A Small Ginkgo Tree in Tallinn Commemorating a Complex History
“Here grew a mighty ginkgo tree which a German soldier, Theodor C.*, chopped down in year 1943 to protect the entrance to the harbour. His son, Dirk C., and grandson, Fabian C., planted on 27th of June, 2016, a new tree in the honour of Estonian independence. Let this tree be a marking of Estonian-German friendship and peace.”
The text above is engraved in Estonian and German on a small metallic plate attached to a stone. Next to the stone there is a small tree, a ginkgo, still supported by sticks and bands. The sapling is located next to the road leading to Tallinn port, right outside a liquor store frequented by Finnish ferry tourists. This still weak tree and the small plate in their every-day surroundings carry a weighty history.
Theodor C., an Eastern Front Soldier
In 1943, Estonia had been occupied by Nazi Germany for two years. After the beginning of Operation Barbarossa in summer 1941, Germans had quickly concurred the Baltic states. The area had been occupied by the Soviet troops a year earlier in accordance to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that had divided the east of Europe. The Soviet occupation in the Baltics had been harsh, including in Estonia the deportation of over 10000 people to Siberia in June 1941. Thus, the German occupiers were often greeted there as liberators.
The area ranging from the Baltic states in the north to the Crimean peninsula in the south has been named by historian Timothy Snyder as the “bloodlands”. It was a battleground during the summer war of 1941 and again in 1944, when Nazi power was retreating. In addition, during the consecutive occupations − first by the Soviets, then by the Nazis and after that the Soviets again − millions people were displaced, deported or killed. In his book, Snyder focuses on civilian deaths and gets as high number as fourteen million perished on the “bloodlands” between years 1933 and 1945 as a result of deliberate killing policies by both Stalin and Hitler’s regimes.
Needless to say, the “bloodlands” also lived up to their name for a large number of German soldiers. Over four million of them were killed in the Eastern front. For those that survived, as presumably did Theodor C., the memory of the war was especially complicated. Without many of them wanting to, they participated in the biggest genocides in world history. If the atrocities and violence of war are a difficult topic to tell and remember no matter how justified the war may feel, they have been even more controversial for a German soldier of the Second World War. Even the sufferings of the German civilians under the Allied bombings were, for decades, a difficult topic of discussion. As the Nazi German aggression was such an obvious cause of the world war and all of the catastrophes associated with it, how can the sufferings of those on the side of the aggressor be remembered? Is it even right to raise such a question?
Remembering the Occupations and War in Estonia
In Estonia, the whole memory of the Second World War is a complex topic to handle. Estonian men were both drafted and volunteered in the Red Army as well as the Nazi German army. In addition, over three thousand Estonians crossed the Gulf of Finland to serve in the Finnish army fighting against the Soviet troops. As the end of the Second World War did not bring an end to the Soviet occupation, only the memory of Estonians the served in the Red Army was officially recognised and celebrated. In the 1980s, during glasnost and after the Estonian re-independence in 1991, the memory of “the Finnish Boys” has been officially remembered. Often, the Estonians that served in the German army felt that they too were fighting for the Estonian liberation. They have struggled for their recognition as Estonian freedom-fighters in the post-Soviet years, as has been analysed by ethnologist Ene Kõresaar. Yet, as historian Meike Wulf states, being a former SS-soldier is not a cause of shame in Estonia, but the war is understood by the former soldiers themselves a form of national resistance. Thus, planting a tree for the commemoration of a German soldier in Estonia is less controversial than it would be in many other countries.
The fact that the Estonian SS men were also supporting the German war aims is still a topic not widely discussed in Estonia. During the war Estonia was the first country to be declared as “Judenfrei”, as the Jewish population consisting of some thousands before the war had either fled or got killed. The estimations of the number of killed Estonian Jews range from a thousand to two thousand. In addition, presumably tens of thousands of Jews from other countries occupied by the Nazi Germany were transported to Estonia and perished there. Furthermore, the smallish pre-war Roma community in Estonia was completely destroyed during the Nazi occupation.
