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Heroes and Villains

Forest Brothers has them. Life has them. What makes a hero? what makes a villain? Is it purely an audience point of view? Does it depend on your background, your origin, your life experience?

I have been traveling recently, a week’s break to Limburg. The hilly part of Holland. It’s a very relaxed area and I like to go to a city like Maastricht, to chill in the city centre in one of the street cafes in the town square. In October, it gets on with life without appearing to be hurried or stressed. I like Holland. We as a nation tend to like the Dutch, but centuries ago they were not allies, but enemies. Rival seafaring nations carving their fortunes along the coasts of the Americas and Pacific. Mutually colonising other nations, whose culture we dismissed, rather than acknowledged as different. Anyway, the Dutch have always been good to me. Dark beer, vla, malted biscuits are welcome, so is an ability to master English that puts our language inadequacies to shame.

We stayed a kilometre from the German city of Aachen. It is so beautiful in its medieval quarter, the centre piece being the magnificent cathedral. Again, we like the place for its calmness and the fact you can walk around without hassle. The cafe culture, with rugs for people to cover their laps and legs on the cooler days. Very civilised. I posted some photos of the interior of the cathedral (its absolutely stunning), the marble walls and gold leaf in the light streaming through stained glass. One comment I received was ‘what did they do to deserve that?’ A back-handed admiration, I think, but for most of my life, my country has always obsessed about the last world war. So, consign a whole nation to the role of villains in perpetuity? Seems a bit harsh. I am not going to condone the former leaders of Germany and the events they created in the 20th Century, but tar a whole nation? Did you know that Wellington’s army at the Battle of Waterloo was a multi-national force, the chief contingents of which were German, Netherlanders and Irish? What about Albert Einstein?

Russian politicians will sound bite from time to time about Baltic ‘fascists’. Anyone who opposed Stalin’s army was by definition with the Germans and consequently dumped in the same category. Estonia’s awful experience in the second world war was a direct consequence of two large nations and their bloody empire-building ambitions. Men joined both sides. Who were the villains and who felt they wanted to defend their homeland? Men were pressed into service by both sides, what was their choice?. The Stalin regime commited heinous crimes and certainly embraced fascism in all but word, but does that make every Russian culpable – past and present? Some of our media here would try and imply that Russia’s activities today mark the return of the darker days. Then they also fawn over Russian dancers who grace our TV screens every Saturday night…Then there’s  Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Nuryev – what was their legacy?

As we drove home through Belgium, we stopped at the town of Poperinge. Very close to Ypres, it holds a poignant reminder of the 1914-1918 war. On the way there, I was so struck by the flatness of the landscape that I queried how men were expected to survive on the ‘over the top’ assaults in the trenches? Where was the cover? It seemed impossible that someone could cast aside life so cheaply. At Poperinge, we visited Talbot House or ‘Toc H’, an establishment set up by a British padre during that time. The large three story building was turned over to be a servicemans club. Soldiers blessed with leave there could visit a place where rank was forgotten. No alcohol, but plenty of tea. A piano, a library and games room all were available there, or people could just chill in the garden. It was a beautiful sunny day when we arrived and the place felt so serene. All thanks to the idea and work of the Reverend ‘Tubby’ Clayton, all those years ago.

On two occasions on our daily visit to the swimming pool, my young son managed to befriend a playmate. One was a Russian boy at the numerous visits to the flume, the other was a German boy in a ‘who can tip who off the float in the swimming pool’ game. The mutual language appeared to be only giggles. It reminded me how we are not born with our own prejudices, they are inherited along life’s journey.

Heroes and villains, they are everywhere. They appear within every nation, every culture. You can judge a person by their nation and your conceptions of it or  make your own decision on an individual by their own actions. It was good of my son to remind me that.

 

Progress report for ‘Finnish Boys’

The novel set in second world war Estonia and prequel to Forest Brothers, by the way. All you hopeful teenagers will have to look on other sites for your kicks.  🙂

To give you an idea of the process; The novel is about 90% complete or at least to first draft. Once I have written that, I will give it a slow read through edit and check the continuity. The problem with producing a piece 80-90,000 words long, is that you don’t craft it all in one session. Even if you have planned out the plot with milestones along the way, you still need to check that the story flows – especially when you are writing multiple points of view.

