Tag Archives: Crusades

Baltic Germans

The Jaunpils  Castle

Typical Baltic German Castle at Jaunpils

In late Medieval ages Holy German Empire became overpopulated. People had trouble finding land and jobs in the cities. In families with more than two children the third son was unable to inherit land from his family. So many Germans had to find a new place to live. The Germans looked to the east. Eastern Europe offered free lands to maintain and local people were poor and in much lower numbers. Also the Eastern European kings needed immigrants from the west to protect their lands from Mongolian invasions. This allowed the Germans to migrate to such places as Transylvania (in present day Romania), Bohemia (Sudetenland, Czech Republic) and other eastern parts. Later on the behalf of empress Katrina II Germans entered Russian lands.

But nobody invited Germans to Baltic lands. In 12-13 century Germans started a military expansion to the east under Crusader banner. Crusades in Latvia have been discussed in many posts before in this blog. Find them using tags or search.

First Germans in Latvia were Crusaders and Church missionaries.  Along with them came German merchants that settled in Riga. When all Latvian land became part of Livonia, more Germans came here. Crusaders became nobles and established castles around Latvia. Others mainly merchants lived in larger cities. In the 13th century there were 15 thousand Germans opposite to 160 thousand ancient Latvians. Also 20 thousand Livonians lived in Latvia. Despite the low numbers Germans were political majority. They held all political rights and titles; they got rights to land and ownership of local peasants. Ancient Latvians were mostly peasants that worked for German landlords for all their life with no rights for their own land. Latvians got little chance for education that would raise their social status. In cities Latvians could only have low rank jobs that were called “shameful jobs”. But Latvia escaped high scale colonization of German peasants. Livonia was hard to reach from Germany because of independent Lithuania and the Baltic Sea. If the Germans would enter Latvia in larger masses than Latvians would put at high risk of assimilation. There are however records of Latvian and Livonian entry into German noble families. One of the most famous Baltic German noble family Fon Lieven is said to originate from Livonians.

During the time of Reformation most Germans supported Martin Luther reforms and became Lutherans. Lutheranism and other protestant movements were highly common among German immigrants in Eastern Europe. Swift to Lutheranism also helped Latvians for the first religious texts were translated into Latvian.

The crush to German nobility was Livonian war that started in 1558. Livonia was at risk of being conquered by Russia. That did not happen thanks to Poland-Lithuania and Sweden, but the Germans had to give up their Crusader order. In 1561 the Livonia order ceased to exist. However Germans managed to keep all their rights because of the favor by Polish king Sigismund Augustus. A document containing promised privileges by Polish king gave wide rights to Germans in Latvia. But this document has not preserved until this day and nobody hasn’t seen it for a long time. Because of this historians speculate that document is falsification. Despite that Germans used this phantom document to protect their rights for many years.

However Poles did not keep all promises. Riga faced trade controls from Polish administration. Poles tried to restore Catholicism by removing few churches and imposing new calendar. This caused Calendar revolt in Riga that lasted from 1584 to 1589 and was defeated with the help of traitors within Germans. But in Duchy of Courland and Semigallia that was autonomous from Poland Germans had time of their lives. Germans ruled the Duchy and had a free hand in politics and religious matters. Their best days ended in 1795 when Duchy was added to Russia.

Germans in Swedish Vidzeme faced hard times when the Swedish administration decided to revise German ownerships and give large portions of land to Swedes. But in Riga Germans were supported because Sweden needed to keep the favor of Riga that got larger population than Stockholm. The Germans build many beautiful trade residences in Latvia like Reitern house and House of Danenstern in Martalu Street.

After Vidzeme capitulated to Russia things changed. One side of Germans led by count Johann Patkul conspired against Sweden to support Russia. However many German nobles were part of Swedish army and captured Patkul and sentenced him to death. But Russia at first did not want to conflict with the Germans. General Sheremtjev signed deal with Germans to allow them autonomy and official use of the German language. Latvians were completely subjected to Germans. Taxes and corve’s were increased. This was the highest point of Latvian enslavement that continued many decades until serfdom was abolished.

Russian emperor Peter I favored German aristocrats. He invited them to his court at Petersburg. The new city itself was built with the help of German engineers. Peter I needed well-educated Germans modernize his new empire.

In the 18th century there were 40 thousand Germans in Latvia. Because of Enlightenment in Western Europe many intellectuals entered Latvia most notably Johan Herder who worked in the Riga Dome School. German scholars started to show interest for Latvian folklore and language. Ernest Glik did tremendous work of translating the Bible in Latvian. Pastor Gothart Stender wrote many educational books in Latvian promoting Latvian education. Favored among Latvian are German scholar Garibl Merkel and his work “Latvians”. In this book he criticizes the Latvian enslavement and praises Latvian culture. This was one of the first times when information about Latvians was shown to the outside world. The work of German educators helped Latvians to get a national identity in future.

