The economic situation in Estonia under the German occupation has hitherto been rather cursorily researched. Germany’s economic interests (the oil shale industry, agricultural production, and supplying the Eastern Front) and the activity of German limited partnerships in Eastern territories have attracted the lion’s share of the attention. The Economic and Transportation Directorate (from 1 June 1942 onward the Economic and Finance Directorate) of the Estonian Self-Administration began operating in September of 1941. Its main field of activity became the restoration of Estonia’s economy. This article focuses on one part of this task — the restoration of Estonia’s commercial shipping, answering the question of how the building of new ships was organised and how this was connected to Germany’s wartime economy. This research topic has been approached at the microhistorical level, taking a closer look at the activity of one shipping company — J. Telliskivi & A. Saarna — in the interval 1942–1944.
Estonia’s merchant marine was in third place among the countries of the Baltic Sea in terms of tonnage per thousand inhabitants prior to the Second World War. Only 10% of this remained by the autumn of 1941 when the Germans captured Estonia’s territories. The restoration of the merchant marine was set as a priority task in the restoration of Estonia’s economy during the German occupation. Germany’s own merchant marine had also suffered extensive damage since the beginning of the war, for which reason a largescale merchant marine building programme was initiated in 1942, which prescribed the building of ships in both Germany and the occupied territories.
In 1942, two to five-member shipping companies began the construction of 55 wooden motor sailers on the Estonian coast. Wood was used because metal was difficult to obtain due to wartime conditions. A year later, the German Hauptausschuss Schiffbau (Chief Commission on Shipbuilding) designated the building of motor sailers built in Estonia to be of military importance, which extended to Estonia’s shipping companies the same kinds of rights and concessions as for the shipyards included in the shipbuilding programme started up in 1942.
The J. Telliskivi & A. Saarna Shipping Company started building a motor sailer 21 metres long and 7 metres wide in the autumn of 1942. The revival of the enterprise that operated in the 1920’s and 1930’s was presumably hoped for initially. The fact many of the enterprise’s previous shareholders and workers associated themselves with this undertaking is evidence supporting this presumption. Later, a constant shortage of resources haunted the shipping company, leading to difficulties in acquiring materials and in keeping up with the production schedule. Yet on the other hand, the recognition of the shipping company as a line of work of military importance gave its workers the chance to obtain purchasing permits with larger rations for consumer goods and foodstuffs. Working for the shipping company also allowed workers subject to conscription to postpone their military service or exempted them from service altogether.
Regardless of the fact that shipbuilding had been declared a line of work of decisive military importance and necessary resources had to be channelled into it, only one ship was completed by the autumn of 1944. The construction of most of the ships remained unfinished and the number of ships under construction had dwindled to less than 40. The main reason why the shipbuilding plans did not come to fruition was the lack of resources and the exploitation of Estonia’s economy emanating from the needs of the Eastern Front.