Are we Germans, or Russians, or Americans?
The McIntosh County German-Russians
During World War I
Iseminger, Dr. Gordon. "Are we Germans, or Russians, or Americans?" North Dakota History 59, (1992) 2-16.
Richard Sallet, in his book, Russian-German Settlements
in the United States, wrote that when war broke out among the
major European powers in August 1914, German-Russians in the United
States agonized over the question: "Which is our country?"
Their ancestors had come from Germany, they or their parents had
been born in Russia, and they were living in America. This article
will suggest how one group of German-Russians, those living in McIntosh
County, North Dakota, might have answered this seemingly unanswerable
People love the land of their births, and this love does not necessarily
cease when they emigrate nor is it necessarily replaced with a love
for their adopted country when they become naturalized. War, however,
places a premium on loyalty to the nation of one's residence. "We
can have," thundered former President Theodore Roosevelt, "no
'fifty-fifty' allegiance in this country." Roosevelt believed
that a person should love his country, but he was entitled to only
one. "If he claims loyalty to two countries," he wrote
in 1918, "he is necessarily a traitor to at least one country."
Because World War I was perceived, both in the United States and
abroad, as a war against Germany, for no group was the loyalty issue
more difficult than for the millions of Germans in the United States.
For several months after April 1917, when the United States entered
the war on the side of the Allies, there was a degree of sympathy
for their plight. By the late summer, however, large segments of
the American population abandoned themselves to a hysteria of anti-German
sentiment. Before the war ended in 1918, this sentiment was carried
to ridiculous extremes.
State Councils of Defense, the American Defense Society, and other
organizations launched a drive to abolish the teaching of the German
language - the "Kaiser's tongue" - in the nation's schools,
because to teach it was to give aid and comfort to the enemy. According
to a poll taken by the Literary Digest, 149 schools had done
so by March 1918. William G. Bek's German courses at the University
of North Dakota were not canceled, but he had few students and he
suffered the humiliation of knowing that the study of German was
being prohibited in all of the state's high schools.
The governor of Iowa forbade the speaking of German on streetcars,
over the telephone, or anywhere else in public. In South Dakota,
concern over the loyalty of the large German population in the state
prompted the state Council for Defense to prohibit the use of German
in all public conversations. The language could be spoken over the
telephone only in cases of extreme emergency. After much protest,
the ban was relaxed to allow a fifteen minute summary of the sermon
in German at the conclusion of a worship service. So many restrictions
were placed on foreign language newspapers under the provisions
of the Trading-with-the-Enemy Act of October 6, 1917, that by the
middle of 1918 practically every German language newspaper in the
country was forced either to adopt a pro-government editorial policy
or to maintain a judicious silence on all questions relating to
German books were withdrawn from public libraries, and in Shawnee,
Oklahoma, German books were burned as part of the Fourth of July
celebration. In South Dakota they were thrown into the Missouri
River. Symphony orchestras learned that it was neither safe nor
wise to perform works by German composers such as Wagner or Beethoven.
The overzealous mayor of Jersey City forbade the brilliant Austrian
born violinist Fritz Kreisler to appear on the concert stage, and
Frederick Stock, the distinguished conductor of the Chicago Symphony,
was forced to relinquish his baton. Universities revoked degrees
they had conferred on outstanding Germans.
It became more ridiculous. In a frenzy of misguided enthusiasm,
hamburgers were renamed "liberty sandwiches" and sauerkraut
became "liberty cabbage." Children no longer contracted
"German" measles, but the more virulent "liberty"
strain of the disease. Dachshunds, by an accelerated process of
selective breeding, became "liberty pups," that is for
those unpatriotic enough to own one. In North Dakota, some little
thought was given to changing the name of the capital city. "Bismarck"
was unacceptable to many, because it conjured up images of Teutonism
and Blood and Iron.
German-Russians, no less than other German-Americans, were subjected
to indignities. With the entry of the United States into the war,
wrote Sallet, a period of intense suffering began for them. German-Russians
were admonished from childhood, for example, never to forsake the
mother tongue and for many it was the only language they knew. The
German language united the German-Russians, linked them to their
past, and helped them maintain their cultural identity. To forbid
German-Russians to use their language was to impose a severe hardship
In some communities, German-Russians were forced to carry the American
flag, wrap themselves in it, or kiss it as a sign of their loyalty.
In some instances when Liberty Bonds were offered for sale, hapless
was the German-Russian who for lack of money could not wear a Liberty
Bond button in his lapel as testimony that he had subscribed to
the war effort. To encourage his change of heart, he and his property
might be liberally daubed with yellow paint. Some were forced to
borrow money from banks with which to purchase bonds. In areas where
German-Russians were heavily concentrated, of course, such as in
McIntosh County, North Dakota, they were relatively isolated from
outsiders and thus spared from anti-German prejudice.
The strong sentiment against all things German during World War
I indicated how very seriously - and unfairly - some people took
the loyalty issue. Emigrants to the United States from one of the
Allied nations, particularly from England, could be passionately
devoted to their homeland and still be accepted as patriotic Americans.
