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Fallen heroes: the challenging issue of remembering controversial figures.

There is no model approach to dealing with how to commemorate controversial figures in the post-Soviet world. Estonia could provide an example for countries in the region on how to counter an often deafening silence.

December 12, 2022 - Owen Howells - Articles and Commentary

A monument marking the life of former Estonian preisdent and prime minister Konstantin Päts which was unveiled in Tallinn on October 21st 2022 Photo: Aare Piiroja wikimedia.org

In recent years the world has seen a wave of protest movements targeting monuments of past figures deemed anathema to contemporary values. Is this an iconoclasm of the woke or a necessary wake-up call for countries all too happy to whitewash their favourite sons and daughters? The answer depends very much on your political standpoint and has sparked often vicious debate in parliaments and households across the world. In truth, the matter is undoubtedly more nuanced than either of these extremes suggests and is perhaps best examined on a case-by-case basis. This is currently happening in many places, as countries and cultures battle with their own individual pasts.

What is perhaps surprising is that in certain parts of Europe a very different trajectory has emerged. Contrary to the phenomenon in the West a number of countries in Central and Eastern Europe have engaged in the memorialisation of historical figures, many of whom would be deemed out of the question to many both at home and abroad. Far from tearing down statues, they are constructing new ones. The subjects are not just distant historical figures from a semi-mythological past; they are interbellum and war-time politicians and statesmen — people within living memory, whose character and deeds raise serious concerns. Interwar figures being promoted for commemoration include Miklós Horthy in Hungary, Kārlis Ulmanis in Latvia, Antanas Smetona in Lithuania and most recently Konstantin Päts in Estonia, leaders who presided over dictatorships and the subversion of civil rights.

Is this a form of dangerous nostalgia, echoing the unapologetic nationalism espoused on the fringes of Brexit Britain or Trumpist America harking back to the right-wing of the Interbellum? Or perhaps this is something more complex, part of an ongoing process of healing and cultural reclamation in nations scarred and plundered by a century of occupation and totalitarianism. 

Unlike further west, Eastern European countries were purged of their cultural monuments during the Nazi and Soviet occupations and subsequent Communist regimes. Monuments to historical leaders, war memorials and even allegorical figures were brutally destroyed, having fallen foul of the prevailing imposed ideology. Those which remained, whether by chance or due to the intervention of artists, often had their significance warped. Some Latvians recall being told that the Independence Monument in Riga was a monument to socialism, the three stars on top representing the brotherhood of three Baltic peoples rather than the three historic regions of Latvia. Nonetheless, access was closely guarded as it continued to be a rallying point for Latvians and a reminder of the days of independence. Identity and access to history was suppressed and selectively rewritten; ownership of one’s own history became detached.

Symbols remained hugely significant, however. Even at the height of Soviet terror, when a third of the population of Estonia was deported for alleged crimes against socialism, a group of school girls risked everything to rescue a sculpture of a small boy from the rubble of the recently demolished Independence War memorial in Pärnu. Kept safely hidden until the 1980s, it now sits in the local museum, a poignant reminder of the power such monuments have in the minds of oppressed societies.

The memorialisation of such figures and the reconstruction of monuments can be seen as correcting a historical wrong, ironically serving a similar purpose to the destruction of statues in the West. If the construction or destruction of a statue can provide much needed catharsis and societal healing, the physical object could be seen as nothing more than a useful tool. Yet the reactions of different societies suggest statues are enduring symbols that have the power to influence and motivate sections of societies in multiple directions.

With this in mind, it is possible to understand the drive to reclaim historical figures and monuments in the post-Soviet period. However, the choice to honour certain figures is far from without controversy, especially when dealing with interbellum dictators. The countries of Eastern and Central Europe prior to the Second World war and subsequent communist takeovers were far from democratic utopias. With the notable exception of Czechoslovakia, democratic governments in this region had all fallen to a form of dictatorship by the mid 1930s, with many exhibiting far-right ideology. The influence of an increasingly aggressive Nazi Germany heightened this effect, however the situation was complex and the nature of regimes varied from relatively benign authoritarianism to extreme racial demagoguery.

Efforts to rationalise interwar leaders are complicated by the fact that, for many Central and Eastern European nations, this period represents a golden era. Many of these countries were experiencing national sovereignty for the first time or were regaining it following significant periods of its absence. These societies were emerging triumphantly from the ashes of crumbling oppressive empires. Regardless of how extreme the nationalist political ideology, this period still engenders pride and nostalgia for nations which subsequently fell under Soviet control.

