Baltic Germans

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Baltic Germans
Балтийские немцы
Baltic German.svg
Baltic colours
Michael Barclay de Tolly
Karl Ernst von Baer
Adam von Krusenstern
Friedrich von Struve
Fabian von Bellingshausen
Johann von Eschscholtz
Heinrich Lenz
Ferdinand von Wrangel
Wilhelm Küchelbecker
Peter Carl Fabergé
Wilhelm Ostwald
Friedrich Zander
Regions with significant populations
Historically Curonia, Estonia, Livonia
Since 1945 virtually extinct/post-war Germany
German (Low German), Russian
Catholicism, Russian Orthodox Church
Related ethnic groups
Germans, Germans in Russia, Estonians, Latvians, Lietuvininks, Estonian Swedes

The Baltic Germans (German: Deutsch-Balten, or Baltendeutsche) were mostly ethnically German inhabitants of the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea, in what today form the countries of Estonia and Latvia. (Lithuania, now considered a Baltic state, followed a completely different historical path and some of its cities were home to a small German trading class, but never a German noble or ruling class.) The Baltic German population never made up more than 10% of the total.[clarification needed][1] They formed the social, commercial, political and cultural elite in that region for several centuries. Some of them also took high positions in the military and civilian life of the Russian Empire, particularly in Saint Petersburg.


In 1881, there were approximately 46,700 Germans in Estonia (5.3% of the population).[2] According to the Russian Empire Census of 1897, there were 120,191 Germans in Latvia, or 6.2% of the population.[3]

In the 12th and 13th centuries, Germans, both colonists (see Ostsiedlung) and crusaders, settled in the Baltic.[4] After the Livonian Crusades they quickly came to control all the administrations of government, politics, economics, education and culture of these areas for over 700 years until 1918, despite remaining a minority ethnic group. With the decline of Latin, German quickly became the language of all official documents, commerce and government business for hundreds of years until 1919.

Whilst the vast majority of urban lands were colonised by traders, rural estates[5] were soon formed by crusaders and their descendants. The area became under the sovereignty of the State of the Teutonic Order by the early 13th century, formally with the incorporation of the lands of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword. The Teutonic Knights maintained formal control of the land until the middle 15th century, when a series of military defeats whittled away at the lands of the Teutonic Order. In 1525, after converting to Protestantism, the remaining German Baltic lands under control of the Teutonic Order became the Duchy of Prussia. The region became part of the Swedish Empire from the conquests of House of Vasa in the early 17th century forming the Baltic Dominions of Sweden. Sweden controlled the land until losing them to Russia in 1710 during the Great Northern War. The lands were part of the Russian Empire until 1917. Both Sweden and Russia guaranteed the continuation of Baltic Germans' special class privileges and administration rights when they incorporated the provinces into their respective empires.[citation needed]

In contrast to the Baltic Germans, the ethnic majority of Estonians and Latvians had restricted rights and privileges and resided mostly in rural areas as serfs, tradesmen, or as servants in urban homes. This was in keeping with the social scheme of things in Imperial Russia, and lasted well into the 19th century, when emancipation from serfdom brought those inhabitants increased political rights and freedoms.

The Baltic Germans' effective rule and class privileges came to the end with the demise of the Russian Empire (due to the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917) and the independence of Estonia and Latvia in 1918–1919. After 1919, many Baltic Germans felt obliged to depart for Germany, but some stayed as ordinary citizens in the newly formed independent countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.[6]

Their history and presence in the Baltics came to an abrupt end at the beginning of the Second World War, in late 1939, following the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and the subsequent Nazi-Soviet population transfers. Almost all the Baltic Germans were resettled by the German Government under the Heim ins Reich program into the newly formed Reichsgaue Wartheland and Danzig-West Prussia (on the territory of occupied Poland). In 1945, most of them were expelled and resettled in the territory remaining to Germany under terms of the border changes promulgated at the Potsdam Conference, i.e. west of the Oder–Neisse line. The present-day descendants of the Baltic Germans can be found all over the world, with the largest groups being in Germany and Canada.[citation needed] Since their resettling from Estonia and Latvia during the upheavals and aftermath of the Second World War, Baltic Germans no longer exist as a distinct ethnic group.[7]

Ethnic composition

In the course of their 700-year history, Baltic German families often had not only ethnic German roots, but also mixed with peoples of non-German origin, such as native Estonians, Livonians and Latvians, as well as with other peoples such as Danes, Swedes, Irish, English, Scots, (Slavic) Poles, Hungarians and (Germanic) Dutch.

