Defender of Minorities—Paul Schiemann, 1876-1944by John Hiden (2004)

Materials on Latvian nationalism and independence are often infused with what we would call Ulmanism; they present a strongly nationalistic picture of Latvia's first independence: Latvians shedding the twin yokes of Baltic German and Russian Tsarist oppression. Nowhere is it mentioned that a Baltic German—Paul Schiemann—was a pivotal figure in defining Latvian identity and achieving Latvian sovereignty—doing so in the context of the Latvian state, not ethnic identity.

The roots for Schiemann's notions of rights formed early as he grew up in Riga against the backdrop of Tsar Alexander III's intense campaign of Russification. Schiemann finished his schooling in Germany, where the family had relatives, eventually returning home after the war. Schiemann entered the field of journalism as a theater reviewer; having established himself, he directed his intellectual passion toward political writing and activism.

Schiemann quickly realized that only freedom from both the competing powers of Germany and Russia would preserve the rights of all Latvia's inhabitants. The story of Latvian independence unfolds not from the perspective of Russian, Baltic German, or Latvian nationalism, but from Schiemann's intrinsically a-nationalistic viewpoint: securing freedom and future success for the Latvian state rested on acknowledging its multicultural past and on manifesting that multiculturalism as a strength: diversity of background and opinion, open discourse, and common interest in actively advancing the circumstances of the Latvian state were essential to defining the Latvian identity and laying the framework for future achievements which the Latvian peoples could call their own.

Schiemann organized Latvia's Baltic Germans—largely dispossessed of their lands and influence in the newly independent Latvian state—into contributing anew to the life-blood of their ancestral homeland while preserving their own identity and culture. His revolutionary concept of separation of nation (Volksgemeinschaft—national community) and of state (Staatsgemeinschaft—state community) took its strength from his pioneering Latvian model for implementing minority participation and rights. Schiemann subsequently carried his cause on behalf of minorities to the wider European stage and to the League of Nations.

We follow the shifting tides in Schiemann's relationships with political personalities and forces on multiple fronts. The visceral responses of, at times, entire governments, to Schiemann—the man and his cause an inseparable unity—communicate the birth and struggle for survival of the Latvian state and for European minority rights with an immediacy and drama rarely found in academic works.

As Latvia and all Europe degenerated into ultra-nationalism, Schiemann urgently redoubled his efforts. More than anyone of his time, or even since, Schiemann understood the interdependencies of peace, rights, and participation. Even in failure—Schiemann died in Riga only days before the final Soviet occupation, spared seeing his homeland descend into Bolshevism and Europe into half a century more of nationalistic in-fighting—his vision and clarity of purpose speak to us undimmed through time.

Professor Hiden's passion for the story of Schiemann's selfless devotion to Latvia and to minority participation and rights informs and energizes an unbiased understanding of the rise and political development of an independent Latvia and of the descent of Europe into ultra-nationalism and war.

Compelling and essential reading for anyone interested in European history. Be prepared to invest effort: this is a book to be studied, not merely read. Among its rewards is uncovering Latvia's tangible, unique, and forgotten lessons from nearly a century ago on minority rights and governmental participation.

Our thanks to the publisher, Hurst & Company, for the invitation and opportunity to read and review Professor John Hiden's biography of Paul Schiemann.

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— review by Peters J. Vecrumba

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