Historical events

The Echoes of the War of Independence in the Summer War of 1941

Peeter Kaasik, senior researcher at the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory, 22. September 2023

The Estonians were fortunate enough to draw the longer straw during the War of Independence, but not during the Summer War. And in hindsight, perhaps even better, because hands remained cleaner for either side, giving a credible opportunity to blame the foreign occupiers for everything that went wrong, writes Peeter Kaasik. 

The history of many nations is depicted as a clash between light and darkness. The confrontation between the forces of light and darkness at the beginning of Estonian history is not unique in Europe. As long as a sense of nationality persists, heroes will be associated with it. One's own bravery is determined by how strong the enemy is. When the saying “great times require great men” becomes a guiding principle, heroes are sought after not only among the living, but also in the shadow realm of the past.

The opening quote is taken from historian and journalist Andrei Hvostov's book “Imaginary Estonia”, which in the late 20th century sparked a certain discussion on the topic of the ancient Estonian struggle for freedom. The subject resurfaced about ten years later when the second volume of the collection “Estonian History”, focusing on the Middle Ages, was published.

The main point of debate appeared to revolve around the question of how to treat (ancient) Estonians, whether as objects or subjects of history. The essence of the issue is precisely conveyed through the title of an article published by archaeology doctor Marika Mägi in early 2022: “Estonians should not be reduced to the role of mere extras in their own history.” In other words, if historians' angle becomes too broad, small nations risk fading into the background of their own history, becoming merely insignificant side characters in the midst of major events.

A somewhat distorted portrayal of history was the ideologically driven historical interpretation that emerged during the Soviet era, wherein the history of the Estonians was largely reduced to a perpetual struggle against foreign conquerors in general historical accounts. Even during periods when there was no ongoing struggle, the history of Estonians was still depicted as a continuous path of hardships, and the struggle was about to break out any time soon, merely awaiting the opportune moment.

This, incidentally, was not the idea of communist ideologists; rather, they adapted to their liking the 700-year serfdom thesis of Estonia's 'father of historical writing,' Carl Robert Jakobson (though in the 19th century, it was about 600 years of serfdom).

Although the idea of freedom is abstract, our experiences and traditions have shaped our expectations, aspirations, and ways of thinking. Inspiration is often sought from the pages of history, thereby highlighting the persistent struggle for freedom.

To mark Resistance Fighting Day, let's take a brief look at the subject of the 1941 Estonian uprising, commonly referred to as the Summer War. The active resistance of Estonians during the Summer War cannot be viewed in a vacuum.

The prevailing understanding of freedom was based on both a clear purpose and historical tradition, which were further reinforced by Estonian historiography, school textbooks, and pre-World War II patriotic upbringing. Of course, the direct inspiration for the freedom fight was the Estonian War of Independence that took place couple of decades earlier (1918-1920).

Coming back to Andrei Hvostov's quote, much like in any fight for freedom, it's crucial to have a counterforce. Although one may have allies, one must have an enemy. If not, the fight for universal goodness and freedom can be abstract. Emotionally, there's a need for a direct embodiment of evil and oppression.

Setting aside the potential pitfalls related to the emotive aspect of depicting the struggle for freedom mentioned in the quote, I would draw attention to an interesting shift in thought patterns – how the perception of the primary enemy's image has changed over time.

Victory Day in Haapsalu in 1937. PHOTO: Foundation of Haapsalu and Läänemaa Museums.

Taking the historical context into consideration, during the interwar period in the Republic of Estonia the theme of centuries of slavery, promoted by Jakobson in the 19th century, continued to dominate academic historiography and the Estonians' attitude toward Germans was somewhat distrustful.

If we delve into historical literature from that era, we discover that the victory in the War of Independence was often seen as the result of hard work. Nevertheless, the most jubilant moment, both during and after war, remained the victory achieved over the Baltic Germans in the Landeswehr War. The choice to celebrate Victory Day on June 23 instead of February 2, the day the war was declared over, also reflects this.

