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.
The German emigrants who settled in the Baltic region were descended from urban and rural elites. German peasants did not reach the Baltic. This meant that while the landowning aristocracy consisted predominantly of Germans, the rural population continued to be made up of Estonians and Latvians. Some branches of the Baltic German nobility can trace their ancestry back to the beginning of the 13th century. In many cases, their forefathers were younger sons from families in Westphalia and Lower Saxony. The aristocracy was organised in knighthoods – 'corporations' with strict criteria for admission. They were the lords of the region from the 16th to the 19th century. Their financial basis came from owning large areas of land. To this day, hundreds of country mansions in Estonia and Latvia testify to the economic success of the Baltic barons.
Baltic noblemen rose to influential positions in the military and administrative structures of the Russian Empire. The aristocracy in the Baltic was not hostile to education, as the strikingly large number of academics from its ranks demonstrates. Many country mansions were destroyed in the revolution of 1905. The land reforms introduced in Estonia and Latvia after 1918 left most of the nobility impoverished. Many of them emigrated shortly afterwards.
As burghers of the towns of the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period, Germans played a central part in the development of the Baltic towns. Riga, Reval (Tallinn) and Dorpat (Tartu) – all members of the Hanseatic League – were centres of trade with Russia and the towns all along the Baltic coast. Among the goods traded were furs, cereals, wood, wax, cloth, salt and herrings. Citizenship of Riga was restricted to Germans for centuries. The merchants’ guilds, too, only admitted Germans. The citizenry demonstrated a healthy community spirit, setting up religious foundations and making donations to the Church, taking on voluntary work and organising festivals, amongst other activities. As customers for items such as superbly crafted silver vessels, they also provided the basis for the growth of craft guilds. Especially prominent in this respect was the 'Compagnie der Schwarzen Häupter' (Company of the Black Heads) in Riga, membership of which was restricted to unmarried merchants. This guild, now based in Bremen, still exists today.
The intellectual influence of the University of Dorpat extended throughout the Baltic region and beyond. Teaching was conducted in the German language there until 1893. It was founded by King Gustav II Adolf of Sweden in 1632, when Livonia was a Swedish province. Conflicts between Russia and Sweden led to its closure in 1710. The university was re-established in 1802 by Tsar Alexander I as a German-language institution. Although it was under Russian administration, around half of the professors came from the German Empire and around forty per cent were Baltic Germans. Dorpat was the eleventh largest of the thirty German-language universities that existed in 1875. On its staff were many highly renowned academics.
The policy of Russification implemented between 1882 and 1893 brought the university's golden age to an end. Most of the professors and many of the students emigrated to Germany. Only Protestant theology could still be taught in German (until 1916), because Russian Orthodox clerics were worried about the influence of Protestant doctrines upon their church. Today, the Estonian State University of Tartu keeps the memory of its German cultural heritage alive.