World War II in the Baltic

By Mike Hurtado


Maps:      The New Cambridge Modern History Atlas, Cambridge, 1970
†††††††††††††††† Westemanns Atlas zur Weltgeschichte, Berlin, 1953
Graphics:Lado Goudiashvili



At the end of the 1930s, a game of imperialism orchestrated through secret meetings and negotiations between Hitler and Stalin lead to events that would rob Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia of their national sovereignty. The Baltic would bear the brunt of international tensions that gave rise to the Third Reich and the beginning of the Second World War. First, as a pawn of Soviet national protection against the spread of fascism, and then as satellite states of imperial Germanyís conquest, the Baltic suffered horrendous losses to deportation, conscription into Germanyís foreign legions, and an entire culture to the Holocaust. The seeds of resistance to occupation planted at the beginning of World War II would germinate between 1939 and 1944 as men and women took to the forests and marshes to ward off oppression.


Molotov - Ribbentrop

The threat of war in Europe loomed heavily in the minds of politicians as the 1930ís neared an end. On March 28,1939, Soviet foreign Commissar Maxim Litvinov sent a declaration to the envoys of Estonia, and Latvia voicing Stalinís concern over the potential loss of the sovereignty enjoyed by the Baltic States to the possibility of a third party occupation. Stalin feared that the Soviet Union could not afford the loss of the Baltic to Hitler. The Latvian and Estonian envoys replied to Livinovís declaration by stating that both Estonia and Latvia wished to remain neutral in the event of war.

In an attempt to distance the Soviet Union from the growing sentiment of war between Germany and the Western powers, Stalin denounced his relations with England and France and summoned the German Reich to appropriate a non-aggression pact. To facilitate better relations with Germany, Stalin dismissed Commissar Maxim Litvinov, who was of Jewish lineage, and replaced him with Vyacheslav Molotov on May 3,1939. Through Foreign Minister Ribbentrop, Hitler recognized Stalinís concerns and signaled a proposal for a series of secret meetings to discuss the future of Finland, Poland, and the Baltics. In the negotiations, Stalin and Molotov requested that Germany not interfere with the Soviet militarization of Estonia, Latvia, and part of Lithuania in return for the assurance that the Soviets would not intervene in a German expansion into Poland. In the early hours of August 24, 1939, the Molotov Ribbentrop treaty was signed, thus sealing the fates of independent Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland, and Poland. The dilemma faced by these countries can be best portrayed by statement given by the Polish commander in chief, Marshal Edward Rydze-Smigly, upon his refusal to allow Soviet troop movements within Poland, "With the Germans we run the risk of loosing our liberty. With the Russians we will loose our soul." (Meissner 141)



Implementation of Molotov Ribbentrop

Hitler and Nazi Germany would be the first to act upon Molotov Ribbentrop. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, followed by a Soviet offensive launched upon Polandís eastern flank on September 17, 1939. Warsaw surrendered on September 27, 1939. Stalin now turned his interests to claiming the Baltic as annexed states of the Soviet Union.

On September 24, 1939, Estonian Foreign Minister, K. Selter, arrived in Moscow for a meeting with Molotov. With Soviet troops massed on Estoniaís border and military reconnaissance planes patrolling regularly over Tallinn, minister Selter was given an ultimatum. Under the pretext of the need for the establishment of Soviet military bases next to the Baltic Sea to offer an adequate defense of Leningrad, Minister Molotov stated, "If the Estonian government were to fail to admit of these necessary alterations, the Soviet Union would be forced to carry them out otherwise, employing more radical measures which might prove to be unavoidable." (Rei 260) On September 25, 1939, Minister Selter agreed to Moscowís demands. Latvia and Lithuania, given the same threat of invasion, were summoned for meetings in Moscow on October 2, 1939. Minister V. Munters represented Latvia, and J. Urbsys represented Lithuania. Latvia signed the pact on October 5, 1939 and Lithuania on October 10, 1939.



Life During Soviet Occupation


Stalin had succeeded in attaining a Soviet military presence in the Baltic States. Stalinís true intentions were to annex Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia into the Soviet Union. To achieve annexation, Stalin accused the Balts of conspiring to form a military alliance against the Red Army. Stalin used this as a catalyst to order heavily armed Soviet troops to stream into the Baltic States and crush all resistance.

