selbstschutz”.[2] Parenthetical one can also note that the Russians brought in a few self-words: samovar, samizdat, and samogonka. They also brought in Samoderzhets.[3]

Back to the Nazi vocabulary: there was also ‘pogrom’, ‘voluntary’. etc. All of these words, although they might have had generic meanings, were also Nazi words. After the war there was a group of German poets, GRUPPE 47[4], that vowed to purge their language of Nazi additives. Unfortunately this self-cleansing program has not reached German historians. Lacking any analysis from the German side, these words continue to befuddle the thinking of young historians of those peoples that the Nazis victimized. From that perspective I assume to the degree Anton is willing to live within the smog of Nazi vocabulary, without analyzing it, he is one of their victims.

Everything that the Nazis ordered to be done in the occupied countries they called voluntary (is there an exception?), from joining the Omakeitse, to the formation of the Legion. I am sure that there were some things that the Estonians did during the German occupation (distilling moonshine would be one case in point) they did it voluntarily, even with enthusiasm, but did they do everything voluntarily?

I think I understand why Andrej Angrick and Peter Klein in their recently translated work, The “Final Solution” in Riga: Exploitation and Annihilation, 1941- 1945, imbibes Nazi vocabulary straight, neat and without a chaser. I am discombobulated about Weiss-Wendt’s tendency to be equally uncritical.


To conclude, I want to make a broader comment about the power of mendacity and the Nazi use of the word ‘pogrom,’ a concept also found in Anton’s book. As far as I know, no one, German or non-German, to date has analyzed the Nazi usage of the word. The Nazi usage of pogrom originated more or less at the same time as did their usage of the self-defense. It was frequently referenced at the time of the Kristallnacht in 1938. What motivated the Russians to engage in pogroms is not so clear. We know that priests and agents of the Okhrana were involved and they frequently took place around the Easter. In Nazi context there were two noteworthy aspects of it: intent to demonstrate German revenge against the Jews and to make it public, a street theater, to create the image or illusion that the whole city/community hated Jews. What ever the breaking of windows and burning of synagogues accomplished, the 1938 pogroms made a terrific street drama, it had sounds, lights, and enough extras to populate a Hollywood epic. Whatever the Kristallnacht accomplished, it was a pinnacle of Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda, presented as theater. It had more realism than the street theater in Moscow, inspired by Meyerhold.

Turning the clock forward to 1941 we see the Nazis again, when planning pogroms in Eastern Europe were reaching for another high. In as much as by 1941 the Nazis had projected to kill the Jews of Eastern Europe, the new concept of the pogrom reached for a higher degree of artificiality, thus, as the post performance ‘reviews’ show, making the play more credible. In fact the Security Police plotters, Heydrich, Stahlecker et al overreached in dramatizing the first steps of the Holocaust. They wanted to demonstrate, first that that not only the whole world hated the Jews, they (non-Germans) also wanted to kill them. For that purpose to kick off the Holocaust they staged a ghoulish show at the Lietukis garage in Kaunas. The show was public, had a problem finding actors, and took a whole day to prepare for it. The drama’s cathartic twist that dominated in the production and made it unforgettable to all who viewed it, was protagonists primitive way of killing Jews. Stage center, a blond man, every inch a Wagnerian hero, costumed as a Lithuanian, was bludgeoning Jews with a blunt iron bar. The scene had affinities with Siegfried killing the dragon. It was a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total artwork, of its peculiar era. As the action took place Stahlecker’s men were taking pictures and filming the event. More than in a Shakespeare play the stage was flooded with blood and excrement. It was a realistic dramatization, perhaps the most realistic play in history. In effect, the play’s impact went beyond fear and pity. Those who saw it no longer could discern the difference between truth and fiction, theater and life.

How do we know that the Kaunas massacre was a theatrical production? Well, Stahlecker tell us that it was. He tells us that his man organized it, photographed it, filmed it, and made sure that an account of the massacre is distributed and reaches foreign lands. He also tell us that the staging was needed to hide the killing as a German project.

