Baltic German

The Baltic Germans (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.



In Baltic German settlement patterns, the Baltic area was formed into the territories of Estland (not to be mixed up with today's Estonia; the ancient one only covered the northern half of today's country) with the capital of Reval (now Tallinn), Livonia with the capital of Riga and the university city of Dorpat (now Tartu), and Couronia (German: Estland, Livland, and Kurland). It included the two large islands of sel (now Saaremaa) and Dag (now Hiiumaa).

Occasionally, ethnic Germans from East Prussia are considered Baltic German for reasons of cultural, linguistic, and historical affinities. (Note however that Old Prussians were Baltic, not Germanic.)


Early history

Ethnic Germans started to come to the Baltic region as traders and missionaries who first in the 12th century, then already inhabited by various Finno-Ugric and Indo-European peoples. A systematic settlement (as the dominating class) by Germans dates from 1199, when Albert von Buxhoeveden from Bremen became Bishop of Livonia. Two years later, he founded Riga and also the Order of the Sword Brothers, a German Knights' order to protect the mission against the local "heathen" and to administer the territory. The Sword Brothers, in 1236, became part of the Teutonic Order. For 200 years, the Order State in the Baltics had a support from the Holy Roman Empire.

Since the 1466 weakening and eventually 1525 dissolution of the Teutonic Order state, state of Order of the Sword Brothers became again independent between much stronger countries. In 1558 the invasion of Russia started Livland war that continued for over 20 years between Russia, Poland, Sweden and Denmark.

In course of the war, the state was divided between Denmark, which took the islands, Sweden, which took Estonia, Poland that took Livland and protestant state of Kurland, a Polish fief.


Kurland became Protestant during the Reformation, and the land was split up among the knights. These form part of the German aristocracy.

Kurland existed as German-speaking country for over 200 years, while Livland was once again split. Sweden controlled Estland between 1561 and 1710 and Livland between 1621 and 1710, having signed an agreement to not undermine German Baltic autonomy. The German-language University of Tartu (then University of Dorpat), the foundation of which was supported by King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, remained the only one in the Baltic region for centuries and became the intellectual focus of the Baltic Germans, both nobility and literati.

Russian control

Between 1710 and 1795, following Russia's success in the Great Northern War, all Baltic areas became provinces of Russia.

However, the Baltic provinces remained dominated, and self-governed, by the local German-speaking aristocracy, which was based on the former knights but included several newcomers from Continental Germany as well. Originally German people also formed most of the professional classes in the region, the literati. Government, however, was in the hand of the Ritterschaft of each of the provinces, 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 Reval, Riga, Dorpat, and Pernau, often German foundations and as late as in the mid-19th century still with a minority Estonian or Latvian population.

Local (indigenous) rural people from the Baltic region enjoyed no comparable rights under the Baltic German nobility to those of their brethren in Germany, Sweden or even Poland, rather was their fate comparable with that of the serfs in Russia. Harsh treatment resulted in some uprisings that were brutally suppressed. The situation in the cities was in some cases better.

German cultural autonomy ceased in the 1880s, when Russification precluded much schooling in German, German-language university instruction, etc. The Revolution of 1905 led to attacks against the Germans, burning of manors, and killing and torturing of members of the nobility, if usually not by the local inhabitants but by outside revolutionary bands. During World War I, Baltic Germans as ethnic Germans were seen as the enemy by Russians (and as traitors by Germans). As a result of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent Russian Civil War, many of the Baltic Germans fled to Germany.

Post WWI

When the Republics of Estonia and Latvia were founded in 1918/1919, the Baltic German estate owners were largely expropriated in a land reform, though they eventually regained some cultural autonomy. However, they were quite poor by then and had lost their influence, and even more emigrated. Finally, in 1939, the pact between Germany and Russia, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which "returned" Estonia and Latvia to Russia (the Soviet Union), the remaining Baltic Germans were evacuated and resettled by force - for some part, into the Warthegau and other areas that are parts of Poland today. The invasion of Russian armies into Poland and Prussia in 1945 resulted in their having to trek to the West.

When Estonia declared its independence of the Soviet Union on August 24, 1991, the exiled association of the German Baltic nobility sent an official message to 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 reconcile the peoples.

Notable Baltic Germans

A number of Baltic Germans, such as Karl Ernst von Baer, Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz, Alexander von Oettingen, and Adam Johann von Krusenstern became famous as explorers or scientists. A number of Baltic Germans, most notably Michael Andreas Barclay de Tolly, served as ranking generals in the Russian army.

External link

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