The Germans from the
The Baltic Germans,
calling themselves "Balts" and occasionally referred to as "German Balts"
(Baltendeutsche, Balten, and Deutschbalten respectively), were the ethnically
German inhabitants of that area on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea which
forms today the countries of Estonia and Latvia. Occasionally, ethnic Germans
from East Prussia are considered Baltic German for reasons of cultural,
linguistic, and historical affinities. 
From the 13th century,
for nearly seven hundred years, Baltic Germans constituted the ruling class in
the region of contemporary Estonia and Latvia. Their impact on the political,
economic, social, and cultural development of the countries was crucial.
Germans came to the area
as traders and Christian missionaries. At the beginning of the 13th century the
Latvian, Livonian, and Estonian tribes were subdued by German crusaders from
the south and Danish troops from the north. A new political structure, later
known as Old Livonia, emerged and was dominated by the Livonian (Teutonic)
Order of Knights and by Catholic bishops. After the conquest, the social system
typical at that time in Europe was instituted in Old Livonia. However, the
social division was also an ethnic one; Germans formed the upper classes while
the indigenous population, called "Undeutsch", composed the
peasantry. Crusaders and new immigrants from Germany settled over much of the
countryside, founding large estates. The Baltic German nobility took shape
while gaining political and economic strength. There was also a large gap
between the clergy and the indigenous population.
The local Catholic
clergy was likewise recruited mostly from Germany. More influential perhaps
were the monastic orders (the Dominicans, Cistercians, Franciscans, Order of
St. Brigitta) who preached in the vernacular.
In the Baltic cities a
permanent influx of merchants and artisans from Germany established guilds
which soon dominated urban life. Towns turned into prospering trade and handicraft
centres. Major Estonian towns (Tallinn, Tartu, Viljandi, Pärnu) were members of
the famous Hanseatic League. At the beginning of the 14th century, the rulers
of Lithuania, with the aid of German colonists, founded many cities with the
German system of laws, including Vilnius, which would become Lithuania's
As early as the 1520s
Estonian towns embraced the Lutheran Reformation, thus revealing their close
ties with Germany proper. Preaching in the vernacular also increased and the
first Estonian-language religious books were compiled by German Lutheran
pastors. The landed gentry, with some hesitation, also accepted Lutheranism.
The Swedish Era
the invasion of the Russian forces under Tsar Ivan the Terrible in 1558, the
Livonian War and the disintegration of Old Livonia began. For the Baltic German
nobility, however, the result of this devastating war was favourable. In 1561
the city of Tallinn and the nobles of north Estonia swore their loyalty to the
Swedish King Erik XIV. The Swedish province of Estland was formed. Later,
southern Estonia and northern Latvia, which belonged to Poland, were also
conquered by Sweden to form the Livonian province (Livland). The privileges of
the Baltic Germans were largely preserved under the Swedish rulers. Both Poland
and Sweden regarded the German nobility's councils and guilds as the legitimate
representatives of the provinces and recognised the supremacy of the German
language and German law. However, the Livonian nobility never reached as strong
a position as that of the province of Estonia. At the end of the 17th century a
considerable part of the land was repossessed by the state. Then, conflict
between the Swedish King Charles XI and the Livonian nobility led to the
abolishing of their self-government rights.
During the 17th century
the Baltic provinces made rapid cultural progress. In Tartu (Dorpat) a
university was founded in 1632. The Baltic German intelligentsia began to emerge,
consisting of Lutheran pastors, gymnasium or university teachers, and civil
officials. The continuing close contact with Germanic religious thought and
with other Western countries also contributed to the enhancement of cultural
life, particularly in Tallinn. In the late 17th century the first German
newspapers were published in Tallinn and Riga.
Due to the efforts of
the Lutheran pastors, Christianity now made greater headway among the Estonian
and Latvian peasants. Encouraged by the Swedish state, the development of the
Estonian literary language began, with the compilation and publication of
grammar and religious books. Rural schools for peasants were also founded. This
promising development was halted by the Great Famine of 1694-95 and the devastating
Northern War (1700 - 1721) which followed.
