The Story of Latvia—A Historical SurveyArveds Švābe. Latvian National Foundation, Stockholm. 1949



In the battles for the Dominium Maris Baltici, the Baltic States and nations have always defended the principle of Mare Omnium, Mare Liberum, whereas the Great Powers have always tried to turn the Baltic into a Mare Clausum, Mare Nostrum. As for the British people, the freedom of the seas has been for the Baltic States a principle on which their life depends. Only the odds in this struggle for freedom, which the Baltic nations have met, have been heavier than those which the British people have had to face, and the Baltic nations have not always remained victorious, but nevertheless they have not given in and even in our own time are carrying on this age-long fight. They are determined to be free and to secure the freedom of their sea.


Let us now focus our attention on the Baltic Sea and examine the part it has played in European history and the destinies of the people who live on its shores.

The Latvians are one of the oldest Indo-European peoples and, as we have seen, they have been living on the shores of the Baltic since 2,000 B.C.

The original habitation of the Baltic peoples comprised a considerably wider area than in modern times: to the East it spread as far as Moscow; in the South it covered the whole of White Ruthenia and a part of Poland as well, as far as the delta of the Vistula. Under the pressure of expanding Slavic tribes, the Balts by and by retreated westwards and northwards, finally settling down in their present-day territory. Inevitably, they met a new enemy, the Germans. Thus, having been grain between these two millstones - the Slavs and the Teutons - for thousands of years, the Baltic peoples had formed into a hard nut, adamant and difficult to crack. They had suffered from wear and tear, yet never yielded to complete destruction.

Because of the River Daugava - the Northern Hellespont - and the Baltic Sea with its trade in amber, the entire world was open to the Balts. Recent excavations bear evidence that from the beginning of the Christian era the cultural relations of the Balts reached as far as Rome, Byzantium and Persia. With regard to mental life too, the Latvians have not been living in the state of splendid isolation of a Robinson Crusoe; quite on the contrary, they have partaken of the knowledge of good and evil in many a Garden of Eden.

The Baltic Sea plays the same part in Northern Europe as the Medi­terranean in the South. Both separate and unite the peoples living on their shores. And, thanks to amber - the "Northern Gold" - there were very early connections and trade relations between the two. The term "Baltia" was used already by Pliny the Elder. An American historian says: "In prehistoric times perhaps no single factor more fundamentally affected the international affairs of the globe than the trade in amber." Baltic amber has been found in Italy, Greece, Egypt, the Caucasus and Turkestan. The Greek philosopher Thales gave amber the name "electron" as early as 600 B.C., and therefore electricity, the prime moving force of our present-day civilisation, will for ever be associated with amber and its home, the Baltic.

At the beginning of our era, amber was flowing by tortuous land routes from the Baltic to the Adriatic, as is testified by finds of amber deposits near Breslau of 275 and 550 kilogrammes (i.e., over 500 and 1,000 pounds respectively).

The Baltic Sea is to be regarded as a gulf of the Atlantic Ocean as since the Ice Age the two have been connected by the straits between Denmark and Sweden.


The Baltic peoples had always close ties with the Scandinavians. The latter tried throughout the first millennium of our age to gain power also over the Eastern shore of the Baltic Sea and established colonies there.

On the other hand, the Baltic peoples played an important part in the migration of the Vikings. Some Balt peoples, as for instance the Galindo tribe, wandered, together with the Goths, as far south-west as Spain. In later Viking times the Balts took part also in the Norman expeditions to the East, as far as Byzantium. A bronze statue of a Viking bearing in hand the traditional Latvian wreath of oak-leaves bears witness that the Latvians participated in the Viking expeditions into the wide world.

At that time the Baltic Sea began to be known as the Eastern Sea (Ostsee) because the great Viking trade route to the East (Austrvaegr) went from Gotland across the Baltic Sea and along Latvia's biggest river, the Daugava, into Russia.

In the era of the Crusades the Baltic peoples had attained the same level of civilisation as the Scandinavians, That the Latvians regarded the Russians as their most dangerous enemy is shown by the fact that of the 320 fortified castles in prehistoric Latvia, 158 were set up in defence of the Eastern frontiers of Latvia.


