History of Estonia up to the 50’s of the 20th century


Estonians belong to the Baltic nations only in the political sense, but language-wise their closest relations are the Finns and the Karelians, with whom they make up the Finnish-Baltic subgroup, belonging to the Finnish-Permean group of the Ungro-Finnish language family. It is not known when the ancestors of the Estonians came to the Baltic coast from their ancestral home of the Volga meander at the Kama river basin. The original ancestors of the Estonians also lived in modern-day Latvia, especially near the coast. The descendants of these peoples were the Livians who survived only in the Courlandian Cape region.

The history of Estonia is connected with the history of Latvia and Scandinavia, while the past of Lithuania, the third Baltic country, distances itself from the Estonians and the Latvians and comes in close contact with Belarus, Ukraine, and Poland.

The tribes of Estonians did not create a single state organism. In the places which they inhabited, Vikings and later Swedes and Danes established trade posts. From the east the Kievan Rus’ tried to conquer the Estonians and prince Jaroslav even established the town of Juriev (1030) on the territory, briefly seized from the Estonians. In the XII century German tradesmen, especially from Lübeck competed with the Danes and Swedes in Estonia. These tradesmen also began the process of Christianization of the country. Bishop Albert and his Livonian Order of the Brothers of the Sword from Riga led the crusades against the Estonians (1208-1227) but he was unable to conquer them by himself so he aligned himself with Waldemar, king of Denmark, who landed in Estonia in 1219 and established the fortress of Revel. At that time only the northern part of the country, (Harjumaa, Järvamaa and Virumaa) conquered by the Danes was known as Estonia and the lands in the south, conquered by the Order were part of Livonia (from Pôltsamaa to Daugava), which got its name from the coastal Livonians; in time they were assimilated by the Estonians and Latvians living further inland, in its northern part (from Valga to Pôltsamaa) and in the southern (from Valga to Daugava) Finally the Order conquered the Estonian islands (1227) The later to-be Tartu and Vőru regions were part of the Tartu bishopric, and the islands and the Lääne region were part of the Saare-Läänemaa bishopric. The Järvamaa region later came to be ruled by the Livonian Order of the Brothers of the Sword, which although later (1237) combined with another Order of the Brothers of the Sword, known as the Teutonic Order, by the pope, still maintained a great deal of autonomy. Similarly the Danish vassals in the northern part of the country enjoyed a substantial amount of independence from the king. The Estonians lost their own elders, who were either assimilated or died and remained only peasants, while the knights, clergy, and the middle class were German, and that is why German was also the official language.

In 1345 the Order bought the regions of Harjumaa and Virumaa from the king of Denmark. The term Livonia was then used to refer to the whole of Estonian and Latvian lands (Estonia, Livonia, Courland) The properties of the bishopric in those territories were thought of as countries themselves; the bishops together with the Order made up the Livonian Confederacy. John Muhlhausen, the bishop of Lääne-Saaremaa, sold his bishopric to the king of Denmark (1559) and he in turn sold it to his brother, who also bought some of the land of the Tallinn bishopric. At the same time the Estonian nobles, (in Viru, Järva, Harju) terrified by the conquest of Narva and Tartu by Ivan the Terrible, along with Tallinn surrendered to Sweden (1561). The Swedish – Russian war ended with the reclaiming of Estonia and Narva (1583). The Swedish province of Estonia encompassed the lands of Viru, Järva, Harju and Lääne, however the island of Saaremaa remained a part of Denmark. The last Livonian grandmaster, Gothard Kettler, secularized the Order and surrendered to Poland and Lithuania, giving them the Inflanty that is Livonia proper (1561). Over this territory a Russian-Polish war later erupted, which ended with the defeat of Ivan the Terrible (1582). Livonia along with its Estonian part (Tartumaa, Vôrumaa, Viljandimaa and Pärnumaa) became part of Poland (check: Latvia, History).