Still, there are rather few memorials, museums, or other sites of memory that would address this history of genocides and the horrors of Nazi occupation. The Estonian memory of the Second World War focuses on the sufferings of Estonians, and of this history many of the ethnic minorities and other minority experiences are excluded. Furthermore, it seems to be very difficult to see the Estonians as guilty of the atrocities of war and genocides. When these events are portrayed, they are explained as crimes of Nazi Germany. This has raised some opposition, and the topic has been addressed even by museum-goers. Some visitors of Museum of Occupations (in plural, though the museum very strongly focuses on the Soviet occupation and Estonian resistance during it) have written in the visitors’ book, asking why the museum is forgetting the participation of the Estonians in the Jewish genocide. Thus the discussion seems to be penetrating the Estonian memory cultures and debates on history.
Planting a tree to Combat Oblivion
Many soldiers – German and others – have decided to keep the painful memories to themselves, never telling of their war experiences to their family members. Theodor C., obviously, did not remain silent. He had told to his son or grandson (or both) of his war experiences up to the detail that they knew the brand of the tree that he had chopped down in Tallinn. This story has had enough power to be remembered for decades, and to motivate the son and grandson to actually plant a commemorative tree for their father and grandfather.
Ginkgo, which presumably just happens to be the tree that was cut down for the protection of the sea port, carries interesting meanings in itself. Also called a maidenhair tree, it is a living fossil, a species that has existed for at least 270 million years. It is extremely durable plant: it can live up to thousand years and ginkgos are even mentioned as being among the few surviving living creatures close to the epicentre of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb explosion in 1945. What more, ginkgo is used in traditional medicine against dementia, as a remedy of memory.
Of course, there may very well have been stories that Theodor C. did not tell, stories too difficult to tell or even stories too painful to be remembered. As there are still many Estonian stories of the Second World War that have not been told. But in this case, there was a possibility for a positive and honourable interpretation for the memory of German soldier in Estonia. By interpreting the cutting of the tree as protecting the harbour, it is possible to interpret is as an act of protecting the Estonian state from aggression. Though not mentioned in the plate, it is obvious for any observer with any knowledge of history that it was the Soviets from whom the protection is needed. This reminds that even as the Germans were, too, occupiers, they were also protecting Estonia against what came to be an occupation and a loss of national independence for over forty years. Thus, honouring the re-established Estonian independence offers a framework within which it is possible to commemorate even Theodor C., a German soldier fighting in the Eastern front of the Second World War. As a durable maidenhair tree, the commemorative ginkgo will keep the memory live through whatever rough times may be ahead.
* As the plate is publicly visible, it would be possible to mention the whole name of the soldier. The name is even visible in the photo taken of the plate. Even so, I think it is not relevant for this writing who the actual soldier was. My aim is to analyse the memory act of planting the tree and attaching a plate, and I do not wish this text to be found by simply googling the name of the soldier, his son or grandson. The publicity of a local commemorative plate and the publicity of the internet are not the same thing, after all.
Kõresaar, Ene (2011) “Remembrance Cultures of World War II and the Politics of Recognition in Post-Soviet Estonia: Biographical Perspectives.” In Ene Kõresaar (ed.) Soldiers of Memory. World War II and Its Aftermath in Estonian Post-Soviet Live Stories. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2011, 1−34.
Snyder, Timothy (2010) Bloodlands. Europe between Hitler and Stalin. New York: Basic Books.
Weiss-Wendt, Anton (2003) Extermination of the Gypsies in Estonia during World War II. Popular Images and Official Policies. Holocaust and Genocide Studies 17.1 (2003), 31–61. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/43144
Wulf, Meike (2016) Shadowlands. Memory and History in Post-Soviet Estonia. New York and Oxford: Berghahn books.