From the Early Days of Stalin's Great Terror

RAGAS Report [Russian American Genealogical Archival Service]

Soshnikov, Vladislav Y. "From the Early Days of Stalin's Great Terror." RAGAS Report, Winter 1999, 3-7.

Review by Vladislav Y. Soshnikov

"From the Early Days of Stalin's Great Terror: Repression of Those Researching the Local History of the German Colonies", by Galina Malinova, Candidate in History (PH.D.) The rout of the so-called anti-Soviet German Organization of Teachers from the Odessa Pedagogical Institute. (1934)

One of the chief areas of persecution by Stalin's regime in the 1930s was against those who participated in national underground anti-Soviet organizations. Many villages in the Odessa region carry German names and German colonists have played a significant role in the history of the area. During the 1930s Stalin's secret police carried out a series of repressions against ethnic Germans resulting in a succession of court trials. Many people were forced to plead guilty to various offenses and were sentenced to punishments varying from imprisonment, usually in the early 1930s, to execution in the late 1930s. The officials instigated many cases in which they accused simple farmers, industrial workers, educators, teachers, students and clergy of being "German spies and terrorists."

One such case (archival number 15879-P) in 1934 was brought against many persons and included accusations against the teachers in the German branch of the Odessa Pedagogical Institute. Some outstanding scientists, including the world famous Leningrad academician, V.M. Zhirmunsky, were among the accused.

At the beginning of 1934, the Odessa regional branch of the Soviet Secret Police (GPU) brought charges against a German fascist anti-revolutionary organization, which they declared "had planned the distribution of rebel cells, the separation of the ethnic German population from the Soviets, sabotage and subversive activities, and had prepared an armed revolt against Soviet authority."

The GPU named the leaders of this organization: professors of the teachers college, Robert Karlovich Mikwitz and Alfred Nicolayevich Strem: and the manager of the department of the Central Scientific Library and employee of the Archeological Museum, Herbert Danielovich Steinwandt. Also among the accused were scientist Franz Franzevich Mazur-Mazov; teachers of Odessa high schools Franz Petrovich Adler, Wihelm Mikhailovich Fritz, Albert Johannovich Reich, Eduard Gottliebovich Beitelspacher, Sebastian Josephovich Untemach, Otto Yakovlevich Zwicker, Herman Johannovich Bachman, Edgar Ludwigovich Trompeter: and factory employee Albert Emmanuilovich Fichtner. The criminal investigation was conducted by GPU inspectors Brinner, Nilov, Sperling, Shayev, Markevich and others. The final verdict was announced on the 26th of February, 1934, by a GPU board of three. It appeared to be a rather minimal verdict when compared with the times of the "Great Terror." All members of the "criminal band" were sentenced to 3 to 5 years imprisonment in labor camps.

However, the story did not end at that time. Later, many of the accused received additional terms of imprisonment and died in exile. New arrests continued in 1937-1938, and criminal proceedings were instituted against 100 persons, 19 of whom were executed (included was a 24 year old teacher, Edite Edmundovna Volmer-Konel). An overwhelming number of the accused were ethnic Germans, but also in the group was Alexander Ryabinin-Sklyarevsky, an employee of the regional archive since the early 1920s. He was a former officer of the Russian Imperial Army and was sentenced to ten years of imprisonment in labor camps from which he did not return.

In 1941, Victor Maximovich Zhirmunsky, a famous Russian academician was repeatedly arrested for similar "criminal cases" in Leningrad. The first time the Leningrad branch of the GPU arrested him, on February 25, 1933, it was as the leader of an "anti-revolutionary fascist organization" which was said to exist among students and artist in Leningrad. Zhirmunsky was kept under guard until March 22, 1933, and then released under orders to remain in Leningrad. On the 20th of April, 1933, the criminal case against him was dropped. The absurdity of the accusations was obvious. However, the story was repeated in 1941. By the end of his life, Zhirmunsky held doctorates at four universities, including Oxford University, and was a member of four academies of science.

