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Estonia - History

Estonians are one of the longest settled European peoples, whose forebears, known as the "comb pottery" people, lived on the southeastern shores of the Baltic Sea over 5,000 years ago. Like other early agricultural societies, Estonians were organized into economically self-sufficient, male-dominated clans with few differences in wealth or social power. By the early Middle Ages most Estonians were small landholders, with farmsteads primarily organized by village. Estonian government remained decentralized, with local political and administrative subdivisions emerging only during the first century AD. By then, Estonia had a population of over 150,000 people and remained the last corner of medieval Europe to be Christianized.

Estonia also managed to remain nominally independent from the Vikings to the west and Kievan Rus to the east, subject only to occasional forced tribute collections. However, the Danes conquered Toompea, the hilled fortress at what is now the center of Tallinn, and in 1227 the German crusading order of the Sword Brethren defeated the last Estonian stronghold; the people were Christianized, colonized, and enserfed. Despite attempts to restore independence, Estonia was divided among three domains and small states were formed. Tallinn joined the Hanseatic League in 1248.

By 1236, the Sword Brethren allied with the Order of the Teutonic Knights and became known as the Livonian Order of the Teutonic Knights. Finding upkeep of the distant colony too costly, the Danes in 1346 sold their part of Estonia to the Livonian Order. Despite successful Russian raids and invasions in 1481 and 1558, the local German barons continued to rule Estonia and since 1524 preserved Estonian commitment to the Protestant Reformation. Northern Estonia submitted to Swedish control in 1561 during the Livonian Wars, and in 1582/3 southern Estonia (Livonia) became part of Poland's Duchy of Courland.

In 1625, mainland Estonia came entirely under Swedish rule, and in 1645, Sweden bought the island of Saaremaa from Denmark. In 1631, the Swedish king Gustav II Adolf granted the peasantry greater autonomy, opened the first known Estonian-language school in Tallinn, and in 1632 established a printing press and university in the city of Tartu. The Swedish defeat resulting in the 1721 Treaty of Nystad imposed Russian rule in what became modern Estonia. Nonetheless, the legal system, Lutheran church, local and town governments, and education remained mostly German until the late 19th century and partially until 1918.

By 1819, the Baltic provinces were the first in the Russian empire in which serfdom was abolished, spurring the peasants to own their own land or move to the cities. These moves created the economic foundation for the Estonian national cultural awakening that had lain dormant for some 600 years of foreign rule. Estonia was caught in a current of national awakening that began sweeping through Europe in the mid-1800s.

A cultural movement sprang forth to adopt the use of Estonian as the language of instruction in schools, all-Estonian song festivals were held regularly after 1869, and a national literature in Estonia developed. Kalevipoeg, Estonia's epic national poem, was published in 1861 in both Estonian and German. More importantly, activists who agitated for a modern national culture also agitated for a modern national state.

Independence remained out of reach for Estonia until the collapse of the Russian empire during World War I. Estonia declared itself an independent democratic republic on February 24, 1918. In 1920, by the Peace Treaty of Tartu, Soviet Russia recognized Estonia's independence and renounced in perpetuity all rights to its territory.

The first constitution of the Republic of Estonia was adopted in 1920 and established a parliamentary form of government. Estonia's independence lasted for 22 years, during which time Estonia guaranteed cultural autonomy to all minorities, including its small Jewish population, an act that was unique in Western Europe at the time.

Leading up to World War II (WWII), Estonia pursued a policy of neutrality. However, the Soviet Union forcibly incorporated Estonia as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, in which Nazi Germany gave control of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to the Soviet Union in return for control of much of Poland. In August 1940, the U.S.S.R. proclaimed Estonia a part of the Soviet Union as the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic (E.S.S.R.). The United States never recognized Soviet sovereignty over Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania.

During World War II, between 1939 and 1945, through both the Nazi and Soviet occupations, Estonia's direct human losses reached 180,000 residents, which amounted to 17% of its total population. During the Nazi occupation from 1941 to 1944, 7,800 citizens of the Republic of Estonia (70% ethnic Estonians, 15% ethnic Russians, 12.8% Estonian Jews, and 2.2% representing other nationalities) were executed in Nazi prison camps. Of the total number executed during the period of Nazi occupation, an estimated 1,000 were Estonian Jews--or roughly 25% of the pre-war Jewish population of Estonia. Additionally, an estimated 10,000 Jews were transported to Estonia from elsewhere in Eastern Europe and killed there. Soviet authorities conducted mass deportations in 1940-41, 1944, and 1949, with smaller deportations running through 1956. In total, an estimated 60,000 Estonians were murdered or deported by the Soviet Union. Another 70,000 fled to the West in 1944.

In the late 1980s, looser controls on freedom of expression under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev reignited the Estonians' call for self-determination. By 1988, hundreds of thousands of people were gathering across Estonia to sing previously banned national songs in what became known as the "Singing Revolution."

In November 1988, Estonia's Supreme Soviet passed a declaration of sovereignty; in 1990, the name of the Republic of Estonia was restored, and during the August 1991 coup in the U.S.S.R., Estonia declared full independence. The U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet recognized independent Estonia on September 6, 1991. Unlike the experiences of Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia's revolution ended without blood spilled.

Estonia became a member of the United Nations on September 17, 1991 and is a signatory to a number of UN organizations and other international agreements, including IAEA, ICAO, UNCTAD, WHO, WIPO, UNESCO, ILO, IMF, and WB/EBRD. It is also a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In May 2007, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ministers invited Estonia to begin accession discussions; Estonia completed the accession process to the OECD in December 2010.

After more than 3 years of negotiations, on August 31, 1994, the armed forces of the Russian Federation withdrew from Estonia.





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