Disobedience, Protest and Resistance by the German-Russians
in the Soviet State (Part 2)
Verweigerung, Protest und Widerstand der Russlanddeutschen
Krieger, Dr. Viktor. "Disobedience, Protest and Resistance by German-Russians in the Soviet State." Volk auf dem Weg, March 2007, 12-14.
This translation from the original German text to American
English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado
NOTE: This article is a continuation from the February
2007 Issue, pages 14-15 (still to be continued)
Armed Resistance in the Black Sea Region
The situation of the Black Sea Germans during the years 1918 -
1920 differed form that of the Volga-Germans. While the latter were,
nearly without interruption, part of the Soviet power arena and
throughout the years were forced to endure the merciless food delivery
requisitions plus numerous mobilizations of persons and horses and
then themselves became victims of catastrophic famine, the Germans
in southern Ukraine and on Crimea initially suffered primarily as
a result of the bitter clashes between various civil war parties,
from the chaos resulting from quickly spreading illnesses such as
typhoid fever, as well from attacks by marauding gangs, especially
those led by Nestor Machno.
In Odessa and environs alone, power changed hands at least seven
times within three years: a provisorily government, Boleshvist grab
of power, entry of German-Austrian troops, and then the conquest
of the city by the White Guards' volunteer army. Only from February,
1920 onward (on Crimea, from November) were the Bolshviks finally
able to assert themselves.
Under these circumstances, most of the settlements were left to
themselves to look after order and calm in their villages and to
set up armed self-protection units, which originally began to be
formed under the direction of Reichs-German officers and, in the
end, were to represent a part of the troops for maintaining order
that were associated with independent Ukrainian government
(Central Rada). The men of these militias would also form the core
of armed resistance against the requisition policies of the Bolsheviks.
With regard to the course of the largest uprising by farmers in
the Odessa region during the summer of 1919, new details have been
obtained from an eye witness report by a former German prisoner
of war, published only a few years ago. The uprising began on July
27 in Grossliebental, just as the village was being entered by a
troop of 20 men under the leadership of Sirik, the chairman of the
German Revolutionary Committee, with the goal of arbitrarily requisitioning
contributions, confiscating weapons, and causing new elections for
local administrative positions to be held.
Eighteen of the soldiers were murdered by the residents, and the
uprising expanded into the entire Odessa Gouvernement. Angered farmers
besieged the provincial center and detonated a railroad line; on
August 2, about 12,000 protesters stormed Odessa, but were beaten
back. With great effort, using a comprehensive mobilization of the
workers and party membership in the city, as well as with the help
of outside military units, the Soviets then succeeded in putting
down the rebels. Only by February 14, 1919 was railroad traffic
restored, but a few days later the city fell to an atttack from
the Denikin troops and supporting armed units of German settlers.
Subsequently, after Soviet power had been restored, dozens of the
rebels and former members of protective militias were arrested and,
for the most part, shot. During the Great Terror of 1937-1938, these
facts from the past would continue to serve as an important basis
for charges levied against others.
A group of colonists, their number still inexact, fought against
the Red Guards form within the White Army. It has been discovered
that an independent German rifle battalion, a component of the Volunteer
Army, that fought until the Wrangel-Troops retreated from Crimea
during the fall of 1920 and, at its beginning (January, 1919), had
originally numbered 800 colonists.
Part 2. Peaceful and Violent Protests, from 1921 through
Wave of Emigration
The relatively liberal period of the 1920s, especially in contrast
to 1914, was characterized by drastic economic, juridical, and social-cultural
decline, not only for the upper crust in the German villages, but
also for the majority of middle-tier farmers. As a result of the
Socialist land reform, most of the German farmers lost a considerable
amount of their land tracts. For example, a large farmer who may
have owned perhaps 60 to 65 desyatins of land [ca. 160 to 175 acres],
after the revolution had to be content with about 16 desyatins [ca.
43 acres], and [German] estates were taxed at a significantly higher
rate than those of their Russian or Ukrainian neighbors.
In German colonies, there was also an above-average number of lishentzy
(persons whose voting rights had been revoked). This revocation
had resulted in grave consequences for those affected and their
family members. Not only large land owners, but small ones, lost
their possessions as a result of government seizures. But additionally,
the campaign by the government that was so hostile to the church
inevitably led to serious conflicts between the settlers and those
Soviet authorities who had been entrusted with responsibility for
school and church matters.
No wonder that the implementation of such policies would lead to
stronger desire for emigration. During the years between 1923 and
1928, while the opportunity for legal emigration still existed,
18,300 Mennonites alone, or about 15 percent of this ethno-confessional
group, would leave the Soviet Union, migrating primarily to their
brethren in faith in Canada, Mexico and the US.
But due to the changing internal political situation, repression
by the state increased from about the end of 1927 on, leading eventually
to a ban on religious instruction, to more and more persecution
of the faithful and of the clergy, to a state takeover of the village
schools, to excessive grain requisitions, to the dissolution of
national agrarian and union organizations, and to dispossession
and banishment of the so-called kulaks and, finally, as the real
climax - the forcible collectivization of farming operations. It
took the Soviet powers until 1932 when, finally and completely,
they successfully degraded the formerly independent German farmers
and even artisans to a landless proletariat who, now working in
the organized collective operations, had become entirely dependent
on the state.
