Baltic German influences: From dark humor to table manners

Professor Reet Bender.
Professor Reet Bender. Source: ERR

While we are accustomed to thinking of Baltic Germans as symbols of foreign power, yet in some ways, they are lost Estonians with deep cultural roots in our nation, Reet Bender, the head of German Studies at the University of Tartu, said.

Studying Baltic Germans helps to understand Estonians

The Baltic German stratification has long been etched in stone; it is now on maps and the Internet. Reet Bender, a professor at the University of Tartu, and her colleagues have developed a number of map apps highlighting the Baltic German cultural impact in modern-day city of Tartu, once known as Dorpat.

Bender said that the Baltic German heritage has become an organic part of Estonian culture, even though being suppressed, deliberately forgotten or burned away: "Cultural continuity has been taken over from the Germans. Eating with knives and forks, for example; these are the things that were carried through Soviet times and formed the basis of good manners and upbringing in Estonian society."

She said there is much common ground in humor. "Estonians have also absorbed the Baltic Germans' penchant for dark humor. There are many similarities between Baltic German anecdote collections and the manner in which Estonians tell jokes with a frighteningly serious expression."

The 'likes' before the advent of Facebook:

"A walk in a Baltic German student town" is an online, interactive map with audio passages from 14 authors on student life in Tartu, which was predominantly Baltic German. "German Tartu" (both links are in Estonian and German) is a map depicting the daily lives of the city's inhabitants.

Both applications introduce Baltic German history of Tartu with a touch of humor. For instance, there is a description of how a sewing table under a window may have resembled a Facebook page.

"You could see from there who was on the street and show yourself. Two young stars shone on the skies of Tartu at the turn of the 19th century: two baronesses collecting 'likes' in the afternoon. We count the passing students' sleighs as likes. Why are there so few today? Is one of them with the other?"

This story, Bender said, came from the book "Baltic Sketches" (Balti visandid,) written by Dr. Bertram, or Georg Julius von Schultz, an Esthophile who inspired the idea of Estonians having their own epic.

"He came up with the idea at a Learned Estonian Society meeting and Dr. Faehlmann was given the task, and that's how it started," she said.

Classic novel draws tourists to Tartu even today

Tartu's town museum from the 19th century is cozy and authentic, without even electricity. This house, which is lit by flickering candlelight in the winter, has become a cult destination for fans of Else Hueck-Dehio's novel "Dear Renata."

"The book is an important coming-of-age novel for many German elderly ladies," Bender said. Else Hueck-Dehio, the daughter of Karl Dehio, professor and rector at the University of Tartu, recalls her childhood in Tartu at the turn of the twentieth century. "It's a heartfelt romance and a coming-of-age story and, from our perspective, a very poignant one," she said.

"Dear Renata" by Else Hueck-Dehio. Source: ERR

Hueck-Dehio became a very popular writer. "She was one of the most read German-language women writers after the Second World War. According to multiple sources, her books have a cumulative print run of up to three million copies, which is astounding," Bender said, adding that German tourists still question where Renata's prototype lived and how to locate the novel's settings in the city.

The Baltic Germans, as their name suggests, are the Germans who began to settle in Estonia in the 13th century, around the time of our old-time struggle for independence. They came, they observed, conquered, they kept coming back and then stayed for seven centuries, became landlords, clergymen and townspeople. In 1939 Hitler urged the Germans to return to their historic homeland and thousands left. This was the so-called resettlement, or Umsiedlung. Baltic German historians, however, claim that their cultural impact has remained with us despite the departure of the majority of the population.

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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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