Estonia during World War II

by Erin Hubbard, February 2001


For many countries during World War II, remaining neutral and avoiding conflict was not a choice, as the great powers occupied and consequently devastated all territory thought to be helpful in winning the war. The Soviet occupation and annexation of Estonia in 1940 destroyed the country politically, economically, and socially. This destruction was so large scale that the Estonians actually welcomed the Germans, Estonia’s historical enemy, when the Nazis took over in 1941. “To say anything positive to ‘balance’ the account of the first year of Soviet occupation of Estonia, I would have to lie,” said Estonian author Rein Taagepera, “It was an unmitigated disaster,” (Taagepera 68).


Hoping to stay out of the war and keep the independence it won during the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918, Estonia signed neutrality treaties in 1939 with both the German and Soviet powers. Aside to signing such treaties, Estonia had no other way to defend its neutrality, for it was a small state with a small military. It’s location between Germany and the Soviet Union, along with its coastline made it vulnerable to occupation and, despite neutrality agreements, both superpowers secretly planned a takeover of the Baltic States. In June 1940, while the Germans were preoccupied with the conquest of France, Stalin ordered Soviet forces to occupy the Baltic States. The occupation was based on false accusations that the Baltic States were violating their pacts and secretly plotting against the Soviet Union (Smith 70-73).


Immediately following the occupation of Estonia, the Soviets began to form pro-Soviet government cabinets. Estonia’s Päts government was disassembled and Estonian leader Konstantin Päts was deported to Soviet Russia. Non-Communist members of the government were systematically arrested and replaced by Soviet leaders. Stalin ordered his military to take the place of all Estonian police and had several Estonian senior administrators and army officers fired. The only high-level officials allowed to keep their jobs were Communist. All other parties had been outlawed.


To reduce Estonian resistance, the Soviets initially denied any intention to annex Estonia and even held fake elections, pretending to uphold existing electoral laws. At these elections, people could only select candidates from the communist party, as all other parties were illegal. In several districts, the ballots carried the name of only one Soviet candidate, while in other areas, the presence of Soviet Army personnel in polling rooms affected voter decision. This was in sharp contrast to Estonia’s election of 1938, in which several parties participated, and voters did not fear punishment for voting a particular way (Taagepera 62).


Once complete control over the Estonian government had been established, the greedy Soviets decided to take the next step and incorporate the country into the Soviet Union. For many Estonians who had helped fight for Estonia’s independence only two decades ago, annexation was their worst fear. On July 21, 1940, the Soviet-controlled government of Estonia applied to become part of the Soviet Union. After pretending to ponder Estonia’s request for a few days, the Soviet Union admitted Estonia to the USSR on August 6, 1940. During the first year of Sovietization, Estonia’s economy was completely restructured based on Communist values. All private companies were taken over by the government and individual craftsworkers were forced to join cooperative artels. Bank accounts exceeding 1,000 rubles (equivalent to about 400 USD in 1992) were confiscated, as was land in excess of 75 acres. Salary increase for low-income workers seemed to be one of the only positive of results of Sovietization. However, price increases soon exceeded the salary increases, and the Estonians were worse off than ever. Although the Soviets claimed to be redistributing wealth, any confiscated money or property was used to finance the war.


Not only did the Soviets reduce Estonian purchasing power by literally emptying their bank accounts, but also they significantly lowered the value of Estonia’s currency. Prior to Soviet occupation, the Estonians had received ten to fifteen rubles for one Estonian kroon, but now they only received 1.25 rubles per kroon. The Soviet Army was able to buy large amounts of Estonian goods inexpensively with their rubles, causing shortages of food, textiles, and other necessities. Housing also became very scarce as Estonian residents were kicked out to make room for colonial military and civilian personnel. Shortages combined with low wealth resulted in mass starvation and homelessness (Taagepera 65).


Unfortunately, poverty was not the worst problem for Estonians, for there existed the far worse fate of deportation. The first deportees were leading members of political, military, religious, educational and administrative institutions. People of any social standing who made critical comments were arrested, as they supposedly threatened Soviet power. Soon the Soviets began indiscriminate mass deportation, causing Estonian citizens to live in constant fear. On June 14, 1941, 6,640 people were deported in a single night. Neither social class, nor sex, nor age could save an Estonian living during World War II. Woman and children were “exiled” in equal numbers to men who were “arrested.” After long boxcar rides where many died en route, the men usually ended up in slave labor camps, while the women and children had to suffer the cold on Siberian collective farms. By the end, 61,000 Estonians had been deported, and 30,000 had left the country on their own, knowing their fate if they had they stayed (Smith 87, Kasekamp 133).


Although several were lucky enough to escape deportation, they had to live under oppressive Soviet terms. Thousands of books in history, politics, philosophy, and fiction were removed from bookstores and libraries, and burned under Soviet supervision. Schools were taken over, and new Soviet-based curriculum was installed. Because the Soviets now had complete control of the press, the number of newspapers was reduced and the few that remained contained one-sided propaganda. Existing cultural organizations were replaced with groups of Soviet writers, composers, and artists. The years of hard work Estonians had spent winning independence and developing their state had been completely lost to the Soviets.


When the Germans finally arrived in August of 1941, the Estonians welcomed them with fairly open arms. The Germans were actually historical enemies with Estonia, but the distressed Estonians saw the Nazi occupation as a way to end Soviet control, and possibly regain independence. Unfortunately, the Estonians were gravely mistaken. Although the Germans succeeded in moving the Soviets out of Estonia, conditions remained the same, for the German treatment was just as bad. About 5,000 Estonians were either murdered by German soldiers or sent to concentration camps. The property that had been stolen by the Soviets was simply taken over by the Germans, and censorship was just as strict. “Apart from being allowed to fly the national flag, Estonia was treated as another conquered part of the USSR,” (Taagepera, 69). The color of the soldiers’ uniforms, or even the side for which they were fighting mattered little to the countries occupied and devastated by the great powers of World War II. In the eyes of the Estonians, the Soviet and the German powers were exactly the same. They wanted power and victory for themselves, and did not care about the freedom of other states. They both had the same goals, and they both caused the same terror for millions of innocent people during the war.


Works Cited

  • Encyclopedia Americana, 10th vol., “Estonia.”

  • Kasekamp, Andres, The Radical Right in Interwar Estonia (New York: St. Martin’s Press Inc., 2000), 132-133.

  • Smith, Graham, The Baltic States (New York: St. Martin’s Press Inc., 1994), 69-75, 86-88.

  • Taagepera, Rein, Estonia: Return to Independence (San Francisco: Westview Press Inc., 1993), 58-69.



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