The Red Army invasion of Estonia in 1944

​Warfare reached the Estonian territory again in February 1944, when the Red Army broke the Leningrad blockade and quickly moved westwards. Despite the pessimism of the German army command’s land forces, Adolf Hitler considered it important to hold Estonia. Abandoning Estonia would have meant a threat by the Red Army’s Baltic fleet to German delivery of iron ore from Sweden, Germany’s ally Finland would have been in a difficult position, and Estonian oil shale was essential to the war industry. A large number of additional troops were sent to Estonia, including the 20th Estonian SS-division, which was constantly supplemented with new conscripts. In the bloody battles from February to March the attack of the Red Army was halted on the Narva front, and warfare almost ceased until July. The Red Army took some of its troops to Finland, and the eastern front focused on Belarus. Several German divisions were transferred from the Narva front to Belarus, and replaced by the newly formed Estonian troops. At the end of July, the Germans abandoned the Narva front and retreated ca 25 km westwards, to prepared positions in the Sinimäed Hills. The Red Army attempts to break through in the Sinimäed Hills were repelled at an enormous cost in human life. In early August, the Red Army began an attack in north-eastern Latvia and made its way to the Emajõgi River by the end of the month, where the front stabilised. The Red Army’s success in Latvia and Lithuania posed a threat that the troops still in Estonia would be cut off and on 16 September Hitler agreed to abandon mainland Estonia. The Red Army attack started on 17 September; the 8th Estonian rifle brigade took part as well. The German army retreated quickly from the south-east, the Narva River and the Sinimäed Hills, leaving the Estonian troops in a difficult situation. Tallinn was given up on 22 September. Bloody battles were fought on Saaremaa Island, where the Red Army conquered the Sõrve Peninsula only on 24 November 1944.

​In autumn 1944, approximately 70,000 Estonians fled from Estonia to Germany and Sweden. Upon arrival, they were installed in refugee camps. Integration of the refugees into the local society happened more quickly in Sweden, whereas in war-ravaged Germany many had to stay in refugee camps until the late 1940s. The Soviet Union’s aggressive repatriation politics caused fear in many people that they might be forcefully returned to the Soviet Union. This resulted in the ‘second wave of migration’ – refugees moved on to the USA, Canada etc, sometimes using unsuitable ships for ocean travel.

​Immediately after conquering Estonia, the Soviet security forces embarked on active suppression of the resistance movement and arrested the Estonians who had served in the German or Finnish armies. In less than a year, over 10,000 people were arrested. Some Estonian war prisoners placed in filter camps were sent to Red Army units, some to prison camps, and some were freed. At the same time, about 20,000 men were mobilised into the Red Army. The resistance movement managed to operate until the early 1950s.

​In World War II Estonia lost a total of 200,000 people: executed, killed in action, imprisoned, deported, mobilised, forcefully evacuated and those who fled the country (some later managed to return). Material damage was relatively minor compared to that in western Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Poland and Germany. The town of Narva was totally destroyed, and extensive damage was done to Tartu, Mustvee and Tallinn, in the latter especially during the bombing raids in March 1944. The ‘scorched-earth’ tactics employed by the Soviets in 1941 and by the Germans in 1944 failed because of the single-minded resistance of the population.

​At the conferences in Yalta and Potsdam, the Soviet Union successfully persuaded the Western allies to leave the Baltic countries to the Union. Non-recognition politics nevertheless continued. For Estonia, the political consequences of World War II ended with the restoration of independence in 1991 and the Russian troops leaving the country in 1994.

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