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Deutsche Geschichte im Osten Europas: Ru▀land

Book review by Eric J. Schmaltz and Samuel D. Sinner, Department of History, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska

Stricker, Gerd. Deutsche Geschichte im Osten Europas: Rußland. Berlin, Germany: Sidler Verlag, 1997.


The Germans from Russia Heritage Collection appreciates the detailed book review provided by Eric J. Schmaltz and Sam Sinner, graduate students at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, Nebraska. We are pleased to present this impressive book to the Germans from Russia community.

As one edition in a ten-volume series treating the subject of East European German minority groups, Deutsche Geschichte im Osten Europas, Ru▀land will clearly stand as the definitive study of Russian-German history for years to come. Not only a brilliant and exhaustive academic work, the German-language text of Gerd Stricker's edition, contrary with most modern German scholarship, is also highly readable and engaging for experts and general enthusiasts alike. Stricker's monumental edition successfully bridges the academic community's interests with those of the popular audience.

This impressive study incorporates numerous Russian-language and German-language sources, but also some notable English-language references. It provides hundreds of detailed endnotes, along with an extensive bibliography which is categorized by the book's major sections. Person and town indices, not to mention a short concordance of town names, also appear at the end. For the most part, the book is conveniently organized thematically and topically, with secondary importance given to chronology. Significantly, every major development and aspect of this ethnic group's epic history, complex culture, and tragic odyssey are covered by the internationally recognized scholars Gerd Stricker, Detlef Brandes, Peter Hilkes, Peter Rosenberg, and others. Though Stricker contributes the most book material, many of the Russian-German research field's best minds have come together to present their respective research in a single volume.

Siedler Verlag of Berlin has published an attractive, scholarly, comprehensive, hard-bound 669-page tome, which is printed on archival quality paper and is copiously and richly illustrated with black-and-white and colored photographs and replications, detailed maps, and statistical tables. This academic masterpiece should decorate any Russian-German's desk or coffee table and elicit lively discussion, as it arguably deserves a special place in addition to the personal library shelf.

First providing the historical background by briefly covering the period from Russia's traditional "founding" date of 988 A.D. to World War I's 1914 outbreak, the contributors then devote most of their attention to the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. After broadly defining Russia's geographical parameters and explaining Russian geography's historical importance, the edition emphasizes the modern era's major socio-economic continuities and transformations that deeply affected the ethnic Germans' way of life. These significant developments include mass urbanization, industrialization, cultural assimilation, growing secularization, modern nation-state building, repeated attempts at socio-economic reform, and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution's painful but far-reaching social, political, economic, and cultural consequences.

Gerd Stricker, a Swiss-German scholar well known for his studies on Russian-German Protestantism, observes in the introduction that a more comprehensive Russian-German history is only emerging in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse. As new archival materials in the East become accessible to outsiders, Russian-German history will continue to expand and diversify. More importantly, Stricker further notes that our growing understanding of these Germans will always be in the context of an ethnic group living in a host country--that is, as a vulnerable and ever adapting minority in the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Commonwealth of Independent States. Yet ethnic-German emigres from Russia now also find themselves to be "strangers" in a strange "ancient homeland" called Germany. The opportunities for further study seem limitless.

The authors suggest that the idea of "Russian German" encompasses a diverse and scattered ethnic group -- namely, the Baltic, Finnish, Bessarabian, Black Sea, Ukrainian, Volhynian, Crimean, Caucasian, Volga, and Siberian Germans. And the list goes on. Indeed, just what is "Russian German?" This ethnic category is closely tied with the problem of defining "Russia's" geographical and cultural boundaries, which have always been subject to change and interpretation. Without disregarding a certain degree of linguistic and cultural similarities, the Russian Germans' social diversity, historical variations, periodic migrations, and geographical separation have significantly influenced their general group development. The term "Russian German" is, more or less, a convenient means of naming and identifying ethnic Germans in what once constituted the Russian and Soviet Empires.

