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A Mixed Welcome for Returning Germans

Epp, George. "A Mixed Welcome for Returning Germans." Christian Century, 11 October 1989, 902-903.


A neighbor bends my ear for a good half hour while I edge closer to the front door of the apartment, my bag of groceries getting heavier by the minute. “I don’t know why all the Germans want to come to this country,” he says. He himself is one of the “Germans” from East Europe who trickled into the Federal Republic during the 1970s. Somehow he has quickly made the switch from immigrant to native when thinking about his own situation.

“Many are saying this fulfills the Old Testament prophecy that says that in the end times people will return to their own nations,” he says, “but I think it’s maybe an example of Jesus’ saying that if, like a son repeatedly begging his father for something, you pray to God for years, he finally gives in, if just to end your persistent begging.”

It’s a simple precept, but why not? People whose survival has routinely been in doubt probably have more use for simple than for complex explanations, and simple precepts and simple rhetoric underlie the fever of emigration out of East Europe among people claiming Germanic roots. Germany is their home; the U.S.S.R., Poland and Romania are lands of exile; they must go home before the doors close again and trap them and their children in who knows what further horror. The trickle has become a stream, the stream a flood. In 1962 the total emigration of Germanic peoples from East Europe (including East Germany) was about 32,000. In 1970, it was 40,000. In 1988, as a result of glasnost, the number very nearly reached 200,000. By current projections, the number in 1989 might well be 400,000. Since 1961, nearly 2 million have come, nearly half from Poland and a similar number from the U.S.S.R. with the remainder from Yugoslavia, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. It has become one of history’s greatest migrations, equivalent to the movement of Irish to North America during the 1850 famine or the exit of the middle class from South Vietnam after the fall of Saigon.

But this is a quiet migration, or at least it was until this past year when the numbers of arrivals in the Federal Republic of Germany severely strained the country’s ability to receive them. Reception centers in Friedland, Unna-Massen, and Osnabrück are handling twice as many people as they can comfortably process, and the clamor for housing has driven up prices and soured the market for all German apartment hunters. Add to this the usual resentment against immigrants competing with citizens for jobs, and it becomes clear why some native Germans are voicing opposition to their government’s general acceptance of these Umsiedler, or resettlers.

The reception is generous. Once a German family in the U.S.S.R. has gained and exit visa from Moscow – producing an invitation from a relative abroad is the key – a plane ticket to Frankfurt and a wait for a seat will fulfill the dream. Upon arrival they must satisfy the immigration authorities that they are either a Staatsangerhöriger (one who had and never voluntarily relinquished German citizenship) or a Volkszugehöriger (one who has remained a member of a group that retained its German culture and language and defined itself as “German”), or a spouse of one of the above. Then a resettler is paid a flat fee called “welcome money”, which could amount to several thousand German marks for a family. They might also receive reparation payments for every working year in East Europe, which could reach tens of thousands of marks, plus full access to pension, health care and social-service benefits. Many resettlers achieve a standard of living equal to or exceeding that of their neighbors in a matter of a few years.


“Who is German?” people are beginning to ask. Can those who have lived as Soviet citizens all their lives and have up to ten generations of ancestors who have lived on Russian soil really be considered German? And what about those who took Polish names in self-defense, forgot the German language and culture and are now apparently using the system to emigrate from a difficult economic situation? Do they have a claim to German citizenship?

The West German government of Chancellor Helmut Kohl has put a great deal of effort into convincing voters that the resettlers are kinfolk – that they are not Poles, Soviets or Romanians, but Germans. But it’s an uphill battle at a time when the social and political resistance to allowing more people into the Federal Republic is growing, spurred on most recently by the flood of East Germans coming through liberalized Hungary. Contributing to the widespread suspicion of immigrants is residual irritation over the thousands of Turkish “guest workers” who never went home. East Germans are obviously German, in the eyes of the general population, but they debate the status of German peoples from the rest of East Europe and increasingly treat Turks and refugees as undesirable aliens. If the numbers of East Germans requiring jobs and homes should rise to six-figure levels in the next year or so, interest in resettling Germans from socialist countries like the U.S.S.R. and Poland could wane further.

“In Kasakhstan,” one lady told me, “they call us ‘fascist Germans.’ Now we’re finally here in our homeland, and our children come home from school crying because their classmates have been calling them ‘communist Russians.’ ”

Other resettlement problems plague the Assiedlers. The Mennonites among them, for instance, find the life and worship style of their fellows in the Federal Republic to be shockingly liberal and worldly, and have therefore for the most part, chosen to establish their own congregations that preserve the conservative values they established in the U.S.S.R. Most of the immigrants express a similar reaction to liberal lifestyles in general, and most people agree that the generations react differently. The older folk tend to isolate themselves from modern influences, while the younger generation seeks to immerse itself in the milieu their parents reject. This is apparent in the families whose children have had five to ten years of German schooling and cultural influence. As a desperate defense against the perceived loss of values, one group pf Aussidler has established a large private school near Lage. More such developments are probable.

