World War II began in Europe on 1 September 1939. A week before, the Foreign Ministers of the Soviet Union and Germany had concluded the Treaty of Non‑Aggression, containing a secret protocol that divided Eastern Europe into spheres of influence. Estonia was assigned to the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union. In September 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union demolished the Polish state. In the same autumn, the Soviet Union forced pacts of mutual assistance on Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Soviet military bases were established in all Baltic countries.
In November 1939, the Soviet Union attacked Finland, who had refused to sign a similar pact. The Estonian state had to stand neutrally by and watch its kindred nation go to battle. Still, dozens of Estonian men escaped to Finland to fight the Red Army as volunteers.
In mid‑June 1940, the Soviet Union occupied the Baltic States definitively. The Estonian state was destroyed, followed by political persecution of those who had represented the Estonian state, which culminated in the deportation of close to 10,000 people on 14 June 1941, a week before war broke out between the Soviet Union and Germany.
During the war between Germany and the Soviet Union, over 30,000 Estonian men were conscripted into the Red Army in the summer of 1941. They were initially sent to labour units, where thousands died of malnutrition, disease and inhuman living conditions. The survivors were formed into the 8th Estonian Rifle Corps of the Red Army in 1942. In the winter of 1942/1943, the corps fought in the Battle for Velikiye Luki, where several thousands of Estonian soldiers were killed.
By the autumn of 1941, Hitler’s Germany had invaded the Estonian territory and established its occupation regime. Many Estonians joined the German army voluntarily to fight the Bolsheviks and retaliate for the victims of the first “red” year. Germany’s military luck ran out and forced conscription was expanded to include the occupied territories. The conscription into the German army of 1943 targeted Estonian men born between 1919 and 1925. Most of the Estonians drafted to the German army were assembled into the 20th Estonian SS Division in the spring of 1944.
Thousands of young Estonians did not want to serve in the German army and escaped to Finland. In early 1944, the Estonians were formed into the 200th Infantry Regiment of the Finnish army, which fought in the Karelian Isthmus. In August, before an armistice was concluded between Finland and the Soviet Union, the so‑called Finnish Boys were sent back to Estonia. They fought the attacking Red Army in the ranks of the 20th Estonian SS Division, the same division that they had tried to avoid by escaping to Finland.
The front reached the Estonian border in February 1944. The Germans announced a universal conscription of men born between 1904 and 1926. The last Prime Minister and bearer of Estonian statehood, Jüri Uluots, also supported the conscription in his radio statement, as he considered a potential Soviet occupation of Estonia a final deathblow to the Estonian nation. Battles continued in continental Estonia until late September 1944. The last German units were evacuated from Saaremaa in late November 1944.
After having marched into Estonia in 1944, the Red Army’s 8th Estonian Rifle Corps fought in deadly battles on Saaremaa Island and was sent in the spring of 1945 to fight the Germans in Courland, where many men were also killed. In the autumn of 1944, another conscription into the Red Army was announced in Estonia. Over 20,000 men were drafted, a lot of whom had previously served in the German army.
In World War II, Estonia lost roughly a fifth of its population; people were shot, sent to the Gulag prison camps or deported, they died in action or as civilian casualties of war, they were killed in the Holocaust in Estonia or sent to concentration camps in Germany, they were conscripted, evacuated and forced to flee. Some of the survivors made it back home after long years of imprisonment and deportation, but tens of thousands had died and tens of thousands relocated to other countries. Estonia lost all of its ethnic minorities: Germans were relocated to Germany in 1939–1941, the Jews who did not evacuate to safety behind the front line on the Soviet side were murdered in the Holocaust, and the Swedes were taken to Sweden in 1944. At the end of the same year, Pechory and the areas beyond Narva River, home to the majority of Estonian Russians, were annexed to the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.
The scene constructed in the World War II room portrays the period in question through the fates of three junior officers who graduated together from the Estonian Military Academy in 1938. They meet in September 1944 in the battles of Emajõgi, each wearing the uniform of a different army. A second constructed scene offers a glimpse into a trench in the Sinimäed Hills. The German and Soviet armies fought on the Narva Front and in the Sinimäed Hills from February to September 1944, including most of the Estonians who were conscripted to the German armed forces.