In 1766 first and last attempt of German colonization happened in Latvia. By the favour of empress Katrina II 85 Germans from Pfalz settled in Hirchen (Irši) parish near Aizkraukle. All of them were peasants who lived closely in Hirchen village. In 1914 there were a 8000 people who were born in Hirchen.  However only 1570 lived there because others left home to find luck in Riga, Russia or in Western Europe.

Germans living in Latvia often did not call themselves Germans. They identified themselves as Baltic Germans (deutchbalten). In 1817 and 1819 serfdom was abolished in Courland and Vidzeme (but still in Latgalia). German educators put even higher pressure to educate Latvians. They however wanted only elementary education for them. Latvians peasants still were objected to German landlords despite the abolishment of serfdom. That caused rapid Latvian conversion to the Orthodox Church to move away from the Germans. About 40397 Latvians became Orthodox Christians. To stop this leader of liberal German reformists Hamilkar von Felkerzam managed to allow Latvians rent land from the Germans and re-buy it in longer time. This finally allowed Latvians to become farmers.

The Germans got high influence in Russian politics. The Russian army was filled by German high rank officers. The Germans took posts in the Russian government. German academics and scientists pushed Russian progress. Only Noble prize winner from Latvia is German chemist Wilhelm Ostvald. In middle of 19 century 140 thousand Germans lived in Latvia.  They took part in the industrialization and controlled all industrial sectors in Latvia. They were wealthiest social group. But the growing sentiment of Russian nationalism or Slavophilism started to push pressure on the Germans. Russian Czar Alexander II started the process of Russifaction  and Unifaction of Russian Empire. In 1885 Nikolay Manasein revision cancelled the Baltic German autonomy, abolished German courts and made Russian language the official language in state matters. Baltic Germans did not receive any support from German Empire that wanted to keep good relations with Russia. 2000 Baltic Germans emigrated to Germany because of anti-German reforms. However Germans kept their status in industrial and commercial sector. They still worked in state offices because Russians were not eager to work in the Baltic provinces. All Majors of Riga were Germans (except Englishman John Armisted) no Russian ever wanted to lead Riga.

The Germans felt remorse to Latvians who gained more freedom because of Russian reforms. However the wave of Russifaction hit Latvians by prohibiting the Latvian language in schools and public places.  But Latvians were free to form their organizations and speak privately in Latvian. When a wave of revolution hits Latvia in 1905 the Latvian-German conflict sparkled in blood and fire. For the few months Russian administration lost control over Latvian rural areas that were taken by revolutionary committees. Revolutionaries burned 200 German mansions in all Latvia. The Germans formed self defense squads to fight armed social democrats and peasants. When things begun to heat up; Germans asked for Russian help. General Aleksey Orlov led “punishment expeditions” to stop revolution. Punishment battalions killed 1615 revolutionaries.

A new hit for Germans were the start of First World War. The Germans suddenly become haunted minority blamed for all calamities of the war. Russian administration destroyed the prosperous German controlled industry by evacuating all factory equipment to inner Russia. Even tram lines were taken to Russia. Despite this a large part of Germans fought with the Russian army against their brothers in Baltic front.

A new hope for the Germans was Brestlitovsk peace agreement that gave all Baltic lands to Germany. On November 8 1918 Baltic Germans gathered in Riga to proclaim the “Baltic State”. This state should compromise Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and restore all rights for Germans. However in November 11 Germany signed capitulation act and in November  18 Latvia proclaimed its independence. The idea of Baltic State now was obsolete. Germans however did not lose hope for it until 1920. In 1918 Germans supported Latvian government because of growing danger from Soviet Russia. Germans made Landesver an army from Baltic Germans and ex members of the German army to help the Latvian army. With their help the Bolsheviks were pushed away from Riga however Germans quickly turned against Latvians by organizing coup 1919  April 16 in Liepaja. A plan to capture Karlis Ulmanis government failed and Germans formed a puppet government lead by Kārlis Niedra a pro-German pastor. Their plans failed completely when their armed forces were defeated by joint Latvian and Estonian forces near Cesis on June 22. By pressure of the US, England and France a ceasefire was signed and the Germans were forced to recognize the Latvian government. Germans Edvin Magnuss become minister of justice and Robert Erhard became minister of finance. Landesver was taken under Latvian control.

