Civil Disobedience, Protest and Resistance
by the German-Russians in the Soviet State (Part 4)
Verweigerung, Protest und Widerstand der Russlanddeutschen
im Sowietstaat (Teil 4)
Krieger, Dr. Viktor. "Disobedience, Protest and Resistance by German-Russians in the Soviet State (Part 4)." Volk auf dem Weg, May 2007, 28-29.
Translation from the original German-langauge text
to American English provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado
Religiously Motivated Civil Disobedience and Resistance
during the Inter-War Period
Subsequent to the "October Revolution," the Soviet powers
demonstrated a fundamental attitude that was very hostile to religion,
which was manifested by the government decree of January 23, 1918
"On the Separation of Church and State and of the Schools and
the Churches. The edict would cause lasting damage to the churches,
particularly due to the confiscation and nationalization of the
entirety of their properties. They were henceforth barred from pursuing
charitable, scholastic or cultural efforts -- a ban which would,
however, not be strongly enforced during the 1920s. The Constitution
of 1918 classified priests and religious as "servants of the
bourgeoisie" and stripped them of the right to vote.
During those restrictive times and religious persecution, the free-church
communities of Mennonites, Baptists and other Christian faith orientation
demonstrated a relatively high degree of adaptability and flexibility
because they were not tied down by ecclesiastic hierarchies and ordained
pastors, they had a number of educated preachers from their own ranks,
they showed great care for their youth and often exhibited missionary
Aloysius Kappes (1885
- 1937). Volga-German Catholic priest, arrested in 1930 along
with 19 other Catholic clerics; on April 20, 1931, he was initially
sentenced to death by shooting, but then received a "reprieve"
in the form of ten years in a penal camp. In 1937 he was arrested
again on Solovki Island and, following a brief trial, was shot
to death on November 1, 1937.
Adam Bellendir (1989 -
1937) was one of the 19 Catholic clerics who were arrested along
with Father Kappes. On April 20, 1931 he was sentenced to ten
years in a penal camp and in 1937 was arrested on Solovki
Island and, following a brief trial, was shot on November 3,
During the 1920s a number of representatives of the German Communist
sectors and of local party and Soviet organs complained that the
formation of Communist youth organizations (Komsomol cells) was
dragging on very slowly, while religious education of the youth
and extracurricular activities of the brotherly commentates proceeded
The Congress of Mennonite Communities in the County of Slavgorod,
in a declaration of August 17, 1926 -- entitled the "Dirksen
Memorandum, after the chair Josef Dirksen -- demanded "the
unrestricted right to hold any and all religious gatherings and
talks in prayer houses, for adults as well as children; plus the
right to organize -- specifically for children and the youth --
any and all gatherings of a religious nature, choirs, and religious
instruction. The school must be recognized as neutral territory
on which one dedicates oneself exclusively to scientific endeavors,
whether in a religious or anti-religious sense ..."
The development of the New Economic Policy, the transition to forced
collectivization, and the accelerated industrialization process
occurred hand in hand with a frontal assault on religion and the
Church. The law on religious communities (April 8, 1929) further
seriously restricted the already modest rights the church communities
had been left with. In place of the constitutional guarantee of
"freedom of religious and antireligious propaganda [sic]"
there was now a stipulation for "freedom of religious confession
and anti-religious propaganda." During the same year, the "Association
of the Godless" morphed into the "Association of the Militant
Godless," and it soon claimed millions of adherents. From it
emanated certain "initiatives," such as disturbing religious
services, storming and damaging churches and houses of prayer, and
harassing and mocking the clergy and the faithful.
Early on, there was some active resistance. For example, in June
of 1930 thousands of the faithful protested in Marxstadt against
the closing of the local Lutheran church, but the authorities did
not hesitate to apply administrative measures or even raw force.
