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Orderly, Proper Folks

Ute Schmidt recounts the fate of the oft-resettled Bessarabia-Germans

Review by Goetz Aly

Aly, Goetz. Die Deutschen aus Bessarabien; Eine Minderheit aus Suedopsteuropa. Berlin, Germany: Berline Zeitung, 2004.

This review was translated from German to English by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado


In eastern Romania, between the Rivers Pruth and Dnyestr, there once lay Bessarabia, a border province that in 1812 had changed from being under Osman power to Russian power. Just a little later, Tsar Alexander I was luring "orderly, proper folks," by which he meant Germans, to populate the area. Despite the rich soil, the 10,000 new settlers did experience what an old emigrants' adage had promised: "Death for the first ones, poverty for those who come second,
and bread for the third wave." They became victim to biblical-proportion plagues, and thousands died from floods, grasshopper infestations, earthquakes, pestilence and cholera. Fear of feudalism was one of the most prevalent reasons for emigrating.

The Russian rulers tormented the first settlers with whip and chain -- "Nothing but punishment, which outrages the German soul, destroys the German character, and completely debases the whole person." Despite all that, German villages and farms did prosper after a few decades and went on to became a model for other ethnic groups, such as Romanians, Gagauans, Moldavians, Ukrainians and Russians.

During the First World War, Tsarist governors of rural districts closed German schools, forced the entire corps of teachers to serve in military units in the farthest eastern regions of Russia, and prohibited public use of the German language, even for funerals. Although the settlers, for the most part Protestant, had considered themselves a particularly religious group, it was then --
only then! -- that there were incipient activities toward a nationalistic organization. However, there are no traces of any noticeable anti-Semitism. On the contrary, these German folks tended to provide Jews with their personal protection from various pogroms instigated by groups of the majority population. Subsequent to 1940, Himmler's resettlement commissars even groused about what they perceived as an "a lack of antipathy toward the Jews that we cannot understand."

Shortly after the October Revolution, Bessarabia, which had repeatedly been settled by Romanians as well, cut itself off from Russia and soon became simply the Eastern Province of Romania. Its German residents welcomed the change, mostly out of their fear of Bolshevism, even though they were still forced to cede a portion of their farmlands to social policy goals of Romanian agrarian reform, and they thereby also lost the all-important trade relationship with
Odessa.

Soon, however, the Bukarest regime began its own series of harassment of the minorities, which by then comprised a third of the national state. For example, German school children were prohibited from using their mother tongue at recess; and any enterprise doing its bookkeeping in German was hit with a ten percent surcharge on their taxes. It was this sort of pressure that finally, especially after 1933, caused functionaries of the German minority, if not the people they represented, to began a process of political radicalizing.

The dividing up of Europe as a consequence of the Hitler-Stalin pact was a strong signal that the end of the German ethnic group in Bessarabia was at hand. In July of 1940, Soviet troops entered the province. German resettlement functionaries, who on the average were hardly 30 years old, and who had already arranged the exit of Germans from the Baltic and of colonists of
German-descent from Volhynia and Eastern Galicia, within only a few weeks of nonchalant routine acidity organized a movement of 90,000 folks out of Bessarabia, in a direction "home to the Reich." The German Reich's government resettled these "returnees" on farms and estates of exiled Poles, justifying the action as "natural restitution." The Soviet Union paid for the properties that had been left behind -- and were regarded very highly by mutually formed commissions -- with grains, plant and mineral oil. Proceeds flowed into the Reich's coffers.

The resettlers, having been threatened by nationalistic and Communist action, and now blinded by the "Third Reich," were singing in celebration as they traveled on the Danube on boats toward Germany. However, they soon realized what it meant to be human material involved in ethnic struggles among peoples. Homesickness became prevalent, but they struggled the most with the evident godlessness of National Socialism. And in the eyes of Nazi socialists they were caught up in a spiritual limbo resulting from the sudden "revolutionary upheaval in their conceptual world." Finally, of course, amidst the chaos of defeat, the new settlers were left behind within annexed Poland. In many places, troops of the Red Army simply rolled right over those trying to escape. Many were deported to perform forced labor inside the Soviet Union.

Most finally landed in transition camps in West and central Germany. Many of these ended up living in the Soviet Zone, where -- and only there, they were led to believe -- they could count on a farming life. "Well, there we worked our way up and were able to help each other a bit and buy a little something," told a Bessarabian-German woman then living in Mecklenburg. Even in the face of yet another collectivization effort ("I knew what was coming -- the collective!") these people, who had been mistreated so much by history, were able to retain some of their pioneer spirit: "Local Mecklenburgers always said that we Bessarabians were crazy, that we worked hard, but not to make a lot of money, but to make sure the animals were OK, and the place looked outwardly decent, and that that was much more important to us."

Historian Ute Schmidt, a daughter of Bessarabian-German parents -- her father was killed in the waning weeks of the war, her grandmother had died in Kazakhstan as a direct result of forced labor -- describes the life of this ethnic group of people across a span of two centuries and thereby sets a certain standard. In contrast to currently popular, often whiny, minority literature that tends to concentrate on so-called stories of destiny, she takes a full look at history. She thereby has succeeded in writing a brilliant book, rich in its multiple facets, one that in an exemplary manner depicts the social, nationalistic, and power aspects of modern European history. Soberly she analyzes all the structural aspects as well, just as if she were looking at, say, the social history of Bielefeld. Yet, in contrast to a view such as the latter, she retains her joy of story telling and, with attentiveness for the many individual persons of whose hopes, straying and despair she reports on so lovingly.

Ute Schmidt: Die Deutschen aus Bessarabien. Eine Minderheit aus Suedosteuropa (1814 bis heute) [The Germans from Bessarabia. A Minority from Southeastern Europe (1814 -)]. Boehlau, Koeln/Weimar/Vienna. 572 pages.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this book review.

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