This is a 1993 interview (in Tartu, Estonia) with Harald Nugiseks, former member of the 20th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Estonian) of the Waffen-SS and Knight's Cross

I would like to jump right in and ask what attracted you to join the Germans, and particularly the Waffen SS?

Harald: That would be a long and boring story, but I will give you a quick version. To understand why you need to understand our history as a nation, and what happened in 1940. Estonia was a free land, given its independence from our former Russian and German rulers by Versailles. Since 1920, a calm had settled on us, and we lived simple and carefree. There had been small border battles with reds, but nothing alarming.

There was small a clique who wanted to rejoin with the new Soviet republic, but most of us wanted nothing to do with communism, as we heard about what the white army went through and the countless victims who were killed for their beliefs. Sadly, the tiny Jewish population here threw in their lot with the Soviets. They secretly produced, and distributed propaganda wanting an end of Christian dominance and freedom.

Some even went so far to work with the secret police to turn in, arrest, and execute Christians who defied the system. Thousands went missing, Churches closed down, and book burning took place to purge any hint of nationalism and Christianity, only Marx, Lenin and Trotsky were allowed. In 1940, we hated Hitler and Germany, we felt betrayed as Hitler spoke of saving Europe, but then worked with the Soviets to allow our occupation.

The occupation was so bad, that in June 41, everyone welcomed German troops as liberators. I must state that they behaved impressively, the first act they did after clearing the Soviets out was hand out food and reopen our Churches. They won the admiration of the people very quickly, and of myself. I was recruited to serve in a sort of home army, to guard against the Soviets who were hiding out. The Germans quickly moved on and we were tasked with hunting down bandits.

What brought me to the SS? I liked what Germany was doing for Europe, and how they freed us, and allowed us to remain free; everything was for Estonia, and Europe.

What was your training like?

Harlald: It was hard; I cannot down play that, we had Estonian and German instructors who drilled us at all hours of the day and night, we would march and turn in at 9pm, then they would run in banging pots and mess kits at 1am for more. We trained on German weapons mostly, but sometimes had to use captured ones as well. We drilled often, and became very proficient on all weapons. I will say they treated us as their equals however, in the SS training was learning, not being broken and humiliated.

We learned to be self-reliant, as well as trust in our comrades. I want to dispel a myth some claim, we never were forced to be slaves to the Germans or Hitler. We had our own officers and leaders, and everything we were doing was for Estonia. At the end of our training, we met RFSS Himmler, he came to see our final parade, and inspect us. He spoke to us, and lamented we are on a holy crusade against eastern bolshevism which will enslave all peoples of the earth if we do not prevail. He had us ready to get at them; a great cheer went up for our cause.

What was your first action, and what was it like?

Harald: My first actions were with the home guard, we were tasked with catching Soviet soldiers, and anyone who aided them. This whole situation started with the German attack, many fled with the Soviets, but some could not make it all the way. They hid in the forests and survived by stealing from farmers. They united with Soviet soldiers who refused to surrender, and they roved in small bands, cutting lines, and burning bridges as they became bolder.

My first action was when a band was trapped close to the border, a youngster who was sent by her parents to tell us their village was taken over tipped us off and said they killed the mayor. We surrounded it and immediately came under fire, our repeated calls for a safe surrender and assurance of POW camps were met with machine guns. We suffered our first loses. When it was all over they were all dead, they also shot down a few civilians who tried to escape when the shooting started.

Most of my time in the guard was quiet even though now we roamed away from our borders, but after the German loss at Stalingrad, many wanted to do more to help. Many had already went to Germany for work, or volunteered to serve in the Estonian SS legion in 1942. Early in 43 I believe was when we were given the option to serve in a new Estonian SS regiment, I was eager to go, as were my comrades, following in the footstep of other Estonian men. It did not take long for us to meet the Soviets in battle. We were trained well, and eager for revenge against the hoards who caused our people such misery.

What was your impression of the Russian soldier and people?

Harald: The Russian people were good, our fight was never with them, in fact, we maintained very good relations anywhere we went on the east front. The average soldier was forced to fight, and his will was broken very easily, because they were forced to the front, they lacked disciple, and were prone to committing crimes out of frustration. They easily turned on their own people, who they viewed as traitors; many times, we came upon villages where most all inhabitants were killed for cooperating with us especially in the Ukraine. Later they claimed we did these crimes. The partisans, whom many were Jews, were particularly evil, that is why most of the time, when we caught them they had to be executed. They would kill soldier, civilian, even children to get at anyone working against them. I never will forget towards the end, they captured a town, and a few of the youngsters had joined the local version of the Hitler Youth, they hung every child, seven, eight, nine year olds, they hung them, and shot the parents.

Speaking of this, I would like to ask about the Jews, it is claimed Estonia helped round up Jews for murder and that the SS was the main tool for this, do you feel any guilt?

Harald: Nonsense, what happened to most Jews was brought on by their actions. I would be appalled and ashamed if I fought for an idea that persecuted innocent people. Not all Jews were targeted, there were some in Estonia who were loyal and lived in peace, and those who chose to aid our enemies, or attack our people were dealt with very harshly. It was not uncommon to hear of attacks on Jews by the relatives of those they helped send away. The Germans even had to clamp down on some militias who were taking revenge on sometimes-innocent Jews.

