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Illustration Katrin Stenmark.

Reviews War, masculinity, and memory. Recruited into a foreign army

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds pages 50-52, Baltic worlds 4 2011
Published on on januari 18, 2012

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The book Soldiers of Memory, edited by Ene Kõresaar (University of Tartu), follows the research approach developed by an interdisciplinary group of scholars (including Kõresaar) in the book She Who Remembers Survives (2004)1. The previous publication was based on nine female life stories and included an analysis by seven researchers, five of whom are also among the authors of Soldiers of Memory. In spite of the similarities in the composition of the books, the more recent publication contains two important differences: it is based on male memories, and it is focused not on the whole Soviet period, but on Estonian participation in World War II. The book comprises two parts. The first part consists of the stories of eight men who were recruited or volunteered for the war or were involved in military or paramilitary activity in other ways. In the second part, eight researchers analyze the stories presented. The book thus offers the reader many opportunities to evaluate the content of the stories and to form his or her own opinion about the presentation of the war experience. The published biographical stories were written in Estonian as a response to four appeals made by the Estonian Life Stories Association and the Estonian History Archives between 1989 and 2005. In order to understand the importance of this publication, it is helpful to take into account the significance of the Estonian tradition of preserving individual memories of historical events, which the editor acknowledges in the introduction. In addition, it is worth bearing in mind that the stories discussed in the book represent the war experiences of a large group of people: about 100,000 Estonian men served in the Red Army or the German Army, or were part of other military units (for instance in the Finnish Army). The work on the reconstruction and analysis of “soldiers’ memories” is a pioneering effort that became possible only after Estonian independence: memories of the Second World War as well as memories of other periods of the recent past had been heavily censored in the Soviet Union.2 Indeed, memories were not only influenced by discourses of how to remember, but direct disciplining of the bodies (in the form of repression, rationing, or deportations) was frequently meted out to those who did not want to present the “correct” view of recent history.

The complexity of the past that is presented in this book is announced on the book cover itself: the picture placed there shows two Estonian soldiers in two different military uniforms (German and Soviet). The soldiers are portrayed close to each other, as if they are friends, not enemies. The title of the book also introduces the reader to the problems of the conflicts of remembering. The narratives of eight Estonian men presented in the book differ in style and focus, and correspond to several different contexts of remembering (this last aspect is skillfully discussed in the analytical chapters). The narratives also illustrate differences in self-positioning with respect to war experiences, as well as the complexity of choices all the narrators faced during the war. The book brings together memories of those who were recruited by the Nazi-German and Soviet military administrations (some of the narrators were recruited by both of these administrations one after the other), as well as of those who served as volunteers in the Finnish Army or spent a large part of the war as “mobilized workers” in the Soviet rear. Many of those whose memories are published in the book (or their close relatives) suffered from Soviet repression and deportation, and the deportation is frequently remembered as part of the experience of the war. The reconstruction of this complex picture of the war experience is seen by the editor of the book as very important: one of the aims of the book is to subvert the “ethnicization” of the presentation of the war produced by Estonian media (according to that simplified picture, the ethnic Russians had to represent the Soviet military experience, while ethnic Estonians were deemed to represent the German one).

