This post steps outside of the nutrition/excercise/biochem theme of this blog, but this is a matter so extremely important to me and close to my heart, that i have to share this with you guys. And i do hope, that even though you came here to read up on some nutrition question, you will not skip this post. This article was written by my stepdad, an ex nightbomber in the second WW. It breaks my heart that our government leads our newly freed country in a very cowardly way when it comes to giving honour where honour is due. These men will be all gone soon. This is all i can do for them - a little bit of publicity. Unbiased publicity is a rare commodity in this republic of ours.
WHY DID ESTONIANS FIGHT TOGETHER WITH THE GERMANS?
Every now and then, the question about Estonian soldiers in the German armed forces during World War II arises. Were they Nazi bandits or Estonian freedom fighters? In order to give an unbiased reply to that question, one should know the events of the time as well as the historical background. The following has been written as a brief overview of the reasons why Estonians fought with the Germans.
The great tragedy, World War II, was especially tragic for the many small nations who were drawn into that clash of major nations against their will. Often, free will to decide on which side they wanted to be on was not possible and whose side they ended up on depended on the political and geographical situation. It was not rare to find people from the same nation fighting in opposing armies. This is exactly the case of the Estonians. The men who had been serving in the Estonian army and had been transferred to the Red Army after the Soviet annexation, as well as the men who were mobilised by the Soviet Union in Summer 1941, of which many perished in the forced labour camps1, had to fight with the Soviets. The majority, (70 to 80 per cent) of the (approximately) 100,000 Estonians fighting in World War II fought with the Germans or the Finns2. Many times Estonians were accusingly asked, “Why did you fight with the Germans while all the democratic nations were against Nazi Germany?” In order to understand this and the general situation of the Estonians, we first must be acquainted with the historic background.
Friends and enemies
Before the war and even during the beginning of World War II, pro-British sentiment prevailed in Estonia. The reason for this was the fact that the British had helped the Estonians in the Independence War and that relations between Estonia and Great Britain from then on had been quite good. The author of this article, a schoolboy before the war, remembers very well how most Estonians felt about the German campaign against Poland and other small European nations in the beginning of World War II. Estonians had considered for centuries that Germans, especially the Baltic German landlords were their main enemies and oppressors. Then there was the German occupation in 1918 and the so-called Landeswehr War – where German professional soldiers, financed by the Baltic German nobility, fought against the Estonians in the Independence War in summer 1919 – these conflicts did not engender any warm feelings towards the Germans either.
So, why did public opinion change so rapidly in favour of the Germans? It can be stated with confidence that this profound change in public opinion was caused directly by the Soviet Union and its actions. By the late 1930s, events in the Soviet Union had created in many people, a negative view of the Communist regime. This view was strengthened by a rapid sequence of events in 1939 – the violent establishment of Soviet military bases in the Baltic countries, threatening these nations with raw force (the so-called Bases Pact); a blow against Poland from behind while they were fighting with the Germans; arrogant aggression against Finland; and a few months later, the annexation of the hitherto independent Estonia and other Baltic nations in the summer of 1940. Such actions clearly demonstrated the violent and treacherous character of the Soviet Union, and affected the opinion of most Estonians of it.
But, unfortunately, this was just the beginning. The reality turned out even worse than people had feared. In 1940–1941, after Estonia had been annexed to the Soviet Union, events – violence and terror on citizens, arrests, and especially the mass deportations and the hundreds of executed people found in mass graves discovered shortly after the Soviets had been driven out – quickly made it clear to most Estonians that the gravest threat to the existence of the Estonian people was Russian communism3.
The hope that British and French help in maintaining the independence of the Estonian nation and republic would be forthcoming, had collapsed. Moreover, both these nations as well as the US, became friends of the Soviet Union during World War II. So most Estonians could not do anything other than see Germany as the only ally worth considering against the threat of death coming from the east. The severity of the situation forced the age-old hatred into the background.