For me, the plot needed to marry up with the timeline of actual and fictional events. It begins on the night of the Red Terror, when 10,000 arbitrarily chosen Estonians are rounded up and shipped to Siberia. (It was a dastardly event, most were women and children. The idea was to break down society and make everyone feel vulnerable and therefore compliant.) The story ends with a British agent paddles towards Estonian in a kayak, which brings you to the beginning of Forest Brothers.

The story follows Märt’s journey from baker to Forest Brother. As the story unfolded, it did not take long to bring in many other characters, including Maarja. This provides the back-story for the Estonians in ‘Forest Brothers’. It also allows me to bring to life some of the other characters who have only had cameo roles so far.

Once I am happy with my draft, I will ask my wonderful volunteers to read and comment. i also hope to be in Estonia at some point, where I can check the realities of the landscape and absorb myself in the culture. That is important for me, because I want it to feel right to people from Estonia, as well as those from outside.

Once that is done and any changes are made, I hope to submit it to the publisher. Timescales are flexible, as you still have to juggle life around it and there are many things to do away from being a writer for myself and everyone who assists me. I would love it to be ready in the second half of next year.

Kautla

Kautla is a forest. Kautla is a lake. Kautla is also a land of great serenity and great pain. I had asked to visit this place, lying south of Tallinn and just off the road to Tartu. It is part of Kõrvemaa and one of many places that combines large farming fields with dense forests.

It was a glorious Saturday, sunny and warm with a gentle breeze when we set off down the road as Estonia continues to upgrade its infrastructure. Soon the modern dual carriageway gave way to massive roadworks. The dual  to single lane and we were back on the old road, ravaged by the years of freezing and thawing. Estonia has a temperature difference of around 50 degrees between summer and winter, so you can forgive the occasional pothole.

At the town of Ardu, (a place where afficionados of Scottish liquor would cry out for a distillery to be born there,) we turned off and began the long trek down a gravel track to our destination.  I was looking for the memorial to an event in 1941. It was a place of triumph and tragedy, where the name Erna was carved into history. I wanted to see what it looked like and how it felt.

Erna was a hand-picked reconnaisance group from Estonian volunteers in the Finnish Army. They were formed to feed back information of the Soviet occupation to the Finns and the advancing German Army. Around 60 men were sent by boat or air and they set up camp in the forests near Kautla farm. Some had already made their mark at Ardu, ambushing a convoy taking a Soviet judge to the trial of people arrested for non-soviet behaviour. The convoy was destroyed, the trial shelved. I hope the accused survived, because justice at that time was shocking. On 14/6/41, only a month previously, 10,000 people were forcibly deported to Siberia overnight. Mostly women and children at that and precious few returned. It was the beginning of what is known as the Red Terror.

As news grew of the arrival of Erna, Forest Brothers and refugees flocked to Kõrvemaa. There are reports of the Estonian flag being flown at many houses as people suddenly found hope of release from the nightmare. I wonder if they found peace from the feeling of the area, as I found it that day?

We first passed the reservoir for Tallinn. It is large and calm. Forested islands form a stunning view. Dragon and damsel flies flit about in the reeds and the place is tranquil. We discover wild raspberries – always a treat in this land, and drive on down the gravel road. It’s a fairly good surface, there are occasional potholes that we need to drive carefully over, but it’s hardly enough to worry about.IMGP2078

After a while the forest peels away a bit and there is a view of Kautla lake through the trees. We park close to the marshy shore and go to look at the peaty waters. The absence of human activity is a blessing, coming from noisy, bustling Tallinn as we had done that morning. The only signs of human activity were that some yobs who have left their camp fire festooned with the tinnies of a beery night. Ignorance knows no boundaries.IMGP2084

We drive on and pass a ruined building at the roadside, overgrown by trees, Then the forest falls away to a clearing. The grass is ankle deep. There appears to be the base walls of buildings, hidden in the trees to the right. The area is naturally beautiful.

‘This is Kautla,’ my friend said. Capture 111

An old milepost is slowly being consumed by an anthill. We walk past it to a glade, where there are a lot of standing stones. The Kautla Memoriaal.IMGP2100

By all accounts in 1941, the area became a haven for refugees and forest brothers hoping for a new future for Estonia, flocking to the Erna camp. 1500-2000 people were in the forest, of which only 200 bore any arms to fight with. Their weaponry was mostly old and supplies were scarce. The German Reich had chosen not to arm these men, for fear of Estonia recovering its identity and independence, as Ukraine had done. They would have been right, and it would have cost Hitler his dream of a Greater Germany – at least for the short term.

