Very late is the precise historical information on Estonians who, even though they were already several centuries before the Common Era, were settled in present-day Estonia and in the northern part of Livonia. They lived independently, but in separate communities, and it was this lack of political unity of the Estonians that allowed their warlike neighbors in the late Middle Ages to invade their territory and even subjugate them for a time.
The main danger for the independence of the Estonians was constituted by the Germans, who at the end of the century. XII came to Livonia, founded a series of fortified cities (Riga was founded in 1201) and the religious-knightly order of the Sword-holders. The full affirmation of the Germans in Livonia began at the beginning of the century. XIII during the life of the third bishop of Livonia Albert (1199-1229). Around 1206, the Germans conquered the Livi, who lived south of the Estonians, and in 1207 they invaded Estonia to conquer it and necessarily convert it to Christianity. For 20 years the Estonians fought a heroic struggle with the Germans, but ultimately their resistance was broken. The Danes came to the aid of the Germans, who landed in 1219 in northern Estonia and founded the fortified city of Reval there; in 1224 the subjugation of the Estonians on the continent was accomplished, and in 1227 the island of Ösel (Saaremaa) was conquered. The conquered Estonian population had to embrace the religion of the victors (during the Reformation both Estonians and Germans embraced Lutheranism) and lost its independence: it was burdened with heavy taxes and obligations in favor of the conquerors, and the German knights gained legal power over the rural population of Estonia. The conditions of the population of northern Estonia were particularly hard, where therefore in the first half of the following century (1343-45) a revolt broke out, crushed with great cruelty by the conquerors.
The dominion of the Teutonic Order in the Baltic countries put an end to the Livonian war, which began in 1558 by the Russian Tsar Ivan IV. In 1561 Estonia was occupied by the Swedes and remained under their dominion (in the 16th century Livonia, which was previously occupied by Poland, also passed into their power). The Swedish government followed in the century. XVII in Estonia this policy: to defend the interests of the Estonian rural population and gradually reduce the rights of German nobles; the obligations of the peasants are determined and disciplined (in the so-called Vakenbuch), they were granted recourse to the courts of the state, and a large number of landholdings of the nobles were requisitioned by the government. In 1710 Estonia was conquered by the Russian armies and in 1721, as a result of the Treaty of Nystadt, it was definitively ceded by Sweden to Russia. In the century XVIII there is a new increase in the influence and power of the German nobility in the Baltic countries, and as a consequence the agricultural population of the Latvi and Estonians falls into a condition of absolute dependence on the German barons, without restraint of legislative norms, and descends to the lowest degree of misery and oppression.
During the reign of Alexander I, the question of the conditions of peasants in the Baltic countries was raised, and in 1816-19 the abolition of the slavery of the peasants of Estonia and Livonia was decreed. However, the right of land ownership was still left exclusively to the nobles, and therefore the material conditions of the peasants could not improve in a really noticeable way, since in order to use the land they were obliged to do an enormous amount of work for the benefit of the lords.
The movement of emancipation of the peasants could not achieve practical results until the second half of the century. XIX, when, with successive reforms, the peasants managed to obtain the ownership of land and freely dispose of it. Similarly, the struggle for public education was tough, because the centuries-old opposition of the elements of Germanic culture (nobility, clergy, upper class) to the development of an Estonian national culture was replaced by that of the Russian authorities, who had as their program the radical Russification of the country. The national patriot FR Kreuzwald deserves the merit of having, towards the middle of the century. XIX, collected most of the Estonian legends and folk songs, thus giving his country the great national epic of Kalewipoeg (in about 20,000 verses). At the same time JW Perno Postimees, and literary societies arose in the various study centers (and above all in the university of Tartu) for the broader and more fruitful development of a national culture.
A first peasant uprising in Mahtra, near Tallinn (Reval) had been crushed by the Russians (1858); so are other successive ones, and the corresponding manifestations of the new workers’ movement. But the Estonian people showed tenacity and faith, endured the miseries deriving from the reactionary regime of Alexander III, and of the governor for Estonia, Prince Sachovskoj (1885), and made their struggle against the rich feudal classes a struggle on a patriotic political basis for national independence.
With the advent of the new century, in fact, the Estonian people succeeded in conquering the municipal administrations in the most important centers, including Tallinn, and the union workers reached the number of twenty thousand in the capital alone. It was natural that the Estonians would profit from every favorable circumstance for the triumph of their cause, and, in particular, from the turbulence that occurred in Russia at the end of the war with Japan (1905), which therefore had immediate repercussions in Estonia. The reaction of the Russian authorities was violent (1906-07), especially due to the support given to them by the German-Baltic nobility, which rightly predicted that the overthrow of the Tsarist regime would also mark the end of its ancient caste privileges.. In each of the Baltic provinces the nobility had their own diet, political rights were reserved. And when the council of the empire (duma) was established in Russia, the Baltic nobility managed to obtain the right to as many seats as were granted to the remaining Baltic peoples, but obtained them for the exclusive benefit of their own caste.
Naturally, at the declaration of war between Russia and Germany in 1914, the nobility declared themselves unreservedly loyal to the Russian cause. On the other hand, how much value was attached in Germany to the affinity of race, language and culture with the Baltic nobility is evident, among other things, from the fact that various organizations for the defense of the German-Baltics arose there, also threatened by the reaction of the Russian authorities and their program of radical Russification of the Baltic provinces. The twofold struggle against Germans and Russians characterizes the history of the Estonian revival, whose youth, opposed in its initiatives by the large local banks, set up their own cooperatives and consortiums, and also enrolled in foreign universities, with the dual intent of gaining sympathy for the national cause., and to broaden their culture. The military regime, established during the war, it made it impossible to realize other immediate national aspirations; but the establishment of an Estonian National Council permitted by the Duma (12 April 1917), together with the extension of the borders of Estonia, according to the wishes of the population, to the northern part of Livonia (Estonian-speaking), was a first important step towards the longed-for autonomy that was achieved on July 14, 1917 when the National Council effectively took over the administration of the country.