Table of contents        Introduction            Chapter II

[page 1]


UNTIL 1900

In ancient Greece and Rome every affluent lady had amber jewelry to bring good luck and ward off evil. The Greeks called amber “elektron”; when rubbed with a cloth, it becomes charged with electricity which to the ancient Greeks was a mysterious quality. The solid tears of extinct pine trees have bestowed their name upon the modern electronics industry.

Amber came from the fringe of the known world - the east shore of the Baltic Sea, inhabited by the Balts: Latvians, Lithuanians, and Old Prussians. Other Baltic tribes ruled a large inland region from present-day Warsaw to Moscow[1] [2]. Distinct from Slavs and Germans, speaking Indo-European languages which may be older than Sanskrit[3], the Balts led a rugged independent life in Northern Europe, the amber trade being their main contact with the Mediterranean civilizations.

Continuous warfare against a tide of Slavs and against Viking raids gradually shrunk the homeland of the Balts. A new predator appeared in the l2th century A.D.: Germans, first as merchants, then as missionaries, and finally as brutal invaders and colonizers in the guise of crusaders. After a war which lasted until the l4th centuty the Latvians had to accept the Germans as overlords. The Old Prussians were vanquished and assimilated, and only their name remained attached to a region which later became the militaristic German Prussia. The Lithuanians survived as an independent nation and formed a federation with Poland in 1358.

[page 2]

The ancient Balts believed in gods and goddesses which represented the forces of nature[4]. In 1202 Pope Innocent III established the German military religious order of the Livonian Knights (also known as Brothers of the Sword) for the purpose of converting to Christianity the Balts and the non-Baltic Livs and Estonians to the north of the Latvians[5]. Another order, the Teutonic Knights, founded in 1190 in Palestine, was supposed to baptize the Old Prussians. The Knights were a military order because baptism was to be carried out by force, if necessary, and resisters were to be killed.

The Balts were not united. For example, the Latvians were divided into separate nations of Cours, Zemgallians, Latgallians, etc., and frequently one nation was willing to side with the Knights against another nation.

It did not matter that a part of the Latvians was baptized. It did not matter that, for example, the Cours concluded a perpetual treaty of peace with Pope Gregory IX in 1230 under which, in exchange for baptism, the Cours were to remain an independent kingdom[6]. The Germans ignored such diplomatic details and in the name of Christ attacked, plundered, kidnapped, raped, and murdered. Never mind Christianization, the Livonian Knights were eager for conquest and booty. The Pope condemned these robbers in crusaders’ clothing, yet he lacked the power to stop them.

The fate of King Visvaldis of the Latgallian city-state Jersika was typical. Visvaldis was already a Christian of the Greek Orthodox faith, and Jersika contained several Greek Orthodox churches. However, Jersika was in a strategic position on the shores of the river Daugava and an obstacle to the German expansion in Latvia. They sacked it in 1209 anyway. They kidnapped the women and children, including the queen. They plundered the churches and the rest of the city, and then set it afire. They forced Visvaldis to accept German supremacy and seized two thirds of his state. He started to rebuild his city, but it was sacked again in 1214, and eventually the Germans grabbed the rest of his state[7].

The German conquest of Latvia and Estonia was far from easy. The Livonian Knights were utterly destroyed in a battle at Saule in 1236[8]. The remnants united with the Teutonic Knights in 1237 but remained autonomous. However, the link with the Teutonic Knights guaranteed an almost inexhaustible supply of replacements. The Germans lost several important battles in the field, yet were [page 3] saved by being able to withdraw to their stone fortresses to await reinforcements from Germany. Their defeat in a battle at Durbe in 1260 was so devastating that several of the already subjugated nations revolted, including the Old Prussians. Nevertheless, fresh troops from Germany let them regain their conquests by slowly strangling one stronghold after another. By 1351 the Livonian Order had lost in battles 117,000 men, among them 6 Masters of the Order, 28 dukes and counts, 49 barons, and 11,000 knights and gentry[9].

