Monday, 9 March 2015

German Influence in Estonia

Many countries have left their mark on Estonian culture through the centuries. The Swedes built Tartu University, the Danes gave the Estonian capital its name (Taani-linn – Tallinn – Danish town) but it is the Germans who, without doubt, have exerted the most influence on Estonia over the course of history.

Tallinn was formerly known by its German name - Reval.

Estonia’s Baltic Germans were the country’s ruling class for some seven centuries whose hegemony ended only when Estonia declared itself independent in 1918.  Although the Baltic German community’s influence and power was considerable, they never made up more than 10% of Estonia’s population.  Perhaps the most enduring influence of German presence in Estonia is that on the language.  Up to one third of the entire Estonian vocabulary is made up of German loanwords such as pilt (“Bild” – picture), pirn (Birne – pear), tulp (Tulpe – tulip), kirik (Kirche – church), torm (Sturm – storm), even reisibüroo (Reisebüro – travel agency).  German was the official language of the church, government and education in Estonia up until 1885.  Tartu University was entirely German speaking from 1802 until 1893.  German influence on the Estonian language is comparable to that of Norman French on English.

The majority of churches in Estonia today are Lutheran (the Lutheran church originated in Germany). Some of the world’s earliest known Christmas trees were erected by the German Brotherhood of Blackheads at their guildhalls in Tallinn and Riga.

Kose Lutheran church

The Baltic Germans ceased to exist as an ethnic group when most of them left Estonia in 1939 to 1940 as part of Hitler’s “Heim ins Reich” programme.  Despite the horrors of the Nazi occupation between 1940 and 1944, Estonia’s relationship with Germany is now better than it has ever been and cultural ties persisted even during the Soviet occupation.  Cultural, trade and ecumenical links still are very much alive.  Many of the 2,000 manor houses that the Baltic Germans built in Estonia are still standing today, serving either as hotels, conference centres, restaurants or private residences.  They are among some of the most beautiful buildings in Estonia.

Palmse manor house