1944 is the masterpiece of the small Estonian film industry and will most likely remain so for many years to come. Released in February 2015, it is a story of Estonian men who fought in the battles of World War II that became crucial for their country. Based on the authentic accounts of veterans and filmed with the help of military experts, 1944 can be a good starting point for non-Estonians who want to learn more about the history of Estonia — and perhaps all Baltic countries. It is also the only recent film to present Waffen-SS soldiers as the good guys, although the film has some faults that I will address later on.
In June of 1940, Estonia — along with Latvia and Lithuania — was swiftly occupied by the Soviet Union following ultimatums to the Baltic governments. The Communist terror regime with its deportations, mass murders, and violent eradication of Estonian nationalism was so gruesome that by 1941, most Estonians welcomed another historical adversary — the German army — into their country with open arms as liberators. On the Eastern front, many Estonian men became volunteers in the fight against Communism, serving in numerous battalions under German command, the most famous of which was the Estonian Legion of the Waffen-SS.
However, in the summer of 1941 when battles raged in South Estonia, the Soviets had time to forcibly mobilize tens of thousands of Estonians into the Red Army. These Red Estonian units proved disastrously unreliable, often only waiting for the first chance to switch sides and turn their weapons against the Soviets. Thus they were soon relocated to the Soviet rear, facing death in construction work under terrible conditions in North Russia. When they were brought back to the front, it was for propaganda reasons under the leadership of Communists. Those Estonian communists took part in a number of war crimes, often indiscriminately murdering Estonian prisoners who had fought on the German side.
By the beginning of 1944, a new Soviet occupation was menacing Estonia. The German authorities in Estonia ordered a general mobilization, which became quite successful after Jüri Uluots — the legal Prime Minister and acting President of Estonia — spoke on the radio, urging all men to join the fight against Communism “for only that way could Estonia decide its destiny again.” With German help, Estonians held back the Soviet invasion for many months in the Battle of Narva and the Battle of the Blue Hills, the latter of which became the largest battle ever fought in Estonia with Waffen-SS troops from many European countries guarding the gates of Europe against Communism.
Nevertheless, in September the German army command ordered a large-scale retreat from Estonia. In those chaotic days, the Estonian government desperately called upon the world to help resist the Red Army, calls that fell on deaf ears. Soon Tallinn, the capital, was captured by the Soviets. The Red Estonians were among the first Soviet units to enter the city, and they replaced the national flag in top of the symbolic Tall Hermann tower with the red hammer and sickle. By the end of the year, the islands of West Estonia were also occupied by the Soviets. The country that had fought so bravely fell back behind the Iron Curtain for nearly half a century.
The film opens with an episode from the Blue Hills, where soldiers of the Estonian Legion have to hold off a massive Soviet attack, facing overwhelming artillery and T-34 tanks. Although the film falls short of conveying the full epic scale of the battle, which involved tens of thousands of troops and a tremendous amount of military hardware, especially on the Soviet side, it still gives a good sense of what the defenders had to go through. Afterwards, we get a realistic picture of everyday life on the front, clearly enhanced by using genuine accounts from the soldiers. Further on, we are taken to the gloomy days of September when frustrated soldiers are ordered to leave their well-fortified positions and begin a long march through Estonia to leave their homeland, perhaps forever.
We see roads filled with both soldiers and civilians, all moving west to escape the Soviet menace. We witness a Soviet air raid on defenseless Estonian civilians. The soldiers, frustrated at the prospect of leaving their country without a fight, decide to stop and fight one last battle against the Communists in the village of Avinurme, where some of the last remaining Estonian troops tried to break the Soviet encirclement. In the midst of the fight, however, both sides realize that there are Estonians on the other side. Blood being a stronger bond than any political affiliation, the shooting stops instinctively. Red Estonians watch silently as the legionaries leave the battlefield to fight another day.
From here on, we follow a platoon of Red Estonians. A man in Soviet uniform finds a letter in the pocket of a legionary he just killed and decides to bring it to the addressee, the sister of the dead legionary who lives in Tallinn. After the Soviets occupy the capital, their romance ensues. But the Red Army soldiers are not allowed to enjoy their short vacation in peace. They are encouraged by the NKVD to spy on one another, reporting any anti-Communist sentiments, while it is made clear that strict ideological loyalty is a precondition to any sort of advancement. It becomes clear that being a Soviet soldier means not only selling one’s body but also one’s soul during the final battles on the West Estonian island of Saaremaa.
I do not want to spoil the ending. Rather, the big question is: what is the overall message of the film? 1944 is quite clearly an anti-war film. Aside from the dedication — to all who have fallen for Estonia’s freedom — there is little that glorifies the fight itself. Sacrifice is usually seen as a sacrifice for one’s comrades, without a sentimental or fervent reference to protecting one’s homeland. Yet the film condemns war not through an appeal to some kind of universal humanity. Instead, the film appeals to nationalism, to the idea that the worst crime is killing one’s own countrymen, not the nameless foreigners on the other side, as some of the most evocative scenes in the film suggest. “What will you do if you face an Estonian in a Soviet uniform? Your fellow countryman!” an Estonian legionary asks others on the front.