Not so for people with German blood in their veins.
Many Yankees were convinced that people with German blood could
never completely break their ties with the Fatherland. How, then,
did German-Russians feel about the issue of where their loyalty
lay? A study of the German-Russians of McIntosh County may provide
McIntosh County lies on the border between North and South Dakota,
the second county east of the Missouri River. Dickey, McIntosh,
Emmons, Sioux, Grant, and Hettinger counties along the southern
boundary of North Dakota form the base of the "German-Russian
triangle," a triangle of German-Russian populated counties
having its apex in Pierce and McHenry counties.
McIntosh County was opened for settlement in 1884, and the first
German-Russian settlers probably entered the county towards the
latter part of the same year. They settled near present-day Zeeland
in the southwest corner of the county. Most of the immigrants were
Evangelical Black Sea Germans who traced their origin in Russia
to the Black Sea areas of Glückstal, Liebental, Bessarabia, and
the Crimea. By 1886, many families had settled near the present-day
towns of Ashley, Wishek, Venturia, and Lehr. Within twenty-five
years of its opening, McIntosh County had attracted hundreds of
land-seeking German-Russians, many of whom by 1914 had resided in
the county for only a short period of time.
Because this study focuses on the question of whether McIntosh
County German-Russians considered themselves to be Germans, or Russians,
or Americans at the time of World War I, it is helpful, when formulating
an answer, to note how rural the county was at the time of the war
and also the degree to which it was populated by German-Russians.
To understand German-Russians is to appreciate their land hunger.
Promised land, Germans from Baden, Bavaria, Württemberg, and the
Palatinate had accepted the invitations of Catherine the Great and
Alexander I to settle in south Russia. When asked by Works Progress
Administration interviewers in the late 1930s why they had come
to North Dakota, most German-Russians answered: "Land."
Of the 217 German-Russians in McIntosh County old enough to declare
an occupation in 1885, all but five - four men and one woman - were
farmers who had taken up land. The four men were younger than twenty-one
years of age and could not yet file on homesteads. The woman was
unmarried and also under age.
In 1890, 2,053 of the county's 3,248 inhabitants were German-Russians.
Twenty years later, in 1910, McIntosh County contained 7,251 people,
most of them of foreign stock. Of the total population, 5,745, nearly
80 percent, listed Russia as the birthplace of themselves or of
their parents, that is, they were German-Russians.
A common migration route followed by the Black Sea German-Russians
who took up residence in McIntosh County was to travel from Odessa
on the Black Sea to a German port such as Bremen by rail. Here they
took ship passage across the Atlantic to New York and rail passage
to Aberdeen, Ipswich, or Eureka in Dakota. Eureka, a relatively
small prairie town, was for many years a terminal for the Chicago,
Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway and, despite its size, the world's
leading primary wheat market. Eureka was also the main collecting
and dispersal point for hundreds of German-Russian immigrants and,
as "the Odessa of the Northern Great Plains," it "loomed
larger than life in the consciousness of countless German-Russian
From Aberdeen, Ipswich, or Eureka, German-Russians made their way
north to McIntosh County by team and wagon, and it would be logical
to assume that they settled first and in large numbers on the more
desirable land on the southern edge of the county. The census of
1910 suggests that this indeed is what they did.
Odessa, Berlin, Johnstons, Lowell, Myrtle, Jewell, and Coldwater
are the names of the seven townships, west to east, on the southern
edge of McIntosh County. The total population of these seven townships
in 1910 was 1,607. In every township, with the exception of Johnstons
in which the village of Venturia was located, every person lived
on a farm. By far the majority, 90 to 100 percent (the exception
again being Johnstons), of the male heads of households were farmers.
The census listed a total of 458 parents in the seven townships.
Of these, 390, or 85 percent, had been born in Russia. In no township
were fewer than 70 percent of the parents born in Russia, and in
most townships the figure was 90 percent or over. Even in Johnstons
the figure was 82 percent, suggesting that some of the townspeople
who had been born in Russia had chosen not to live on farms. Of
the total of 458 parents in the seven townships, almost 75 percent
listed German as their only language. Clearly, in 1910 the southern
tier of townships in McIntosh County was decidedly rural and populated
by German-Russians who had only recently arrived in North Dakota
and who had not yet learned English.
It would be unfair, of course, to extrapolate from these figures
to conclude that all of McIntosh County in 1910 was as distinctly
rural and as decidedly German-Russian as the southern tier of townships.
In Frieda Township, however, twelve miles north of the state boundary
and on the western edge of the county, every one of the 265 persons
in the township lived on a farm, 65 of the 70 parents had been born
in Russia, and all of the parents gave German as their only language.
As might be expected, in Youngstown Township on the northern edge
of the county - in which the town of Wishek is located - only half
the parents had been born in Russia and about the same percentage
claimed German as their only language.
