Emergence of national consciousness and Estophilia

The emergence of national consciousness in various places in Europe in the early 19th century is traditionally associated with Johann Georg Hamann (1730–1788) and Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803). The latter especially emphasised the multitude and diversity of cultures, which could not necessarily be subjected to one and the same yardstick. He thus greatly encouraged cultural nationality, as evinced by numerous suppressed people of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Turkish empires. Influenced by Hamann’s and Herder’s ideas, the hitherto despised folklore was seen for the first time as an expression of spontaneity, naturality and truth. Herder’s collection of European folk songs, Estonian and Latvian among them, became an inspiration for the Baltic German intelligentsia, who discovered new values in the indigenous people living around them. The attitude towards nations and national cultures propagated by Herder was for a long time shared only by the minority. Simultaneously, and often in conflict, the influence of the late Enlightenment with its cosmopolitan-rational ideas persisted in the Baltic provinces.

The symbiosis of Estophilia and enlightenment is best personified by Otto Wilhelm Masing (1763–1832), one of the most prominent advocates of peasant education in Estonia. His Marahwa Näddala-Leht (Peasants’ Weekly, 1821–1823, 1825) was undoubtedly the literary peak of popular enlightenment. Herder’s ideas were closer to Masing’s younger follower, the pastor Johann Heinrich Rosenplänter (1782–1846) whose magazine Beiträge zur genauern Kenntnis der ehstnischen Sprache (Towards a more precise Knowledge of the Estonian Language, 1813–1832) was the first academic publication on an Estonian subject. The magazine’s aim was to develop the written form of the Estonian language. Rosenplänter no longer regarded Estonians as just peasants, but already dreamed of an Estonian nation encompassing different social classes, and condemned the Germanisation of the socially advanced Estonians.

Pastor Eduard Ahrens (1803–1863) contributed considerably to the emergence of Estonians’ national consciousness. He compiled a grammar of the Estonian language (1843) which abandoned German–Latin models in favour of popular and Finnish orthography, and thus caused a qualitative leap in the development of written Estonian. The early 19th century generation of Estophiles also included the first known Estonian nationalist, writer Kristjan Jaak Peterson (1801–1822) who died very young. His impact on his contemporaries was not remarkable, and Peterson’s poetry and diaries in Estonian were discovered only a century after his death.

During the first half of the 19th century, all the Baltic provinces established academic societies, which became one of the forums for Estophiles. The Learned Estonian Society (Õpetatud Eesti Selts), founded in 1838 in Tartu, already included in their membership the first Estonian intellectuals, Friedrich Robert Faehlmann (1798–1850) and Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald (1803–1882). The first drafted, and the second wrote up, the national epic Kalevipoeg (1857–1861), a text which rallied the Estonian national movement and was inspired by the Finnish Kalevala.

The embryonic stage of the national movement described is largely a construction of later cultural historians, hardly noticed by its contemporaries. The Baltic Germans’ own national ‘awakening’ occurred relatively late, compared with wider European developments. The genesis of an Estonian national consciousness and its initial development, within a narrowish circle of German intellectuals, acquires deeper significance only from the point of view of the national movement which commenced in the second half of the 19th century. The early 19th century agrarian reforms, on the other hand, had a direct impact on the majority of the population on Estonian territory.

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