Mart Laar: we really ought to have resisted Russia, back in 1939...

Mart Laar
, Prime Minister 1992–1994, 1999–2002
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Photo: Peeter Langovits / Postimees

The aim of history might rather be to understand, not to condemn. As to decisions taken in 1939, the again-independent Estonia has – by her behaviour and practice – awarded an assessment. Even so, in order to understand history, we still need the answers to a whole host of questions regarding the options in these days of long ago, writes Mart Laar, historian and former Prime Minister of Estonia (IRL).

We really ought to have resisted, in 1981 said the men that once fought at Narva and Blue Hills. And, with the same breath, they added: whatever we failed to do in 1939, in 1944 we did it. To be wise in hindsight rarely helps, in history. The «if onlys» never count. Thus, we will never know if, having decided otherwise in 1939, Estonia’s fate would have been better – or even worse.   

What matters more is that the again-independent Estonia has passed her judgement on the decisions of 1939. Right after independence was regained, Estonia set her course to avoid events of 1939–1940, thereby admitting these decisions were wrong after all. For such assessment, a strictly scientific measuring rod was indeed lacking, but the sufferings and the blows under foreign power, and the wound in the soul in the nation, were reason enough.

Thus, we have strived to be in NATO, have raised our defence spending to two percent of gross domestic products, and have explicitly stated we will resist any invader even if the outcome is not clear. If, however, we had judged the 1939 decisions to have been right, we ought to have behaved otherwise altogether. As proven by the battles raging in Ukraine, the path chosen by Estonia indeed made much more sense, serving to prove that «while fighting we at least maintain the hope, which too will die when choosing to surrender».

In the soul of Estonia, to this day the decisions of 1939 remain an open sore which indeed does close up with each year of independence adding a measure of confidence – and yet tends to be torn every once a while. The emotional polemic thereon as ignited in Postimees between people otherwise peaceful comes as an ample example of that. Overly so, the temptation is to disparage the other thinker and to even launch personal attacks, which is sad. To add to the weightiness of the subject, the events of 1939 – especially the treaty of the [Russian military] bases – have yet to be fully perceived. Let me refer to four topics, at least.

Firstly, till this very day we do not know how exactly Estonia’s concessions to Moscow were assessed in embassies of democratic countries; for the US embassy in Moscow, for instance, such softness by Estonia came as a surprise.

Secondly, to this very day we do not know how far from, or rather, how close Estonia stood to a war with the Soviet Union in the last days of the September of 1939. The orders to attack had indeed been signed.

Thirdly, the course of the negotiations leading to the bases’ treaty is yet to be researched. Regardless to contrary opinions, the delegation that entered into it lacked powers by the parliament. Riigikogu had approved the requirements presented to foreign minister Mr Selter in Moscow; the bases’ treaty entered in Moscow, however, went much further than these. Riigikogu did indeed approve the treaty without major disputes, but on September 28th of 1939 nothing would formally have hindered the Estonian delegation from returning to Estonia, having heard the new demands by Mr Stalin, for fresh instructions – as the foreign minister Mr Selter had done a few days before. The result would, probably, have been war of course.

The fourth issue: what was the condition of Estonian defence forces in September 1939 as compared to Finland who, in spite of all odds and its poor preparedness was able to push back the Soviet attacks in the Winter War while paying a dear price? Only when these and many other questions are answered we might, if we so desire, tackle the issue of whether the decisions taken in the fall of 1939 were totally optimal or not. But, let’s admit, this will rather fall in the hindsight wisdom category.

The plan of Estonian leadership to gain time at any cost may indeed be considered prudent, but for several reasons it did not work. The statesmen of the time took the decisions on the level of what they knew; we, however, know what followed after. The aim of history might rather be to understand, not to condemn. Then we will be more worthy of our regained independence. 

But when it comes to the lessons of 1939, we have been quite steadfast in learning them, Estonia is no longer alone and our security level is high. The unbelievers might just as well listen to the sound of the NATO fighters, whizzing all over Estonia from the base at Ämari. First and foremost, Estonia’s security is on high level due to the explicit message sent by our very selves that Estonia will resist any attack. This message needs to be clear, sure and indisputable. Possibly, it was for the weakness of deterrence that it went the way it did, in 1939.

To that backdrop, it is out of bounds to toy with the deterrence or cast doubt on it – as has regrettably now happened. Reform Party playing with conscript service, and by that with the credibility of Estonian national defence, may seem somewhat unimportant – but especially in this current situation this may be dangerous for Estonia. 

I can vividly imagine how such an idea may have been born. In my mind’s eye, I see the Reform Party leadership gathered. The party’s summer event is drawing nigh and it would be neat to draw some limelight. Leaning on his chair, Mr Michal then asks: «Okay, what’s the ideas?» The secretary-general mumbles something about having everybody war wigs and make Mr Pevkur play Elvis; Mr Michal says that ain’t bad. Then, Mr Pevkur utters his voice: «Why not pour water on Rõivas?» «Gettin’ better,» says Mr Michal.

Enter Mr Rosimannus: «Why not leak a part of the [party] programme into the media and cause a big public debate; why not leak the security part, say? Nobody will believe we have a thing like that in our programme anyhow. We did try to kick up the topic of making taxes voluntary, but that did not really fly, so why not try to make conscription service voluntary... good enough to whip up a polemic.» «Excellent, we’ll fill up the media,» beams Mr Michal, and it’s a deal.

This will surely raise the Reform Party rating or keep it high enough at least, but for Estonia’s security a game like that is more than risky. Therefore, let’s rather not play it because, obviously, none of us wants to see 1939 and 1940 repeated.