However radical German forces lead by General Ridiger von der Goltz and Russian whiteguard Pavel Bermont- Avalov attacked Riga in November of 1919 but failed once again. By this time more Germans supported Latvia. Paul Schiemann new German leader officially supported Latvian independence. Landesver forces took part in the liberation of Latgalia in 1920 from the Soviets. 54 German soldiers were awarded with the highest Latvian military award the Order of Lachpesis (Bear Slayer).

After the war Germans came to conclusion that they need to integrate in the Latvian politics.  A new party called “Baltic German democratic party” was formed. It was the most successful minority party in Latvia that won 6 seats in every election. Jewish and Russian parties had far lesser results because of their political divisions. A massive blow for German landlords was the Agricultural reform. Latvian government wanted to get rid of German landlords once and for all. 1300 properties of German mansions were confiscated. Noble families lost their mansions and palaces. Another boiling point was a German commemoration of Landesver. In 1929 a Landesver soldiers’ cemetery was established in Riga. A large monument was built. After few weeks monument was destroyed with explosives by unknown people. Resented Germans took all pieces of destroyed monument and connected to one piece.

Despite of deep divide Germans kept the status in industry and commerce. An autonomy in education was kept, a German self funded schools worked in all Latvia. Even the national reforms of Karlis Ulmanis regime could not hinder German place in Latvian economy.

But nothing was so crucial to Germans as the rise of National Socialism. Nazi Germany exported Nazi ideology to Baltic Germans. In 1933 a Nazi organization “Bewegung” (Movement) was established in Riga. Nazi supporters gained success by removing democrat Paul Schiemann from the leadership and excluding other democrats. Nazi leader Erich Krueger had ties with German SS and SD. The Nazi government wanted to make “fifth column” to fulfil their expansionist plans. Nazi movement made bitter danger for Latvia.

After signing non-aggression pact with Soviet Union it became clear to Hitler that once Latvia would be taken by the Soviets, the Baltic Germans will be oppressed by them. So he issued call to Baltic Germans to return to their ethnic homeland. Not all Germans in Latvia wanted to move. The majority however feared the coming Soviet occupation and used this chance to escape. In 1939.-1940 51 thousand Baltic Germans left Latvia. Only 11 thousand Germans stayed. After Soviet Occupation 10500 still remained. Those who moved to Germany however could not live in Germany itself but were moved to Nazi occupied Poland. There they met tragic fates in 1944-1945.

In 1989 by Soviet Census there were 3789 people calling them Germans. A large part of them came from mainland Russia. Only 944 were born in Latvia. 49% of Latvian Germans spoke only in Russian. After regaining of independence Germans organized new organizations, but there is a divide between German-speaking Germans and Russian speaking Germans. By the dates of 2007 there are 4226 Germans in Latvia. Some Germans from Germany move to Latvia to find jobs or move here because they married with Latvians. The last census in 2011 gathered 3042 Germans now living in Latvia.

German culture in Latvia has been destroyed by two-world wars. But the German presence can be seen in many places in Latvia. The buildings in Riga, mansions in rural areas. Latvian language and music have been influenced by the Germans. Latvians despite the conflicts own a lot of Germans and German factor will always have a place in Latvian history.

Selected Sources:

Krupņikovs, Pēteris. (1980). Melu un patiesības palete. Riga: Zvaigzne 1980.

Duhanovs, Maksims. (1986). Baltijas muižniecība laikmetu maiņā : Baltijas muižniecības politika 19.gs. 50.-70.gados un tās apoloģētiskās historiogrāfijas kritika. Riga: Zinātne.

Dribins, Leo, Spārītis Ojārs. (2000) Vācieši Latvijā. Riga: Latvijas Universitātes Filozofijas un socioloģijas institūts. Etnisko pētījumu centrs.

Dribins, Leo (Ed.) (2007) Mazākumtautības Latvijā : vēsture un tagadne. Rīga : Latvijas Universitātes Filozofijas un socioloģijas institūts, 2007.

Pistohlkors, Gert, Von. (Ed.) Deutsche Geschichte im Osten Europas: Baltische Länder, Vol 4.Berlin: Seidler Verlag.

Cerūzis, Raimonds (2004). Vācu faktors Latvijā (1918-1939) : politiskie un starpnacionālie aspekti = German factor in Latvia (1918-1939) : political and inter-ethnic aspects. Rīga : LU Akadēmiskais apgāds.