The summer of 1941 saw the beginning of the massive partisan movement, called the Forest Brethren (metsavennad) against the Russians (for the average Estonian, the Soviet Union still meant more or less the same as the Communist Russia4). The majority of Estonians realised that one must fight against the Communist regime of Russia by any and all means. This was a forced war, which was fought, not for conquering new land or subduing other nations, but for defending one’s own homeland. Those Estonians who fought in the so-called “destroyer battalions” which were putting into effect the Stalinist policy of scorched earth, were considered as traitors by most Estonians, as they were fighting not against the Germans, but against their own people.
Brothers in arms – yes, but not friends
After the arrival of the Germans, who were first accepted as friends and liberators, thousands of Estonian volunteers joined the German armed forces. Estonian units were formed in order to start defending their homeland against the Stalinist Russia and to avenge the sufferings and injustice done to the Estonian people. They hoped, naively, that the Germans would agree to restore the Republic of Estonia, after which – very probably – the Estonians would have then joined Germans as willing allies in the fight against the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the German authorities did not use this enthusiasm well, though restoring the national independence of Estonia would have made Estonians allies to be trusted. On the contrary – their actions, though better than the Soviet terror against the Estonians, were still the actions of occupiers and very soon Germans lost most of the trust and friendship of Estonians. In the beginning, the Germans attempted to hinder the formation of Estonian units, in order to prevent the emergence of Estonian armed forces. Even when the German authorities finally discovered the necessity of such units, the Estonian units were kept as small as possible, diffused and under the command of German staff. The Germans did not want to hear anything about independent Estonian armed forces, even when dire necessity made them mobilise tens of thousands of Estonians.
In spite of all this – though cursing the German arrogance and irrational politics – the Estonians continued fighting with the Germans against the Russians, led by the principle that in crisis one can use the help of Beelzebub to exorcise the Devil. Many hoped that the historical situation of 1918 would repeat itself – both great nations which had been occupying Estonia, Russia and Germany, would exhaust one another in the war, perhaps giving rise to the restoration of Estonian independence. It was very important that no Russian troops remained on Estonian soil when action ceased. Estonian independence was the aim for which one could fight, attempting to keeping the Soviets from the Estonian border and preventing them from re-occupying Estonia.
The intensity of people's hatred and the indignation of most Estonians, which was induced by the action of the Communists, and how important the fight against the Soviet Union was considered to be can be estimated, for instance, by the fact that even though the Germans turned out to be occupiers of Estonia, there was practically no anti-German partisan movement during the German occupation in Estonia (1941–1944). Though the Soviets left Communist functionaries behind to organise partisan action on their retreat, they were quickly exposed by the locals; also the partisan groups sent from the Soviet Union into Estonia, not gaining support from the people, were liquidated rather quickly. There were some people who hid from the mobilisation but their aim was purely personal safety. Active, Forest Brethren partisan activity occurred in Estonia only in the Soviet rear during the summer of 1941 and re-started in September 1944 after the Soviets re-occupied Estonia. It should be also noted that a number of Estonians serving in the Soviet Army defected to the Germans at the first chance. This happened mostly in the summer of 1941 and the winter of 1942/43 (the latter under Velikiye Luki). This was the time when the Germans had not completely run out of luck, and there appeared to be some reason in such defections. All this shows that there was not only a small Nazi-minded group of people who were fighting against Communist Russia, but most Estonians supported the fighting.
Of course, most Estonians serving in the German armed forces were mobilised in Estonia and therefore cannot be described as volunteers. On the contrary, people’s attitude towards the Germans was quite critical for the most part (the action of the German authorities changed even the minds of those people who had volunteered to join their troops). But it should be noted that evading the German mobilisations was significantly less widespread than it had been in the Summer of 1941 when thousands of men were evading the Soviet mobilisation. On the contrary, even when the situation on the front was rather bad and evading the mobilisation – for personal safety – would have been understandable, most of the men who received the notice for mobilisation came to protect their homeland and fought as well as it was possible in that situation. The attitude of people was also in favour of the men serving in the German army. It was because people simply understood the necessity of fighting.
