Baltic Germans

The Baltic Germans (German: Deutsch-Balten, or Baltendeutsche) were mostly ethnically German inhabitants of the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea, which today form the countries of Estonia and Latvia. The Baltic German population never made up more than 10% of the total. They formed the social, commercial, political and cultural élite 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). According to the Russian Empire Census of 1897, there were 120,191 Germans in Latvia, or 6.2% of the population.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, Germans, both colonists (see Ostsiedlung) and crusaders, settled in the Baltic. 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. Whilst the vast majority of urban lands were colonised by traders, rural estates were soon formed by crusaders and their descendants. With the decline of Latin, German quickly became the language of all official documents, commerce and government business for hundreds of years until 1919.

The region was politically subordinated to the rule of the monarchs of Sweden until 1710, and the tsars of the Russian Empire until 1917. Both these successive ruling kingdoms guaranteed the continuation of Baltic Germans' special class privileges and administration rights when they incorporated the provinces into their respective empires.

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, which was as foreign to them as any other country, bar the language they spoke. Some stayed as ordinary citizens in the newly formed independent countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

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.

Read more about Baltic Germans:  Ethnic Composition, Territories and Citizenship, Notable Baltic Germans

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