For those people who choose not to believe Stahlecker there is another more cogent reason for believing that the Kaunas massacre was a staged ‘production’. I think Hegel would agree that in a theater anything can happen; in life only the rational.

The irony of human perception is that in theater anything, no mater how absurd and contrived, can be made believable. In literary theory it is well established that suspension of disbelief, is a necessary component of an aesthetic frisson. The big lie at the Lietukis garage that the Nazis managed to sell was that Lithuanians were stupid people, ones, who given a chance to use a tool will choose the least efficient and backward one. It is an anthropological question: is it known that in the history of homo erectus, to accomplish a task, our relatives ever have opted for a less efficient implement?

If one has read Stahlecker’s reports and his side-kick’s Sandberger’s testimony at Nuremberg, one would know that the Nazis planned numerous similar pogroms. But it turned out that the Kaunas style pogrom was not staged again, not in the Baltic territory. It appears that in Riga Stahlecker made some lame moves towards it. When the Nazis reached Estonia, the concept of pogrom, had taken on a much more moderate meaning. Then any killing of Jews by Germans and/or natives was called a pogrom.

By now we know that after Kaunas, the German military brass stepped in, and after an impromptu parley told Stahlecker to cool it. They feared that the Lietukis style productions may harm German military efforts.

The Kaunas massacre/theater at the time, and still today, continue to reverberate beyond its place and time. To date, we still can say that by staging the massacre, the Nazis have significantly influenced, the writing of the history of the Holocaust. Instead of seeing the massacre as a theater, one of most successful ploys of imperial mendacity, most historians see it as a mirror of Eastern European soul. It is used to impugn the character and intelligence of Eastern European people, among them Estonians.

A contemporary case in point is the Richard Evan’s mega-work on Nazi Germany. In the third volume, Third Reich at War, he places the Kaunas massacre in the center of his discussion of the Holocaust, as if, it defined the Holocaust and was typical of it. The Nazis by staging the massacre chalked up a public relation’s victory, because many historians (and not only historians) have come to the conclusion that East Europeans were worse than the Germans. Everything being equal they are likely to give a break to the Nazis!

My criticism of Weiss-Wendt’s, Evan’s and Angrick/Klein’s works that at this time have congregated on my desk, is therefore similar. Neither has shown, though in some aspect all three can be praised, sufficient diligence to clean up the clichés that the Nazis littered in the wake of their imploding and exploding empire. All three have taken the Kaunas massacre in the way that Stahlecker wanted the world to take. All three have failed to consider Sandberger’s testimony, the only evidence about the Lietukis killings that as far as I know, was given under oath.

—Andrew Ezergailis

Nazi German-described “Lithuanian nationalist” poses with the iron bar he used to kill Jews at the Lietukis garage, June 27, 1941
(Zentrale Stelle der Landesjustizverwaltungen, USHMM Photo Archives).[5]

[1]  Dolchtoss, stab in the back, refers to the myth that the German military was not defeated in World War I. Rather, Jews, socialists, and liberals had stabbed the Germans in the back by forcing them to surrender.—Ed.
[2]  Respectively, self-government, self-cleansing, and self-defense.—Ed.
[3]  Ezergailis invokes an amalgam of imagery centered on the individual. A samovar was a special vessel the wealthy would use to make tea for a visitor. Samizdat was a form of dissident activity across the Soviet bloc where individuals reproduced censored publications by hand and passed copies from reader to reader. Samogonka is Russian for home-brewed moonshine. Lastly, samoderzhets refers to autocrats.—Ed.
[4]  The German Wikipedia article is far more extensive.—Ed.
[5]  In the caption on another photograph, viz. www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/online/kovno/invade/garage2.htm, USHMM quotes Stahlecker's version of events: Lietukis garage, Kovno, June 27, 1941. “In the first hours after the invasion ... local antisemitic forces organized pogroms against the Jews. ... It had to appear that the local population had taken the first steps on its own accord as a natural reaction to decades of Jewish oppression and recent Communist terror.” — SS-Brigadier General Walther Stahlecker (report, October 15, 1941).Ed.
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