The legal basis of Estonians fighting
When talking about the fight against the Soviet Union, it is appropriate to discuss its legal basis also. During both the Soviet and German occupations, the Estonian legal authorities continued to operate, more or less underground5. Their orders and attitude formed the political and moral instructions for Estonian citizens. Even though the Germans denied the plea for restoration of independence by several leading Estonian politicians, led by the prime minister J. Uluots, the politicians still decided that the main enemy in the ongoing war for Estonia and Estonians was the Soviet Union and they summoned the Estonian people to mobilise all their internal efforts in fight against communism. In February 1944, when the Soviet troops had reached the Estonian borders, the Prime Minister J. Uluots read a speech over the radio6. During this speech he noted that the main presumption for the restoration of Estonian freedom was to keep the Soviets out of Estonia and in order to achieve this, he summoned Estonians to fight with the Germans. The speech was published in all Estonian newspapers. The National Committee of the Republic of Estonia, which consisted of representatives of Estonian political parties and was oriented mainly towards the Western Allies, understood the graveness of the situation and supported the idea of Estonian soldiers fighting with the Germans7. Thus it can be said with certainty that the representatives of Estonian legal authority saw Estonians fighting against the Soviet Union with the Germans as the only possibility in the given conditions.
No doubt that the standpoint of and the petitions by the Estonian legal authorities had considerable effect on people and many of those who had originally not wanted to fight with the Germans, became protectors of the homeland. For instance, during the mobilisation at the beginning of the February 1944, about 15,000 men were expected to appear but actually, nearly 40,000 men joined in to protect their homeland. (The number of people who turned up was even greater, but not all of the men were accepted.) The situation at the Front had become very serious and it was obvious that everything possible had to be done to prevent the return of the Russians. For Estonians, the fight had turned into nationwide fight for freedom8. But the Germans were still afraid of forming Estonian armed forces and so they are responsible for the fact that the units formed out of the mobilised men (border guard units) were not formed into a uniform Estonian unit (a Division), but were dispersed and subordinated to German units. Further – these men were not issued with suitable armament and equipment for the conditions in which they were to fight.
If we try to assess the action of the Estonian legal authorities and Estonians in World War II objectively, we must consider the fact that Estonians were in a situation – against their will – with no possibility of choosing between Western democracy and Germany. The choice was between two major totalitarian states, Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany. Estonians liked neither. As a friend and ally of the Western democracies in World War II, Russia, had occupied Estonia for a year before the hostilities began. This introduction had been enough to prove to the Estonians that the mortal enemy of the Estonian people was Communist Russia, against whom you had to protect yourself by whatever means available. It was this, that decided the course of history.
Soviet Union and the Western nations
Many of the Western nations understood what Communist Russia was and learned of Stalin’s crimes only many years later (some have not understood it yet). Due to wartime propaganda, the peoples of the West considered anybody who had fought with the Germans as protectors of that criminal regime, not asking what the purpose of that fighting had been. There were no exceptions for this rule. But back then, Russians were considered to be good allies. It is a tragedy of history that the situation caused those Estonian men who had wanted to protect their homeland against Communist Russia to do it wearing German uniforms. Tens of thousands of men participated in this fight and for them it was a fight for their country and people, caused by historic inevitability. The legal authorities of Estonia sanctioned this fight. It was clear to Estonian soldiers that the prerequisite for defending Estonia and restoring its national independence was to crush Communist Russia and in order to achieve this aim, one had to fight, if necessary, outside of Estonia as well. But whenever an Estonian soldier fought, he carried the national colours, blue-black-white on his sleeve and the aim of free Estonia in his heart.