Many years later, almost all of the above-mentioned people were established as innocent by order of the court, and some of their executioners were condemned. The Odessa Regional Court on December 25, 1968, recognized that members of the "German band had been falsely arrested. The formal verdict of the GPU trial was reversed for lack of evidence.

The following is a closer look at the case. According to police documents, the "creation of the organization" was attributed to German subject Georg Leibbrandt, a native of the village of Torosovo (Hoffnungsfeld), Zebrikovo district, Odessa region. Leibbrandt left Odessa for Germany in 1918, where he received a degree in theology, and at the same time studied philology and history. Leibbrandt visited the USSR in 1926, 1928 and 1929. During his visits, he was variously represented as a doctor of philosophy, a post-graduate student, a professor of history from Leipzig University, and an employee of the Institute for the Study of Germans Abroad (Deutsches Ausland Institute) in Stuttgart. The official purposes of Leibbrandt's visits were the study of the history of the development of German colonies in the Black Sea coastal region and the gathering of historical information. In 1928 he traveled to the German colonies in the Odessa region, Crimea, and the Caucasus, and visited Rostov-on-Don, the German colonies of the Donetsk, and German colonies in Azerbaijan. Leibbrandt reported that the inhabitants of these colonies were quite prosperous farmers, sometimes appearing to be rich, but that they were dissatisfied with Soviet authority because they believed Soviet politics deprived them of their civil rights.

It was Leibbrandt's opinion that these claims were unreasonable, and he declared that German colonists in the USSR lived much better than peasants in Germany. Leibbrandt did not make anti-Soviet statements during his trips. As a result of Leibbrandt's work, a book concerning the emigrant movement of the Germans was published in Germany. In 1929, Leibbrandt arrived in the Soviet Union once again as the representative of the Deutsches Ausland Institute and as a member of the committee working on an edition of an encyclopedia about Germans living outside of Germany. According to the testimony of the defendants during the trial, Leibbrandt had offered the opportunity to contribute to the creation of the encyclopedia to several Odessa scientist, in particular to Strem, Mikwitz, Steinwandt and Tauberg. Strem promised to write articles concerning language dialects in the German colonies. Stinwandt was to prepare a bibliography of works about Russian Germans. Mikwitz refused to participate in the encyclopedia project and thought that there would be no support in Germany for the idea of scientific cooperation with the USSR. It is interesting to note that prior to his arrest, Mikwitz pointed to "Leibbrandt's sympathies toward the Soviets," while Leibbrandt reported unfavorably that Mikwitz's works were done according to the notoriously dogmatic "Marxist method."

Before his return to Germany, Leibbrandt appeared to be nervous, suspecting that he was being shadowed by GPU agents. At the same tine he said that he occupied a good position in the Berlin archives and even bragged that he had taken original records and bibliographic publications about the German colonists from the Odessa archives. Among them Leibbrandt described manuscripts about savings institutions in German colonies, Prokhanov's scholarly work about the Bessarabian colonies, three church chronicles for the years after 1825, a 100-year history of the German colonies of the Melitopol region, the archives of the editorial board of the Odessa Zeitung newspaper for the years 1859-1914, and other materials.

In 1928, Leibbrandt made a visit to the Odessa Regional Archive where he met the archivist Ryabinin-Sklyarevsky who showed him archival documents. Leibbrandt had official permission for archival research from the central archival administration in Moscow and was accompanied by representatives of the Odessa government and diplomatic department. Meetings with Leibbrandt was one of the charges against archivist Ryabinin-Sklyarevsky upon his arrest in 1937. He was accused of having been recruited by Leibbrandt to be an agent of the Deutsches Ausland Institute. Ryabinin-Sklyarevsky denied the accusation but was sentenced to ten years imprisonment.