When Sigismund III Vasa, king of Sweden and Poland, made Estonia a part of his kingdom (1600), Sweden which was now ruled by Charles IX (1599) began a war with Poland to reclaim Estonia and acquire Livonia. Due to battles, fought with changing luck, Swedes finally conquered Parnava (1621) and Tartu (1625) and next acquired the so-called Swedish Livonia, that is the province of Livonia minus the Polish Inflanty, and from Denmark they bought the island of Saaremaa (1645). All three provinces: Estonia, Livonia, and Saaremma were granted national parliaments by the king of Sweden, for the nobles-possessors (in Livonia also for cities). Charles XI (1660-1697) reclaimed crown lands, previously seized by the nobles; in Saaremma three-fourths, and in Estonia two-fifths of the land was given over to the state. In state-owned properties serfs fared better than before. A secondary school was established in Tallinn (1631) and a university in Tartu (1632), where Estonian language was taught, and the sons of peasants could become pastors. A network of diocese schools was also established (1690-1700) and teachers for those schools were educated. Charles IX even financed the publishing of a first book in Estonian (The New Testament). At the same time Johan Hornung set up rules for Estonian orthography and cleansed the language of German loan-words. The beginning of a national rebirth however, was halted by the Great Northern War (1700-1721).

In the year 1700, tsar Peter I, attacked Narva and then occupied Estonia (1710). On the grounds of the Nystadt peace treaty (1721), three provinces became part of Russia. The tsar guaranteed autonomy to the German nobility and returned estates to their previous owners. The situation of the Estonian peasants worsened greatly. The German barons gained the right to keep a register of the Estonian nobility; from now on, only representatives of the registered families could benefit from the privileges bestowed upon the province. All of the administration, police, and jurisdiction in the country now lay solely in their hands. However, bills passed by the Landtags (state assemblies) had to be approved by the tsar, who was represented by governor general. Starting in 1775, the governor of Livonia also became the governor of Estonia, and in 1781 also of Courland. In Estonia executive authority lay with the Committee of Barons, chosen in districts and by the assembly. From that time the nobility of the Inflanty became one of the most ardent supporters of the Russian Empire.

From the end of the XVIII century Estonian lands developed quickly, thanks to the growing of flax, and especially of potatoes, which were used in the alcohol-distilling industry, supplying the market in St. Petersburg. The expansion of the estates continued at the expense of peasants. However, under pressure from the tsar, the Landtag of Estonia passed the bill „Iggaüks”, which guaranteed the peasants the right of property ownership and ever-lasting usage of grounds connected with it. Under the influence of the peasant mutiny in Harjumaa (1805) and renaissance tendencies prevalent at that time, it was decided that serfdom would be abolished. However, such a bill was only passed by the Landtag, after the Napoleonic Wars and under pressure from the tsar (25.05.1816). At the same time the nobility gained unlimited property rights as far as land and used it to remove the peasants from better land plots and enlarge their estates (1824-1845). The peasants although, they were theoretically free, could not leave the villages and so towns remained German. Moreover seniority jurisdiction was kept in place. The new law also forced the peasants to choose surnames, and since this was mostly done by their masters, many Estonians received Swedish and German surnames. In 1845 the laws were codified and the tsar once again confirmed the rights and privileges of the provinces.

The hardships faced by the peasants caused them to convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church, as they believed it would make it easier for them to get their own land (1848). In all 65 thousand Estonian peasants left the Protestant Church, but since their situation did not improve the conversions lessened. The tsar was favorably disposed towards the converts, but did not facilitate their lives any, since due to his fears of a revolution, he renewed his alliance with the barons and the local Church. Based on this Jan Leinberg’s (Maltsvet’s) religious movement was born, which led its followers to Crimea, so that there, they could receive land.

When after Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War, reforms were begun, the Estonian Parliament, enacted a new agrarian bill (1856), which came into to force on the Feast of St John in 1858. According to this bill, all of the land was once again the property of the landowner. The plots of land which were used by the peasants could be leased out to them by the owner (also for work being done on the manor) or sold: at the same time the landowners gained the right to decrease peasant land plots by one-sixth, but only to maintain servants on the manor. The reform was to be realized during a ten-year period. Additional services were also kept in place, which caused a great deal of peasant unrest. In response, the authorities, staged public whippings, but the manumission in Russia (1861), brought about the removal of additional services. The peasants finally gained the right to move about freely (1863), and also the right to be independent of their masters’ supervision, who lost the right of corporal punishment. Finally leases were to be brought to an end, in exchange for working off the serfdom (1868).

At last, the real development of towns could begin, as well as the changing of their national character: in 1871 Estonians already accounted for 51.8% of Tallinn’s inhabitants (in 1897- 88.7%). At the same time in Tartu, the Estonian population increased from 46.3% (1867) to 70.8% (1897). Three-fourths of the town population was based in these two towns. Estonian middle class began developing. A boom in the market for linen and potatoes caused the textile and alcohol-distilling industry to develop, and it also increased the peasants’ wealth, as they were now able to purchase land from landowners, who were in debt and bankrupt. To the year 1900, 11 thousand land plots were bought in Estonia, and 23 thousand in Livonia. Another, whole class was the agrarian one, which emigrated mainly to Russia, where 200 thousand Estonians lived by 1914.