I have no animosity to Jews, but it is a fact they had a direct role in bringing bolshevism to the world, and millions of people paid a heavy price, mostly Christian Europe. After the war, it was the same thing, the Soviets brought them back to govern and again anyone who did not accept it was sent away or worse. To address the round ups, yes I saw some of it, whole villages that were hiding or aiding the enemy would be razed and the people sent to ghettos to be consolidated. Most all combatant nations did this one-way or the other to peoples they considered a threat. It was nothing new.

I will stand before our creator with a clean conscience, asking for forgiveness of my sin, but knowing that harming innocents was not one of them. I only saw the Germans being very kind to those they were removing, not like what is shown on TV today.

You won the Knights Cross, how did you achieve this, and what was it like to be called a hero?

Harald: Yes, I won this medal for only doing a very brief act and was scared shitless. To start, our legion had been in constant combat, against either partisans or Soviets. I was in battle after battle, and was recognized with the iron cross in both classes. By 1944 the Soviets, who outnumbered us by a large margin, were able to push the front back to our doorstep. Our legion was used as a fire brigade on the east front, always going to put out a hot spot. When the Soviets threatened our homes, we were moved up to defend our borders, as our leaders knew we would fight like lions.

We were in good defensive positions built around the lakes and river, stopping the Soviets in their tracks. We caused them heavy losses in men and material. We had captured a woman sniper and she gave us very good intelligence on the scope of Soviet lines. She was somewhat pretty for a Soviet; they usually seemed very plain and unkempt. We kept her with us, as she was very cooperative and even showed some of our men how to shoot a sniper rifle if you can believe that. Like the Germans we had ex Soviets who helped us with behind the lines tasks, many went on to join the army of liberation.

The Soviets attacked us with a massive force, but we beat them back, knocking out their tanks. Once the attack was broken, our leaders wanted to bring the fight to the enemy; we launched an attacked and formed a bridgehead. It was then I noticed our officers were all down, and I was left in command, I learned something from previous assaults, we ran out of ammunition and grenades, which stopped our momentum as we could only carry so much. I ordered men to bring up sleds, so we could have a large supply to use so we could keep going.

This worked, as we were able to take Soviet trenches and hold them against superior numbers counter attacking. The Soviets paid a heavy toll, and we wanted to keep advancing but we had no support on our flanks. It was a hard, bloody fight, but Estonians prevailed against much greater odds. The female sniper, who surprisingly did not try to escape, as some prisoners did, gave me a deep hug when she saw I survived. Our actions stalled the Soviets for months on this front.

I was sent to hospital for wounds, and was told I was put up for the high award, which was approved. It was made a big deal, newspapers, cameras, high leaders, and all sorts were there to witness it. I was only the second Estonian to win this award. It was a very proud day, I was given extra leave also, but I also wanted to rejoin my comrades. Everywhere I went I was offered a drink.

We had fought the Soviets to a standstill on our border, they now attacked the center front, we had it reality quiet, and used this time to rest and refit. We did training, maintenance, and helped the farmers. This lasted only for a couple of months, as we soon were back in action.

You mentioned you got into some trouble, what happened?

Harald: Sort of. I was on a short leave, and was enjoying life and a beer. I noticed some soldiers from another foreign unit attempting to pull up the dresses of some Estonian Red Cross nurses. I recognized one from my home area, whom I liked so I thought it would be a good idea to play the hero and stop them. I could tell the girls did not want their attention, and asked me to stop them. I went up to one, but we could not understand each other, so I pushed him away, and we fought, but were quickly broken up by other comrades. The soldier sustained a bloody face, which a nurse then cleaned off while chastising us both.

I was reprimanded by our new officer, who was more spit and polish than a front line soldier was. He wanted to make an example and demoted me, I was angry but soon the war intervened.

What was the end like for you?

Harald: The end? We ended up losing our nation; we just could not stop them as they had massive numbers. We fought many rearguards causing them heavy losses, I learned my home had been destroyed as they found out I was somewhat of a hero to many, though I do not consider myself one. We stayed in the fight, helping all our comrades as best we could, but it was retreat after retreat. We were forced far away from our home, but we still held out a sliver of hope that Germany could do a miracle and win, we prayed for intervention or something that would force a peace.

By May Ď45 it was all over, Germany was laid waste and exhausted her strength, we knew what lay in store for us with the Soviets so our leader suggested we move west and surrender to the allies. We did not make it; partisans surprised us and took us prisoner. They were younger, perhaps recently deciding to turn and had not tasted hate or battle. They did put weapons in our faces and threaten us, but it could have been worse, as I learned of all the murders Czechs committed later.

They sent us to a POW camp for a while then turned us over to the Soviets who put us on trial and sent us to the gulags of Siberia. We were angry, but more terrified at was coming. The Soviets were pretty hard on us, we were with tens of thousands of others, all who fought the Soviets. The Gulags held anyone from old, young, woman, or pregnant. They brought us in, cut our hair, made us take a shower, deloused us, and beat anyone who was not fast enough for their liking.

The personnel at these camps were those unfit for military duty, or combat, so they had a grudge against us soldiers. The higher your rank, the worse they were. Countless people died in these camps, the hygiene was bad, no medical care unless it was a contagious disease, no mail, and no religious services. Our unitís clergy had it bad; their faith was tested in the extreme. Anyone who professed a deep faith in Hitler or Europeís fight was removed and never seen again. I managed to survive since I was so young and the SS kept us fit and healthy. When asked why I fought, I just said I had to. They took it as being forced, but I kept my oath and my honor, and I knew why I fought.

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