Latvia was built from a series of Baltic tribal groups that didn’t convert to Christianity until forced to do so by German Crusaders in the 13th Century and hence became part of a Germanic empire, Livonia. But because of this association, many of Latvia’s town’s became part of the Hanseatic League in which trade and therefore fortunes were made.

After the reformation and the fall of the Livonian Empire, Latvia became part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania but retained considerable autonomy within it. Latvia adopted Lutheran ideology but mainly from Swedish influences while the lands to the south remained Catholic. It was only in the 16th and 17th centuries that Latvia emerged as a single nation. Before that its borders and people were difficult to define.

Latvia was taken in to the Russian Empire in 1795, and again, like Estonia and Lithuania, continued to have a high degree of autonomy within it, but were treated like peasants by the Russians and were left very poor. In the 19th century farmers were allowed to buy land creating some independent wealth and there was a growing middle class. This along with greater use of the Latvian language created a “First National Awakening” which was boosted by the Russian Revolution in 1905.

A period of great uncertainty existed during the years of the Great War, and the devastation left by it created a power vacuum. A Latvian constitution was written in 1922, but Karlis Ulmanis led an authoritarian government from 1934 to quell right-wing influences. This constitution was re-affirmed in 1990.

Latvia was part of the secretive Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which meant that 50,000 ethnic Germans had to leave Latvia. Latvia was also forced to accept the occupation of Soviet troops to protect it against invasion from Germany. They were welcomed by the population but the Soviets nevertheless treated the Latvians harshly with many deportations and murders of opponents before the German invasion. During WWII 200,000 Latvians died, including 75,000 Jews.

When the Nazis were defeated, Latvia was swallowed up into the USSR and forced to adopt collectivisation, until 1989 when Communism started to unravel and independence was restored.


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