Estonia: Identity and Independence

By Jean-Jacques Subrenat; David Cousins et al. | Go to book overview

Margus Laidre


From the Reformation to National Awakening 1520–1850

1. The Arena of Ares

Over the three centuries which separate the mid-16th century from the mid19th century, Estonians were forced to live under five different rulers. Each change of rule brought with it a long and burdensome war. One particularly bellicose period was from 1558–1710, during which time, the years of war and years of peace were in the proportion 70:82. Here we must recognise the fact that war was waged with greatly differing intensity, both with regard to time and space and broken by intervals of peace, longer or shorter in duration. But these wars none the less contained elements of which we would now term total war.

The situation as described above was by no means unique to Estonia. In the whole of Europe, people (i.e. the rulers) saw armed conflict as the only way of prosecuting their [just] aims and maintaining a hold on their possessions, so that war appeared to be the normal state of affairs for society. During the 16th century, there were only ten years of peace throughout Europe, during the 17th century four, and during the 18th century, sixteen. The period 1500–1700 was one of the most affected by war (one war every third year on average), also with regard to the area they were fought in. Many great powers were at war for half or more of this period. From 1560–1715, France had 110 years of war, i.e. 70% of the time. Compared with this, Estonia enjoyed relative peace ([only] 46%), but appearances can be deceptive. For instance, France conducted its wars outside its core territory, whilst in the case of Estonia, there were constant hostilities within the country itself.

True chaos reigned during the latter half of the 16th century when there were 25 years of hostilities during the Livonian War (1558–1583), partially overlapping with the Seven Years' War (1563–1570) and the Russo-Swedish War (1570–1595), all of which took place partly on Estonian soil. There is good reason to speak of a Hundred Years' War in Estonian history, i.e. from 1558 until 1661, since it took that length of time for the old ruling structures to collapse and for a new sole victor to emerge. Up to now, this period has been seen as a string of separate armed conflicts without focusing on any connection between them, how the conditions for the outbreak of one conflict contained the seeds of the next until the power relationships were finally settled once and for all. Also, the fact that efforts tended to be directed against

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