Before 1939, at least 9 million people of Germanic background lived in the eastern provinces of Germany; East Brandenburg, Pomeranian, East Prussia and Upper and Lower Silesia were incorporated into the new Polish boarders after World War II. Another 8.5 million were living in other Eastern European countries, often in German-speaking settlements. Both world wars forced the relocation of some of these people, primarily from countries that were at war with Germany.

The Mennonites, who make up between 10 and 15 percent of those Aussiedler currently returning from the U.S.S.R., are an example of ethnic Germans’ tragic experience in East Europe. A radical Reformation group, the Mennonites were persecuted through the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries for their challenge to the state church represented by their rebaptism of adults based on faith alone. They were persecuted also for their refusal to bear arms, a tenet that subjected them to public reticule and rejection as well as to the whims of rulers. A large number of this sect from the lowlands of North Europe sought freedom from the draft by moving to Prussia (now North Poland) and later, by invitation of Catherine the Great, to the Black Sea region of the Ukraine along the Dnieper River. Here they built up successful German-speaking agrarian and industrial colonies, and enjoyed considerable rights in self-government and religious practice through the 19th century. Several migrations to the Americas were organized between 1870 and 1900. Those that remained to face the October Revolution of 1917 and its aftershocks experienced the full horrors of the revolution’s wrathful vengeance on the “Kulaks,” the capitalists living off the fat of the land and the “labors of peasantry.” Another series of migrations to the Americas took place in the 1920s. The 50,000 or so who remained in Eastern Europe endured imprisonment, starvation and repression.


In 1941, those remaining in the Black Sea area were seen as political German collaborators and were forcibly evacuated to Siberia, where men and women alike were places in forest and mining labor camps. Many died there; others were drafted into the army and died between Stalin and Hitler. (One man told me he fought in the Russian army and was taken prisoner by the Germans, and then was drafted into the German army and taken prisoner by the Russians.) Some survived and eventually settled down to reasonably stable living in places like Karaganda, Alma-Ata, Dschambul and Frunze. Through it all, their eyes wandered westward, to places like Canada or Paraguay where virtually all had relatives by now, or to Germany where people like Chancellors Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt repeatedly placed the dilemma of the East Europe Germans on the table at Soviet-German discussions.

Glasnost, perestroika and Mikhail Gorbachev suddenly opened the doors. For many it was an answer to prayer – and dilemma. Church-centered communities of Mennonites began to enjoy new freedoms of religion and worship just as ranks began to disintegrate from emigration fever. Families with no relatives in West Germany found themselves virtually alone, unable to obtain exit visas while friends and neighbors frantically prepared to leave. Churches gradually emptied, in some cases with unopened boxes of recently shipped German Bibles stacked in corners. And everyone who had the choice of leaving wrestled with the questions, How can we go and leave our parents (or married children) behind? How can we go now that things are getting better? Can we risk another Stalin?

For thousands of people of German descent in Eastern Europe, the decision has been obvious. History has taught them that they will never be secure where they are, and that in Poland, the U.S.S.R. or in Romania their very “Germanness” marks them. For many, migration fulfills a dream nurtured for generations through the hardships through the hardships of the revolution, of the wars and of Stalinism.

But reality is often a poor respecter of dreams, and the open arms of the “homeland” are now beginning to close. An Umsiedler friend of mine endures a constant flow of anti-resettler sentiment from the woman whose house she cleans. “Write your relatives and friends back in the U.S.S.R. and tell them they won’t like it here—they should stay at home,” her employer tells her. “You people ruin the workplace for us by taking our jobs away and then by working so hard and doing whatever you’re told so employers play you off against the union and we all have to work harder.”

My friend is so fed up with these narrow interpretations and prejudices that she insists she would quit if more respectable work were available. A few days ago, though, she found a way to respond to the lady’s tirade: “We could understand why the Russians vented their hatred on us. We knew whet Hitler and our fellow Germans had done to them. And so we learned to forgive them for mistreating us. And I expect we’ll learn to forgive our detractors here in Germany as well.”

Her husband, Jake, told me how one day when he was ten years old two teachers in his little schoolhouse in the Urals kept him after class and berated him in turn for neglecting his homework. “There’s only one reasonable thing for you fascist brats,” one said to him, “and that’s to bury you alive in a barrel!”

The migration of the Germans back to their homeland may be an answer to prayer for people like Jake and his wife. But the rising hostility at their homecoming is something for which they hadn’t planned.

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