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A Speech by the Minister of the Interior,
Otto Schily, at the 27th National Convention
of the Germans From Russia

Rede des Bundesministers des Innern, Otto Schily, Beim 27. Bundestreffen der Deutschen aus Russland, 2 June 2001.

Schily, Otto. "A Speech by the Minister of the Interior, Otto Schily, at the 27th National Convention of the Germans From Russia." Volk auf dem Weg, July 2001.

Translated from German to English by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado


(Emphases added by the editors)

This day is not merely a day for honoring the achievements of the Landsmannschaft of Germans from Russia. It is also a day for reminding ourselves of the difficult fate and of the interminable suffering that many of you or your ancestors have had to endure. These must never be forgotten.

This is a day of remembering your tough breaks and your hard lot [in life]. The fate of the Germans from Russia is an inherent part of German history. Even now it is still difficult to imagine how many of your ancestors were forced to work in mines to their last bit of strength, fed only with watered-down soup, how they were tortured as slave laborers, how they suffered famine and cold, and how in everyday life they were marginalized and discriminated against merely because they were part of a minority.

Today, however, we also look toward the future and we wish to speak of the solidarity with which we desire to shape the lives of those still coming to Germany or of those who are deciding to remain in the successor states to the Soviet Union.

The Landsmannschaft of Germans from Russia has achieved so much. For this the federal government is very grateful to you. Chancellor Schröder has asked me to convey to you his personal thanks and his best wishes for today's event. Our most recent immigrating repatriates [Spätaussiedler] would hardly be able to begin to function without the tireless efforts of the Landsmannschaft. Many of your members who perform volunteer assistance often provide the very first contacts for the people who arrive here and who wish to get used to their new surroundings. You facilitate their contacts with the myriad authorities in communities, states, and federal offices, which together execute their responsibility toward effecting their integration. This is truly a complex task. Those who come to us as Spätaussiedler have from time to time their own illusions about living conditions they expect here. They must necessarily adapt to a new way of living, to new challenges, and to stress and a hectic pace of life.

The help of the Landsmannschaft, especially in practical matters of everyday life, is thus indispensable. Your knowledge of the culture, the language and the specific situations of the Spätaussiedler contribute significantly to their integration. You build bridges to their old home and you help to ensure that memories, traditions, and historical awareness are not lost. Your involvement will be required for many years to come --all the more reason to thank you and to acknowledge the work of the Landsmannschaft.

Earlier immigrating repatriates [Aussiedler] and Spätaussiedler in Germany, and ethnic Germans in the Russian Federation as well as in the various successor states to the former Soviet Union, know that the federal government is aware of their troubles and of their needs. It is our common responsibility to keep alive the memory of their difficult lot.

During the long history of the Germans from Russia, the relationship between the various Russian governments with the colonists, as they were then called, often varied--to an extreme. The words of a Russian politician and educator of princes--spoken as late as the '60s of the 19th century--still demonstrated tolerance and benevolence. During a trip with the Russian crown prince he wrote: "Russia is so vast that it can afford to be tolerant, without the practice of that tolerance endangering its security."

After the establishment of the German Reich in 1871, the relationship of leading sections of the Czarist Empire, and thereby of the Russian government, with the German colonists in Russia changed fundamentally. Among other factors, this was due to the political distance toward the new German Reich and, especially, due to the Pan-Slavic Movement. Mistrust and dislike began to gain the upper hand. Rights that had presumably been guaranteed "until eternity" by Catherine the Great in the 18th century were being gradually rescinded as of 1871. The result was the massive emigration by German colonists to North and South America. Return to the German Reich appeared to be obstructed, since returnees to the Reich usually were met with obvious dislike.

Then, too, the attitude of the government of the German Reich toward the Germans in Russia appeared to be conflicting.

Otto von Bismarck had quite a distant relationship toward the Germans in Russia. During the '70s of the 19th century there arose tensions between the German Reich and the Czarist Empire. As these tensions escalated during the '80s, the German envoy in St. Petersburg, von Schweinitz, was asked for a detailed report on the situation of the German settlements in Russia. The envoy von Schweinitz wrote that he was of the opinion that the German Reich "need not bother itself to maintain contacts with these colonies." Bismarck's own annotation on the margin reads "I won't, either."

