Mälukultuur ja moraalne tunnistus: Teise maailmasõja mäletamine Bernard Kangro Tartu-romaanides / Memory Culture and Moral Witness. Remembering the Second World War in Bernard Kangro's Tartu novels


  • Maarja Hollo University of Tartu




Bernard Kangro, exile, novels, memory politics, World War II


This article deals with how remembering the Second World War is conveyed in Bernard Kangro’s last three Tartu novels, The Stone Bridge (1963), The Black Book (1965) and Whirlfire (1969). The Second World War is a memory topos that has, more than anything else, divided the memory politics of European countries. If memory politics in Western Europe is focused predominantly on condemning Nazi crimes, primarily the Holocaust, then Eastern Europe, in addition to the legacy of Nazism, has to deal with the additional criminal legacy of Communism. To bridge the gap between Eastern and Western European nations’ collective memories, discussions started in 1990 about the European memory that should help form the basis for a unified European identity. In the opinion of Jan-Werner Müller, European memory assumes one of two processes. The first is linked to unifying the stances toward memory politics of various European nations; the second with unifying the contents of various collective memories. Although Kangro’s last three Tartu novels are among the peripheral works of Estonian cultural memory, they nevertheless deal with themes that have become relevant in the twenty-first century, on the one hand linking collective memory and national memory politics, and on the other hand, addressing the concept of European memory. Using Kangro’s Tartu novels, I first analyse the problematic aspects of national memory politics as they relate to remembering the Second World War in Estonia. Secondly, I point out the implicit criticism in the Tartu novels of the more inflexible and homogenizing form of European memory. For this I focus more closely on the formative stories of three characters – Benno Maran, Naatan Üirike and Juku Leebram. Benno Maran is one of the narrating voices in these novels, together with an anonymous narrator, an italicized narrator from a different time, and another character, named August September. Quotes from Benno’s diary dating from the days of the Russian and German occupations Russian and German occupations of Estonia are used extensively in the novels’ texts. These quotations overlap considerably with the inscriptions in Kangro's own diary from the period. This circumstance and the italicized narrator’s role as a witness to pivotal events in history enable Kangro’s Tartu novels to deal with moral witness, as explained by Aleida Assmann. According to Assmann, moral witness is the grievance of a forgotten historical injustice as well as an elegy which has no political objectives. What emerges from the italicized narrator’s text is that Kangro’s objective is to deliver a moral witnessing, as well as demonstrate the difficulty in bearing such witness: having participated in the events, he is responsible for the reality he remembers and portrays, and the impression he conveys of the people whose suffering he recounts. The process of bearing witness becomes the theme of these novels through the thoughts, comments and confessions of the italicized narrator; at the same time he distances himself from the narrated tale and characters, thus emphasizing the relative nature of the portrayal. The second characteristic keyword of the Tartu novels is pluralism, demonstrated by both their structure and subject matter. Namely, by using multiple characters, Kangro portrays very different Second World War experiences that are inconsistent with nationalistic memory politics as well as too conflicting for transnational memory politics. One example is theology student Juku Leebram’s life story. Juku collaborates with those in power during the Soviet occupation and takes part in the deportations, then turns traitor by fleeing to the German side, but is captured by the Germans and dies in jail. However, after the war, rumours circulate that Juku escaped and has become a Forest Brother. Thus, in the communicative memory of the Estonians in the homeland, Juku first becomes a martyr and then a resistance fighter and national hero. 


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