On Estonian Swedes and assimilation campaign of the Republic of Estonia

Alar Schönberg

In 1937 the vice-minister of internal affairs Eugen Madissoo participated in the Victory Day (1) celebrations on the island of Vormsi. In his welcoming address he expressed his appreciation of the Estonian Swedes, who had fulfilled their national duty to the Republic of Estonia. After the song following Madissoo's speech the floor was given to Johan Hörnström, a Estonian-Swedish veteran of the Estonian War of Independence who spoke:

I remember the times when people of Estonia lived under foreign rule. We, the Swedes and the Estonians, suffered under the same oppression when we did not merely have to study the Russian language at school, but had to learn in the Russian language. The Estonians have learned from their experience, and what that means, now they should allow the Swedish to keep what is important for us - our mother tongue. When they had to fight for freedom, our sons fought side by side with the Estonians. Many fell for their fatherland. [---] We, the Swedes and the Estonians, must stand together to defend our country. Let our country grow stronger, better, richer and happier. (2)

This seemingly polite and touching speech veiled strong criticism towards the Estonians. What had happened that two neighbouring nations who had lived side by side in peace for centuries could not settle their differences?

Estonian Swedes settled in the western coast of Estonia as a result of centuries long migration, generally dated to the 13th century. (3) Their main activities included agriculture, fishing, seal hunting and seafaring. Estonian-Swedish community consisted of simple peasants, lacking the class of rich and intelligent Swedish, which was very characteristic of Finland. Thus in the late 19th century, when the new agrarian reform brought along the founding of community schools, it was not easy for the Estonian Swedes to find educated Swedish-speaking teachers among them. So they initially invited teachers from Sweden. One of these teachers, T. E. Thorén, was assigned to train the more spirited younger men, who wished to become teachers, in the training seminar of Paslepa (1873-1887). The national awareness of the Estonian Swedes grew simultaneously with the national awakening of the Estonians, its leading figures being mostly the seminar graduates. The main objectives posed by the initiators, and presented by the Estonian-Swedish society Svenska Odligens Vänner (SOV) (4) in the early 20th century, were ambitious and clear: the Estonian Swedes must become an educated and wise nation, a pride to the country they live in.

The minority policy of the Republic of Estonia is founded on Article 2 of the 1918 Declaration of Independence Manifest kõigile Eestimaa rahvastele, or Manifesto to all the peoples of Estonia. The article writes Russians, Germans, Swedes, Jews and all other ethnic minorities living in Estonia are guaranteed rights to their own cultural autonomy. The Swedes were appointed a minister of ethnic affairs in the person of the Estonian Swede Hans Pöhl. (5) (The Estonian-Swedish ministry existed for only 6 months; the Constituent Assembly renamed all ministers of ethnic affairs to secretaries in secretariats of ethnic minorities subordinate to the Ministry of Culture.) On February 12, 1925 the Parliament passed the Act of Cultural Autonomy of Ethnic Minorities. This act granted all ethnic minorities living in Estonia, the total of at least 3000 people, the right to form their cultural autonomies. But the fact that the rights granted to different ethnic minorities in the early years of independence were unlike those in any other country, speaks in favour of the minority policy of the Republic of Estonia. The most important minorities in Estonia in those days were the Russians (8.2%, or 90.779 inhabitants), Germans (1.7% - 18 820), Swedes (0.7% - 7749), Latvians (0.4% - 4428) and the Jewish population (0.4% - 4428). (6)

Building up the Republic of Estonia the Estonian Swedes seized the opportunity to be well represented in the country's government. They self-identified themselves through the political party Svenska Folkförbundet, (7) which began to issue a gazette Kustbon (8). The first Congress of Svenska Folkforbundet was held on March 22, 1919 in Haapsalu, Estonia. Highflying principles were put forward to secure the continuation of this ethic group. The Estonian Swedes demanded a guarantee to the position of the Swedish minister of ethnic affairs with the government of Estonia, a guarantee to Swedish representation in the Parliament, cultural autonomy, equal rights to the Swedish language on the level of parish administration and in court cases concerning Swedish, a judge with Swedish-language skills. We might agree that the Estonian Swedes made a good start with that, and even though none of their demands were fully satisfied, their small community made good progress. They founded their own agricultural school in Pürksi, a private secondary school in Haapsalu, they inspired the native Swedish to found the chair of Swedish language studies at the University of Tartu.