Already in 1730, the Church required that those receiving the Holy Communion, be able to read, but the state of the rural educational system was quite bad. Most often sacristians became teachers in village schools. Only in 1816, did the Estonian Landtag introduce mandatory education, and order primary schools to be opened in all places with a population of over a thousand. In those schools, Estonian was the language most often used. The teaching, however, did not go beyond, religious instruction and the ability to read and write. The Catechism was first published in Estonian and Livonian to serve as a teaching tool (1845-1848), and Estonian was taught at the Pskovian seminary. The laws and ordinances of the government were also promulgated in local languages.

In the latter part of the XIX century, municipal, higher parochial, town and regional schools were introduced. The training of professional teachers also began, which in practice meant that education was no longer the domain of the Church. The national authorities also established Russian-language schools (1870-1880). Besides those schools, and an institute for girls in Pärnu (1880), in all other schools, German was the language of choice and Estonian was only allowed as a supplementary language during the first years of education.

In 1838 The Estonian Scientific Association was established in Tartu. Its goal was to study Estonian history, language, and literature. In the years 1857-1861, it published the national Estonian poem Kalevipoeg, which was edited by the poet Fr. R. Kreutzwald, and was the local version of the Finnish Kalevala. Starting in 1848 the Association annually published about 32 books and pamphlets, in Estonian. In 1856 this number grew to 48 and in 1883 to 78.

Waldemar Jannsen (1819-1890) founded the weekly magazine Pärnu Postimees (1857). Later it was moved to Tartu (1864) and became known as the Eesti Posimees (The Estonian Herald). Jannsen was the first to use the expression „Estonian nation” rather than the previously used „country folk”. This is how the Estonian national movement was born, which in its first years of existence limited itself to organic work and to fighting against the domination of German culture and nobility. Due to this situation, the Russian authorities were looked upon by the Estonians as a potential ally, and until the revolution of 1905 the national movement as a whole remained loyal to the tsar.

Jaan Adamson, a teacher from Viljandimaa, proposed (1860) to establish a school with Estonian as the language of instruction to honor the memory of Tsar Alexander I. Since the German nobility protested, the tsar did not allow public money collections to begin until 9 years after the proposal. It was finished in 1884, but the 100 thousand rubles collected was taken over by the state and given to a Russian school. However this event played a major role in the forming of the national movement, because throughout the country collection committees were set up, and they were in fact the driving force behind national activity. The chairman of the main committee was a pastor, Jakob Hurt, who at the same time presided over The Association of Estonian Writers (Eesti Kirjameeste Selts), founded in Tartu in 1872. It published Estonian school books and popular literature. Other centers of national activity were choir associations and economic institutions, especially agrarian unions and credit unions.

In the first generation of national activists, main roles were played by pastors (e.g. Hurt), who in the Germanized church, were dependent of the German hierarchy. This caused a reaction by the younger priests and activists, who criticized Estonian preachers. The fight against German pastors also affected Estonian pastors and in time the church itself as well as religion. Allies, on the other hand, were found among the Russian authorities. The trend was represented by M. Veske and Carl Robert Jakobson (1841-1882), who became the chairman of the collecting committee, and subsequently removed Hurt from it (1881). Jakobson spoke out against the teachings of the church and religious coverage. He also proposed to free the schools from the tutelage of pastors and landowners. According to him, pastors should be chosen by the municipality itself, which would diminish the influence of the Germans in the church. Furthermore he called for, schools to teach in Estonian, and for them to introduce Russian as well, allowing Estonian in the law courts, and for the creation a single Estonian province.(Local Government) with a peasant representation. Later, Jakobson founded his own magazine Sakala in Viljandi in 1878. After his death, his work was continued by Veske.

Until 1880 German was the official language of the Baltic provinces. When he assumed the throne in 1881, Alexander III did not confirm the privileges of the Baltic nobility, which meant the breaking of an alliance with the nobles, and the beginning of the process of Russification. This policy came as the result of the constant worsening of Russian-German relations on the arena of international politics. The tsar used the Estonian movement to break the political position of the German barons. This process of favoring the Estonian national movement albeit short, did allow the movement to toughen at the decisive moment. Russification also was not as dangerous as Germanization as it was not the bearer of a more attractive civilization.

