Reede, 10 Jaanuar 2014 13:14
Laas Leivat - Estonian Life No. 02 2014
This fall marks the 70th anniversary of some 72 thousand or 7% of the Estonian population, deliberately using whatever means possible, escaping the onslaught of a deadly Red Army. They were pushing into Estonia to replace the retreating German forces. Defensive battles with Estonians vastly outnumbered by the Soviets cost unsustainable Estonian casualties.
Estonians were filled with a pervading sense of hopelessness knowing they could not muster the military strength to fend off a third totalitarian occupation. This was mixed with a misguided sense of hope that a last-minute international rescue effort would be launched to keep the Baltic states free and independent.
Estonians had experienced the Soviet invasion and occupation of 1940-1941 that had devastated the population with outright executions, arrests and deportations to the hinterlands of Soviet Russia. Those who had the means and ability to escape to freedom in the West risked their lives to undertake the perilous voyages. Typically it was with a small, self-made boat hidden in reeds, some with installed car motors that took aboard a dangerous number of passengers to face the stormy conditions of the Baltic Sea in the fall. A sizable number of refugees simply perished at sea. It's been estimated that of those who had set their course for Germany or Sweden, 7000 didn't manage to reach their destination. The Soviets had started to target all refugee boats and ships with submarines and planes, with the Germans hunting those headed for Sweden.
(As a proportional comparison with Great Britain, 7% of the population escaping translates into 3.5 million and the estimated 7000 that perished is the equivalent of 350,000 British citizens.)
Approximately 10,000 of those seeking refuge in the West had been in German uniforms fighting the Soviets. Several thousand, who hadn't been caught, shot or arrested by the communist forces occupying the homeland continued an armed struggle as 'Brother of the Forest' partisans against the foreign power. They were encouraged and took their cue from the Churchill-Roosevelt Atlantic declaration which expected independence for all countries that had lost it through military aggression during the war. But not a single country was willing to confront Moscow, a recent crucial ally, to force the issue.
The armed 'insurgency' in Estonia was defensive, biding time for an international intervention from the West re-establishing sovereignty and democracy. This struggle, through steady losses against an overwhelming and relenting NKVD offensive, began to weaken in the fifties. However the last known and lone 'Brother of the Forest' was caught in 1978.
It is thought that during eight years some 30,000 men and women participated in the partisan fight aimed at the Moscow's repressive rule. Untold tens of thousands of other Estonians were involved in providing the 'Brothers' with food and other supplies.
It's interesting to note that in correspondence from 1941-1945 between the Estonian Consulate General and the US State Department, there's not a single reference to the fact that Estonians had fought on the side of the enemy, Germany, against a US ally, the USSR. At least all Estonian ex-soldiers escaping to the West had done so or had been deserters from the forced mobilization into the Red Army during the Soviet occupation of 1940-1941. Documents from US immigration officials indicate that Estonian soldiers who had fought in German units were not to be automatically suspected of war criminality and thus in general were eligible for entry as refugees. (This did not include the rare cases during later years of individuals labeled as war criminal suspects by either the Soviet Union and/or Isreal, or accused of falsifying their immigration application upon entry into the USA in the late forties and early fifties. Some accusations were justified, most not. It was apparent that the Soviet Union needed to discredit and socially ruin many who had taken an activist freedom fighter's role in exile in the West.)
Reinforcing the Estonians' right to struggle for self-determination were decisions like that of the European Parliament in 1983. It was a reaction to the 1979 Baltic Appeal in which 45 Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians in their occupied homelands had urged the United Nations to recognize the right to self-determination and independence of the Baltic States and the holding of a referendum on the issue. The European Parliament supported the demands of the Baltic Appeal and expressed sympathy for the past armed struggle of the freedom fighting partisans in those countries. The parliament also mourned the loss of the thousands that died in that struggle and the approximately 650,000 citizens of the Baltic states that were deported and sent to Siberia since 1940.
Even though Estonians had to abandon hope for an armed liberation of Estonian, the enduring hope accompanying those who escaped to freedom manifested itself in numerous ways. The thousands of protest letters, public demonstrations, freedom rallies, conferences, meetings that were initiated by exile Estonians as early as 1939 (Moscow demanded use of military bases in the Baltic states), lobbying of Western governments and other activities were examples of a determination not to abandon the struggle for sovereign Baltic states. The general non-recognition de jure of the Soviet annexation of these countries by the West was an important factor in maintaining the fight. However, many personally felt in silence that the effort in attempting to appeal to the hearts and minds of Western leaders was futile seeing the reluctance of these leaders to risk a confrontation with Moscow. But the commitment of those who had escaped during the war was sufficiently compelling to keep the Western 'freedom fighters' motivated. In fact the lobbying efforts of this nature of Estonians abroad didn't end until Russian troops had left the country in 1994 and Estonia was admitted to NATO in 2004. (To be continued.)