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WWII in the Baltics: Where Brother Fought Brother

May 8, 1995

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) _ When Soviet soldier Raimond Potissepp used to fix the sights of his rifle on a distant Nazi soldier, he couldn’t help worrying that he might be killing his own brother.

After each battle, he waded through the bloodied corpses of German soldiers to see if his younger brother Paul was among them. One day, he froze in horror; he had recognized a face.

``I lifted up the body and pulled off the helmet,″ the 75-year-old Estonian recalled recently. ``But my brother’s hair wasn’t curly like that. Thank God it wasn’t him.″

While Raimond feared for Paul’s life, Paul, in a German uniform, was worrying about Raimond.

``During the battle, I just thought how to stay alive,″ said Paul Potissepp, now 70. ``But afterward I sat and thought, `Had Raimond been over there on the other side today?‴

The Potissepps were among thousands of relatives and friends in the Baltic states who fought each other in World War II, usually after forced conscription by the Soviets or Nazis.

In Estonia, 70,000 eventually fought with the Germans and 30,000 with the Russians. Similar ratios of Latvians and Lithuanians fought on opposite sides.

``I personally know at least five pairs of brothers who fought each other,″ said Paul Tibo, 70, an Estonian drafted by the Germans in 1943. ``Even fathers fought sons.″

Sandwiched between Germany and Russia, the tiny Baltics became stomping grounds for the two powers during World War II. The Red Army occupied the three countries in 1940, the Germans in 1941 and the Soviets again in 1944.

The two occupying powers implemented intensive drafts. The Soviets netted Raimond in 1941; the Germans conscripted Paul in 1943.

During their first occupation, the Soviets carried out mass arrests, and many Balts consequently greeted Germans as liberators in 1941.

Some locals helped the Nazis kill Jews. More than 200,000 Jews were murdered in Lithuania, frequently by Lithuanian collaborators.

But according to Mart Laar, a historian and recent Estonian prime minister, most Balts had no sympathy for Nazi ideology; they simply saw the German army as a vehicle to hold off the Russians.

As the Soviets advanced in 1944, some Estonians joined the German army voluntarily. Smaller numbers joined the Red Army, believing it was the lesser of two evils.

``The only thing Estonians wanted was independence,″ said Laar.

After the war, thousands of Estonians who fought with the Germans were deported. When they returned, they were denied good jobs and an education. And they were condemned to silence.

``I never felt I fought on the wrong side,″ said Paul Potissepp. ``But I had to shut up about it.″

Those who fought in the Red Army were exalted by the new communist leaders. They got the best jobs and apartments, and met regularly to mark the war’s end.

While there is some friction between the Soviet and German war veterans, Raimond and Paul say they don’t argue about their wartime service.

``After all, we didn’t choose the sides we were on,″ said Raimond.

Under five decades of Soviet rule, Estonia and the other Baltic states disappeared from the world map, reemerging as independent nations only in 1991.

The sense of being caught in the middle of a war that eventually cost them their independence has contributed to widespread ambivalence in the Baltics about this week’s victory celebrations throughout Europe.

Most commemorations planned in the Baltics involve church and memorial services. There will be neither parades nor fanfare.

``We will remember our dead,″ said Tibo. ``But there will be no victory celebrations. You can’t call what we had here a victory.″

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