The 1910 census listed only three towns, villages really, in McIntosh
County - Ashley (683 population), Wishek (427 population), and Zeeland
(196 population). Understandably, fewer of the inhabitants in the
towns were German-Russians and a higher percentage of them gave
English as their language. Nevertheless, in Ashley, the county seat,
of the total of 211 parents, 116 had been born in Russia and 73
of them listed German as their only language.
Even by 1920, when the population of McIntosh County had increased
to 9,010, the county was still predominantly rural and overwhelmingly
German-Russian. Just over 2,800 people lived in towns, most of them
in Ashley (1,009) and Wishek (1,003). Ninety percent of the county's
land was divided into 1,025 farms and the county's 1,633 families
lived in 1,604 dwellings.
That McIntosh County was rural and German-Russian at the time of
World War I can be established, but determining how members of this
ethnic group might have responded to the question of whether they
were Germans, or Russians, or Americans is not so easy. An appreciation
for the difficulties involved can be gained by contrasting the German-Russians
with the Norwegians in North Dakota. The two were among the largest
ethnic groups in the state.
Although Norwegian immigrants were primarily of peasant stock -
in Norway they had been small farmers, renters, and farm laborers
- illiteracy was almost unknown among them. A law of 1736 required
everyone to be confirmed, and the state Lutheran church required
confirmands to be familiar with Luther's catechism, the hymnbook,
and the Bible. Public schools were established in Norway in 1739.
Norwegians could and did read.
German-Russian immigrants were also of peasant stock, but with
this difference: Their ancestors had gone to South Russia determined
to maintain their language, religion, and culture. As a consequence,
they were an isolated people, a fact of incalculable significance.
They took with them no educated Germans - pastors, priests, teachers,
professionals, traders - and they lost virtually all contact with
Germany. They were cut off from the remarkable progress that took
place in Germany during the nineteenth century. Germans in South
Russia were farmers. Few had the time, ability, money, or inclination
to buy and read books and newspapers.
Isolation and the lack of educated people among themselves were
responsible for the lack of interest in schools and education in
the German colonies in South Russia. Displaying more interest in
religion than in education, they lavished far more money on their
churches than they did on their schools. Even when German-language
elementary schools were established in the colonies, the people
continued to be more absorbed in farming than in education. Because
the educated people among them - foreign priests and pastors, Russian
officials, and traders - tricked and abused them, Germans in South
Russia distrusted educated people and had little respect for them.
The few German-Russian young people who received an education did
so because they were weak and sickly and therefore considered unfit
to make a living from the land.
German-Russians in North Dakota exhibited the same characteristics
they had in Russia. They clung to their language, shunned contact
with other nationalities, neglected schools, and disliked free public
education and compulsory attendance laws. Few German-Russian children
completed the eighth grade and it was unusual for a German-Russian
young person to attend high school. Many German-Russian parents
took it as a compliment when their children chose to help with farmwork
rather than spend their time reading or studying.
Because Norwegians were educated and literate when they emigrated
to America, they could stay in touch by letter with friends and
family members who had remained behind in Norway. Archives, libraries,
and museums in Norway today have extensive collections of these
"America letters," as they were called. These letters
were important in their time because they conveyed to their recipients
reliable information and thereby encouraged further emigration.
The letters were also an important channel of communication between
family members and between friends. Immigrants kept in touch with
events in Norway and those who had remained behind learned of life
in America. Letters also made separation less painful and for many
in America it was the only opportunity to communicate their thoughts
and feelings in their native language.
These letters are valuable for researchers because by studying
them they can in some measure determine how individual immigrants
perceived and experienced the process of migration, assimilation,
and acculturation. Letter writers may have made only infrequent
references to particular historical events, but the letters are
a valuable resource for social history. They reflect the character
of the person who wrote them and maybe something of the recipient's
character as well. The letters provide insights into the daily lives
and feelings of individual immigrants and represent their personal
responses to events and experiences.
There are no extensive collections in Russian archives and libraries
of "America letters" written by North Dakota German-Russians
to those who remained behind in South Russia. When German-Russians
arrived in Dakota, the prairie on which they settled was as untamed
as the Russian steppes on which their ancestors from Germany had
settled a hundred or more years earlier. They faced the daunting
task of providing shelter for themselves; wresting a living from
the stubborn native sod; dealing with the fearsome size of the prairie;
and contending with insects, wild animals, droughts, and prairie
fires. Even if they had had the time, few German-Russians were letter
writers. Few kept diaries. Moreover, because of two destructive
world wars, a bloody revolution, a terrible civil war, the breaking
up of former colonies, and forced migrations, many of the documents
that might have existed in Russia have been scattered or destroyed.
Oral history can be of little help. Most of the McIntosh County
German-Russians who were of mature years during World War I have
This far removed from the war, for information on how McIntosh
County German-Russians perceived the loyalty issue, one must rely
on printed recollections, secondary works, local histories, jubilee
books published when towns observed the fiftieth and seventy-fifth
anniversaries of their founding, and on newspapers.