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Old Prussians

wiitingis

Prussian warrior

Today there are two remaining Baltic nations- Latvians and Lithuanians. But in 13. century there was a third tribe living in present-day Kaliningrad oblast in Russia and Poland. They were Prussians- Pruzzen in German. Prussians encountered the German Crusader aggression first and fought for a long time, but lost their freedom and became assimilated. Today are no real Baltic Prussians in Kaliningrad just as there is no German Prussians in there. The Prussian nation became extinct at the result of the Crusade.

Just as the Early Latvians Prussians were not unified nation but were divided in various smaller tribes and tribal areas. The areas were called laūks- field, common to Latvian word lauks meaning the same. Laūks included fortifications and villages. Village was called kāims. Since the Prussians newer formed a united nation, they called them selves based on the names of regions from where they came from like Galindians, Sambians, Bartians, Nadrovians, Natangians, Scalovians, Sudovians. Chronicon terrae Prussiae (The Chronicle of the Prussian Land) is the prime source about the Old Prussians. The author Peter of Drusburg list eleven lands and ten tribes in Prussian region.

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Map of Prussia

The Old Prussians were Pagans and this made the vulnerable to attempts of baptizing. Polish king Boleslaw I sent Adalbert of Prague to baptize the Prussian pagans. But in 977. he was murdered by locals. This was a large shock to Catholic Europe and Adalbert became a martyr and saint. His death triggered numerous Polish attempts to conquer Prussians.   In 1124. Poles attacked the Prussians of Pomerania. In 1147. Poles attacked Prussians for their involvement in inner Polish struggle. In 1200s Prussia became as field of interest for German knights. Since Poles could not conquer Prussians and force them to baptize the Pope of Rome issued the Christian of Olivia to mission of baptizing Prussian pagans. He became the first bishop of Prussia. Order of Dobrzyń was created to persuade Crusade to Prussia, but it was short lived and joined the Teutonic Order. In 1224.  Emperor Frederick II declared Prussia as part of Holy German Empire of Rome. The key land holder was to be Teutonic Order who was subjected to the Pope and Empire and made there their own monastic state. In 1233. the attack of 21,000 Teutonic Knights begun. They were also assisted by Poles and other German vassals.  Prussians resisted fiercely, but Crusaders were too strong, in 1286. a large rebellion took place but were stopped by Crusaders. Prussians received the Lithuanian support but it was not enough. Teutonic Order established a strong base of operation downsizing the Prussian rebellion. Order supported colonization of Prussia making Prussians exposed to assimilation. A large influx of German and Polish immigrants settled in Prussia in next centuries. Prussians were forced to live in slavedom and slowly they lost their national identity and language.   In 18. century the language became extinct. But thanks to German scholars and Clergyman who translated various works such as Bible in Prussians, the linguistics can record Old Prussian language. Some old Prussian poems also have persisted until this time.

Today is hard to tell whether the Baltic Prussian still exist. Surely they all have predecessors living in Germany, Baltic States or other places. After East Prussia was ceded to Soviet Union the ethnic cleaning took place and almost all German population was deported to East Germany. So there is small chance to find Prussians in Kaliningrad, but rather in Germany where there is many organizations calling them Prussians. Such organizations also exist in Baltic States. Today according to Latvian encyclopedic claims there are 100,000 people calling themselves Prussians.

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Modern Prussians

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The Grand Duchy of Lithuania

The Coat of Arms of Grand Duchy of Lithuania

The Crusades in Latvian land ended in Crusader win and Early Latvian enslavement. Same thing happened to Estonians, but closest Latvian nation the Lithuania could withstand the Crusader attack and form a unified country which was  one of the largest European nations for many decades. The phenomenon of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy which was at  its height 10 times larger than present day Lithuanian country is still not completely explained even by Lithuanians themselves.

In 12-13 century the political processes in Lithuania was not interrupted by foreign forces. That was for geographical  reasons, for Lithuania was more inland based than Latvia or Estonia. The Germans from the west was blockaded by Prussia and Poland and Russians from the east was busy dealing with Mongol rulers. The social differentiation between Lithuanian tribes was deepening; one became a warrior or a farmer, another got the rights of the ruling. In the place of Elders  the leader place was taken kunigaikštis the high nobles who got their seats inherited so they became kings a formed their dynasties. The high organization of Lithuanian military led to many raids in neighboring lands which were so deadly that made Lithuanians a feared threat. In previous posts about the Crusades in Latvian land the Lithuanian attacks were mentioned many times. They could even reach the outskirts of Karelia.

The high civil organization and military strength led to the unification of various Lithuanian and Samogotian regions, they were ruled by  kunigaikštis. At the 13th century thirties and forties the one of kunigaikštis Mindaugas emerged as sole ruler of all Lithuanian and Samogotian lands. He did this by using force and guile assassinating his enemies and started to rule Lithuania by himself.