The report continues: "Those who leave their fatherland should not demand that it make any effort to protect them." Bismarck made the note "Right" on the margin and added double exclamation marks.

It may well be a legitimate view that people who emigrate in a quest to find their fortune outside their home country should take control over their fate. However, that view should not preclude solidarity and support in times of dire need.

Be that as it may, the outbreak of the First World War brought with it rather bad times for Germans living in Russia. They were deported to Siberia; they were no longer allowed to speak German in public or even in their worship services. Harassment quickly became pogrom. For the Germans in Russia this was a fate rife with much suffering and bitterness, for they had always been loyal citizens of Russia.

Additionally, toward the end of the 1920s, Stalin's ascendance to power brought about the first wave of the collectivization of agriculture. This also brought about an even worse time of suffering for the Germans in Russia as well as for other farmers who had similarly been disowned. When, in 1929, about 14,000 disowned German-Russian farmers, barely this side of starvation, gathered for a protest in Moscow, the German ambassador in Moscow and the German government did nothing. The Reich's government based this lack of action on the economical and budget difficulties in Germany and on its desire not to disturb the good German-Russian relationship.

A group of about 6,000 of the demonstrators was in the end allowed to emigrate overseas from the Soviet Union and lived in a transition camp near Mölln. They were barely tolerated there, and the budget did not include means toward taking care of them. Their condition improved somewhat when the former Reich's President von Hindenburg showed disgust about the indifferent attitude of the Reich's government and provided relief from a special fund available only to the president's office.

Those who had to remain in Russia [I believe he means the demonstrators, tr.] received no support from Russia or from their country of origin. The manner in which that situation quickly worsened is well known. Not only those who, subsequent to the protest action were deported to Siberia, suffered the tortures of slave labor and great hunger. The implementation of agricultural collectivization in the '30s led to terrible famine, especially in the Ukraine. German farmers were denounced as "kulaks" and deported. During the terrible "cleansings" toward the end of the 1930s many Germans were arrested without cause and simply "liquidated."

The worst times of suffering, however, followed the German surprise attack on the Soviet Union in 1941. As a result of this war of aggression of unprecedented intensity, the German Volga Republic was dissolved on August 28, 1941. Hundreds of thousands of Germans in the Volga area and in other Germans areas of the European side of Soviet Union were deported to Siberia. There was not a single family that did not mourn the loss of lives.

Following the end of the war nearly all in the banishment areas were permanently detained by security forces, accordingly due to a strict policy of compulsory registration. They were subject to "command authority." Hundreds of thousands were forced to perform incredibly difficult labor in the Trud Army.

Only the visit to Moscow by German Chancellor Adenauer in 1955 brought about a certain amount of relief. The resumption of diplomatic relations between Germany and the Soviet Union actually affected the policy toward the Germans in Russia. Various decisions by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and by other state organs introduced some improvement in their situation. Yet, despite various attempts, they still lacked any opportunity to affect their own fate to any extent.

A turning point in the more recent history of the Germans from Russia came about via an exit travel decree of August 28, 1986, that was enacted as a result of the reform efforts by the then Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. That date had obviously not been selected by accident. However, the decree made it possible for Germans in Russia to make their own decisions concerning the remainder of their lives.

Beginning with the year 1987, when the exit decree took effect, we have received into Germany over two million Germans from Russia and their non-German family members.

Many Germans are unfamiliar with the history of suffering of the Germans from Russia. We must make sure that this does not remain the case.

We must understand and recognize the reasons why our repatriates have returned to Germany and why many others desire to do the same. This understanding presupposes knowledge of history. And knowledge of history brings about empathy, which we need to have toward all the newcomers.