The county's two newspapers, the Ashley Tribune and the
Wishek News, are a possible means by which one may determine
the attitudes of German-Russians towards the issues raised by the
war. Using newspapers for this purpose presents problems, however,
so it will be best at the outset to anticipate and respond to the
criticism that newspapers may not accurately reflect German-Russian
opinion in McIntosh County during World War I.
C. C. Lowe was owner, editor, and publisher of both the Ashley
Tribune and the Wishek News. Lowe also owned the movie
theaters in Ashley and Wishek. It might be argued, therefore, that
because Lowe controlled what today is referred to as "the media,"
the views expressed in the newspapers did not necessarily reflect
those of the county's German-Russian population.
However, professing the credo that a newspaper was "the natural
mouthpiece of the community" and insisting that "every
resident and tax payer in the county should be a reader of the official
county paper," Lowe dedicated himself to publishing papers
that would appeal to the county's residents and at the same time
promote the county's best interests. To aid him in reaching his
ambitious goal of placing his newspapers in every home in the county
and convincing businessmen that advertising paid dividends, Lowe
hired an experienced German-speaking staff and printed sections
of both his papers in German.
Albert Wallner, a competent young man who was German both by birth
and by education, was Lowe's assistant in the Tribune office.
A. R. Rudow, also in the Tribune office, sold ads and subscriptions.
His success in signing up new subscribers - more than sixty in the
first two weeks of August 1917 - suggests that he got on well with
German-Russians. Lowe hired Gustav Destner, "a steady, reliable
and competent German editor-printer," to handle "the German
end" of the Tribune. Destner's wife was a German-Russian from
Eureka, South Dakota, and Destner became an American citizen only
on October 9, 1917. Robert O. H. Greiser, also of Eureka, was named
editor and manager of the Wishek News. Greiser, a former
school teacher, was fluent in both German and English. He purchased
the Wishek News from Lowe in 1919.
Lowe was no stranger to German-Russian communities. He had worked
on the paper in Ellendale, the county seat of Dickey County, another
county in which German-Russians predominated, and he came to Ashley
from LaMoure, North Dakota, also a German-Russian community. There
he had been owner and editor of the LaMoure Echo. He did
not sell the Echo until some months after moving to Ashley.
Of over five hundred newspapers in North Dakota, the Echo
was recognized early in 1917 as the best weekly publication in the
state. That the Echo was selected to receive what Lowe described
as a "signal honor" must attest to Lowe's ability as a
newspaperman and to his rapport with his readers, many of whom would
have been German-Russian.
At the time of the Armistice, on November 11, 1918, more than half
the pages of the Ashley Tribune were printed in German -
local news, legal notices (the Tribune was the official county
newspaper), sale bills, political ads, business advertisements,
and war news. Lowe wanted German as well as Yankee readers to be
informed of what was happening, even though printing in two languages
required an added expenditure of money and effort because double
the space was required for each item. (Lowe was forced to raise
the Tribune's subscription price to $2.00 per year on January
1, 1918, to cover his costs.)
When Lowe purchased the Ashley Tribune in September 1915,
it was a nondescript, small-town weekly with fewer than 400 subscribers.
By January 1918 he had doubled the number of pages in each issue,
tripled the size of the staff, and increased the number of subscriptions
to over 1000. Weekly he listed the names (and often the occupations)
of new subscribers - 100 of them in the issue of September 20, 1917.
Most of them were German-Russian farmers. "There must be something
about the paper," he editorialized, "that is worthwhile
having." In March 1918 Lowe exulted: "The Tribune
now goes into nearly every home in and near Venturia." In December
he noted that almost all of the farmers "tributary to Ashley"
subscribed to the Tribune. No longer could businessmen protest
that it did not pay to advertise in the Tribune because so
few farmers took the paper.
The point to be served by detailing Lowe's newspaper activities
is this: McIntosh County had 1,633 families occupying 1,604 dwellings
in 1920, and the county's population was overwhelmingly German-Russian.
The Tribune's circulation alone in early 1918 was over 1,000.
Many German-Russian households, therefore, must have been taking
either the Ashley Tribune or the Wishek News. Some
county residents subscribed to both. Because newspapers such as
the News and the Tribune depended almost entirely
on subscriptions and ads for their revenue, it may be safe to assume
that Lowe and his editors would have taken pains not to have printed
anything that would have alienated or offended their German-Russian
readers. And because portions of the papers were published in German
by German or German-Russian staff, it is likely that the opinions
expressed reflected the views of at least a portion of the German-Russian
In notices prominently placed on the front pages of his newspapers,
Lowe advised McIntosh County young men to comply with the law requiring
them to register for the draft - 738 did so on June 5, 1917, alone.