As part of the new policy, state jurisdiction, justices of peace, and a court of appeals in St. Petersburg were introduced (1889). Russian became the official language and Russian officials were brought in to administer the country. Russification of private and state schools was carried out both at the primary and secondary level (1883-1890), and they were now to be under the control of the ministry of education. Pastors were only allowed to teach religious instruction; for all other subjects teachers were brought in from Russia. Estonian was allowed to be used in the first two classes for religious instruction and to teach the mother tongue. The German university in Dorpat was gradually Russified, beginning in 1889. The privileges of the Lutheran church were limited and pastors were punished for re-admitting previous converts (35 out of 100 thousand Estonians converted back to Protestantism).

The national movement supported the tsar’s reforms at first, as they were directed at German domination, but Russification led to a changing of attitudes. J. Korv, who, in 1882 founded the anti-German magazine Valgus (Light) in Tallinn supported Russification, claiming that Estonians should dissolve amongst the Slavic peoples. Part of the national movement activists also supported Russification due to a lack of perspectives for the movement. One of them, Grenzstein, even created a theory about the „national inadequacy” of Estonians. Those who were opposed to the pastors also favored Russian reforms. In order to fight this opposition pastor J. Hurt, tried to persuade Russia, to shut down the anti-church collecting committees, advising the minister of internal affairs to do so (1884). Later the Russian authorities closed down the Writers’ Association (1893). Reaching an agreement with Russia, therefore, became impossible for the national movement.

Early economic crisis, greatly affected the peasants who were the foundation of the national rebirth movement, and the Russification of rural teachers and lower-level officials, caused the collapse of the Estonian national movement and its institutions.

In Tallinn, the attorney Konstantin Päts (1874-1956) started publishing the magazine Teataja (10.11.1901), which brought together Estonian socialists, radicals and democrats. They believed that Estonians should get involved in the struggle of Russian democrats, rather than only be engaged in local affairs, which caused Päts to be criticized for Russophilia. Estonians won the elections to the Tallinn City Council (1904): Jaan Poska became governor and Päts became deputy governor. Estonians gained majority in the Tallinn City Council, and later in Rakvere and Vôru. In 1905 P.Speek and J.Ast founded the Estonian Socialdemocratic Party, whose legal organ, was Uudised (News), published in Tartu for the last two years.

Estonia actively participated in the revolution of 1905; a general strike erupted in Tallinn (12.01.1905), Tônisson founded the National Liberal Party, and during its Congress (27.11.1905) it split into two: national liberals (Tônisson) and socialists (Jaan Teemat). Both parties called for the creation of a separate Estonian province, and for the parceling of state-owned land among peasants. National circles (Postimees) were against becoming involved in „Russian affairs” i.e. revolution in the empire, but socialists called for active participations in fighting and in the destruction of estates owned by the German barons. Päts was somewhere in the middle on this issue, but this did not protect him from being sentenced to death (as was Teemat) by a default judgment.

Five Estonians and no Germans were elected to the first two State Dumas, (1906, 1907) whereas after the changing of the electoral law, two Estonians were elected to the III and IV State Duma. (1907, 1912) The situation in the educational system changed as Estonian was allowed as a language of instruction in municipal schools (1905) and in private schools (1906).In 1910, 36 Estonian schools existed and they had 2800 students. National theaters were also built in Tartu, (1906) Pärnau (1911) and Tallinn (1913).Over a million copies of Estonian books were published annually. Such a wide cultural activity was possible thanks to very prosperous agricultural unions, peasant associations, and political activity; economic institutions became the centers of national activity. Early demands did not go beyond Päts’s project which called for the equal representation of nobility and peasants in the provincial administration.

After the victorious February Revolution (1917) soldiers’ councils were established in Russian garrisons in Estonia, as well as workers’ councils among the local proletariat. Poska, a member of the National-Liberal party was appointed as the Commissar of the Provisional Government in Estonia. Estonians prepared a proposal for autonomy (18.03.1917), which after a huge demonstration in St. Petersburg, (also involving 15 thousand Estonian soldiers from the local garrison 26.03) was ratified by the Provisional Government (30.03). Furthermore Estonian lands were unified into a single province in April. New Estonia received its own legislative body, (Riigikogu) elected in a two-step process: the Electoral College elected regional representatives and council – men to the local government, and representatives to the Riigikogu from towns were chosen by the town councils.