During all those years, there were dramatic instances of nonviolent
resistance by the German agrarian population, which, in a spectacular
wave of emigration, would reach its climax and thereby attract the
attention of the entire world: spurred on by the repressive agrarian
policies, during the fall of 1929 thousands of German settlers decided
to go to the capital city and there to demand from the central government
the right for free emigration. Dr. Otto Auhagen, agricultural attache
at the German Embassy, commented on their apparent motivation as
"Nearly everywhere, the German population seems overwhelmed
with a feeling of total helplessness, often bordering on despair...
The Commune has robbed the farmer of his economic independence,
and he feels not only like a servant, but even as a slave; he is
horrified by the possible dissolution of his family, and he would
rather die of hunger than deny his faith."
According to as yet incomplete data, as of mid-November of 1929,
the number of those desiring to emigrate came to 12,439 persons,
of whom 9,120 were Mennonites, 2,481 Lutherans, 743 Catholics, and
95 Baptists. Most were from the Siberian district of Slavgorod.
After long weeks of waiting, 5,671 of them received permission to
migrate to Germany and from there to North America. The rest was
forced by the secret police to return to their home villages.
The political significance of this action was, in its effect on
the fate of not only the Siberian farmers, not to be underestimated.
One of the party functionaries expressed this as follows:
"The German kulak, although he did not shoot at us from a gun,
did give us a political slap in the face, one that is more serious
than the serious loss of a lone activist... The terror on kulaks is
insignificant in comparison to the political action that the German
kulak has exercised with the idealist and organizational-political
assistance from American capitalism. Organizing and leading an imposing
number of servants and poor farmers during this thirteenth year of
the existence of the Soviet State is considerably more complicated
and effecting than shooting an activist in the dark of night."
One of many propagandist
publications in the republic-wide newspaper "Nachrichten"
(Engels), here on the topic of emigration; printed December
The Soviet powers would never forget this instance of being exposed
on the political stage of the entire world, and with the next opportunity,
during the years of the Great Terror, 1937 - 1938, they would exact
gruesome vengeance. Any participation in that earlier emigration
action would now provide at least an initial reason for arrest,
and further charges would result from association with the existence
of relatives overseas or from any contact whatsoever with Western
countries or any foreigners. This appears to be the decisive factor
in why, even with similar numbers of minority residents within the
region of Altai and Omsk, some 3,171 Germans were arrested, and
of those 2,312 were shot in Altai, whereas in the regain of Omsk
[considerably farther east], the respective numbers amounted to
a "mere" 539 and 128, respectively.
Critical Behavior on the Part of the German Leadership
During the 1920s the new political leadership tier among German-Russians
was not "on the same page." Some of its highly placed
representatives attempted to criticize or at least soften in effect
the measures taken by the central and regional authorities, effectively
equating them with putting the German minority at a real disadvantage
in comparison with other nationalities.
For example, the director of the German segment of the Odessa Gouvernement's
Executive Committee, Gebhard, complained about the higher economic
burden placed on the colonies as compared with that placed on farmers
of other nationalities. In fact, during 1921 the former filled their
foodstuff requisition burden at 100 to 120 percent, whereas neighboring
Russian, Ukrainian. Bulgarian and Moldavian villages delivered at
a level of less than fifty percent of requirement. According to a
situational report, these accomplishments and performances were ignored,
and local party and Soviet functionaries continued to behave in a
hostile manner toward German settlers and made them out to be as anti-Soviet
Wilhelm Kurz (right), head of the government of the Volga-German
Republic, and Michail Kalinin, head of the national government;
Criticism of these kinds of opinions and perceptions as well as
the struggle against "Greater-Russian Chauvinism" were
an important part of the activities of the national party segment
during the first years of Soviet power. The frequently encountered
distrust from the party and Soviet apparatus may be understandable
within the context of a broadly circulated description of the German
and, especially, the Mennonite farmers: "Economically revolutionary,
politically reactionary." Although objectively the German farmers
provided the new powers with greater usefulness, they were considered,
based on their efficient economic methods, their relatively high
level of education, their various ties with foreign countries, and
their apparently strange Protestant and Catholic faith, to be, in
the final analysis, significantly more difficult to influence in
matters of ideology and social collectivization than other ethnic
At the time, certain "national Bolshevist" tendencies
were present even among Volga-German politicians. For example, during
a 1928 party confernece in Engels, Johannes Schwab, head of state
of the Volga-Republic, publicly criticized the catastrophic state
of writing and reading abilities of German children of age 8 to
11: their level of proficiency, 38 percent, was considerably lower
than that among Russian and Ukrainian children of the same ages
Wilhelm Kurz, head of the Volga-Republic's government, attributed
these and similar circumstances to the so-called "Spirit of
Moscow," which resulted in a distorted perception of problems
at the local level:
"The relationship of central organs with the German Republic
is disturbed to an extreme level.
This is apparent from the cliched pattern of action. When a representative
of the Volga-Republic takes a problem to any official or office,
he is told: 'You are from the German Republic? You are rich - what
else do you need? You'll manage by yourselves.' This mechanical,
cliched reaction is ingrained not only in experts and administrators,
but also in their party superiors."
During discussions within the Central Committee of the Party on
April 24, 1928 on the subject of increasing the grain requisitions,
Kurz also had the courage to criticize openly the policy of the
Central Committee. Moreover, he contradicted the all-powerful Vyacheslav
Molotow and strongly rejected the levying of additional obligations
on the Volga-German Republic.
The consequences arrived inevitably, even if slowly: Kurz and Schwab
were removed from their positions in 1929 and 1930, respectively,
and a few years later both fell victim to the Stalinist Wave of
To be continued...
Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation
of this article.