The Eastern Front in Estonia
by Ed Morrow, edited from FrontPage Magazine, 12
It isn't as well-remembered as it should be that World War II
began with the invasion of Poland by Germany and Russia.
In 1939, the two predatory, totalitarian nations, with much
shaking of hands, toasts, and lizard smiles, concluded the Molotov-Ribbentrop
Pact, a non-aggression agreement that they proclaimed would help
insure world peace. It was a shocking development in international
affairs, for the world had come to view the two tyrannies as the
embodiments of antagonistic and irreconcilable political
philosophies, Fascism and Communism.
Their respective dictators, Hitler and Stalin, were ruthless
men, however, willing to sacrifice millions to elevate themselves
and only their fanatical followers should have been so naïve as to
expect them to let ideology prevent them from reaching an agreement
that served their interests.
Fighting on two fronts
During World War I, Germany had been strained by fighting France
and Britain in the West and Czarist Russia in the East.
Many hoped that the possibility of a second two-front war would
deter Hitler from risking a new war in Europe. The Pact removed this
check. It made it possible for Hitler to confront France and
Britain, who had promised to support Poland, without the annoyance
of a belligerent Russia.
The pact also included a war plan so secret that the Soviets
denied it existed until 1988 and no copy of it was made public until
after the fall of the Soviet Union. In the secret plan, Stalin and
Hitler agreed to divide control of the nations lying between Russia
and Germany. Russia was given Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and half of
Poland. Germany got Lithuania and the other half of Poland. Poland
would be the first nation taken with Russian and German armies
attacking in coordination.
Finland as a Grand Duchy of Russia
RULERS OF BALTIC COAST STATES:
Stalin liked the deal not only for the territorial
concessions - Russia had lusted after the Baltic states and Poland for
generations - but because it positioned Russia to exploit the European
war that was likely to erupt following Poland's invasion.
kept his word and attacked only to his west, Russia could just watch
while France, Britain and Germany tore each other apart then swoop
in to take advantage of the chaos and ruin. The West would be
unlikely to declare war on Russia. They'd have enough on their plate
just dealing with Germany.
If Hitler broke his word and attacked
Russia, Stalin could expect France and Britain, who would already be
fighting Hitler, to be his allies against Germany. In the meantime,
Soviet Russia would co-operate with Germany and expand its territories,
creating a buffer zone between it and Germany where an invasion
could be turned back before reaching Russian soil.
The plan in motion
The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact worked as Stalin expected - at first.
Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, causing France and
Britain to declare war on Germany.
Stalin held back.
A short delay
had the advantage of letting Germany do the bulk of the fighting to
destroy Poland's military. When Soviet Russia attacked on 17 September
there were only lightly armed Polish border guards left on Poland's
Eastern border to face the Red Army's heavily-armed millions (at
the end of the war, the Soviets pulled a similar stunt by declaring war
on Japan just days before it surrendered to the Allies).
By the time
the fighting stopped, the Soviet Union had taken over 280,000 Polish
soldiers as prisoners. They also arrested intellectuals and
professionals, who might resist Russian occupation. Thousands of
these soldiers and potential troublemakers were quickly executed.
German and Soviet troops together staged a victory parade to
celebrate the destruction of Poland. The two nations issued a joint
declaration calling upon Britain and France to end the war and
hinted that, if they didn't, Germany and Russia would "engage in
mutual consultations" that might bring Russia into the war on
Communist parties around the world, following Soviet dictates, adopted an
"anti-war" stance that blamed France
and Britain for the war. Soviet Russia even sold Germany resources
important to its war effort. Stalin became so confident of his
arrangement with Hitler that when Germany attacked Russia in 1941,
he refused to believe it until thousands of his soldiers were dead
and the German army was deep inside Russian territory.
The plan going awry
Before Hitler turned on Stalin, the Soviet Union staked its claim to the
countries that the Pact had given to them.
Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union in
1940. The Soviets used the same tactics in Estonia as they had in
Poland, rounding up military men and intellectuals. Thousands were
executed or deported to Siberia. Political freedoms were eliminated
and an elaborate and continual indoctrination campaign was launched
to convince the Estonian people that Communism was the bee's knees.
To a degree, these tactics succeeded. A defenceless, captive people
threatened with prison camps and firing squads will do as they're
told but, along with obedience, Soviet repression produced a
smouldering hatred. This deepened after Germany went to war against
Soviet Russia and the Soviets forced thousands of Estonian men to fight
for them against Hitler.
The Red Army was quickly pushed back by the
Germans, who occupied Estonia. It has been charged that, as they
fled, the Soviets executed Estonian political prisoners rather than
- 23 August 1939 - the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
- 1 September 1939 - Germany invades Poland
- 3 September - France and Britain declare war
- 17 September 1939 - Soviet Union invades
- 22 June 1941 - Hitler invades Russia
- 23 November 1941 - German advance halted 35
miles from Moscow
- 27 January 1944 - Leningrad siege ends after
- 21 April 1945 - Red Army enters outskirts of
The prisons in Estonia didn't stay empty for long. The
Nazis soon were rounding up their enemies among the Estonians and
jailing them. Like some bizarre TV ad comparing Brand X to Brand Y,
Estonians, who had endured one kind of tyranny, were now trying out
another. In this case, both were horrific but, when the Red Army was
on the verge of returning, some Estonians enlisted in the German
army to fight the Russians.