Baltic Germans in the
The Northern War, nevertheless, had positive results for the
Baltic nobility. In 1710 Tallinn, Riga, Pärnu and the nobility of Estonia and
Livonia surrendered voluntarily to Russia. The capitulation treaties, confirmed
by Peter the Great, granted the nobility all their land possessions, the right
to self-government, special laws and the supremacy of the German language and
the Lutheran church. In short, all the former rights of the city councils and
nobles' corporations were confirmed. The control of local affairs now lay
firmly in the hands of the German elite.
The Baltic noblemen were
appreciated by the Russian Emperors as loyal and efficient officials. In the
Russian army, in the administrative and the diplomatic service, they occupied
an enormous number of important posts. Sixty-nine generals of Baltic origin
participated in the Napoleonic wars. Loyal service was one of the reasons why
the Russian emperors tolerated the far-reaching autonomy of the Baltic
aristocracy in the Baltic provinces.
In 1795, after the third
division of Poland, the province of Courland was annexed by Russia.
Self-government existed with slight differences in all three Baltic provinces.
The main self-governing body of the nobles' corporations was the diet, which
consisted of all the owners of the larger manor estates. The diet ruled on all
the crucial problems of provincial life, and also had the right of legislative
initiative. Diets elected the highest police officials and judges, as well as
the secular members of the Lutheran church. Towns were governed by German town
councils, recruited from the merchants' guilds and intelligentsia. Within the
Russian empire, until the imposition of strict Russification in the 1880s, the
Baltic Germans enjoyed rapid cultural progress. The Germans maintained close
contact with German philosophical trends and new ideologies from Europe. After
the Northern War, no university remained in the Baltic provinces, but young
intellectuals from German universities began to settle in the Baltics as
teachers, pastors, and officials. At the same time local youth were sent to
study in German universities. The economic progress of the manor estates, based
on cheap labour, duties, grain production and the sale of alcohol and meat to
the Russian market, enabled noblemen to pursue cultural endeavours. A network
of German schools was established. The towns, although they never reached the
prosperity of Hanseatic times, turned into cultural centres with schools,
printing plants, theatres, libraries, bookshops, German reading or music
societies, clubs, and so on. The tradition of journalism in German, interrupted
by the Northern War, was restored in Tallinn, Riga, and Pärnu.
Local youth from less
wealthy families now also had the opportunity to study, and the educational
level of all Baltic Germans began to rise. The proportion of intellectuals
among the German nobility increased markedly; the "Literatenstand",
joining of lawyers, physicians, artists and journalists, emerged.
From then on, social
changes began to take place with ever-increasing speed. One major change was
the emergence of a class of small landowners among the Estonians and Latvians.
In addition, the expansion of industry, trade, and transport in the Baltics
began in the 1860s. The Baltic German classes had to face the emancipation,
both social and national, of the Estonians and Latvians.
Baltic Germans in the
Era of Modernization
The Baltic Germans seemed to adapt successfully to the
era of industrialisation. Although the nobility lost their exclusive right of
ownership of large estates in 1866, they remained the main landowners and the
major economic force in the provinces until 1917. At the beginning of the 20th
century over 1,100 large manor estates accounted for 42% of the arable land in
Estonia, while 70,000 small farmsteads shared the rest. On the large estates
dairy and cattle replaced grain as the main products, with the main consumer
being Russia. The Baltic provinces acted as a breeding station for pedigree
cattle for Russia. Baltic noblemen were efficient managers of their estates,
often having been trained in natural sciences or agronomy at Tartu University.
Agricultural societies and special journals also contributed to the
Baltic noblemen also
initiated ventures in industry and trade, such as the Baltic railway joint
stock company. The Tallinn - St. Petersburg railway was completed in 1870,
bringing an exceptional growth in trade and industry to Tallinn.
This economic progress
was accompanied by new cultural enrichment. In newspapers and journals, marked
opposition to the nobility was voiced, and equal rights and the participation
of all people in the government of the provinces was advocated. The political
advances of these years were accompanied by new types of German voluntary
associations (singing societies, voluntary fire brigades, philanthropic
societies, and others). In Tallinn and Riga, Baltic German song festivals took
place, contributing to the rise of national feelings among the Baltic Germans.
Although the ethnic composition of the population of Estonian towns during the
second half of the 19th century changed markedly in favour of Estonians, the
urban elite, consisting of industrialists, wealthy merchants, bank managers and
intellectuals, remained German.
