The Estonian Noble Corporation
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Origins and history

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.

Our identity and mission today

Bound by a long common history, today's members of the Estländische Ritterschaft see themselves as belonging to a community linked by common values. For centuries frequent political change, and the need to respond to it, shaped the character of individuals in our families. This taught responsibility in the use of power and sharpened an understanding of political context. Education through role models, a belief that the pursuit of common good comes before that of personal well being, standing up for one's convictions, all made a sense of duty, solidarity, courage, the love of one's country and of its nature the key principles of character building.

In substance, the values of our forefathers retain all their validity. They provide us with a guiding thread and are a source of encouragement to lead autonomous, responsible lives for ourselves and for others - marked by a willingness to help others, personal reliability, and a strong sense of honour and justice.

In a constantly changing world we need to keep adapting to new circumstances, as did our forebears, in order to meet the challenges of the present day and secure our continuity:

- Unlike in centuries past in Estonia, our members are now scattered across much wider territories and only in loose contact with one another, even when they still know each other personally. This reinforces the importance of individual families which constitute the bedrock of our association. The Estländische Ritterschaft now consists of the sum of the families listed in its register.

- A further important aspect of our mission, which needs to respond to the changes of our own time, lies in the return to the free world of our country of origin where the overwhelming part of our 750-year history took place. Since the Republic of Estonia regained its independence in 1991, the Estländische Ritterschaft cannot be conceived without lively interaction with present day Estonia. This manifests itself through its own activities and those of individual members, as well as families. These include travels to and reunions in the former homeland, the care of family graves and humanitarian help.

In Estonia, this has been noticed widely, and also led to our being approached and encouraged. The speech of Estonian President Lennart Meri made in Berlin on 3 October 2002, the fifth anniversary of German re-unification, in which he asserted the right of Germans from Estonia to a homeland, was noted well beyond Baltic German circles. The commemoration of the 750th anniversary of the Estländische Ritterschaft at Reval/Tallinn on 7 September 2002 was a key moment in asserting a common history and linked cultural heritage between the Estländische Ritterschaft and Estonians. On that occasion, Estonia's Head of State, Arnold Rüütel, spoke of the role of the Estländische Ritterschaft from the Estonian perspective and described it as having rooted Estonia in Western European civilisation and having played the role of godparent in this process.

The Republic of Estonia's state emblem shows three blue leopards passant - the same heraldic image which has graced the arms of the Estländische Ritterschaft since the Danish period in the 13th century. The bond created by a long common history has thus found a lasting expression.

Specific aims today

1. We nurture a sense of community through a wide range of gatherings and common activities: youth camps, historical seminars, family week-ends, regional gatherings and our own meetings during the annual assembly of the Association of Baltic Noble Corporations. All of these are meant to foster the exchange of thoughts, provide mutual spiritual guidance, encourage the transmission and practice of codes of conduct and the taking-on of practical duties.

2. We retain a close bond with Estonia, the land of our ancestors, and with the Estonian people with whom we share a common history. We seek a dialogue, and support developments in the Baltic States through different forms of engagement at many different levels.

3. We foster awareness of our history, support critical research and the dissemination of research findings.

4. We support the preservation of cultural heritage in Estonia, through specific initiatives and donations. We regard it as the responsibility of every family to look after their ancestral graves.

5. We keep and update the genealogy of all families listed in the register of the Estländische Ritterschaft, through our own genealogist. We do this to maintain a sense of common identity and an understanding that every one of us is a link in a long chain.

 
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