At this point I wish to repeat quite deliberately what I said in May of 1999 during a ceremony of the Bund der Vertriebenen [Federation of Exiles] on the occasion of their 50th year of existence in the Federal Republic of Germany: In the past, the political left has--and this unfortunately cannot be disputed--kept silent about the fate of the Germans from Russia, and it has ignored the sufferings of people who were deported and were dying of hunger, be it because of disinterest or fear of being branded as "revanchists." Or perhaps also playing a role may have been the mistaken belief that repressing or covering up the truth might help pave the way toward rapprochement with neighboring states. However, facing history with clarity and truth is the only way to pave the way toward a future with greater closeness.

On the other side, the political right has attempted to take the facts out of their political context. Anyone who speaks of the fate of the German-Russians must also speak of the unprecedented aggression of National Socialism and the barbaric campaign by the Wehrmacht [German Armed Forces] against the Soviet Union. The fate of the German-Russians must not be used in looking for blame. Their suffering must not serve in attempts at relativism and somehow playing down the Nazi regime of terror, by means of which Germany terrorized its neighbor states--and even its own population.

Article 116 of the [German] Constitution clearly takes into account the history of the preceding century. It is an article we put our faith into. It is a consequence of the catastrophe of World War II. It offers a safe harbor to countless refugees, exiles and repatriates who have fled persecution and have sought safety. The bad conditions following the war made it our duty to accept into the Federal Republic all Germans seeking help and protection, and, simply for reasons of human dignity, to integrate them quickly into our society, instead of keeping them mired in camps.

All federal governments have allowed themselves to be guided by the following principles:

The choice of any member of a German minority whether to stay in their country and to shape their future there, or to join us here, is a personal decision of each individual, of each family.

We wish to provide assistance to all members of a German minority who wish to stay in their country and to shape their lives there.

For those reasons, we have decided to offer effective assistance wherever they find themselves, and we have discontinued less efficient large-scale projects. We are instead concentrating on efforts in public meeting places; on offering extracurricular language courses in Russia and Kazakhstan; on measures toward qualification; and particularly on working with the young, on individual assistance for elderly and especially needy people, and on medical assistance. We wish to relieve the distress of those in the former Trud Army, who are to this day continuing to suffer from the harsh conditions of their forced labors.

We also know that whoever comes here also requires assistance. The state, the churches, and charitable groups like your own support the immigrants in their prolonged and not always easy process of integration. Regarding that, it is especially important to offer a feeling of security and safety to those who at first feel very strange here. Who could do this better than those who are familiar with the situation and have been here awhile? We must make a common effort to integrate our immigrant people as quickly as possible, especially perhaps because of the not so small numbers of those who still come here each year. This is a huge task, which our society and even the immigrants must participate in.

Following the great accomplishments of the last 50 years of the Federal Republic of Germany, every German from Russia who fulfills the legal preconditions should be accepted into our country in the future. I must clarify here that the Federal Republic is not planning to make any changes to the respective quotas established by existing law.

Successful integration is the crucial factor. Fully engaged toward the success of this matter is my party colleague Jochen Welt, the government's representative assigned to questions concerning Aussiedler. Many of them have been getting to know him in person during his visits. Subsequent to his many conversations with Aussiedlern and with those who assist them, and after his various trips to see German minorities, he has worked up a draft for the "Aussiedler Policies 2000." Its ideas have meanwhile largely been actualized.

The main focus of his work concentrates on and has been concentrated on measures toward integration. Much needed to be made up for that had been neglected. Integration [into society] is a lengthy process. It requires that the newcomers be ready to consider themselves as German citizens, with rights and responsibilities, with a desire to live here, and with the wish to be able to communicate and to participate in our political life. This constitutes enrichment for both sides. Being a music lover, I would like to point out that the musical program that was just offered by the Orchestra of Germans from Russia emphatically proves my point.

Our new citizens from Russia do have their own identity. They have experienced much that was horrible, and also much that was pleasant, living side by side with people of other lands they migrated to. They bring to us experiences of tolerance toward those who think differently, of learning how to get along with others, of ways to communicate and of being able to accomplish things cooperatively, even when circumstances are not favorable and, in fact, may be regrettable. Those who have come to us from Russia must be given the chance to preserve and nurture their identity. This constitutes one of the more important tasks for your Landsmannschaft.

