The Identity-Enhancing Function of Historical Experiences

Identitaetsstiftende Funktion Gechichtlicher Erfahrungen

Krieger, Dr. Viktor. "The Identity-Enhancing Function of Historical Experiences." Volk auf dem Weg, April 2007, 5.

This translation from the original German text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado

NOTE: Countrymen who are interested in history are expected for a round table discussion with the topic "Federal Citizens of German-Russian Ancestry: The Identity-Enhancing Function of Historical Experiences."

In addditon to historian Dr. Viktor Krieger, who will give a talk on the topic and will moderate the discussion, other historians who are interested in German-Russian themes will also participate. Contact: Dr. Viktor Krieger, Tel.: 062260971371, E-Mail:

Dr. Viktor Krieger (right) during a 2004 historical conference in Krasnoyarsk, shown here with Prof. Dieter Stellmacher, Emeritus of the University of Goettingen. In the background, a sculpture that symbolizes the major heroes of the novel "Zaren Fisch [The Tsar's Fish]" by the Russian writer Viktor Astafiyev.
In using the term German-Russians we mean primarily the descendants of artisan-agrarian immigrants from Western Europe, particularly from smaller German states, who during the 18th and 19th centuries were settled in the Volga and Black Sea regions for the purpose of making the lands there arable.

They came to a country that, during the course of its territorial expansion from about the 16th century onward incorporated numerous advanced cultures and "primitive" peoples, yet in most cases left their social structures, language, economic forms and ways of life untouched.

This explains the linguistic and cultural features of the German colonists that were maintained at least until the end of the monarchy. On the other hand, the completely different political, social and climatic conditions in the new country began to form a new ethnic self-image. The Volga-Germans, living in a compact settlement region, gave witness of this by their strong feeling of group identity.

This new nationalist self-image, in addition to their traditional active loyalty and sense of duty during the First World War, had contributed to taking sides clearly in favor of the Tsarist Empire: tens of thousands of Black Sea Germans and Volga-Germans fought as Russian soldiers at the front against Germany and its allies. In the view of the leadership echelon of the country, these Germans represented a system-stabilizing element.

However, the inclination of the majority of settlers toward the power-grabbing Bolsheviks ranged from skepticism to rejection - a fact that became apparent during the numerous farmer uprisings during the years 1918 - 1921, as well in continuing protests during subsequent years. Still, the Volga-Germans initially profited from the nationalities policies and were assigned their own Republic - all the more important during a time when political, linguistic-cultural and socioeconomic rights of specific peoples in the Soviet Union were tied to territorial autonomy. It was for this reason that the Socialist system of society found a certain degree of approval among those representatives of the younger generation that had profited from new opportunities for education and advancement.

The illegal dissolution of the National Republic in 1941 would mark the transition to comprehensive persecution of and discrimination against the entire German-Russian minority. Furthermore, exclusion from active war experience of Soviet peoples, plus extensive silence concerning their sacrifice-filled efforts in the so-called Trud-Army led to further estrangement. Decades of Germano-phobic policies of the Communist rulers caused extreme difficulties in
the lives of millions, evoked hostilities and suspicion, handicapped career advancement, led to the neglect of their mother tongue and of their national culture, blocked the development of an independent identity, and extensively undermined their loyalty to the Soviet State. Even following perestroika, repeated attempts to allow the German-Russians to be become a Soviet people or
a German-Russian people with its own territorial autonomy on equal footing with others, failed again. Most Germans were finally no longer prepared to accept their lesser status without resisting. Moreover, given the unatoned crimes and of continuing discrimination, the greater portion of this sorely afflicted minority decided to emigrate to Germany.

Today more than two and a half million citizens of German-Russian ancestry reside in reunified Germany, and as such they represent an important demographic, economic, and social-cultural factor in the country. Memories of suppression and persecution play an important role in their self-image. It should be remembered also that the Germans from Russia were not only an object of state policies, but they also stood out as active and determinant persons who offered resistance, protest and disobedience. Their centuries of a past that was often filled with suffering has become an integral part of Russian, but also of German history. It is high time that the historical experiences find a worthy place in the collective conscience of the German nation.

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

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