The analytical part is well-grounded in source materials — most of those performing the analysis of the narratives expand the scope of their sources by bringing follow-up interviews with the narrators and their relatives into the analysis, as well as archive materials and other people’s memories. Due to discrepancies in the interpretation of some historical events by the narrators and the researchers, the names of the narrators were changed for publication. The analytical chapters, however, differ significantly with respect to their use of theory: while some chapters clearly present a particular theoretical approach, others are more descriptive. From the theoretical viewpoint, chapters by Ene Kõresaar, Rutt Hinrikus, and Olaf Mertelsmann are particularly interesting. Ene Kõresaar sees the aim of her chapter as understanding “the personal significance of war for the narrator” in the cultural context of the 1990s, when Estonian veterans took part in public discussion about the past. Kõresaar uses Debbora Battaglia’s term “representational economy” in order to describe the complicated process of the presentation of the “self” as a “reification” that is continually defeated in communication and competition with other voices and stories. Indeed, central to her interests are relationships between the narrator and his audience. Kõresaar also looks at problems of remembering the Soviet period through the frame of “memory of rupture” developed in her earlier works. Thus, she pays attention to the time of remembering (Boris Takk’s memories were written in 1993, the period of the public discussion about the Soviet past as a time of “rupture”, the period when any normal life was impossible) as well as to different “communities of memory” (like family, veterans’ groups, the local community) where war memories could be presented. According to Kõresaar, Takk successfully deals with the problem of guilt (he volunteered for the German Army that occupied Estonia and served in the Waffen-SS) by using the concept of the “third way”. He wrote that he joined the German Army in order to save Estonia by fighting against the Red Army. Kõresaar explains Takk’s choices through his idea that “the choice made by Estonians […] was to survive in the name of Estonian independence”. Later she finds a similar strategy when Takk explains why he joined the Communist Party in the 1970s: according to the narrator, he wanted to fight the enemy from within. It is important to note here that even if the political context of remembering (in 1990s) is supposed to be radically different from the context of the event, memories about serving in the Nazi army still seem to be a stigmatizing experience. For example, another narrator, Loog, whose memories are found in the book, did not mention it at all; the information about his short military service in the German police was discovered later.

Rutt Hinrikus, who analyzes the story of Reinhold Mirk, a Red Army officer during the Second World War, who continued to serve as an officer of the Special Estonian Military Unit until 1956, uses Aleida Assmann’s concept of winners and losers. Hinrikus notes, however, that in the Estonian context the use of these concepts is more complicated and, most probably, Mirk was thinking in practical terms in both situations. At the same time, Hinrikus notes that about one half of the space of Mirk’s narrative is dedicated to his experience working in the labor battalions during the first half of the war; this could be seen as a sign that that period was particularly difficult, and was filled with suffering. The scholar identifies three different scenarios according to which Mirk’s narrative is composed: “victim of forced conscription into the labor battalion, soldier of the victorious army and Estonian nationalist”. Hinrikus comes to the conclusion that his memories “reflect changes in the strategies of remembering the war” in Estonia.

Olaf Mertelsmann, in analyzing the memories of Boris Raag, has chosen to follow Sheila Fitzpatrick’s ideas on Homo Sovieticus as a survivor. Raag gives an account of his life in the Soviet rear as a soldier who was mobilized, and presents his experience of long travel through Central Asia (like many other Estonians, he was mobilized, but was not sent to the front out of suspicions held by Soviet military leadership toward ethnic Estonian soldiers). He also describes relationships with other Estonian men in similar situations, the struggle for food, and his desertion from the army. According to Mertelsmann, Raag is “neither a victim nor a hero, but a survivor using his agency”3. The author pays special attention to the use of humor in the narration and indicates the possible influence of fiction on Raag’s writing style.

What can analyzed memories tell us about war and about men in war? Although the authors of the book do not refer explicitly to theories of gender, the construction of masculinity through self-narrations about the war experiences could be well analyzed on the basis of this material. Some of the authors of the narratives describe themselves as a rather “natural” object for conscription by different military authorities. For example, Ailo Ehamaa writes that those men born before the end of 1922 got to participate in the war on one side or another. (“Had I been born a month later or in January of the next year, my fate might have been different.”) Similarly to Raag, he presents himself as a rather involuntary participant in one of the most dramatic events of the 20th century — the World War. Aili Aarelaid-Tart, who analyzes Ehamaa’s story, takes up the idea of the “alien war” that made Ehamaa into a rather neutral observer: “The war journey is presented rather as a sequence of fortunate and unfortunate happenings, of itineraries and locations, than as an emotional description of the horrors of battle, friends who were killed before his eyes, soldier’s jokes, etc.” Another important topic for male biographies in general and for military biographies in particular is the topic of male bonding. The particular importance of male friendship for survival is acknowledged by Tiina Kirss in her reading of Ylo-Vesse Velvelt’s memory of the last period of the war. Velvelt was mobilized into the German Army only in 1944 and is a survivor of the “Czech Hell” (the partisan war in Czechoslovakia during the last phase of the war). Like Ehamaa, Velvelt finds himself in a situation of “choiceless choice”, where he has to choose between “worse and bad”.4

