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About this book

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have been the battleground for neighbouring powers and the site of intense rivalry, but also interaction, between East and West. A History of the Baltic States masterfully traces the development of these three Baltic countries, from the northern crusades against Europe's last pagans, and Lithuania's rise to become one of medieval Europe's largest states, to their incorporation into the Russian Empire and the creation of their modern national identities.

This brand new edition of a prizewinning text brings the story up to the present day, incorporating both the latest events and the most recent scholarship.

Table of Contents

1. Europe’s Last Pagans

After the retreat of the Scandinavian ice sheet, the eastern Baltic littoral was able to support human habitation, with the first settlers arriving around 11,000 BC. For several millennia, these people were hunter-gatherers, a gradual transition to farming was not completed until the Bronze Age. People speaking Finno-Ugric languages moved into the northern part of the region and were followed by Indo-European Balts who settled in the southern part of the Baltic littoral during the Neolithic era. By the Late Iron Age, these tribes were loosely politically organised and interacted with Scandinavia and the neighbouring lands of Rus’ for purposes of trade, as well as hostile raids. German and Danish crusaders subjugated the proto-Latvian and Estonian tribes and converted them to Christianity during the thirteenth century. The Lithuanian tribes united under a single ruler and successfully resisted the encroachments of the Teutonic Knights. Geography has been an influential factor in shaping the lives of the inhabitants of the Baltic region throughout history. The Baltic region lies on a latitude between 54 and 60north and a longitude of 21to 28east. Compared to other regions at an equally northerly latitude, the eastern Baltic littoral has a milder climate because of the moderating effects of the Atlantic Gulf Stream.
Andres Kasekamp

2. Lithuania’s Expansion and Medieval Livonia (1290–1560)

Lithuania remained Europe’s last pagan state and greatly expanded its territory in the east while under continuous attack from crusaders in the west. In order to neutralise the threat from the Teutonic Order, Lithuania formed a dynastic union with Poland in 1386, and converted to Christianity. The Lithuanian nobility strengthened its leading position in the Grand Duchy and increased its authority over the peasantry by securing additional privileges from successive rulers eager for their support. Feudal relations were introduced in the lands of the Estonian and Latvian tribes under German and Danish colonial rule during the Middle Ages. The conquerors established a network of castles and towns across Livonia. The towns enjoyed flourishing international trade and prosperity during the heyday of the Hanseatic League in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Although the towns and bishoprics were often in conflict with the Order, a Livonian Confederation was formed in the fifteenth century. The Protestant Reformation undermined the old order in Livonia and it collapsed under the pressure of Muscovite invasion in 1558. The most important development which caused the future paths of the Baltic peoples to diverge was that the Lithuanians alone managed to resist the onslaught of the Teutonic Order in the thirteenth century and establish their own state under a single ruler. This was the result of Mindaugas’ ruthless ambition and the fact that the Lithuanians and Samogitians were not only the most ferocious warriors in the region, but also of a more fortunate geographical location than the other Baltic tribes who had encountered the Germanic crusaders earlier.
Andres Kasekamp

3. The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Rise of Sweden and Russia (1561–1795)

The period from 1558 to 1721 was one of almost continuous warfare in north-eastern Europe, with a respite only in the latter part of the seventeenth century. Muscovy, Sweden and Poland–Lithuania contended for domination of the Baltic region in a series of major conflicts: the First Northern War (the Livonian War), 1558–83; the Second Northern War, 1655–60; and the Great Northern War, 1700–21. In between these wars, there were several bilateral conflicts among these same powers. The era began with the collapse of Livonia under the pressure of Muscovite invasion, and the union between Poland and Lithuania: events which led to Polish–Lithuanian and Swedish ascendancy in the region. It ended with the defeat of Sweden and the advent of the Russian Empire in Europe. War was accompanied by devastating famine and plague, but subsequent years of peace in the eighteenth century enabled demographic recovery. The internal weaknesses of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth left it exposed to manipulation by expansionist neighbours – Russia, Prussia and Austria – who incrementally partitioned it until the state disappeared altogether in 1795. Ever since the sealing of the dynastic union between Lithuania and Poland in 1386, Polish nobles had wanted to integrate the Grand Duchy into Poland, but Lithuanian magnates had fiercely clung to their independence and parried Polish advances.
Andres Kasekamp