He also warned them of the consequences for failing to do so. Of
the hundreds of county residents who were eligible for the draft
in 1917 and 1918, only a few neglected to register or refused to
heed their draft notices, some of them out of ignorance of the law,
others because their fathers prevented them from complying with
the law's provisions. Some draftees, reluctant to leave their families
and farms, resigned themselves to the inevitable and heeded the
government's call to service. Most entered military service willingly
and not a few volunteered for the draft or enlisted in the Navy
or Army Medical Corps. Many young women volunteered for training
as student nurses.
Providing men and women for military service was not the only way
that McIntosh County German-Russians supported the war effort. They
economized, collected scrap iron, contributed to the Army YMCA Fund
and to the Red Cross, and purchased War Savings Stamps and Liberty
Bonds. All the while, they refused to get caught up in the war hysteria
that was gripping much of the rest of the nation. McIntosh County
children contracted German measles, as they had before 1917, and
not the "liberty" strain of the disease that so sapped
peoples' energies elsewhere in the country. Nor did county residents
eat "liberty cabbage." Grocers continued to feature sauerkraut,
especially at Thanksgiving and during the Christmas holidays. The
editor of the Wishek News believed that no purpose would
be served by changing names, including that of the state's capital.
"Such things," he pointed out, "will not win the
war for us and it is advisable that time be spent doing something
else more helpful." That "something else more helpful"
included what German-Russians were best at - farming and raising
Providing draftees for military service, "going over the top"
in Liberty Bond sales, eating sauerkraut, and coaxing more production
from their fields and livestock - all may suggest something of how
McIntosh County German Russians responded to the war. But it remains
to answer the question posed in the title of this article. Possessing
German ancestors, having their roots in South Russia, and resident
in McIntosh County, were these people Germans, or Russians, or Americans
during World War I?
Although McIntosh County German-Russians had German blood in their
veins, bore German names, and spoke German, it would be a mistake
to confuse them with the Reichsdeutsche, or Empire Germans.
German-Russians were known variously as "the Czar's Germans,"
because they had lived in Russia; or as North Dakota's "other
Germans," because they had not been born in Germany and had
never lived there. Timothy J. Kloberdanz suggested that a fitting
designation for the "other Germans" is Volksdeutsche,
a term that can be rendered not altogether satisfactorily in English
as "ethnic Germans."
When contrasted to the Reichsdeutsche, German-Russians may
have been akin to "stomach" Germans, Frederick C. Luebke's
somewhat inelegant term for a group of German-Americans. "Stomach"
Germans wanted to read the news in their German-language newspapers,
drink their beer in the company of other Germans, use the German
language in their worship services, and sing the old songs in their
native tongue. Distinct from the stomach Germans, according to Luebke,
were the "soul" Germans. Convinced that German ideals
and the German spirit were the noblest and loftiest in Western civilization
and believing that they should be perpetuated in America, "soul"
Germans idealized, articulated, and rationalized what they perceived
to be their superior culture.
When German-Russians arrived in North Dakota, they suffered what
Elwyn B. Robinson described as "a revolution in status."
Signs of this impending revolution became evident as soon as the
German-Russians boarded the ships that would take them to America.
To their dismay, they discovered that there were very few differences
between them and the peasants of other nationalities who were travelling
with them. This was a bitter realization for Black Sea Germans who
had come to regard themselves as belonging to a privileged class
in Russia. In Russia they were leaders and in the upper social stratum.
They had been admired by the Russian peasants and envied for their
fine houses, productive farms, good horses, and sleek cattle. In
North Dakota, they were at the other end of the social and economic
scale. Other nationalities looked down on them, and many German-Russians
complained that they were treated more condescendingly by the Reichsdeutsche
than by any non-German speaking group. Having observed this phenomenon
in western North Dakota, a Roman Catholic priest wrote: "To
the average German, the German-Russian was an Ausländer.
A literal translation of the word Ausländer would be
"a person from outside the country," or, more briefly
put, "a foreigner." Neither definition, however, does
justice to the word as a German would use it with reference to a
German-Russian. To fully appreciate the term's implications, one
would have to include in the definition what an Englishman means
when he uses the word "provincial," plus an "amused
tolerance, veiled contempt, and a plentiful superiority."
Nor did the German-Russians identify with the Germany of the Reichsdeutsche.
Their allegiance was to the Germany of the turn of the nineteenth
century, to the Germany of the time of their Auswanderung,
or emigration. German-Russians had not shared in the remarkable
economic, industrial, scientific, and cultural advances that Germans
had made in the nineteenth century. There were no '48ers among them.
They did not identify with Prussian generals named Moltke, and they
took no vicarious pleasure in the Prussian victories over Austria
and France on the battlefield. They did not swell with pride at
mention of the Germany that Bismarck's policy of Blood and Iron
had created in 1871. They had no affinity with William II's Weltpolitik,
nor did they appreciate his desire to secure Germany's "place
in the sun."
