1. Estonian soldier in II World War

On the occasion of the 34th. Anniversary of the Estonian Sub-Branch of the RSL 2003

There is a question which even to this day is asked of us by world opinion. And that question is: Why indeed did Estonians fight on the side of the Germans in the second world war? Were they really Nazi bandits or were they actually Estonian freedom-fighters? For us, Estonians, the answer has always been crystal clear, but try explaining it to a western European or even to one of our own muttonheads!

If we wish to answer this question objectively, we must first understand the events of that time, and the historical background in general.

The second world war was particularly tragic for many small nations, who against their will, were drawn into the fight between the major powers. The decision regarding on which side to fight was often made for you, depending on the changing circumstances. We know from our own experience that people from one and the same nation fought in the armies of both sides. Most of the 30 000 who were mobilised in the summer of 1941 had to fight on the Russian side – in the ranks of the so called Estonian Rifle Corps – but over 10 000 of these who were in the labour battalions died of cold and hunger. The overwhelming majority of the approximately 100 000 Estonians who in some way or other participated in the war, fought on the side of the Germans or Finns.

As our older generation remembers, pro-British feeling predominated in Estonia before World War II and even in the early days of the war. After all, the British had assisted in the days of the birth of Estonia’s independence. We were angry at the Ger-mans for attacking Poland. We remembered the centuries long oppression of our peo-ple by the German Barons, and also the furtive attacks by the Landeswehr during our War of Independence.

Why then was there such a sudden change of attitude? There is no doubt at all that this turnabout in people’s attitudes was the fault of the Russians themselves with their year long occupation. After all, the events that took place in 1940-1941, after the annexation of Estonia – the brutality and terror perpetrated against the peaceful population, the arrests and the particularly extensive deportations – convinced most Estonians that the biggest danger to the existence of the Estonian nation was Russian communism. Hopes regarding help from Britain or France had collapsed. Moreover, both these countries had become, at the outbreak of the war, friends and allies of the Soviet Union, so the majority of Estonians saw that their only hope for an ally against the mortal danger posed by the east, was unavoidably Germany, and so, as a result of the circumstances, the centuries long enmity faded into the background.

In the summer of 1941, a partisan mass resistance movement against the Russians began – the so-called Forest Brothers. Most Estonians had realised that the Russian communist system had to be resisted, whatever the cost. This was a war forced upon Estonia, a war that was not waged for the conquest of new lands, or for the suppression of other nations, but for the defence of one’s home. Those who fought in the infamous destruction battalions together with the Russians were seen by most Estonians as traitors, since they were fighting not so much against the Germans, but against their own people.

Some of the Forest Brothers who liberated the city of Tartu

Some of the Forest Brothers who liberated the city of Tartu

After the arrival of the Germans, who were initially welcomed as liberators, thousands of Estonian volunteers joined the Estonian military units which were being formed with the aim of defending their homeland against communist Russia, and to repay the suffering and injustice that Russia had caused to the Estonian people. I remember that when our battalion was headed for Russia (on September 2, 1941) there was even an indistinct hope of being able to catch some of the deportee transports. At the start there was the naïve hope that the Germans would permit the restoration of the Republic of Estonia. But their regime, although better than the terror regime implemented by the Soviet Union, was still an occupation regime and it therefore soon destroyed any faith that the Estonians had in it.

But the battle against the Russians was continued together with the Germans because the Russians could not, under any circumstances, be permitted to return. Many hoped that the historic events of 1918 would be repeated – that both major powers exhaust each other and that an opportunity would arise for the restoration of the Estonian state. Estonian independence was worthwhile fighting for, and this meant trying to defend Estonian borders against a new Soviet occupation.

It's difficult to identify murdered civilians

It is difficult to identify murdered civilians

The anger and resentfulness felt by the people against the Russians was also demonstrated by the fact that although the Germans were the occupiers of our land, there was hardly any partisan activity against them. The communist activists left behind by the retreating Russians were quickly exposed with the help of the local population, and the partisan groups sent from Russia to Estonia, who held no popular support, were also eliminated quite quickly. There were of course those who had avoided mobilisation but they were too busy concealing themselves to provide a threat.

An active fighting resistance movement – the Forest Brothers – was formed in Estonia only behind the front lines of the Russian forces in summer 1941, and it restarted activities in September 1944, after the second occupation of Estonia by the Russians. Our attitude to the Russian regime was also demonstrated by the fact that a large number of Estonian Army personnel, which was incorporated into the Red Army in 1940, deserted to the German side at the first opportunity. This occurred mainly in the summer of 1941, mostly at Porchov, and in the winter of 1942/43 from the Estonian Rifle Corps under Velikie Luki. All this demonstrates that in the fight against communist Russia we are not talking about some small group of Estonians with Nazi sympathies, but that this fight was a genuine national struggle with widespread popular support.

