People of my generation in Europe cannot appreciate the full emotions of all-out war. The constant pressure of conflict. The stresses of attacks without warning and not knowing the status of loved ones, who may have been posted away to places unknown. The pressures of an economy totally focussed on war and rationing of food and other essential goods, together with the disappearance of luxuries or what was taken for granted before. So many things we have been thankfully spared from.
I was reminded of this, as my mother wrote a three page piece about surviving the Liverpool Blitz. Reading it was like viewing a UK in another dimension.
I have also read a lot about the experiences in Estonia, it was a different world, but as desperate as war could bring. In the late 1930’s, the larger neighbours of the Soviet Union and Germany met to discuss avoiding conflict. The idea was to carve up the nations between them into ‘spheres of influence’. Estonia and the other Baltic States were in the Soviet sphere. Poland was chopped down the middle. This was the Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact.
Estonia was assimilated step by step as the Soviet Union bullied its way in. First having a military presence in Estonia, then to demand the government was replaced with one sympathetic to Moscow. This government then elected to join the Soviet Union and the take over was complete in 1940.
In 1941, Hitler had decided that the war to the west was going so well, he could afford to begin conflict with Stalin. Germany attacked to the east and the ensuing Blitzkrieg soon enveloped the Baltic region. There they remained, until the tide of war turned and the Red Army retook the land in 1944. Estonia regained its independence in 1991.
But what of the Estonians? The answer is as complicated as the history. Both German and Soviet armies provided opportunities for those who had a desire to fight for a cause they believed in. Many Estonians were linked to either side by lineage. Estonia was part of the Russian Empire up to 1920. Under Peter the Great, Germans were encouraged to emigrate as farmers. At the start of the war, Hitler offered land for German Estonians to return to the Fatherland. Many went and then took up arms. Many of the Estonians who remained looked at the future and elected to choose a side.
The occupying forces conscripted locals into their ranks. This was encouraged by whichever government was in power – and their leanings. The retreating Russians rounded up as many men as they could to fight at St Petersburg. Retreating Germans left men behind, but gave them no equipment to defend themselves.
Then there were those Estonians who had no support for either occupying power. Those who wished to remain Estonian or were marked by either occupying force as a threat.
Many retreated to the forest as outlaws. Small groups of Forest Brothers, as they were known, were set up and either provided resistance or hid from retribution. The concept of Forest Brothers can be found across the Eastern front, including Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Belarus. The latter countries were immortalised in the film ‘Defiance’.
Some Estonians escaped. The more intrepid escaped to the west or refused to return when away on a voyage. A few served in the British forces or Merchant Marine. Others went to Finland, the big cousin; similar language and not too far from Estonian shores. There were even cases of people skiing across the frozen Baltic Sea to escape there.
What was important to many, was that Finland sided against Stalin. The Finns had fought a war against his army in 1939, which they avoided reintegration at the cost of seceding land. For Estonians, it was a way of resisting the Soviet invasion whilst avoiding the Nazis. Finland received so many volunteers, they formed there own batallion, christened ‘Erna’ by the Germans. The Erna group landed in Estonia in 1941 and caused disruption to the Soviet Army as the Germans invaded. This culminated in the Battle of Kautla, where they protected nearly 2500 people from an ethnic cleansing operation. A blogpost of my visit to Kautla can be found in the archive. It is a sad story.
Those who did nothing were in danger also. Either to be harrassed or killed by Destruction batallions or co-opted into forced labour or conscription.
It was a complicated world. One we can only thankfully just imagine, due to the sacrifices of many in the past, protecting us from their experience. Whether fighting or resisting, the world was a harsh place for our ancestors.
In my regular posts of potted Estonian history, I will go into more detail on some aspects of the above. Erna, the Forest Brothers and the Destruction are features of the novels. Not a concept we in the UK experienced, although Churchill did prepare similar operations to the Forest Brothers in event of invasion.