From the middle of the
1860s, however, the privileged position of the Baltic Germans in the Russian empire
began to waver. Already during the reign of Nicholas I (1825-55), who was under
pressure from Russian nationalists, some sporadic steps had been taken towards
the Russification of the provinces. Later, the Baltic Germans faced fierce
attacks from the Russian nationalist press, which accused the Baltic
aristocracy of separatism, and advocated closer linguistic and administrative
integration with Russia.
unification became the main governmental policy in the Baltic provinces during
the reign of Alexander III (1881 - 1894). A new Russian law was introduced in
1877 to replace the old city councils with elected bodies. Voting was based on
the payment of taxes, so the new law did not affect the domination of the
German elite. However, the mayors were now appointed by the Ministry of the
Interior. With the introduction of the Russian police and judicial system in
1888-89, the Baltic nobility lost its right to appoint gendarmes and judges.
Russian became the language of administration and instruction in all schools,
also at Tartu University. The Russian Orthodox Church was favoured and a large
number of German pastors were punished as criminals for having baptized
children from mixed marriages.
endangering the position of the Baltic Germans was the growing national
movement among Estonians and Latvians. The local nobility as well as the
Tsarist authorities did not regard these movements as a social force worthy of
consideration. This proved to be an underestimation.
Baltic Germans in the
Era of Revolutionary Changes
After the 1905 Revolution in Russia, the Baltic
nobility agreed to a modest self-government reform that would have enfranchised
some landed Estonians. But it was already too late. Many Estonians now called
for democratisation and national autonomy.
In the eyes of many
Estonians the 1905 revolution was largely directed against the German
aristocracy and many manors in the countryside were destroyed, prompting the
Tsarist authorities to send punitive expeditions to Estonia. The punishment of
many innocent Estonians and the general atmosphere of terror contributed to
widespread Estonian opposition to the local German strata. But the Revolution
also forced certain concessions from the Tsar. The first legal political parties
emerged in Russia, among them the German "Baltic Constitutional
Party." German private schools were reopened and instruction in German was
Rising national and
cultural enthusiasm among the Baltic Germans was interrupted with the outbreak
of World War I. Although almost all Baltic Germans of military age served as
Russian officers, the Russian authorities became increasingly suspicious of
possible collaboration between Baltic Germans and the enemy. Baltic German
schools, newspapers, and societies were closed and the public use of German
After the February
Revolution of 1917 the provisional government of Russia granted Estonians the
right to govern themselves. The administrative structure of the provinces was
changed. The Estland province and the northern part of Livonia were united into
one "ethnic government." The so-called "Estonian Diet" was
elected. In the face of the Bolshevik coup, the Diet declared itself the
supreme authority in Estonia.
The conservative leaders
of the Estonian German community regarded the decisions of the "Estonian
Diet" as a violation of their historical rights. The nobility requested
that Germany occupy Estonia and Latvia. Tallinn, the capital, was taken on 25
February 1918 and soon the entire country was under German military rule. One
day earlier, on 24 February, the elders of the "Estonian Diet"
declared Estonia an independent democratic republic. This declaration was not
accepted by Imperial Germany or by the conservative Baltic German leaders. An
autonomous Baltic German state consisting of the three provinces in union with
Prussia or the dukedom of Mecklenburg was proposed, but the German authorities
were divided and no formal ties were established before the defeat of Germany
in November 1918.
During the Estonian War
of Independence against Bolshevik Russia, a Baltic German regiment fought for
the young state, as a unit of the Estonian army. In Latvia a Baltic German
unit, together with volunteers from the former German army, fought against the
Bolsheviks, but simultaneously tried to establish German rule in Latvia. After
taking possession of Riga, a pro-German, Latvian government was formed. Moving
north, however, this military force was defeated by the Estonian army in a
short but bloody conflict.
In 1881, 11.2% of the
population of Latvia (134,000 persons)
The Latvian national
government was soon restored in Riga. Against all odds, Latvia won independence
in 1920. Amid post-war economic misery and destruction, land was taken from
German nobility and redistributed to the poor. Between 1921 and 1940, Latvia
prospered, becoming a major exporter of agricultural goods.
