Disobedience, Protest and Resistance by German-Russians in the Soviet State (Part 5)

Verweigerung, Protest und Widerstand der Russlanddeutschen im Sowietstaat (Teil 5)

Krieger, Dr. Viktor. "Disobedience, Protest and Resistance by German-Russians in the Soviet State (Part 5)." Volk auf dem Weg, July 2007, 18-20.

Translation from the original German-langauge text to American English provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado

Forms of resistance in Forced Labor Camps

Continued from Volk auf dem Weg, numbers 2 - 5, 2007 (and apparently concluded in this number)

The situation in which the German ethnic people found themselves after gross accusations of treason, deportations, confiscation of properties, and having been scattered across the gigantic territory of Siberia and Kazakhstan made it simply impossible to find a hearing for their problems, particularly since in the face of the war with Germany and the massive horror propaganda against them they could not expect any support from the other Soviet peoples. The majority of German-Russians believed there had been a huge and fatal mistake and did not remotely think of any act of resistance to the State's power.

As far as we know, the dissolution of the Volga-German Republic did not evoke the slightest objection on the part of party or state authorities at the central government or from government agencies in the Union and even at the level of the Autonomous [Volga-German] Republic. The preceding years of terror had intimidated the national elites and the population to the utmost degree.

Still, for the first time in the history of the Soviet state, the Stalinist leadership dared the forceful dissolution of an established national territory that was supposedly protected by the Constitution -- this constituted a qualitative jump in the continuing practices of Bolshevist terror. As would be seen later, this process would serve as a model to the German-Russians for later cleansings inside and outside of the country.

Putting people into work camps also did not evoke any effective protests Known cases of resistive behavior were primarily expressions of individual survival strategies such as escape attempts, self-mutilation, reporting sick, etc.

Collective protest actions within the isolated and closed-off zones and in masses of population suffused with informers would hardly have any chance of success. Only individual and spontaneous rebellion might occur, but the guards and other security forces could usually quell them immediately.

Escape or Desertion

A July 19, 1842 announcement by Alexander Komarovski, the Administrative Chief of the Work Camp Bakalstroy (as of August, 1942 it was called Tshelyabmetallurgstroy) concerning Germans shot for alleged sabotage and escape attempts or those sentenced to this penal camp. This announcement contains the first 15 names of those shot and 25 names of those sentenced to the camp.
One visible form of individual resistance throughout all the years of forced labor camps was clearly the attempts to escape. Forced laborers sought this method as a means of protesting and in answer to the insufferable conditions work and living conditions in the places of their forced imprisonment. An additional kind of motivation that must not be underestimated was a real, oppressive worry about the situation of relatives left behind somewhere.

For example, during the initial months of their internment, 513 trud-armyists, or 1.8% of their total number, left on their own power the gigantic building site of Tshelyabmetallurgstroi of the NKVD.

Work administrators began to take a series of measures to effect a significant reduction in the number of escapes. For one thing, all personal papers, military passes and documents of any kind were confiscated from all incoming Germans, then there were the regular searches of the barracks for forbidde items such as compasses, knives or cutting tools, pocket and straight razors,. watches, cards, even clean clothes -- this was to minimize the temptation for trying to break out. Militarized guards were given orders to be on heightened alert with regard to this camp contingent that had been designated as an enemy of the state.

Deserters who were caught would be sentenced to severe punishment, including being shot. Such draconian punishment served primarily as a deterrent and as a means toward obedience. Regular announcements were posted in the camp zones that listed the names of Germans who had been sentenced, plus information regarding the severity of their punishments.

Local residents, already embittered by massive Germano-phobic propaganda and the loss of loved ones in fighting units, were strictly warned of making contact with those mobilized in the work camps, and they were encouraged to report any escapees and to assist in their apprehension. In the surrounding villages and railroad depots this resulted, within a very short time, in the creation of 39 assistance groups comprising 526 members, all of whom participated in various search actions. Members would receive a reward for each detained German, plus the opportunity to stock up by being allowed to shop in the stores of the work camp.

The number of deserters in other industry branches were significantly higher than in the system of the People's Commissariat of the Interior: during 1943, 1839 trud-armyists (1.6% of the total) fled from the work brigades of the NKVD, while there were 4474 (7.9%) who fled from the People's Commissariat for Coal Production, and 1987 (24.8%) escaped from the People's Commissariat for Munitions.

The secret police explained the higher escape numbers from the industrial operations, in part, to be a result of the depressing conditions at the work place and in living conditions. Many operations administrators also had neither the means nor the opportunity to place the Germans into just a few concentrated work places and thereby to be able to guarantee the total contingent being properly guarded at their places of work or places of residence.

The important reason for womens' escapes was the fact that often they had to leave children at home, and without supervision they would often get into chaotic situations and would run around and engage in begging.

Punishment for women, and for youth up to 16 years of age, was not as hard as for men and for youth eligible for military service. In these cases, deserters were usually subject to a penalty of "only" five years to eight years in penal work camps.

