Academic journal article Kritika

Nationally Indifferent or Ardent Nationalists? on the Options for Being German in Russia's Baltic Provinces, 1905-17

Academic journal article Kritika

Nationally Indifferent or Ardent Nationalists? on the Options for Being German in Russia's Baltic Provinces, 1905-17

Article excerpt

In the final decades of the 19th century, the traditional perception of the Baltic Germans about who they were and what their position was came under attack in the Baltic provinces of the Russian Empire. This attack came from two sides, the central Russian government and the emancipation movements of the local majorities, the Estonians and Latvians. What had been a more or less unchallenged and widely accepted role, the position of being the masters of the region, gave way to a growing feeling of being a tiny ethnic minority under demographic, cultural, and eventually also political threat. Still, in the early 1950s, C. Leonard Lundin, in his widely quoted article "The Road from Tsar to Kaiser: Changing Loyalties of the Baltic Germans, 1905-1914," claimed that the Baltic Germans after 1905 "chose emotional obstructionism instead of intelligent adaptation and an intensified group exclusiveness instead of greater inclusiveness." (1) After Gert von Pistohlkors criticized Lundin's general assessment in 1972, however, studies have revealed a more differentiated view of the options for being German in those turbulent years. (2) If Lundin took the lure of the nation for granted, von Pistohlkors challenged this interpretation, arguing that under the circumstances any kind of nationalist agitation was utterly counterproductive for the Baltic Germans. In the early 1980s, Anders Henriksson published a monograph with the evocative title "The Tsar's Loyal Germans," thus directly opposing Lundin's assessment. (3) In 2006, Ulrike von Hirschhausen also concluded that the Baltic Germans developed no desire for separatism from the Russian Empire. Instead, they stressed their belonging to a region as an answer to the "double pressure of nationalism from above and below, from the Russian state and Latvian and Estonian national groups." (4) Contemporary historiography thus sees the turn "from Tsar to Kaiser" as a temporary option for the Baltic Germans caused exclusively by the special conditions created during war and revolution by German occupation and Russia's implosion. (5)

As we demonstrate in this article, a rational assessment of the demographic reality in Russia's Baltic provinces--in 1897, according to language use, 6.5 percent of the population in all three provinces were Germans (6)--caused some leading representatives of the Baltic German community to openly question the popular vision of modern cohesiveness inherent in nationalist agitation. Even so, there is a major gap in the historical literature. We know the world of the German nobility much better than the everyday life of merchants; we know a lot about the so-called literati, tutors, teachers, and professors, but the "little Germans"--underprivileged traders, craftsmen, workers, and peasants--are almost completely neglected by historians. (7) This is, first and foremost , due to a lack of sources. Merchants, tradespeople, and workers did not write memoirs, but nobles and literati did. Moreover, research so far has focused largely on those with political power, and these were mostly from the nobility. However, if we follow the results of the Riga census in 1913, which has been recently analyzed by Mark R. Hatlie, we have to take into account that more than a quarter of the 78,000 Germans in Riga (identified by language use) were industrial blue-collar workers, and 17.1 percent worked in other lower-status positions. (8) Thus, with some degree of justification, we can make generalizations only concerning about half of Riga's Germans.

Tara Zahra's notion of "national indifference" has intensified research on the multitude of potential identifications in Eastern Europe during the 19th and early 20th centuries. (9) In her seminal article, she convincingly argues that nationalist assumptions and the model of the nation-state have had a profound influence on how the history of this region has been written so far. Ulis is in general true also for Estonians and Latvians, since their historiography largely focuses on those people who were active in establishing the national project. …

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