Courland, Livonia and Estonia

Confidential Handbooks - No. 57

Prepared for the Historical Section of the Foreign Office, Great Britain

Published February 1919

Author unidentified

The following historical summary is taken from a pamphlet "published" on a confidential basis, intended as briefing for Government Ministers and those directly involved in setting policy in relation to British interests in the Baltics. It is dated 1919, but the anonymous author makes reference throughout to the difficulties in obtaining up to date information owing to "recent unsettled events".

The anonymous civil servant who wrote this account of the background history of the Baltics attempts to describe the way in which the minority German upper classes maintained their hold over the majority indigenous population of Letts notwithstanding numerous changes of political regime. From the point of view of the British government, the tensions between the German dominant majority and the Lettish population appeared to be the greatest threat to the stability of the region. The wild card in all of this was the stance taken by Russia, which was in the grip of its own revolutionary changes.

The account ends with what is termed "the Baltic Revolution of 1905". The author notes that when race hate is referred to in the Baltics, it is the hatred of the Latvians for the Germans.

These confidential documents have now moved into the public domain and are available as part of the historical archives at the Public Record Office in Kew, London. Copies are also held by a few specialist libraries, including the University of London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies. Minor editing of non-essential material has been done.

Courland, Livonia and Esthonia - Background History

The Baltic Provinces and the Teutonic Order

The present political situation in the Baltic Provinces is largely to be accounted for by the course of events in the twelfth and three following centuries. Germans, organised in the Teutonic Order, coming originally overseas for trading and missionary purposes, conquered and christianized the country, and turned it into a portion of their strong military state. The natives were left in possession of their homesteads, but the needs of their new lords soon demanded the surrender of every independent right, and they became the human cattle upon whose labours the prosperity of the Baltic Provinces was based. Revolt proved hopeless: the Russians were prevented by the Tatar onslaught from driving out the Germans. The Provinces possessed in the fourteenth century connection by land as well as by sea with Germany and the German population was thus freely reinforced. But the growth of wealth and the absence of high ideal induced decay; successive losses of territory in the south to the new state alliance of Poland/Lithuania isolated the dominions of the order in the north, and when the Reformation came it dissolved the foundations of the state.

The final blow against the power of the Order in the Baltic Provinces was launched by Russia. Resenting the tutelage in which the Germans had long held its dominions, to which they forbade access from abroad, Ivan the Terrible decreed an appalling invasion in 1558. Foreign powers intervened, and twenty years of warfare in Livonia and Esthonia resulted only in the confirmation of arrangements made at the outset. Esthonia submitted to Sweden, and Livonia to Poland; Courland, though nominally a Polish fief [1], became practically an independent duchy under Kettler, the last Master of the Livonian/Teutonic Religious Order in Livonia.

The Baltic Provinces under Sweden and Poland

The fall of the Teutonic Order brought no great change either in the government or the religion of the Baltic Provinces. The Esthonian gentry made terms with Sweden and the Livonians with Poland, and by this means secured all their rights and privileges. German remained the official language; the Lutheran Church was not to be molested; the law and its administration were guaranteed against interference. Contact with free Sweden did in time bring to the peasants some mitigation of their slavery, but Poland had nothing to offer them except Roman Catholicism, which they refused. The contest for the ecclesiastical allegiance, however, helped to preserve their native languages, which the contending Jesuits and Lutherans found it necessary to employ. Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, in one of the long series of wars between the Poles, in 1632 funded the University of Dorpat. Again no social change was effected and the new university was to be German. Succeeding monarchs involved the provinces in fresh strife, Charles X by waging war in the accumstomed manner and Charles XI by attacking the rights of the gentry in the interest of the Crown. Against such attacks Patkul, a Livonian nobleman, first protested and then intrigued with Denmark, Poland and Russia, thus helping to bring about twenty years of war, the collapse of Sweden, and the rise of Peter the Great.

