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The Baltics and Europe

Vygantas Vareikis Professor of History, Head History Department University of Klaipeda Lithuania Member Klaipeda City Council Lithuania, Baltic Rim Economies ISSUE # 3, 09.11.2017.Print version
The ports of the Baltic Sea are an important gateway to economically successful regions, as well as a gateway of trade between East and West. In Latvia, Estonia, and Finland, the political, cultural, and intellectual elites have concentrated in Riga, Tallinn, and Helsinki. Meanwhile, the only seaport of Lithuania, Klaipėda, is not the capital city of the state.

In the Middle Ages, the Teutonic Order closed the access to the Baltic Sea for Lithuania, therefore, Lithuanians acquired a geographically safe port as late as in the 20th century and finally established their rights to it after the Second World War, when Klaipėda went to Lithuania. The Baltic Sea, which appeared in early historical sources under the name of Mare Suebicum, connected Rome with the north of Europe through amber trade. Two thousand years ago, Goths and Vandals dominated Baltic Sea area, gradually pushed by other tribes. In the 10th through the 12th centuries, the Baltic Sea was divided into the “spheres of influence” of Vikings, Veneti, Curonians, and Estonians. The population of the Baltic Sea islands and coasts not merely fished and traded, but also looted and pirated. In the 10th through the 13th centuries, Danes actively represented their military and commercial interests in the Baltic Sea and founded the city of Tallinn. Poland’s movement towards the coast was blocked by the Teutonic Knights’ Orders who started the colonisation of the Baltic region in the early 13th century. The Livonian Order founded the cities of Klaipėda, Riga, and Ventspils. Although Klaipėda was located at the intersection of active trade relations and covered the only safe and convenient route between the Teutonic and Livonian Orders, it was a military city and could take a more active part in trade as late as in the 15th century, when the wars abated. In the 13th century, the first maritime trade-based empire, i.e. the Hanseatic League, formed around the North and Baltic Seas. In the period between the 13th and 17th centuries, the Hanseatic League connected almost 200 cities from Bergen on the Norwegian coast of the North Sea to Novgorod in Russia.


It was a united confederation with a common language, currency, and legal system, as well as with strong civil traditions and individual rights. In Gothic, hansa meant ‘a group of merchants’ whose governance and affiliation system was somewhat similar to the European Union: it sought to have open borders, a single currency, and a common, unified market that Europe had not yet seen. The members of the League did not have any state borders and concentrated around the towns, affiliated by common trade and city charters. Wealthy merchants of the Baltic ports were fastidious consumers: they demanded the best Chinese silk products, the best food and wine, they built churches and commissioned works of art. Baltic seaports were noisy and lively places. Each port had its own brewery. German port cities used to export their beer to Scandinavia and the Baltic region; a sufficient amount, as a historian noted, so that every Swede would be constantly tipsy. The reason for the prosperity of the Hanseatic and Baltic ports was cheap transportation of goods between East and West. The cereals of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and of the Kingdom of Poland, salted Baltic herring, Swedish timber and iron, Russian wax and furs were transported from the East to the West. Lüneburg’s salt, Flemish woolen felt cloth, Rhine wine and ceramics, and rolls of linen and wool from the cities of England and the Netherlands were brought to the eastern Baltic ports from Western Europe. From the 16th century, the competitive struggle for the profitable trade control between East and West was joined by the Netherlands, who, due to an upturn in fishing and commercial shipbuilding, felt a lack of suitable timber and other raw materials. Via Klaipėda, ropes, cannabis, resin, potash, and raw material for the rigging of ships were taken to Amsterdam, while the ships from the Dutch ports transported barrels full of herrings. In the early 17th century, when the dynastic war with the PolishLithuanian Commonwealth broke out, Swedes appeared in the Baltic Region. Under the Truce of Altmark, in 1629, Klaipėda together with other ports of Prussia went to Sweden for the period of six years. The short Swedish rule (1629-1635) freed Klaipėda from its dependence on Königsberg. Riga became the second city in Sweden that was to be declared its capital. In the 17th century, Dutch ships were crossing the Baltic Sea and making stops at the ports of Lübeck, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Riga, Klaipėda, and Liepaja.


However, the German influence in the Baltic did not disappear: not for nothing the Flemish cartographer Gerhard Mercador called the Baltic Sea the German Sea. Since the 18th century, after the influence of the Russian Empire on the Baltic Sea had intensified, the competition between the empires and the seaports controlled by them became increasingly fierce. Several fundamental changes in the 20th century radically changed the significance of the Baltic ports. After the Bolshevik revolution, St. Petersburg lost its exclusive role in the region, since the Bolshevik power moved the capital city back to Moscow in the centre of the state. The influence of Germans who had controlled the economy of the south-eastern cities on the Baltic coast weakened. Upon separation from the German Reich, Gdansk received the status of a free city and Klaipėda was connected to Lithuania. Liepaja lost its role of a transit port: the capacities of the port of Riga were sufficient to meet the economic needs of Latvia. Before the Second World War, Riga was the fourth city in the Baltic region after Stockholm, Leningrad, and Copenhagen. Klaipėda, controlled by Lithuanians and the only Lithuania‘s gateway to the Baltic Sea, was economically developing more actively than in the German times. At the end of the Second World War, quite a few of the Baltic seaports turned into ruins. After the war, on the Baltic coast from Leningrad to Wismar, the Soviet power was established, Pax Sovietica. The German ethnicity almost disappeared from the demographic map of the northern Baltic cities.

After the war, thousands of chemical bombs were sunk in the Baltic Sea and still continue to pose a significant threat. The Soviet Union-managed Baltic seaports had to serve the imperial needs. Klaipėda became the main fishing port in the Baltic Sea, while Cuban sugar, cereals, and coal were transported via Riga and Tallinn. The pipeline laid to Ventspils pumped Siberian oil to the West, and in Liepaja and Kaliningrad, Soviet Baltic naval bases were established Only after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the port cities of the Baltic states – Klaipėda, Riga, Ventspils, and Tallinn – regained their historical significance and became important transit centres which account for a considerable part of the budgets of the Baltic states. The ports undergo changes: Eastern Baltic seaports turn from gloomy dock areas into attractive cities and, due to the global communication and the economic growth of the Baltic states, the Baltic Sea has all the opportunities to become a new Hanseatic Sea, the sea of communication.

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