Lithuanian country met his first crisis in 1248 when the conflict emerged between Mindaugas and his relatives. Against Mindaugas also joined forces the Duke of Galicia and Volinia Danil Romanovich and many others. However Mindaugas managed to split his enemy ranks; he baptized in 1251 and in 1253 he was recognized by the Pope as the King of Lithuania. Lithuania was officially recognized as a rightful Catholic European kingdom and was removed from the Crusader hit list. But the resistance to Mindaugas remained strong, the baptizing made a heavy disappointment in Samogitans. Samogotia was ceded to the Crusaders by Mindaugas, but Samogotians upraised and in 1258 they defeated the Order at Skoda and in 1260  at Durbe. This made Mindaugas restart his war against the Crusaders and in 1261 he again became Pagan canceling his baptizing. Finlay in 1263 Mindaugas was assassinated by conspirators and Christianity was frowned upon.  Mindaugas today is considered as the symbol of Lithuanian nation and one of the main Lithuanian historic personalities. He was a tyrant and powermonger but his achievements was groundbreaking for Lithuanians.

Sculpture of the King Mindaugas

Sculpture of the King Mindaugas

After his death his heirs Treniota, Mindaugas sister son (1263.-1264), Vaišvilka (1264.-1267)- Mindaugas son, The son of Danil Romanovich Duke Shvarn (1267-1269). The power struggle made crisis and endangered Lithuania for could became part of Crusaders or Duchy of Galicia and Volinia. The crisis was brought to an end by Grand Duke Traidenis (1267-1282). He unified the tribes, defeated the Volonians and Crusaders and expanded the Lithuania even further.

At the end of 13th century Lithuania was ruled by Gediminian dynasty. Crusaders attacked Lithuania every year reaching the outskirts of Vilnius. Lithuanians fortified their positions and gathered their forces and the war against the Crusaders lasted all 14th century. Not only German knights came to Lithuania, even from France and Spain the volunteer knights traveled to bring Christianity back to Lithuania. To weaken enemy the Grand Duke Gediminas took part in the civil war between Livonian Order and Riga Town Council and Archbishop, he supported Riga for Riga was only trade partner for Lithuania.  Lithuania tried to reach the end of the Crusades by trying to baptize again amid strong Pagan opposition. In the mean time Lithuanians expanded their territory to the east. Since the Russians were weakened by the Mongols and Mongols were weakened themselves, Lithuanians at the reign of Algirdas took the Duchies of Polotsk, Smolensk, Vitebsk, and Kiev under their rule. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania sized 800 000 square kilometers and reached to the shores of the Black Sea.

But the giant kingdom was endangered bitterly by Crusaders and Duchy of Moscow. Algirdas tried to capture Moscow three times but never succeeded. After his death in 1377 the conflict between his heirs Kęstutis, Vytautas and Jogaila emerged. Kęstutis, Vytautas was of the old Pagan elite but Jogaila was from new generation. Jogaila killed Kęstutis and exiled Vytautas and took all power to himself. He was convinced that Lithuania must baptize again to secure peace. In 1358 the Krėva agreement was signed between Poland and Lithuania and in 1386 when Jogaila married Polish princess Jadviga he became the king of Poland as king Vladislav I, remained as Grand Duke of Lithuania. He tried to use Poles in governing of Lithuania, this was resisted by Lithuanian elite and Vytautas who used the support of Russian boyars and the Crusaders.  In 1392 Vytautas regained the throne of Lithuania from Jogaila.

Vytautas kept Lithuania as Catholic country, but Teutonic Crusaders still attacked Lithuania. In 1410  February 15 the Order was annihilated in Battle of Grunwald one of the largest battles of Medieval war history. But the Lithuanians did not use the opportunity to Crush the Order completely in 1411 at Toruń a peace was signed. But in 1422 the Order tried to attack again but were forced to sign peace once and for all. The Crusader aggression was finally halted.  Vytautas could even capture Novgorod and Moscow and claim the throne of Moravia during the Hussite Wars.