Despite only lasting for six months in 1918, the German occupation of Estonia was regarded as one of the worst times in the country's history. This perception persisted, even though the German occupation—which was formalized by the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty between Germany and Bolsheviks— conditionally paved the way for the War of Independence to break out in the form we know it today.

After only a year of Soviet rule and several decades later, attitudes toward the once reviled Germans underwent a significant change. By 1941, they were nearly viewed as 'Bearers of European light’, a counterbalance to the eastern communist barbarism. This doesn't necessarily mean that Estonians were praising Germans, though the idea of National Socialism wasn't completely unfamiliar to them. However, it's likely that the majority of Estonians saw the German occupiers in 1941 mainly as liberators.

Let's take a step back in time once more. If someone had publicly spoken in 1916 that Estonia would soon become independent, at best, it would have been considered an intellectually interesting idea. However, a few years later, the prediction came true. Even so, freedom still needed to be secured.

Securing freedom and independence often requires more than just determination and hard work, especially for smaller nations. A more extensive cataclysm had to have played a role. In this case, it was the result of the confluence of several factors, including World War I, the Russian Civil War, the German occupation, and the Russian revolutions. Without these factors, freedom most likely would not have materialized.

Because allies are rarely chosen, especially not by small states, being on the “right side” was also a decisive factor when Estonia was fighting for its independence. The War of Independence proved that, in spite of their "grand declarations," the "major powers" had little desire to start conflict with other "large nations" in order to defend the interests of "smaller ones."

However, later narratives of Estonian history usually portrayed the British as the country's armed allies. At the same time, the “good Russians” or the White Russians were largely ignored in narratives of the War of Independence, even though they played a significant role both militarily and diplomatically.

In reality, the alliance between Britain and Estonia was more of a propaganda device. Estonia had to maneuver by supporting the White Russians against the Red Army in the Russian Civil War, which helped to gain the diplomatic, military, and economic support of the Entente, an alliance made up of the nations that prevailed in the First World War, despite the fact that the war was fought for opposing objectives. Neither the Russian Whites nor the Entente, who provided them with military support, had an intention of establishing an independent Republic of Estonia. Rather, they battled for a united Russia.

This was the actual situation: alliances were forged by shared interests rather than friendship. Being courageous oneself was paramount, since strength commanded respect. The motivation for resistance in World War II largely relied on the widespread belief that anything was possible in tumultuous times. However, this strategy was often combined with the rather opportunistic principle that 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend.'

The USSR's occupation and annexation of Estonia in 1940 alone provided significant motivation for resistance, yet in the first year of the Soviet Union's control, it mostly took passive forms.

If not before, then the June 1941 deportation was undoubtedly a wake-up call, possibly even for some people who held somewhat pro-Soviet opinions. It served as the catalyst for the future resistance of Estonians during the German-Soviet War that broke out on June 22, 1944, as more widespread hiding in the forests and swamps started right after the deportations. Subsequently, it was followed by spontaneous grouping and then armed resistance.

Much like the War of Independence, this war was fought with poorly armed and scattered ranks, but eventually, they became quite organized. True, the final outcomes differed. Without going into details of the Summer War here, in the end, the rebellion did not provide the Estonians with any real benefits. The Germans did not consider the Estonians as allies, and they were just as uninterested in Estonian independence as the Soviet Union.

For Estonians, the Summer War was a revenge for the 'silent submission' of 1939–1941 as well as a moral victory. This experience continued to shape thought patterns for many years, contributing to the emergence of motifs like the 'white ship' in the post-World War II period.

Mõniste forest brothers and homeguard units in July 1941. PHOTO:  Mõniste Rural Life Museum.


The year 1941, marked by the Red Terror and Estonian resistance, turned out to be a valuable resource for the German occupation authorities. They utilized the experiences of both the Summer War and the War of Independence not only to enhance the self-awareness of Estonians but, most importantly, to emphasize the struggle against Bolshevism. The echos of this cultivated images that persist to the present day.