By this appeal to nationalism, 1944 attempts to reconcile both sides of the war. Yet this attempt becomes rather naïve and ahistorical when applied to the Estonians who fought in the Red Army. Almost all of them are portrayed as good men who sadly are forced to serve an evil ideology — and it includes Soviet Russians as well. The most disappointing scene of the film is the Soviet capture of Tallinn. The red flag rises to the top of Tall Hermann — with no mention that just a moment before Estonian communists had torn down the flag of their own country. Soviet soldiers in Tallinn are sober and act properly, whereas in reality the capture of the city resulted in a week of looting and drinking. An Estonian woman who lives alone is not afraid to open her door to a man in Soviet uniform, even though knowledge of the Communist terror and rapes that took place in Estonia three years earlier should have made her wary.
And yet the two sides never become equal. Throughout the film, a subtle notion persists that men in SS uniforms are protectors of their homeland, while those in Soviet uniforms — although unwillingly — are occupiers. They are certainly aware of it themselves. The legionaries, while increasingly conscious that they are on the losing side of the war, still take it quite lightly, throw parties on the front line and make fun of the Germans they are supposedly fighting for. On the Soviet side, the atmosphere is different. After the first contacts with Estonian civilians — who mistake them for legionaries, a frequent episode in the accounts of the Red Estonians — the men know they represent something hostile to their nation. The constant nearness of the Communist police state fills them with fear, something that we never feel about the legionaries.
Naturally, as a film made in today’s EU, the depiction of SS soldiers as the good guys needed to be softened by some political correctness. But at no point does it become overwhelming or really disruptive. There is a funny but totally ahistorical scene in which the soldiers get awarded for their heroism not with Iron Crosses but with small photos of Hitler. Next we see the soldiers having fun at the expense of the Führer, which may not be ahistorical but is surely overemphasized. The film is correct, of course, about the large majority of Estonian legionaries having no interest in National Socialism and no special sympathies towards the German leaders of the time. They wore the SS uniform simply because the Germans were the only ones to supply them weapons in the fight against Communism.
More importantly, we do get a sense of a common European front to protect Europe, an idea that in the 20th century was first manifested among the foreign volunteers of the Waffen-SS. In the scenes in the Blue Hills, the Estonians are sent to help out Danish legionaries who have been encircled by the Soviets. During the battle, both nations show comradeship and make friends. Regrettably the film does not address the motives and views of the Danish volunteers who had decided to leave their homes and join the struggle against Communism, even as their own country was forced to bear a German occupation.
When I first saw the movie, I was certain that it would not touch the Jewish topic. After all, it had no importance for the Estonians who struggled to save their own nation during World War II. Thus I was surprised to see a Jewish soldier on the Communist side — and even more surprised about the outcome of this subplot. First we see him showing his family picture to other Soviet soldiers. We can assume that his relatives, who stayed in Estonia during the war, are all dead, and even if they were to survive and eventually migrate to Israel, he would never hear from them again if he remained behind the Iron Curtain. In a particularly significant scene, Soviets take a few Germans prisoners. Before anyone can escort them away, the Jew shoots them dead, his eyes burning with revenge. Others are baffled by his conduct. “This will not bring your family back,” a soldier tells him.
I believe this scene really caught something, similar to Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, but from another angle. Revenge for the Shoah drives Israel’s policies the same way it drives opposition to modern European nationalism. But if the Muslims colonizing Europe start to violently root out Jewish communities — among several minorities cherished by current liberals — Jewish revenge would prove self-destructive. This is the same revenge in the eyes of this Soviet soldier, killing random Germans who most probably met their last Jew when they visited a dentist during the Weimar Republic.
In 2013, I was present at the first test shooting for 1944 when a friend invited me to a World War II reenactment event to play an Estonian legionary. Those scenes, however, did not make it into the final version of the film. While I was there, the director, Elmo Nüganen — also known for making an epic about War of Independence 1918–1920, Names in Marble – explained his vision of the film. The gist of his message is that for a nation to survive, it needs a living culture connecting us to the stories and struggles of our ancestors. The modern film industry gives us excellent tools to revitalize those stories and awaken the national spirit — as long as it is done correctly, not along the lines of Hollywood mass culture. I was glad to hear that this is his vision, and I believe this explicitly metapolitical task for Estonia has been well fulfilled by both of his films.
When 1944 was released, I took Swedish and Latvian nationalists who were visiting Tallinn for the annual torchlight march of Estonian nationalists on February 24 to see the film in a theater. The Swedes loved it — in large part surely because nationalism has been so downplayed in their country that this film felt to them like a breath of fresh air. The Latvians — who largely shared our fate during World War II — were more critical, especially about the portrayal of Soviet soldiers. Their criticism was correct — but naturally it can fully be addressed only when Europeans are free to construct our own historical narratives, without having to pander to political correctness or the ruling narrative in which the Communists were among the good guys, the narrative that despite its power becomes more spent and clichéd with each coming year.
The fact that we can see men with two lightning bolts on their collars on the screen without the obligation to hate them is already a nail in the coffin of that narrative. The common nationality, which unites men on both sides of a war, can also inspire Europeans to stick together in the future, not merely because we share temporary political objectives, but because there is something more that we share, something that transcends politics and ideology altogether. This is the magic of nationalism.