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The Soviet Germans: Past and Present

Book review by Norman Davies

Fleischhauer, Ingeborg and Benjamin Pinkus. The Soviet Germans: Past and Present. Edited by Edith Rogovin Frankel. New Yor: St. Martin’s , 1986.


Over the last four centuries or so, the roles of Russia and Poland in Eastern Europe have been exchanged. In the mid-sixteenth century, the vast Polish Commonwealth was still absolutely the largest state in Europe, a multinational kaleidoscope of many diverse peoples, including the largest Jewish community in the world. Nowadays, a rump Poland only survives as a second-class satellite of the monoethnic, Polish population. Over the same period, the remote Grand Duchy of Moscow, with its exclusively Russian population has expanded by leaps and bounds, conquering and absorbing its neighbors' lands and peoples, until, first as the 'Empire of all the Russias' and now as the USSR it has ended up as the largest state in the world, and the home, land of some seventy nationalities. Old Poland and contemporary Russia are both examples of multinational societies where ethnic variety provides one of the central themes of social and political lift.

Fleishauer and Pinkus' The Soviet Germans is an Israeli production informed by an awareness of the parallel experience in recent times of Germans in the Soviet Union with that of the Soviet Jews. Both communities are in the throes of an emigration drive, which has only been par- successful, and both have a history of persecution and harassment.

This study is mainly concerned with the rural German colonists who first arrived in various parts of Russia and Ukraine in the eighteenth century, although there is some brief mention of the older Baltic German settlements which virtually came to an end during the Second World War.

Five chronological chapters deal respectively with the Tsarist period before 1917: the establishment of Soviet rule and the creation in 1921 of an Autonomous German Republic of the Volga: Operation Barbarossa (1941) and its consequences: the interval of Nazi rule, 1941-44; and the condition of the Soviet Germans since 1945. At every torn, close attention is paid to the complex geographical patterns, to cultural and religious diversity - Lutheran, Catholic, and Mennonite - and to legal, racial and economic factors. Inevitably, perhaps, the centerpiece lies in the grim Deportation of 1941, when the Soviet NKVD attempted to remove the entire German population from areas threatened by the advance of Hitler’s armies. It transpires that lists of potential deportees had been drawn up as early as 1934. Provocations, such as the dropping of paratroops in Nazi uniforms or the 'discovery' of Nazi flags officially distributed in 1939 in anticipation of Hitler's intended visit to the Volga Republic, were used to prove the victims’ supposed treason, on the basis of which the Supreme Soviet decree of August 28th, 1941- condemned the entire German population to enforced exile in Siberia or Kazakhstan.

Surprisingly perhaps, the estimated mortality among the deportees, (about 300,000 from a total of some 1.1 million) did not begin to match the death-toll during the 1930s when prosperous German peasants were prime targets for dekulakisation'. Another 350,000 Germans who escaped the Soviet deportation in 1941, mainly in south-west Ukraine, were faced in 1943 with a similar Nazi order to trek westwards into Poland, and with similar results. The nominal rehabilitation of the survivors, as expressed in a Soviet decree of 1972, has not in fact restored their civil rights since no significant number of Soviet Germans has been permitted to return to their former homeland in the Volga Region. The emigration of Soviet Germans to West Germany, which is outlined in an epilogue by Dr Edith Frankel, assumed modest proportions in the late 1970s, but, as with Soviet Jews has since declined sharply. This little book is a model of conciseness and precision, and of thorough research from archival, documentary, memoir, and oral sources. It shows how little is generally known, and how much can be found by intelligent researchers, on the continuing complexities of ethnicity in Eastern Europe.

The Jews of Poland sets its sights on a much vaster panorama, namely on Polish-Jewish relations over the last millennium. It is the product of a pioneering conference held at Oxford in September 1984 with a view to bringing some scholarly restraint to the subject and to assisting the process of reconciliation. The seventeen papers in this collection were selected from a much larger conference programme. To be pedantic, one might wonder whether the title is suited to the contents (which are not limited to the Jewish half of the equation); and whether the cover design, showing a Jewish illustration of ‘The Day of Atonement' is not open to misinterpretation. None of the perfectionists among the two interested parties are going to be completely satisfied. But from the first page of Professor Abramsky's eminently judicious introduction to the last page of copious footnotes, this is a real feast of erudition and enlightenment.

The broad range of contributors include senior scholars from both Poland and Israel, younger specialists from Europe and North America, people who were personally involved with the events they describe, and others with no personal links at all. There are representatives of the Polish emigre community, and of the various waves of Jewish emigration from Poland; of the Catholic University of Lublin and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; of the Polish Academy of Sciences and of Yad Vashem. Their collective experience comprises participation in the Polish Home Army, in the wartime Zegota (Council for Aid to the Jews), in the Warsaw Ghetto rising- in the Polish Communist Party- in solidarity, and in the Anti-Defamation League.
The range of topics is equally impressive. Ten of the papers deal with the era prior to the acute conflicts of the twentieth-century; covering such themes as early Jewish settlement, the merchant class, Jewish legal privileges and economic activities, Polish-Jewish relations in the Russian Empire, rural anti-Semitism, assimilation and acculturation. The twentieth-century papers are nicely balanced with two on the inter-war period, three on the controversial war years, and two on the period of Communist rule.

If one had to find a word or two of criticism, one might concentrate on the treatment of old Polish society, prior to the devastations of Hitler and Stalin. This volume tends to treat Polish-Jewish relations as a bilateral issue, involving only Catholic Poles and the Jews resident in their midst. In fact, historic Poland was inhabited by five or six nationalities. The relations between the Poles and the Jews were part of a network of intercommunal and interconfessional relations, involving also Germans, Lithuanians and Rutheniains (Ukrainians and Byelorussians); Protestants, Orthodox Christians, and even Moslems. Regrettably, the bilateral approach strengthens analysis of the dialectical kind where 'anti-Plolishness' and anti-Semitism- (not to mention such curiosities as 'anti-anti-Semitism') have to be the main concepts for enquiry. In contrast, it would be very valuable if some study could establish, for example, the extent to which the anti-Semitism of the extreme Polish nationalists of pre-war was not just part of a generalized xenophobia directed at all non-Polish and non-Catholic elements. One could rightly enquire how far the prevailing xenophobia with its characteristic contempt in particular for Germans and Ukrainians, was shared by the Polish Zionists.

In other words, much remains to be done. But with the establishment of the Institute of Polish-Jewish Studies at Oxford, whose first publication this is, one can realistically, hope for further enterprising initiatives. The Institute, and its new journal, POLIN, have certainly proved their raison d'dtre.

Recent attention to Jewish themes in Poland and to ethnic problems in general, is undoubtedly a sign of the times. !t would be good to see a study of the calibre of the two volumes above, applied to Poland's other surviving minorities, including the Polish Germans.

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