The Estonian Noble Corporation
The Estländische Ritterschaft (noble corporation of Estonia) looks back on a long history. First documented in 1252, it is the oldest of the four Baltic noble corporations of Estonia, Livonia, Curland and Oesel. Its origins date back to the alliance of, mainly German, vassals in the Northern Estonian provinces of Harrien (Estonian Harju) and Wierland (Virumaa), which were Danish territories until 1346. Initially a community of interests, it developed into a political entity representing the entire country, including the Estonian peasant population, but excluding the cities. This process was largely completed by the end of the Rule of the Teutonic Order in 1561. The Estländische Ritterschaft maintained its role throughout the period of Swedish and Russian rule (from, respectively, 1561 and 1710) through a regime of self-administration based on privileges (re-)confirmed by each sovereign until the early 20th century. These conferred wide-ranging autonomy for the administration of the land and the application of the law to its German and Estonian population. They also guaranteed the practice of the Protestant-Lutheran faith (of Augsburg Confession) and the use of German as the administrative language. Owners of country estates were expected to perform voluntary duty services ("Landesdienst") in the country's administration. Posts were filled through triennial elections.
The collapse of the Russian and German Empires in 1917 and 1918 created a context for the creation of new national states in the Baltic region. The Estonian people seized this opportunity and the Republic of Estonia was declared on 24 February 1918. In the new republic, Baltic Germans were a small minority and no longer the dominant class. The Estländische Ritterschaft was dissolved as a public entity and country estates were expropriated.
Now reconstituted as a private voluntary organisation called Estländischer Gemeinnütziger Verband, the Estländische Ritterschaft represented a remarkable historic achievement: together with the German population of the country's cities, it had indelibly marked Estonia's identity over centuries and made it culturally to a part of Western Europe. This is widely acknowledged in Estonia today, following the country's 51 years of Soviet rule from 1940 until 1991 when it finally regained its independence.
In 1939/40, as a direct result of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, those members of the Estländische Ritterschaft who had not left the country in 1918, were 'repatriated' with their fellow Baltic Germans to German-occupied Poland (Warthegau). At that point they forever lost their homeland in which most families had had their roots for centuries - thus becoming the 'first victims' of the Hitler-Stalin Pact as former Estonian President Lennard Meri once pointedly described them. Between the two World Wars they had remained in their homeland, most of them leading modest lives as Estonian citizens. The Estonian Republic granted them wide-ranging cultural autonomy, enshrined in minority legislation passed in 1925, which was then recognised internationally as exemplary.
Since the end of the Second World War, the majority of the members of the Estländische Ritterschaft live in Germany where it has become part of the Association of Baltic Noble Corporations (Verband der Baltischen Ritterschaften). In the difficult post-war years a large number of members of the four noble corporations emigrated, in particular to Canada and Sweden where local branches were set up.