For the Reichsdeutsche, Germany was a distinct place - their
historic homeland, their native land, their nation. To the German-Russians,
however, Germany was "a deeply sentimental, even mystical,
... ancient Vaterland." And, despite their affection
for the Fatherland, German-Russians had not hesitated to leave in
search of better conditions. International borders and governments
meant little to them; they knew that both changed frequently and
quickly. It seemed, observed Kloberdanz, that the only Germany the
German-Russians required was "a personalized one carried deep
Although German-Russians shared blood, language, narratives, proverbs,
folk songs, and religious faith with Germans from Germany, they
were different from them. And the Reichsdeutsche seemed not
to consider German-Russians as with them in being German.
The first of Sallet's three possibilities having been eliminated,
were the German-Russians then Russians?
Reading the issues of the Wishek News and the Ashley
Tribune published between 1914-1919, one can find no indication
that the McIntosh County German-Russians had any sympathy for Russia
as a political entity. The Czarist government of course remembered
the German-Russians in America, and at the outbreak of the war it
demanded that those with military obligations return immediately
to Russia at their own expense to serve in the army. Sallet was
unable to identify even a single German-Russian young man who had
done so. In their letters home that were published in the News
and Tribune during the war, not once did a McIntosh County
German-Russian serviceman profess to be fighting for either the
Czar or for Russia.
German-Russians could easily be identified in any American community
as having come from South Russia. Their clothing, foods, architecture,
and agricultural practices all revealed varying degrees of Russian
influence. Their German dialects were liberally sprinkled with Russian
loan words. But, McIntosh County German-Russians here not Russians,
even though their Yankee neighbors often referred to them as "Rooshuns"
and the United States government sometimes mistakenly listed them
in the census as Russians. Only an insignificant number of the Black
Sea Germans who settled in North Dakota could converse easily in
Russian and they were typically those who had served in the Russian
army or those who had attended school for more than the average
number of years in Russia. During a century in South Russia, German-Russians
had not mingled with the Russians and they had only rarely intermarried
with them. " '... My father was never a Russian,' "boasted
one Volga German-Russian, and " ' no Russian blood curses my
veins, even though I came into the world in Russia.' "
A large number of German-Russians had planned to return to Russia
once they had made their fortunes in Dakota. Others regretted having
left Russia and yearned to return. C. C. Becker was among the first
German-Russians to settle in McIntosh County. Asked in old age by
Nina Farley Wishek whether he regretted having come to the United
States, he replied, "Ach, Gott, yes, I wish I was back
in Russia." Becker spoke for thousands who would gladly have
returned to South Russia, but only if there were a bridge over which
they could have walked or ridden. Neither threats, nor promises,
nor large sums of money would have induced those who had experienced
a difficult voyage across the Atlantic to make the return crossing
The Russia for which Becker and other German-Russians yearned,
however, was not the Russia of the Czar and his officials, but Heimat
- a word that is only inadequately rendered in English as "homeland"
- the Russia of their hearts. People were homesick for their homeland
and for their families. Wishek observed that Becker's statement
probably resulted from "the nostalgic memory of those glamorous
days of youth, for certainly the few Russians who have returned
to their homeland have always come back within the year to America.
It is only natural for the foreigner to feel a warm and staunch
affection for his Fatherland."
Not until after World War I did German-Russians begin to change
their attitudes towards their South Russian homeland. Through the
pages of the Dakota Freie Presse and other German-Russian
newspapers, they became aware of how those who had remained in South
Russia had suffered because of the World War, the Bolshevik Revolution,
the Russian Civil War, the executions, the mass deportations, and
the widespread famine. Relatives of McIntosh County German-Russians
told of going into the fields and robbing the mice of their stores
of grain in order to avoid starvation. After such reports, German-Russians
became aware of how much better off they were in North Dakota than
they would be in Russia. Not until then did they come to realize
that South Russia was no longer a "paradise on the steppe."
The intense homesickness they had once felt for Russland
gradually gave way to a grudging appreciation for the prairies of
Proud of the fact that they had lived in South Russia for many
generations and had yet remained isolated from the Russians; gratified
that their blood had not been mingled with that of Russians through
intermarriage; stung by being referred to as "Rooshuns"
by their insensitive Yankee neighbors; and relieved that, unlike
those who had remained in South Russia, they had been spared the
ravages of war, revolution, forced migration, and starvation - McIntosh
County German-Russians clearly did not consider themselves to be
Sallet allowed for only three possibilities. If the McIntosh County
German-Russians were neither Germans nor Russians, were they then
In his detailed study of German-Russians in the United States,
Sallet was able to find only two urban settlements of Black Sea
Germans, leading him to the conclusion that 95 percent of those
from the Black Sea area were wheat farmers. Many of them settled
in McIntosh County, on land they acquired under the terms of the
Pre-emption, Homestead, and Timber Culture acts. To do so, they
were required to take out citizenship papers or file intentions
of one day becoming American citizens. During World War I, however,
Americans they were not, even though some of them had been in the
county for as long as thirty years.
