Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

The Baltic Story by Caroline Boggis-Rolfe

A Thousand-Year History of Its Lands, Sea and Peoples

The palace of Sans Souci, seen from below the vine-covered terraces. (The Baltic Story, Amberley Publishing)

In 1969 I moved to Berlin with my husband, who was working in a liaison role with the Soviets. As a result, unlike most people from the West, we both went frequently into East Germany – in my case, a weekly shopping trip across the famous Glienicke Bridge to Potsdam being a regular event. While today the town’s UNESCO World Heritage Site is visited by large numbers of tourists who queue up to see inside the magnificent and well-restored buildings, my experiences fifty years ago were very different. At that time, despite being run-down, the quiet empty palaces and peaceful grounds where I could wander on my own had their own special kind of magic.

It was here at Frederick the Great’s much-loved Sans Souci that I first came to learn something about his guest, Voltaire. Being still young and very ignorant at the time, I knew little of the Frenchman other than his name, but this early introduction would be the spark that ignited my later interest in the history of the whole region. After choosing Voltaire as the subject of my doctoral thesis, I discovered his writings regarding several of the great individuals of the area – including Peter I and Catherine II of Russia, Charles XII of Sweden, and, of course, Frederick of Prussia. These rulers later became central subjects in my lectures on cruise ships, where I then found just how much the Cold War had affected the experience and knowledge of the majority of my generation, people who had grown up learning almost nothing about the countries lying at that time behind the Iron Curtain. But even today there is little written for the average reader who wants to understand more about the background of this important part of the world, a region that extends all the way from Denmark to Russia. Some academic works focus on certain topics or areas, and an abundance of excellent biographies concentrate on the great individuals, but it seems that little has been published in English for the general reader regarding the other players. I love historical biographies, but their authors like the rest of us have to make decisions about what to include and what to omit. When reading these works, which closely detail the lives of their central figures, I find myself often wanting to know more about the neighbouring people with whom they came in contact. This has been one of the objectives of my book, even though it has meant that I have had to sacrifice some lesser points in order to give space to the wider field.

Peterhov's Great Cascade with the Samson Fountain that commemorated the victory at Poltava. (The Baltic Story, Amberley Publishing)

With this broader search being my aim, I draw attention to the multiple connections that have historically linked the separate Baltic regions. From the days of the early traders, neighbours had begun to form alliances, often ratifying them by the exchange of a marriage contact. However, while these arrangements were intended to unite the different groups, all too often the reverse would be true as the dynastic arguments became bitter and gradually escalated into a full-blown conflict. But, despite their own repeated rivalries, throughout the centuries these regional lands would also be key players in the affairs of much of the rest of Europe. While Denmark, Poland, Sweden, Russia and Germany alternated as its leading players, the whole Baltic area would be a centre of east-west commercial activity, and a battleground during many of the continent’s most significant wars.

Personally, I consider history is best served by looking at it from the angle of the people involved; this, I believe, gives the events a more human face. In the last century there was a turning away from histories of kings, queens, and emperors, all such studies being seen as politically incorrect because they did not prioritise the role played by the majority of people. While that is a valid point, yet I still believe that we cannot avoid focusing on those who were responsible for making the decisions. And, even while putting aside the fact that the vast numbers of poor and needy were in the main unable to influence affairs, for a historian there is an even bigger problem. For the most part, until relatively recently such people left little if anything behind to mark their daily struggle. Therefore, if we want to study history through the individual, we have to find our source material in the letters, documents, portraits and other possessions of the privileged few. Furthermore, even while accepting that it was the rich and powerful who were mainly responsible for the decisions that resulted in wars, massacres, taxation and even famine, we have to acknowledge that it was these same people who also gave us the magnificent art and architecture, scientific discoveries and inventions, transport and better communications, which we still enjoy today.

Drottningholm Palace, which was rebuilt by Nicodemus Tessin 'the Elder' in the 1660s for the dowager Queen Hedvig Eleonora. (The Baltic Story, Amberley Publishing)

The Baltic Story is presented as a flowing narrative – in the manner of a French histoire, which is to say as both a story and a history. However, appreciating that not everyone has the same interests, I have constructed it in a way that allows each chapter to be read on its own. To avoid confusing the reader, I have tried to limit the number of individuals mentioned, and with all of them have attempted to give a rounded, honest picture that does not exaggerate their qualities or their failings.

One thing that particularly struck me while I was writing the book, was the dread with which so many of the rulers faced the unenviable task that lay before them. Rather than being men and women with an unfair advantage in life, many would see themselves as the victims of circumstance – this being particularly true in the case of the later Romanovs. Even some of the ‘Greats’ would feel these pressures. Frederick and Catherine, those self-acclaimed ‘servants of the state’, who worked tirelessly to the end of their lives, would as they aged lose much of the confidence of youth and become steadily more disillusioned by the reality of the growing challenges that were facing them.

While the book ends essentially with 1914, in a postscript I have set out briefly to summarise events in the twentieth century, when the countries towards the east of the region finally achieved the independence that they had so long sought. The successes of these nations therefore bring to a conclusion the Baltic’s important story that has for so long been largely overlooked by many English-speakers living in the West.

Caroline Boggis-Rolfe's new book The Baltic Story: A Thousand-Year History of Its Lands, Sea and Peoples is available for purchase now.