Tuesday, May 01, 2007

They were Soviets, right?

The Balts? Ohhhhhh, no. Not even close. Did you catch the news about the riots over the Soviet Memorial at the Estonian capitol of Tallinn?
One person has been killed and dozens injured in a clash over a disputed Soviet war memorial in Estonia. Moscow is furious about government plans to move the statue of a Red Army soldier and has threatened "serious steps."

War memorials are meant to honor the dead -- not lead to more of them. But that is exactly what has happened in the Estonian capital Tallinn on Thursday, where one person died and several more were injured in riots over a disputed Soviet monument.
Well, they just moved it. Crisis over - but important for the Estonians to say that they will decide what their history is. Nice compromise.
A statue commemorating Soviet soldiers killed during the second world war was re-erected in a military cemetery yesterday, three days after its removal from a square in central Tallinn provoked unrest from ethnic Russians.

The so-called Bronze Soldier was immediately open for public viewing at the defence forces cemetery in the capital, said a defence ministry spokeswoman.

Police clashed with Russian-speaking Estonians angered by the move to relocate the statue and nearby war grave, which some ethnic Estonians consider a bitter reminder of the Soviet occupation.
That is the crux of it. The Estonians never saw themselves as Soviets - no more than Poles, Romanians or Bulgarians did.

I remember as a college kid in the '80s when I read of the quaint Baltic embassies in DC for what was then the strange non-nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. People forget the the USA was one of the only place in the world that did not recognise their incorporation into the Soviet Union.

Well, the Balts remember. Man for man they contribute more to OIF and OEF than any other ally - consistently in the top 5 on a per-capita basis. Good allies.

Just a backgrounder, while the Latvians and Lithuanians are Slavic, the Estonians are culturally and linguistically close to the Finns - and like the Finns linguistically distantly related to Hungarians. The Russians are as foreign to them as the Iranians are to Americans - and they feel that way in spades.
They had just a little taste of freedom between the World Wars and wanted it back.

Reminds me of the one Estonian joke I know. In the 1980s DC you head into a bar and sit next to some drunk old man with a funny accent. You strike up a conversation, note his accent, and ask him where he is from. He stands up straight and says;
I am from Estonia; the world's most powerful nation!
Funny, you think to yourself - never heard of it. He continues;
Our government is in North America, our land is in Europe and most of our population is in Siberia!
During WWII, they actually fought more for the Finns and Germans than the other way around. In one of the great battles of 1944, the Estonians fought under their national colors as part of the Waffen SS (20th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Estonian)) in the Battle of Narva. A battle BTW that almost reads like a NATO operation in 2007, as the balance of the soldiers fighting the Soviets were part of the non-German European Waffen SS.
The main brunt of the Soviet attack was to fall on Steiner's SS Corps, positioned east of the strategically important town of Narva. Steiner's corps was mostly made up of SS Freiwilligen or volunteer formations. SS men from Scandinavia, Belgium, France, The Netherlands, Hungary, Romania, Italy, Spain and the Baltic States joined German formations in the defense of the river line.

The Dutchmen of the 4.SS-Freiwilligen-Panzergrenadier-Brigade Nederland and the various nationalities of the 11.SS-Freiwilligen-Panzergrenadier-Division Nordland began frantically digging in along what had become known as the Narva Line. The defensive line ran for over seven miles, from the village of Lilienbach in the north to the village of Dolgaja Niva in the south, bulging eastwards from the river near Narva itself.

On 3 February, the Soviet assault began. A Soviet armoured group quickly penetrated the German line and established a bridgehead on the western bank of the Narva.

The Nordland's Panzer Abteilung, named Hermann von Salza, and commanded by SS-Obersturmbannführer Paul Albert Kausch and assisted by Tiger ace Leutnant Otto Carius and a platoon of four Tigers, sprung into action. Quickly eliminating the Soviet armour, the Panzers and Tigers then began supporting the SS-Grenadiers as they cleaned out the Soviet infantry. Crisis was averted in the centre, but further north the Soviets successfully established a bridgehead near the village of Siivertsi.

