The Tragedy of the Estonian Mass Deportations has been Compounded by a Massive Miscarriage of Justice – part II
Estonia Before the Storm of Soviet Annexation and German Occupation
Last year, I took a young foreign couple on a walking tour of Tallinn. Up came the topic of the “Golden Age” of prewar Estonia. One of my guests has one parent of Estonian extraction, but my storytelling abilities were put to the task in any event, as I sought visual cues of the past on the streets of the Estonian capital to illustrate my points.
As my late mother Heldia Estam and her friends – all children of the Republic – would often recount, Estonia blossomed after gaining her independence in 1920. Our War of Independence was preceded by what Estonians call the National Awakening, which began at about the same time as the US Civil War and the emancipation of America’s slaves. This awakening brought awareness of self and increased self-confidence to the Estonians, who had been in servitude for many generations, tilling the soil of the plantations owned and run by a landed class of Germans and Swedes under Danish, German, Swedish and Polish regimes, and finally the the Russian Tsarist Empire.
Since interwar Estonian history doesn’t ring a bell with many visitors, I may have to start arranging tours of unknown Estonia that focus on the prewar period! People could thereby get a conceptual grip on this vanished landscape – a sovereign and happy era between the two Great Wars.
The Republic of Estonia turns 20 - Tartu 1938
Among other things, prewar Estonia was prettier than the battered, chaotic and worn down landscape brought upon and thereafter bequeathed to us by the Soviet occupation – one that we are working on fixing up again. Not only was independent Estonia essentially unspoiled, both in the city and the country, and much less ramshackle and eclectic in appearance than now, but the gentle era itself was a more romantic one, certainly from the perspective of the people on the street and in the countryside.
Past is Prelude - The Belle Époque of Estonian Independence
With national independence came liberty for all citizens, regardless of ethnic background or religious belief. Independence was also synonymous with nation-building.
While the twenties gave no hints of problems to come, with the ominous exception of a Soviet-sponsored coup attempt in 1924 that the Estonian police and the military managed to defuse and terminate, economic and political developments in much of the rest of Europe and in the Soviet Union took a serious turn for the worse in the thirties.
Estonia’s Political Deficiencies Before WW II
During the thirties, Estonia too encountered political problems, becoming several notches less democratic than before during what has been named “the Silent Era”. Still, many political analysts of the present day say that Estonia’s turn away from full-fledged pluralism was relatively mild compared to what was going on at the same time in Italy, Germany, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere. As the online Estonica Encyclopedia notes, the Estonian regime of the thirties “was one of the most moderate among the similar regimes in Europe.” Estonia may have had warts on her face under the leadership of Konstantin Pats, but she wasn’t terminally disfigured, nor had she gone collectively stark raving mad, as seemed to be the case in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR.
Comparing Estonia of the time to Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany shows that she was a substantially freer country in the thirties than they were. One likes to think that – given time – she would have made her way back to the fold of the freest nations in the world, had things been allowed to run their natural course. But then came the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 and the division of Eastern Europe by Berlin and Moscow. In coming years, these two would visit authoritarianism of the most absolutely virulent kind upon the Baltic States.
Instead of allowing things to run their course, letting the two dictators battle it out, and helping to clean up the mess afterwards, the Western countries then made the fateful and dark mistake of siding with Stalin against Hitler. Instead of remaining on a clean democratic tack, the Allies not only sullied themselves, but also did a major disservice to Russia as well as the Intermarum countries.
But let’s return to the way things were in Estonia during the second half of the thirties. The system of political pluralism had indeed been suspended by Pats, but at the same time, freedoms weren’t restricted in Estonia in a heavy-handedly draconian way either. Until the period when Soviet troops were allowed into the country in late 1939, residents could always leave the country and return to it. Conditions were not the dreadful ones of North Korea nor of Argentina under the junta. It was possible for the common man and woman to live and even prosper in pre-war Estonia. Most people were happy or reasonably happy, and – without trying to make things appear politically better than they were – the democratic reforms that were needed would hopefully have come.
At the time, Estonia was predominantly a farming society with a strong cooperative tradition, similar to that of the Scandinavians and some of the present-day dairy farmers of Vermont. At the same time that the number of businesses and enterprises was on the increase, Estonia of the late thirties remained largely a well-functioning rural subsistence society, even if Estonian soils as a rule are not of the “black earth” kind that some countries enjoy. Estonians were industrious, and while their quality of life was comparatively modest, it was being improved upon, step by step. Estonia didn’t lag far behind Finland next door, which had gotten a head start in the previous century, and which had never known the bondage of serfdom.
To be continued
Source of photo above: http://www.htg.tartu.ee/~priit/Tartu/index1.html