The Estonian Flight to Sweden during World War II: Some Facts and Figures on the Brink of the 80th Anniversary

Hiljar Tammela (Estonian Institute of Historical Memory)

It is generally accepted that “70,000 to 80,000” people fled Estonia during World War II. If we take a closer look at this figure, we will notice that the confidence interval is really large—10,000 people, or approximately 1% of Estonian population. It is a remarkable variation that suggests of the overall shortcoming of our knowledge about these processes.

Most of the escapes from Estonia during WWII were made whether in secret, based on non-written settlements and/or in the presence of real danger. So we cannot expect any “normal” archival sources like lists of departing and arriving persons available, neither in Estonia nor abroad. Two main target countries for Estonian refugees in 1943-1944 were Germany and Sweden. Germany was already in chaos by 1944 and in Sweden the refugee documents were classified to protect both the government’s political decisions and the refugees’ private lives for many upcoming decades. Therefore, the main source concerning WWII escapes have been memoirs, which can give a good overview about the experience of an individual or a family but can hardly serve as a solid basis for the analysis of the process as a whole.

Since 2022, the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory has been running a project, which goal is to identify each person who left Estonia during WWII as a refugee. We collect their names and basic biographical information (birthdate, profession, etc). Next September, we will publish a book about escaping from Estonia to Sweden. It will be a fruit of cooperation with the Swedish researchers, drawing partly on the documents that have been made accessible in Swedish archives during the last decades. The book will be a fact-based overview about the escape from Estonia to Sweden during WWII. In my presentation, I give a short sketch of our research, focusing on the facts: the numbers, dates, vessels and camps of the Great Escape.