Those who come to us in these times find themselves in an extremely difficult situation. They grew up and were socialized in a society in which they lived for a long time and to which they have personal attachments, a fact that is often not recognized. At the same time, they immigrate to a country with a language they often no longer master, with a lifestyle that is often strange to them, but one from which they harbor great expectations. We must work intensively for their much needed integration, so that they do not become outsiders. However, this will not be possible with anything like unlimited migration. Anyone wishing for integration must also understand that capacity for immigrants is limited, and they must not, in wishing for the abolition of quotas, endanger chances for individuals wishing to shape a solid existence in Germany.

Ladies and gentlemen, you know that the Immigration Commission that I appointed under the direction of Frau Professor Süssmuth will publicly report on its findings on July 4, 2001. It will do this in the form of proposals that will affect the Spätaussiedler as well. Without anticipating their report, I can say the following regarding their work:

The federal government will debate the commission's proposals thoroughly. We will want especially to discuss them with the leadership of the Landsmannschaft of Germans from Russia--just as we have always done.

The federal government will also continue to adhere to the principles of its Aussiedler policies. You may remember that, as early as the autumn of 1998, Mister Welt and I declared that the federal government will continue to adhere to Article 116 of our constitution and to the principles laid down in the laws regarding refugees.

This includes for me even the presupposition of the experience of the fate caused by the war's consequences. This is beyond discussion in the face of the difficult lot of all who were affected subsequent to the surprise attack by the Wehrmacht on the Soviet Union.

At the same time we must also determine who can be recognized as German according to the provisions of the law on refugees, and who might be seeking the possibility of settling in Germany based on the mere accident of having a German ancestor.

Traditionally, membership in a family has been of the highest priority for us. However, a certain transition in our thinking has also occurred.

As recent as during the middle of the 1990s, of every 100 persons arriving in the transition camps, 75 were Aussiedler by definition, and 25 were non-German family members, i.e., descendants who did not know German. This ratio has meanwhile been completely reversed, meaning that many family members, often part of nationally mixed marriages, do not possess the ability to use the German language as their everyday language.

This fact makes integration very difficult. Knowing the language of a country and its citizens constitutes a core competence that brings together people of varying origins and makes living together successfully possible. People who cannot make themselves understood will not be able to work with others, organize their everyday lives, communicate their needs or comprehend those of others. Language, in addition, demonstrates much about the manner in which those who use it think and feel.

It is thus necessary that adolescents and adults learn to speak German. It would also be desirable if at the same time they preserved and spread their command of the language of Pushkin and Dostoyevski, of Lermontov and Boris Pasternak. This is a question of intercultural competence, as former Federal President Roman Herzog has written.

Of course, we know how difficult it is to speak the German language in Russia. For that reason we have been offering German language courses in the Federal Republic of Germany ever since 1976. For the then Federal Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who successfully worked toward allowing immigration of Germans from Poland, it was of great importance that they learn German.

Ever since then, German language courses have also benefited those coming to us from Russia. Thanks to the efforts of Chancellors Brandt and Schmidt they were, as of the '70s, able to emigrate in great numbers, even if they did not have German citizenship or were unable to prove that they did.

Out of fairness it must be stated that German authorities, at least until the mid-90s, often looked the other way when it came to determining the level of knowledge of the German language of immigrant Germans from Russia. For that reason a language test was introduced in 1996. A recent decision by the German Supreme Administrative Court made some qualifications in the law. Accordingly, it is now sufficient to demonstrate the specific characteristic of "German language" capability only for a person's childhood or adolescence, not necessarily at the time of immigration. This decision contradicts the intent of the lawgivers. Current administrative practices must therefore be modified via clarifying modifications of the law.

