From the Steppes to the Prairies: The Story of the
Germans Settling in Russia on the Volga and Ukraine
Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota
Aberle, George P. From the Steppes to the Prairies: The Story of the Germans Settling in Russia on the Volga and Ukraine. Bismarck, North Dakota: The Bismarck Tribune, 1963.
Msgr. George P. Aberle of Dickinson, North Dakota had access to
few sources, he says, when he undertook to write his history of
the Germans from Russia. He says he used personal knowledge, observation,
and a few fragments and articles. His book predates the general
histories by Joseph S. Height and Adam Giesinger by about 10 years,
so his is a true pioneering work. Frequently this reviewer questioned
facts (e.g. he says that German colonists took little or no part
in the political life of the country in Russia), so it may not be
the best first book to read. But he records stories the others do
not, gives lots of names and detail, and Germans from Russia buffs
will enjoy it. He gives specific facts about where villagers from
South Russia settled in the United States, so it is also useful
to persons collecting their family history.
The book opens with a thumbnail history of Russia's dealings with
the Mongols and Tartars and how they set the stage for Catherine
the Great and her manifesto. Throughout, he has a good sense of
the historical setting against which the German Russians played
out their life in and eventual exit from the area above the Black
Sea. He loves stories. For example, he notes that the presence of
huge wolves made it necessary for the first settlers to travel in
groups and carry a gun at all times. He reports that various skills
possessed by the first colonists were in demand by their Russian
neighbors, and the groups benefited each other. German blacksmiths
got iron and steel from the Russian "smelteries" to make items such
as plows. It is clear that Msgr. Aberle accepts negative statements
about Russians as fact, but one must realize that this was written
shortly before political correctness kicked in.
He sets the German colonists'story firmly within the historical/political
events of the day, in Russia and in the United States. He pays attention
to migration to South America, noting that emissaries from countries
in South America visited the German colonies in Russia, but he knows
little detail about the political situation there once they arrived.
He records an effort in the Crimea to herd Catholic settlers into
the Orthodox Church and relishes the considerable embarrassment
of Orthodox Church officials when the several hundred people who
were to have been taken into the Orthodox Church failed to show
up for the reception. He also tells of the late arrival of Bohemians
and Moravians to the Crimea. He says that within 100 years, more
than 100,000 Germans lived in Russian cities rather than on farms.
The focus of the book is on the Catholic colonies, but Msgr. Aberle
frequently reminds readers that there were many Protestant colonies.
He recognizes 1876 as a year that marked change in the status
of the German people in Russia. That was when the Russian government
arbitrarily revoked longstanding policies, changing their German
colonists' status and increasing distrust where once there was cooperation.
Msgr Aberle traces the deterioration in the relationship between
the Germans and the Russian government and the common people. In
1861, the serfs were freed but not offered free land as the German
colonists had. He notes that the German colonists came to be regarded
as aliens and intruders, and the Russians, who had seen themselves
as neighbors, became convinced that whatever the Germans possessed
belonged rightly to them. An escalating level of thievery, especially
by the Germans' former Russian employees, became the order of the
day without interference by law enforcement or condemnation by the
judges. Bad feelings grew and hiring stopped. Up to 1876, Germans
had had their own courts and dealt with all crimes except the most
serious, such as murder, which was judged by the district court.
In 1876, "Russian judges were appointed in every district."
He provides an interesting list of the wars in which soldiers
from the German colonies fought:
World War I--1914-1917
Msgr. Aberle is very aware of the hardships endured by the settlers
on the prairies of North and South Dakota. He tells of dangerous
prairie fires, storms, distance from other settlers, primitive tools,
and the difficulty in providing basic necessities. This book would
be a good general source for persons studying pioneer life. He always
notes strength of character, religious faith, and incredible persistence
in the face of hardship. We learn of the difficulty of providing
clergy and a consistent religious life and of lay-led worship even