During the 1920s, the National Illiteracy Commission, the General
Federation of Women's Clubs, the American Legion, and other national
organizations sought to inculcate in United States residents, especially
in the foreign born and their children, the desire "to know
America, to understand America, and to love America," that
is, to become Americans. Good Americans were healthy and
thrifty; they were good stewards of their personal possessions and
of the nation's resources; they knew the Flag Salute and the Flag
Code; they were responsible voters; and, above all, they knew how
to read, write, and speak English.
Large numbers of McIntosh County German-Russians at the time of
World War I were illiterate in English. Throughout the war, therefore,
Lowe published substantial portions of the Ashley Tribune
and the Wishek News in German, not because he was particularly
defiant or courageous, but because German was the only language
that many of his subscribers could read. Lowe had taken great pains
not to offend his German-Russian readers and he had coaxed, begged,
challenged - sometimes shamed - them to support the war. He praised
them for their efforts and congratulated them for their accomplishments.
He printed "honor lists" containing the names of those
who volunteered for the draft, those who did not request exemptions
or deferments, those who contributed to the Red Cross, and those
who purchased Liberty Bonds.
Once the Armistice had been signed, however, in one strongly worded
editorial after another, Lowe reproached the county's German-Russians
for not being Americans. Parents had sent their sons off to service
unable to speak, read, or write a word of English. Marked by their
inability to communicate in English, the young men had been singled
out, discriminated against, and made the butt of ridicule. When
they returned home, Lowe warned, made the wiser by their experiences,
they would no longer accept anything that reminded them of "Hunism."
Lowe deplored the state of public education in the county. Teachers
were poorly trained and as poorly paid, school buildings were neglected,
compulsory attendance laws were not enforced, and children were
given insufficient opportunity to learn English - "the language
of America, the language of the country of our choice." Parents
who were denying their children an education in American ways, charged
Lowe, were doing them a grave injustice.
On Ashley's streets and in Ashley's stores, Lowe heard people conversing
in German. How, he asked, could they expect to improve themselves
if they refused to speak English? "Those people who expect
to make America their home," he advised, "had better adopt
the American language ... and stick to American methods."
Among the most difficult cultural adjustments that German-Russians
had to make was to switch from using German to using English, particularly
in their church services. German-Russians would have fought God
Himself had He suggested that worship services could be conducted
in a language other than German. "Yes," German-Russian
parents might reassure their children, "Our Lord God knows
everything - but He cannot understand the heathen babbling that
is English." As late as World War II, many McIntosh County
churches conducted at least some of their worship services and Bible
studies in German. Until the 1930s many children did not learn English
until they started school. Portions of the Wishek News were
printed in German until 1944 and parts of the Ashley Tribune
in German until 1955.
Language was only one means by which German-Russians maintained
their identity. They came to America with an established set of
minority group defenses that was rare among immigrants. Isolated
on the Russian steppes, they had perfected the mechanisms of survival
amid alien surroundings. Latecomers to Dakota, they settled on the
poorer land, farther from the rivers, railroads, and cities. Distance,
bad roads, and a deliberate avoidance of using English separated
them from people they considered to be "outsiders." Thus
isolated, McIntosh County German-Russians could maintain a way of
life largely unaffected by outside influences.
American cultural forces had not penetrated their communities sufficiently
by 1914 to convince German-Russians of the desirability of becoming
assimilated and Americanized. Through intermarriage and retention
of their language and mores, they remained as isolated in Dakota
as they had been in South Russia. Not until the Great Depression
and then even more quickly in the prosperous years after World War
II did German-Russians come to realize how interdependent they were
with the rest of America and with the rest of the world. Only then
did their clannishness, isolation, backwardness, and neglect of
education begin to pass away.
The Reichsdeutsche looked down on the German-Russians. After
the Bolshevik Revolution, the Russians disclaimed them. They long
had the reputation for resisting Americanization. If the McIntosh
County German-Russians were neither Germans, nor Russians, nor Americans,
what were they?
German-Russians were admirably equipped for living on the prairies
of McIntosh County. The land was their life. They were accustomed
to hard and tedious work. They were thrifty to an extreme and adamant
to the point of being stubborn. They were independent, self-sufficient,
and resourceful. They bore and survived adversity. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
in his Gulag Archipelago wrote of the methodical German-Russians
that they were good husbandmen and indefatigable workers. "Is
there any wilderness on earth," he asked, "which [German-Russians]
could not turn into a land of plenty?" And wherever the German-Russians
went, he noted, they settled in, "not temporarily, ... but
forever." "Not for nothing," therefore, "did
Russians say in the old days that 'a German is like a willow tree
- stick it anywhere and it will take!' " And German-Russians
"took" in McIntosh County.
Adolph Boschee came with his family to the United States in 1884
from Kassel in South Russia. By rail they made their way to Menno,
Dakota Territory, thence to Ipswich. In the spring of 1885 they
loaded their belongings onto wagons and started north to McIntosh
County, to, as Boschee described it, "our new Heimat."