Between June 15, and June 17, 1940, the Baltic had become immersed in the throngs of the Red Armyís occupational forces. Stalin now sought puppet governments that would comply with the demands of the Soviet Union. President Ulmanis of Latvia and President Pats of Estonia were immediately deported to the USSR, while President Smetona of Lithuania slipped into voluntary exile. The bank system, transportation system, all industry, and mines were seized as property of the communist state. No one was allowed to own property. In Estonia and Latvia, houses in which floor space exceeded two hundred and twenty square meters were expropriated as property of the people. As of January 1, 1941, the Soviet Ruble became the only means of tender in the Baltic.

The Catholic Church was persecuted by the Soviet government and was forced to hand over all churches and property. Seminaries and monasteries were converted into garrisons for the Red Army. All religion was eliminated from the curriculum of local schools, as they also suffered the fate of expropriation. Arrests and deportation of religious activists followed as the Soviet Union enforced Atheist propaganda throughout the Baltic.

The Soviet secret police, NKVD began operations in June of 1940. An average of two to three hundred people per month disappeared without a trace. By June 22, 1941, civilian losses due to deportation, mobilizations, and massacres stood at sixty thousand in Estonia, thirty-five thousand in Latvia, and thirty-four thousand in Lithuania. Many of those deported dies while in transit to labor camps.




The German Occupation


On June 22, 1941, the German army attacked the Soviet Union. The German advance met little resistance from the Red Army as Lithuania in its entirety fell within three days of the initial assault, Daugavpils on June 26, 1941, Riga on July 1, 1941, and Tallinn on August 28, 1941. Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia immediately set up provisional governments in hopes that they would be acknowledged by the Nazi leadership.

Any hopes of national independence were dashed on July 28, 1941 as the Baltic countries and Belorussia were claimed as Germanyís Ostland, or occupied territory. Germany appointed Heinrich Lohse as Reich Commissioner for the Ostland. German officers filled the bulk of the administrative positions in Ostland with exception of a few ceremonial positions held by Baltic advisers. The German Mark was instituted as the only means of currency on June 26, 1942 with an exchange rate Rubles to one German Mark. The Reich appropriated all properties seized by the Red Army. Rationing of foods and goods was implemented in the cities as black markets flourished. Few newspapers were in circulation due to censorship and paper shortages. Furthermore, Nazi control over the church was relatively light as theological institutes were allowed to operate in Estonia and Lithuania but not in Latvia.

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The Baltic Legions

Germany first tapped into the Baltic populations for labor and military service in July of 1941. At first, the Nazis sought volunteers, but by December of the same year, Reichminister of the occupied territories, Alfred Rosenberg, issued a general draft for labor service. The draft affected Balts between the ages of eighteen and forty-five. An estimated one hundred and twenty-six thousand Balts had been shipped off to work in Germany.

The German military benefited from the draft by conscripting Balts into defense battalions. These units were mainly composed of Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian Sovietized armies that surrendered upon the German occupation. Waffen SS National Legions were formed in Latvia and Estonia between the fall and spring of 1942. These units saw service in Poland, Yugoslavia, and Italy. German attempts to raise a Lithuanian branch of the SS failed, but the formation of a Lithuanian defense force with thirty thousand inductees was established. The Lithuanians disbanded their ranks in May of 1942 and disappeared into the surrounding forests. General Plechavicius, commander of the defunct defense force, and approximately one hundred members of his staff were arrested and summarily executed.



Advanced elements of the German Einsatzgruppen and Sicheheitdienst quickly filled the void left by the advancing Wehrmacht with the purpose of eliminating local resistance and collecting the Jewish populations for extermination. Upon the Soviet retreat from the Baltic, local mobs roamed the cities and countryside venting their hatred of the Bolsheviks on anyone considered to be their sympathizer. In many cases Jews were targeted as well. This behavior can be attributed to the misconception of the Jewish population as supporters of the Sovietization of the Baltic. Reichminister Alfred Rosenberg ordered the institution of ghettos, where the mass murder of the Jewish inhabitants occurred. The largest ghettos were in Salaspils, Latvia, Klooga, Estonia, Ninth Fort, Lithuania, and Aukstieji Paneriai, Lithuania.