After the death Vytautas political struggle again took place. Jogaila again claimed the throne of Lithuania. He passed the throne to Švitrigaila, but this was resisted by Polish elite and civil war broke out. Švitrigaila was deposed by Sigismund the brother of Vytautas. He defeated Švitrigaila and Livonian Order forces, but was killed by conspirators in 1440. Boyar’s crowned the thirteen year old Jogaila’s son Kazimir as king of Lithuania. In 1447 he became king of Poland also making the personal – union between Poland and Lithuania. Until Kazimir reached adulthood the power was concentrated between  Boyar oligarchs.  Boyars were Lithuanian, Belorussian, Russian and Polish noble elite who fought for equal rights in their ranks. It’s axiomatic that if the country lacks strong ruler then the country is ruled by oligarchy and is weakened because of their inner fights. Boyars started to gain more power,  Radziwiłł family was strongest Boyar dynasty.

In the 16th century the Grand Duchy of Moscow started to take Lithuanian lands. Smolensk was lost, but further advance on Moscow was halted because the Russian population of Lithuania remained loyal. But even more problems came from Poland; both countries were ruled by same dynasty rulers and both societies of two states came even closer. Poles wanted the vast lands of Lithuania for they were good for colonization.  In 16th century Lithuania was de facto united with Poland and boyars was for full unification.

This finally happened in 1569 July 1 The Union of Lublin took place. The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth or Rzeczpospolita was formed. The full independence of Lithuania came to an end. In next decades the Poles took most power in states manners. But the union was necessary for Lithuanian survival because the danger of Russia was growing and Lithuania needed the Polish help to fight Russian advance. The union lasted until 1795 when it was annexed by Russia, Prussia and Austria.

Seleted Sources:

Baltijas valstu vēsture : mācību līdzeklis (2000). Riga. Zvaigzne ABC.

Plakans, Andrejs. (2011) A concise history of the Baltic States. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press


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The Last Resistance of Semigallians

As said earlier the divided Early Latvian tribes could not form a united resistance against Crusader aggression.   The battle of Saule benefited Lithuanians more than Semigallians or Curonians. The victory of Alexander Nevsky was more vital for Russians. Those failures did not prevent the Livonian Order from continuing the conquer of Semigallia. Since neither Lithuanians nor Russians showed any sympathy for besieged Latvian tribes they were left on their own facing the Crusaders.

At 1271 The Master of Livonian Order Walter from Nordeck felt himself ready to fight the Semigallians once and for all. The all three sides- the Order, The Archbishop of Riga and Town Council of Riga made a deal and passed the ownership of Semigallian land to the Order. In 1271 the Order came to siege the fortress of Tērvete. The fortress was captured, the main source- Livonian Rhymed Chronicle (Livländische Reimchronik) (The Chronicle of Henry ends at 1227) does not give any detailed description of the capture of the fortress.

Next year Walter took his army to Mežotne. It was lost by Crusaders because of failure in the battle of Durbe in 1260. Now the castle surrendered without a fight. In the same year the Crusaders captured the castle of Rakte, this time with resistance. This was the end of Semigallian freedom, they were forced to baptize. Semigallia now formally belonged to the Crusaders. But in 1279 the Lithuanians attacked Crusaders and defeated them, killing 70 knights and Master Ernest from Racenburg. The battle took place near Aizkraukle.

Again the Semigallians rebelled and gave up the Christian religion. This was the time when the Semigallian ruler Namejs or Nameisis came in. He organized an attack to recapture Tērvete. The Chronicles do not give any details about Namejs past and how he became a leader of the Semigallians. Crusaders first trusted Namejs believing he was on their side, but when he came to attack they were bitterly surprised.  Tērvete was captured and Crusaders were enslaved and killed.

Namejs

Next  battles took over Dobele. Crusaders came from Kuldīga. Dobelians pushed back the attackers and Namejs helped them, but eventually Dobele was captured by the Crusaders. Angered by the Crusader attack Namejs decided to revenge; he planned to attack Riga and started to assemble his army. This was learned by Crusaders in Jelgava and they assembled at the gates of Riga. With them the Riga was protected by knights of Cesis and Latgalians who used the red flag with white stripe. This was the first documented sighting of the future flag of Republic of Latvia.

When Namejs approached Riga he noticed the gathering formations of Crusaders and decided retreat since the advantage of surprise was  lost. The Crusaders decided to chase Namejs; it was winter and Semigallians crossed the frozen river of Lielupe and their horseman’s collapsed into an icy river, they escaped death, but bounty hungry Crusaders wanted to save the sinking horses for war bounty. Namejs used this and attacked them killing and capturing many of them.

During the 1280-1281  Crusaders tried to attack and in 1281 finally they acquired a large strong force and forced  Namejs to burn his own castle at Tervete and surrender. Namejs did not want to live under Crusader rule and with his Lithuanian comrade Traidenis he left his home left his homeland to Lithuania. There he spent his days fighting the Teutonic Order in Prussia and died there. Namejs was one of the best Early Latvian fighters against German Crusader invasion, but he came too late and there were not too many people who could be like him. Today many Latvian men including me were a silver ring called after Namejs. It symbolizes the boys going into manhood. It’s one of the popular Latvian man jewellery piece and Namejs as a name is also favored among Latvians. Namejs was the Latvian Alexander Nevsky. He fought hard and died on the battlefield against his bitter enemy.