Heimat meant something to German-Russians that non-German-Russians
have difficulty appreciating and understanding. It was Heimweh,
or homesickness, but it was more than that. Joseph S. Height, in
his book Homesteaders on the Steppe, wrote that wherever
a German-Russian went he remained deeply attached to the "Heimat"
with every fiber of his being. Height's description details the
feelings and experiences of German-Russians living on the prairie
of McIntosh County as aptly as it recalls their memories of what
life had been like on the steppes of South Russia. Heimat
billowing fields of grain, the long sweep of stubble stirred
by the mournful winds of autumn, the white pall over the boundless
winter landscape, the blustering snowstorm that turns day into
sudden night and dreaded darkness, the fragrant scent of the fresh
earth in spring...
Heimat awakened in German-Russians an ardent longing for
eternity, for infinity, and for God. Songs, suffering, sorrow -
all were "unforgettably" in the hearts and souls of those
who recalled Heimat. Heimat meant the nearness of
parents, relatives, friends, and neighbors. It meant mother tongue
and folklore, the wisdom of the old and the pranks of the young.
It meant the ringing of church bells and the singing of children.
It meant free men walking behind their plows. "Heimat
meant the wide horizon, the big sky, the snow-bright landscape,
and the wind-swept flowers of early spring." All this and more.
Much of what Heimat meant to the German-Russians was inexpressible.
What were the McIntosh County German-Russians during World War
The Reverend Salomon Joachim, pastor to a Black Sea German congregation
in Beulah, North Dakota, can help answer the question. The German-Russian,
made his greatest contribution to society in the form of manual
labor. By profession he is a tiller of the soil, a farmer, a producer
of food. It fell to his lot to receive land in the semi-arid regions
of Russia, Siberia, the Americas, and Canada. He built a granary
out of the steppes and the prairies. He did not shout that fact
to the world. A real farmer lives too close to the ground and
too close to God to become a braggart. He stays humble. The dust
of the earth and the smell of new-mown hay do not blur his vision.
A thrifty, hard-working, God-fearing people who respected authority,
McIntosh County German-Russians were aware of the war - they read
about it in the county's newspapers and their sons and daughters
were serving in it. They contributed to the Red Cross, bought Liberty
Bonds, sold scrap iron, and bent every effort to coax their farms
and herds to produce more. But the war was thousands of miles away.
They were farmers, and, like rural folk everywhere, their lives
were governed by the cycle of seedtime and harvest.
During World War I, McIntosh County German-Russians were people
with German ancestors who had come from Russia and who were living
in McIntosh County - their "new Heimat." For them,
the truth of a Latin adage was particularly appropriate: "Ubi
panis, ibi patria" Where there is bread, there is my Fatherland.
A number of McIntosh County men lost their
lives on the Western Front; many more were wounded. Others
served with distinction and were cited for meritorius conduct.
Christian Kurle, pictured above, was awarded the Distinguished
Service Cross for heroism on the Western Front. He also received
the Croix de Guerre, this for rescuing a wounded comrade while
under heavy enemy fire. Lt. Colonel Thomas J. Rogers of the
United States Army, acting on behalf of the French government,
presented the award to Kurle in ceremonies held in Wishek
on August 12, 1919.
Besides those who were on active duty in
the United States and overseas, more than two hundred McIntosh
County men were in army training camps when the Armistice
was signed on November 11, 1915. All returned home to tearful
and enthusiastic welcomes. To express their profound relief
and thankfulness at having their "brave sons" home again,
county residents held celebrations that included parades,
speeches, dinners, and dances. There was even talk of dedicating
the new $75,000 courthouse to "the soldiers of McIntosh County,
North Dakota, who fought in the Great War of 1917-1918...
A German-Russian family - John and Sopie
Ochsner, with their older sons David and Gust, and younger children,
Sarah, Laya, Johnny and Linda - photographed about 1906.
While in the Czar's Army, about 1888, these
two German-Russian cousins, Jacob Krämer (left) and Jacob Kramer,
had this portrait taken. Jacob Krämer (later changed to Kremer)
and his wife and family immigrated to America and settled in
McIntosh County near Ashley in 1889. Their son, Fred, was one
of many young men from McIntosh County who served in World War
I. The cousin arrived in McIntosh County in 1901, homesteading
near Wishek. -Photograph courtesy of Ron Kremer, Linton, North
Part of the crowd of 3000 people that gathered
in Wishek, North Dakota, on May 25, 1918, to bid farewell to
the men who were leaving for Camp Lewis, Washington. From the
Wishek News, May 30, 1918.
Gordon L. Iseminger is professor of history at the University of
North Dakota. He obtained his undergraduate training at Augustana
College and his graduate degrees from the University of South Dakota
and the University of Oklahoma. A scholar of European and ethnic
history, Iseminger has published articles and reviews in a variety
of journals including North Dakota History. He is author of The
Quartzite Border: Surveying and Marking the North Dakota - South
Dakota Boundary, 1891-92 (1988).
Our appreciation is extended to the State Historical Society of
North Dakota for permission to reprint this article.