That war, the Great War of the North (1700-21), in its earlier stages laid waste a great part of the Provinces and annihilated the Untiersity of Dorpat. Much that the ruling German caste failed to do in the eighteenth century has been excused on the ground of this break-down in their wealth and education. It may therefore be remarked that evidence appears to be lacking in support of the theory that prior to the war they did or attempted anything with the object of mitigating the conditions which caused the country to be described as "the noble's heaven and the peasant's hell". Such glimpses of the natives as appear show them unconsidered, downtrodden, and subservient.

The nobles, on the other hand, formed a vigorous and powerful caste, tenacious of their vested rights both against successive overlords and against the native serfs (the indigenous population). German through and through, they had absorbed some of the Lettish nobles and a certain number of recruits from other lands. The martial and adventurous spirit which had originally prompted the German/Prussian conquest of the Baltic was kept alive by their established mode of life as a ruling caste surrounded by an alien race over whom they had powers of life and death. The German ruling caste in turn were themselves vassals of alien princes and powers who might be of another faith than theirs, and occupants of domains for which great empires were contending. ... The permanence of the divide between the German ruling class and the indigenous Lettish population may in part be explained by the fact that non-noble Germans had also entered the Provinces in considerable numbers as merchants, tradesmen and artisans, thus depriving the natives of the hope of rising by the performance of tasks which must be accomplished but which the noble caste declined. [2]

The Baltic Provinces Under Russia 18th Century

The Great War of the North (The Great Northern War) revealed so great a superiority of Russia over her neighbours as to determine the controversy for the dominion of the Baltic Provinces. After ten years of warfare, the overthrow of Charles XII at Poltava (1709) brought about the submission of Esthonia and Livonia to the Tsar. Peter, as yet insecure in his conquests, fully endorsed the liberal Capitulations granted by his lieutenant. These renewed the privileges which the Provinces had secured on the collapse of the Teutonic Order guaranteeing that the German administration, legal structure, language, religion and education system would be preserved. In 1721 like provisions appeared in the treaty of cession which Russia dictated and Sweden signed at Nystad. Religious freedom, hitherto denied, was claimed for members of the Greek Church. Two million dollars were paid to Sweden so that the Provinces might rank as purchased rather than conquered, for Peter had bound himself to return his conquests here to Poland.

Courland, whose dynasty [the ducal Kettler family] obviously approached extinction, formed a prize which tempted the Polish and Prussian kings, the Polish Republic and the Tsar. Tsar Peter had attempted to secure the succession by marrying his niece Anna to the heir-apparent: chance favoured Russia, and from 1737 Courland became practically a Russian dependency. In 1795, after the Third Partition of Poland, the Diet of Courland laid the coutnry at the feet of Catherine the Great; the Duke abdicated; and Catherine merely promised in a manifesto to guarantee to the nobles their ancient rights. Thus the third of the Baltic Provinces became incorported in the Russian Empire by the act of its Estates (representative body), among whom a pro-Prussian agitation had proved in vain.

Meanwhile Esthonia and Livonia had passed 85 years under the rule of the Tsars. This at first involved little change in the existing order beyond what resulted from the presence of a Russian Governor-General who was disposed to favour the nobles and to show disfavour to the ambitions of the towns. That the land and its administration should be German was unquestioned, and the nobles strove, not without success, to fortify their own monopoly of internal power. They failed indeed to secure for the Provinces a separate code of law and court of appeal. But in 1737 they made good their claims to form a caste distinct from men ennobled by State service, and in 1741 they gained the sole right to possess estates. The judges were to be named by them from among their own number; they administered the Crown lands and filled almost every civil post; the pastors were Germans nominated by them. When Pietism won the adhesion of the peasants, the German monopoly was upheld by the State, and in 1743 a ukase stamped out the movement. Nearly thirty years later a German traveller ascribed the hatred of the squalid natives towards the Germans to the fact that they were driven to their devotions with the same threats as to their labour in the fields.

With the accession of Catherine II (1762-96), ideas of enlightenment and progress returned to the Russian throne. In the Baltic Provinces the German-born Empress showed especial interest. In 1764 the Pietists received toleration, and the next year, the nobles were urged to improve the lot of their peasants. That men and women should not be sold or given away, that they should remain undisturbed in their homesteads so long as they duly performed fixed duties, that they should not be mated at their lord's command, that they should be capable of possessing property and of defending it and their persons against their lords by way of law - such were the chief reforms which Catherine desired and which the Baltic nobles firmly rejected. In 1779 they likewise refused compliance with her wish to extend to the Baltic Provinces the symmetrical administration which she had devised for Russia. Catherine, therefore, having softened the blow by turning their fiefs into freeholds, introduced the new institutions by force (1785); but her son Paul I restored the old within a month of her death. So long as Paul lived, the central power was even more reactionary than the Provinces, where progressive ideas found an entry into Riga and some sections of the nobles, while the Pietist movement promoted humanity towards the serfs. In Alexander I (1801-25), however, the Baltic nobles found a Tsar at once Liberal and sympathetic. With the nineteenth century a new era of history of the Provinces began.

The Baltic Provinces 1801-66 - the Land Question

The contrast between the old spirit of government and the new received clear illustration in the matter of higher education. Tsar Paul had planned a Baltic Univeristy to prevent the nobles from studying abroad: Alexander I created it, at Dorpat (1802), for the enlightenment of the whole Russian Empire. Although subjected to the new Ministry of Education, it was friendly German in language and intellectual inspiration, and thus reinforced the German elements in the Provinces and in the Empire by a stream of pastors, doctors and lawyers. Such an institution, like the Teutonic monopoly of the Provinces in general, must be differently regarded by the supreme power according as centralization or its opposite was the ruling governmental conception of the day, and Russian and German parties arose within the University itself.

Of even greater importance than higher education in the Baltic Provinces was agricultural reform. It is sometimes claimed that the German nobles, who had frustrated Catherine's proposals, of their own motion emancipated the peasants half a century earlier than did the Russian State. It is significant that in 1783 and 1802 peasant revolts were only supressed with much bloodshed. Later, on the initiative of the Liberal party in the provincial diet, Villeinage, with the Tsar's approval, replaced serfdom in Livonia (1804), the peasant gaining some human rights, though remaining bound to the soil and to the service of his lord. Twelve years later Esthonia conceded personal freedom and the right of migration, and Courland and Livonia accepted the same principle (1817, 1819). In Courland it was not until 1833 that the peasants gained a limited right of migration, although the towns remained closed to them. In 1845 they were first allowed to hire land with money in place of service, and peasant proprietorship did not follow until 1863.

"No lasting good effects", wrote the German traveler Kohl in 1840, "can be expected from the emancipation law till the further step shall have been taken of granting the peasant the right of acquiring a property in land....Only then will he struggle to raise himself from his present abasement". In Livonia, as the price of "emancipation", all the lands of the peasants had become the freehold of the lords, and in fact the old tyranny was maintained. The right to quit an estate, usually valueless to the peasant, might be made the excuse for dismissing him when his labour had ceased to be profitable to the lord. Not until 1849 in Livonia and 1856 in Esthonia did the system of the free hiring or purchase by peasants of lands reserved for them definitely triumph, with the goodwill of the Tsar. In 1865 and 1866 Courland and Livonia abrogated the exclusive right of the nobles to hold estates, thus arriving at the agrarian system of today. Under it, the Letts and Esthonians have produced a mass of prosperous peasant proprietors. The Germans, however, continue to possess the great estates, and of the native races a very lage majority are landless. To this fact may be ascribed in part the rapid growth of the urban population and the spread of Social Democracy.

