While I waited for bread to bake the other night I decided to kill time and watch a movie I’d had sitting waiting for such a time I had quiet… Now I’m a big fan of watching movies and will watch just about anything… my four fave movie categories are (in order of preference), Science Fiction, War, Zombie, Utter Shite. I spend hours hunting for movies of the first three categories that I’ve not watched… and am overwhelmed by movies from the fourth.
A few years back I was obsessed with Finnish war films cause they are awesome, though like many of my short terms obsessions quite finite in number… I’ve since dabbled in Danish fare and by sheer luck recently had this Estonian movie find its way onto my hard drive.
Now if Saving Private Ryan is your war film reference point this movie will disappoint, for one as an english speaker it has subtitles and focuses on a series of battles in a theatre of war most westerners would never have heard of… possibly a country never heard of either. Me it ticked all my boxes – Second World War, Eastern Front, emphasis on showing tactics as they were employed not hollywood special effects… and as the huge added bonus it lead to me reading up about the conflict in question and staring at goggle maps to get a good overview of the area – for readers there is some mention of this in Beevor’s Fall Of Berlin book, if memory serves…
As a historic oddity: Many countries, including the UK and US, did not recognise the annexation of Estonia by the USSR de jure. Such countries recognised Estonian diplomats and consuls who still functioned in the name of their former governments. These diplomats persisted in this anomalous situation until the ultimate restoration of Baltic independence – in 1991, think about that… diplomats represented a country that didn’t actually really exist for 50 years, madness.
Anyways if you’re a war nerd this movie is a cracker – heaving on action rather than character development or love interest focused… the film not only shows a little thought of corner of a huge conflict, it shows just how mind boggling the repercussions of Hitler’s war were for nations and people we rarely think about.
1944 – the film
In September 1939 the Soviet Union demands the establishment of Red Army military bases on the Estonian territory. A refusal would mean a war. Estonia surrenders without a fight and is occupied. The Republic of Estonia ceases to exist.
A hope that surrendering is a way to save Estonia from war turns out to be an illusion. In World War II around 55,000 Estonians are mobilised into the Red Army and at least 72,000 into the German armed forces. Estonians are forced to fight brother against brother in a war of others – in a deadly battle between the Soviet Union and the Greater German Reich – where they have nothing to win.
The director Elmo Nüganen has created a feature film about the events of war in Estonia in 1944. The action of “1944” spans from the Battle of Tannenberg Line in July to the occupation of the Sõrve peninsula by the Red Army at the end of November. The war is depicted through the eyes of Estonians fighting on either side, in the German army and in the Red Army.
Waffen-SS* volunteer Karl Tammik is seventeen years old, when his parents and younger sister are deported to Siberia in 1941. He has a lucky escape – he’s simply not at home on the day of the deportation.
Repressions organised by the Soviet power in the years 1940 and 1941 – arrests of innocent people, deportations and executions – motivate many Estonians to join the German, their all time historic enemy. Karl is one of them. By the summer of 1944 he is an experienced frontline soldier of the Estonian 20th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS.
Jüri Jõgi, senior sergeant of the Red Army, is summoned to the Estonian Defence Forces in 1939 to perform his military service. In June 1940 his unit watches the Red Army march in.
“Without much warning, we ourselves were part of the Red Army only a couple of months later,” he says. When the war breaks out, their unit retreats towards Leningrad. In late autumn 1941 all the Estonians mobilised into the Red Army are gathered up and sent to labour battalions, where around 12,000 Estonian citizens die of hunger, disease and exhaustion, as their living conditions are worse than in prison camps.
When an Estonian body of troops – the 8th Estonian Rifle Corps – is formed in the Red Army at the beginning of 1942, it means a narrow escape for Jüri and the rest of the survivors. By the summer of 1944 Jüri has become an experienced non-commissioned officer who knows that he serves in an army where only those survive who can keep their mouth shut. The fate of the Estonian people in World War II is conveyed through the stories of these two main characters, their comrades in arms and those close to them. It’s a different story than the one of the winners or losers of the big war. In World War II Estonia loses around 300,000 people, one in four inhabitants. Nevertheless, the story has a happy ending: on August 20th 1991 the independence of the Republic of Estonia is restored without a single victim.
Wiki on this period of time
In August 1939 Joseph Stalin gained Adolf Hitler‘s agreement to divide Eastern Europe into “spheres of special interest” according to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and its Secret Additional Protocol.
