The birth of a national university

On 1 December 1919, during the War of Independence, Tartu University was reopened as a national university. In 1919, yet, ‘technical difficulties’ had to be faced in building up the national science. In many fields, the language of science was not developed and there was a lack of people who would be capable of ‘doing science’ in Estonian. Thus it is no wonder that the idea was conceived that a small state did not need a university and intellectuals could be educated abroad. The solution was found in the devaluation of the use of Estonian: it was not until the 1930s that the majority of subjects were read in Estonian in Tartu University.

The number of national scientific staff members, especially professors, was growing thanks to the scientists who were returning or emigrating from Russia. Also, foreigners were ‘imported’. Dozens of young scientists were sent to study abroad with financial support from the state. International organisations, especially the Rockefeller Foundation, also offered assistance. The first half of the 1920s was the period when, for the first time, Finland had a decisive influence on the development of the Estonian national identity. Several young Finnish scientists came to teach as professors at Tartu University, for example Johannes Gabriel Granö, Mikko Tallgren, Lauri Kettunen, Arno Cederberg, and Ilmari Manninen. In that period, the foundation was laid, mainly by Finns, for most of the Estonian national sciences.

In the independent state, the research and description of local ‘material’ was preferred to that of the fundamental sciences. Thus, while the 19th century was predominantly the golden era of natural sciences, between the world wars the rise of the humanities could be observed. In that domain, and in the given historical context, Tartu University held a leading position. Notwithstanding the stagnation or regression in some disciplines during the Soviet period, foundations had been laid in the interwar period for consistent development, which has continued to the present in the cooperation of national thought and science.

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