Baltic Germans in the
After the signing of the 1920 Tartu peace treaty between
Estonia and Soviet Russia, the Baltic Germans had to adapt to the role of a
national minority in a democratic state. Due to emigration to Germany and war
losses, the number of Baltic Germans and their proportion of the total
population had considerably decreased.
In the Estonian republic
all social estate privileges and ruling nobles' corporations were abolished.
Manor estates were confiscated without reward and distributed in parcels to the
landless, minor renters and war veterans. However, the majority of the big
landowners retained their manor houses and smaller farms in the centre of their
former property. Nevertheless, the economic force and the political
significance of the Baltic nobility in Estonia was now broken forever. In the
towns, many Baltic German industrialists, merchants and bank managers retained
their positions. There were also a large number of German officials and
intellectuals. In 1925, 6.8% of the student body of Tartu University were
In free Estonia Germans
had the same rights as everyone else. They could vote, organize their own
cultural associations and form political parties. Baltic Germans usually held
5-8 seats in the 100-member Estonian parliament ("Riigikogu").
In 1925 the Law of
Cultural Autonomy was passed by the Estonian parliament; it offered ethnic
minorities guarantees and guidelines for the preservation of their national
identity. Various ethnic-cultural institutions were partly supported by the
societies, newspapers, and journals expanded. The Lutheran Church continued to
have a large German representation; in 1939 Germans constituted 22% of the
In 1939, there were
still 23,000 Germans in Estonia (two percent of the population), in Latvia
there were 64,000 (3.2%) of whom more than 60% lived in Riga.
Due to acute national
feeling among Baltic Germans, a small part of the younger generation was
attracted by the Nazi propaganda of the 1930s. New nationalist organisations,
which established contact with the Nazi party, were created.
pact of August 1939 changed the political situation in Estonia. Assigning
Estonia and Latvia to the Soviet sphere of interests, Nazi Germany
simultaneously offered the Baltic Germans the opportunity to return to their
ethnic home country. In the face of possible annexation by the Soviet Union,
over 20,000 Estonians and 60,000 Latvians, respectively, left their homes
between 1939 and 1941. They were settled in the annexed parts of West Prussia
and in the Warthe Gau where they were given houses, land, business ventures,
and other possessions left behind by deported Poles. In 1945, when the German
eastern front collapsed, the Baltic Germans had to abandon the Polish areas.
About 5,000 persons perished on the way to Germany.
In 1950, 40,000 Baltic
Germans lived in West Germany and another 10,000 in East Germany, many of whom
later fled to the West. Several thousand Baltic Germans emigrated to North
Settlement in Canada
In the first few years
after the War, approximately 10% of the surviving 78,000 Baltic Germans
emigrated to Australia, South America, South Africa, the United States, and European
countries like Sweden and Finland. 2,500 Baltic Germans emigrated to Canada,
some of them arriving as displaced persons and others as Volksdeutsche.
The Canadian Baltic
Immigrant Aid Society helped many immigrants to come to Canada and provided them
with much-needed assistance; it has also attempted to encourage contacts among
them through various publications and activities.
Like other Baltic-German
groups, the majority of Latvians arrived after 1946, making their way from
displaced persons' camps in Germany. The new arrivals, many holding degrees in
engineering, medicine, law, and other professions, initially made their way to
the agricultural, forestry, and mining areas of Canada in order to fulfill the
work contracts required by immigration authorities. A number of Baltic Germans
settled in the Peace River area, others went into agricultural or business
enterprises in Edmonton or Calgary.
Mathias Kuester of the
Edmonton Branch of the CBIAS Club published a number of very readable
treatises on the Baltic Germans in Canada. He also established a Baltic-German
library of some 1,250 books in order to maintain the cultural heritage of
Baltic-Germans in Canada.
"Baltic German." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baltic_German. Accessed
on April 20, 2004.
This section is based,
in large part, on
1. "Baltic Germans
in Estonia," http://www.einst.ee/factsheets/balt_germans/. Accessed on
March 21, 2004.
2. "History of
Latvia," http://www.latvia-usa.org/vestnieciba/hisoflatbrie.html. Accessed
on March 21, 2004.
3. von zur Muehlen, Max,
"Zu neuen Ufern: Die Auswanderung der Deutsch-Balten nach Kanada
(1946-2001). http://www.cbias.ca/page6n.htm. Accessed on March 13, 2004.