With the release of Finnish Boys, I thought it would be useful to give a background to the story. The history of Estonia is not well known in the UK and it is useful to have an understanding of how the circumstances of 1941, This is a brief summary to get you in the mood, there was so much more…
Estonian is a language akin to Finnish and Hungarian, as well as a few minor languages spoken in NW Russian provinces like Karelia. The Estonian people originally found their way to the Baltic shores in Roman times. They came under the rule of various nations during the centuries, including Russia, Sweden, Denmark and Germany.
The opportunity for self determination came with the Russian Revolution in 1917. The confusion therein led to the regions being given greater autonomy and the opportunity arose to pursue a national identity. The Russian Army had retreated, mutinied and disbanded depending on where you were. Certainly, as far as the Baltic provinces were concerned, they had been left to their own devices. Estonia elected to secede from the Russian autocracy and declared itself a republic in 1918.
There was a problem though; in the absence of defence, the German Army had occupied the Baltic region unopposed. To formally declare independence, a proclamation had to be made. Time was not on their side. The first world war was reaching its conclusion and the western Allies had declared that all countries that had been invaded would have their sovereignty restored. The Germans coveted the Baltic lands, which had seen farming settlers emigrate from Germany under Tsar Peter the Great and get rich. They did not wish to lose this potentially bountiful area.
The declaration was read out on 24th February 1918 in Pärnu and then distributed as posters in Tallinn the following day. The Germans refused to acknowledge it at the time, but were forced to comply at the Armistice. Thus, by virtue of declaring independence before 11th November, Estonia was treated as a sovereign state.
By the end of 1918, Russia had recovered sufficiently to start trying to reinforce it claims to what it felt was its lands lost during the revolution. Additionally, the German Army (Baltische Landeswehr) had been left in Latvia by the Allies to keep the peace. The German commander had designs on establishing a German republic on the lands and Estonia saw threat from the South, as the German army encroached on its march northwards.
Thus, Estonia had to fight its own war of independence – on two fronts. The British Navy were sent to the Baltic and succeeded in repelling attacks from the Russian Navy. The Estonians successfully pushed the Russians back to St Petersburg and the Germans to Riga, by the successful use of railways to quickly deploy troops in mobile barracks.
Estonia was formally recognised as independent by Russia on 2nd February 1920. The inter war years were mixed. As a democracy, Estonia lasted 14 years, during which time, the land was redistributed more fairly. However the rise of fascism (In Estonia, the League of Veterans)caused the president Konstantin Päts to dissolve parliament and create an autocracy. This continued until the start of the Second world war.
The German and Soviet governments had negotiated a non-aggression pact (the Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact), unbeknown to many, they had elected to divide the countries inbetween into ‘spheres of influence’. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania fell under the Soviet sphere who then proceeded to annex those lands under a pretext of demanding to set up military bases. Estonia was declared a Soviet socialist republic in June 1940.
The land was then ‘pacified’, using Destroyer batallions and arrests. This culminated in the night of the Red Terror on 21st June 1941, when 10,000 people were rounded up, all over the Estonia, and deported to Siberia. The plan was simple, suppress the Estonian culture and any people who could possibly be capable of organising resistance. Rule by fear. Many took tothe forests to escape and bands of militia sprung up, known as ‘Forest Brothers’.
This terror did not continue, as the Germans now felt strong enough to repudiate the treaty and began to push North, pushing the Soviet Army out of the Baltic States. Thus Estonia was stuck between Scylla and Charybdis and would be for a long time to come.
When Estonia was proclaimed a Soviet Republic (SSR), the crews of 42 Estonian ships in foreign waters refused to return to their homeland (about 40% of the pre-war Estonian fleet). These ships were requisitioned by the British powers and were used in Atlantic convoys. During the war, approximately 1000 Estonian seamen served in the British merchant marine, 200 of them as officers. About 200 Estonians served in the Royal Air Force, and both the British and US Armies.