In the 1930s the population of Estonian Swedes was approximately estimated 8.000 and they had mostly settled on the islands of Vormsi, Osmussaar, Naissaar, Ruhnu and Pakri, and in the parish of Noarootsi and in the region of Vihterpalu and Kurkse on the mainland. In the past there had also been a Swedish settlement on the northern coast of Estonia, (9) which had gradually disappeared. While the island population spoke mostly Swedish, so that many Swedish had problems with the Estonian language, the population of the coastal Swedish villages on the mainland was mainly Estonian. Swedish speaking population had a small majority in Noarootsi parish, but in the Vihterpalu region the coastal Swedes were on the verge of losing their national identity and were often ashamed to even speak the Swedish dialect. (10) This identity crisis had emerged with the higher educational standard among the Estonian Swedes. By this time the coastal Swedish areas had been of one mind due to the simple stable lifestyle and low level of education. That all changed with extensive emigration of the younger population, also the Swedish adopted the Estonian language in mixed marriages.

The late 1930s saw the restriction of opportunities for minority groups by laws established by the Estonian nationalistic campaigns. In 1935 the campaign of Estonianising personal names, foreign language schools began to emphasise Estonian language learning, children born from mixed marriages were often involuntarily given Estonian nationality, church ministers had to have an Estonian citizenship. Various laws and regulations vexed the Estonian Swedes' sense of justice. Until then they had regarded themselves as loyal citizens of the Republic of Estonia. Thus they had every right to be disappointed in Estonianisation campaigns during the period.

Foreseeing the inevitable perishing of Estonian Swedes, the fanatic leaders of this minority were disillusioned by the nationalisation policy of the Estonian government. The public debate of the Swedish published in the newspaper Kustbon is one example of it. The newspaper was greatly troubled by the course of Estonianisation campaign. The Estonian Swedes tried to convey to the Estonians that "their rights were being trampled on". The general tone of the articles was melancholy: Will the Estonian Swedes survive?

As mentioned above, the newspaper Kustbon began to appear at the time when the Swedish began to politically identify themselves in the newly born Republic of Estonia. One of its aims was to unite all the Swedish in Estonia and function as a pillar of ethnic continuity. Considering the editorial board and correspondents of the newspaper we may agree that Kustbon brought together (and still does) the more active Estonian-Swedish intellectuals. Thus the newspaper serves as a source of considerable significance for studying different periods of history. Whether the newspaper reverberated the opinion of the common Estonian-Swedish population is questionable, since few of them collaborated with the newspaper. It is known that Kustbon was prescribed and read, (11) therefore it must have played an important role in the general opinion of the Estonian-Swedish community. Stig Appelgren, who has compiled a bibliography of material published on the Estonian Swedes, regards Kustbon as an invaluable academic source and agrees that it contains rather valuable material on the pre-war period, if read critically. (12) In the following I will present a selection of considerations and quotations published between 1935-1940 in the newspaper Kustbon, which analyse the contradictions and discontent with the Estonian nationalisation policy among the Estonian Swedes.