In those cases where intermarriage occurred, the other ethnic group usually assimilated into the German culture, adopted the German language and customs which often included "Germanizing" their names and surnames. They were then considered Baltic Germans as well. (See also: Ethnogenesis.)

Territories and citizenship

In Baltic German settlement patterns, the Baltic area consisted of the following territories:

Incorrectly, ethnic Germans from East Prussia are sometimes considered Baltic German for reasons of cultural, linguistic, and historical affinities. However, the Germans of East Prussia held Prussian, and after 1871, German citizenship because the territory they lived in was part of Prussia. From 1871 onwards, East Prussia became part of the newly formed unified German state, also known as the German Reich.

However, the Baltic Germans held citizenship of the Russian Empire until 1918 and Estonian or Latvian citizenship 1918–1939.


Middle Ages

Map of Terra Mariana in 1260.

Ethnic Germans began to settle in what are now Baltic countries in the 12th century when traders and missionaries began to visit the coastal lands inhabited by tribes who spoke Finnic and Baltic languages. Systematic settlement started during the Northern Crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries. Moving in the wake of German merchants, a monk named Meinhard had landed at the mouth of the Daugava river in present-day Latvia in 1180. In 1184, the first Christian church in the area was built in Livonian village of Uexkyll, and in 1186, Meinhard was consecrated as the first Bishop of Uexküll. The Pope proclaimed a crusade against the Baltic heathens in 1193 and a crusading expedition led by Meinhard's successor, Bishop Berthold of Hanover, landed in Livonia. In 1196 the New Bishop of Uexküll, Berthold, assembled the first crusading army in the Baltics. In 1199 Hartwig II, Prince-Archbishop of Bremen, appointed Albert of Buxhoeveden to Christianise the Baltic countries. To ensure a permanent military presence, Albert of Buxhoeveden, now Bishop of Livonia, founded the Livonian Brothers of the Sword in 1202. Thirty years later, the conquest and formal Christianisation of present-day Estonia and northern Latvia was complete.[8] At the same time, German-speaking merchants and craftsmen constituted the majority of the quickly growing urban population in the area. The Livonian Sword Brothers became part of the Teutonic Order in 1236. For 200 years, the knights on the shores of the eastern Baltic had support from the Holy Roman Empire.

As the influence of the Teutonic Knights weakened during the 15th century through wars with Poland and Lithuania, the Livonian branch in the north began to pursue its own policies. When the Prussian branch of the Order secularized in 1525 and became the Duchy of Prussia, the Livonian Order remained independent, although surrounded by aggressive neighbors. In 1558, Russia's invasion of Livonia began the Livonian War between Russia, Poland, Sweden, and Denmark which lasted for 20 years. In the course of the war, the state was divided between Denmark (which took Ösel), Sweden (which took Estonia), Poland (which took Livland), and Duchy of Courland and Semigallia, a vassal state of Poland-Lithuania.


The Baltic provinces became Protestant during the Reformation, and the secularized land was divided among the remaining aristocratic knights.

Courland existed as a country dominated by German-speakers for over 200 years, while Livland was once again split. Sweden controlled Estonia between 1561 and 1710 and Livland between 1621 and 1710, having signed an agreement not to undermine Baltic German autonomy. The German-language Universität Dorpat, the foundation of which was supported by King Gustavus II Adolphus of Sweden, remained the only one in the former Livonian territory for centuries and became the intellectual focus of the Baltic Germans, and also during the Swedish era for other Balts. At the end of the 17th century, Sweden introduced the reduction also in the Baltic provinces, meaning that properties held by nobility became the property of the Crown. This reform effectively turned serfs to free peasants, however it would be overturned when Russia conquered these territories in 1710.[citation needed]

Russian control (1710–1917)

Vääna manor, Estonia.
The many manors in Estonia and Latvia testify to the former dominance of the Baltic German landowning class. Pictured: Vääna manor, Estonia.