Screened by the ideology of the Crusades, the Saxon and Westphalian dukes organised the Teutonic "Drang nach Osten." The standard of the German colonial policy bore the bloody slogan: "He who does not wish to be christened shall die!" In 1158 the Port of Lubeck was founded, and thereby the Baltic Sea was opened for further operations. For the first time in history Germany became a Baltic power. The struggle between Germany, Denmark and Russia for dominium Maris Baltici had begun. The German unlocking of the East developed according to the following pattern: First went the merchant with his measuring rod, then came the priest with the Cross and finally the Knight with his sword.

About 1200 A.D. the German Crusaders started an offensive against Prussia, Latvia and. Estonia. These campaigns were financially supported by German trading companies craving an outlet to the Russian markets, whereas the military operations were guided by the Order of the Teutonic Knights who, after the failure of their mission in Palestine, were switched over to the Prussian and Baltic front, according to the design of the Emperor and the Pope. During this period the only effective resistance to the Germans was shown by the Baltic peoples. The Russians lay crushed under the heel of Genghis Khan, and the Danes, after several set-backs, had to remain content with small conquests in Northern Estonia. Although the number of the Latvians at that time (12th and 13th century) is estimated to have been about 250,000 only, they resisted under the leadership of their kings for 100 years (1198-1290). After this century-long heroic fight for their independence the Borussians (Ancient Prussians) and Latvians finally had to give way to the superiority of German weapons and the limitless supply of warriors from Western Europe. The military experience which the Knights had gained in Palestine and their superiority of arms, as well as the lack of consolidated leadership among the Baltic peoples, finally decided the issue.


In 1207 the incorporation into the Holy Roman Empire was started. The intentions of Rome were of the best, but as so often in life, good intentions were not enough. In vain the Pope bestowed upon the Latvians the liberty pertaining to the "Children of God" under the protection of the Catholic Church, and granted King Kaupo an audience in Rome, in 1203. In vain the Pope declared the Baltic to be an ecclesiastic state Terra Marianna, and sent his Nuncios to govern it. The sword of the Teutonic Knights cut to pieces the Charter of Liberty issued to Latvia (Lettia) by the Pope's Chancellery. As late as 1299, two Latvian ambassadors proceeded to Rome to plead in vain for protection against the acts of violence committed by the Teutonic Order: the Latvian kings were slaughtered, the aristocracy deported. In addition, many ten thousand adversaries of the new feudal system left their country and went - as "Displaced Persons" - to Lithuania. These exiles had the object in view of continuing their struggle against the "Bearers of the Sword and Cross" at the Prussian frontier.

An "iron curtain" came down over Latvia and hid her fate from the rest of the world. Even the name of the country disappeared from the official documents, having been replaced by the new term, Livonia. This country served as an asylum to the younger sons of the Westphalian nobles. Everything was subdued to the oligarchy of some 300-500 Knights of the Order, who for a long time lived merrily on the fat of the land. Livonia's sole outward enemy, Russia, lay crushed under the Tartar's yoke. However, in the 16th century the Tsars of Muscovy shook off the Mongols, and, in the name of the Third Rome, as they styled themselves, pounded with a heavy fist on the Eastern gate of Livonia for an obvious purpose - the dominium maris Baltici. The Livonian War lasted for 25 years (1558-1582). The Teutonic Order was secularised, and the Russians were forced to withdraw within the borders of Sarmatia. A new power with imperialistic aims in the Baltic arose - Poland. The East of Latvia was turned over to Poland, as her province, while the Western part formed the Duchy of Courland, a nominal dependant of Poland. This Duchy had a proud history of its own. Under Duke Jacob (1642-1682) the Duchy experienced her heyday, for all practical purposes being an independent power.


During that time the Duchy of Courland became one of the main sea powers of Europe, offering serious competition to the Netherlands and Britain. The Duke's fleet consisted of 44 men-of-war, 15 unarmed ships and 60 merchantmen; a considerable sea power for those days, when Sweden possessed only 30 ships and Denmark 20. The Duke was inspired by the doctrines of mercantilism, and his State flourished. He built 70 factories, acquired ore-mines in Norway and two colonies - Gambia in Africa, and Tobago in the West Indies. In 1664, however, these were transferred to England. The Couronian mercantile fleet as well as her navy propagated Latvia's fame far and wide. But Courland could not hope to keep the Baltic by her military might; therefore her interests demanded the freedom of the Baltic Sea.