Thus a more complex picture of the Russian Germans emerges from Deutsche Geschichte im Osten Europas: Ru▀land, as one needs only to consider the Russian Germans' social structure, for example, in 1900: urban and rural, free peasant and noble, unskilled laborer and artisan, wholly "Russified" Germans and an increasingly self-conscious German intellectual elite, growing merchant and middle classes and disaffected workers and landless farmers. Moreover, the Russian-German mosaic comprises a multitude of vibrant Christian denominations: the Evangelical Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Mennonite, Reformed, Baptist, Hutterite, Orthodox, and various "Free Churches." In some cases, these denominations influenced one another, especially with regard to religious pietism's development during much of the nineteenth century.

Nor can it be denied the existence of a very small German-Jewish population in the Russian and Soviet Empires.

For all these internal differences and similarities, however, all these German minority groups clearly suffered a common difficult fate during this century. The Russians and their Slavic cousins had almost always regarded their German neighbors with both fear and respect, ever since Catherine the Great and some of her successors invited a substantial German population to come to their Empire as privileged colonists. Germanophobia (anti-German sentiment) increased in the course of the nineteenth century for a variety of factors, contributing to the Germans' loss of their privileges after the 1870s. Then between 1914 and 1945, the two terrible world wars, the Russian Civil War, and various episodes of profound social and political dislocation afforded the Russian and Soviet authorities the opportunities to label their Germans as "foreigners," "agents and saboteurs," "kulaks," "enemies of the people," "fifth-columns," "fritzes," and "fascists." For example, in the case of a number of Ukrainian Germans who joined the Nazi struggle in the early 1940s, the Russians and other Slavs reacted to a legitimate threat. In other instances, however, the "enemy" assumed disproportionate numbers, including innocents who, at least on the surface, appeared loyal to the authorities. Two prime examples of unnecessary and extreme anti-German measures include the forced mass deportations of Volhynian and Volga Germans in 1915 and 1941 respectively.

By the mid-1950s, at the latest, nearly four decades of persecution and physical destruction had bestowed upon the surviving ethnic Germans deported to Central Asia a relatively more coherent ethnic identity: "Soviet German." This broader identity, though by no means the only one, was partly forged out of adversity, death, and chaos. The twentieth century's turmoil has more clearly defined what it means to be "Russian German."

In the late 1990s, however, can one really still speak of "Russian Germans" as a living ethnic group? After Stalin abolished the Volga German Republic (1924-1941), the Soviet Germans never fully recovered as a people. They subsequently lived as a scattered extra-territorial Soviet nationality, their numbers already decimated by war, famine and deportation, and their cultural institutions nearly nonexistent. The Soviet regime's 1955 "amnesty" and 1964 "rehabilitation" decrees failed to restore the Germans' previous official status as a semi-autonomous nationality group. Out of the more than 2 million Soviet Germans listed in the 1989 Soviet census, nearly 1.5 million have since emigrated to their new "homeland" Germany. More importantly, "Russification" continues nearly unabated for those who decide to stay.

The perennial problems and choices (or sometimes the lack of choices) of ethnic assimilation, social integration, group persecution, ethnic separatism, and mass migration remain the same. The chapters treating the post-1980s Russian-German mass emigration and national autonomy movements indicate that old issues still preoccupy this embattled but persevering minority group, or, more specifically, the remnants of what had been a distinct ethnic heritage. Historical memory casts its long shadow on the present, perhaps nowhere more so than in the former Soviet Union. Yet the Russian Germans' future as an ethnic group seems more uncertain than before.

Also especially deserving of mention are those topics that many Russian-German scholars have mostly ignored for a number of reasons. For example, Margarete Busch, Peter Rosenberg, and Gerd Stricker make invaluable contributions to Russian-German music, fine arts, literature, press, and educational systems. They combine in one volume information which up till now was available only in countless scattered and obscure publications.

Indeed, this comprehensive work will be incalculably valuable to professional and lay readers; there is a little bit of everything for everyone. Probably more than any other recent German-language work on Russian-German history, Stricker's fine edition is the book that should one day be translated and made widely available to an English-reading audience.

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