The tragedy of a small nation is that the victors of the World War II did not want to recognise this in the euphoria following the victory. It was especially bitter for the Estonians that even the US became an unconditional ally of the Soviet Union. Many Estonians serving in the German army had hoped that the US would understand the situation of the Estonians. The Estonian prisoners-of-war were often treated as ordinary, Nazi-minded volunteers fighting with the Germans. (It took a long time before the Americans started to understand that even though it was obvious why the SS men did not want to return home, why were the ordinary civilian refugees from the Soviet-held territories so unwilling to return home? Something had to be wrong there.) The events that happened immediately after the war can be understood – ordinary Americans tend not to have much empathy for other peoples. But later, even now, here and there, all over the world, people have tried to accuse Estonians who fought with the Germans, especially in the Waffen-SS, of all imaginable sins. Especially active in this sense have been the Communist authorities of post-war Estonia and their followers and the global Jewish organisations. The latter, especially, tend to think that the fact that a lot of Estonians served in the 20th (Estonian) Division of the Waffen-SS is enough to accuse all Estonians, not asking what this unit actually was.
Estonians and the Waffen-SS
Firstly, it must be said that Estonians, for the most part, joined the Waffen-SS – so much criticised by the Western Allies and the Soviet Union – forcibly. Most of the youngsters who had been mobilised in 1943 were transferred there, as well as entire units in 1944. This happened, for instance, with the Eastern Battalions, the Estonians who had fought in Finland and had returned, and a number of others. Men were not asked for their opinion, although they vocally criticised these transfers. (As contemporaries remember, even the legendary commander of a Eastern Battalion, Major Alfons Rebane, carrier of the Ritterkreutz, later commander of a regiment of the Estonian Division, had not wanted his battalion to be transferred to the Waffen-SS and had even threatened to leave to Finland. But he understood the seriousness of the situation and with his sense of responsibility for his homeland and men he continued his service.) The Estonian Legion and the 20th (Estonian) Division of the Waffen-SS, which had been formed from it, were purely combat units which members the International Court of Nuremberg did not condemn as war criminals. For Estonians, the Waffen-SS meant better armament and training in the first place, essential for fighting against the Eastern enemy9.
Quite often, the Estonian soldiers who had escaped to Germany in autumn 1944 and continued to fight there in spite of the hopeless situation have been criticised too. It was obvious that they had already lost their homeland and the defeat of Germany was only a matter of time. These criticisers accuse Estonian soldiers that their effort helped the Germans to resist and commit additional war crimes and crimes against humanity until the end of the war. But one must remember that military service was the only alternative the Germans offered to the Estonian soldiers arriving in Germany10. Unfortunately, these criticisers cannot suggest any other alternative for what those men had to do other than suggestions of surrender or even committing suicide (yes, this extreme suggestion has been made). Indeed, small groups of men would have tried to desert and to escape to the West, but to develop the idea that this would have been possible for entire units, especially on the Eastern Front, is sheer naivety. Russians certainly were not people whom an Estonian soldier would have wanted to trust, considering the bitter experiences of 1940–41. (The suggestion that the entire 20th Division of the Waffen-SS should have shot themselves cannot be taken seriously.)
A brief discussion about crimes against humanity
As it has been not possible to accuse any Estonian units, not even the 20th (Estonian) Division of the Waffen-SS of crimes against humanity, the most active criticisers of the Estonian soldiers in German service have, every now and then, launched an accusatory campaign, as noted above, stating that even though Estonian combat units were not directly involved in war crimes, their fighting helped the Germans to amongst other things commit crimes against humanity. Briefly, they are accused of supporting Germans committing such crimes. But such a simplified approach allows us to accuse soldiers of all forces in World War II. Following the same logic, one can say that the soldiers of the Red Army, including Estonians, can be accused in the murders of Katyn, arresting and deporting tens or even hundreds of thousands of people in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Caucasus etc. And the list goes on. It would have been impossible for the Stalinist regime to commit and hide those atrocities from the world without the support of its armed forces. It could be said that the Allied soldiers who were liberating some peoples from the Germans were, with the Soviet Union, pushing others deeper and deeper under the Communist yoke and helped to preserve the Gulag Archipelago and aided in the death of millions of people in the Soviet prison camps many years after the war’s end. But the Nuremburg court only discussed the atrocities of Germany and her allies. The victorious peoples were not judged, in spite what they had done. The Soviet Union demanded a number of issues sensitive to the major nations to be dropped from the agenda of the Nuremberg court; the other victorious nations agreed with pleasure. But it is totally obvious that it is sheer nonsense to accuse men who had fought on this or other side, only by what atrocities the entire respective fighting nations had committed, for it does not lead anywhere.