As Duke Jacob had regained his predecessor's throne with the help of King Charles I of England, and as he was related to the Stuarts as well as being a shrewd politician, he always tried, in his foreign policy, to build on friendship with England which, too, was interested to have the Baltic Sea free. He assisted the Royal House in their troubles with Cromwell, built ships for the Stuart Kings (62 men-of-war), and lent them grain.

The Duchy had gained such respect in Europe that William Penn considered it qualified to become part of his projected European Union.


However, the glory of Courland as a first-class European Power was brief, and the Duchy came to an end in 1795 when, as a result of the infamous Third Partition of Poland, Russia extended her Baltic possessions. But already previously it had been weakened through Russian dynastic policy in Courland. In 1711 the grandson of Duke Jacob married Anna, the niece of Peter I of Russia. Later she became Empress and thus the influence of the great Eastern neighbour of Courland was predominant, and Russia had established herself on the shores of the Baltic Sea. The policy which Peter I had started was brought a step further.

The Baltic Sea had always been an attractive bone of contention between various greedy imperialisms, which were as tides to an otherwise almost tideless sea.

As an outcome of the Thirty Years' War, Gustavus Adolphus had turned the Baltic Sea into a Swedish pond, at the same time extending the sphere of influence of the Protestant Church from Estonia to Latgale (Eastern Lat­via) which, according to the peace treaty of Altmark (1629) was allotted to Poland, and Latvia was thus split up into three parts. During the great Northern War Sweden lost her position of a Great Power. Peter I, the father of the Russian Imperialism, "cut a window into Europe" on the Baltic shore. From 1710 the Russian Governors-General were seated in Riga, the capital of Latvia. In 1795 the Latvians had to cede also Jelgava, the old metropolis of the Duchy of Courland. The 500-year-old Eastern barrier of the Baltic was pulled down, and the Russian frontiers advanced from the swamps of Sarmatia to the clear waters of the Baltic. Russia became a European power. Its frontiers were washed by the tides of North and West European currents. It was a momentous turn of history. Up to that time Russia had been living in her semi-Asiatic isolation. Suddenly she became a Western power, not only learning from Europe, not only trying to imitate Western ways, but from that time onwards, again and again as opportunity arose, trying to dictate her will to Europe. Estonia and Latvia, which up to then had been the most Eastern outposts of Europe, became the most Western provinces of Russia. The Western robes did not become the Russian body and fitted ill in the Russian system, while Latvia always remained part of Europe spiritually in its way of life and thinking, though politically cut off from the rest of the Western world.


It was not without foundation that a Russian Governor-General, the Duke Shuvalov, made the following boastful statement: "The historical mission of the Baltic provinces is to serve as a battlefield for the problems of the highest politics in Europe." Since the Crusades, Latvia and her inhabitants have experienced the rise and fall of as many empires as there are cardinal points under the sun: Teutons, Poles, Swedes and Russians.

Such, however, was the divine Providence that the Latvian sun was to rise above the swordblades of the Warriors after the First World War. Nine battalions of riflemen, among two brigades of Latvian soldiers, fought on the side of the Allies and covered themselves with imperishable glory on the battlefields in 1915-1917 and vanquished the worst Latvian heraldic enemies - the Lion and the Griffon. Two Empires - Russia and Germany - ceased to exist, and on their outskirts, between the Baltic and the Black Seas, was embodied the political vision of President Woodrow Wilson, the right of self-determination for all nations.

Through the actual military operations and a loss of man-power of the civilian refugees, the 2.5 million population lost 700,000 of its number, i.e., 28 per cent of its total strength. Having lavishly shed her lifeblood, devastated and impoverished, on the 18th of November, 1918, Latvia rose again as an independent State, enacting the ideals of national and social rights. After an interregnum of 700 years the red-white-red banner was hoisted on the top of the Castle of Riga. On 11th August, 1920, the peace treaty was signed by which the Soviet Government recognised without reservations the inde­pendence and sovereignty of the Latvian State, and renounced for ever all claims which Russia had ever entertained with regard to the Latvian country and people.

The "Conseil Suprême des Puissances Alliées" recognised the Latvian State de jure on 26th January, 1921, which event entailed the admission of Latvia as a regular member of the League of Nations.

Therefore we see that the Baltic question has not sprung up as a result of the Second World War; on the contrary, it is an international problem of very old standing, the same as that of the Balkans or Dardanelles.

"The Story of Latvia-A Historical Survey" reproduced by permission.
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