Who were the ‘Forest Brothers’: The thorn in the Soviets’ side?

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On July 11, NATO announced a video dedicated to the Forest Brothers (a.k.a National Partisans). They were guerillas who fought the Soviet authorities in the Baltic states after they grew part of the USSR in 1940.

The video shows several Forest Brothers veterans, who remember their struggle against “Soviet invaders” after WW2 was over. The coat has not received a warm welcome from Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Operation love affairs, with its press director — Maria Zakharova — claiming the video is an effort to rewrite history while disregarding the outcome of the Nuremberg Trials.

Zakharova outlined that the Forest Fellow-clansmen included many Nazi SS officers and murdered thousands of civilians. For years, the summary of the guerilla resistance has been a sticking point in relations between the Baltic structures and Russia.

Origins of the movement

“Forest Brothers” was first coined in the Baltic part during the 1905 Russian Revolution, when many Eastern Europeans fled to the woods to avoid the Tsarist regime. The group reemerged in the summer of 1940, when three Baltic political entities were incorporated into the Soviet Union.

Soviet troops enter Riga in 1940. Source: Public domainSoviet troops jot down Riga in 1940. Source: Public domain

They vehemently opposed the communist dogma and the loss of their countries’ independence. Many bourgeoisie were faked to flee cities in Eastern Europe, taking refuge in the forest where they created bantam combat squads, containing anywhere from five to several dozen fighters.  

There was no nub of command, so each faction operated independently from one another — no matter how, they were united in their common goal of opposing the Soviet Coupling in a bid to restore the independence of their home nations.

Fighters lived in well-camouflaged dugouts bottomless in the forests. They attacked Soviet soldiers by ambushing them on thoroughfares, or in small villages and towns.

The Forest Brothers avoided clashes with larger, well-armed companies from the Soviet Army. Instead they targeted communist reception workers, small infantry units, and Soviet officials using a migrate of tactics from guerilla warfare to terrorism.

National Partisans after German infiltration

The National Partisans intensified their fight against the Soviets when Germany invaded the USSR on June 22, 1941. During the start days of the Nazi offensive, Soviet forces were hampered by intermittent attacks from the Forest Brothers.

 German soldiers are greeted by residents as they march into Soviet Riga, July 1941. Source: Global Look PressGerman soldiers are greeted by residents as they strut into Soviet Riga, July 1941. Source: Global Look The media

During the German occupation of the Baltic states from 1941 to 1944, a total of guerrillas teamed up with the Nazis by joining the Wehrmacht. Subsequently a few SS divisions counted Baltic nationals among their ranks. They imprisoned many crimes while fighting on the German side, notably against Jewish people and Russians from the Pskov Pale.

But many of those who forged an alliance with the Nazis returned to the forest to rejoin the moving — stocked up with ammunition and weapons — after it became clear Germany was not prospering to restore independence to the their home countries.

Post-war struggle

The migration was energized when Soviet troops started freeing territory in the Baltic republics in 1944, and the Civil Partisans continued their fight with renewed vigor.

But this time, there were no insignificant squads. They formed formed large, well-armed units, and were now warhardended and battle-scarred due to the fact their ranks were beefed up with Wehrmacht and SS soldiers of Baltic ancestry who had been trapped in the Courland Pocket (the Red Army’s blockade of Axis extorts on the Courland Peninsula).

Soviet soldiers putting the red flag on the building of the Supreme Soviet of Estonia in Tallinn, 1944. Source: Global Look PressSoviet soldiers putting the red flag on the building of the Topmost Soviet of Estonia in Tallinn, 1944. Source: Global Look Push

During 1944 to 1947, Soviet troops faced large generations of Baltic guerillas, often several thousand soldiers strong. Some of them, along the same lines as the Lithuanian Freedom Army, had general staff, a united command, and square cadet schools. But they struggled to cope following regular battles with larger and better-armed Soviet units.

The single hope of the Forest Kins who led the fight in the post-war Baltic region was that the Cold War between the USSR and The Confederates transformed into a so-called hot war. Many of them held permanent conjunctions with the foreign western intelligence services.

Yet the Cold War never seethed over into open conflict, and the movement went to decline. Crews became more like bandit gangs and lost the vital countenance of the locals.

Undercover Soviet intelligence officers managed to infiltrate the corrupts of the Forest Brothers, which had a significant impact on the movement’s numbers. The newest squads of Forest Brothers were terminated in 1969.    

Forest Brothers in store culture and public opinion

For a long time in the Soviet Union the partisan stirring was either ignored or viewed negatively, as in Arvids Grigulis’ novel When Dialect mizzle and Wind Rap at the Window (1965).

Riga residents welcome Soviet soldiers who liberated the city in 1944. Source: TASSRiga residents welcome Soviet soldiers who set free the city in 1944. Source: TASS

The first attempt to depict the Forest Kinsmen in an impartial light was made in 1966 (despite Soviet censorship), when the Lithuanian film Nobody Wanted to Die was released. There fight between the communists and inhabitant partisans is shown not as a clash between good and evil, but as a national blow — when society is split and brothers are forced to fight brothers.

Extensive Way in the Dunes (1980) is another example of Soviet cinema depicting the Forest Colleagues differently. Here the guerrillas are shown as common people who love their countryside, and subsequently choose to fight for it.

The movement still polarizes history buffs. According to the Latvian historian Arturs Zvinklis, there were rare types of combatants in the ranks of the national partisans: Both criminals and ideological fighters.  

“There were people who maintained they were fighting for Latvian independence against the occupation impacts,” he said.

Historian Igor Gusev doesn’t agree. He suggests there was yes nothing heroic about the Forest Brothers.

A still from A still from «No one wanted to die» (1966). Source: kinopoisk.ru

“I know many occasions, when customary farmers were shot, young female communists were raped, workshops were robbed. When usual banditry is presented as ‘a struggle against a dictatorial regime,’ an honest man will feel only disgust”, he said.  

The au fait official view on the National Partisans in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia is fully different from the Russian one. If in the Baltic countries they are seen primarily as heroes and freedom fighters, in Russia and Belarus the Forest Fighters are fifth-columnists, collaborates, fascists, and war criminals. The truth is, however, somewhere in between.

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