Even though the Summer War of 1941 is regarded as one of the most thoroughly studied periods in Estonian history, propaganda has left some distortions in its portrayal.

Not only should we not overstate the military significance of the Estonian resistance movement, we also must not minimize the contributions made by the forest brothers. The mere presence of an active armed resistance movement in the immediate vicinity of the front line in the rear of the Red Army had a very disturbing effect on the fighting morale of the already demoralized forces.

The Forest Brothers played an important role in the German forces' advancement, not so much because of their military prowess as because of their ability to act as guides, scouts, and translators who were local experts on the terrain.

The presence of the forest brothers was equally important in the quick and smooth establishment of military power. From a military standpoint, the existence of a functional and friendly rear was crucial for the German occupation forces. Specifically, forest brothers played a significant role in setting up local governance after the region was occupied by German forces.

But these are retrospective observations, and only made from a military standpoint. The idea of freedom and Estonians' active participation in realizing that idea was important. This led to the acknowledgement of two more Wars of Independence in Estonian history. The first unfolded in the summer of 1941, known as the Summer War, and the second took place in 1944. Tens of thousands of Estonians served in the German army against the Red Army during the latter, fighting with a strong sense of purpose on several Estonian fronts.

However, it should be noted that forced alliance of arms by no means meant that Estonians admired and respected Germans and Nazi Germany. Stereotypes that had grown over centuries did not vanish. But many found themselves in a challenging situation, left with only undesirable choices.

We all know that the winners write history, but during the ensuing conflicts, some perceptions change. After the Second World War and during the Cold War, a new perspective emerged, indicating that even though Estonians fought within the ranks of the enemy, they did so for a legitimate cause.

Richard Saaliste, the renowned forest brother, captured in his 1949 diary the difficult circumstances that some people faced following World War II:

We had no choice but to collaborate with the Germans in this difficult situation, but that does not make us fascists. If someone is being attacked by a robber and just so happens to have a German, English, or Russian gun, they don't turn into German, English, or Russian as a result; they remain who they are. In times of war, the principles of justice that we are all familiar in times of peace only carry weight to the extent that they can be protected through the use of force. The Estonians needed to arm and organize their populace in order to have any power.

Going back to the experience of the War of Independence, we find that the views were not all that different. The Estonians, according to the Entente, fought against the right opponents (at least initially), but for the wrong purpose. In their view, Estonian independence did not result from the strength of the Estonians but rather from the weakness of the White Russians, and eventually, there was no choice but to support real, not illusory power.

In the Second World War, the Red Army's combat effectiveness had greatly advanced beyond its previous capabilities and other interests outweighed the declarative messages of "the self-determination of peoples and states".

In conclusion, much like children have no choice in selecting their parents, countries and nations cannot choose their neighbors. Positioned next to or between large and troublesome nations, as the wars of the 20th century have shown, the small nations often find themselves with limited options.

The Estonians were fortunate enough to draw the longer straw during the War of Independence, but not during the Summer War. And in hindsight, perhaps even better, because hands remained cleaner for either side, giving a credible opportunity to blame the foreign occupiers for everything that went wrong.

In the aftermath of World War II, Estonia as a state was not even on the losing side. For this reason, the Summer War and the battles of 1944 have great emotional significance. The history of resistance shows that freedom had to be seized and gifts in the spirit of the War of Independence were not expected. The will to defend, along with allies and enemies cannot be seen from a neutral postition, and in this context, let's safeguard what we already have and hope that we never have to choose between bad and worse again.

Kalev Division's 2nd Company in the trenches on the Pskov Front in 1919. PHOTO: Estonian History Museum 

Peeter Kaasik (1974) is a researcher at the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory and the Estonian War Museum, whose main field of study is the Estonian military history of the 20th century.