Even if we drop the issue of helping to commit war crimes and consider certain crimes against humanity, it can be said with certainty that those were committed by the armed forces of all fighting nations. But a discussion on these must be based on their committers. And even here the situation is not clear, as one must know the background of one or other act that is now considered a crime. Speaking about the atrocities of Estonians on the side of the Germans, one should know that before the anti-tank trench at Tartu11 there were the Tartu Prison and a number of other places where the remains of cruelly tortured and executed people were found in the Summer and Autumn of 1941, after the retreat of the Soviet armed forces. One should also recall the deportation of women and children, the actions of the “destroyer battalions” etc. But these accusers have been silent on these points. We can be completely sure that all this had a strong emotional impact, which took men to war against the Russians as volunteers, but also set the character of that war. The enemy really was an enemy, in every sense of the word.
It should be noted that crimes against humanity in Estonia continued even after the war, as the hostilities in fact continued. The actions of the post-war Forest Brethren who had been fighting with the Germans for the most part and whom the Communists were referring to as Fascist throat-cutters and accusing of many crimes, (though their action did not differ much from that of the Soviet partisans against the Germans, which were not considered as crimes) compare were closely to the post-war crimes of the men who had fought in the Red Army (arresting and torturing innocent people, deportations etc). Often such actions were carried out with the willing or unwilling help of security agents, party activists etc. who had been in the Soviet Army, being the main supporters of the Soviet power in Estonia. (For the sake of truth, it must be said that most of the men who had served in the Estonian Corps, did not besmirch their honour with such atrocities.)
Speaking of the Forest Brethren, one needs to remember that many men were forced into the forests by the actions of the Soviet authorities, i.e. the actions of the same supporters who, after the war, often persecuted people who did not like Soviet power and the developments in Estonia, even if the men were not fighting directly against it. These people often could only choose between the option of to being sent to Siberia or to go into the forest. This resulted in thousands of abandoned households, broken families and tragic fates, making many people who had perhaps already accepted the defeat and started to live a normal life again, but now were forced to start an active fight against the Soviets. Several Soviet activists found their death at the hands of such men. Additionally, one should not forget that by the end of the Forest Brethren movement, they were fighting a hopeless and desperate fight of betrayed and doomed people. They had put all their hope on the US that this democratic and powerful nation would understand what an empire of evil the Soviet Union was and would do something against it. This hope was based on the American claim that they did not recognise the Soviet annexation of the Baltic nations in 1940. But, unfortunately, all this remained only words. The Baltic nations were sold at Yalta, just as they had been sold by the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. It must be understood that an embittered man, his vain hopes betrayed, is a bitter fighter, whose only purpose is to sell his life as dearly as possible.
But all this is a different topic. The discussion above shows that as it is impossible to point at the Red Army or any other armed force of any fighting nation as whole, it is also impossible to call single units of the German armed forces, such as the Estonian Legion or the 20th (Estonian) Division of the Waffen-SS, criminals, especially when there is no evidence of atrocities being committed by these units.
So, what did an Estonian soldier fight for?