On 24 September 1939, warships of the Red Navy appeared off Estonian ports and Soviet bombers began a patrol over Tallinn and the nearby countryside. The Estonian government was forced to give their assent to an agreement that allowed the USSR to establish military bases and station 25,000 troops on Estonian soil for “mutual defence”. On 12 June 1940, the order for a total military blockade on Estonia was given to the Soviet Baltic Fleet.
On 14 June, while the world’s attention was focused on the fall of Paris to Nazi Germany a day earlier, the Soviet military blockade on Estonia went into effect, two Soviet bombers downed the Finnish passenger aeroplane “Kaleva” flying from Tallinn to Helsinki carrying three diplomatic pouches from the US delegations in Tallinn, Riga and Helsinki. On 16 June, the Soviet Union invaded Estonia. The Red Army exited from their military bases in Estonia on 17 June. The following day, some 90,000 additional troops entered the country. In the face of overwhelming Soviet force, the Estonian government capitulated on 17 June 1940 to avoid bloodshed.
The military occupation of Estonia was complete by 21 June.
Most of the Estonian Defence Forces surrendered according to the orders of the Estonian government, believing that resistance was useless and were disarmed by the Red Army. Only the Estonian Independent Signal Battalion showed resistance to Red Army and Communist militia “People’s Self-Defence” units in front of the XXI Grammar School in Tallinn on 21 June. As the Red Army brought in additional reinforcements supported by six armoured fighting vehicles, the battle lasted several hours until sundown. Finally the military resistance was ended with negotiations and the Independent Signal Battalion surrendered and was disarmed. There were two dead Estonian servicemen, Aleksei Männikus and Johannes Mandre, and several wounded on the Estonian side and about ten killed and more wounded on the Soviet side.
On 6 August 1940, Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union as the Estonian SSR. The provisions in the Estonian constitution requiring a popular referendum to decide on joining a supra-national body were ignored. Instead the vote to join the Soviet Union was taken by those elected in the elections held the previous month. Additionally those who had failed to do their “political duty” of voting Estonia into the USSR, specifically those who had failed to have their passports stamped for voting, were condemned to death by Soviet tribunals.The repressions followed with the mass deportations carried out by the Soviets in Estonia on 14 June 1941. Many of the country’s political and intellectual leaders were killed or deported to remote areas of the USSR by the Soviet authorities in 1940–1941. Repressive actions were also taken against thousands of ordinary people.
When the German Operation Barbarossa started against the Soviet Union, about 34,000 young Estonian men were forcibly drafted into the Red Army, fewer than 30% of whom survived the war. Political prisoners who could not be evacuated were executed by the NKVD.
Many countries, including the UK and US, did not recognise the annexation of Estonia by the USSR de jure. Such countries recognised Estonian diplomats and consuls who still functioned in the name of their former governments. These diplomats persisted in this anomalous situation until the ultimate restoration of Baltic independence.
The official Soviet and current Russian version claims that Estonians voluntarily gave up their statehood. Anti-communist partisans of 1944–1976 are labelled “bandits” or “Nazis”, though the Russian position is not recognised internationally.
Although initially the Germans were welcomed by most Estonians as liberators from the USSR and its oppressions, and hopes were raised for the restoration of the country’s independence, it was soon realised that the Nazis were but another occupying power. The Germans used Estonia’s resources for their war effort; for the duration of the occupation Estonia was incorporated into the German province of Ostland. The Germans and their collaborators also carried out The Holocaust in Estonia in which they established a network of concentration camps and murdered thousands of Estonian Jews and Estonian Gypsies, other Estonians, non-Estonian Jews, and Soviet prisoners of war.
Some Estonians, unwilling to side directly with the Nazis, joined the Finnish Army (which was allied with the Nazis) to fight against the Soviet Union. The Finnish Infantry Regiment 200 (Estonian: soomepoisid) was formed out of Estonian volunteers in Finland. Although many Estonians were recruited into the German armed forces (including Estonian Waffen-SS), the majority of them did so only in 1944 when the threat of a new invasion of Estonia by the Red Army had become imminent. In January 1944 Estonia was again facing the prospect of invasion from the Red Army and the last legitimate prime minister of the Republic of Estonia (according to the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia) delivered a radio address asking all able-bodied men born from 1904 through 1923 to report for military service. The call resulted in around 38,000 new enlistments and several thousand Estonians who had joined the Finnish Army came back to join the newly formed Territorial Defense Force, assigned to defend Estonia against the Soviet advance. It was hoped[by whom?] that by engaging in such a war Estonia would be able to attract Western support for Estonian independence.