History of Courland

Gotthard von Kettler 1517-1587
Gotthard von Kettler 1517-1587

As a result of the territorial and political upheavals ensuing in the course of the Reformation, the Order of Teutonic Knights lost control of the area it had thus far occupied. Its last Master, Gotthard von Kettler, created a hereditary duchy in the area south of the Dvina (Daugava) river in 1561, placing it under the protection of the Polish king as liege lord. The following 234 years, until 1795, represent this region's specific history.


The Third Partition of Poland in 1795 meant the downfall of Courland's feudal lord, and the province subsequently came under Russian rule. It was then also that the duchy was united with the Pilten bishopric, an enclave of 5,500 square km on the northernmost peak of the country that had initially been under Danish and later under Polish rule.

In the 19th century, the Latvians increasingly strove for a national identity of their own as well as for greater influence in matters of the state. This culminated in the 1905 insurgencies not only against Russian rule, but also against the position the Germans had achieved in the region.

During World War I, German troops occupied Courland. After they had been withdrawn in 1918, some German soldiers who had remained in the province formed the Eiserne Division (Iron Division) and joined the Landeswehr (National Defense Guard) made up of German Baltic volunteers. Together with a small Latvian contingent, they drove the Bolshevik troops out of the country. On November 18th, 1918, the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed. This then proceeded to expropriate all landed property owned by Germans without any compensation, permitting them to keep only residual freeholds of 50 hectares. Furthermore, the members of the German minority were barred from holding any higher offices in the administration or in the military. As a result, the Courlandians fled the country in large numbers, most of them to Germany. The last of them left their homes in the course of the mandatory resettlement (Umsiedlung) agreed upon in 1939 by Germany and the Soviet Union.