2014: A Year of Anniversaries of Important Events in German Russian History (Part 1)

Paulsen, Nina. "2014: A Year of Anniversaries of Important Events in German Russian History (Part 1)." Volk auf dem Weg, March, 2014, 37-39.

Translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, CO. With editorial assistance from Dr. Nancy Herzog.

With this topic, the Landsmannschaft wishes to shed light via brief articles on events and dates from 250 years of German Russian history, and to point to future writings.  In this first installment the reader is reminded of three historical events that occurred some two hundred and ten, ninety, and seventy years back, ones that strongly marked the history of our ethnic group.

210 Years after the 1804 Manifesto of Alexander I and German Settlements in
the Black Sea Region and in the South Caucasus

As a result of several successful military campaigns in South Russia led by Tsarina Catherine II against the Ottoman Empire, spacious tracts of land on the northern shore of the Black Sea were conquered. Under Alexander I, Catherine’s grandson (who reigned from 1801 to1825), the Russian border was expanded to where the Danube enters the Black Sea.

Tsar Alexander took advantage of favorable conditions for recruitment in Europe resulting from the Napoleonic Wars (1792 – 1815) and opened up the border, thereby triggering a renewed wave of immigration to Russia. His determination to employ the colonists for the benefit of his state is confirmed by the 123 ukases he issued during his reign, which included important innovations he intended to promote the colonial system.

In his very first manifesto, the recruitment edict of February 20, 1804, the emphasis for luring foreigners changed from quantity to quality. Most importantly, the manifesto placed special value on immigrants who were good farmers, tradesmen, vintners and animal breeders.

Immigrants were required to be free of debt, to be part of a family and have 300 gulden to their name. By this time, each farming entity was assigned sixty-five hectares [ca. 175 acres] rather than only thirty-five hectares [ca. 95 acres]. Additionally, they were assured free choice of settlement and free religious practice, exemption from military service, thirty years of exemption from taxation, as well as a guaranteed return to their homeland at any time.

Tsar Alexander placed supervision over the colonies into the hands of Duke Richelieu (Odessa) and Samuel Kontenius (Yekaterinoslav).

The ensuing major wave of immigration to Russia between 1804 and 1817 emanated for the most part from the Württemberg region in the Southwest German area. Between 1804 and 1820 more than 20,000 Germans from Alsace, Baden, the Palatinate, Württemberg and West Prussia (Danzig, at the time) arrived in the Black Sea region and founded more than 225 settlements on the Molochna River (Halbstadt), on the Dnieper (Josefstal, Chortitza), near Nikolayev (Beresan), near Odessa (Groẞliebental), near the Kutschurgan River (Selz), on Crimea, and near Tiraspol (Glückstal). By 1897 the number of settlements would grow to 991.

In the Caucasus, too, dozens of German colonies were established. During the early 19th Century, the South Caucasus became a desired goal of German emigrants from southern areas. Many wanting to emigrate believed that they would reach the Promised Land at Mount Ararat as the Bible had described it. On the other hand, Tsar Alexander was strongly interested in settling the South Caucasus area. The region was part of the territory recently conquered by Russia.

By 1817, some 1500 Schwabian families, numbering ca. 9000 persons, received permission papers to settle in the South Caucasus. On the way, many of them fell victim to illnesses and the stresses of the journey. 

 Ninety Years after the Establishment of the
Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) of Volga Germans

The establishment of the ASSR of Volga Germans (German acronym: ASSRdWD) was the highest status the German ethnic group could ever have expected in the Soviet Union.

The new powers emerging from the Revolution considered of vital importance the Volga Germans settlement areas, in which large amounts of grain could be produced. It was no accident that the Volga Germans would therefore become the first minority to enjoy the acclaimed rights of an autonomous republic.

As early as April, 1918 a “Commissariat for German Affairs on the Volga” was created and placed under the leadership of Ernst Reuter. (During World War I, Ernst Reuter had become a Russian POW, where he turned into a Communist and was then sent to the Volga as the People’s Commissar. Thirty years later he became the Lord Mayor of Berlin.)

On October 19, 1918, Lenin signed a decree establishing the “Workers’ Commune” (of the autonomous region) of Volga Germans.  

Volga German farmers were obliged to deliver many times the “normal” country-wide requirement of foodstuffs. This reckless exploitation led to a devastating famine that impacted their Workers’ Commune more severely than any other region.

In 1919 Katharinenstadt was renamed Marxstadt, but by 1922 Pokrovsk assumed a leading role. It was made up predominantly of Ukrainian-Russians and was annexed to the autonomous region. Rumor had it that Lenin personally saw to this shift in order to reduce the degree of autonomy for the ethnic Germans, whom he did not trust.

In January, 1924, the Eleventh Regional Congress of Soviets (January 6 – 10, 1924), upgraded the Workers’ Commune to an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, and a decree of February 20, 1924 by the All-Russian Central Executive Committee officially confirmed the January decision.

In 1931, Pokrovsk was renamed Engels. The city was the center for Volga German cultural institutions, including vocational and university level schools, newspapers and state publishing houses, the German State Theater founded in 1930, the symphony orchestra of the Volga German State Philharmonic established in1918, and the German Song and Dance Ensemble (presumably founded after 1935).

Impressive as well were the agricultural successes of the Republic. The most important crops included summer wheat, sunflowers, machorka (tobacco), mustard, melons and pumpkins. The Volga Republic was also a leader in manufacturing diesel motors (Marxstadt), dairy processing plants, processing of bones, meat production, and Sarprinka Manufacturing. The meat processing plant in Engels was one of the largest in the entire Soviet Union.

