New film about Estonians who fought in the Second World War ‘Class of 1943’ by Helga Merits

I have recently found out about this amazing new film by Helga Merits called Class of 1943 about the young Estonian men who were conscripted into the German Army in the Second World War.

This documentary film tells the story of five of the boys in class 4b of the Tartu Poeglaste gymnasium who were drafted into the German army in the summer of 1943.

As my book Changing Identities shows, many of the Estonian men who ended up in Britain had been recruited into the German Army and later found their way into the Displaced Persons Camps In Germany and Austria at the end of the war.  This is the most commonly known narrative about Estonians who fought in the Second World War.  There are also debates and discussions as to how many were forcibly conscripted and how many volunteered, seeing the Germans as the lesser of two evils.  Helga’s film looks at some young men who were forcibly recruited and shows the extent of the fight against the German occupation and the fight for liberation.  It looks to be an amazing and moving film.

I just want to highlight in this post the histories of the thousands of young Estonian men who had earlier been recruited into the Russian Army following their invasion in 1941.  This is a less commonly known aspect of the war in Estonia and the fact that there were few survivors to tell the tale has added to this.  I was lucky and privileged in the course of this project to interview one of the Estonian men who fought in the Russian army, who survived and who later came to Britain.  Out of all the interviews and people I met he was the only one I came across with this experience, and the harshness of this experience really hit home to me when hearing his story.

Recruitment to the Russian army was most extensive among the Estonian population (as opposed to Latvians or Lithuanians), due to the length of time taken by Germany to invade and occupy Estonia, during their summer offensive of the Baltic countries in 1941.  According to Milosz, while the German attack swept through Lithuania and Latvia very quickly (within two weeks), Estonia took much longer (two months and longer for the islands) ‘because the Germans had to stop to re-organise their supply lines, giving the Soviet army an opportunity to regroup at the approaches to Leningrad’.[i]  As a result, Estonia suffered considerably more destruction and casualties.  It also enabled mobilisation into the Soviet army, leading about 10,000 young Estonian men to deaths in Russian lumber camps. According to Misiunas and Taagapera, the number of Estonian recruits to the Red Army may have peaked at 18,000 (this compares to an estimated 10,000 Latvians and 5000 Lithuanians). [ii] 

Some of the recruits were captured by the Germans during the war, and held as POW’s in Germany.  A small minority were able to escape when the Western front advanced, and later found their way to DP camps in Western occupation zones.  The story of an Estonian man, now living in Britain illustrates one such displacement route.  He recounted his experiences:

...the war started, Russia started mobilising people you know, men from Estonia to take to Russia and I was waiting with the first mobilisation from Tallinn, our capital…I was called up on 2 June 1941.  So I was the first lot, but they had more after that.

…first of all they sent us all in the labour camps, and [at] that time there were terrible conditions – lack of food, cold…

And in 1942, early on anyway, February I think…they started forming the national units, Estonian first, which consisted eventually of two divisions, called Estonian Riflecorps, and first time after training and all that, first time I were in battle of Velikie Luki, which …started back end of ’42, which were encircled by Russians before, and Germans were still encircled and Estonian units were put in to fight the Germans in that circle.  Only one unit went to open front.

I was in battle 6 January.  We set off from Siberia just 23 December and we arrived just the night before the Velikie Luki by train, and then the following morning we were sent to battle.  And [laughs] I was squadron leader and they all just vanished.  We were made to storm a strong building and the Germans were in them…we didn’t have anybody left.  I got wounded and I, well I fell down in an old crater….

I was long enough in that crater.  It was snow covered and well I didn’t know what to do. I got wounded in the back with a splinter.  I could feel blood running and I didn’t know how bad it was….[iii]

He managed eventually to get out of the crater and find help for his wound. He was sent back to battle at Velikie Luki a fortnight later, where he managed to survive another battle when, by his estimates, about 2250 men out of a regiment of 3000 were killed.  After attempting to cross Lake Peipsi, which divides Estonia from Russia, he was captured by the Germans and held as a prisoner-of war.  He was taken to a POW camp in Germany, near Essen where he describes the conditions:

We were woken up at five o’clock in the morning, and then we stood in the yard till eight o’clock.

Dinner was sort of bits of potatoes and like a pig swill with blood and….[we] had a pint of that in the evenings.

I was only there three months and I only weighed 48 kilos.  I’m 80 now….[iv]

When the Western front began to advance, the Germans took their POWs back behind the lines and he managed to escape to the Allied side, where he worked in a German village for a year.  He then moved into a DP camp, before being recruited for work in a textile mill near Halifax.  After six years of war and displacement, the young man finally landed in the port of Harwich, England, on 7 September 1947.[v]

Although like all the EVW stories, this man’s experiences are unique, they give an impression of some of the ordeals endured by those recruited by the Russians and the hazardous journey from the homeland to Britain.  Very few recruits to the Russian army found safety, and indeed the Estonian man interviewed above, informed me that he was the only member of the active Estonian community in his locality in Britain, who had fought on the Russian side.

The numbers of Estonians who in comparison, fought within German army units far exceeded the numbers in the Russian Army.   According to Misiunas and Taagapera, during the whole period of the German occupation, at least 70,000 Estonians joined the German army, and more than 10,000 may have died in action.[vii]

The film by Helga Merits shows how deserters to the German army were shot and how some Estonians committed suicide rather than join up.  The unifying feature of Estonians who fought in the German Army and those who fought on the Russian side was that both wanted independence for Estonia; and their experiences must never be forgotten.

logo Merits Productions

A film by: Helga Merits
Narrator: Alan Morris
Camera: Ramaz Melasvilli
Editors: Maaki Nurmeots and Jaan Kolberg
Producers: Helga Merits and Peeter Urbla
Duration: 52 minutes

[i] Milosz, ‘Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, 1940-1980: Similarities and Differences’, p 41.

[ii] Misiunas and Taagapera state that most of the Baltic Red Army recruits were considered unreliable and were thus sent to die in labour camps.  They estimate that the peak number of ethnic Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians in Red Army combat units may have been 18,000 Estonians (of whom 800 surrendered to the Germans at Velikie Luki in December 1942), 10,000 Latvians and 5,000 Lithuanians.  (Misiunas & Taagapera, The Baltic States: Years of Dependence, p 70).

[iii] Playback No: 02, First Generation Estonian man.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Misiunas & Taagapera, The Baltic States: Years of Dependence, p 60.

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