During the rehabilitation process in 1960, court authorities conducted a special investigation of Leibbrandt and requested many records from archives in Moscow and Ukraine, including the super-confidential Special Archive in Moscow which has "trophy" material taken from Germany. Some witnesses were questioned. In an investigation of documents of the German Foreign Ministry, the National-Socialistic Labor Party (Nazi Party), and the Ministry of East Territories, it was revealed that there was a certain Georg Leibbrandt, Ph.D., who was an employee of the Foreign Ministry in 1931, the chief of a department of the Nazi Party in 1934-1935, chief of the "East" department in the 1940s, chief of the Principal Department I of the Ministry of East Territories in 1941, and author of anti-Soviet causes. However, all the confidential officials involved in this investigation have emphasized that it is not possible to identify clearly that the above-mentioned Nazi is the Leibbrandt who appeared in Odessa. In reality, the similarity is very likely, but officials pointed out that according to "trophy" documents from French counter-intelligence, it was specified that the official Nazi Leibbrandt received education in America. It was considered a small but crucial distinction in Identifying Leibbrandt.

On the other hand, it is clear that Dr. Leibbrandt took archives from the USSR legally by permission of a special commission of the Soviet Ministry of Education. It appears that Leibbrandt demonstrated enterprising talents in negotiation with Soviet authorities, but it was also a period when the Soviets sold not only archival documents, but even treasures from the Imperial Hermitage Museum. Soviet investigators were unable to find any evidence of hostile activities by the Deutsches Ausland Institute in the USSR. While it is likely that Leibbrandt-historian and Leibbrandt-Nazi were the same person, a witness reported the true testimony of another person that during the war Leibbrandt had visited his native village wearing an SS officer's uniform. Nevertheless, it is obvious that he joined the Nazi Party much after his last visit to Odessa.

Why were the Odessa teachers accused of crime? Was it because it was convenient for them to do sabotage and organize armed revolt by methods of scholarly linguistics? This was the charge placed against these scholars by Stalin's executioners.


The above article gives interesting details and raises questions concerning the biography of Dr. Georg Leibbrandt, one of the prominent scholars of the history and culture of the German colonists in South Russia (Ukraine). For the period 1941 to 1943, Georg Leibbrandt held a higher position in the German military along with Dr. Karl Stumpp, the famous scholar of the history and genealogy of ethnic German colonists in the former Russian Empire/USSR.

Leibbrandt's biography is described in Dr. Richard Walth's book (Flotsam of World History: The Germans from Russia between Stalin and Hitler, Essen, Germany: Klartext, 1966): "Leibbrandt was a Black Sea German born on September 5, 1899 in the settlement of Hoffnungsfeld near Odessa. He came from a large farm family of Swabian settlers." However, this biography does not mention his visits to the Soviet Union in the 1920s. Walth wrote only the following: "His obvious general aptitude and his gift for languages led to studies which he began in Russia but later continued in Germany, where he and friends settled because of the confusion of the early Soviet times. A Rockefeller scholarship made it possible for him to resume his studies from 1931 to 1933, in Paris and in the United States, where he established many contacts with groups of Germans from Russia in America. Rosenburg [the notorious Alfred Rosenburg, tr.] asked him to return to Germany in 1933 and named him the director of the Eastern Division of the Foreign Policy Office of the NSDAP [National Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or the National Socialistic Worker Party of Germany, tr.] and when the Reich's Ministry for the Eastern Occupied Territories was set up in 1941, he made him Director of the Political Department [Principal Office I: Politics]. In this capacity he also became the liaison for Ukrainian, Caucasian, Russian, and other gropes of emigres. In the post-war period, Dr. Leibbrandt resumed research on the subject of the Germans from Russia and made expert contributions to the Association of Germans from Russia until his death in Bonn on June 16, 1982."

It is obviously necessary to compare facts mentioned in Malinova's article with other accounts about Dr. Leibbrandt. We hope scholars and members of historical association of Germans from Russia will find this interesting.

Vladisav Y. Soshnikov, Historian/Archivist/Translator

Reprinted with permission of RAGAS Report, Washington, D.C.

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