However, as we saw in the example of the story analyzed by Kõresaar, several narratives offer the possibility of looking at the war period as a time when choice based on moral values is given special significance by the narrator (this is usually seen as a typical characteristic of male narratives). These narratives are constructed around agency and rational decisions. An example of this is Tiiu Jaago’s presentation of the story of Lembitu Varblane, the so-called Finnish boy (the name for those who took part in the war on the Finnish side in hopes of fighting against both Russians and Germans). In order to focus on the decision-making process, Jaago puts Varblane’s story into the context of other published memories, and also pays attention to changes in the character of the story that indicated different stages of personal development of the narrator. After analyzing Varblane’s experience of fleeing to Finland and serving in the Finnish navy, she goes on to analyze his strategies under the Soviet regime (Varblane’s relatives were arrested — his mother and brother were deported to Siberia — and, understanding that “the Soviet system was destroying country life”, he decides to work as a teacher in the village school). The presentation of the life story of Heinrich Uustalu (analyzed by Terje Anepaio) differs from other stories through a certain “distortion” in the presentation of the “male story”. Anepaio draws the attention of the reader to the emotional parts of Uustalu’s story, dedicated to his life before the war (which presents a picture of development and progress) and to the story of his family. The latter is a source of special suffering for the narrator: he and his wife (they married in September 1941) suffered deportation to Siberia and eleven years of separation from each other. Uustalu presents himself in his story as a man for whom the family has a primary value and provides an emotional picture of his feelings towards his wife and child, and of the reunion with his family in Siberia in 1955. That makes Uustalu’s story different from the other stories represented in the book, where family life is simply mentioned, rather than described in any detail.

Thus, the book under review could be seen as expanding our knowledge of several important issues. First, it complicates the established picture of the “two sides” in the war and contributes to the post–Cold War discussions about the Second World War and ways of presenting and commemorating it.5 Second, it provides a new, more nuanced picture of what the Second World War was and meant for Estonia. Finally, even if the book does not focus enough on the gender dimensions of the stories presented, in my opinion it would be very useful for anyone interested in male story-writing and constructions of masculinity. ≈


  1. Tiina Kirss, Ene Kõresaar & Marju Lauristin (eds.), She Who Remembers Survives: Interpreting Estonian Women Post-Soviet Life Stories, Tartu 2004.
  2. Natalia Kozlova, Sovetskie liudi: stseny iz istorii [Soviet people: Scenes from history], Moscow 2005; Marianne Liljeström, Useful Selves: Russian Women’s Autobiographical Texts from the Postwar Period, Helsinki 2004.
  3. This presentation is reminiscent of another study of Soviet Russian memories conducted by Natalia Kozlova on the basis of the documents of the Popular Archive in Moscow. Kozlova looks at the narrators as players of a game on the field of history. These players do not act according to a clear plan; the rules of the game are invented during its realization.
    As noted previously, male friendship is an important topic in Raag’s memories as well.
    See, for example, Withold Bonner & Arja Rosenholm (eds.), Recalling the Past — (Re)constructing the Past: Collective and Individual Memory of World War in Russia and Germany, Helsinki: Aleksanteri Series, 2/2008; Andrea Petö, “Who is Afraid of the ‘Ugly Women’? Problems of Writing Biographies of Nazi and Fascist Women in Countries of the Former Soviet Block”, Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 21, No. 4, 2009, pp. 147—151.

Ene Kõresaar (ed.)Soldiers of Memory World War II and its Aftermath in , Estonian Post-Soviet Life Stories, Amsterdam & New York Rodopi 2011, 441 pages