Thus, by 1935 only 8 Lutheran pastors still held their positions,
while 49 had been banished, and 46 had been forbidden to exercise
their profession altogether. As early as 1929, the secret police
(GPU) had begun with reprisals against all religious communities,
and although these measures lessened for a time during subsequent
years, they were implemented to a much sharper degree during 1937
During the 1930s, a widespread form of passive resistance, which
had a palpable affect on the Soviet powers, consisted of directing
to foreign organization various written pleas for assistance. Even
though people were aware of the danger of taking up any foreign
contacts, numerous German farmers turned to the churches and charitable
organizations in Germany, to the Ev.-Lutheran Missionary Association
in Basel, to the European Central Office for Ecclesiastical Assistance,
to Mennonite organizations in North America, and certainly to relatives
and countrymen all over the world. According to some estimates,
the German Evangelical Church alone received around 100,000 (!)
letters from all German-Russian settlement areas; all demonstrating
deep religiosity, the most basic needs for existence, and apocalyptic
The well-known British historian Robert Conquest called these letters
"practically the only witnesses of the time stemming directly
from people who were actually suffering from famine as they were
writing." By means of these letters, the world community learned
of many cases of persecution of clergy, of people practicing their
faith and of simple farmers, and gained a realistic picture of the
true extent of the famine within the Soviet Union.
The primary victims of criminal sanctions were the courageous pastors
and preachers who in their church commentates actively supported
the writing of such pleas for help, who smuggled them to foreign
representatives, and who distributed incoming material assistance
and monetary donations. A typical example is the criminal process
directed against Prelate Josef Kruschinsky, Deacon Raphael Loran,
Curate Johannes Thauberger and other Catholic priests who during
a show trial in Karlsruhe on April 28, 1935 were sentenced to ten
years' banishment or penal camp. The central accusation was "Organizing
mass requests directed to Fascists centers in order to ask for 'care
packages,' which occurred via letters with provocative content sent
to foreign countries."
With grandiose and propagandistic effort the Stalinist leadership
staged a "popular discussion" of a proposed constitution
that was accepted in December of 1936. It proclaimed civil rights
for all; direct, free and secret elections; equal rights, freedom
of conscience, and the lifting of discriminating measures.
Some of the faithful attempted to put former clerics and preachers
up for election to various soviets, or to re-establish dissolved
church communitites. However, these efforts were branded as the
work of kulaks and of "bandit elements," and their originators
were subjected to criminal prosecution.
This also happened to sexton Kremer of the village of Bettinger in
the Volga-Geman Republic. In September of 1937 he organized a registration
effort and collected signatures from 793 faithful, by means of which
he intended to achieve recognition of his community and eventually
to bring about the return of the church building. As soon as the organs
of state power became aware of this, the regional party committee
ordered the arrest of Kremer and a meticulous investigation of his
actions in order to "identify and single out the ringleader of
counterrevolutionary action by the class enemy."
Excerpt from a list of
arrested Catholic and Lutheran clerics; the list was compiled
by the German Embassy in Moscow on April 24, 1930.
Despite massive atheistic propaganda efforts and the ever increasing
persecution of and discrimination against the faithful, the majority
of the German population, at least until the war broke out, adhered
to their Catholic or Protestant self-image. The census of 1937 was
the first and last instance when data on membership in religious
faith were recorded.
Even if the results in this context are to be accepted with some
caution, one can still determine that more than two-thirds of Germans
over 16 years of age stated that they were religious. An informative
piece of data shows that only 10 percent of registered Protestants
-- including Germans as the majority, but also Finns, Estonians
and Latvians -- were illiterate. Within other confessions, those
unable to read and write were in the majority (Muslims and Buddhists)
or constituted a third of the membership (Orthodox, Jews).
By the end of the 1930s the Church as an institution ceased to
exist at all. Most of the faithful, fearing repression by the state,
had withdrawn to their private sphere. However, the traditions of
the Protestant brotherhoods were never entirely extinguished. In
fact, they would survive deportation and even the penal work camps.
Even after the war, and especially subsequent to the repeal of the
special reporting and control status of Germans, the active life
of numerous German prayer and brotherhood circles became a sign
of the spiritual independence and of the religious determination
of the German-Russians.
Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation
of this article.