Ten years after "glasnost and perestroika"--I don't need to translate these concepts for you--it should be expected of any who consider themselves Germans in Russia that they learn the German language in their successor states of the Soviet Union. In the interest of their ability to integrate and toward preserving the acceptance for Spätaussiedler in Germany, they must thus be asked to possess a level of language capability.

I would like to counter the critical statements of our colleague Mister Schäuble reducing the budget in the area of cultural support of refugees and Aussiedler with the following: on the contrary, since 1998 we have increased the federal integration funds from 40 million DM to 52 million DM, despite the fact that the federal budget has rigorously been pared down. According to Hegel, only the whole yields the truth, and that's how we would like to see it as well.

In Russia and Kazakhstan, German language courses organized and financed by Germany have been made available since 1996. These courses make it possible to polish and refresh German language abilities learned in childhood. There are over 470 meeting places where German language courses are offered gratis.

For anyone willing to immigrate, life in Germany becomes easier if she or he does not have to labor initially with communication difficulties in looking for work or while shopping, in school or on the playground, in the bus or in official places.

Deficiencies in the language are in my opinion contributing factors toward an alarming development; that is, increasing violence among adolescents who have come here with their families. This development worries me, frankly. It is a sign of the fact that integration is threatened when immigrants do not or cannot put their energies into integration simply because they are not able to speak the language of their new country.

For the sake of their acceptance, it is important that other family members who arrive with the Spätaussiedler also demonstrate minimum ability in the German language at the time of their arrival. Demanding this does not constitute a disadvantage to the family members of the Spätaussiedler relative to other foreign immigrants. Rather, the guarantee of an advantage gained by immediate acquisition of German citizenship is made dependent merely on a minimum of German language skills. Those who do not fulfill this requirement must enter the country under the laws governing any other foreigner wishing to enter.

All political leaders in our country are in agreement on the necessity of improved integration. To me that also implies agreement on the shaping of the conditions for integration commensurate with the times.

This political consensus, which has unified political leadership over the 50 years since the establishment of the Federal Republic, is one of the reasons for the successful integration of over 15 million German refugees, exiles, and Aussiedler since the end of World War II. Of decisive importance, however, were the determination, diligence, and abilities of the immigrants, who have attained in Germany a life of freedom without social and ethnic suppression.

Ladies and gentlemen, you have chosen for this 27th Bundestreffen the theme "Equality of Opportunity through Integration." The selection of this motto demonstrates farsightedness and appreciation for existing problems.

It is our goal to be of even more effective assistance in the integration of those recently arrived or those yet to come. We wish to support every individual. We therefore require the willingness of everyone to become familiar with the conditions of living together and a wish to do well in every aspect.

We have the saying, "Er kommt gut an." [He is hitting it off very well.] The success of this saying depends on both sides; the ones arriving and the ones receiving.

We are looking at model projects relating to integration contracts. We are offering general and occupation-related language improvement courses, we are offering occupational training and we are assisting with special tutoring of children until they catch up in school.

However, integration is not a one-way street. Spätaussiedler must take advantage of these opportunities toward training and education if they wish to receive the full compliment of social and material assistance available toward taking on a job. We are taking a critical look at whether there shouldn't be a formal integration contract, so that both sides know exactly what their part is in the integration phase.

The special history of the Germans from Russia, particularly their immense suffering, admonishes us to employ our strengths toward a better future. The experiences that so many of you, ladies and gentlemen, have had as members of a minority, to me signify an admonition for our entire society to live together with tolerance and in peace. Your fate must remind us all of the great value of respect toward each other. Respect by the majority of minorities, toward unique individuals among us, and by individuals and groups for the principles and basic tenets of living together.

The past century was the "Century of Exile." Minorities were mistreated and shown great disdain. In Kosovo we have recently seen-and unfortunately we continue to see it in the entire Balkan region-how minorities still fall victim to ethnic fanaticism, religious fundamentalism and nationalistic mania. The family of European peoples has senselessly torn itself apart over these things.

At the threshold of the 21st Century it is our common responsibility that an attitude of respect for the human dignity of every individual, regardless of his or her origin, is and remains the highest guiding principle for our political actions.

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

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