August 09, 2015

Caught in the Crossfire: The Annexation of Estonia

Caught in the Crossfire: The Annexation of Estonia

Seventy-five years ago today, on August 9, 1940, the newly formed Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic joined the USSR. Not willingly, mind you. Brought into being by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, shaken by Stalinist deportations and guerilla warfare, Soviet-occupied Estonia met its first birthday in a literal trial by fire: the invasion by Nazi Germany. One Estonian writer recalls the fall of independent Estonia.

The Republic of Estonia, which had declared its independence on February 24, 1918, and fought for it in the War of Independence (1918-1920), was doomed by the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact (August 23, 1939). In a secret addendum to the pact, the two powers divided up Eastern Europe, and the neutral Baltic states were placed in the Soviet sphere of influence. Immediately after the German occupation of Poland, the Soviets issued an ultimatum to the Estonian government, demanding that Estonia form a military alliance (thereby abandoning neutrality), provide bases for the Soviet navy and air force, and allow 25,000 Soviet troops onto their territory (the Estonian reserve army counted just 17,000 people). It was an offer Estonia was unable to refuse.

A mutual aid treaty was signed on September 28, 1939, which stressed that the Tartu Peace Treaty (1920) and the Soviet-Estonian Nonaggression Pact (1932) remained in force, and that the Soviet Union would not in any way attempt to change the political or economic order in Estonia. These promises lasted nine months. For Stalin, June 1940 – just as Hitler was finishing off France – felt like an appropriate time to take the next step. On June 15, an ultimatum was issued to Lithuania, and on June 16 Latvia and Estonia received theirs. On June 16 and 17, overwhelming Soviet armies invaded the Baltic states without declaring war. A series of political decrees followed, resulting in three new republics joining the USSR by early August.

In Estonia, this “revolution” (here led by Andrei Zhdanov) failed to maintain even the pretense of legality: there were blatant violations of the Constitution, and of all the key laws on transfer of power, elections, parliamentary authority, and so on. The year that followed this prelude also introduced Estonians to the other “wonders” of Stalinism, including a mass deportation on the night of June 13, 1941, when nearly 10,000 people were arrested (men were sent to the camps, women and children – into exile).

Given these circumstances, it comes as no surprise that once the war began many Estonians expected the Germans to arrive as liberators. They hoped that Germany would restore the Baltic states’ sovereignty as its allies. For them, war had started before the arrival of German troops. Many cities (including much of Tartu), towns, and villages were freed of Soviet invaders by the so-called “Forest Brothers” – guerilla groups that had formed spontaneously as early as June 1940. Many of the soldiers and officers of the 22nd Territorial Rifle Corps (the former Estonian army), which had been withdrawn from Estonia at the start of the war, defected near Pskov (July 1941) and were ready to continue their ongoing war against the USSR on the German side.

But their hopes were soon dashed. Hitler’s Germany was not establishing alliances on equal terms: it sought “ancient German lands,” ideally with no natives. Estonia was incorporated into the German colony of Ostland (December 1941) and administered by a pro-German puppet government led by Hjalmar Mäe. There was no way a legitimate government could be restored.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Translated by Eugenia Sokolskaya.


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