You probably have not heard of Alfons Rebane. His name is not among the famous figures we think of when recalling 20th century history. And yet, his life story reflects a side of that history that is worth remembering.
Rebane was born in Estonia in 1908, and during its first independence time, he enjoyed a distinguished career the Estonian military.
On Estonian Independence Day on February 24, 1933, Rebane was commissioned as first lieutenant. From 1935 to 1939 he served as junior instructor in the Defence League Viljandi County Territorial Regiment, between 1939-1940 in the Lääne County Territorial Regiment. From January to June 1940 Rebane was the Commandant of Lihula
Here he is as a young officer
You might notice that in the above personal history, there is no hint of any tendency in young Rebane to extreme politics or ideology. He was a young soldier. Period.
Things suddenly changed in 1940. The illegal and treacherous secret protocols of the Molotov Ribbentrop pact put Estonia and other countries in the Soviet sphere of influence. This enabled the Soviet Union to occupy Estonia in 1940.
The Soviets disbanded and absorbed most of the Estonian Armed Forces and arrested and executed the entire Estonian high command. Many junior officers, such as Rebane, were dismissed due to their lack of “political reliability” and were liable to be deported. For a while, Rebane worked in construction, then fled into the forests when the Soviets began mass deportations in 1941. (emphasis added)
Not a pretty picture.And in my view, it understates the crimes that were actually inflicted by the Soviets on Estonians during that occupation. Rebane resisted.
He established and led an anti-Soviet Forest Brothers unit in Virumaa (Northern Estonia) in May 1941
Things suddenly changed again in 1941 when Germany invaded the Soviet Union and rapidly swept up the Baltic coast on their way to lay siege to Leningrad. Soviet forces fled the Baltics and the Germans occupied Estonia. In light of what had been going on there — things that are not widely known about outside of this region — the Estonians felt liberated from an oppressor.
A quick question, If you were an Estonian there at that time, would you have seen it any differently? And what would you have done if you were Rebane? If you were brave enough, there is a good chance that with your military background, you would have done exactly what Rebane did. You would have joined the German military to fight against the Soviets.
… he joined the German Wehrmacht and went on to fight against the Soviets in Northwestern Russia, subsequently becoming the captain of the 184th Security Battalion, then Major of the Estonian 658th Eastern Battalion. In February 1944 Major Rebane’s unit was transferred to the Narva Front and attached to the Wehrmacht‘s 26th Army Corps on March 2. On April 27, 1944, the unit was released from the Wehrmacht. Rebane, after initially refusing, was forced to join the newly formed 20th (Estonian) Division of the Waffen-SS, eventually becoming colonel of the 47th Waffen-Grenadier Regiment. The Estonian division played a significant role in the Battle of Narva and the Battle of Emajõgi, holding back the Soviet re-occupation of Estonia until the Soviet Tallinn Offensive, September 1944 while suffering heavy casualties. Rebane’s unit was then evacuated to Germany for refitting and saw more action on the Eastern Front in the spring of 1945.
A word about “joining the Waffen SS”. For Estonians wanting to fight against the Soviets, the Germans did not give you choices. There was only way to do it – join the Waffen SS. In other words, Estonians did not join the Waffen SS because they were nazis. An important but overlooked point. and one that will be important in this post a bit later on.
We might also keep in mind that the fighting that Rebane saw on the eastern border of Estonia in 1944 was particularly fierce. He and the others who fought there were trying to protect their homeland from an aggressor who had demonstrated vicious intent. No quarter was asked for, and none was given. As an example of how fierce this fighting was, the city of Tartu where I live now, was for 6 weeks on the font lines of that fighting. Over 50% of the city was reduced to rubble.
As fierce as the fighting was, there is no evidence that Rebane was anything other than a soldier doing his duty. Moreover,
Rebane had a reputation for tactical skill. With most of the Estonian forces captured by the Soviet Army in Czechoslovakia, Rebane managed to reach the British Occupation Zone with a number of his men at the end of the war. Soldiers who fought in units under his command were colloquially referred to as “fox cubs” (Rebane translates to “fox” in Estonian)
There is more to Rebane’s life story, but you get the picture.
Now let’s take a look at a headline I saw in the media today
Estonia Celebrates a Nazi Criminal
For the record, this inflammatory headline refers to a private ceremony in the small town of Mustla, honoring none other than Alfons Rebane. In the ceremony, a plaque was unveiled that is placed on the side of a private building. A more accurate headline would have been
Private Estonian citizens celebrate Aflons Rebane
Not as eye catching, but far more accurate. And what about the content? Was Rebane a “Nazi criminal”? There is no record that Rebane was a Nazi party member. Nor is this assertion carried through in the article. So we are left with the idea that he must have been convicted of crimes. Was he? And what crimes?