The figures who were to overthrow democracy were often those who had fought for and gained independence in 1918. These leaders were the father figures and saviours of their respective nations, yet they also eventually subverted democracy. The extreme political and economic instability of the 1920s and 30s provided their actions with a degree of justification in the eyes of many, yet these very actions led to severe abuses of human and civil rights. The conflicting emotions one might feel about such figures are completely understandable. The desire to celebrate them is clouded by questions of compatibility with modern democratic values.

Different approaches to remembering the past

The example of Hungary is illustrative. Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party has overseen a degradation of Hungarian democracy and has espoused distinctly nationalist and authoritarian views. Meanwhile, the country has struggled with a debate over prominent state sponsored memorials to interwar leader Horthy, despite his arguably pivotal role in the formation of the modern state. The sole significant memorial to Horthy is a privately sponsored statue, tucked away inside the entrance of the Homecoming Presbyterian Church in Budapest’s Freedom Square.

The far-right Jobbik Party’s sponsorship and 2013 unveiling of the Budapest Horthy monument, with only minimal involvement from the Fidesz government, demonstrates how the toxic nature of such projects can dissuade even nationalist politicians from offering support. The statue, whilst relatively hidden, continues to cause concern from those who see it as an insult to the victims of Nazism and of the collaborationist Horthy government. Nonetheless, demands to honour Horthy continue, with a statue being unveiled in 2022 in the Hungarian Parliament by Mi Hazánk Mozgalom, a far-right offshoot of the aforementioned Jobbik. Once again, the central government shied away from direct involvement. Horthy’s image is so highly tarnished and linked to his wartime allegiance with Hitler, that he is perhaps too controversial for anyone to commemorate except the far-right.

The debate in Estonia is more nuanced. October 2022 saw the unveiling of a gigantic granite sculpture entitled ‘Head of State’. Accompanied by religious and political leaders, President Alar Karis inaugurated this memorial to former Estonian President Konstantin Päts. Far from being the pet project of a far-right flank, the monument has received both support and criticism from across the political spectrum. Unlike Horthy, Päts lacks the hugely damning association with the Nazis or the Holocaust, however he remains the subject of fierce historical debate. Despite being a pivotal figure in the struggle for independence, and dominating politics during the democratic days of the first Estonian republic, Päts’s 1934 coup (allegedly to outflank a planned far-right coup) and subsequent suppression of opposition figures has meant the road to such a monument has been littered with debate and strong emotions.

In 2016, a prior proposal to honour Päts near the Estonian Parliament on Toompea Hill sparked a rare agreement between liberal President Kersti Kaljulaid and the far-right party EKRE. The latter asserted that a memorial to the man who ‘who staged a coup, imposed authoritarian rule, banned political parties, jailed his political opponents and dismissed the Riigikogu (parliament) would be tantamount to spitting in the face of democracy’. Whilst Päts the historical figure can be examined with nuance in history textbooks, to honour the man would send out the wrong values in a modern democratic state. Those that subvert democracy should surely forfeit their right to such honours.

An active group of historians, politicians, civil leaders and relatives have continued to push for a monument to Päts in Tallinn (other smaller monuments exist in his birthplace), resulting in the recently unveiled monument. It is huge, imposing, yet somehow ugly and ungainly. Designed to honour the importance of Päts to the formation of modern Estonia, it nonetheless somehow reduces him, recognising his limitations and failings — the flawed father of the nation, inglorious in decapitated granite.

Päts’s overthrowing, deportation and death at the hands of the Soviets is perhaps key to public perception of the man. His fate echoed that of the entire nation during the Soviet occupation, when Estonia was illegally annexed by the USSR. Nearly 20 per cent of the population was lost to war, exile and deportations. Of those sent to Siberia and Central Asia, many, Päts included, were never to return. The horrors of Stalinism overshadowed the ‘Era of Silence’, the name given to the period after Päts’s coup.

Though there are many individual differences, similar patterns of levels of trauma and intertwined narratives exist across many countries in the region. These help explain a continued affection for, and wider acceptability of, leaders who undermined their own peoples’ political and civil freedoms than would be found in Western Europe. Estonia’s approach to dealing with the ugly reality and complications of history — accepting the significance of these figures whilst neither glorifying nor erasing them — could be an example for countries around Europe looking to better address their pasts. 

Owen Howells Ottin is a freelance writer and a former regional editor for the Balkans and Baltics at Lossi36. Owen is a Master’s graduate from the University of Glasgow IMCEERES programme, and holds a BA in Politics and East European Studies from UCL.

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