Estonian architectural heritage destroyed in World War II

​The front moved across Estonia twice during World War II (1939–1945): in 1941 and in 1944. Both caused considerable devastation, and architecture was no exception. Narva, the Nordic capital of the baroque, was almost totally destroyed; Tallinn lost about half of its residential area. Great damage was done in Tartu, Pärnu, Kuressaare and other towns. In addition, many manor houses, rural churches and medieval castles did not escape destruction by war.

In summer 1941 a large number of remarkable architectural achievements were destroyed. Old rural parish churches burned: in Märjamaa, Muhu, Käina, Lüganuse and elsewhere. The July fire in Põltsamaa turned the town and the castle into ruins. Precious rococo interiors and the church with its interior were destroyed as well. In early August, the retreating Soviet troops blew up the surviving part of the medieval Paide castle – the main tower called Tall Herman. On 13 August 1941 the Red Army set fire to the Oru castle, president’s summer residence in Toila, which was thus largely destroyed. The ruins were blown up by the Germans in 1944.

As the Emajõgi River constituted the front between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht for a fortnight in July 1941, Tartu suffered most. On 9 July the retreating Red Army detonated the Tartu stone bridge dating from 1784. About one third of Tartu fell into ruins, including numerous architectural monuments such as St Mary’s church, Tartu covered market, classicist residential houses, etc.

During the German occupation (1941–1944) when Estonia was spared direct warfare, many buildings were restored. Alas, the destruction in 1944 was even more devastating than the previous visitations.

As a result of the Soviet bombing raids on 9 March 1944 the medieval Niguliste district in the old town was almost totally destroyed. The bombings caused extensive fires, which damaged St Nicholas church, both inside and outside, although cultural artefacts were rescued. The Town Hall spire and the weighing house burned as well. One of the major losses was the nearly total destruction of the Estonia theatre and concert hall.

Tartu suffered greatly in 1941 and was not spared in 1944 either. During the August retreat of German troops and the fire ensuing from the bombing of the Red Army, thousands of buildings were damaged, such as Vanemuine theatre, St Paul’s church, St John’s church, Raadi manor, which housed the Estonian National Museum, and others.

The historical heart of Pärnu was destroyed in 1944; about half the buildings were in ruins, including the castle of the Teutonic Order. Several ruins were later demolished, for example those of St Nicholas church, the castle and the so-called Elephant’s Barn. The Endla theatre building was also destroyed.

The fate of Narva was the most tragic. The Soviet air raids in March 1944 erased the splendid baroque old town; the same summer the retreating German troops blew up the ruins as well, including church towers. After the war only three historical buildings were restored (the town hall and two residential houses) and the Hermann castle.

The damage done during World War II in Estonia was enormous. In addition to the architectural heritage destroyed in warfare, numerous historic buildings that were damaged but could have been restored, were demolished in the early 1950s as the "legacy of the German conquerors".

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