In the meantime councils of delegates, which were becoming increasingly Bolshevisized (especially in Russian garrisons), tried to influence Commissar Poska, supported by national elements and rural communities. On July 2nd, both the Parliament and the Peoples’ Congress convened in Tallinn. It included representatives of administrative organs (councils of delegates, electors, and town councils) and it acknowledged both the elections and Poska, which caused the Bolsheviks from the councils of delegates to leave the council chamber. A National Congress began on July 4th, which included all those of Estonian nationality, which took part in the previous congress. The Congress set forth a number of demands such as: the federalization of Russia, the formation of Estonian military units, an Estonian section at the University of Tartu, the introduction of Estonian as an official language and the language of instruction, and the division of state and manor land among peasants (after compensation).

In April of 1917, with the permission of the government, the organization of national military forces began. All Estonian soldiers, stationed throughout Russia, had the right to return to Estonia and join those forces. The Riigikogu also created national administration. In September parliamentary representatives were joined by town representatives, among which there were some Bolsheviks. In October, the parliament elected a bureau with Otto Strandman as its head, and also a national government led by K. Päts, however the Bolsheviks led by Viktor Kingissep seized power in Tallinn (27.10). Elections to the Russian Constituent Assembly gave the Bolsheviks 40% of votes, but those to the Estonian Constituent Assembly only 30% (January 1918). Bolsheviks unleashed terror and seized the administration, but the Estonian parliament still existed.

When the Bolsheviks, due to class issues, made the German nobility exempt from the law, and began taking repressive measures against them, the German army entered Estonia. After the departure of the Bolsheviks, and before the arrival of the Germans, Estonian organizations briefly took control of the capital. The Council of Seniors of Riigikogu in cooperation with all of the political parties decided to proclaim independence, hoping in vain that such an act would save Estonia from German occupation. The manifest was ready by February 19th; however it was not publicized until February 23rd in Pärnu, and on the evening of February 24th in Tallinn. By virtue of this manifest the Council of Seniors gave all of the legislative and executive authority over to the Rescue Committee, which was headed by Päts, J.Wilms, and K. Konik, and which subsequently declared Estonia’s neutrality and appointed a government with Päts as the Prime Minister. However by March 5th all of Estonia was taken over by the Germans, the authorities and Estonian military were disbanded and any governmental activities were forbidden. German was introduced as the official language, schools were Germanized, and control of the country was given over to the local German population. They proposed the establishment of the Duchy of Estonia, Livonia, and Courland, which would remain in a personal union with the King of Prussia. Päts and Wilms were arrested, while Konik was executed.

First Tônisson (January 1918), and later other members of the Estonian government and representatives came to Stockholm, in order to reach an agreement with the Western allies, who recognized de facto authority of the Riigikogu.

After a revolution in Germany (9.11.1918), the Estonian government reached an agreement with the representative of the new German government August Winnig, and with German soldier councils as regards to their return to Germany as well as the government taking control of administration in Estonia. At the same time the Bolsheviks took control of Narva (22.11.1918), where they proclaimed the formation of Soviet Estonia (27.11).

The government declared mobilization and received aid from the British navy as well. Furthermore volunteers came from Sweden, Denmark, and Finland, and the Russian North Army began forming. In December the Bolsheviks took control of Tartu, and in January of 1919 they controlled most of the country (up to the line Talli – Viljandi – Pärnu). The Estonian counter-offensive began on January 7th and led to the liberation of Narva (19.01.1919) and Petseri (4.02). The Estonian army next liberated Latvia, going all the way to Riga, and defeating the forces under von der Goltz in the process (26-05-05.06.1919), and those under Avalov in October. Next the army took part in the „White” offensive on Saint Petersburg. After defending Narva against the Bolshevik counter-strike an armistice was signed (31.12.1919) and finally a peace treaty in Tartu (2.02.1920), according to which Soviet Russia recognized the independence of Estonia, and relinquished all claims to its territory.

Besides Estonians the following minorities made up the new nation: Russian 8.2%, German 1.7%, Swedish 0.7% and Jewish 0.4%. Russians lived in the Petseri region, on the left bank of the Narva River and in Tallinn. From the 16 thousand Germans, 6.5 thousand lived in Tallinn (40%). National minorities numbering over 3 thousand acquired the rights to their own schools maintained by the state. A democratic constitution was passed, but it gave too much power to the parliament, which made for unstable governments. The situation was made worse by extremists: communists, who with the aid of Soviets tried to stage a coup (1924), and fascists, recruited mostly from the right-wing League of Veterans of the War of Independence – VAPS (veterans). The League’s proposals of changing the constitution received 56.3% votes in a referendum (October 1933). In March of 1934 president Päts took advantage of the new changes in order to declare a state of emergency, disband the League, and arrest its leaders. He ruled by the use of decrees. A new Parliament (1936) passed a new constitution (1937), which introduced bi-cameral parliament, with only the lower chamber being elected. The opposition garnered 17 out of 80 mandates, its most prominent members being Tõnisson and Teemant. The other seats in parliament were won by the pro-government Patriotic League, founded by Päts in 1935. He was then elected president for a 6-year term.

The agricultural reform passed in 1919, greatly limited the power of the German barons. The state took over 97% of the manor lands, after compensation, and divided it among peasants, thanks to which the number of farms grew from 52 thousand (1919) to 140 thousand, its average size being 56 acres. Estonia’s export economy based on agriculture developed at this time, producing for markets in England and Germany. Wealthy countryside became the fundament for state economy.

Estonia concluded a defense treaty with Latvia (1923) and Lithuania (1934), forming the Baltic Entente, but the agreements remained on paper, as Estonia felt most threatened by the Soviets, especially after 1924, while Latvia and Lithuania by the Germans, and Lithuania itself by Poland, with whom the other two members had good relations.

According to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Estonia became part of the Soviet sphere of influence (23.08.1939). Under threat from the Red Army, Estonia accepted the Soviet ultimatum and signed an agreement of mutual aid, allowing Soviet Union to station a garrison of 25 thousand troops, and handing over naval and air bases (28.09.1939). After the second ultimatum which was also accepted (16.06.1940), in which Stalin demanded the changing of the government and allowing for more Red Army units, the Red Army occupied Estonia (17.06) and real authority was given over to the Moscow-sent Andrei Zhdanov. Under pressure from a „spontaneous uprising”, organized by the Soviets (21.06), Päts appointed the leftist writer Johannes Vares as Prime Minister, although communists did not yet take part in the government. The NKVD took the president deep into Russia (he died in prison in 1956, and his remains did not return to Estonia until 21.10.1990.), and his duties were also preformed by Vares. After Soviet-style elections (14-15.07.1940), the formation of Soviet Estonia was proclaimed (21.07), and quickly it was requested that it be admitted to the Soviet Union, to which the High Council gladly agreed (3.08). Terrorizing of the Estonian elites began; the NKVD conducted the first exportation which encompassed 10 thousand people (14.06.1941). In all due to exportations, evacuations and repressions (officially 2 thousand were executed, 30 thousand, among them 5.5 thousand soldiers, sent to labor camps) 60 thousand Estonians died.

When Germans crossed Estonia’s border (7.07.1944), an uprising, in which 50 thousand partisans took part, erupted. Tartu was freed on the 10th of July, and was not taken over by the Germans until the 28th. Before the coming of a new occupant Estonian National Council led by Jüri Uluots, the last independent Prime Minister, was formed. However under pressure from the Germans both the National Council, and Estonian military units were disbanded.

Karl Litzmann appointed Commissar of Estonia (December 1941), against Hitler’s orders, formed an independent government under the Estonian fascist leader Hjalmar Mäe (15.09.1941- September 1944). Between 1942 and 1943 Germans formed the Estonian Legion which at its peak numbered 11 thousand soldiers and fought on the eastern front. In 1944 Germans tried to mobilize Estonians but only after an appeal from Uluots (February 1944), 38 thousand Estonians joined the Germans as volunteers to fight against the Soviets. Out of those only 28 thousand came to be armed by the Germans. They were supposed to be used at the Narva line. In all 70 thousand Estonians were part of the Hilfswillige force. Estonian politicians hoped against hope that the situation from 1919 will repeat itself and that the Soviet Army will be stopped, while its main forces going west will bypass Estonia. By that time they hoped, the allies would intervene on Estonia’s behalf. This is why in conspiracy The National Republican Committee was formed (March 1944), which then set up a provisional government with Otto Tief, a former minister of justice, as the Prime Minister, and appointed Uluots as president (18.09.1944). When Wehrmacht announced its evacuation, Tief passed a declaration returning Estonia’s sovereignty (20.09) and Estonian forces took up positions around Tallinn. However they were quickly beaten and Soviets took control of the capital (22.09). Members of the government, other than the president who managed to escape, were arrested and murdered. Since the beginning of the war 60 thousand Estonians fled their country, about half of those to Sweden and Finland. From among the former, 3 thousand fought the Soviets in the Finnish army as volunteers.