Here is a quote from the article
Alfons Rebane collaborated with the Third Reich, holding the position of Standartenführer in the SS. He committed several war crimes in the Soviet Union.
What to make of this? Before getting into the text, did you notice the subtle shift in argument? The headline asserts that Rebame was a “nazi criminal”. We already know that he was no nazi. And when you read the article, you find that there is no claim that he was ever convicted of a crime. In other words, he was NOT a criminal. at all. The article merely accuses him of “crimes”. And such an accusation without evidence amounts to smoke and mirrors.
So what is this all about? Was Rebane a criminal because he allegedly “collaborated”? In fact, Rebane was an Estonian soldier who fought for his country in the only way he could against an enemy that had committed outrageous crimes against the Estonian people. If that is collaboration, you probably would have done it too. More basically, it is no crime.
But did joining the Waffen SS make Rebane a criminal? After the war, there was a knee jerk reaction to say that any person who fought in the German Waffen SS was part of a criminal organization and automatically a war criminal. As I wrote above, this misrepresents why Estonians joined. It is also not an accurate statement of fact.
The Nuremberg Tribunal in declaring the Waffen SS a criminal organization explicitly exempted conscripts who had committed no crimes from that judgement, which included the Baltic Waffen-SS divisions. (emphasis added)
. The United States officials have declared the Baltic Waffen SS units not to be hostile to the Government of the United States and the units were “considered as separate and distinct in purpose, ideology, activities and qualification from the regular SS”. According to Andrew Mollo, a British writer who specialises in the SS uniforms: “the Estonian SS were very different from other SS units: Estonia had been occupied by the Red Army in 1940, the Estonians fought for the independence of their country and were brought under the SS umbrella against their will.”
Ruling that out, we are left with the notion that Rebane must have done something individually that was criminal. Long after the war, two journalists did accuse Rebane of perpetrating war crimes.
In 1977, Patrice Chairoff and Beate Klarsfeld alleged Rebane was a war criminal.
But here is the end result.
According to a 2005 report published by the Estonian State Commission on the Examination of the Policies of Repression, investigations conducted by the KGB after World War II found no documents confirming the accusation against Colonel Alfons Rebane and his “army unit”. (emphasis added)
No evidence. And as far as I know, there is still no documentary evidence. The notion that Alfons Rebane was a “Nazi criminal” should be ignored as hyped up hogwash.
And yet, The Independent ran an article about this as well which sets forth
Jewish organisations have claimed in the past that Rebane, … was a Nazi executioner and that he was responsible for the slaughter of thousands of Jews and Russians between 1941 and 1945. (emphasis added)
The phrase “in the past” gives the game away that the claims are stale. There is no new evidence- But the charges are far more sensational than just committing “several war crimes”. Executioner? Responsible for the slaughter of thousands? Where? When? What records? Again, none are offered and as far as I know, none exist.
I might add that after the war, the Soviet Union did allege that certain Estonians who had fought on the eastern front against them were guilty of war crimes. These persons were accused of executing Jews and Russians. Some were tried in abstentia. In one case, an in abstentia conviction led to an Estonian losing his US citizenship and being sent back to Soviet Estonia where he died mysteriously soon after his arrival. It is likely, therefore, that if Rebane indeed had “committed several war crimes” or had “executed thousands”, the Soviets would have acted against him as well. They did not. Nor were they any documents in their files that would support these claims. The lack of action by the Soviets as well as the lack of any documentary evidence in their files speaks volumes.
So, “Nazi criminal”? A man who “committed several war crimes in the Soviet Union”? “Executioner”? “Responsible for the slaughter of thousands”? I think not.
The bottom line — in the first linked article, the author makes allegedly factual statements that are not supported by the historical record. And there is no reference in the article to any sources for the assertions. The article in the Independent offers even more serious accusations, but once again, no basis to believe them. This is pure innuendo.
So why are these published? Why tarnish this man’s name and attempt to discredit Estonian citizens who want to remember Rebane as a brave man who fought for his country? Why lash out at Estonia as a country for remembering the past? I do not know the answer to those questions. But at least, I think, laying out what we do know helps us see the context of what happened, and what is alleged to have happened more clearly.
Many, many people suffered in that terrible war. Many died. We should remember them all. And we do. But the fact that one group suffered greatly does not give license to rewrite history to advance their agenda. If I am wrong about what happened or about Rebane, show me the evidence. Without that evidence, I suggest we all calm down.