The Battle for the Baltics in World War II
This book tries to fill a gap in the histories of World War II that tend to move directly with the troops from big battles at one place to the next battle and place. Thus we visit Stalingrad when the Germans arrive and depart once the armies have moved on. Here the author stays in one place from before the time the armies come until after they have left. Even when the war is supposedly over, it isn’t all over.
The place is the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Three small countries that were carved out of the old Czarist Russia and Imperial Germany and when the two countries began to recover and rearm they both began to look at these countries again.
The first stage came when Poland was broken up between the USSR and Germany. Lithuania was awarded a slice of land that Poland had been occupying which sounded good. However, it soon turned out that Germany had agreed to allow the occupation of all three states in exchange for a slice of land leading to the city of Memel, Lithuania’s only port. Over the next months the Soviets strongarmed the three countries to “accept” an occupation.
With this came the arrest of thousands and the fleeing of ethnic Germans to Germany. The Jewish groups tended to be more pro-Russian, knowing some of what the Germans had in store for them, which increased the anti-Semitic tensions above the normal levels.
The second stage was the German invasion of the USSR in 1941. In a matter of a few weeks the war swept over the Baltics toward Leningrad. The book describes the military actions but as you can imagine, this doesn’t take long.
The third stage was the German occupation and the Holocaust in the Baltics. This isn’t easy reading, and the people of the Baltic states have a mixed record. Some did try and help the Jews, but others did not and some were enthusiastic participants.
The fourth stage was the reconquest of most of the region, save the Courland Pocket, by the Russians. There were units from the Baltic states in both armies, sometimes fighting each other. This section is the best I’ve found on this campaign in any book – while not as hyper-detailed as Glantz’ works, is far better than the dismissive few paragraphs often given to this part of the war.
This fourth stage saw more flight of natives to escape the new occupation coming.
The final stage is the post war occupation. Some kept fighting as the USSR reoccupled the area, often for years. The west was not able or willing to make this an issue and the USSR incorporated the Baltics until the breakup of the USSR in the 1990s.
I think the book is evenhanded in its approach to the subject – facts are laid out and you can judge them for yourself. Nobody comes out with a white hat. But knowing the facts is better than sweeping them under the rug.