The ring of Namejs

However the Semigallians did not give up their fight, in 1287 they approached Riga, but could not go through the stone gates. After this 12 days earlier Crusaders gathered to punish Semigallians at 26 March 1287 Semigallians surrounded Crusaders and destroyed them. The Master of Order Willekin was killed. The new Master Cuno from Hacingstein again gathered force and finally crushed the Semigallian resistance. In 1290 the last Semigallian strong point the Sidrabene was captured. Semigallians was forced to baptize again, many of them leave their land and exiled to Lithuania.   The Crusades in Latvian land ended with the German Crusader victory. Early Latvians and Livonians on the next course of centuries became peasants of German vassals losing their rights and freedom. The long 700 year period of German presence in Latvia left its marks in Latvian history. Nationalists call 12-19 century the “700 years of slavery” when the Latvian nation was enslaved by elite German colonists. It was not that horribly simple to give such name for such long period, but truly the German presence in Latvia was omnipresent and were responsible for making the Latvian nation to what it is today. Germans lived in Latvia until 1939 when Hitler ordered them to return to the Fatherland. Latvians owe many good and bad from Germans and without their presence the Latvian nation would a lot different.

Selected sources:

Šterns,Indriķis. (2002) Latvijas vēsture, 1180-1290: krustakari. Riga: Latvijas vēstures instūta apgāds.

Biļķins, Vilis, (1973) Zemgaliešu brīvības cīņas. Minneapolis. Sēļzemnieka apgāds.

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The Legend of Alexander Nevsky

Alexander Nevsky

Alexander Nevsky

In this blog we mainly are concerning history of Latvian nation, but no history of any nation cannot be complete without mentioning its neighboring nations. Russia is our biggest neighbor, and has always interfered in our national and cultural territory so it is unwise not to mention the largest country in the world, when it’s just across our border.

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Varyags are arriving at Russian Land

I mentioned Russia in previous posts. While early Baltic tribes had trouble building their nation states, the first form of a united Russian nation formed in the 10th century. Its beginnings are not too clear making controversy among Russian historians and their colleagues from other countries. The main question is- how important was the role of Scandinavian Vikings in the birth of the Russian nation and the state. The Swedish Vikings used large Russian rivers to take the road from Scandinavia to Constantinople the capital of the Byzantine Empire and trade with Arabian Caliphate. They used river Volkhov, Dnepr, and Volga. They also used Daugava which called Dvinsk in Russian. The Russians called Vikings Varyags – (Варяги). The sailors started to settle in local settlements and begin to enforce their rule on local Slavic tribes. They eventually assimilated with local Slavs but kept their contacts with Scandinavia for many years to come. The Varyags established such important and historic centers like Novgorod and Kiev. Eventually all tribal centers became one large country with Kiev as capital getting name Kievan Rus (Ки́евская Русь).

The country got highest point when in 988. Vladimir the Great (987.-1015) married the Byzantine princess Anna and converted to Orthodox Christianity for it was the main Byzantine main confession. Russia was placed on the world map and forever engaged with Orthodox culture. Today its argued how much was the importance of Scandinavian Varyags. There are interpretations that Varyags was not just Swedes but almost every form  of sailors and raiders not regarding their nationality. Indeed the Primary Chronicle (По́весть временны́х лет) tells Varyags were Norsemen known as the Rus (русь), Swedes, Normans and Angles.  There is another word meaning foreigner of every nationality as nemets (немец) in that time now meaning German. Primary Chronicle also tells that first mighty Russian rulers were Rurik and his brothers from the Norsman (Rus) who started the first Russian dynasty which ruled until the 16th century.

Even if this could mean that Russia could be founded by non-Slavic sailors, they were just elite and elite always are shorter than the lower classes. As said earlier the Varyagian elite became more Slavic and assimilated itself but the name of Russia and Russian people could originate from Rurik and Rus from Norselands.

The Russian writing the Cyrillic alphabet were taken from Bulgaria. The years of Yaroslavl the Wise were Golden years of Kievan Rus. Many marvelous buildings were built  as the Cathedral of Saint Sophia in Kiev. After the death of Yaroslavl the Rus begun to decay in inner struggle between the heirs of Varyags who battled for the  tittle of Duke and Grand Duke of Rus. The contacts with the western world were weakling and finally in 1097 all Dukes made an agreement which split Rus in many small Russian Duchies.