Between 1710 and 1795, following Russia's success in the Great Northern War and the Partitions of Poland, the areas inhabited by Baltic Germans became Baltic governorates of Imperial Russia. However, the Baltic provinces remained dominated and self-governed by the local German-speaking aristocracy which included the descendants of the former knights as well as some more recent immigrants from the German principalities to the west. Most of the professional classes in the region, the literati, were German-speakers. Government, however, was in the hands of the Knighthood of each province, in which only members of the matriculated nobility held membership.

Autonomy was guaranteed by the various rulers, especially during Russian times. Germans, other than the estate-owners, mainly settled in the cities, such as Riga, Reval, Dorpat, and Pernau. As late as the mid-19th century the population of many of these municipalities still had a German majority, with an Estonian or Latvian minority. By 1867 Riga's population was 42.9% German.[9]

The region's indigenous rural population enjoyed fewer rights under the Baltic German nobility compared to the farmers in Germany, Sweden, or Poland. Serfdom was officially abolished in the Baltic provinces in the beginning of 19th century, about half a century earlier than in Russia proper. There was less tension between the German speakers and indigenous urban residents.

German cultural autonomy ceased in the 1880s, when Russification replaced German administration and schooling with the usage of the Russian language. The Revolution of 1905 led to attacks against the Baltic German landowners, the burning of manors, and the killing and torture of members of the nobility, even if usually not by the local inhabitants but by outside revolutionary bands. Owing to their German heritage, during World War I Baltic Germans were sometimes seen as the enemy by Russians, yet also as traitors by the German Empire if they remained loyal to Russia.

Independent Baltic states (1918–1940)

After the Russian surrender at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1917, the German Empire organised the occupied territories into the Ober Ost. In 1918, it created the United Baltic Duchy, a short-lived client state dominated by the Baltic Germans.

As a result of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent Russian Civil War, many Baltic Germans fled to Germany. Baltic German outlying estates were frequent targets of local Bolsheviks (as portrayed in the film, Coup de Grâce) and the combination of local Bolsheviks and extreme nationalists following independence brought about land nationalisations and a displacement of Baltic Germans from positions of authority. As the Russian Civil War weakened the Russian Empire, the Baltic countries won the independence war against both the Russian army and the Baltic Germans of the United Baltic Duchy, making the former Baltic German elite lose their status and influence.[10]

When the republics of Estonia and Latvia were founded in 1918–19, the Baltic German estate owners were largely expropriated in a land reform, although the Germans were given considerable cultural autonomy.

During the time of the Russian civil war from 1917 to 1921, many young Baltic Germans signed voluntarily into the newly formed Estonian and Latvian armies to help secure the independence of these countries from Russia. These Baltic German military units became known as the Baltenregiment. The State archives of Estonia and Latvia keep individual military records of each person who fought in this war.

Estonia's Baltic German population was smaller, so as Estonians continued to fill professional positions such as law and medicine, there was less of a leadership role for the Baltic Germans. Many Baltic Germans began to leave during the interwar era. No precise numbers are available for the emigration during this period.

In Latvia, Baltic Germans remained the most politically active and organized ethnic group, although they lost some influence after Karlis Ulmanis's coup in 1934.

Nazi plans to "resettle" Baltic Germans in "Warthegau".

Resettlement of all Baltic Germans (1939–1944)


Resettled Baltic Germans take new home of expelled Poles in "Warthegau".
Baltic Germans look at their new home - "Warthegau" November 1939.

As a result of the secret agreements of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939, Estonia and Latvia were assigned to the "Soviet sphere of influence". Adolf Hitler gave Joseph Stalin free rein over these countries and Stalin made immediate use of this to set up Soviet military bases in Estonia and Latvia in late 1939. This was in preparation of an all-out invasion of the Baltics by the Soviet Union in the summer of 1940. One of the main conditions posed by Hitler to Stalin in August 1939 was the prior transfer of all ethnic Germans living in Estonia and Latvia to areas under German military control. These became known as the Nazi–Soviet population transfers.