Deportation connected with collectivization (1949) affected 60 thousand people: in all during the 1944/1945 period 30 thousand Estonians were either deported or killed. A further 80 thousand was deported in the years 1946-1953. 15 thousand Estonians was killed fighting on the German side, while 10 thousand were killed by them, among those 2 thousand Estonian Jews. Resistance against Sovietization mostly took the form of partisan movements, in which 30 thousand Estonian soldiers participated, up to 10 thousand at once, especially in the Järvamaa and Tartumaa regions. Eesti Vabariigi Rahvuskomitee (National Committee of the Republic of Estonia) being both in Sweden and a political organization, could not direct the armed struggle. The nucleus of the partisan movement was formed in Pärnumaa and Viljandimaa – Eesti Vabastamise Komitee (Estonia Liberation Committee). The driving force behind its forming was major L. Henriksoo, while its most active unit a group led by Ants Mets in Viljandimaa. In 1945 both of them were discovered and destroyed by the NKVD.

At that time, a new resistance movement center, led by Endel Redlich was established in Läänemaa. It became known as Relvastatud Voitluse Liit (Association of Armed Struggle) and was active in the Läänemaa, Harjumaa, Pärnumaa and Virumaa area. Redlich went into hiding during German occupation and established a network of forest outposts, which he now used to build the new organization. It controlled 38 municipalities and its influence reached all the way to Tallinn, where the RVL outpost was run by Vello Malmre. He also recruited members in Vőrumaa and Hiiumaa.

Other than Redlich, members of the RVL staff included Endel Karell, Jaan Illaste, Mihkel Saasalu, and Viktor Rumjantsev. The organization functioned without any major mishaps until the beginning of 1948, when by accident the NKVD stumbled upon it and arrested between 150-200 members. However the RVL leadership managed to evade capture and it was not until February 27th 1949 that 9 members of staff and Rumjantsev were eliminated. Redlich was not killed at that time, because he was not present at the general headquarters bunker, and was not captured until June of 1949.

Richard Saaliste, a representative of the National Committee of the Republic of Estonia, was at that time in close contact with the RVL. Now he took over the leadership of the organization. Saaliste was in hiding together with his wife, his brother and his wife and her sister, in a forest bunker located 7 kilometers from the town of Vandra. On December 14th 1949 the bunker was surrounded and its inhabitants were killed in battle. After Saaliste’s death one of his close aides Erich Jarlet took over leadership of the organization. In a small RVL group he fought until 1951. Jarlet was shot in 1953, and the last members of the organization were killed then as well. It was the end of the RVL partisan epic.

In 1946 the partisans were still able to paralyze the local administration (e.g. the taking over of the town of Kilingi-Nomme in Pärnumaa). The amount of fighting did not diminish greatly until 1950. In 1954 the largest partisan unit, the „Orion” group, led by Jaan Rootsi, was destroyed. In 1956 a group of the partisans who still lived decided to carry on with the resistance until the end, while others tried to escape behind the Iron Curtain. The last partisan August Sabe was killed in 1978. Sabe hid in the forest to escape Soviet mobilization of 1941, and took part in the resistance movement, helping to establish the „Vatseliina Republic”. When in 1944 it was the turn for German mobilization, Sabe again went into the forest to join anti-Soviet partisan groups. After the amnesty of 1945, he briefly came back to civil life, but constantly haunted by members of the NKVD, who wanted to force him to co-operate with them, he joined the „forest brothers” for the third time. He was part of the „Orion” group led by Rootsi, when it was trapped and destroyed in 1954. After that Sabe did not join anymore groups. After a time also his aides were killed and until his death he lived alone in the forest.

The partisan war claimed 15 thousand lives. The overall losses in population caused the number of Estonians in Estonia to drop from about 1 million (1939) to 0.8 million (1945). According to calculations published after regaining independence, between the years of 1941-1949, the KGB arrested about 85 thousand people, from among those 38%, that is 30400 were murdered or died. This data however does not cover war losses. After the suppression of the partisan movement, between the years of 1955-1958 nine youth resistance organizations existed in Estonia, created by secondary school students, mostly Tartu and Tallinn.