However, for the Volga Germans the years of Soviet power were marked not only by autonomy and a brief economic and cultural upturn, but above all also by suffering, repression, and a multitude of victims caused by the famine of 1921-1922, suppression of farmer uprisings, arrests and political repression and, as a final climax of persecution, mass deportation.

The August 28, 1941 decree, “On the Resettlement of Germans Living in the Volga Rayons,” issued by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviets of the USSR, accused all Volga Germans of espionage and collaboration, thereby creating a formal basis for deportation. Subsequently, some 433,000 Volga Germans were deported to Kazakhstan and Siberia, the ASSR of Volga Germans was dissolved, and the Volga German Republic territory was divided among regions.

Seventy Years after the 1944 “Administrative Resettlement”
and the Escape of the Black Sea Germans to the West
During early August of 1941, the German Wehrmacht and the Romanian army reached the villages around Odessa and Nikolayev, and in the fall of 1941 those in the Dnieper region. However, following the defeat at Stalingrad, the Wehrmacht retreated and ordered a so-called administrative resettlement of around 350,000 Volksdeutsche [ethnic Germans] from South Russia to the Wartheland [the German-occupied western Poland region dissected by the Warthe River]. This resettlement from the occupied areas of the Soviet Union was carried out between October, 1943 and May, 1944, mostly in the form of large treks [usually consisting of long, organized lines of horse-drawn wagons]. 

The people on the long stretches of the treks were exposed to severe strain and great perils. These included lack of decent clothing, weather problems, illnesses due to poor hygiene and exhaustion, attacks from partisan groups along the way, being shot at, bombardments, and some sections being cut off and remaining behind, only to be at the mercy of Russian troops. These factors led to considerable losses of people, animals, and materiel. And in such situations, people attempted to take things into their own hands and to risk hopeless escape across borders.

At transition points ranging from Poland to Austria, especially in the so-called Warthegau [the Nazi name for the Wartheland], resettlement camps (or collection and reception camps) were set up for the escaping “resettlers.” Most of the camps were in the General Gouvernement and in the Warthegau, set up with surrounding barbed wire fencing and guarded by the SS.

On entering the camps, the people were “de-loused”, their clothes were disinfected, and families, depending on the number of persons, were placed into various wooden houses. Food was dispensed from central camp kitchens. A resettlement commission registered the new arrivals by place of origin, family status, occupation and religion.

A bank made it possible for people to exchange Russian currency they had brought along for German money, or to deposit in savings accounts. Camp residents were given the opportunity to acquire [Reich-German] citizenship, and many did so.

Depending on specific occupation, families were distributed to neighboring villages, assigned provisional housing, and put to work. Permanent resettlement was to take place at a future time. Nearly all men eligible for military service were drafted into the Wehrmacht, assigned overwhelmingly to units of the Fighting SS and, following a brief basic training period, were soon deployed on the Eastern Front, where many lost their lives.

By this time the Warthegau was already overpopulated, and prospects for being assigned to a Polish farm property became very low. Many resettlers were deployed in the construction of the San-Weichsel railroad line. Those still in resettlement camps were ordered to work in agriculture, where district farming directors imported from the Reich usually demanded Germans from Russia as their work force. Many German Russians in their temporary places of settlement, generally decried as “Bolshvists,” were initially assigned to work in large industrial concerns, where, without pay, they were supposed to “learn how to work.”

A great number of Germans from Russia who had been placed as agricultural workers in large farm operations experienced a gradual process of outer and inner impoverishment. All former village communities, which had been formed during a century and a half, and whose cohesive nature had withstood even Soviet famine years, de-kulakiziation, collectivization, and mass deportations, were now irrevocably dispersed.

[Earlier, at the end of the treks,] the confiscation of wagons, horses and cattle they had brought along with great effort and over thousands of kilometers evoked a wave of pain, indignation, and even open protest among the German Russians. Furthermore, the trek leadership ignored any declarations of ownership and refused to issue receipts of property taken away, and that meant the final loss of everything that had been brought along.

Even by the war’s end, a large portion of the 350,000 German Russian resettlers in the Warthegau and in the General Gouvernement still found themselves in collection camps. When the Red Army arrived, around half of those were deported to Siberia and Kazakhstan. The others had fled on their own to Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia, where at war’s end the Soviets gathered them up and, during the second half of 1945, likewise transported them to areas beyond the Ural River, where until 1955-1956 all slaved away in forced-labor camps, under political custody.

More on this general topic can be found in the Heimatbüchern of the Landsmannschaft (1966, 1985/89, 1997/98, 2001/02, 2003, 2004) and in Nelly Däs’ book Wölfe und Sonnenblumen. Der Zug in die Freiheit [Wolves and Sunflowers. The Train to Freedom] (1999), which can be ordered from the Landsmannschaft der Deutschen aus Russland (Stuttgart) [the nationwide Association of Germans from Russia].

Nina Paulsen collected material for the article from publications of the Landsmannschaft, from the HFDR Wall Calendar 2013, and from Lindenblätter – Deutsche Auswanderung, Russland III.

The Great Trek
Alexander I
Map of the ASSR of Volga Germans, on Leather
Viktor Hurr’s Painting “In the Caucasus”
The Great Trek

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translating and to Dr. Nancy Herzog for editing this article.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller