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The Baltic Germans

In the early 13th century, German merchants, knights and clerics settled in the Baltic region. Many of them came from Westphalia and lower Saxony. They exploited rivalries amongst the indigenous peoples. Up until 1237, the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, which supported Christian missionary work, dominated the region. It was subsequently absorbed into the Knights of the Teutonic Order, which became the sovereign power here, too. The branch of the Order in Lithuania, however, retained a degree of autonomy from the Grand Master in Prussia. Parts of the region were ruled over by the Bishop, from 1253 onwards the Archbishop of Riga, until the Reformation. 

Those who came to the Baltic regions – Courland, Livonia, Estonia and the island of Ösel (Saarema) – were mostly wealthy merchants and clerics, who travelled by ship. Poorer classes of society could not migrate there, because there was no passable land route. German long-distance traders settled in the towns of the Hanseatic League, where they possessed extensive civic rights. Many descendants of the Brothers of the Sword established themselves as landowning aristocracy with a flourishing agricultural base. Both of these social groupings pushed for a German-language university to be founded in Dorpat (Tartu). Many Baltic Germans earned international academic renown there. 

At the end of the 18th century, after having belonged in part to Denmark, Sweden and Poland at various times, the entire Baltic region fell to Russia. Many Baltic Germans entered the service of the Tsar as officers and civil servants. Growing nationalism in the 19th century put the Baltic Germans in a difficult position: on the one hand, the Estonians and Latvians were demanding more rights, while on the other, the Russian establishment aimed to Russify society and abolish the Baltic Germans' privileges. The Baltic German landowners tried to strengthen their position by recruiting German farm workers from the Volga region and Volhynia, with only limited success. After gaining independence in 1918, the countries of Estonia and Latvia both granted the Baltic Germans the status of a national minority.