I was surprised by the beauty of the Estonian capital, it made a better impression on me than St. Petersburg. Beautiful renovated ancient houses in the historic part of the former Hanseatic city with the dominant church of St. Olaf with its 159 meter high tower, which is one of the highest in Europe. In one word, beauty. It is said that the builder of the temple jumped from it and killed himself because he was afraid that the vault of the nave would collapse. The only thing that doesn’t fit here at all is the typical bulbous Orthodox church on one of the hills. The walls that once protected the city from the enemy wind around the old city. In the part of the castle complex there is a cozy cafe with a nice view of the center of the Pearl of the Baltic.
An extraordinary story began in her. Even earlier, however, a lovely fair-haired waitress brought me coffee, coke and some delicious local dessert. I’m reading an Estonian guidebook when I hear a German voice over me asking if I’m Czech. I look, I see an old gray-haired but well-built and still good-looking man. So I ask him what he wants, and he says he’d like to sit down. “Why not,” I say. He ordered a shot of Jameson. I think to myself, those seniors in Estonia are not living badly, but an explanation came shortly afterwards.
“My name is Arthur Meeri and I am already retired, I used to live in America for a long time, but after the end of the Soviet occupation I returned to my homeland.” And so it is, I say to myself. Having an American pension and living in the Baltics is fine. I introduce myself to him and say, “I’m on vacation in Estonia and I really like your place.” He replies, “that’s good, my homeland is beautiful.” Then I let him know that I was pleasantly surprised by the Estonian national flags, which many people have posted in their homes. Such an expression of patriotism is sympathetic to me.
He was pleased and replied. “It is also a reaction to previous communist oppression. In 1940, the Russians occupied us and introduced the Red Terror. Estonian symbols were banned and even our anthem “My Land is My Happiness and Joy” became a banned song. Violent Russification began. Then you can’t be surprised that we Russians don’t have to at all.” I say that I know about it and Estonia also has problems with the European Union because of the Russian minority. “No one harms the Russians here, and they are better off here than in Russia. Just like that, the Russians and their descendants, who lived here before the Soviet occupation in 1940, automatically received Estonian citizenship after the declaration of Estonian independence. Those who came here later as occupiers are not entitled to it and must fulfill other conditions to obtain Estonian citizenship. I would say that we are very generous to our oppressors. The Czechs immediately drove out the German minority.”
Then he continued. You know what, I will introduce you to my story and also to modern Estonian history. do you want I’ll tell you straight, during the war I served in the SS as an officer. First, as a lieutenant or Untersturmführer, I commanded a platoon, later as a Haupsturmführer, i.e. company captain. “So this is a blast,” I think to myself. What now, should I get up and leave? However, curiosity got the better of me and I stayed. And that’s when our rather interesting conversation began.
You probably fought with the 20th SS Grenadier Division or the 1st Estonian Grenadier Division. It is so? What actually led you to this, after all, the SS was declared a criminal organization by the Nuremberg Tribunal in 1946?
I would differentiate. There was a big difference between the fighting units of the Waffen SS and the Totenkopf SS that guarded the concentration camps. We were soldiers, not killers of people in concentration camps. You know, I am not a war criminal and I did not want to be an SS, but the Germans did not allow us to restore the Estonian army. If you want to go to war with the Bolsheviks, then only in the SS, there is no other option, they emphasized. Now I’m going to tell you my story, do you agree?
I’m hot for him.
Before the war, in 1938, I entered the military academy for officers. Just before the occupation of our country by Bolshevik Russia, I was discharged as a lieutenant in the Estonian Army. Then, of course, we were occupied by the Soviet Union and I was lucky, they left me in the Red Army as a second lieutenant. However, many of my colleagues were captured and murdered. The occupation of our country was directed by Stalin’s henchman Zhdanov, in July 1940 our parliament was forced to vote on a request to join the USSR, this was done with the assistance of heavily armed Red Army soldiers.
The devastation of Estonia took place, the government was taken over by communist self-proclaimed people who no one wanted and they led our country to decline and destruction. We paid six times more for food, shoes, and clothes than before, while wages only tripled. There were queues for everything, there was a shortage of goods of all kinds. Typical socialism. We didn’t know anything like this during independent Estonia.
By 1952, 150,000 Estonians, including women and children, were deported to Siberia in inhuman conditions in cattle trucks. Many of them did not survive the journey, because they were taken there like the Nazis took Jews to concentration camps. In just one year between 1940 and 1941, sixty thousand Estonians were murdered by the Bolsheviks.
