Mihkel Kaur was born in Tartu, Estonia, in 1898. In 1916
he volunteered for the Russian army and until December
1917 fought as a machine-gunner at the southwestern
front in Bukovina. He returned to Estonia to join
Estonian national units that had been formed in the
Russian army, but after the start of the German
occupation was demobilised in spring 1918. He joined the
civilian work force in Imperial Germany. After the end
of the Great War he was sent along with other foreign
labourers back to his homeland. Years later Kaur
"Between Tartu and Tapa [Estonian] soldiers of the
Independence War, which had only recently begun, came
to inspect our train... An attempt was made to recruit
us, but at least in that part of the carriage where I
was, no one went along. No one knew what it was all
Eventually, like many other veterans, Mihkel Kaur
joined the war again for "patriotic reasons",
illustrating the difference of war experiences in
Eastern Europe and Western Europe. In the East, war did
not end in 1918, but continued in some places until
The First World War and the wars that followed had
different origins. The First World War was rooted in the
contradictions between the four great continental and
the two colonial empires; later, many smaller countries
joined the conflict or were engulfed by it. However, the
wars that flared up in imperial borderlands after the
Compiègne armistice were the result of the military and
political collapse or the disintegration of the
Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires.
In this vast space, new actors appeared on the stage.
There were different movements seeking social justice –
from the Bolsheviks with dreams of world revolution and
their allies to different kinds of anarchists. There
were the former national minorities, who used the
opportunity to move toward independence although
autonomy had been the limit of their imagination only a
few years ago. Some actors, such as the Russian Whites,
German monarchists and the supporters of the Habsburgs
of Austria-Hungary wished to restore the pre-war
situation. Among them were the Baltic German estates,
who wanted to create, with German support, a Baltic
Duchy, thus turning history backwards by about half a
century before the Russification of Baltic provinces.
All this was encouraged by the war experience. The
majority of Europeans of all nations and classes were
used to death and for many soldiering had become the
only imaginable way of being.
One way to analyse this is to focus on the competition
of two principles, social justice and the nation.
Ideally, the first aspired toward the liberation of the
lower classes while the other promised independence and
state-building for the nation, but the two aspirations
were in fact always intertwined. Nationalism had to
adapt to social claims and socialism to the growing
national self-awareness of the people. The struggle was
decided by winning the support of the masses – leaving
aside the important factor of foreign interventions
from the Caucasus to Karelia. However, the experience
and perceptions of the common people is one of the most
neglected research fields today.
In retrospect, the outcomes of the struggles have often
been viewed as evidence of a purpose in history. The
"new" nations of Eastern Europe have had the tendency
to read history backwards, searching for evidence for
the inevitability of the birth of their nation states.
Over the past century, narratives based on Marxist
thought have competed with those national narratives,
reading history deterministically as a struggle between
exploiting and exploited classes. Proceeding from the
revolution-counterrevolution dialectic, Marxist
narratives have no time for the notion of independence
wars in the borderlands.
The Estonian War Museum and the Estonian National Defence College organised an international military history conference to seek new perspectives to analyse and conceptualise the miltary
conflicts of 1918–1922. In particular, listeners were introduced to the following topics:
- the war experience and motivation of soldiers and
recruitments and mobilisations
political moods in the armed forces
propaganda of the warring parties – nationalism versus
social justice or something else?
- the influence of politico-strategic developments in the
Russian Civil War on individual war theatres and
strategy, tactics and technology in independence wars
the impact of international coalitions, foreign allies
and transnational actors – from influencing morale to
deciding the outcome of wars
aspects of the history of the Estonian War of
Speakers and their topics
Chosen works can be found in the Estonian War Museums's yearbook (linked).
- Prof Vasilijus Safronovas (Klaipėda University)
– "Continuous or Variable Conflicts: An Approach through
the Lens of Lithuanian Soldiers"
- Dr Kārlis Dambītis (National Defence Academy of
– "Interpretations of Independence War of Latvia: Past and
- Dr Lauri Vahtre (Estonian War Museum)
– "The Estonian War of Independence 1918-1920: General
Features and Place in History"
- Prof Lars Ericson Wolke (Royal Swedish Academy of
War Sciences) – "Idealists or Adventurers? – Einar Lundborg and the
Swedish Volunteers in Estonia in 1919"
- Dr Mikkel Kirkebæk (Denmark) – "Who Fought for Estonia? – Danish Volunteer Soldiers and
Their Incentives to Fight in the Estonian War of
Independence in 1919"
- Dr Mart Kuldkepp (University College London)
– "The Repatriation of Great War Estonian Prisoners of
War from Germany during the Estonian War of
- Dr Artem Barynkin (Saint Petersburg State
– "Proletarian Internationalism or Pragmatism? Soviet
Foreign Policy Towards Poland at the Turn of 1918–1919"
- Thomas Rettig (Dresden University of Technology)
– "United by Anti-Bolshevism? The West Russian
Volunteer Army in Latvia 1919"
- Valdis Kuzmins (National defence Academy of Latvia)
– "Rising an Army: Military Operations in Kurland"
- COL Jacek Lasota and Michał Przybylak (War
Studies University, Warsaw)
– "New State, New War, New Weapon – the First Operational
Use of the Polish Armoured Units (1919–1920)"
- Mindaugas Sereičikas (Klaipėda University)
– "The Wars of Independence as a Challenge to the
Civilians: Relationship between the Lithuanian Army
and the Civilians in 1919"
- Dr Ivan Fukalov (University ADAM, Bishkek)
– "Civil War on the Outskirts of the Former Russian Empire:
Kyrgyzstan at the Crossroads of the Influence of Operating Forces"
- Dr Khachatur Stepanyan (Armenian State Pedagogical
University, Yerevan) – "Armenia’s Anti-Soviet Rebellion in February 1921 as a
Manifestation of War for Independence"