In addition, it must be taken into account that for Estonians, placed in a situation not of their making, there was never the opportunity to choose between western democracy and Germany, but only, I repeat, only between two major powers – Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany. Neither of these countries appealed to Estonians. However, Russia – the friend and ally of the democratic western countries in the second world war – had already managed to convince the Estonians during its year of occupation just prior to the war that the communist Russia of the time was the mortal enemy of the Estonian people, and that the Estonians must defend themselves at all costs. And it was precisely this conviction that decided the situation.

Unfortunately, the extent of the crimes of communist Russia and Stalin only became clear to many westerners many years later, and for some, realisation has still not arrived. During the war, and particularly after the war, due to the propaganda spread by Soviets and Jews, all those who fought on the German side were generally considered in the West to be defenders of a criminal regime, with no regard to the actual goal of their struggle. No exceptions were made. At that time, Russians were seen as good allies. It is a sad fact that due to the situation those Estonian men who wished to defend their homeland against communist Russia had to do it wearing a German uniform. It was also clear to the Estonian soldier that in order to defend Estonia and restore independence, communist Russia must first be destroyed; and in achieving this aim it would be necessary, if need be, to also fight outside Estonian borders. Regardless of where Estonian soldiers fought, they fought with the Estonian blue-black-white crest on the sleeve of their uniforms, and with a dream of a free Estonia in their hearts.

The tragedy of small nations is that in the post-war euphoria the victors of World War II were not able to, or did not wish to recognise their existence. To this day, there are still those who repeatedly try to accuse Estonians who served in the German armed forces of all possible deadly sins. In this regard, the communist authorities who ruled Estonia after the war have been particularly keen – and even today they have their sympathisers.

A freshly formed battalion ready for action

A freshly formed battalion ready for action

The men of the Estonian Legion and of the 20th Division (formed later, but based on the Legion) and the Eastern and Police Battalions, were not declared as war criminals by the International War Tribunal in Nurnberg, and the US Immigration Commission did not consider them to be hostile to the US. The Waffen SS primarily meant better weapons and training for Estonians. It must be also remembered, that only German citizens could serve in the Wehrmacht. All other national formations were subordinated to Waffen-SS, regardless, wether they wanted it, or not.

The under-standing of the necessity of fighting against the Soviet Union was also demonstrated by the fact that during the mobilisation in Estonia, carried out in the summer of 1944, almost 40 000 turned up to defend their homeland, whereas only 10 000 had been expected.

There has also been condemnation regarding the Estonian soldiers who retreated to Germany in 1944 and continued to fight ‘a lost war’. But it does not occur to these wise men that we had no other option in the foreign country we were in. There could have been single desertions and attempts to get to the West, but expounding the suggestion that this would have been possible for whole units – even more so since they were located on the eastern front – would be just naïve. There was no way that Estonian soldiers, after their tragic 1940-1941 experience, could have or would have wanted to rely on the mercy of Russians.

A town after the destruction battalion left in 1941

A town after the destruction battalion left in 1941

That their mistrust was justified, became apparent after the Armistice. The 20th. Division laid down their arms, trusting Czech resistance promises for safe passage to the USA forces. Yet after killing more than 1500 Estonian PoW’s, the Czech’s gave the rest over to the Russians, who sent the “Fascists” for 25+5 to Siberia, where many of them perished due to cold and undernourishment. 25 meant forced labour in Gulag and 5 meant exile in Siberia, before possibility to return home.

If we now proceed with the logic, according to which the Estonian soldiers who fought in the German army are blamed for all war crimes committed by Germans anywhere, then to be fair, the other side of the coin should be examined. According to the same logic, the soldiers who served in the Red Army, including Estonians, should be accused of assisting in the Katyn murders, the arrest and deportations of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Caucasus, etc. And this list is not short. The Stalinist regime could not have carried out these crimes, or hidden them from the world, without the help of the armed forces. In the eyes of the world, these deeds have not been declared war crimes – but only because victors are not judged.

Corpses of civilians murdered by the communists in Tartu

Corpses of civilians murdered by the communists in Tartu

It is clear that accusing men who fought on this side or the other, after the fact, takinginto account only the crimes committed by the warring countries, is completely absurd. But if it is done, then honesty should eventually prevail, and the reunions and memorials of those who fought on the Russian side should be banned in Estonia, as well as the reunions of the so-called ‘fascists’.

Blame, however, can be accorded to the men who served in the Red Army, or at least one part of them, due to the crimes committed in Estonia after the end of the war (arrests, deportations of innocent people, etc). Often in these cases, the perpetrators or assisters were secret service or party officials from the Rifle Corps. But that is an another story.

Farmers flee from the Red Army

Farmers flee from the Red Army

When we talk about the fight for Estonian freedom, we should also perhaps remember that the men who hoisted the blue-black-white flag, albeit briefly, on the Tallinn Tall Hermann Tower, the symbol of Estonian statehood, in September 1944, were men who had served in the German army. But the men who lowered the Estonian flag and hoisted the red flag were fighters from the Russian-Estonian Rifle Corps.
Raivo Kalamäe, President
Estonian Sub-Branch of the RSL