The history of Baltic Germans

The Baltic Germans 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 had never made up more than 10% of the total. They formed the social, commercial, political and cultural elite 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.

The German presence on the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea dates back to the Middle Ages when traders and missionaries started arriving from central Europe. The German-speaking Livonian Brothers of the Sword conquered most of what is now Estonia and Latvia (the former Livonia) in the early 13th century. In 1237, the Brothers of the Sword were incorporated into the Teutonic Knights.

Coat of arms of the Teutonic Order Grand Master

The Order of the Teutonic Knights of St. Mary's Hospital in Jerusalem (Official names: Latin: Ordo domus Sanctæ Mariæ Theutonicorum Hierosolymitanorum, German: Orden der Brüder vom Deutschen Haus St. Mariens in Jerusalem), or for short the Teutonic Order (Today: German Order), is a German Roman Catholic religious order. It was formed to aid Catholics on their pilgrimages to the Holy Land and to establish hospitals to care for the sick and injured. Its members have commonly been known as the Teutonic Knights, since they also served as a crusading military order during the Middle Ages. The membership was always small and whenever the need arose, volunteers or mercenaries augmented the military forces. Formed at the end of the 12th century in Acre, in the Levant, the medieval Order played an important role in Outremer, controlling the port tolls of Acre. After Christian forces were defeated in the Middle East, the Order moved to Transylvania in 1211 to help defend Hungary against the Cumans. They were expelled in 1225 after allegedly attempting to place themselves under Papal instead of Hungarian sovereignty.

Over the course of the next several centuries, the Teutonic Order solidified into a regime of mostly German-speaking nobility ruling over indigenous peasants. The religious and economic institutions in late medieval Livonia were mostly controlled by locally born German-speakers and new immigrants from central Europe. Several cities in the area joined the Hanseatic League, dominated by German-speaking merchants. This German presence brought Christianity to Estonia and Latvia - one of the last parts of Europe Christianity reached. These areas later adopted Lutheranism. The Teutonic Order progressively lost territory during the 15th century and had practically disappeared as a political force by the middle of the 16th. Although the Baltics passed into the hands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the south and Swedish rule in the north, the privileged status of the local German-speaking aristocracy remained largely unchanged. Baltic Germans are estimated to have represented no more than 6% of the population of Estonia and Latvia at the end of the 17th century but their dominant position in society remained relatively unchallenged.

The Crusades were a series of religiously-sanctioned military campaigns waged by much of Latin Christian Europe, particularly the Franks of France and the Holy Roman Empire. The specific crusades to restore Christian control of the Holy Land were fought over a period of nearly 200 years, between 1095 and 1291. Other campaigns in Spain and Eastern Europe continued into the 15th century. The Crusades were fought mainly against Muslims, although campaigns were also waged against pagan Slavs, Jews, Russian and Greek Orthodox Christians, Mongols, Cathars, Hussites, Waldensians, Old Prussians, and political enemies of the popes. Crusaders took vows and were granted penance for past sins, often called an indulgence.

Part of the Crusades

The Siege of Acre was the first confrontation of the Third Crusade

The Third Crusade (1189–1192), also known as the Kings' Crusade, was an attempt by European leaders to reconquer the Holy Land from Saladin. The von Wittes’ were attending the third Crusade, which can be found in the family tree.
The Crusades had far-reaching political, economic, and social impacts, some of which have lasted into contemporary times. Because of internal conflicts among Christian kingdoms and political powers, some of the crusade expeditions were diverted from their original aim, such as the Fourth Crusade, which resulted in the sack of Christian Constantinople and the partition of the Byzantine Empire between Venice and the Crusaders. The Sixth Crusade was the first crusade to set sail without the official blessing of the Pope. The Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Crusades resulted in Mamluk and Hafsid victories, as the Ninth Crusade marked the end of the Crusades in the Middle East.

The Great Northern War (1700-1721) was a war in which the so-called Northern Alliance composed of Russia, Denmark-Norway, Poland-Lithuania and Saxony engaged Sweden for the supremacy in the Baltic Sea. The war ended with a defeat for Sweden in 1721, leaving Russia as the new major power in the Baltic Sea and a new important player in European politics. The war began as a coordinated attack on Sweden by the coalition in 1700 and ended in 1721 with the Treaty of Nystad and the Stockholm treaties.

Between 1560 and 1658, Sweden created a Baltic empire centred on the Gulf of Finland and comprising the provinces of Karelia, Ingria, Estonia, and Livonia. During the Thirty Years' War Sweden gained tracts in Germany as well, including Western Pomerania, Wismar, the Duchy of Bremen, and Verden.

The foreign interventions in Russia during the Time of Troubles resulted in Swedish gains in the Treaty of Stolbovo (1617). The treaty deprived Russia of direct access to the Baltic Sea, meaning that the Russians were not in a position to challenge the Swedish regional hegemony. Russian fortunes reversed during the later half of the 17th century, notably with the rise to power of Peter the Great, who looked to address the earlier losses and re-establish a Baltic presence. In the late 1690s, the adventurer Johann Patkul managed to ally Russia with Denmark and Saxony by the Treaty of Preobrazhenskoye and in 1700 the three powers attacked.

During Peter the Great's rule Russia gained control over much of the Baltics from Sweden in the Great Northern War at the beginning of the 18th century, but left the German nobility in control. Until the Russification policies of the 1880s, the German community and its institutions were intact and protected under the Russian Empire. The Baltic German nobility were very influential in the Russian Tsar's army and administration.

The reforms of Alexander III replaced many of the traditional privileges of the German nobility with elected local governments and more uniform tax codes. Schools were required to teach Russian, and the Russian nationalist press began targeting segregated Germans as unpatriotic and insufficiently Russian. Baltic Germans were also the target of Estonian and Latvian nationalist movements.

When Estonia and Latvia became independent nations after World War I a degree of autonomy was granted to ethnic German institutions, and German schools and newspapers expanded somewhat during that period. However all of the nobility's traditional privileges were abolished and most of their agricultural land holdings were redistributed to local farmers. At that point, ethnic Germans represented no more than 1.5% of the Estonian population and roughly 3% of the Latvian population, many having left for Germany during the chaos of World War I and the Russian Revolution.