In summary, it must be said that Estonian soldiers in World War II were generally considered as good and brave soldiers. But the aim of this soldier, which he carried in his heart during the fighting, was not a new Europe or Greater Germany, it was only to free his little homeland12. It is a historical tragedy that Estonia could not fight against Communist Russia on the side of democratic Western nations but with Nazi Germany and thus inadvertently became one of the “bad boys”. The Western nations have generally accepted the Finnish fight for their freedom against the Soviet Union, especially because the Finns had to fight against the Germans by the end of the war. The Estonian fight was exactly the same, a fight for freedom, where the Estonian soldier tried to give his best, using the resources he had at the time. It was not the fault of the Estonian soldier that he had no other choice of ally than Nazi Germany and that he could not reach his aim nor defend his homeland in the battle between the major nations. Even though history has been rather biased so far, the former combatants still believe that the younger generations, both in Estonia and abroad, will see history with open minds one day, in spite of more than fifty years of propaganda accusing the men who had served in the German armed forces, and eventually understand by objectively assessing the events that for an Estonian soldier the World War II was just a continuation of the Independence War and nothing else.
1 Estonians were not trusted. The Estonians who were mobilised and taken to Russia were taken to the so-called labour battalions where many perished from hunger and cold in the winter of 1941/42. Estonians in these labour battalions were, in reality, prisoners. It was only in late 1942, when it was evident that the Germans are running out of luck, that Estonians were concentrated into the new Estonian Rifle Corps which later saw action.
2 Over 3000 Estonian volunteers (so-called “Finnish boys”, soomepoisid) fought in the Finnish armed forces. They had not wanted to fight for the Germans and escaped from Estonia to Finland. The largest Estonian unit in the Finnish armed forces was the 200th Infantry Regiment (JR 200). As Finland was an Axis country and fought against the Soviets with Germany, the people fighting with the Finns can be counted as fighting on the German side as well.
3 In 1940–1941 over 4000 peaceful citizens were arrested by the Soviets in Estonia, violating all internationally accepted legal norms. Most of them were murdered, or they died in prison camps. The terror culminated in the deportation of more than 10,000 people, including women and children, in June 1941. The question that faced Estonians was no longer about the survival of democracy or the Republic, but the survival of the Estonian nation itself.
4 Historicaly, Russians have been the only conquerors from the east who have attempted to harass the Estonians. None of the other nations making up the Soviet Union have attempted this.
5 When the Soviet occupation troops arrived in June 1940, Jüri Uluots, the Prime Minister of Estonia, succeeded in going underground. After the Estonian president Konstantin Päts was arrested in July 1940, the powers of the president were transferred to the Prime Minister, as set out in the constitution. The Western nations recognised the continuity and legal succession of the underground Estonian state authorities,.
6 Radio speech of the Prime Minister J. Uluots on February 7, 1944.
7 Order of the National Committee of the Republic of Estonia, No. 1 of August 1, 1944 and No. 2 of August 24, 1944.
8 About 1800 of the Estonians fighting with the Finns returned to Estonia in August 1944 when the Russians had reached Tartu, in order to do anything possible during this critical moment to protect Estonia.
9 All soldiers and officers who fought in the 20th Division of the Waffen-SS were released from imprisonment in the West after the Nuremberg court acquitted those former fighters of the Waffen-SS who had been assigned there by authorities and had not committed atrocities. In addition, the letter from the Displaced Persons Commission to the Acting Consul General of Estonia in New York, dated September 13, 1950 states that the Baltic Waffen-SS units, including the Estonian Legion, were to be considered as separate and distinct in purpose, ideology, activities and qualifications for membership from the German SS, and therefore the Commission held them not to be a movement hostile to the Government of the United States. Therefore, the cases of applicants for admission into the United States who have been members of the Baltic Waffen-SS, including the Estonian Legion, would be considered on their individual merit.
10 Before the end of the war nearly all Estonian soldiers in Germany were transferred to the 20th (Estonian) Division of the Waffen-SS, in spite of their original arm of service.
11 After the war, it became well known as the execution site for people shot by the German occupation authorities.
12 The number of Estonians who had been mobilised in the Soviet armed forces from Estonia and who idealised the Communist empire lead by Russia, was very small. Mostly they ended up on the Soviet side because it had been impossible to evade the mobilisation (see also Note 1).