The Baltic tribes were endangered by Duchies of Polotsk and Novgord Republic. The divided Russian states were in danger from nomadic tribal raiders like Kipchacks who settled across the Black Sea. But in the 13th century the more mortal danger came from the steppes of Mongolia. The mighty Mongolian tribes introduced a medieval Blitzkrieg to Chinese, Persians, Arabs and Indians. And the Russians were their next target. In 1237 the Khan Batu first arrived at Ryazan, Vladimir and Suzdal pillaging and raiding their lands. In 1239-1240 the Mongols returned this time taking Kiev and making its way to Poland and Hungary. It was only the death of the Grand Khan of Mongols the Genghis Khan’ that saved Western Europe from Mongolian Doom. Khan Batu returned to mainland to fight for the throne.  The Great Mongol Empire divided in various Khanates. Khan Batu became the ruler of the Golden Horde which stretched from the river Irtysh to Danube and to Uralian mountains and North Caucasus.

At this time one of the sons of Mongol imposed Grand Duke Yaroslavl was making his career. He was no other than Alexander Nevsky. He lived in Novgorod. Novgorod for unclear reasons were not sacked by the Mongols. There are versions that Mongols who had cavalry based army distracted from fighting in wooden areas of Novgorod. There are even extreme theories that Mongols were scared off by the large lake monster, who still lives in one of the lakes near Novgorod. Whatever was the cause the Novgorod did not face the doom from the Mongolians. But Novgorod was endangered by Swedes who now was more Crusaders than the Vikings. In 1240 the Swedes started a Crusade to Novgordod. Swedes crossed the river Nev. Alexander aged only 19 managed to assemble a strong army and head to meet the Swedes. Swedes spent too much time on their campsite by river Nev. At July 15 Nevsky attacked the Swedes at their campsite.  Surprised by the attack the Swedes were defeated and destroyed. Alexander got the name Nevsky after this battle.

Nevsky prepares for battle. From movie Alexander Nevsky 1938

But it was not the only wonder done by Alexander. In 1242 new threats from German Crusaders came. In 1240 the Livonian Order lead by Bishop-Prince Hermann of Dorpat attacked the lands of Novgord and captured Pskov. The people of Novgorod requested Alexanders help, he was in Pereslavl at this time. Next year he took back Pskov and on April 5 1242  he met the Crusaders on the narrow strait connecting the parts of lake Piepus. He fooled the over confident Crusaders making them stepping on the frozen lake. The slippery frozen ice gave disadvantages to Crusaders whose armor was too heavy. At last they tried to retreat but got themselves even deeper on the frozen ice fields, finally the ice started to collapse dooming the too heavy knights.

The Russians and Crusaders met face to face

Knights sinking in icy waters

Alexander Nevsky stopped the Western Crusader advance. It was the Poles who again tried to intervene Russia in the 16th century during the Times of troubles. But in the field with Mongolian invaders Nevsky showed a different face. He collaborated with Mongols helping to quell any uprisings against invaders. But he did that because he could not resist the Horde as he could do with the Crusaders. He tried to keep the most modest relations with Mongols to keep his own power and save Russia from Western Crusaders which he viewed as more dangerous than the Mongols.  As so he kept Russia as Orthodox land and helped to strengthen up the Muscovite State which was the root of the Russian Empire. He saved the Russians from more serious Mongol attacks and when after long years since his death, the Russian Tsar Ivan III the Terrible finally pushed away the Mongolian invaders.

Alexander Nevsky has considered as a holy figure since his death in Russian culture. He is canonized as a saint. The Russian Emperor Peter I The Great issued a beautiful military decoration the Order of Saint Alexander Nevsky. Stalin also ordered to make a Soviet Order of Alexander Nevsky for his war generals. Also a movie by Sergei Eisenstein the Alexander Nevsky was done in 1938. It’s a classic piece of cinematic art. The still excerpts of film are shown above, the movie came as a propagandist warning that Russia is capable of defeating any Western enemy. Since the main enemy was German Teutonic Knights they were symbolized as German Nazis in the minds of viewers of that time.

In 2008 Russian TV show Name of the Russia Alexander Nevsky was voted as the greatest Russian in all times. He was capable of defeating Stalin, Peter I and Lenin showing that the legend of 19 year old man capable of defeating the western enemy is very favorable for present day Russians. Since the present day Russian government is confronting the Western countries, the Alexander Nevsky is considered as hero in Russia.

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