The archive of the Baltic University (Hamburg 1946-1949)

June 7, 2014

“We hope that some day our story may be told …”

“(…) Our institution will be recorded by history; the reason being that it is unique. Refugees do no usually have the mental spirit to create a university, but we had the spirit and therefore, our institution can be regarded
as a historical event. (…)”

Information Bulletin Baltic University, 13 December 1947.

The Baltic University was created in the midst of chaos, and started under the most difficult conditions in devastated Germany.  At the beginning, there was no scientific equipment and no means of acquiring any, no salaries for teachers. Despite these facts, academic people of the three Baltic Countries organised a university in Hamburg with a few months, with eight faculties and 17 departments. Classes started on March 14, 1946.

It was ‘the cheapest academic undertaking the world had ever known’, ‘no university in the world can boast more democratic relations between professors and the students’ and ‘it may be regarded as one of the most successful and promising examples of international co-operation.’

Despite all these noteworthy facts, the Baltic University is not a well-remembered institute – perhaps it is almost forgotten. However, not entirely: there are still people who have a memory of this university, whose career started right there in Hamburg, who have pictures, documents, and stories to tell.

I knew about the Baltic University, as my father had once been a student there. I had found his notebook, many years after he had passed away, among his papers. I searched for information and decided that I would try to make a documentary film about this remarkable institute.

Over the past years, I have been able to trace former students of all three nationalities around the world. However, I was also looking for documents. In March 2013, I received information from Tartu University Library concerning documents about the Baltic University that had belonged to Uppsala University Library. I then contacted Uppsala Library about these documents; but to find out if they had other information about the Baltic University. The answer I received was: ‘We can find no information neither here at the University Library Section for Manuscripts and Music, nor at the University Archives about a transfer of archival material to Tartu University Library. What we do have are the Archives of the so-called “Lettiska nationella fonden” (Latvian National Foundation), which comprise of 47 rather large boxes, the contents of which have not been sorted or registered.’ These boxes contained material about the Baltic University.

It was only this year, thanks to support form Tartu College in Toronto, that I was able to search these 47 boxes. I was a bit worried about the contents of the boxes when travelling to Uppsala, as even Raimo Raag working at Uppsala University, but also Alexander Loit, a historian working in Uppsala, had not heard about the archive. Later it was revealed that the librarian in Uppsala did not know about the archive either until I wrote him, as the boxes had not be catalogued.

The content of the boxes was beyond expectation. The material was not totally unsorted: there were boxes containing ‘Archiv des Rektorats’(21 boxes), as well as boxes containing student applications and lists. These boxes were sorted by nationality: indicated either with E, LA, or LI on the folders. Then there were boxes containing material from the faculties (one box for every faculty with information about courses, teachers and students), as well as boxes for sports, administration, and correspondence.

I spent the most time searching the boxes of the Rektorats, which contained documents and correspondence about the first meeting of academics and the first ideas for the university until its closure: transcripts of meetings, letters, telegrams, and so on. Even without thorough research, it was clear how many difficulties the staff had to face from the very start, how many battles they had to fight to keep the university open. The staff of the faculty wrote eloquent letters pleading their case and received simple orders what or what not to do. From 1947 onwards the staff tried to move the whole university to the UK, Canada, USA, and even Ethiopia. All attempts failed.

Unfortunately, most of the documents were not in a chronological order. Sometimes I did not know whether a correspondence had just stopped, or whether the continuation could be found in another folder. Some folders were very hard to open and it was difficult to read all the documents.

This is such a pity as this archive is a goldmine of information – for all those interested in the first post-war year in Germany in the British zone: information about how the UNRRA and later IRO worked, what kind of rules and regulations the refugees had to live by and how the economy worked. However, it gives insight into the functioning of the Baltic University. Reading through the documents left me wondering how the academic staff had the courage and determination to go on and I can only admire their achievements.

How the archive of the Baltic University ended up in Uppsala is not yet clear. The Latvian Foundation in Sweden does not know and neither does the Stockholm National Archive. When the Baltic University closed its doors it was most likely in the hands of Eduards Sturms, but by 1952 it was no longer in his possession. I still hope to find an answer to the travels of the archive, but most important is the knowledge that all the material ended up in Uppsala and can be researched there now.

Helga Merits