The chronic shortage of workers eventually brought about a somewhat more lenient treatment of offenders. Of the 495 escapees from factories and other work places but caught by August 1 of 1943, only 38 Germans were designated as "notorious deserters" and tried in court; all others were allowed to continue to work. Not the least reason for this decreasing severity was the express desire of administrative managers, who clearly needed those workers who would otherwise have ended up in a penal camp.

Collective Revolt and Insubordination

According to archival documents and memories of contemporary witnesses, collective expression of dissatisfaction occurred relatively rarely. This was largely due to the purposeful isolation and scattering of the penal laborers, whose will for assertiveness was dampened further by the presence of informers and by the deterrent effect of prosecution in court. If it did come to any such expressions of dissatisfaction, it was usually a case of spontaneous action, of specific groups reacting to an especially egregious violation of their modest rights.

Considered a typical case might be an event in the canteen of the coal association "Tshelyabugol" in the city of Tshelyabinsk during early 1943. The penal worker Jakob Schuhmacher tired to obtain additional food using falsified ration cards. Caught by coworkers in the act of cheating, he called for support and received a spontaneous expression of solidarity from around 100
Germans who were also present. In addition to sharp criticism of the canteen management, at whom this long-repressed dissatisfaction about unsatisfactory portions had actually been directed, the secret police supposedly observed "anti-Soviet calls against the existing order and against measures by the Soviet government and its leader."

Three active participants in this action - called volynka in NKVD jargon - were arrested and accused of violations of & 58, section 10 (encouraging others toward bringing down the Soviet power) and & 59, sect. 2 (mass unrest).

Any real attempt at mass protest was brutally beaten down by security forces. When penal worker Johann Gossen in the Bogoslov camp, which had been established for the construction of an aluminum processing factory - BAZ-Story - in the Sverdlovsk region, called on others to join in a collective work walkout for better provisions and clothing, it cost him his life. Because someone denounced him, Gossen landed in the investigative prison on October 28, 1941.
Two months later the Sverdlovsk regional court, in a special session and without hearing him or providing a defense for him, sentenced him to death by shooting for "counter-revolutionary agitation and sabotage."

Politically motivated protest

In addition to individual or specific group resistance and rebellion, occasionally an ideologically based protest action would occur. This primarily arose in the isolated nationalist German party organization in various work camps, demanding changes in positions of a political nature and rights for penal workers as well as improvements in the miserable working and living conditions in specific locales.

The highly ambivalent attitude exhibited by German Communists "behind barbed wire" also did not remain without objection. Driven by the bitter disappointment that Stalinist party cadre and sympathizers of the Bolshevist regime among German-Russians had been forced to suffer following the all-inclusive accusations of treason, the deportations, and the being put into penal camps completely indiscriminately, some of these Comrades who had not yet given up on their self-importance demanded the "maintenance of Leninist-Stalinist policies on nationalities." Shortly after mass camp internment in January of 1942, the Political Department of the Bogoslav issued the following report regarding such occurrences of displeasure:

"There are some Trud-armyist Communists who have complained about the erroneous measures by the Soviet Union with regard to their mobilization into BAZ-Stroy. The Secretary of the party bureau of the 3rd construction troop, Valento, in a latter he sent to Comrade Stalin and to the Polit-department of the construction depot, wrote that he, instead of having been allowed to be sent to the front, found himself in a concentration camp with barbed wire fences and guard posts, and that the Trud-armyists were in no way distinguishable from other inmates. In conversation he further expressed dissatisfaction with the food for those mobilized, yet not satisfying their work norm. He added that one cannot really accomplish anything given only a thin, watery soup."

All too often this kind of criticism was equated with anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda and served as occasion for the secret police to take immediate action. We have fairly good information about an authentic case of resolute courage. Ivan (Johann) Becker, born to poor conditions on the land, rose to employment in the operational area of the Cantonal Department of the NKVD and later to department director in the Executive Committee of the Canton of
Krasnyi Kut in the Volga-German Republic This fast-rising Bolshevik official always felt the deportation and subsequent internment in the work camp Ivdel to have been a baseless collective punishment. After his arrest in May of 1945 he remained stubborn and steadfastly denied accusations of activities inimical to the State, but was still sentenced to ten years in a penal camp.

During his investigative prison stay Becker composed a remarkable document of Communist orientation, but in which he stated that the edict by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR regarding forced deportation of Germans was "not correct," and he equated the internment of Germans into work camps with the "destruction of the Germans", because they were treated like prison inmates and that therefore a "horrible series of deaths ensued." Also, he was unable to make anything of the frequently cited slogan "Kill the German if you want to live," and in his opinion the government made an important mistake in denying the opportunity to serve at the war's front to "established Communists, to Komsomol members, and to the best loyal people without party affiliation," and especially by recalling "proven fighting Germans" from the ranks of the Red Army.

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

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