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Kurzemes un Zemgales hercogiste
Herzogtum Kurland und Semgallen
Duchy of Courland and Semigallia
Conventional short name:
Local: Kurzeme, Kurland
English: Courland
[[Image:|200px|Flag of Courland]]
 Official: Latvian, German
 Others: Venedic, Skuodian, Lithuanian, Liv, Russian
 Capital: Kuldiga/Goldingen
 Largest: Liepaja/Libau
Area: 27,286 km2
Population: ? Courlandians
Independence: from Russia
 Declared: 1918
 Recognized: 1919
Ceased to exist: 1940
Currency: Courlandian Thaler

Courland (Latvian: Kurzeme, German: Kurland, Lithuanian: Kuršas) was a state in Eastern Europe which existed as a Venedic-Lithuanian fief until 1867, as a nominally autonomous area inside Russia in 1867-1914 and as an independent state in 1919-1940. Its territories now forms part of Latvia and (a small part) Skuodia.


The capital city of Courland was Kuldiga/Goldingen. Other main cities were Liepaja/Libau, Ventspils/Windau and Jelgava/Mittau.


Venedic-Lithuanian fiefdom

Duchy of Courland was established in the 16th century as a duchy ruled by German nobility which descended from the times of the Order of Livonia but having a majority of Latvian population. It was a fief of Veneda but had some autonomy. In the 17th century Courland under the rule of Duke Jacob Kettler improved its navy and expanded its ports of Libau and Windau, took part in the colonization of the Americas and Africa. Courland established colonies on the island of Tobago (known as New Courland) and on the estuary of Gambia river (known as Courlandian West Africa).

After the death of Jacob Kettler the might of Courland started to diminish together with that of the Venedic-Lithuanian Commonwealth. However in addition to the pressure from the outside the ethnic German Courlandian nobility also felt increasing pressure from the Venedic nobility of the Commonwealth-proper which was interested in having direct rule over the colonies as well as the ports of Windau and Libau. With the partitions of the Commonwealth in the end of 18th century and weakening of its power the Courlandian dukes adopted more independent policy but they understood that independent Courland suits neither Prussian nor Russian goals.

Courland attempted to persuade Prussia to occupy Samogitia (and therefore reach Courland preventing it from being surrounded by or absorbed into Russia) in the early 19th century and accept its as Prussian fief but this did not happen. There were Venedic-Lithuanian plans for annexation of Courland in a more unitary state but Prussian and Russian pressure prevented this from happening; Courland was never previously as weak as it was in early 19th century however and its colonies were in practice rented out to foreign companies.

In mid 19th century the national revival of many nations shown that not only the system of whole Commonwealth but also that of Courland was outdated. Ethnic Latvians demanded more rights in a country where they made a majority of population but the majority of nobles were Germans or recently settled Veneds and largely venedized Lithuanians. Lithuanians, Belarussians, Ukrainians in the Commonwealth-proper demanded more rights as well and it was clear that the Commonwealth was unable to help Courland on a long term.

Under Russian rule (1867-1919)

Duke of Courland after secret negotiations permitted Russian army to enter and accepted Russian protectorate in 1867. Under the agreement the German nobility would be permitted to exist and duke of Courland would retain some autonomy. Courland remained in Russia (however its West African colony became a colony of the Commonwealth) and the relationship between Germans and Latvians indeed did not change at first; however over the time the Courlandian autonomy was practically abolished and Russian language started to become more important. Latvian national revival continued and the ideas that there is a single Latvian nation in Courland and previously Russian occupied Livonia became strong.

Independence (1919-1940)

During the First Great War Courland was overran by German forces. After Treaty of Brest-Litovsk the Duchy was proclaimed mainly by Baltic Germans in support of Germany. While it remained a duchy with a person from the former dynasty in power, Germans understood that an unreformed state could not exist in 20th century. Latvian language was thus declared official in addition to German, parliament was established and land reform was initiated. The position of German language as one of the official languages and the extent of the land reform remained the main source for political debate in the relatively weak state of Courland in the interbellum. Some part of opposition called for the unification with Livonia (which was also granted independence by Germany) into a single state of Latvia but this was opposed by the German elite (who then would have lost further power) as well as many Latvian Courlanders because many presumed that the differences between the “German-Latvians with Venedic-Lithuanian flavour” of Courland and the more Russian-influenced Latvians of Livonia, many of which actually spoke Latgalian language, were too large to overcome; some Courland Latvians viewed to themselves as superior towards Livonian Latvians or at least just different (“Courlanders have about as many similarities with Livonians as they do with Lithuanians”).