To the South of the city of Narva, in the zone defended by the ad-hoc Army Abteilung Narwa, Soviet troops crossed the river and threatened to cut off Steiner's SS Corps and two Heer division sized Kampfgruppen. The German commander ordered Major Willy Jähde's Tiger armed 502.Schwere Panzer Abteilung into action, stabilising the German line for the time being. To strengthen the German defense, the newly formed Estonian 20.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (Estnische Nr.1) division was rushed into the line and attached to Steiner's corps. Steiner threw the division into battle on the 20th against the Siivertsi bridgehead. The Estonians proved themselves capable, and within 9 days the Soviets had been pushed back across the river. The first of many crises for the Germans at Narva had passed.

Despite heavy losses and several setbacks, the Soviets kept up constant probing attacks all across the Narva line.

Soviet General Leonid A. Govorov, the commander of the Leningrad Front, realised that the Narva line could not be breached until the German bridgehead on the eastern side of the river was annihilated. A heavy assault was ordered in the Lilenbach area, defended by men of the Nederland's 49.SS-Freiwilligen-Panzergrenadier-Regiment de Ruyter, commanded by SS-Obersturmbannführer Hans Collani, a veteran of the Wiking Division. After an artillery duel between the Nederland and the Soviet attackers, the attack disintegrated into fierce hand to hand fighting between the attacking Soviet infantry and the outnumbered Netherlanders of Regiment de Ruyter. After several hours of fierce combat, the Soviets fell back. De Ruyter had held the line, and Govorov decided to shift his focus of the attack elsewhere. Over the next few weeks, the Nederland was subjected to almost constant artillery and aerial attacks.
History can be tricky like that. The Americans at least knew that the Estonians were not Nazis - they were anti-Soviet and conscripts.

The Nuremberg Trials, in declaring the Waffen SS a criminal organisation, explicitly excluded conscripts in the following terms:

Tribunal declares to be criminal within the meaning of the Charter the group composed of those persons who had been officially accepted as members of the SS as enumerated in the preceding paragraph who became or remained members of the organisation with knowledge that it was being used for the commission of acts declared criminal by Article 6 of the Charter or who were personally implicated as members of the organisation in the commission of such crimes, excluding, however, those who were drafted into membership by the State in such a way as to give them no choice in the matter, and who had committed no such crimes.

In April 13, 1950, a message from the U.S. High Commission in Germany (HICOG), signed by John McCloy to the Secretary of State, clarified the US position on the "Baltic Legions": they were not to be seen as "movements", "volunteer", or "SS". In short, they were not given the training, indoctrination, and induction normally given to SS members. Subsequently the US Displaced Persons Commission in September 1950 declared that:

The Baltic Waffen SS Units (Baltic Legions) are to be considered as separate and distinct in purpose, ideology, activities, and qualifications for membership from the German SS, and therefore the Commission holds them not to be a movement hostile to the Government of the United States.
So, when you see and read things about the Waffen SS or the "liberation" of areas by the Soviets - don't think you know the story already. Much more there than meets the eye - much more.
Oh, yea: happy May Day you Communist stooge.

Correction: a reader with a VERY Baltic sounding name sent along the following correction. I am sorry, I usually double check verbal gouge - but live by the gough-die by the gouge.
Right about the Estonians, not so about the Lithuanians and Latvians. The latter two belong to a linguistic family called Baltic, which used to contain more members, but these were gradually eroded by their imperialist neighbours. The most important of these now extinct languages was Prussian, usually referred to as Old Prussian (Altpreußisch), so as not to be confused with the German imperialists who borrowed the name of the people they enslaved and assimilated. There were also tribes speaking Baltic languages in what is now Poland and Belarus.
Thanks Gintautas!

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