Why did Latvians choose German surnames?

Kalniņš, from the Latvian for mountain, then Bergs, from the German for mountain, followed by Kalniņš again – that's a plausible progression of surnames in a Latvian family history, given that many people retain surnames with Teutonic roots. Why and how did Latvians assume German surnames? Demographer Ilmārs Mežs and Imants Cīrulis of the Latvian National History Museum explain this peculiar trend in Latvian history in an interview with Latvian Radio's The Known in the Unknown program.

Cīrulis stresses that Latvian and German surnames don't testify to ethnic descent. According to Cīrulis, it is impossible to unequivocally answer whether someone's ethnicity is expressed in the surname. 

"Before serfdom was lifted in the early 19th century the situation was rather uneven. There were ethnic Latvians living in towns since the end of the Middle Ages, and they had surnames. As early as the 16th and 17th century, there are documents – especially concerning trade guilds in Rīga – testifying to persons with clearly Latvian names and surnames," says Cīrulis.

Serfdom was lifted in the early 19th century, and it was about that time that Latvians started assuming surnames. "For example, documents from a manor say that in 1805 there were freed serfs working there, such as Jānis, Pēteris, Jēcis and Mārcis. They were definitely the sons of peasants, but they had become free either through the good graces of a nobleman or some other way. And several of them had surnames," says Cīrulis.

Latvians acquired different surnames, not only Polish and German, as it is often assumed. "For example, transport workers who carried goods from one point to the other had Latvian surnames as early as the 16th and 17th century, such as Mucenieks, Kalns and Putns," the historian says.

Meanwhile, in the early 19th century, there was a tendency to assume German surnames. It was often a choice on the part of the people who assumed a surname. They wanted to sound more German and therefore assume a social status more similar to the noblemen.

Ilmārs Mežs agrees that, in the 1820s and 1830s when surnames were given in the Kurzeme and Vidzeme cultural regions, they were not usually forced upon people.

"It looks as though most Latvians assumed [German] surnames themselves. They wanted to be more elegant. Much in the manner of doffing folk costumes and wearing urban clothes, it was a demonstration of class, not of national status," says Mežs.

"In the northern and central regions of Kurzeme, up to Jelgava, German surnames prevailed across most parishes. We find German surnames such as Freibergs, Grīnbergs, Šmits, Baumanis, Krauze, Dreimanis and so forth. Some of them are known in Germany, but many can't even be found there. Not to mention compounds from the two languages. People chose these themselves," says Mežs.

Mežs likewise points out that even though there's no relevant data regarding surnames in Latvia, about one third of the most popular surnames still have a German connection. 

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