TALLINN - The Lihula county district in western Estonia fell into a pit of controversy when a monument commemorating Estonian soldiers who fought for the country's independence was unveiled on Aug. 20, marking the restoration of Estonia's independence.
The monument, erected once already in Parnu in 2002 before being promptly taken down, depicts a soldier in a German infantry uniform with an engraving that reads: "To the Estonian men who fought in 1940-1945 against Bolshevism and for the restoration of Estonian independence."
This time, however, the SS references on the soldier's uniform were removed.
Critics of the monument said that it actually commemorates the members of the 20th Estonian SS Division, which fought for Nazi Germany during the war.
Just three days after its unveiling, Russia issued an impassioned condemnation, calling the monument "a shameful act that insults the memory of victims of fascism all over the world."
"Unfortunately, it is by far not the first time that we have addressed the subject of glorifying individuals in Estonia who fought in the SS troops during World War II and whose activities have been identified as criminal by the Nuremberg tribunal," the Foreign Affairs Ministry statement read.
Meanwhile the Lihula monument, spearheaded by dissident Tiit Madisson, has already become a tourist magnet, according to the regional Estonian newspaper Laane Elu.
"There is no other monument in Estonia that would be surrounded by such a discussion and hysteria," Madisson was quoted as saying by the Eesti Paevaleht at the opening ceremony.
During World War II, about 70,000 Estonians fought in the ranks of the German army.
While Prime Minister Juhan Parts called the monument a provocation, President Arnold Ruutel tried to play down the negative publicity, saying that "the sons of this small nation did not fight for the interests of any occupants but for their families, hoping to restore their state."
But the Russian ministry claimed that, despite attempts to depict the monument as a memorial to those who struggled against Bolshevism, it was actually the 20th SS Division's soldiers being exulted.
Due to the high amount of public attention drawn to the event, additional security police were on duty when the monument was officially revealed. No public order violations, however, were registered.
A letter sent to police last week from an NGO activist dealing with integration issues stated that the monument was damaging Estonia's image and could provoke hostility among various national and social groups.
Kaja Kukk from the western police district said that Haapsalu police have started investigating whether organizers violated the law and if the monument provokes ethnic hatred.
"The police have addressed experts who will give their opinion about the monument," said Kukk.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center also condemned the Lihula memorial in an Aug. 24 statement.
Center member Efraim Zuroff said the monument glorified "those who were willing to sacrifice their lives to help achieve the victory of Nazi Germany and the Third Reich in World War II."
He also claimed that the statue's inscription, which attempts to portray the unit members as fighters "for Estonian independence in 1940-1944" is an attempt to misguide and to rewrite history, turning Nazi collaborators into Estonian heroes.
"This is hardly surprising in a country which has hereto failed to prosecute a single Estonian Nazi war criminal and in which a public opinion poll revealed that 93 percent of the public oppose the establishment of a memorial day for the victims of the Holocaust," said Zuroff.