The Museum of the Estonian War of Independence was established in 1919 and restored in 2001 under the name of the Estonian War Museum – General Laidoner Museum. According to the museum’s statutes, its tasks include locating, collecting, preserving, researching and disseminating objects and materials related to Estonian military history as well as researching military history and developing international relations with other relevant institutions.
The permanent exhibition and temporary exhibitions of the War Museum tell stories about wars fought in Estonia, the service of the Estonian people in the militaries of other countries and wars fought elsewhere in the world with the participation of the Estonian people.
The Museum of the Estonian War of Independence was established on 19 January 1919 by ordinance of Major General Johan Laidoner, Commander‑in‑Chief of the Armed Forces. The War of Independence was in its second month of battles, Tartu had been liberated a couple of days before and the endurance of the Republic of Estonia was far from ensured.
In 1919, Taavet Poska, private of the 6th Infantry Regiment and front photographer, was appointed coordinator of the museum. In November 1921, he became the deputy treasurer and later assumed the role of director. Taavet Poska was head of the Estonian War Museum until 1940. By then, the museum had some 10,000 objects and the permanent exhibition included a couple of thousand. The museum collections had numerous weapons and the permanent exhibition included trophy flags seized from Red Army units conquered in battle, mannequins dressed in the uniforms of the War of Independence, war maps, the interior of the Commander‑in‑Chief’s wartime office and many other items. At that time, the museum was located in the Old Town at 5 Vene Street.
Once the Red Army had occupied Estonia in the summer of 1940, the Museum of the War of Independence was closed and its property had to be removed from Vene Street. It was initially taken to Kopli, to the Red Barracks. Later on, the Red Army claimed any working equipment, some objects were given to other museums, some were taken to Russia and many were simply destroyed.
After Estonia had restored its independence and Russian troops had left, the question of what to do with Viimsi Manor, the former summer residence of General Johan Laidoner, Commander‑in‑Chief of the Estonian Armed Forces arose. Up until the early 1990s, the manor had housed the radio surveillance unit of the Soviet Union Baltic Navy, which had left its “mark” on the building. On 15 September 1993, Viimsi Parish Council decided to turn the manor into Viimsi Parish Museum, which began to collect items and information primarily related to Johan Laidoner.
The Estonian War Museum – General Laidoner Museum was established on 26 February 2001 by regulation of the Minister of Defence and it settled in Viimsi Manor and took over the facilities of the parish museum. The restoration of the Estonian War Museum began from scratch, as the pre‑war property had been destroyed or given away. The museum continued adding to the collections created by the parish museum. Fortunately, the Estonian people had had the courage and the nerve to preserve extremely valuable items, archives and other materials documenting Estonian military history, sometimes hiding them literally in the ground and inside flue pipes. People now began donating these items and documents or depositing them with the museum.
Today, the Estonian War Museum collects, preserves, researches and exhibits Estonian military history and heritage. It is also commissioned with recording the history of the Estonian Defence Forces on an on-going basis, educating members of the Defence Forces, national defence teachers, students and the wider public on military history, publishing scientific and popular science books on military history, cooperating with war museums and military history research centres in Estonia and abroad, and many other functions.
It is neither possible nor appropriate to deposit the largest objects essential for any military museum – cannons, vehicles, armoured vehicles and tanks – at the museum’s current location in Viimsi Manor. In order to be able to exhibit the collections in a contemporary manner and to offer a thorough look at Estonian military history from the Viking Age and the ancient struggle for freedom to the 21st century foreign missions of the Defence Forces, we need more extensive facilities than those offered by Viimsi Manor, hidden away in its park.
A potential new location for the museum is the Patarei sea fortress and its waterfront surroundings. The plan is to turn this into a world‑class theme park of military, maritime and technological history, in cooperation with the Maritime Museum and other interested institutions from the public, private and third sector.