In the first issue of the year 1935, a Stockholm born Swedish Carl Mothander, who had settled in Estonia in 1918, contemplates about the role of the Estonian Swedes in the nationalising Europe. He believes that in Estonia ethnic minorities and Swedish in particular have had more freedom than ethnic minorities in other countries. He emphasises that the Estonian Swedes lack political ambitions, their "aim is to keep up with the Estonians in terms of cultural and economical progress and maintain good-neighbourly relations". (13) In the following issue the same author comments on the head of state's program for establishing the new government system. Although his plans left enough breathing space to ethnic minorities in the future "corporative atmosphere", Mothander was still convinced that this was not a good sign. In his opinion their rights were violated by the fact that Estonian was to be the official language also in private schools of minority groups and other institutions. As of April 1, all public posters, programs, circulars, price lists, etc. had to be in the Estonian language. Mothander appealed to the Estonians' conscience as if to remind them that the Estonian Swedes could not rely on such economical and cultural resources for the cultural battle with the Estonians than the Swedish-Finnish did in Finland. (14) Carl Mothander continues his discussions on the role of Estonian Swedes in the modernising Estonian society in the following issues of the paper. He argues that ethnic minorities need to organise themselves in order to represent them in corporative society, and suggests the Estonian Swedes to form a council of people from different fields of life. The council in its turn would form a work team and appoint representatives who would speak and act for the Estonian Swedes on the higher political level. Mothander believed that the Swedish society SOV met the requirements for the described organisation, but considered all detailed plans too premature before the new government system was legally formed. (15)

The same issue draws the attention of foreign readers to the fact that prospective correspondents would in this case have to use the Estonian town and street names, otherwise their letters would not reach the destination. Newspapers referred to place names using the Estonian form only. (16)

On April 3, 1935 Kustbon was renamed Nya Kustbon (17). The new name was necessitated by the involuntary abrogation of political organisations. Since Kustbon was financed by the Swedish party Svenska Folkförbundet, it was naturally closed. Realising the newspaper's importance the secretary of ethnic affairs Nikolaus Blees continued with the new newspaper. Nya Kustbon did not appear for long though - only until the end of the same year. SOV had in the meantime taken over Kustbon and the newspaper began to reappear. Thus there was a period when the Estonian Swedes had two newspapers. Both newspapers were less radical in contents, publishing little or no direct criticism on state's affairs. (18)

One of the debatable topics in 1936 was the termination of working permits of native Swedish church ministers. All native Swedish ministers and other clerics from foreign countries had received a letter from the Ecclesiastical Council of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, who gave them a two-week's notice to apply for Estonian citizenship, or their working permits would be terminated. This was an unpleasant surprise for Swedish coastlanders: for many years the native Swedish ministers who received their salary from Sweden, had offered spiritual guidance in the area. The newspaper expressed fear that this would deprive the Estonian Swedes of the opportunity to attend Swedish-language religious services, and doubted that native Swedes would wish to apply for Estonian citizenship - on this occasion they would lose their Swedish citizenship and with that all their rights at the Swedish church. The generation of new Estonian-Swedish church ministers was growing, but they needed a few more years to complete their studies before assuming the position of minister. The community feels that until then the native Swedish ministers should perform the duties. (19)

The same year two men from the Vormsi Island, Anders Wikström and Alfred Hammerman are received by the minister of internal affairs Eenpalu, where they hand over a petition signed by more than 980 inhabitants of Vormsi. The petition solicited the use of Swedish language on signs, circulars and official documents on the island of Vormsi. Wikström and Hammerman had conversed with the minister for half an hour, during which the minister had questioned them about life on the island and had promised to take the matter under consideration. (20)

In 1936 began the home improvement campaign in Estonia. In newspaper columns Anton Vesterberg approves the idea and seeing an opportunity for the Estonian Swedes to emphasise their identity, suggests that all Swedes should paint their cottages of distinctive Swedish red colour.