The Germans were soon driven out and
thousands of Estonians fled their country to avoid a new Soviet occupation. Small bands of Estonian soldiers, called the
"forest brothers," fought a guerrilla war against the Red Army but, lacking
support from outside Estonia, by 1950, they were all in hiding,
captured, or dead.
The Soviet reoccupation of Estonia was brutal. This time, they
had a grudge to settle with the Estonians, who they viewed as Nazi
collaborators. They ruthlessly instituted strict measures to Sovietize the country. Since Communism is an inherently flawed form
of government, these measures inevitably produced poor results, but,
instead of blaming their ideology, the Communists blamed their
A terrible example of this occurred when the
collectivization of Estonian agriculture stalled. The Russians
rounded up 20,000 Estonia farm families and shipped them off to work
camps in Siberia where half are said to have died of starvation and
disease. The survivors were only allowed to straggle home in the
Soviet rule in Estonia
By then, to ensure loyalty, the Soviets had settled
thousands of Russian families in Estonia. These were often the
families of veterans or of Communist bureaucrats selected for their
loyalty to Communism. They were placed at the top of Estonia's
establishment with lots of despised Estonians to boss around. By the
time the Soviets were done shipping Estonians out and Russians in,
Estonia's population was one-third Russian.
The Russian language and
Russian culture were forced upon Estonia. On top of this, Soviet
military bases were planted across the country to control the locals
and project Soviet power against the West. Much of its seacoast,
for example, was set aside for the use of the Soviet Baltic Fleet.
As they did in every state in which they gained control after the
war, the Soviets self-righteously insisted they had "liberated"
Estonia from Germany and had bestowed upon it the blessing of
Communism. They demanded gratitude.
Russia's insistence on gratitude wasn't an accidental thing. It
was an offshoot of the propaganda that Stalin used to rally Russia
against Germany. He had killed millions of his own people and feared
the invading Germans might be welcomed as liberators. To counter
this, he appealed to Russian xenophobia, nationalism, and, with a
large degree of cynicism for an atheistic society, religious
imagery. Russia was the sacred Motherland. Her soldiers were heroic
warriors engaged in a holy crusade. Russian war dead - 23.5 million by
the end of the war - sanctified Communism with their blood (critics
counter that the high casualties were the result of Stalin's inept
military leadership and wonder if he'd been more inept, would
Communism be more sanctified?).
Even the war had a special,
Russo-centric name. In exploitation of an earlier national triumph,
the Patriotic War against Napoleon in 1812, World War II was called
the Great Patriotic War. The contribution of other nations,
including the massive aid sent to Russia by the USA, was minimised.
This kind of propaganda continued after the Germans were defeated to
generate more patriotic fervour for the new Cold War. The rest of the
world, which had suffered fewer deaths, owed Russia for its
sacrifices. The territories caged in by the Iron Curtain were
well-deserved tribute. The soldiers of the Great Patriotic War were
lauded as patriots who defended Communism, thereby elevating it
above questioning. And war memorials glorifying battles and soldiers
were erected everywhere to insistently remind Russians of the costly
effort to preserve the Soviet state.
Outside Russia, they were
erected as a reminder of Russian dominance and as a blunt demand
that Russia be honoured for fighting a war they helped start. To the
citizens of the subjugated states, the monuments became detested
symbols of tyranny. So it was with the "Bronze Soldier" memorial in
The beginning of the end
In the late 1980s, as Soviet Russia began to crumble,
nationalists in the countries forced into Communism began to demand their
freedom. The 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the Prague Spring of
1968, both of which were brutally thwarted by Russian troops and
their allies, vividly illustrated the dangers that the nationalists
None were able to militarily confront their occupiers.
Instead, they used strikes, demonstrations, and appeals to
international opinion to advance their cause. In Estonia, a unique
form of revolution won Estonians their freedom. It was called "The
Estonians have traditionally enjoyed music festivals, which
include choral singing with audience participation. The Soviets banned songs with nationalist associations but even non-political
songs provided an opportunity for Estonians to share a feeling of
Beginning in 1987, nationalists began to introduce
traditional songs. Estonians, eager to defy the Soviets, sang along
in greater and greater numbers. It wasn't long before mass singing
demonstrations with as many as 300,000 singers became a common
event. Pro-Soviet demonstrators attempted to intimidate the
nationalists but were thwarted when greater numbers of nationalists
turned out to peacefully face them down.
By the time the Soviets sent in troops, they were blocked by thousands of ordinary, unarmed
Estonians standing as human shields. In 1991, the Estonian Supreme
Soviet and the Congress of Estonia proclaimed independence.
same time, the Soviet Union was breaking up and Estonian
independence became a fact. Without firing a shot, Estonians had won
their nation's freedom.
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