Throughout the interbellum Courland retained a good relationship with Lithuania. Until Rūkuvos Uostas was built Lithuania used Courlandian ports. After a short downpoint of 1925 Lithuanian-Courlandian relations reached a new height after the 1926 coup in Lithuania. For Lithuania which attempted to be a hegemon in the region it was important to have allies among the local small states (and Courland was also important because of its Baltic population) whereas Courland needed a stronger ally to defend itself from various threats, such as a threat of Russian-supported Livonian invasion which seemed real especially during the crisis times in Courlandian-Livonian relations.

In 1939 the Second Great War began; Russia and its allies occupied Lithuania and Courland became geographically and politically isolated; Lithuanian government retreated via Courland. Russia issued ultimatum to Courland so that it would permit Russia to station its coast guards (7500 soldiers). Courland accepted the ultimatum after not getting German support. In 1940 Russia accused Courland of anti-Russian activity and demanded certain changes in government. Duke abdicated in favour of his son, who in turn abdicated in favor of his 5 year old nephew and a relatively pro-Russian regent was appointed by the parliament; but this was not enough for Russia which demanded further change. Regent then dissolved the government and appointed the Snorist leader as prime minister (Russian army crossed Courlandian border several hours before this and 7 Courlandian border officers as well as 1 Russian soldier died in several skirmishes). The Snorist prime minister of Courland asked Russia to “readmit Courland into the Empire” and Courland was annexed into Russia. After his abdication and before the Russian occupation the last duke of Courland disappeared after presumably leaving from Pavilosta (together with several of his servants and key political figures) for Scandinavia or Germany. Their fate remains a mystery to this day.

Second Great War and beyond

After several years the Russian occupation was changed by the German one. When Russian reoccupied the area in 1947 they established a Snorist puppet state of Courland which lasted only for a year – then the Russians decided to attract more support by supporting the Latvians who called for the unification of the state. Therefore, a Snorsit state of Latvia was established thereby ending the existace of Courland as a separate entity in 1948. Southwestern part of Courland, including the port city of Liepaja (formerly Libau, now Liepietke), was incorporated into the newly established Snorist state of Skuodia. The remaining territory of the former duchy of Courland was partitioned into governorates of Courland (western part) and Semigallia (eastern part), according to territories once inhabitted by the respective Baltic tribes (Curonians and Semigallians). The majority of ethnic Germans were expelled to Germany under the Act of Return whereas their homes were populated by Latvians expelled from what became Skuodia and from the eastern part Livonia which was annexed into Russia during 1947-1949. Early post-war period saw anti-Snor disturbances which were stronger in Courland than Livonia but were eventually crushed by a combined Latvian and Russian force.

Until the collapse of the Snor the flag, anthem and other symbols of the Duchy of Courland were banned in Latvia as separatist. It was claimed in official history books that Courland was established by German imperialists who oppressed local Latvians and that Russians came to help Latvians and reunified the country; the parts of history contradicting the official version, such as the Russian support for the Courlandian nobility in 1867 or the expulsion of Latvians from Liepaja in 1948 were either downplayed, not mentioned at all or otherwise covered (for example the claim that “In 1867 whole Latvian nation became part of a single country for the first time in history” was popular). After the collapse of the Snor however there is a resurgence of interest in the history of Courland and it is now seen as one of the more gloriful parts of the history of the Latvian nation (especially the rule of Jacob Kettler and the acquirement of colonies). In the early 1990s there were calls for dissolution of Latvia which were stronger in former Courland than in former Livonia. There is some separatism now as well but the separatists are in minority especially after the Latvian economic success of 2000s which finally reached the smaller towns of Latvia, including those of Courland and Semigallia.


Throughout the existance of Courland as separate entity ethnic Latvians made a majority of the population and most of them were peasants. Ethnic Germans lived primarilly in cities (where they made a majority until the urbanization of 19th century); they formed the richer part of the society. Skuodian minority lived in the southwest around the city of Libau/Liepaja and the dwindling Liv minority lived along the northeastern coast. Some Veneds and Lithuanians moved into the area before 1867 and during the Russian rule of 1867-1914 some Russians moved in (primarilly to the cities). In some southern villages and towns there were also traditional Lithuanian communities.