World War I Centennial Brings Calls for More Research into Estonia's Role

A photo dated 1914 of Kaiser Wilhelm II (right) and high-ranking German Army officers observe German Army maneuvers from beside a windmill at the outbreak of World War I. (PA Wire/Scanpix)
8/5/2014 9:29 AM
Category: Main news

A century after the start of World War I, Estonian historians say the Great War is also the Forgotten War. Historians say there should be more research into the 1914-1918 period than there has been - and perhaps even more historical fiction.

Estonia has shown a knack for seizing the moment - an often-mentioned example is August 20, 1991, when the country emerged from the near disaster of the hard-line communist putsch in Moscow as a newly independent country. Its original independence was forged similarly from out of the chaos of the post World War I world, after traditional class and imperial structures had crumbled.

Historian Olev Liivik, who attended a conference in Berlin in late July marking the day on which Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, told ETV: "In 1914, Estonia was a part of the Russian empire and I don't think anyone who said that the Estonians had hopes of sovereignty or autonomy in 1914 could be regarded as sincere."

At a symposium held on Monday at the European Union building in Tallinn, Professor Mihhail Lotman said Estonia could be seen as a winner of the 1914-1918 conflict.

The sea change in European society around 1918 laid the foundations for modern life. Estonia capitalized on the true end of feudalism and the beginning of the nation-state era.

Not that there was only one possible probability path, though, said Lotman: "You can't say the Estonians owe any debt of gratitude to anyone - to (Archduke Franz Ferndinand's assassin) Gavrilo Princip, as if without that Estonia would not have gained independence."

For Estonians, the much commemorated (and perhaps mythologized) War of Independence (1918-1920) and the tragedy of World War II have loomed larger in the historiography.

World War I is considered underrepresented in Estonian writing, with memoirs being one of the few genres that are an exception: beloved Tartu writer Oskar Luts wrote of his days as a pharmacist on the front.

An opinion voiced at the symposium is that that lack of historical writing could actually be a boon, inspiring more fictional treatments.

Writer Peeter Helme said there would be plenty of premises available, as more than 100,000 Estonians took part in a war that lasted four years.

"It's hard to believe that it would have nothing interesting and exciting to offer modern-day readers," he said.

Of the 114,000 Estonians mobilized for World War I - about 10 percent of the population - 16,000 were killed. But the lack of research into World War I has even hampered putting an exact figure on the Estonian military death toll, said Liivik and colleague Mati Õun, a military historian.

The National Archive will open an exhibition on Estonia's role in the war in September on Küüni street in Tartu.


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