At the time of the Roman Empire, the Baltic Sea was known as the Mare Suebicum or Mare Sarmaticum. Tacitus in his AD 98 Agricola and Germania described the Mare Suebicum, named for the Suebi tribe, during the spring months, as a brackish sea when the ice on the Baltic Sea broke apart and chunks floated about. The Suebi eventually migrated south west to reside for a while in the Rhineland area of modern Germany, where their name survives in the historic region known as Swabia. The Sarmatian tribes inhabited Eastern Europe and southern Russia. Jordanes called it the
Germanic Sea in his work the Getica.
Since the Viking age, the Scandinavians have called it "the Eastern Lake" (Austmarr, "Eastern Sea", appears in the Heimskringla and Eystra salt appears in Sörla þáttr), but Saxo Grammaticus recorded in Gesta Danorum an older name Gandvik, "-vik" being Old Norse for "bay", which implies that the Vikings correctly regarded it as an inlet of the sea. (Another form of the name, "Grandvik", attested in at least one English translation of Gesta Danorum, is likely to be a misspelling.)
Main trading routes of the Hanseatic League.
In addition to fish the sea also provides amber, especially from its southern shores. The bordering countries have traditionally provided lumber, wood tar, flax, hemp, and furs. Sweden had from early medieval times also a flourishing mining industry, especially on iron ore and silver. Poland had and still has extensive salt mines. All this has provided for rich trading since the Roman times.
In the early Middle Ages, Vikings of Scandinavia built their trade empire all around the Baltic. Later, there were fights for control over the sea with Wendish tribes dwelling on the southern shore. The Vikings also used the rivers of Russia for trade routes, finding their way eventually to the Black Sea and southern Russia. This Viking-dominated period is also referred to as Viking Age.
Lands next to the sea's eastern shore were among the last in Europe to be converted into Christianity in the Northern Crusades: Finland in the twelfth century by the Swedes, and what are now Estonia and Latvia in the early thirteenth century by the Danes and the Germans (Livonian Brothers of the Sword). The Teutonic Knights gained control over parts of the southern and eastern shore of the Baltic Sea, where they set up their monastic state while fighting the Poles, the Danes, the Swedes, the Russians of ancient Novgorod, and the Lithuanians (the last Europeans to convert to Christianity).
In the 12th century, there was intensification of Slavic piracy. Starting in the 11th century, the southern and eastern shores of the Baltic were settled by Germans (and to a lesser extent by Dutch, Danes and Scots) in the course of the Ostsiedlung. The Polabian Slavs were gradually assimilated by the Germans. Denmark gradually gained control over most of the Baltic coast, until she lost much of her possessions after being defeated in the 1227 Battle of Bornhöved.
The naval Battle of the Sound took place on 8 November 1658 during the Dutch-Swedish War.
In the 13th to 17th centuries, the strongest economic force in Northern Europe became the Hanseatic league, which used the Baltic Sea to establish trade routes between its member cities. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Denmark and Sweden fought wars for Dominium Maris Baltici ("Ruling over the Baltic Sea"). Eventually, it was the Swedish Empire that virtually encompassed the Baltic Sea. In Sweden the sea was then referred to as Mare Nostrum Balticum ("Our Baltic Sea").
In the eighteenth century, Russia and Prussia became the leading powers over the sea. The Great Northern War, ending with Sweden's defeat, brought Russia to the eastern coast. Since then, Russia was a dominating power in the Baltic. Russia's Peter the Great saw the strategic importance of the Baltic and decided to found his new capital, Saint Petersburg at the mouth of the Neva river at the east end of the Gulf of Finland. There was much trading not just within the Baltic region but also with the North Sea region, especially eastern England and the Netherlands: their fleets needed the Baltic timber, tar, flax and hemp.
During the Crimean War, a joint British and French fleet attacked the Russian fortresses by bombarding Sveaborg, which guards Helsinki; Kronstadt, which guards Saint Petersburg; and by destroying Bomarsund in the Åland Islands. After the unification of Germany in 1871, the whole southern coast became German. The First World War was partly fought in the Baltic Sea. After 1920 Poland was connected to the Baltic Sea by the Polish Corridor and enlarged the port of Gdynia in rivalry with the port of the Free City of Danzig.
The burning Cap Arcona shortly after the attacks, 3rd May 1945. Only 350 of the 4,500 prisoners who had been aboard the Cap Arcona survived.
During the Second World War, Germany reclaimed all of the southern shore and much of the eastern by occupying Poland and the Baltic states. In 1945, the Baltic Sea became a mass grave for retreating soldiers and refugees on torpedoed troop transports. The sinking of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff remains the worst maritime disaster, killing (very roughly) 9,000 people. In 2005, a Russian group of scientists found over five thousand airplane wrecks, sunken warships, and other material mainly from the Second World War, lying at the bottom of the sea.
Since the end of World War II, various nations, including the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States, have disposed of chemical weapons in the Baltic Sea, raising concerns of environmental contamination. Even now fisherman accidentally retrieve some of these materials: the most recent available report from the Helsinki Commission notes that four small scale catches of CW munitions representing approximately 105 kilograms (231 lbs) of material were reported in 2005. This is a reduction from the 25 incidents representing 1,110 kilograms (2,447 lbs) of material in 2003. Until now, the U.S. government refuses to disclose the exact coordinates of the wreck sites. Rotting bottles leak Lost and other substances, thus slowly poisoning a substantial part of the Baltic Sea.
After 1945, the German population was expelled from all areas east of the Oder-Neisse line, making room for Polish and Russian settlers. Poland gained a vast stretch of the southern shore, Russia gained another access to the Baltic with the Kaliningrad oblast. The Baltic states on the eastern shore were occupied by the Soviet Union, Poland and East Germany became communist states. The sea then was a border between opposing military blocks: in the case of military conflict, in parallel with a Soviet offensive towards the Atlantic Ocean, communist Poland's fleet was prepared to invade the Danish isles. This border status also impacted trade and travel, and came to an end only after the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe in the late 1980s.
Since May 2004, on the accession of the Baltic states and Poland, the Baltic Sea has been almost entirely surrounded by countries of the European Union (EU). The only remaining non-EU areas are the Russian metropolis of Saint Petersburg and the Kaliningrad Oblast exclave.
Winter storms begin arriving in the region during October. These have caused numerous shipwrecks, such as the sinking of the ferry M/S Estonia en route from Tallinn, Estonia, to Stockholm, Sweden, in 1994, which claimed the lives of hundreds. Older, wood-based shipwrecks such as the Vasa tend to remain well-preserved, as the Baltic's cold and brackish water does not suit the shipworm
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