The Estonian soldiers in World War II in three different uniforms

Conscripting Estonian men into the armed forces of an occupying country began in 1940, when the Soviet Union unilaterally declared all citizens of the Republic of Estonia citizens of the Soviet Union. In summer 1940, the 22nd Territorial Rifle Corps of the Red Army was formed on the basis of the 15,000-strong Estonian army.

After war broke out between Germany and the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Soviet government mobilised about 32,000 men from Estonia and took them (together with about 5500 men from the territorial corps) to Russia. These men were, thus, unable to oppose the Soviet forces at home in Estonia. Considered to be unreliable, the men were placed in labour battalions in Russia, where about one-third died of exhaustion and illness.

In December 1941, Estonian national units were assembled from the men arriving in Russia; by September 1942, they were joined into the Red Army 8th Estonian Rifle Corps. In the autumn, the corps consisted of approximately 30,000 men, 85-90% of whom were Estonian.

The Germans, who occupied Estonia in summer 1941, were initially not interested in establishing Estonian national troops. Even the small units of guerrillas, the Estonian Forest Brothers, who fought with the Germans in the Summer War, were disbanded. The German leadership considered the war to be a war of Germans; at first they followed the international law which forbade mobilising the population of occupied countries. However, when the situation on the front became worse and there were not enough men to reinforce the rear, the Germans soon mobilised people in the occupied areas.

The Estonian units in German armed forces can be divided into groups of 1) volunteers, 2) those who were compelled to serve because of their jobs, and 3) those who were mobilised. In 1941–1942, the volunteers formed security groups (later called the Eastern battalions) within the Wehrmacht, and defence battalions (later called police battalions), under the administrative jurisdiction of the SS and the police, but under the operational jurisdiction of the army. Conscription into the volunteer SS Legion was started in August 1942, but was not successful. In order to complete the army unit, conscription was established in February 1943 for men born between 1919 and 1924. They could choose between joining the Estonian SS Legion, or working in war industry or as members of the military support staff. At the same time, the Estonian field police were sent to police battalions for six months to fight against partisans. The officers serving in the Security Police had to join the Estonian Legion; the volunteer paid units of the Home Guard were reorganised as police battalions. As the Red Army approached the Estonian borders, a general mobilisation was announced in January 1944. Another one followed in August, which called up 17-year-old boys to join Air Force Auxiliary Services (‘Flakhelfers’). The total number of Estonians in the German armed forces, including the Home Guard, the Flakhelfers, as well as the ‘Finnish Boys’,  was about 70,000.

However, many nationalist men found it unacceptable to fight against the Soviet Union for Germany. They tried to find a third way, fleeing to Finland to avoid the German mobilisation and joining the army there. Escapes increased in spring 1943, when secret mobilisations into the German army started. In February 1944, the Estonian volunteers formed the 200th Infantry Regiment in the Finnish army (JR 200), with about 2000 men; about 400 Estonians additionally served in the Finnish navy. In August 1944, most of them (the Finnish Boys) returned home, invited by nationalist circles in order to fight the approaching Red Army.

During World War II, the Estonians had no chance to fight in their own army. They went along with the 1941 Soviet mobilisation mainly because they were forced to by the occupying power. One reason for voluntarily joining the German troops in the early stages of the war was the wish for revenge for the Red Terror and deportations to Siberia in 1940 and 1941. At the same time, this was financially rewarding. With later German mobilisations, the men had to obey the occupying powers, as had been the case in 1941 with the Soviet mobilisation. In 1944, however, there was hope of resisting the new Soviet occupation. The alternative to these two possibilities was escaping to Finland and joining its army, but this option was not available to everybody.

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