The last to be conquered were the Zemgallians. Unable to defeat them in open battle, and unable to take their forts by storm, the Germans used a tactic of terror. They built their own stone fortresses next to the Zemgallian log forts, attacked anyone in sight, and destroyed crops and cattle. Faced with starvation, the Zemgallians abandoned one fort after another, the last one in 1290, and about 100,000 Zemgallians went into exile in Lithuania. However, they returned to attack the Germans several times (e.g., in 1345 and in 1372 [9]).

The descendants of the exiled Zemgallians took their revenge upon the Teutonic Knights in 1410 at the battle of Tannenberg. Lithuanian grand duke Jogaila (Jagiello) had married the Polish queen Jadwyga, uniting the two countries[10]. Jogaila was ,the grandson of Gediminas who may have been the grandson of the last Zemgallian king Nameitis[9]. Nameitis was killed in Prussia in 1281 or later while attacking the fortresses of the Teutonic Knights with a joint Lithuanian-Zemgallian force[11] [12] [13]. Jogaila and his cousin Vytautas (Vitold) with an army of Poles, Lithuanians, Czechs, Ruthenians, and Zemgallians met the army of the Teutonic Knights on July 15, 1410 between the towns of Tannenberg and Grunwald, and crushed them.

This gigantic battle (there were 100,000 dead [14]) finished the Teutonic Knights as a threat to Latvia and Lithuania. While the German Livonian Knights remained the overlords of Livonia (Latvia and Estonia), there was no secure land connection between Germany and Livonia because Lithuania remained independent in-between, and thus Livonia was spared the colonization by Germans which led to the extinction of the Old Prussians.


Over the centuries the German conquerors deprived the Latvians [page 4] of most of their land and of most of their human rights. The peasants became bound to the land and were sold with the land as property. A number of uprisings took place but failed.

The Russians, who had been busy fighting Mongols or Tartars, renewed their attacks upon Latvia with unusual brutality learned from their Asiatic invaders. Ivan the Terrible assaulted Livonia in 1558. The German Knights hid in their stone fortresses while the Russians decimated the Latvian population which had been disarmed by the Germans in fear of rebellions. A war between Russia, Sweden, Denmark, and Poland-Lithuania ended with Poland-Lithuania in possession of eastern Latvia, while western Latvia (Courland and Zemgallia) became the Duchy of Courland, a fief of Poland-Lithuania. Although the Livonian Order was dissolved, the Germans remained the owners of the stolen Latvian land, and the Latvians remained serfs.

The Duchy of Courland prospered. In the l7th century it had a larger navy than France or Sweden; it established overseas colonies in African Gambia and in the island of Tobago in the West Indies; it supplied Charles I of England with 62 warships during the Puritan Revolution[15].

Further wars between Sweden and Poland-Lithuania brought most of Latvia under Swedish rule in the l7th and l8th century. Riga, the largest city in Latvia, founded in 1201, surpassed Stockholm in population. However, the Great Northern War (1700-1721) between Sweden under Charles XII and a coalition of Russia, Poland-Lithuania, Saxony, and Denmark ended with a terrible devastation and occupation of eastern Latvia by Peter the Great of Russia. The Duchy of Courland was swallowed by Russia in 1795 as the result of the third partition of Poland-Lithuania. Thus by the end of the l8th century Russia had seized all of Latvia (and also Estonia and Lithuania). While other European powers established colonies overseas, Russia seized the equivalent of colonies on her borders and expanded tremendously.

The head ruler of Latvia had changed, but the German “Baltic barons” continued in their usurped positions (the census of 1897 shows that Germans constituted only 6.2% of the population[16]). During Swedish rule the Germans had lost some of their privileges. The Russians, eager to consolidate their power in their new acquisition, restored their privileges and even granted some new ones. Rebellions by Latvians broke out in 1802, 1805, 1823, 1830, 1844, [page 5] 1863 and 1899[17]. Generation after generation of Latvians was brought up to love their land, forests and fields, rivers and lakes, the land which they knew belonged to them even though foreign masters said otherwise.

