The Germans that colonized and built cities in the lands bordering the Baltic Sea were referred to as Baltic Germans. They ruled regions named Prussia, Kurland, Memel, and Livonia which are now known as the Baltic States: Latvia, Estonia, and northern parts of Lithuania and Poland. German culture thrived in these regions for 700 years. Initially for 300 years as citizens of the Teutonic Knights who ruled the Monastic State of the Teutonic Order until 1525.
The 300 year old Teutonic State started as a support system for the Northern Crusades. It was a meritocracy form of government, ruled by a Grandmaster who was voted in by a small group of electors representing the whole state. The Grandmaster was an ordained monk, leading a core of roughly 3000 ordained monk knights. He had the status of a Prince of the German Holy Roman Empire, blessed by the Pope, but independent of any direct control. The State evolved from the Teutonic Order around 1226 and achieved the goal of converting all Baltic pagans to Christianity by 1400. Thereafter, the Teutonic Monastic State began to decline.
Over the next 125 years the Knights gradually lost territories and power, but their society continued to thrive. Established cities, farming estates, tradesmen and merchants of the Hanseatic League were prosperous but resented constantly increasing taxes and autocratic governance. Some cities, such as Danzig, revolted into open warfare. Known as the Thirteen Years War, from 1454 to 1466, it was fought by rebelling Prussian cities who asked Poland for help… versus the Teutonic Knights and cities that remained loyal. The Knights lost Western Prussia at the end of the war.
Additionally, Lutheranism was rapidly spreading throughout Germany, from the ecclesiastical states of the north to the imperial cities of the south. Nuremberg was the first imperial city to convert to Lutheranism in 1525. The fast spreading power of Lutheranism was another factor that undermined the Catholic Teutonic Knights. The end result was that the leader of the Teutonic State, Grandmaster Albrecht von Hohenzollern, dissolved the Catholic State in 1525 and declared himself leader of the new Duchy of Prussia.
After the Teutonic State dissolved, the Germans in Prussia and Memel were now called Prussians. The rest of the Germans in the northern regions along the Baltic Sea continued to be known as Baltic Germans. Despite the fact that these areas were under the rule of Russia, the Germans remained as the administrators, merchants, and large landholders. Baltic Germans owned 58% of land in Estonia and 48% in Latvia. They also maintained their language and culture and lived there for another 400+ years.
Here is where I can relate some personal family history. My Great Great Grandfather was born a Prussian in 1818 in Tilsit, East Prussia. For an unknown reason at some point in his life, he moved to nearby Mitau, the capital of Kurland (southern Latvia in current geography) which was part of the Russian Empire at this time. Thus he became a Baltic German, followed by my Great Grandfather and Grandfather who both were born in Mitau.
The capital of Kurland was once a Teutonic Knights stronghold and had a German led society that reached back many centuries to the first German Sword Brother crusaders in the Baltic area. German was the language here and the church they attended was German Lutheran. So they lived as before and prospered. Some of our family moved to Riga, the first city built by German crusaders in 1201, and they also prospered to the point that they financed my Grandfather’s University tuition. He was able to graduate from the German University in Estonia with a degree in agricultural management. This degree led to a government job in Tula, Russia, where my father was born just eight months before the Communist Revolution in 1917.
It was not unusual for Baltic Germans to work in the Czarist government, but they were in danger after the Revolution. My Grandfather was lucky to escape to Libau, another German city in Kurland. Shortly thereafter, WWI ended and the Baltic States gained independence from Russia, but the new Republic of Latvia was vulnerable to a communist takeover.
Although Baltic Germans began to lose land, power and influence to native Latvians, the communist threat nevertheless mobilized Baltic Germans to establish militias to fight for their Latvian homeland’s freedom. My Grandfather was one of the fighters joining German army veterans from East Prussia. The combined Native Latvians, Baltic Germans and Prussian Germans all fought to stop the Bolsheviks, as the communists were called at the time. Latvia remained free and the threat to neighboring East Prussia was removed. Baltic Germans in Estonia similarly fought successfully to save Estonia.
By the end of the 1930s international tensions escalated into WWII. Poland was invaded on September 1st and defeated on October 6th. Soon afterward Baltic Germans were encouraged by the German government to leave Latvia and Estonia because these states were going to be controlled by Russia. They were encouraged to voluntarily resettle…Heim ins Reich… back into various parts of Germany. My Grandfather decided to move, but had to sell all property at bargain prices. His two brothers decided to stay…one owned a wholesale meat company, the other was a renowned pastry chef. At the end of the war both brothers were presumed dead because they were never heard from again and the International Red Cross could not find any trace of them.
The map below shows where Germans from the former Teutonic State still lived in 1939 and where in the Reich they were re-settled.
The map is dated 1939… after the defeat of Poland… which no longer existed at this time. Germany annexed its former territory that was lost due to the Versailles Treaty of 1919 and split the rest of Poland with Russia. The Memel territory, which was taken by Lithuania after WWI, was also returned to Germany in 1939. As part of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, a treaty between Russia and Germany, Russia annexed Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia… but only after all ethnic German migrations were completed. My Grandfather resettled in Posen, or Wartheland, which was mostly the pre WWI, pre Versailles Treaty, German province of Posen.
By 1941, the German-Russian Treaty was broken…Germany invaded Russia and took control of the Russian half of Poland plus Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia and a large part of Russia itself. This dramatic turn of events led to Baltic Germans in Lithuania being invited to also move back to Germany…Heim ins Reich. Conversely, it allowed some ethnic Germans to migrate back to their previous homelands in Lithuania, Poland, Latvia and Estonia.
After WWII, Eastern Europe was cleansed of ethnic Germans. The Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia, plus Lithuania, Russia, Romania, were all purged of any ethnic Germans that had not already escaped. Plus all German citizens in East Prussia, West Prussia, Silesia and Sudetenland were all forcibly expelled if they had not yet taken flight. A total of 20 million were forced to leave. Two million of them perished during the flight. Many of these ethnic Germans and regular German citizens who made it to West Germany were so wary of communism that they emigrated again. As soon as they were allowed, they emigrated to South America, Canada, Australia, England and the United States.
So, how did all of this chaotic history impact my immediate family? In 1936, at age 19, my Father took his Ahnenpass (proof of German heritage) and moved from Latvia to Konigsberg, East Prussia. He became a German citizen, got a job with Lufthansa and married my Mother. The war changed their lives dramatically, but they survived and were able to move westward in early January 1945, before the authorized flight began. The official announcement to leave came at the end of January, too late for most civilians. My Mother lost one Grandmother in the flight from East Prussia and my Father lost two Uncles who stayed in Latvia. They were presumed dead and never found. My surviving Grandparents were fortunate and reached West Germany, just miles west of the Soviet Zone border of East Germany. Although my parents also ended up in the same area, they decided to leave and move again for a more secure future. They were on a waiting list for 6 years and finally emigrated in 1956 to the safest country in the world, the United States of America.
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