The question of low birth rate arises in the Estonian society. Kustbon finds the situation even more dramatic among the Estonian Swedes. Will we survive? - is the overall question. The main problems are emigration and low birth rate, in regions where the number of Estonian Swedes was smaller than the native population the ethnic identity was lost sooner. (22)

Anton Vestenberg also contemplates on the use of Swedish language in Estonian-Swedish schools:

A brief glance at our education program reveals that the role of mother tongue in schools of minority groups is considerably smaller than in all other Estonian schools, because we have to teach the Estonian language partly at the expense of our mother tongue. Thus we are expected to command the Estonian language at the same level than the native Estonians. This sets enormous requirements to our schools and teachers. (23)

The second chamber of the National Assembly was founded on January 15, 1937. 10 members of the second chamber were appointed by the Premier. (24) No Estonian-Swedish representatives figured in the list. This revealed another fact - the Swedish minority group, which was far from being the smallest in the country, was the only ethnic minority in Estonia that had no representative in the National Assembly. Kustbon reports:
Considering the patriotic loyalty of the Swedish minority before and after the War of Independence, we cannot but feel ourselves neglected.

Commenting on the new constitution (26) the tone of Kustbon is quite impudent and critical.
It is does not support the study of mother tongue in schools of ethnic minorities as strongly as the two previous constitutions. It is sad, but true that a nation who once so bravely fought for their mother tongue have now as a majority forgotten the principles they once established as an only possible solution to the language problem.

The newspaper also announces that the Estonianisation of Swedish names is taken a step further: all place and real property names had to be substituted. The exchange of names was proposed by the county administration and was to be executed by minister of internal affairs. (28) Kustbon makes no further comments on the subject.

The voiding of native Swedish ministers' work permits had forced Sven Danell, a highly esteemed minister to leave. Alexander Samberg's farewell speech in the newspaper is very gloomy indeed - almost as if Danell had died. Samberg writes:

For the last 350 years the ministers of Noarootsi have all been native Swedish - fate has torn broken the string of pearls, and the last pearl was Sven Danell. (29)

Paradoxically, the Estonian community showed deeper regard for Danell.

The issues of Kustbon in 1938 announce the founding of a Swedish language private school on the island of Naissaar. The authorities approve the idea, and even promise to finance the study of the Swedish language in the Estonian school. The closing of Swedish language classes necessitated the foundation of the private school. On the meeting of August 1, the school board of Harju region had determined to close the Swedish language class by reason of the lack of pupils and merge it with the Estonian school. The board proposed that the Swedish pupils could learn their native language five times a week. The journalists of Kustbon had thereupon contacted with secretary Väinastu of the school board of Harju region, who claimed that the number of Swedish language pupils on the island was 10, and the number of Estonian pupils 6. Väinastu added: But all the children on the island can speak Estonian as well as they can speak Swedish. (30)

In 1939 Prime Minister Eenpalu made an official visit to Vormsi. Everyone on the island had left his duties and come to welcome the important guest. In his salutatory the church minister Hjalmar Pöhl asked: Will the new republic be a dear home for us, safe enough to withstand tumult? And continued: Prime Minister, today you are visiting an ethnic group who shares their past with the majority of the country, who is devoted to the strong homeland and whom you can count on in trouble. Eenpalu in his turn acknowledged the efforts of the people of Vormsi and recalled that the Swedish helped to build up the laws of independent Estonia and the Estonian legislation have not denied the Swedish any rights and does not intend to do it in the future. According to Kustbon the visit had passed in a friendly atmosphere and on his departure the Prime Minister said he had made good friends with the people of Vormsi. (31)

In the middle of 1940 the last few issues of Kustbon leant towards Communism and the newspaper discontinued appearing. The Estonian Swedes continued to have a Swedish language organ - the newspaper Soviet-Estland, which was issued between October 17, 1940 and June 1941. The first few issues of the paper promised the Estonian Swedes a new and happier future, claiming that since then their situation had been far worse than native Estonians'. This could be deduced from the speech of Oskar Cher, the secretary of Lääne district committee of the Estonian Communist Party, in the October 24 issue of Soviet-Estland. Cher criticised the republican Estonianisation policy and promised that in the Soviet Union the Swedish will be treated as equals with other nations. (32) But what is this equality worth? Estonian Swedes did not dare to trust the Soviet system. According to different records nearly 7.000 Estonian Swedes migrated, legally or illegally, to Sweden during the period between 1940-1944.