Reforms in the l9th century abolished serfdom in Russia and in Latvia. A new threat appeared: a Russification drive. The Russian language became the official language in schools, courts, and in the local administration of Latvia. Caught between Russians and Germans, the Latvians fought oppression with a cultural guerilla war. Their main weapon was education. According to the census of 1897 27% of the population of Russia was able to read and write, while in northern Latvia 93% and in western Latvia 85% were literate[18]. Poems and ballads about the heroes of Latvian past became instant bestsellers. Hundreds of thousands of ancient folksongs were collected. Latvians had always enjoyed group singing. This trait was channelled into the first national song festival in 1873, and since then song festivals on a national scale have been held in Latvia every few years.

The most important force in l9th century European history was nationalism. Italy and Germany emerged as unified powerful states; Belgium, Rumania, Greece, Serbia, etc., became independent. The population of Russia in 1897 was 57% non-Russian[19]. The non-Russians in this colonial empire were actually worse off than the people in overseas colonies. Not only were they exploited economically, but they were also subjected to Russification. Non-Russian education was suppressed, advocates of non-Russian culture were persecuted[20]. Dozens of nations which were imprisoned within Russia began to rattle their chains, none louder than Latvia. However, the walls of the prison did not crumble until the end of World War I. Even then the walls were quickly rebuilt, and most of the nations remained in that prison with only the name of the prison changed to Soviet Union.

[1] M.Gimbutas, The Balts (Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., New York, 1963), pp. 28-34.

[2] J.Rutkis, ed., Latvia, Country and People (Latvian National Foundation, Stockholm, 1967), pp. 283-4.

[3] Gimbutas, p. 37.

[4] Ibid., p. 179.

[5] O.Halecki, Borderlands of Western Civslization (The Ronald Press Co., New York, 1952), p. 69.

[6] A.Bilmanis, A History of Latvia (Princeton University Press, 1951; reprinted by Greenwood Press, Inc., Westport, Conn., in 1970 and 1977), p. 73.

[7] Ibid., pp. 60-2.

[8] Ibid., pp. 74-5.

[9] Ibid., p. 83.

[10] V.S.Vardys, R.J.Misiunas, eds., The Baltic States in Peace and War, 1917-1945 (The Pennsylvania State U. Press, University Park, 1978), p. 3.

[11] Bilmanis, p. 82.

[12] U.Ģērmanis, Latviešu Tautas Piedzīvojumi (The Experiences of the Latvian People, in Latvian) (Ceļinieks, Ann Arbor, Mich., 1974), p. 90.

[13] V.Biļķins, Zemgaliešu Brīvības Cīņas (Zemgallian Wars for Independence, in Latvian) (Sēļzemnieka Apgāds, Minneapolis, 1973), p. 195.

[14] Bilmanis, p. 107.

[15] Ibid., pp. 187-9.

[16] Rutkis, p. 302.

[17] I.I.Kavass, A.Sprudzs, eds., Baltic States: A Study of Their Origin and National Development; Their Seizure and Incorporation into the U.S.S.R., U.S. House of Representatives, 83rd Congress, 3rd Interim Report of the Select Committee on Communist Aggression, 1954 (Wm.S.Hein & Co., Inc., Buffalo, N.Y., reprinted in 1972), p. 48.

[18] A.Rei, The Drama of the Baltic Peoples (Kirjastus Vaba Eesti, Stockholm, 1970), p. 27.

[19] R.Smal-Stocki, The Captive Nations (Bookman Associates, New York, 1960), p. 24.

[20] Ibid., pp. 29-32.

Table of contents        Introduction            Chapter II