Sõjad ja sõjakirjutus. Saateks sõjakirjutuse erinumbrile / Wars and War Writing: Preface to the Special Issue


  • Maarja Hollo Eesti Kirjandusmuuseum / Estonian Literary Museum
  • Anu Raudsepp Tartu Ülikool, Eesti Kirjandusmuuseum / University of Tartu, Estonian Literary Museum




First World War, Estonian War of Independence, Second World War, cultural memory, war writing, Esimene maailmasõda, Vabadussõda, Teine maailmasõda, kultuurimälu, ajalookirjutus


This special issue on war writing consists of articles based on presentations at the War in Estonian Culture, Literature and History conference held 15–16 December 2022 at the Estonian Literary Museum. The conference focused on the question of the lasting influence and meaning of the two world wars in Estonian culture, literature and history writing. These questions were underscored by the Russian–Ukrainian war which broke out in February 2022 and which actualised memory of the Second World War, the commemoration of its victims, and a weighing of the consequences, influence and meanings of the war for different memory communities.

Anniversaries of historical events that have changed world history call for new scholarly perspectives on the past. Thus, in recent years, in connection with the 100th anniversary of the First World War, studies of related topics have become more frequent, including in Estonia. The article collection The First World War in Estonian Culture (2015) is the first step toward an investigation of the representations of the First World War in Estonian culture. In these studies, diaries and letters have particular value. Surviving private letters permit a better understanding of this great war and its meaning for Estonians mobilised for it.

From the perspective of Estonian history, the most significant result of the First World War was the disintegration of the Russian Empire, which made possible the birth of Estonia – colonised for centuries –, as an independent state. Estonia was one of the nation-states that emerged from the disintegration of empires. In 2018, based on the Estonian experience and in an international framework, Anu Raudsepp and Tõnu Tannberg presented our perspective on the influence of the First World War on the creation of nation-states and resultant challenges to the writing of history textbooks.

Though the independent Estonian republic was proclaimed on 24 February 1918, the declaration was followed by German occupation in 1918 and the defence of Estonia’s freedom against Soviet Russia in the War of Independence of 1918–1920. The 100th anniversary of the War of Independence also inspired new scholarly research. In 2019 Tõnu Tannberg edited a collection of articles entitled The Many Faces of the War of Independence. The 100th anniversary of the Tartu peace treaty was marked in 2020 by the publication of collective research by historians in a two-volume magisterial work on the history of the War of Independence.

The Second World War has been deemed the largest catastrophe in history caused by human hands, during which 60 or 70 million people perished and the destruction changed cityscapes and landscapes beyond recognition. The war reached Estonia in summer 1941 when Soviet occupation was replaced by German occupation. The war years have been represented in the works both of exile writers and writers who remained in Estonia after the war. In Estonian war literature, war poetry has a clear profile, authored by writers who fought in the Second World War on the German side and fled Estonia during the war: Arved Viirlaid, Harri Asi, Kalju Ahven, Einar Sanden, Jyri Kork, Tiit Lehtmets and Eduard Krants. Themes related to war are reflected in the prose of Arved Viirlaid, Ilmar Talve, Ilmar Jaks, Harri Asi, Heino Susi and Agu Kask. Arved Viirlaid’s central work Graves without Crosses I–II (1991, 2009, 2015) is the most popular and most frequently translated work representing the Second World War in Estonian literature. The Tartu cycle by Bernard Kangro and autobiographical short stories by Gunnar Neeme are also remarkable.

In Soviet Estonian literature the representation of the Second World War was ideologically constrained; but nevertheless two noteworthy autobiographical war novels were published in the 1970s: Ülo Tuulik’s documentary novel In the Path of War in 1974 (unabridged version 2010) and Juhan Peegel’s I Fell in the First Summer of War in 1979.

In addition to belles lettres our historical memory is shaped by autobiographical texts such as memoirs, life stories, autobiographies, letters and diaries, which enable the reader to gain insight into the changes that war brought to everyday life and how people learned to adjust to them. If the memoirs of former combatants have evinced the avoidance of personal points of view and preferences for the matter-of-fact style of reportage, the memoirs and other autobiographical texts of civilians are dominated by the judgments, moods and feelings of the writer as a person.

Historical writing on the Second World War is diverse. If from the perspective of western European countries, the main embodiment of evil was Hitler, the situation was much more complicated for eastern European countries. Lack of knowledge of acts of violence committed during the Second World War and later repressions in the countries of eastern Europe and the disregard for international war law by Germany and the Soviet Union have had a significant impact on how the Second World War has been handled in research by historians in Europe and the United States. In most research on the Second World War matters related to the Baltic States are regarded as unimportant compared to the larger processes that took place. Nevertheless, the Baltic states were strategically important both for Hitler’s Germany and the Soviet Union, making the Baltic question a bone of contention among the allied countries.

Over time events that happened in eastern European countries during the Second World War have come increasingly to the fore in scholarly accounts with radically different viewpoints: Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (2010) by Timothy Snyder, Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe (2011) by Norman Davies, Soldiers of Memory: Second World War and its Aftermath in Estonian Post-Soviet Life Stories (2011, ed. by Ene Kõresaar).

The special issue on war writing contains eight articles on the topic of war, one article on a free topic, a series of translations from the publishing house Loodus, and the archival discovery section in which a letter from the First World War is discussed.


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Author Biographies

Maarja Hollo , Eesti Kirjandusmuuseum / Estonian Literary Museum

Maarja Hollo – PhD, Eesti Kirjandusmuuseumi Eesti Kultuuriloolise Arhiivi vanemteadur. Ta on uurinud trauma kujutamist eesti eksiilkirjanike loomingus ja traumaatiliste kogemuste vahendamist autobiograafilistes narratiivides. Peamiseks uurimisvaldkonnaks on eesti elulookirjutus 20. ja 21. sajandil.


Maarja Hollo is Senior Researcher at the Estonian Literary Museum. She has published articles on trauma in the work of Estonian exile writers as well as on the mediation of traumatic experiences in autobiographical narratives. Her main research area is Estonian life writing in 20th and 21st centuries.

Anu Raudsepp, Tartu Ülikool, Eesti Kirjandusmuuseum / University of Tartu, Estonian Literary Museum

Anu Raudsepp –  PhD,  TÜ ajaloo didaktika kaasprofessor ja Eesti Kirjandusmuuseumi erakorraline vanemteadur. Ta uurib esiteks erinevaid Eesti 20. sajandi kultuuriloo (haridus, kirjandus, tsensuur, õigeusu kirik) teemasid. Teiseks tema teadustöö põhivaldkonnaks on ajaloodidaktika, milles ta keskendub humanitaarvaldkonna õpikute analüüsile. Kolmandaks uurimisvaldkonnaks on tal viimastel aastatel kujunenud sisejulgeoleku ajalugu (siseministeerium, piirivalve, politsei).

Anu Raudsepp is Associate Professor of History Didactics at the University of Tartu and Extraordinary Senior Researcher at the Estonian Literary Museum. She primarily researches various themes of Estonian 20th century cultural history such as education, literature, censorship, the Orthodox Church, etc. Her second area of research is history didactics, focusing on the analysis of humanities textbooks. In recent years, her third area of research has been the history of internal security (the Ministry of the Interior, the Estonian Police and Border Guard).




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