Between Giants; The Battle for the Baltics in World War II

Between Giants; The Battle for the Baltics in World War II by Prit Buttar. Osprey Publishing, 2015, paper.

There have been few accounts of the warfare between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union that took place in the Baltic States during World War II. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania lost 20% of their population during the War, next only to Poland in civilian losses. Moreover, while we generally mark the end of WWII with the German surrender in May 1945, fighting in the Baltic States continued sporadically until 1949. The Baltics only regained their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Osprey Publishing is best known for its military histories, and this is a detailed account of battles. Fortunately Prit Buttar has also included the interesting diplomatic history of the war years. He begins with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany in August 1939 and the Soviet occupation of the Baltic countries that followed in 1940-1941. He then describes the German occupation after Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 which precipitated the “Baltic holocaust.” Despite that horrendous German occupation, there was official and popular collaboration with the Germans during the Russian offensive in the Baltics in 1944.

There will probably always be differences of opinion amongst historians about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and particularly the secret protocol dividing up Poland and the Baltic States between the two giants.  What were Josef Stalin’s motives for the “non-aggression pact” with Nazi Germany? What precipitated his abrupt occupation of the Baltic States and the disastrous Winter War with Finland?

Buttar agrees with the present-day consensus that Stalin was taken aback by the rapidity of the German conquest of France and the Low Countries. A preemptive occupation of the region would thwart a German invasion through the Baltic countries that would threaten Leningrad and the Russian naval presence in the Baltic Sea. The Soviet dictator was right to be concerned about the rise of Baltic nationalist sentiments, particularly in Lithuania, and uncertain about which giant the Lithuanian nationalists would join.

The Russian Occupation employed mostly Russian-speaking Baltics and “too many” Baltic Jews. The Soviets reopened employment opportunities closed to Jews by the Baltic nationalists, and consequently Jews were viewed by the Balts as pro-Soviet, pro-Bolshevik. Nazi Germany’s racial policies, Buttar contends, found willing ears amongst the nationalists and the substantial numbers of Baltic Germans.

As war raged elsewhere, the Baltic countries saw little fighting between the German occupation after Barbarossa in June 1941 and Russia’s Operation Bagration in June 1944. Buttar has described Bagration in great detail as it unfolded on the Baltic front and particularly Russian efforts to encircle and isolate the German Army Group North in Latvia’s vast, swampy Courland Peninsula.

There was general agreement amongst the Wehrmacht leadership that the consolidation of German army units and the abandonment of Courland made military sense. But Hitler would not allow it. Courland, he argued, would be a launching pad for the recovery of lands lost to the Russians!

Even had Hitler approved, Buttar suggests that the evacuation of the German Army Group North and its equipment would have been a difficult maneuver. And any military evacuation would have been further complicated by the Baltic German refugees. German naval and air superiority had disappeared, leaving all German rescue vessels at risk.

In February 1945 Berlin dispatched 5000 replacements, mostly boys and old men, on a transport ship to support Army Group North in Courland. It was sunk by a Russian submarine; 2000 were rescued but 3000 drowned.

The Russians might have allowed Hitler his Courland bridgehead and swept on to the German homeland. But Stalin was now thinking about a post-war settlement. The argument for restoring the three Baltic States to Soviet dominance would have been weakened had the Russian Army not controlled this large chunk of Latvian territory.

Buttar adds some interesting details to the diplomacy surrounding the German surrender in May 1945. Admiral Karl von Dönitz, designed by Hitler as his successor, asked for a ceasefire in the West; Germany would continue to resist the Russian Army in the East. A major goal in this prolonging of the war in the East, Buttar contends, was to allow German soldiers and civilians to escape from the Baltic States and Poland. General Dwight Eisenhower, in his famous decision, said there would be no separate truce.

One can sympathize with the hard choices confronting the Balts in the War’s last years. Most were certain that they wanted nothing to do with the Russians. That drove many Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians to join the ‘forest brothers,’ who continued to harass Russian occupiers into 1949. Thus the uncertain date for the end of World War II in the Baltic States.

This widespread support of the German occupiers in 1944-1945 still haunts the now independent countries. How to memorialize the millions killed in the War who had made ‘bad choices’? A visit to Chicago’s Balzsekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture confirms that dilemma.

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