These groups can be thought of as sort of a continuance in relation to the partisan movement as they still preached the ideas of armed struggle, but in practice their activity was limited to the passing of leaflets with patriotic content.

Among the youth organizations the most prominent were Kotkad (Eagles) Underground Committee of Estonian Partisan Youth (Eesti Vabariigi Noorte Partisanide Porandaalune Komitee) Malev of Estonian Youth and Estonian Association of Freedom Fighters (Eesti Vabadusvojtlejate Liit). Kotkad was established in 1953 by twelfth grade students of the XXII Tallinn Secondary School. In 1955 the organization had 20 members. One of them, Erik Udan, already a student at the University of Technology, was arrested (17.10.1955). During an inspection, only anti-soviet materials were found at his house, and although he was sentenced to six years in prison, in April of 1956 control commission set him free. Kotkad remained undiscovered and continued its activity. It was also decided that Udan would remain an active member. Thanks to graphologic expertise of the Kotkad leaflets the KGB managed to arrest some other members of the organization.

On March 22nd in Viljandi, Ants Porka and Endel Audl, students of a local secondary school for working youth were arrested. Pamphlets belonging to the Underground Committee of Estonian Partisan Youth were found at their house. 29 people were under investigation. Porka and Audl were sentenced to 8 and 5 years of the gulag respectively (3.07.1955). In the III Tartu Secondary School in March of 1956 Malev of Estonian Youth was established. Malev was the smallest unit of the Kaitseliitu. The organization was led by Jaan Isotamm (March-September 1956) and Enn Tarto (September-December 1956), as the charter called for the changing of leadership every six months. On the night of November 4th 1956 Malev distributed leaflets in every secondary school in Tartu. Thanks to graphologic analysis the KGB arrested Heino Taniloo a member of the organization (23.12.1956), who testified against his friends. Eight people were arrested at that time, including Isotamm (25-26.12).

The Malev program, prepared by Enn Tarto called for the overthrow of the communist dictatorship by means of a national revolution, and freeing the nation from communism and from the Russian yoke.

Isotamm was sentenced to t years in gulag, Tarto to 5 years, Valdemar Kohva to 6 years, and the remaining five members received sentences of 2 to 4 years. The Estonian Association of Freedom Fighters was led by a group composed of: Tonis Mets, Jüri Parl, Tiit Toobal and Ulo Niinemets. In May of 1959 the organization numbered 26 members and had 10 pieces of fire arms. The EVL’s goals were to overthrow the communist authority, free political prisoners, and disband the kolkhozes. In order to accomplish this, the EVL propagated revolutionist ideas and formed revolutionist groups, as a prequel to an armed uprising. The EVL functioned until the beginning of 1959. Mets was arrested on May 12th 1959, and on May 9th 7 more members of the organization were arrested. In September Valdur Tearie was sentenced to 8 years in the gulag, Mets to 6 years, Parl and Endel Ratas to 4 years, Toobal and Arvo Aljas to 3 years and Niinemets to 2 years. The last organization, with a new program, was established in the gulag 7-1 in Mordweie. It took on the name of Association of Estonian Nationalists (Eesti Rahvuslatse Litt, ERL). Eleven members of the organization, from the years 1955-1958, were in camp, as well as those who resisted individually such as Mart Niklus. The founding group consisted of: Taivo Uibo, Tarto and E.K. Läänearu (6.01.1959). Uibo became president of the ERL, and Tarto, Erik Udam and Valdo Reinart became his lieutenants. ERL was discovered and eliminated in 1962. Uibo was sentenced to 6 years in the gulag, Tarto and Udam to 5.5 years, J Kiik to 4.5 years, and Reinart and P.Sill to 3 years. The ERL’s battlecry was no longer that of armed struggle but rather passive resistance and protection of human rights, in this way becoming a link between the organizations of the 50’s and those of the next decades.

The program stated that „The ERL must fight actively so that the Estonian people could resists passively”. It proclaimed the battle for freedom and human rights, the spreading of free thought through the press and national ideas by word of mouth.

The Communist Party of Estonia was made up of Russians – 52% and of Estonians born or living in the Soviet Union since 1918 (Jestonians) – 26% (1946). The nativization of the Communist Party took a very long time, and it was not until 1964 that Estonians made up its majority (51%). Between the years of 1949-1952 there was a purge among the local communists, due to which, the power in the country and in the party itself lay solely with the Russians or Jestonians until 1964.



Translator: Szczepan Witaszek


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