Margaret Comer presents at the 23rd Cambridge Heritage Symposium, ‘Encountering Human Remains: Heritage Issues and Ethical Considerations”

On May 11, Dr Comer presents her paper ‘Necropolitics, Memory, and War: Contested Heritage and Security in Estonia’ in the session ‘European Conflictscapes and the War Dead’ (chair: Gilly Carr), at 23rd Cambridge Heritage Symposium, ‘Encountering Human Remains: Heritage Issues and Ethical Considerations”.

This paper examines the intersection of heritage, memory, politics, and national identity in contemporary Tallinn, capital of Estonia. Specifically, it analyzes sites of mass killing and mass burial related to the first and second Soviet occupations; the Nazi occupation, including the Holocaust; and the Great Patriotic War/World War II. In the aftermath of the war, memorials to Red Army losses were erected across Estonia, many including burials. Some memorials to victims of Nazism were also erected, but the Jewish identity of Holocaust victims went unmentioned. After 1991, memorials and museums commemorating victims of Soviet repression developed across Estonia, while Holocaust memorials were revamped and Red Army memorials reconsidered. The widespread ‘double genocide’ presentation of Holocaust and Soviet repression has long been criticized for downplaying crimes under fascism and eliding local collaboration, while the necropolitics of burial sites have become more urgent since the 2022 intensification of the war in Ukraine; as the ‘red monuments’ to Soviet military victory have come to signify a ‘danger’ to contemporary Estonia, the question of how to handle the sites’ human remains has arisen. This paper examines how rhetoric and decisions about these sites compares to the heritage narratives and necropolitics on display at former sites of violence such as Patarei Prison, the KGB Prison Cells, and the unmarked site of the Uus Street Holocaust massacre. How are different types of killing and death interpreted, and how are victims and perpetrators identified? How do these identifications change over time, and to what political usages are narratives of loss and death put?

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