The Baltic Provinces 1801-1905 - The National Question

During the nineteenth century the problem of the Baltic Provinces became more and more fully a problem of nationality. The German inhabitants had always possessed a strong racial consciousness and pride. Between them and the natives yawned a chasm as deep as it had been six centuries before, though across it individuals, chiefly Letts, had crept for social promotion. Of Russian inhabitants there had been but a handful, and their access to a place in corporate life was sternly barred by the Germans. The Tsars, from Catherine onwards, were of German blood, with German consorts usually, and all showed a sympathetic interest in the Baltic Germans. Nicholas regarded them as a shield against western ideas and declared to a fier Slavonphil in 1849 that they had served faithfully; he could name 150 generals; and that Christians must not force Germans to become Russians. Alexander II told the Baltic nobles that they did well to be proud of their nationality. Although Russian attempts to un-Germanize the Provinces were complained of far earlier, it was not until the German Empire had arisen that they appear obvious and frequent.

With the advent of Alexander III (1881-94) the influence of the austere Pobiendonostsev became dominant, and the policy of "one Tsar, one faith, one language, one law" was carried out in the spirit of a high-minded Inquisitor. In 1883 began the violent phase, more than twenty years long, of the struggle by the Germans to defend their privileged position against Russification and against the native Lettish inhabitants. The great reforms of Alxander II had rendered the organization of the Provinces mediaeval in appearance at the same time that the tide of nationality was in full flow and the emancipated Letts and Esthonians were rapidly advancing. By degrees the Russian Government came to regard the Baltic Germans as its enemies and to favour the Young Letttish and Young Esthonian parties at their expense until the Revolution of 1905 induced a change of course.

The efforts of the Government after uniformity within the Empire extended in 1888 and 1889 to the introduction of the Russian systems of police and justice, however superior in structure these might be when compared with their predecessors, and thus augmented the widespread uncertainty and confusion. The newspapers were subjected to the Russian censorship, with the usual consequences.

The Baltic Revolution of 1905 and its Consequences During the first decade of the reign of Nicholas II (1894-1917) the policy of Russification of the Baltic Provinces in the main continued. It found an unexpected sequel during the course of the war with Japan, for while the Germans remained foreign to the Russian movement towards revolution, the other nationalities in the Provinces embraced it.

Towards the close of the year a violent revolution broke out in Riga, where a great industrial population, partly non-Baltic in race, had recently sprung up. Spreading rapidly to the country districts, it assumed the form of an anti-German war, directed against pastors and other Germans as well as against the great proprietors. The outbreak was put down by military force and thousands of lives exacted for the 200 mansions destroyed. The Russian Government endeavoured to guard against a recurrence by strengthening the German governing class and by consulting the Provinces on reform.

It is difficult to determine with any confidence how far this social propagandism approached or concealed treason. The hope of many Germans within and without the Baltic Provinces that Germany would in the future regain her lost colonies had been evident for generations, but proof of any disloyal intrigue against the reigning Tsar appears to be lacking. It must not be forgotten that the Baltic Germans enjoyed a position of power and privilege which, given any reasonable personal security, they would be loath to jeopardize, while the relations between Russia and Germany were always carried on officially in a tone of traditional friendship which must have rendered exceptionally difficult any imperial conspiracy against the Tsar. But the growth of German nationalism and power stirred by the fate of the Baltic Germans, and the German Orders in which some of these were comprised, adopted language and insignia such as could not but offend the sensitive nationalism of Russia. Amid the disorders of 1905 hints were given that Germany's quiescence regarding the Baltic Provinces had depended upon Russia's non-interference with her policy, and that under certain conditions those provinces might form her compensation for concessions elsewhere.


  1. Fief = The Duke of Courland acknowledged personal loyalty to the Polish King, but in effect the Dukedom was independent in administration and legal structure.
  2. Here, the author is referring inter alia to the Jewish community who comprised the majority of artisans, shopkeepers, smaller scale merchants and business owners in Courland and to an increasing extent in Riga as well. This has been advanced as one of the reasons that a significant proportion of the Russian and Lettish communities perceived the Jews as being the natural allies of the German ruling class.

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