Although the Estonian-Swedish community may have perceived the Estonianisation campaigns as discriminative, they did not express it then or later in exile. Writing about it would have been perfect bait for the Soviet propaganda apparatus. There is enough reason to believe that the campaign-like and rather compulsive form of Estonianisation process, which naturally offended the Estonian-Swedish community and gave rise to antagonistic feelings towards the Republic of Estonia, troubled the administrative circles. That seems to explain also statesmen's heightened interest in the Estonian-Swedish regions, which culminated in Prime Minister Eenpalu's visit to the island of Vormsi in 1939.

Translated by Kait Realo


References from text:

(1) Victory Day (June 23) commemorates the decisive Battle of Võnnu on June 23, 1919 against the military forces which sought to reassert Baltic-German control over the region. The Victory Day marked the ending of the 700 years of serfdom, and symbolised the gaining of independence in general. (Editor's note) Back

(2) Segerdagen på Vormsö - Kustbon, no. 20, 1937. (Translation into English from the Estonian article - Transl.) Back

(3) Blumfeldt, E. Estlandssvenskarnas historia. - En bok om Estlands svenskar 1. Stockholm, 1961. S. 65-68. Back

(4) Could be translated as 'Swedish Friends of Education'. Back

(5) Aman, V. Vid framtidens grindar. - En bok om Estlands svenskar 4. Stockholm, 1992. S. 375. Back

(6) According to the census of 1922 the total population of Estonia was 1,107,059. Back

(7) Svenska Folklförbundet - Swedish People's Front. Back

(8) Kustbon - Swedish for 'coastlander'. Back

(9) Johansen, Paul. Nordische Mission, Revals Gründung und die Schwedensiedlung in Estland. Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademiens Handlingar, del. 74. Stockholm, 1951. S. 149. Back

(10) Aman, V. De ensamma svenskarna. - En bok om Estlands svenskar 4. Stockholm, 1992. S. 347. Back

(11) Nyman, E. Om Kustbon. - Kustbon, no 4. Stockholm,1993. S. 11. Back

(12) Appelgren, S. Kustbon som vetenskaplig källa. - Kustbon, no. 4, 1993. S. 15. Back

(13) Kustbon, no. 1, 1935. Back

(14) Kustbon, no. 2, 1935. Back

(15) Kustbon, no. 3-4, 1935. Back

(16) Kustbon, no. 3-4, 1935. Back

(17) In English - 'new coastlander'. Back

(18) The decree that all periodicals should be censored was issued on December 21, 1934. Back

(19) Kustbon, no. 17, 1936. Back

(20) Kustbon, no. 14, 1936. Back

(21) Kustbon, no. 28, 1936. Back

(22) Kustbon, no. 37, 1936. Back

(23) Kustbon, no. 40, 1936. Back

(24) Of the 40 members of the second chamber of the National Assembly 10 were appointed by the Premier, the rest were elected (13 by chambers of profession, 7 by local administrations, 2 by courts, 2 by universities, 2 by churches, 2 by the National Defence Army, 1 by chevaliers of the Cross of Freedom and 1 by German cultural administrations). Back

(25) Kustbon, no. 4, 1937. Back

(26) The new constituted was passed by the National Assembly on June 28, 193, and was ratified on January 1, 1938. Back

(27) Kustbon, no. 24, 1937. Back

(28) Kustbon, no. 14, 1937. Back

(29) Kustbon, no. 19, 1937. Back

(30) Kustbon, no. 25, 1938. Back

(31) Kustbon, no. 25, 1939. Back

(32) Soviet-Estland, no. 2, 1940. Back