The Soviet forces were aware of a growing presence and on 31st July, Erna became aware of an 1100 – strong Soviet force trying to encircle the enclave and destroy the camp. It beggars belief for me, that with a rampant German army breathing down their necks, the Soviets would pour such resource into this mission, but Stalin had ordered a scorched earth policy of retreat and he was a difficult man to argue with and stay alive afterwards. And perhaps they too wanted to ensure Estonia would not rise again.

Erna got wind of the convoy of troops arriving and all who could defend were sent out to meet the enemy head-on. They ran the few kilometres and managed to stop the convoy, at great cost to the enemy. They then successfully fought off the Soviets and moved back to the German lines, protecting their refugees as they went. It took four days and numerous skirmishes. There was a huge cost to the Soviet machine for this spiteful chase, and all for naught. They failed to destroy Erna and its charges.

In the glade today are various monuments to the civilians and soldiers killed in the conflict. The largest stone is to the Erna groups. Nearby are the original memorial headstones, probably made after Germany had overrun the Soviet army and then  smashed to pieces after the Soviet return. now they have been painstakingly put back together and to me form the most poignant testament to the will of the people.

We look over the ruins. This is fertile land, wild flowers of various colours grow happily in freedom all around. There are gooseberry bushes still growing next to the ruins of the house. Lingonberries also. These were farm buildings and perhaps knowing the tale, I feel a more sombre atmosphere here. especially when i am shown the granite headstone marking the grave of Johannes LindemannIMGP2104

Many escaped with Erna, but many remained with their farms. On their lands, their livelihood. If you’re a farmer, you ARE the land and it is part of you. In the Great war, there were reports of Belgian farmers carrying on with their work when they could whilst the nightmare of the Western Front went on around them. It’s what you do, carry on.

The Soviet forces, unable to catch the Erna group, wreaked its revenge on the incumbent population. The Soviets had already formed ‘Destruction Batallions’ from criminals, and fanatics. They were given a simple brief; cause destruction. Kill on the spot anyone they deemed to be acting in an anti-soviet way. A licence to do what they wanted when they wanted. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts, absolutely. They tore through the Kautla area and murdered many of those who remained.

Lindemann was a farmer at Kautla. His family and workers were burnt alive by being thrown into a trench and set on fire.

‘They were Latvian Reds’, I am told.  The Soviet secret to immunity from conscience seems to be to put strangers into the field . They had little sympathy for people of another land. I mention this fact to show the dissociation.  But no country has a monopoly in inhumanity, there are bastards everywhere. Ask the people of Cork what the British force known as the Black and Tans did to them during the Irish war of independence, still just within living memory. As a Brit, I know there is no moral high ground that any land can hold unblemished . As a human, I know that some people have no boundaries to blackening the name of their species. Besides, you always should judge people by the best of them, not the worst. I am lucky in that every Latvian I have met to date have been good folk.  Kautla felt sad, decaying flowers at the headstones, a large white cross stands in the bushes  The calm land gives out a great sorrow.

What of the fugitives in 1941? Many escaped back to the forests where they had come from, to live as Forest brothers. Sad, I am sure, that the dream had ended for now. Some of the partisans stayed to form a new Erna. They fought on Saaremaa and Hiiumaa. They helped save 2700 people on the Eestirand – a ship full of conscripted Estonian soldiers escaping besieged Tallinn, bound for Russia. The captain refused to comply with his Soviet superior and although damaged by German bombers, the ship, proudly bearing the Estonian flag, beached at Prangli island saving his compatriots from becoming Soviet cannon fodder.

Erna became a unit in the German Army. It makes a few Russian politicians label Erna as fascists. The Germans tended to form foreign units  as SS divisions. What accounts I have found from people who fought in Erna tells me they were young men wanting to free their country from being part of an empire. Some of the Erna did not stay. They had sworn allegiance to Finland, not Hitler. They crossed the Gulf  to become ‘Finnish Boys’ once again, rather than become part of the new occupiers.

The ruined buildings and the standing stones are all that is left of those turbulent times now. The Estonians would have to wait to the collapse of the Soviet Union before they could proudly call their land their own once more. Then it was a different history. Arms were linked in a human chain all the way to Lithuania. Voices were joined in song. The spirit did not die in 1941, it still lives on.

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