Sibirien-Deutsche in den Zwanziger und Dreissiger
Jahren: Ein neues Buch
Siberian-Germans in the Twenties and Thirties: A
Review by Harry Loewen
Brandes, Detlev and Andrej Savin. Siberian-Germans in the Twenties and Thirties: A New Book. Essen, Germany: Klartext Verlag, 2001.
Translation from German to English by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado
Readers of this publication [the reviewer is referring to the
Mennonite Boten, in which the review appeared] will certainly
know something about the Mennonite colonies in South Russia. The
mother colonies of Chortitza and Molotchna and the Evangelical Lutheran
and Catholic colonies in the Ukraine were the first settlements
of the German and Mennonite immigrants to Russia in the 18th and
Less familiar are the German settlements that were established
toward the end of the 19th century and during the beginning of the
20th century in Siberia and Slavgorod and along the Trans-Siberian
railroad in Asia. Prior to 1929, about 75,000 German farmers lived
in West Siberia. Of roughly 36,000 German farmers in the district
of Slavgorod, the largest settlement, about 70 percent were Mennonites.
(p. 419) It is estimated that half of the German population of all
of Siberia were Mennonites.
The new book, Die Sibiriendeutschen im Sowjetstaat 1919-1938
[Siberian-Germans in the Soviet State 1919-1938], by Detlef
Brandes and Andrej Savin is a valuable scientific contribution to
the history of the Germans in Russia. A summary of its contents
Siberia was finally conquered by the Red Army in 1920. The German
farmers were taxed by forced contributions to the state in the form
of wheat, meats, and other foodstuffs. All those of faith were especially
alarmed by the introduction of the new communistic spirit in the
schools. Party men arrived in the villages and produced propaganda
in favor of the collectivization of agriculture. Quite active in
these activities were German and Austrian prisoners of war who had
stayed behind after World War I.
Their knowledge of the German language and their communistic consciousness
did exercise a certain sway over the youth in the villages. However,
communities were generally successful in retaining the faith of
their youth via meetings devoted to Bible reading and singing.
Even in the schools the communities were somewhat able to have
their way during the 20s. They employed their own as teachers
as long as they were able to do so. When the central government
replaced the German teachers with their own, German villagers generally
boycotted the schools. But as time went on, especially toward the
end of the 20s and the beginning of the 30s, Siberian-Germans
were gradually forced to give up their opposition to the government.
Forced contributions to the state and crop failures in the 1920s
contributed to famine and general poverty. Only through support
from foreign assistance groups, notably the American Mennonite Relief
Organization, was it possible to keep alive many of those in need.
The authors show that the Mennonites suffered less because of material
aid from their brothers in faith in the Ukraine, and also because
they were generally somewhat better off economically than the other
"For various reasons, among the rural German population,"
the authors write, "the Mennonites played a special role, due
on the one hand to their agricultural achievements and their traditional
confessional solidarity, and on the other hand because they had
been able to establish in the Ukraine and in Russia, a self-sufficient,
economically viable assistance organization, the 'All-Russian Mennonite
Agricultural Association'." (p. 415) In time however, this
association, too, waned in effectiveness and finally had to be abandoned.
Collectivization of agriculture, dekulakization, and prosecution
of the faithful strongly led to an emigration wave in the 20s.
About 21,000 Mennonites immigrated to Canada. In 1929 a kind of
panic flight to Moscow took place. However, only 5,700 Germans,
most of them Mennonites, succeeded in obtaining travel passports
in the capital city and in immigrating to Germany. The remaining
ones were sent back and oppressively branded as so-called "kulaks."
Preachers and teachers in particular were commonly persecuted and
What is not so well known is the fact that Siberian Mennonites
actively defended themselves against the excesses of the Soviets.
For example, on July 2, 1930, an "attempt was made to demand
the release of a brother in faith after taking as hostages the GPU
members who had carried out the original arrest." An armed
unit from the city of Slavgorod was sent to subdue this "kulak
rebellion." (p. 422)
By the middle 30s the Soviet state held even Siberia firmly
in its grasp. It is well known that the Stalinist Terror reached
its heights during that time. Thousands of husbands (and wives too)
of Germans and Mennonites were lost through deportation or execution.
([The reviewer's] father and grandfather, too, were shot in 1937
by the NKVD.) What is not generally known is the simple fact that
in 1937/38 Germans in Siberia mourned proportionally twice as many
victims, or twice as much loss of life, as the Germans in the Ukraine.
This book is both objective and interesting, and I highly recommend
it. From it, we learn much that is new about the Germans and Mennonites
in Siberia. We are very grateful to the authors for their painstaking
[Reference:] Detlev Brandes, Andrej Savin, Die Sibiriendeutschen
im Sowietstaat 1919-1938 (Essen: Klartext Verlag [publisher],
2001), ISBN 3-88474-975-7, hardcover, 495 pages.
Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation
of this book review.