Several small treaties were signed with Estonia and Latvia in 1939 and 1940 concerning the emigration of Baltic Germans and the liquidation of their educational, cultural, and religious institutions. Nazi Germany succeeded in getting the Baltic Germans to abandon their homes and homeland in haste, disposing of their belongings at cut-rate prices.[citation needed]

  • Some 13,700 Baltic Germans were resettled from Estonia by early 1940.
  • Around 51,000 Baltic Germans were resettled from Latvia by early 1940.

The Estonian and Latvian governments each published a book for the period covering the population transfers from 1939 to early 1940. Both books contained an alphabetical list of the names of each Baltic German adult that was resettled together with their birthdate, birthplace and last address in the Baltics[11]

Almost all the Baltic Germans were resettled by ships from the port cities of Estonia and Latvia and to the Wartheland (sometimes also called Warthegau) and other Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany. (The action was called Heim ins Reich - "Back Home into the Reich".) The "new" homes they were given to live in had mostly been owned and inhabited by Polish citizens a few months earlier who were deported eastwards when Nazi Germany invaded Poland.

Spring 1941 resettlement

In early 1941, the Nazi German government arranged another resettlement for all those who had refused to leave in 1939 or 1940. This time around no compensation was offered for any property or belongings left behind and this group of resettlers were treated with intense suspicion or considered traitors because they had refused Hitler's first call to leave the Baltics in 1939 and 1940. Unknown to the general public, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union was only 2 to 4 months away, and this was Hitler's last chance to transfer these people in peacetime conditions. The action was called the Nachumsiedlung.

By this time, the remaining Baltic Germans in Estonia and Latvia found themselves in a vastly different situation than in 1939. Their countries were now occupied by the Soviet Union, and intense pressure and intimidation had been put on anyone with a position of privilege or wealth before 1939. Mass arrests and some killings had taken place. Fearing a worsening of the situation, the vast majority of the remaining Baltic Germans decided to leave. About 7,000 resettled from Estonia by late March 1941, and approximately 10,500 resettled from Latvia by late March 1941.

No books were published listing those who resettled in 1941; however, the present-day archives of Estonia and Latvia still have the lists of all those who left in this year.


A very small minority of Baltic Germans refused again to be resettled and remained in the Baltics past March 1941. Some fell victim to the Soviet deportations to Siberian gulags from the Baltics beginning in early June 1941. The names and data of those deported from Estonia from 1941 to 1953 have been published in books. Details are kept at the Museum of Occupations in Estonia.

Others fled with the retreating German army in 1944. No precise numbers or lists are available for these. However several thousand Baltic Germans remained in the Baltics after 1944, but these were subject to widespread discrimination (and possible deportation to Siberia until 1953) by the Soviet authorities ruling Estonia and Latvia. As a result of this, many hid or lied about their Baltic German origins. Most of these Baltic Germans who stayed past 1944 were children of mixed ethnic marriages or themselves married to ethnic Estonians, Latvians or Russians.

"Second resettlement" 1945

The Soviet Union's advance into Poland and Germany in late 1944 and early 1945 resulted in the Baltic Germans being evacuated by the German authorities (or simply fleeing) from their "new homes" (in which Hitler had resettled them in 1939) to areas even further in the west to escape the advancing Red Army.

In stark contrast to the resettlements in 1939–1941, this time around the evacuation in most of the areas was delayed until the last moment, when it was too late to conduct it in an orderly fashion, and practically all of them had to leave most of their belongings behind.

Seeing as they had only been living in these "new" homes for only about five years, this was almost seen as a second forced resettlement for them, albeit under different circumstances.[citation needed]

Many Baltic Germans were on board the KdF Ship Wilhelm Gustloff when it was sunk by a Soviet submarine on January 30, 1945. By one estimate,[12] 9,400 people onboard died which would make it the largest loss of life in a single ship sinking in history. Additionally, many Baltic Germans died during the sinking of the SS General von Steuben on February 10, 1945.

Two books listing the names and personal data of all Baltic Germans who died as a result of the resettlements and wartime conditions between 1939 and 1947 have been published by the Baltic German genealogical society: Deutsch-baltisches Gedenkbuch. Unsere Toten der Jahre 1939–1947 by Karin von Borbély, Darmstadt, 1991; and Nachtrag zum Deutsch-baltisches Gedenkbuch by Karin von Borbély, Darmstadt, 1995.

