Heritage conservation experts critical of war graves protection removal

Tehumardi Memorial.
Tehumardi Memorial. Source: Margus Muld/ERR

The ICOMOS Estonian Committee, made up of heritage conservation specialists, finds that expedited removal of protection from 275 monuments without expert analysis and explanation is illegal and harms not only cultural heritage but also the reputation and principles of the National Heritage Board.

The Estonian National Heritage Board in July launched proceedings to exclude from the list of cultural monuments 275 war graves. The latter, that have until now enjoyed two-pronged protection in Estonia, will in the future only fall under the Protection of War Graves Act and no longer be subject to heritage conservation.

The ICOMOS Estonian Committee finds that the topic of monuments of occupation and the tragic legacy of World War II is especially sensitive today and requires a proper and thorough approach.

"The proposal includes a list of 275 monuments made up of 273 alleged war graves and burial sites and two artistic monuments. The list is unjustified in its current form and comes with no explanation as to the particulars of the burial sites and monuments on it. There is no analysis of value and double protection attached to the bill, which is why the list can be regarded as flawed and incomplete," President of ICOMOS Estonia Ave Paulus finds in a letter to Liisa Pakosta, director of the National Heritage Board.

"For such a list to be compiled, it would first be necessary to have precise knowledge of historical cemeteries, war graves and burial sites, as well as Soviet war monuments. From what we know, we do not even have a numerical overview today. The lack of corresponding studies and inventory means that we cannot know which burial sites are under double protection."

Paulus notes that the list includes several war graves and burial sites located at historical cemeteries that are already protected as monuments and indeed have double protection.

"But there are also separately located war graves and burial sites that are protected as independent monuments and lack double protection in the meaning of the Heritage Conservation Act (MuKS). Excluding these war graves and burial sites (for example, the Ingria refugees cemetery in Põllküla and the "Eestirand" cemetery on the island of Prangli) would end any and all national protection of these sites.

At the same time, the list does not include some war graves and burial sites located at historical cemeteries already protected as monuments. Paulus points out that the bill fails to specify why some such war graves and burial sites have been included and some have not.

"The bill also fails to address what would become of grave markers and other war monuments found at burial sites. The meaning of legacy would require regulated and documented musealization or other kind of solution regarding grave markers etc."

The expert also finds that when dealing with war graves and sites where victims of terror were executed, international agreements and obligations need to be observed as violating them would impact the reputation of the rule of law in Estonia.

"Execution sites of victims of terror tie into the tragic legacy of WWII, including as concerns the Jewish community. The list includes, in addition to Soviet legacy, German cemeteries and prison camps," she writes.

The two artistic monuments on the list – the "Tehumardi Memorial" and "Monument to the Victims of WWII" in Saaremaa – aren't war graves or burial sites at all, which is why their status as monuments cannot be terminated based on the reasons given in the bill."

In summary, the ICOMOS Estonian Committee finds that terminating the protection of 275 monuments without necessary expert analysis and public proceedings must not send the signal that monuments – historical graves and Soviet landscape markers – can be removed or destroyed in expedited procedure and barring discussion.

"It is the role of heritage conservation to make conscious choices in the preservation, both public and in museums, of signs of history. We ask for the bill to be recalled. Proposals and the process of removing protection needs to be handled by treating every monument separately, based on studies and expert analyses, weighing alternatives, involving affected persons and observing good procedural practice," the president of ICOMOS Estonia finds.

Heritage board's reply

While the National Heritage Board has classified its July 28 reply to ICOMOS for a period of 75 years in its documents register, Director Liisa Pakosta later shared the agency's letter with ERR in which it is explained that removing double protection is a technical change as the monuments will still be subject to national protection that corresponds to international law.

The letter's summary notes that, based on the Protection of War Graves Act, all graves and burial sites listed as monuments in the bill have been entered into the list of war graves that ensures their continued national protection in line with international requirements and agreements even after their status as monuments is removed. Therefore, the execution of the bill and the end of monument status does not revoke the sites' national protection.

The agency wrote that current double protection entails various restrictions for landowners.

The National Heritage Board also addresses criticism concerning failure to justify the list or why the particulars of burial sites and monuments have not been included, writing that the list only includes graves and burial sites that have been registered as war graves and that the identification number of objects in the war graves register has since been attached to objects in the bill.

The board also explains that the Protection of War Graves Act makes no difference between historical, artistic or other types of monuments on the war graves list or whether they are located at cemeteries or not.

"We guarantee that draft legislation has been put together in accordance with established legal norms, involving affected persons and based on good procedural practice, which is why there is no need to recall it," the agency concludes.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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