OK, I get that, but I sense one big contradiction in your narrative. You here condemn the Bolsheviks for their terror, which I understand. However, you admit that you became an officer in the Red Army. Why?
They offered this option to some of us, with the condition that we would remain in Estonia as a crew. Perhaps the deciding factor for me was that I was a young starting officer and my father was a worker, i.e. the right class origin. I didn’t know what to do, so he took it, but with the understanding that I wouldn’t stay red. I just didn’t know how to do it. However, even a year in the Soviet army gave me a lot. And I understood that the communist regime is monstrous.
Shortly before the war in May 1941, we went somewhere near Kazan for maneuvers. In Russia, we saw villages with crumbling neglected houses, dirty and malnourished people, including small children.
What did you do after the war broke out?
With the unit, we were moving to Lithuania to the front. An anti-Soviet uprising broke out in Vilnius, and I joined it with my soldiers. However, I have shot a polytruck before and I am not ashamed of it. He belonged to the NKVD anyway, and the goons from that gang were the same, or maybe even worse, than the Gestapo. Together with the Lithuanians, we controlled the city even before the arrival of the Germans. Then the Germans captured me, but I escaped from them, and in southern Estonia he joined the partisans called the Forest Brothers, who managed to take control of the area around the city of Pärnu in August. Tallinn was cleared of Russians at the end of September. However, the Germans introduced an occupation administration in the Baltics and did not allow any country to have its own government.
And what did you do after occupying the country?
He joined the police in Tartu. Our department dealt with ordinary crime, thieves, murderers, robbers and the like.
But did the police of the Baltic states also take part in anti-Jewish pogroms?
This was done by special police units, and this problem mainly concerned Latvia and Lithuania, not Estonia, where only about 600 Jews perished. However, I emphasize, I never agreed with this and Jews were persecuted in all occupied European countries.
The 20th Grenadier Division was formed in January 44, but there were already some smaller Estonian SS units before that.
That’s right, you have good knowledge, I went there to defend my homeland from the Bolsheviks. After my experience with them, I considered them to be the greatest misfortune for my country, so I entered there. Our division achieved an excellent success in March and April of the forty-fourth year at Narva, where we eliminated the bridgehead of the Red Army. This infuriated the Russian command so much that it threw nine divisions of the Leningrad Front against us. But we repelled them and the Soviets lost one hundred and twenty thousand soldiers in these battles. The Russians managed to conquer and occupy Estonia only in the fall of 1944. Later, I and my unit got as far as Nymburk in Bohemia. And there, for the first and last time in his career, he used minor violence against a civilian.
On some farm, I forced a civilian on the local landlord with a machine gun in hand. The war was over and I wanted to run away. But the peasant did not cause problems, and I even warned him that the Bolsheviks would come, which are the same beasts as the Nazis. I think he understood and put some food on my way himself. You know, I speak German, English and Russian. So I claimed in English to the Czechs outside Prague that I was an American pilot who had been shot down and was now running to his family. And then someone took me along side roads all the way to Pilsen. The Americans were already there and I got into their occupation zone. From there, with the help of good Christians, I went to Argentina, I will keep the details to myself, and later in 1948 I settled in the USA. I studied law at Columbia University in New York, and worked as a lawyer for a very successful firm all my life. After the fall of the Soviet regime, I returned home to Estonia in 1994, I have a high American pension and I don’t miss anything.
You know, the SS was declared a criminal organization, you are right, but not every one of their soldiers committed war crimes, the principle of collective guilt is inadmissible, everyone must be judged separately. Moreover, in 1950, the Congress of the United States of America decided that the statement of the Nuremberg Tribunal regarding the SS did not apply to the inhabitants of the Baltic countries, who in good faith were only fighting for the freedom of their homelands.
What is your relationship with the Russians?
I have no problem with them. I hate the Bolsheviks, and they were also among the Estonians. I found out for myself that the communists also did a lot of harm to ordinary Russians, who were poor and lived in extreme poverty. I get along with normal Russians.
“And you know what, now let’s have some good whiskey together. Maybe Jameson, maybe?’
“Why not,” I reply. So we got the Irishman.
I believe that some people, especially from nations enslaved by the brutal Stalinist regime, joined the SS for idealistic reasons. Which, of course, makes me not doubt that it was a Nazi criminal organization. However, they did so only for the reason that, after appalling personal experiences, they considered Soviet socialism to be a far worse evil. The world is not black and white and our historical experiences are not universal. It should be noted that the Soviet occupation of Estonia in 1940 was comparable to the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939.