Later, with Estonia and Latvia falling under Soviet rule after 1944, the Baltic Germans never came to live in the Baltics again.[citation needed]

Most of them settled in West Germany, some ended up in East Germany and a significant minority emigrated to Canada starting in 1948 with the support of Canadian Governor General The Earl Alexander of Tunis, who had known many Baltic Germans when he had commanded the Baltic German Landeswehr.

Destruction of cultural heritage in the Baltics (1945–1989)

During the 50-year-long occupation of the Baltic states, Soviet occupation authorities governing the Estonian SSR and the Latvian SSR, politically empowered by their victory in World War II, were keen to erase any traces of ethnic German rule in past centuries.[citation needed] Numerous statues, monuments, structures or landmarks with German writing were destroyed or altered.[citation needed]

The largest Baltic German cemeteries in Estonia, Kopli cemetery and Mõigu cemetery, both standing since 1774, were completely destroyed by the Soviet authorities. The great cemetery of Riga, largest burial ground of Baltic Germans in Latvia standing since 1773, also had the vast majority of its graves destroyed by the Soviets.

1989 to present

The present-day governments of Estonia and Latvia, who regained their independence in 1991, generally take a positive, or sometimes neutral, view towards the contributions of the Baltic Germans in the development of their cities and countries throughout their history. An occasional exception to this comes with some criticism in relation to the major landowners, who controlled most of the rural areas of the Baltics, and the ethnic Estonians and Latvians, until 1918.

After Estonia regained independence from the Soviet Union on August 20, 1991, the exiled association of the German Baltic nobility sent an official message to the president-to-be Lennart Meri that no member of the association would claim proprietary rights to their former Estonian lands. This, and the fact that the first German ambassadors to Estonia and Latvia were both Baltic Germans, helped to further reconcile the Baltic Germans with these two countries.

Cooperation between Baltic German societies and the governments of Estonia and Latvia has made the restoration of many small Baltic German plaques and landmarks possible, such as monuments to those who fought in the 1918–1920 War of Independence.

Since 1989, many elderly Baltic Germans, or their descendants, have taken holidays to Estonia and Latvia to look for traces of their own past, their ancestral homes, and their family histories.

Notable Baltic Germans

Baltic Germans played leading roles in the society of what are now Estonia and Latvia throughout most of the period from 13th to mid-20th century, with many of them becoming noted scientists or explorers. A number of Baltic Germans served as ranking generals in the Russian Imperial army and navy. Many Baltic Germans (such as Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, Baron Pyotr Nikolayevich Wrangel, Yevgeny Miller, and Anatoly Lieven) sided with the Whites and related anti-Bolshevik forces (like the Baltische Landeswehr and the Freikorps movement) during the Russian Civil War.

See also

Notes and references

  1. Baltic states :: Gradual modernization
  2. Baltic Germans in Estonia, Estonian Institute
  3. Latvia – Population
  4. Christiansen, Eric, The Northern Crusades – The Baltic and the Catholic Frontier 1100–1525, 1980, ISBN 0-333-26243-3
  5. For examples, see List of palaces and manor houses in Latvia and List of palaces and manor houses in Estonia.
  6. Hiden, John, The Baltic States and Weimar Ostpolitik, Cambridge University Press, 1987, ISBN 0-521-32037-2
  7. Miljan, Toivo (2004). Historical Dictionary of Estonia. Scarecrow Press. p. 426. ISBN 9780810865716.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia, translated and edited by James A. Brundage, Columbia University, 1961; revised 2003; 288 pages ISBN 0-231-12888-6
  9. National History Museum of Latvia
  10. Estonian War of Independence 1918–1920. Jyri Kork (Ed.). Esto, Baltimore, 1988 (Reprint from Estonian War of Independence 1918–1920. Historical Committee for the War of Independence, Tallinn, 1938)
  11. Eestist saksamaale ümberasunute nimestik/Verzeichnis der aus Estland nach Deutschland Umgesiedelten, Oskar Angelus, Tallinn 1939; "Izceļojušo vācu tautības pilsoņu saraksts" : "The list of resettled citizens of German ethnicity". 1940
  12. "Wilhelm Gustloff: World's Deadliest Sea Disasters". Unsolved History, The Discovery Channel. Season 1, Episode 14. (Original air date: March 26, 2003)

Further reading

External links