The Germans from the Baltics


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. [1]


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 capital.

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

With 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.





Number of Germans






Baltic Germans in the Russian Empire

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 technological progress.

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.

Russification and 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.

Another factor 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 allowed.

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 forbidden.

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.



Number of Germans














In 1881, 11.2% of the population of Latvia  (134,000 persons) were Germans

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 Estonian Republic

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 Germans.

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 state budget.

German schools, societies, newspapers, and journals expanded. The Lutheran Church continued to have a large German representation; in 1939 Germans constituted 22% of the Lutheran clergy.

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.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop 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 America.

Settlement in Canada and Alberta

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.


[1] Wikipedia, "Baltic German." Accessed on April 20, 2004.


This section is based, in large part, on

1. "Baltic Germans in Estonia," Accessed on March 21, 2004.

2. "History of Latvia," Accessed on March 21, 2004.

3. von zur Muehlen, Max, "Zu neuen Ufern: Die Auswanderung der Deutsch-Balten nach Kanada (1946-2001). Accessed on March 13, 2004.