4. The Long Nineteenth Century under Tsarist Rule (1795–1917)

Within the Russian Empire, the Baltic provinces and the Lithuanian lands remained distinct. Lithuanians twice rebelled against tsarist Russia while the loyal Baltic German landowning nobility continued to enjoy self-governing institutions. The agrarian question dominated the era: the serfs were emancipated but the bulk of the peasants remained landless. With the rise of Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian national movements in the second half of the nineteenth century, the society based on social estates gradually evolved into one divided primarily along ethnic lines. At the same time, the imperial government implemented centralising measures to integrate the region. The end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century witnessed a rapid socio-economic transformation, entailing modernisation, industrialisation, urbanisation and emigration, which challenged the existing order. Although the tsarist regime survived the revolutionary upheaval of 1905, its disastrous performance in World War I led to its demise. As elsewhere in Europe, Enlightenment ideas challenged the status quo in the Baltic littoral in the wake of the French Revolution. Indeed, they even began to influence the thought processes of otherwise conservative imperial policymakers in St Petersburg.
Andres Kasekamp

5. The Short Era of Independence (1917–1939)

In the wake of revolution in 1917, Russia’s descent into civil war after the Bolshevik seizure of power and Germany’s defeat in World War I, Lithuanian, Estonian and Latvian national leaders proclaimed independent states. After fending off external aggressors and obtaining international recognition, these new republics created progressive democracies and egalitarian societies, with remarkable achievements in land redistribution, education, and cultural autonomy for minorities. Liberal democracy eventually succumbed to authoritarian rule, which had considerable popular support. While the Smetona, Päts and Ulmanis regimes successfully promoted economic and cultural development, they were unable to find a durable solution for their nations’ security. Russia’s military campaigns in World War I were a series of colossal disasters which fuelled public anger at the incompetent autocratic government. Nevertheless, the sudden collapse of the regime and the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II on 2 March 19171 came as a surprise. Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians reacted by immediately reviving their demands from 1905 for majority rule and presented these to the newly established Russian Provisional Government in Petrograd.
Andres Kasekamp

6. Between Hammer and Anvil (1939–1953)

The rise of Stalin in the USSR and Hitler in Germany resulted in the destruction of Baltic independence. In the 1940s the Baltic states suffered catastrophic population losses, during both war and peace, under three successive foreign occupation regimes: that of the Soviet Union in 1940–1, Nazi Germany during 1941–4 and the USSR again from 1944. Although the Baltic countries were non-belligerents in World War II, Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian men had to fight and die in the military uniforms of their two enemies. The heaviest losses were borne by the civilian population, who were targeted on ideological grounds: the Soviet regime eliminated ‘class enemies’; the Nazis exterminated the Jews on the basis of race. After the war ended, armed resistance to the Soviet regime continued in the forests, but was dealt a fatal blow with the mass deportations of 1949, part of the campaign to collectivise farming. As war clouds gathered over Europe in 1939, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin negotiated with the British and French on the one hand and Nazi Germany on the other. Stalin had the luxury of deciding which of the ‘capitalist imperialist’ powers could offer the USSR the better deal.
Andres Kasekamp

7. Soviet Rule (1953–1991)

There is no fixed definition of critical thinking. There are scholars who dislike the idea of attempting to find a generic ‘definition’ at all. Yet some embrace it and also suggest attributes that a critical thinker exhibits; some will stress traits that another authority on the subject might understate – the emphases vary. There are respected proponents of critical thinking in universities who present it simply as a means of sorting what is true from what is false – looking at it as ‘the art of being right’. This is a definition that I see as problematic. While critical thinking is a truth-seeking activity, to describe it this way evokes a level of competitiveness at odds with the spirit of enquiry. It also seems to oversimplify it, implying that criticality begins and ends with analytical work, when it also involves reflection (including self-reflection) and needs to be applicable to the workaday world. This book sees criticality as a mental attitude that can be used to guide both specialised and everyday thinking – far more than a utilitarian argumentation tool or a simple skill set. While the ability to think critically will certainly improve academic results, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Andres Kasekamp

8. Return to the West (1991–2016)

After the euphoria of the restoration of their independence, the Balts had to overcome many new challenges. They faced several years of a desperate economic situation which was the inevitable outcome of the transition from a command economy to a market economy. They also confronted the difficult tasks of state-building and dealing with the legacies of the Soviet era, including coming to terms with a radically altered demographic situation. The Baltic states set ambitious goals: a reorientation of their trade towards the West, integration into the European community, and attainment of the standards and conditions necessary for membership of the European Union and NATO. As in their prior period of independence, the three Baltic states chose similar frameworks for their new political systems. They were reacting against their common previous regime and restoring their pre-war institutions. Just as in the 1920s, one of their main models for constitutional design was Germany. The Estonian constitution, drafted by a special constituent assembly, was the first to be completed and approved in a national referendum in June 1992. The Lithuanian Supreme Council drafted a constitution which was also approved in a national referendum in October 1992.
Andres Kasekamp
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