Small groups of Baltic population volunteered to help the Nazis in their task of purging the Baltic of its Jewish population. hese volunteers were organized into Teilkommando/Einsatzkommando units with the instructions to perpetrate mass executions upon the people who had been housed in the ghettos. At the same time, many other ethnic Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians as well as Germans, Poles and other local residents tried to hide their Jewish neighbors or help them escape putting at risk both themselves and their families.By January 1,1942, Estonia was proclaimed free of all Jews. By the time the Soviets reoccupied the Baltics, an estimated one hundred and seventy thousand Jews had been murdered in Lithuania, eighty thousand in Latvia, and five thousand in Estonia. Twenty-five thousand ethnic Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians perished at the hands of the Einsatzgruppen, and approximately ten thousand were sent to concentration camps in Germany.

The Soviet Union collected enormous amounts of German documents containing evidence of war crimes perpetrated by the Nazis and their killing squads. The Soviets also relied upon testimonies obtained by survivors, both Jewish and ethnic Balts, and from refugees that had emigrated during the war to seek the arrest and trial of those incriminated in war crimes. The war crimes tribunal at Nurnberg, following the end of World War II, resulted in the conviction of several German military officers and the indictment of members of the Einsatzkommando.

(Click here for more information re. the deportations of people in 1939-44)


The Fall of the Third Reich and the Rise of The Forest Brethren

On January 20,1944, the Red Army launched an offensive against the Wehrmacht at Narva, Lithuania. By July of 1944, the Red Army breached the German front lines on the Lithuanian frontier. The Soviet Union occupied most of the Baltic by the fall of 1944. Looting, rape, and summary executions followed the fluctuating front lines as the Red Army contained German units in Courland.

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The forests and marshlands of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia became breeding grounds for resistance to the Soviet occupation. Many members of the Baltic Legions and other people who were afraid of the Soviet secret police dissipated into the countryside. In conjunction with established partisan groups, Baltic Legionnaires conducted armed operations against the occupying Red Army. The partisan units became known as The Forest Brethren. The ranks of The Forest Brethren swelled as the Soviet forced deportation and conscription upon the populations of the occupied Baltic states.

A westward bound exodus of refugees streamed out of the Baltic as Germany unconditionally surrendered to the allies on May 7,1945. Detachments of the Soviet secret police, NKVD, raced to stave the flow of refugees in hopes of capturing members of the Baltic Legions and charge them with war crimes. Several rounds of deportations were implemented in post World War II Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia to cleanse the population of any resistance to the Soviet domination. The flames of war smoldered as armed conflict flickered between the Forest Brethren and the Red Army throughout the 1950ís.




    1. Andrew Ezergailis, "War Crimes evidence From Soviet Latvia," Nationalities Papers, volume XVI (Fall 1988) : 209-222
    2. August Rei, The Drama of the Baltic Peoples (Finland: Publishing House Kirjastus Vaba Eesti, 1970) , 259-353
    3. Boris Meissner, "The Baltic Question in World Politics," The Baltic States in Peace and War (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978) , 139-148
    4. Dennis J. Dunn, "The Catholic Church and the Soviet Government in the Baltic States, 1940-41," The Baltic States in Peace and War (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978) , 149-158
    5. Georgy A. Kumanev, "The Nazi Genocide of the Jewish Population on the Occupied Territory of the USSR," Soviet Jewish Affairs volume 21(Summer 1991) : 59-68
    6. Nicholas Lane, "Estonia and Itís Jews: An Ethical Dilemma," East European Jewish Affairs volume 25(Summer 1995) : 9-15
    7. Romuald J. Misiunas and Rein Taagepera, The Baltic states Years of Dependence 1940-1980 (Berkeley, Los Angeles, 1983) , 15-91
    8. Romuald J. Misiunas, "Soviet Historiography on World War II and the Baltic States, 1944-1974," The Baltic States in Peace and War (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978) , 173-196
    9. Saulius Suziedelis, History and Commemoration In the Baltic: The Nazi- Soviet Pact, 1939-1989 (Chicago: Published by Lithuanian American Society, 1989) , 17-57
    10. Toivo U. Raun, Estonia and the Estonians (Stanford, California: Hoover Institution Press, 2001) , 174-175



††††††††††† Originally published at









 THE BALTIC LEGIONNAIRES: WHY DID THEY PUT ON THAT UNIFORM?††† †††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††