The Livonian Confederation was a loosely organized confederation in present day Estonia and Latvia ruled by the Order of Teutonic Knights of Livonia which existed from 1228 to the 1560s. It contained five small states: The Livonian Order, Archbishopric of Riga, Bishopric of Dorpat, Bishopric of Ösel-Wiek, and Bishopric of Courland. It was a defensive alliance to protect German ascendancy in the region against the threat of Russian expansion. The alliance was also intended to defend Roman Catholic Christianity against the encroachment of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Order had been founded in 1201, to spread Christianity among the Baltic population, which was still largely pagan at the time. After the collapse of the Confederation, the region was first under Sweden, then Russia. It remained under Russian control except for a brief period of independence after World War I until the end of the Soviet era.
The Confederation was an imposition from the outside onto the Baltic people. It was ruled by Germans for the benefit of Germans; few of the local population owned land. Most worked as serfs, exploited by their feudal lords. German merchants wanted access to the sea; trade flourished. Goods flowed from the Confederation’s ports to the rest of Europe. When Russia invaded in 1558, Russia too wanted to improve her access to the sea. The formation of the Confederation and the war that ended it were both motivated by the desire to control resources. Dispute about access to or possession of valuable resources causes many conflicts. Wars will continue to wage around resources until mechanisms are developed to ensure their more equitable distribution across the globe; people need to recognize that the world is our common home. It has to sustain all life-forms, while remaining healthy and viable itself. Ultimately, the type of alliance of interests that the defeated Livonian Confederation represented, apart from exploitation of the local people, might be indicative of how human society ought to evolve, towards a trans-national form of governance.
This division was created by Papal Legate William of Modena in 1228, as a compromise between the church and the powerful Livonian Order, both factions led by Germans, after the German knights had conquered and subdued the territories of several indigenous tribes: Finnic-speaking Estonians and Livs, and Baltic-speaking Latgalians, Selonians, Semigallians and Curonians. In theory, one-third of the land was to be controlled by the Order and the remaining two-thirds by the church. But in reality, most of Livonia’s territory was controlled by the Order, and conflicts between the Order, the bishops, and the powerful Hanseatic cities were common throughout the existence of the Confederation. To solve internal disputes, the Livonian Diet or Landtag was formed in 1419. The city of Walk was chosen as the site of the Diet. The Diet was composed of members of the Livonian Order, Livonian Bishops, vassals and city representatives. The territory controlled by the Confederation was referred to as “Alt-Livland” (Old Livonia).”
The Livonian Brothers of the Sword was originally a Crusading order, founded by Albert, bishop of Riga to bring the Baltic region into the Christian fold. It was formed in 1201 and approved by the Pope in 1204. It began to invade Estonia in 1208, forcing the people it subdued to accept baptism. Later, after several defeats, the order sought the help of the Teutonic Knights more or less becoming their “Livonian branch.”
After the Livonian Confederation was formed, trade flourished with string links with the cities of the Hanseatic League. The Confederation provided Europe with “grain, wax, furs, flax and timber” in return for “cloth, metal goods, salt, and various luxury items. The peasants, or serfs, “were expected to cultivate the land for the profit of the German landowners.” A few Lavonians had small holdings but the “majority were landless.” The Germans lived apart from the peasants, with the result that the Baltic people retained their own language and customs.
All five states of the Livonian Confederation ceased to exist during the Livonian War (1558–82). The Livonian Order was dissolved by the Wilno Pact in 1561. The following year, the Livonian Diet decided to ask protection from Sigismund II of Poland (Zygmunt II August) and the Grand Duke of Lithuania. With the end of government by the last Archbishop of Riga William of Brandenburg, Riga became a Free Imperial City and the rest of the territory was split between the Lithuanian vassal states Duchy of Courland and Semigallia and the Duchy of Livonia. The knights themselves became the “landed gentility” of the Duchy.
The Confederacy began to weaken when many of the Knights converted to Lutheranism, which made cooperation with the Bishops problematic. Gotthard Kettler, the last Grand Master of the Livonian Order, became the first secular ruler of the Duchy. His dynasty “ruled until extinction in 1737.”
The Livonian War
In the Lovonian War, Russia, Sweden and Poland “battled for control of the Baltic” which ultimately went to Russia, although initially “Sweden appeared to be the winners of the struggle.” Having shaken off Mongol rule, Russia set out to unite Slav people elsewhere under its rule. The Baltic was regarded as properly Russian territory. In addition, Russia wanted access to the lucrative sea-trade that Baltic ports would provide. Russia at the time had only a “small hold on the coastline at the mouth of the Neva River.” None of the powers were at all interested in the welfare of the people, who suffered most from the devastation and chaos caused by the war.
The Baltic has seen many struggles between various powers to control the region, motivated by both commercial and strategic interest. The Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia have historically either fallen to Scandinavian or to Russian domination. After the Great Northern War (1700-1721) the Baltic passed back into Russian hands as Swedish “aspiration to dominion of the Baltic proved unsustainable.” Sweden had moved against an alliance of Russia, Poland-Lithuania and Saxony to claim supremacy in the Baltic. The result was that Russia occupied and claimed Livonia. What remained under Poland was annexed in 1772, when Poland was partitioned. Following World War I, the three states made a brief reappearance as sovereign nations but were invaded by the Soviet Union in World War II and did not gain independence again until 1991. In 2004, they joined the European Union and NATO.
The Livonian Confederation was imposed by outsiders on the region in order to protect their own interests. Ultimately, however, the type of alliance of interests that the defeated Livonian Confederation represented, might be indicative of how human society ought to evolve, towards a trans-national form of governance. On the one hand, the Livonian Confederation was run by Germans not by ethnic Estonians and Latvians; on the other hand, it was based on cooperative principles even if “cooperation and collaboration emerged only when their was an external threat and sometimes not even then.” Both Germans and Russians wanted access to the Baltic sea-routes.
The formation of the Confederation, and the war that ended it, were both linked with competition for resources. Caught between powerful imperial polities on both sides, the people of the Baltic have had to struggle to achieve self-government, to develop their distinct identities. Many wars have been waged around access to the sea and around access to or possession of other resources. Resources will continue to be the cause of war or of international disputes until mechanisms are developed to ensure a more equitable distribution of these across the globe, recognizing that the world is humanity’s common home. It has to sustain all people, all life-forms and remain viable.
The end of the Confederation did not necessarily represent a dramatic change for the people of Livonia; for them, rule by Germans ended and rule by Russian started.
- Bojtár (1999), 169.
- Frucht (2005), 65.
- O’Connor (2003), 22.
- O’Connor (2006), 14.
- Bojtár (1999), 170.
- O’Connor (2003), 23.
- O’Connor (2006), 14.
- O’Connor (2003), 24.
- Smith (20020, 8.
- Plakans (1995), 18.
- Bojtár, Endre. 1999. Foreword to the Past: A Cultural History of the Baltic People. Budapest, HU: Central European University Press.
- Frucht, Richard C. 2005. Eastern Europe: An Introduction to the People, Lands, and Culture. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
- O’Connor, Kevin. 2003. The History of the Baltic States. The Greenwood histories of the modern nations. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
- O’Connor, Kevin. 2006. Culture and Customs of the Baltic States. Culture and Customs of Europe. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
- Plakans, Andrejs. 1995. The Latvians: A Short History. Studies of nationalities. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University.
- Smith, David J. 2002. The Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. London, UK: Routledge.
Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 11.12.2008, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.