Ethnic minorities in the Republic of Estonia before World War II

​The percentage of Estonians in the Republic of Estonia between the two world wars was about 90%. The other 10% was made up of ethnic minorities, who were divided in the interwar period into two essentially different groups: the scattered Germans (16,000) and the Jews (4500) living mostly in towns, and the Russians (92,000) who mainly lived territorially closer together, primarily in eastern Estonia, and the Swedes (9000) in western parts of the country and on the islands.

Despite the small percentage of ethnic minorities, the first Estonian legal acts guaranteed national cultural autonomy to the Russians, Germans, Swedes, Jews and other nationalities.

The constitution of the Republic of Estonia, adopted in 1920, allowed ethnic minorities to establish autonomous institutions in the interests of their culture, to educate their children in their mother tongue and guaranteed that each citizen had the right to determine his or her national belonging. In areas where the minorities formed a majority, they could use their mother tongue as the official language in local governments. Citizens of German, Russian and Swedish nationality were guaranteed the right to address their letters to central authorities in their mother tongue.

A significant landmark in the Estonian ethnic policy was the Cultural Autonomy of Ethnic Minorities Act, passed in 1925. On this basis, the German and Jewish minorities established their cultural self-governments, whereas the Russians and the Swedes were satisfied with protection on the basis of traditions, the constitution and local governments. The act received considerable positive feedback abroad.

The cultural self-government was especially significant for the Baltic German ethnic group, which had been established in Estonia since the 13th century as the upper class in the country. After the collapse of the Russian empire and the founding of the independent Republic of Estonia, they were forced to give up their existing privileges and leading positions. Their essential role in the country’s economy survived. Cultural self-government enabled them to integrate into the Estonian democratic society.

Life within the Jewish national groups in bigger towns was strained because of competition between two trends, focused on the language problem (Yiddish or Hebrew) in Jewish schools. The Zionist trend finally won out, both in cultural self-governments and larger Jewish organisations. The Jewish population constantly decreased due to their emigration to Palestine. Despite their small number, the Jews were active in the economy, culture and politics of the country.

The first Swedes had settled in western Estonia and the islands in the 13th century. At the beginning of the millennium, there were Slavic enclaves in Estonia, supplemented by the immigration of the Old Believers in the 16th century, who came because of a religious rift in Russia. The Swedish and Russian ethnic groups mainly consisted of peasants and artisans, who were not especially active in politics and social life. They did not establish any cultural self-governments, although the Russian representatives were interested. The same role was, to a certain extent, played by the Union of Russian Educational and Charitable Societies founded in 1923. The Swedes decided to wait until their ethnic group became economically and intellectually stronger.

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